Vote No for Devo-More … maybe

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  By Lesley Riddoch

Does it look as if a No vote has become a vote for Devo More?
 
The Conservatives surprised many by completing a hat trick of unionist parties proposing more powers for Holyrood if Scots vote No on September 18th.  Lord Strathclyde’s Commission boldly recommended Scots should have full control over income tax and Housing Benefit payments, a step further than Labour and just behind the Lib Dems’ plan to devolve most income tax along with Capital Gains and Inheritance Tax – if any of their Scottish MPs survive the next election, that is.

  By Lesley Riddoch

Does it look as if a No vote has become a vote for Devo More?
 
The Conservatives surprised many by completing a hat trick of unionist parties proposing more powers for Holyrood if Scots vote No on September 18th.  Lord Strathclyde’s Commission boldly recommended Scots should have full control over income tax and Housing Benefit payments, a step further than Labour and just behind the Lib Dems’ plan to devolve most income tax along with Capital Gains and Inheritance Tax – if any of their Scottish MPs survive the next election, that is.

It’s easy to mock – but also unwise.

With President Obama and Sweden’s Carl Bildt wading into the fraught debate about Britain’s constitutional future, hesitant yes voters might be swayed by an appealing sounding Plan B.  And after all, the unionist parties are doing what was demanded of them – coming up with tax-raising alternatives to independence which were unthinkable a few short months ago.

It always looks a tad churlish to reject repenting sinners – if they are sincere.  So how can independence campaigners counter the impression that Unionist halfway houses are solid constructions with firm foundations — when they patently aren’t?

It’s a tricky problem, but one that was always going to arise.

To be crystal clear, Devo Maybe isn’t enough for me or, I suspect, many who previously campaigned for a second question on the ballot paper.  But Yes campaigners must do more than rely on the tired line about previous broken promises to stop Yes support drifting.

That’s not impossible — in fact Ruth Davidson may have done what Yes leaders have not — invigorated campaigners feeling stuck on a weary, slogan-based auto-pilot waiting for something new to happen with the bare-faced cheek of her stunning volte face.  Perhaps Alex Salmond has something up his sleeve — a big final summer gamechanger.  Probably he doesn’t. 

At least one thing is now certain.  Scots know all the proposed alternatives to independence — and can scrutinise their shortcomings.  That should inject a new sense of reality and a renewed focus for Yes campaigners in the final hundred days.

Obviously Yes activists recoil from the idea that Ruth Davidson’s Damascene conversion to fiscal responsibility for Holyrood’s “pocket money” parliament merits any serious response.  The new Devo More stance contradicts her previous “line in the sand” – the status quo manifesto pledge which allowed her to defeat devo-friendly Murdo Fraser in the battle to succeed Annabel Goldie.

It doesn’t take an arch sceptic to observe that a mind changed once can easily change again. Especially when the response from David Cameron is so underwhelming; “There is no reason why the changes shouldn’t happen early in the next parliament.” A cast iron guarantee that ain’t.

Those with long memories, an instinctive mistrust of Tory pledges and an eye for opportunism will take this Tory “commitment” with a pinch of salt.  After all, if David Cameron wanted to “seal the deal” he could have included plans for Devo More in the Queen’s Speech.  He didn’t.

Commentators point out that the Tories once pioneered Scottish devolution through the “Declaration of Perth” in 1968. Indeed when Margaret Thatcher abandoned Ted Heath’s policy stance in 1976, leading Conservatives like Alick Buchanan-Smith, and Malcolm Rifkind resigned. That could suggest the Tories fierce opposition to devolution was just a Thatcherite “blip” and the party is finally returning to its devolutionary roots.

I’d suggest the whole period offers a different lesson.

Despite the genuine commitment of leading Scottish Tories, devolution was dropped like a stone, not to resurface for almost forty years when a UK leader demanded it.  Such is the track record of a party for whom Scottish home rule is neither a top priority nor a philosophical commitment.  That party hasn’t changed.

The challenge from UKIP means an in-out EU referendum will dominate the next parliament if the Tories win the 2015 General Election.  It’s hard to see how enthusiastic they will be to fight battles on two constitutional fronts at one time, especially when there are no votes to be won in the process from defiantly anti-Tory Scots.

And what of Labour?

Bizarrely the Tory proposals make Labour’s “Devo Nano” plans look even feebler and more timid – a shameful situation for the erstwhile “party of devolution.”  Maybe Ed Balls wishes he hadn’t vetoed quite so many adventurous recommendations from the interim Commission report.

But the Shadow Chancellor’s priority was to safeguard UK institutions by outlawing all but the tiniest amount of diversity and shared control.  There will be one hand on the tiller in Ed Balls ideal world and inching towards that evidently matters more than fixing Scotland’s democratic deficit.

Might those priorities change if all three unionist parties work together?

Sir Menzies Campbell has urged a summit of pro-UK parties within 30 days of September’s referendum to agree a broad programme on devolution in the event of a No vote.  Mind you, Sir Menzies also urged all pro electoral reform UK parties to adopt a more workable form of PR than AV – they all swiftly looked the other way.

That’s already happening over Sir Menzies latest call to arms.  In a guarded response Johann Lamont said: “Where we can cooperate, we shall. [We] won’t turn our faces away from it.”  But added Labour would not “force it” by making promises to collaborate when it disagreed with the Lib Dems. That was March.  I haven’t heard much about the joint summit since.

The reality is that if Labour wins power in 2015, voters in Middle England will have saved the day — and those voters will not welcome a further nano-second “wasted” on the busted flush of Scottish devolution.  Political problems like these dog any delivery of Devo More – there are three major practical problems too.

Firstly a great fuss was made last week about the wildly exaggerated costs of setting up an independent parliament.  But this week not a single question was asked about the cost and structures needed to allow Scottish collection of devolved taxes.

Ruth Davidson did concede that devolution of housing benefit payments might be “hard to achieve”, because it’s set to become part of the UK government’s Universal Credit.  That might yet qualify as understatement of the decade.

And yet, strangely, spending on bureaucratic infrastructure as part of an enhanced devolved settlement isn’t deemed wasteful by unionist parties or the press – it’s an investment in democracy.  These double standards would be laughable if the issue wasn’t so serious.

The No-leaning media is spring loaded to be hyper critical of all Yes plans, but makes very little attempt to subject No proposals to the same degree of scrutiny.  It would have been entertaining to hear Ruth Davidson asked thirteen times if she can guarantee the enabling legislation for Devo More will be passed in the first term of a new Tory-led Government.  But no.  Such even handed, robust, persistent questioning is currently the stuff of dreams.

Secondly, much has been made of the potential danger of a “neverendum” despite SNP pledges that a generation will pass before another independence referendum is proposed if this one fails.  And yet, few recognise the actual danger of endless “Devo-makeovers” where half-baked proposals are constantly revamped as election results demonstrate Scottish voters find them unacceptable.

Most of the “daring” advances proposed by the Calman Commission and enshrined in the Scotland Act 2012 are already toast – extended by all the Unionist parties in these latest proposals.  And don’t forget – even the “adventurous” tax raising powers advocated by Ruth Davidson would only give the Scottish Parliament the same powers as the average tax-raising Nordic municipality.

That may seem like a big deal now.  But give it a couple of months or years and these measures will also be overtaken by political necessity or expedience — wasting resources, wasting time, eroding faith in the democratic process and further breaking faith with voters.

Why, for example, have the Conservatives included Housing Benefit payments in their devolved package?  Could it be because the Bedroom Tax became a potent rallying point for political unrest north of the border?  Is that the best way to decide which powers should be devolved?  And what next in this ragtag, random, piecemeal collection?

Thirdly, the various devolutionary offers for Scotland are not on offer elsewhere in Britain – and that will push the UK further into unbalanced, assymetric devolution.  I’ve tried to think of any other successful state in which one constituent nation of five million has tax-raising powers while others do not and 60 million remain governed by a single remote, central government.  That’s a recipe for ultimate failure.

If unionist parties really believed in devolution, sauce for the goose would be sauce for the gander.  And yet there is still not the slightest interest in modernising or decentralising the English state which means hopes of a federal Britain are sadly pie in the sky and animosity to “freewheeling” Scots will only increase as voters in the ravaged and unprotected north of England receive more harsh medicine intended for England’s overheated south.

In the medium term, there will be a limit to the viability of Devo More because it works against the grain of all other UK policy.  The tail simply cannot wag the dog – at least Ed Balls is honest enough to admit it.

But do the various “Devo More” proposals put Yes campaigners on the back foot?  After all 37% of Scots backed the option of more powers before David Cameron (its erstwhile champion) removed it from the ballot paper.  Ah irony, thy nose is crooked (Gaelic meaning of Cameron – look it up).

It would be tempting to counter Unionist proposals by reciting the above-listed shortcomings of technical difficulty, cost, double-standards, and lack of UK priority for devo anything.  Tempting but mistaken.

The only way to counter the siren illusion of an Indy Lite option is to focus on the ways independence scores above any other piecemeal alternative.  And that requires something more than a memorised list.  It requires passion, belief and vision.

Devo More doesn’t tackle the unsavoury aspects of the modern British state — top down governance, centralised control, fear and suspicion of neighbours and immigrants and a low wage economy (which ironically depends on food banks, chronic insecurity and migrant labour).

As Iain Macwhirter wrote in the Herald great care was taken in the Queens Speech not to mention any of the unsavoury aspects of British life that could frighten the Scots; “No mention of that referendum on British withdrawal from Europe; nothing on clamping down on immigration, as promised by David Cameron.  No mention of the market reforms to the NHS, welfare reform or the £12bn in extra public austerity that George Osborne talked of in the Budget.  Nothing on changes to the Barnett Formula, the great unmentionable of the referendum campaign.”
 
Devo More doesn’t tackle a fast unravelling British polity, turned upside down in England by 30% support for UKIP.  Nor does Devo More tackle the biggest threat facing Scots — not Westminster cuts or even another Conservative Government.  It’s fear of ourselves.

Fear of standing up for that small voice that continues to insist there must be a better way to live than the unfair, unequal, hopeless and dismal society we currently inhabit.  And fear of more social, economic and emotional stagnation as we continue to waste energy bridging the gap between the society we aspire to and the one we accept.

Of course, if Scots could simply lose those lofty ideals, jettison our centuries-old political culture, settle for the dog-eat-dog society that satisfies the more populous south, all might be well.  But the vast majority of Scots cannot.  So we continue to be stretched across two increasingly irreconcilable systems – a top-down, competitive, privatised, market-driven, lost-Empire and royalty-obsessed Britain and an aspiring social democracy in Scotland without the cash or political will to use the limited powers we already have.

The self-confidence of Scots will forever be under-mined by knowing we failed to fight for the dream we share – the truly communitarian society described by Burns in “A Man’s a Man for a That”, evoked by Jimmy Reid in his oft quoted speeches and planned by economists like the late Ailsa Mackay.

Do we just plan to talk a good game about equality eternally, feeling mildly superior to citizens in the rest of the UK or do we plan to embrace equality as the principal goal of Scottish society in our lifetimes?
 
Of course it seems superficially attractive to have the “best of both worlds.”  In practice that isn’t possible.  There is a British default in political thinking across these islands that clings to destructive, old-fashioned ideas of hierarchy, worth, class and entitlement.  It refuses to recognise how badly society was damaged by Margaret Thatcher’s brutal dismantling and fails to accept how much health, shared wealth and general happiness in this rich country have fallen behind our more equal European neighbours.

Independence is justified because an alternative to conservatism without end is needed.  Scotland is a nation with a distinct political culture and voters who have not backed the market-driven route favoured elsewhere in the UK.  The choice now is fairly simple.  Holyrood or Westminster?

If equality, fairness and sustainability really matter – which government is most likely to deliver?  If putting people above the interests of the City of London matters, which government is most likely to do that without repeating the chaos of the last depressing decade?

The sooner we make a clear choice, the sooner we can create a new path.  The foundations are already built.  Competition or cooperation.  Empire building or empowerment.  The Scots have long willed the outcome – we must now will the means.