I am aware that I may be writing counter to the trend, given the recent polls from YouGov, but I do feel that I should explore the ‘what if No?’ dimension at least one more time. So, what are the options if a ‘No’ happens?
Well, a dearly beloved alternative, particularly of progressives in the rest of the UK, is federalism.
Unfortunately, the only party with any commitment to such reform is the Liberal Democrats. Full marks to them, the Liberals have campaigned for federalism since the 19th century – but sadly within 12 months of coalition government, the decades of progress that had been made towards them getting the power necessary to deliver that model had been destroyed. So, given that it will probably take them a good ten-twenty years to recover in terms of popular support from the damage of being coalition partners, that is not going to happen. (Incidentally, this temporary political annihilation of parties that become weaker secondary partners in a coalition government at Westminster does appear to be something of a tradition.)
So what of the prospects of further devolution? Certainly few believe that there is little cause for optimism that many further ‘powers’ beyond Calman (i.e. those already supposed to be coming for 2015) will be granted: last year, 67% of Scots believed that a No vote would result in either no new powers, or FEWER powers, for the Scottish Parliament. Given the paucity of what was offered by the three Westminster parties as proposals in the first half of this year, it is unlikely that any new offer will meet the aspirations of those same Scots: 60% of them wanted control of Welfare devolved, 53% control of oil revenues and 52% control of taxation. The chances of welfare and tax – never mind anything else – being ceded to Holyrood are zero, and only small pieces of them have been included in the most wide-ranging extension to devolution (ironically that of the Conservatives – apparently trying to become the new ‘Party of Devolution’).
(Perhaps surprisingly, only 35% wanted Defense, including regiments and siting of nuclear weapons, devolved.)
Although irrelevant as a policy-leading force, it is worth noting that the LibDems pledged to have no different tax rates across the UK, and to end the Barnett Formula, in their last manifesto. The end of this formula has been widely argued for across the leadership of all three Westminster parties, and any proposal for more ‘powers’ for Holyrood always comes with the price tag of the abolition of Barnett sitting in the background. Now, the right wing media appears to have fomented UK-wide public hostility to Scotland having had the temerity to even consider leaving – and even if that hostility is not a majority, it is vocal. As a loud body of opinion, it makes it easier for Westminster to be seen to be responding to the wishes of the people of Britain when they take any punitive measures against Holyrood. So this political upwelling of resentment down south accompanies a desire to either nullify or water down any ‘further powers’ offered to an ‘ungrateful’ Scotland. The talk of extending devolution has commonly been linked to the end of the Barnett Formula (whereby Scotland gets the equivalent of around 70% of its taxes returned to it), with a projected loss of £4.5-6.5 billion from the Scottish Government’s budget. If varying tax rates – with the additional cost of setting up an equivalent to HMRC for Scotland and pay millions for it to function annually – come at the cost of losing the Barnett funding formula, then it is hard to present it as really a ‘power’. One might instead refer to it as a ‘burden’ added to an already severely cut block of funding, which conveniently hobbles the Scottish Government’s budget. Simply put, it will crucify the Scottish Government’s budget.
But even so, were these desirable outcomes, could we really believe that such meager offers could come to pass? The Westminster parties had the opportunity to come up with a package of DevoMax as a second question for the ballot paper. They refused to do so. They know full well that placing the nature of any DevoMax package within the separate manifestoes of the three parties for the Westminster elections next year, is the equivalent of striking it far, far into the long grass: no commitment, no need to deliver.
You might argue that Better Together got the leaders (and Scottish branch leaders) of the three Westminster parties to sign that big declaration unveiled in Glasgow on August 5th: ‘There Shall Be More Powers For The Scottish Parliament’, that huge piece of card said. So surely that means something? Well…it is probably worth noting that the reliability of the signatories on the ‘big guarantee’ scroll, despite their comparatively short time as party leaders (in contrast to Alex Salmond) is not impressive. Nick Clegg and Willie Rennie, with their famous signed pledge not to support tuition fees? Well, they ended up supporting them just fine. Ruth Davidson being elected Scottish Conservative leader on her ‘line in the sand’ pledge of no more powers for Holyrood? Well, that was until she came out and signed the pledge in August, of course.
And then there is David Cameron. Leaving aside his promise to defend the NHS (which I have dealt with elsewhere) at the same time as he has continued its privatisation, David Cameron also pledged to reduce the size of parliament. And yet the House of Lords now numbers 850 unelected members, as Cameron has created 183 new peers. So that leaves Labour’s representatives. Although it is true that it is harder to pick either of them up on actual lies, this should be remembered in the content-free soundbite context that they do say so little that it would be hard to ‘fact check’ them. This is particularly true in Johann’s case, where she presents so much confusion over her own policies…although she has showed a suspicious enthusiasm for quoting the ‘something for nothing culture’ comments of Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Ian Duncan Smith and George Osborne. But, to be fair, that merely shows an ideological questionability, rather than outright mendacious tendencies on her part. Anyway, neither Labour leader looks likely to be leading the next government of either parliament, so they are perhaps the least relevant of the six signatories. As each of the signatories to the Glasgow scroll hardly have ‘reliability’ written next to their names, so perhaps a sack of salt should really be applied when seeing any ‘guarantees’ that they may enthusiastically be claiming that they are underwriting.
There are – arguably – pigs in pokes that have more reliability, in terms of something worth risking a vote on. Really, would you want to risk this one chance? Gamble so much on such a dodgy poker hand?
“Like many, I argued for a second question offering a middle way – which I saw not as devolution but as ‘constitutionally secure autonomy within a reformed UK’. That door was slammed shut – but not by Scotland. ..The latest ‘offer’ of more powers from the unionist parties looks suspiciously like a rather desperate bribe – but it is not an answer to Scotland’s needs. The central issue at stake in the referendum is simple: Where should the ultimate power to make decisions that affect the lives of people in Scotland lie – at Westminster or in Scotland? As I should know, devolution – however ‘max’ it may be – is not the way, for two fundamental reasons. First, devolution is incomplete. It leaves vital areas directly under the control of Westminster. Take just one example of many – if the UK, as seems more and more likely, leaves the EU, Scotland will be dragged out too, at great cost. Second, devolution is insecure. The wording of today’s ‘offer’ is very revealing. It indicates that greater powers would be ‘granted to Scotland’. Granted indeed? By whom? Scotland’s history is marked by Claims of Right, all of which rejected as a matter of Right the powers claimed by the ‘Crown in Parliament’ to decide for Scotland. Devolution is power, not as a right, but by gift – or more accurately by loan, since gifts can’t usually be taken back. Westminster would retain the permanent power to grant, alter, or rescind. Devolution leaves the UK as a whole fundamentally unreformed.” (Canon Kenyon Wright, Chair of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, August 2014)