Sunday 9 January 2022

Devo-max helps the SNP


Imagine it’s 2016 and we are faced with the choice of leaving or remaining in the EU, only this time the referendum has a third choice. There were few people in Britain at the time, even amongst Remainers, who wanted Britain to join the Euro or Schengen. Even Remainers like David Cameron often complained about unelected officials in Brussels telling us what to do. Even Remainers did not express enthusiasm for “ever closer Europe” or the EU in time becoming a United States of Europe. What should we call people who wanted to stay in the EU, but for the UK to have as much power and sovereignty as possible? Devo-maxers.

If a third “devo-max” option had been put to the British people in 2016 it may well have won. The problem is that no one including the EU would have known what it meant. The EU already knew that Britain had not been a particularly keen member of the EU project. We had been willing to accept the benefits of membership of the EU and Remainers were scared of losing those benefits, but there were few indeed of us who thought we had the same nationality as someone from Slovakia or shared a common identity.

Would the EU have been willing to increase Britain’s “devolution” or subsidiarity? Well, this is what the Remainers wanted. Cameron went to Brussels to ask for more powers while remaining in the EU. He hoped for some concessions which would have made it easier for him to win the vote. But he didn’t get much if anything, which is the reason that he lost. So, if there had been a third devo max option in the 2016 referendum, we would have ended up with similar negotiations with the EU which likewise might have given nothing much.

This is the problem with having three alternatives on a referendum where two of them are clear, but the third is vague. So too if Scotland were faced with a three-way referendum Leave, Remain or Devo-Max, it might well be the case that Devo-max would win with just over a third of the vote, but what then?

Pro UK people might vote for devo-max because it would keep the UK intact, likewise Scottish nationalists might vote for it as a stepping stone towards independence. Genuine supporters of maximum devolution might see it, like Remainers with regard to the EU, as a way of keeping the economic benefits of the UK’s Single Market while Scotland would have the maximum amount of subsidiarity within the UK.

One of the dangers of three-way referendum is that, the best laid schemes of the devo-maxers could see Scottish independence winning with 34% of the vote, which is a great deal less than 50%. But this is the fundamental problem. Scotland is divided enough. Imagine trying to achieve independence or indeed devo-max when nearly two thirds of the electorate voted for something else.

What is the maximum amount of devolution that is compatible with Scotland remaining in the UK? I have no idea and I don’t think many of its supporters know either. But the EU has told us. There was a level of subsidiarity that it was willing to allow Britain, but membership of the EU meant following the rules of the EU. The UK could not opt out of free movement nor could it opt out of EU Single Market Rules, nor could it have its own trade policy. New EU member states have even less chance to opt out than Britain did. This is the reason that the EU is fighting with Poland over the principle of Polish law being subordinate to EU law. The EU knows that if it loses this battle then it loses the means to hold itself together.

It is for this reason that devo-max is so impossible to define. Devo-maxers see it as a matter for Scotland alone, but this is to see Brexit as a matter for Britain alone, when clearly the EU saw it as a matter for the cohesion of the EU.

At the moment devolution in Britain is already lopsided. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have varying degrees of devolution, but England as a whole has none at all. England instead has various mayors governing parts of the country but not all. If Scotland were to be given devo-max, then Scotland would have more powers than either Wales or Northern Ireland and many more than parts of England.

We have a UK Parliament and a UK Government voted for by the whole British electorate, but if there were devo max in Scotland this UK Parliament would have no say whatsoever on Scottish domestic policy. Why in that case would it have Scottish MPs? The UK Parliament at present on domestic matters is really an English parliament. Boris Johnson’s Covid rules only apply in England. But again, why should MPs from outwith England have a vote on matters that only apply in England? If this is a problem now how much worse would it be if Scotland had devo-max.

At the moment despite having control over the vast majority of Scottish domestic matters, the Scottish Parliament relies on a grant from the UK Government. Do devo-maxers propose that this would continue or that the revenue needed to run Scotland would be raised in Scotland with no grants coming from the UK? But the problem with full fiscal autonomy is that it would turn the pound into the Euro. The UK avoids the difficulties of the Euro because we have fiscal transfers between the parts of the UK when needed and because we already have political union. It is the lack of these things in the EU which makes the Euro so problematic.

If Scotland had full fiscal autonomy in the UK, but without fiscal transfers, then if Scotland lived beyond its means and had debts that it could not pay, then it would be in the position of Greece when it faced the prospect of being forced to leave the Euro. But this would have consequences for the whole of the UK, which would have no control over spending in Scotland.

Far from making the UK more stable, devo-max would create further resentment if Scotland continued to receive UK grants under the Barnett formula. It’s hard to see how Scotland could manage without these for the foreseeable future.

But, if Scotland was autonomous fiscally it would undermine the pound and the UK economy generally unless the Bank of England continued to bail it out, which would ultimately amount to Scotland have maximum devolution but with Daddy standing behind the mortgage of the teenage girl at university.

Devolution during the pandemic has shown itself to be a source of chaos. We could have had clear and simple rules that applied to everyone, instead we have four sets of rules that have done nothing whatsoever to keep us safer.

I want the UK to stay intact. But we are not going to get there by increasing devolution to the point where there are almost no ties that hold us together. Devo-maxers know this. If devolution increased support for the SNP, then maximum devolution would increase it to the maximum. At that point it would be a short step indeed to independence.

Just as the membership benefits of the EU required us to faithfully be a part of the EU project and accept its aims, so too accepting the membership benefits of the UK such as the pound, free movement within the UK and the NHS, require us to not seek to undermine the UK. If we chose to leave the EU because we didn’t like where it was heading, we cannot expect to retain the benefits of membership. So too Scottish nationalists if they are honest must choose to leave rather than use devo-max as a Trojan horse to undermine the UK from within. That would be mere treachery and should have no place on a ballot paper.

Every British citizen should have a similar level of devolved power. Better by far if each parliamentary constituency has the same number of voters and that power be devolved to the constituency level. This would give us both MPs and a local administration to deal with the day to day running of a county. At that point there would be no need for Holyrood, but we would each have something close to the maximum level of devolution.

Devo-maxers naturally would be horrified by this, which shows the emptiness of their pretend interest in devo-max. What they want is not so much more devolution as more nationalism.

When Scottish nationalism caught Covid, it died and descended into hell and brought with it on the third day devo max.