Saturday 6 October 2012

Why “devo-max” is the greatest threat to the union

It’s looking good for unionists; with pollsters and bookmakers agreeing that Mr Salmond has little chance of winning a straight yes/no referendum on independence.

I don’t think it matters much, how long he waits, whether he holds the referendum on the anniversary of Bannockburn or how biased the question. As long as the question is a clear yes/no on independence, he will lose. The majority of Scots simply do not want independence.

But pollsters suggest Mr Salmond has a chance to win a poll on devo max. A recent poll gave the following result:

“33% preferred the status-quo, 36% devo-max and 24% independence”

Scots like most people like having their cake and eating it too. They want more power for Scotland, but they want to remain in the union. The problem is that they can’t have it. Devo-max is a Trojan horse and will inevitably lead to independence.

In a three way referendum Mr Salmond has two chances of winning. Not only does he split the unionist vote, giving his preferred option of independence a better chance of winning, even if it only gains around a third of the vote, he also gets independence eventually if devo-max wins. The choice then is between status quo, independence now, or independence later.  

Even in a straight yes/no poll with a subsidiary question on devo-max, Salmond knows he will get independence if devo-max gains majority support, even if on the independence question he is decisively defeated.

How can this be? The reason is that devolution in general and devo-max in particular is acting as a destabilising factor on the union, a centrifugal force pushing us all apart.

Many Conservatives and unionists recognised from the start that the devolution settlement was ill thought out and fundamentally unfair.

Whereas before devolution, everyone in the UK had the same degree of representation, now Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own parliaments, while England only has the parliament of the United Kingdom. This is self evidently unfair, but would not in itself matter so much if the devolved parliaments had not set about creating division.

Gradually people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been gaining rights to free this, and free that, while their burden of taxation has remained the same. Sounds wonderful, what’s not to like? The problem is that the English are getting thoroughly sick of it.

Britain is a single country with a monetary and fiscal union. Money is transferred around the country, from richer regions to poorer regions and nobody much complains, as we are all in it together.  But that arrangement only works, if everyone has the same rights no matter where they live. If Scots have rights to free this and that by virtue of living in Scotland, they cannot very well expect Londoners to continue to transfer their money from London to Scotland.

Personally I think Scotland contributes about as much to the UK as it receives, but this is not the point I’m trying to make. When Cameron’s government arrived in Westminster and found that the cupboard was bare and that cuts would have to be made for the sake of the country, it was reasonable to expect that we were all in it together. Imagine then how the English feel, when they find that many of these cuts apply only to them. This is why issues such as tuition fees are so divisive and why they are breaking up the union.

The greatest danger to the union is not Scotland voting for independence, but England voting for divorce.

I’ve always been aware of anti-English sentiment in Scotland. Most Scots are aware of it and to our shame; many unionists contribute to it or go along with it. A bit of banter is fine of course and is enjoyed by all sides, but when it turns nasty it’s not much fun. Visiting England years ago, I noticed something that was quite strange. There was almost no anti-Scottish sentiment there. If Scotland were playing football against another country, the English were liable to cheer them on. There would be the odd comment about Jocks and some ignorance about Scotland, but I never noticed anything approaching anti-Scottishness until the arrival of devolution.

Now look at the situation. The English are beginning to really loathe Scotland. On the message boards there are insults, bitterness and hatred. The situation has got so bad that it may be that the majority of English people now favour independence for England.

What’s caused all this division? Partly it’s a matter of Mr Salmond and his SNP followers stirring up ill feeling as a deliberate tactic, but really the whole cause and the thing that this destabilising the union is devolution.

Now if limited devolution should give rise to English nationalism and calls for English independence, what will be the result of devo-max? The answer is obvious. Devo-max will break the union.

What’s the solution? The whole devolution settlement must be rethought out. I’m in favour of devolving powers to local government, but this devolving of powers must be equal across the UK. There are many models for devolving powers, from Germany’s Länder to Switzerland’s cantons, to states in the U.S.A. There needs to be a strong central government at the UK level with control of matters, which affect everybody, but matters which can be decided locally should be determined locally, thus bringing politicians within reach of those who elect them. But just as it would be unfair to devolve powers to Vermont, but not to Texas, clearly it is unfair to devolve powers only to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Whatever way power is devolved, it must be devolved equally.   

Scottish unionists are rightly happy that support for independence in Scotland looks week, but unless we address the legitimate concerns of the English, our union will not last another 300 years, it may not last another 30. Devo-max is designed to further destabilise the union, leading inevitably to independence by default, not least because it will cause the English to divorce us.

Devo-max is the only thing that worries me.