So where’s my devo max then? Like most people in Scotland who have been following political developments over the past few years – which is most people in Scotland – I fancy I have quite a good idea of what the phrase “devo max” means. It means that the Scottish Parliament raises all its own revenue including oil revenues, and exercises all powers except those to do with foreign affairs and defence – which would be retained by the UK Parliament. Seems straightforward enough doesn’t it. There would be no arguments about supposed “subsidies” from England, no disagreements over Scottish MPs voting on English only matters. What’s not to like? And as the icing on the devo cake, this is the settlement which, according to opinion polls, is consistently favoured by a large majority of the Scottish population, and had it been on offer prior to the independence referendum campaign, there wouldn’t have been an independence referendum campaign.
I seem to recall that during a certain referendum campaign a certain ex-prime minister promised us the most maxiest devo you could ever find this side of a federal state. In fact, we were promised the most federalest devo maxiest in the history of this most perfect union of nations ever seen in the history of the multiverse. It was all over the BBC, which as we all know is famous for its realistic depiction of all things Scottish – just watch Waterloo Road for its realistic depiction of a school that follows the English curriculum even though it’s in Greenock. Point proven.
Onieweys, this promise – or dare I say vow – came when yer actual prime minister and the heads of the other Unionist parties were all quite happy for the ex-prime minister to act like he was still prime minister, although to be fair Gordie Broon’s relationship with his employment status has always erred on the side of fictional. This is after all the man who described himself as an ex-politician while he’s still the MP for Kirkcaldy and who can rarely be arsed to turn up to represent them in the House of Commons.
What we were promised by Gordie and his tangential relationship to reality was for Holyrood and the other devolved administrations in the UK to have “the same status” as the Westminster Parliament. The new sort of federal government, according to the ex-politician ex-prime minister, would retain powers over defence and foreign affairs – everything else would be left to the control of the national parliaments. Gordie’s promise was going to save the UK, and that’s what Gordie’s promise did. Only Gordie’s promise was never going to be realised and it has now gone much the same way as the Labour party’s prospects of re-election in Scotland. There’s more chance of reviving a velociraptor for Jurassic park than there is of resuscitating devo max – or the Labour party.
Just a few days before the vote, Gordie vowed:
“The status quo is no longer an option. The choice is now between irreversible separation, or voting for a stronger Scottish parliament. We are talking about a big change in the constitution. It’s like home rule in the UK. We would be moving quite close to something near to federalism in a country where 85 per cent of the population is from one nation. Change is in the air and change is coming.”
Two months after the event and it doesn’t look like the Unionist parties are going to deliver anything close to that. Gordie himself stood up in Westminster and laid into the Tories because they wanted to devolve more taxes than he did. That’s the Tories, offering more devo than Labour – the self-described “party of devolution”. And then Labour wonders why its polling ratings have plunged further than a jobby that’s been flushed from a tenth floor toilet.
Still, Unionist politicians don’t have to keep their words, because Unionist politicians’ words mean whatever the Unionist politician wants them to mean at any given moment. Gordie might be an ex-politician, but he’s not an ex-fantasist. The devo max Gordie promised bears a similar relationship to reality as his promise to end boom and bust. That’s devo max bust then. As are the Unionist parties.
Devo max is not on offer after all, not even close. The Unionist parties are proposing minor tinkering with the existing settlement, arguing about what percentage of income tax revenues can dance on the head of a Holyrood pin. It’s devo-get-what-you’re-given, devo-dae-as-yer-telt. It’s the devolution that suits the political requirements of the Labour, Tory and Lib Dem front benches.
Devo max will never be offered by the Unionist parties for one very simple reason – it stands the relationship between Holyrood and Westminster on its head. Under the current devolution settlement, powers devolved are powers retained – and the ultimate power rests very firmly with Westminster. It means that they can preserve the fiction that only the Westminster Parliament is sovereign – and not the Scottish people. So Westminster collects all the taxes, and decides how much Holyrood is going to get. In the process it is conveniently able to obscure just how much of a contribution Scotland and Scottish resources make towards the extremely expensive upkeep of the United Kingdom and its addiction to nuclear missiles, foreign wars, and transport infrastructure in the South East of England. Then when Scotland gets uppity they can threaten us with warnings of financial meltdown without the kindness of Davie Cameron and Ed Miliband to look out for us.
With proper devo max, that couldn’t happen. Proper devo max means that Westminster’s fiction of the sovereignty of parliament is rendered meaningless and toothless. Holyrood would be responsible for raising all Scottish revenues, so Westminster would no longer be able to cook the books and tell us we were dependent upon them. And Holyrood would no longer be dependent upon a block grant from Westminster, it would be the other way around – Westminster would receive a grant from Holyrood to pay for those services which remained under centralised UK control – defence and foreign affairs. In effect this gives Holyrood a veto over Westminster’s foreign adventures – should there be another Iraq, then the Scottish Parliament might just refuse to pay its annual subvention to Westminster to pay for Scotland’s share of the costs of an illegal war. That’s why the Westminster parties won’t allow devo max, no matter how popular it is with the Scottish electorate, and no matter how often or loudly we demand it of them.
So if you want something that is yours by right, but the other party is not disposed to give it, then all that is left is to take it. We can do that by ensuring that at the next Westminster General Election and the next Scottish elections we return a majority of pro-Scotland MPs who can block any attempts by Westminster to impose a devolution settlement which falls short of the devo max they promised. It’s up to us to ensure they keep their promises, and to punish them if they try – as they most assuredly will – to weasel out of it.
This blog post has also been published on Scot2.scot Scot2.Scot is a communications portal consisting of a website, two facebook central groups (one for news and media), a twitter account and a youtube channel all under the scot2.scot banner. It has been established to help provide broad support to the campaigns of the various pro-Scotland parties in the 2015 UK General Election.
Still off the ciggies by the way – that’s coming up for three weeks now – and I am no longer counting the days since the last fag. I’m told that’s progress.