Why I Wish We Could Have Devo Max (and why we cant)

What Do We Want?


Back in 2011, the SNP said it would allow a third option, for more fiscal autonomy or “Devo Max”, on the devloution ballot [Citation]. Such an option was welcomed by senior Scottish Labour folks [Citation] and support in Scotland for more powers for the Scottish Parliament remains high [Citation] – if this option were on the ballot paper the outcome of the referendum would be pretty certain. Devolution has worked well in Scotland – having autonomy and authority over key policy areas like health and education has been a success and it is no surprise to me that more of the same would be desired and could bring further benefits.


Sadly an option for Devo Max is not on the ballot paper. The Edinburgh Agreement stipulated that an unambiguous result all sides would respect was, quite rightly, desired and it therefore chose the binary yes/no question on Scottish Independence. Devo Max would have had a hard time getting on the ballot when that agreement was reached; the Westminster Government would be unlikely to want the dilution of power this would require and the Scottish Government (though saying they were happy to have it on the ballot) had no compelling reason to fight to get it on there as this would split the vote away from independence. Finally, finding an option on which all parties could have at least broad agreement before making it onto the ballot paper would have smacked of pre-negotiation which is also antipathetic to the Edinburgh Agreement.


What Does it Look Like?


Let’s next take a quick look at what we might actually want when we say Devo Max and what options are actually on offer. At the most powerful end of Devo Max is Full Fiscal Autonomy which would mean that we scrap the Barnett formula and instead Scotland becomes responsible for the raising, administering and spending of all of her tax monies and we pay a levy back to the Westminster parliament for the remaining reserved matters which are basically just foreign policy, defence and whatever cross border quangos we need to pay our share on to keep the whole show ticking along smoothly. The second option is Calman Plus, in which we adopt a more chunky subset of the Calman Commission recommendations; gaining the power to vary some income tax rates and directly raising and spend other minor taxes (like air passenger and stamp duty), Barnett gets replaced by something new at some point to reflect the changes in taxes raised and spent locally and the Scottish Parliament can legislate on some matters which are notionally reserved but would then receive consent from the UK parliament. This would theoretically mean that we’d get a measure of control over things like social policy and welfare for example.


Either option sound like the sort of thing we’d conceivably want and if the balot paper had a second option along the lines of “Should Scotland gain more fiscal autonomy?” with the subtext that a negotiated settlement somewhere between those two ends of the spectrum was what was on offer, I think we’d have a winner already. Devolution worked well, let’s have more of the same, please.


For better or worse, these preferred options for most Scots are not on the ballot. So how should my enfranchised fellow Scots vote if they want Devo Max? Well there are two big problems that stand in the way: a Federal UK and the never to be answered West Lothian question.


Fully Fiscal and Federal


The fundamental problem with Full Fiscal Autonomy is that it is fundamentally incompatible with the United Kingdom as it is currently constituted. We cant have Scotland become a federal state if we dont also do the same for Wales, Northern Ireland and a couple of different size and shaped chunks within England. Westminster would have to become the federal centre of the United Kingdom administering foreign and defence policy steering, EU and EC treaties and so forth, being a major London tourist attraction and nothing else.


Forming a federal UK would be a wholesale redrawing of the lines of power and you simply can not put that on a ballot paper that only the Scots get to vote on and there is little appetite within any of the establishment parties for such a change. Technically something like this is a Lib Dem policy objective, but nobody gives two hoots what they think anymore [Citation].


We’ve known for a while that we’d already pushed devolution pretty much as far as it could go without starting on a proper federal path. Shortly after Scottish Devloution, I moved to Newcastle just in time for the referendum in the North of England on a “devolved assembly” there. The canny Northerners, quite rightly, rejected that proposal for the expensive white elephant that it was; an assembly with the power to talk but neither the fiscal not policy power to actually affect very much change in anything. The New Labour devolution plan stopped dead there, after Scotland, Wales, Norther Ireland and the Greater London Authority we’d reached the end of the line.


West Lothian Devo Plus


Any further growth in devolved powers for Scotland, like Calman Plus, makes the thorny West Lothian question all the more prickly: Why should Scottish MPs continue to steer and vote on policy for things like English health matters when their constituents are largely unaffected? And the flipside of the coin, if Scottish influence should therefore be reduced in Westminster why should we lose say over devolved matters that still affect us? It’s not an unfair question but, asside from a Federal UK (see above), there is probably no fair answer.


Some recommendations from the Calman Commission have of course already been enacted and are coming into effect at this very moment in time in the form of the Scotland Act 2012. The West Lothian question is also being quietly answered with reductions in Scottish West Minster seats [Citation].


More Devo On Offer


The unionist parties have all pledged to increase powers in some form following a No vote, so let’s see what the Devo Max options on actual offer are!


The Labour Party’s Powers for a Purpose (PDF) is an extraordinary wee read, the lists of what they have decided on balance must remain reserved powers is long but there are two areas where they see room for expansion of powers: Enacting the Sewel Convention, guaranteeing that Scottish Parliament decisions are not reveresed by Westminster and administrative control of the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system. Beyond that the 10p Income tax variance that the Scotland Act 2012 already has gets upped to 15p.


The Conservative’s Strathclyde Commission (PDF) has little to offer apart from new tax raising responsibilites to improve fiscal transparency and accountability (OK, fair enough) but without any accompanying spending or policy making powers, which makes the offer more of a burden than an actual new power.


In short, the unionist parties have already played their increased powers card: the Scotland Act 2012 was it. Everything else being promised is, on examination, a little bit thin. Not even local social policy and welfare control are on offer and those are things we could really do with getting control of because I for one don’t want people starving in my country for the crime of being poor [Citation].


What Do We Want? How Do We Get it?


If Scotland genuinely wants something like Devo Max; more fiscal power and more areas of policy that come under the Scottish Parliaments control, there is only one way to get it: vote for independence.


What I consider the best option: Full Fiscal Autonomy within a Federal UK is just nowhere in sight. The next best option of significant new tax raising and spending powers and control of more areas of local policy are not on offer from the major UK parties.


Interestingly Boris Johnson’s latest gaffe [Citation] I partially agree with:


“What has England ever got out of this devolution process? If you want to have growth in the English cities then you should do what Manchester wants, what Liverpool, Leeds and all of us want – and that’s more tax raising powers.”


Exactly Boris. But here’s the rub, what you want there is hard to do without significant UK constitutional reform. Luckily for the Remaining UK, if Scotland becomes independent you are going to have a golden opportunity to address that problem because your old constitution will have to change (having a Scotland shaped hole in it). What England (and every other Brit outside Scotland’s borders) might get out of independence is the sort of reform that might actually give anywhere outside London and the periphery of the Westminster bubble the opportunity to grow.



Being Brave


I am Scottish. I was born there, I grew up there, I lived there for the first twenty six or so years of my life. I love Scotland. I love the way the rain changes the texture of the landscape. I love the banter with random punters in the street or the pub. I love the social democratic values which underpin much of our political thought.


I also love the United Kingdom of Great Britain. I lived there for the first thirty two years of my life. I love Scotland, England and Wales. I’ve sadly never visited Northern Ireland, but I love several people who hale from there. I love the rolling downs of the south, the canny shite of the northerns and the sheer capacity for drinking of the Welsh. I love the gentle liberal conservatism that underpins much of our political thought.


I am also currently resident in Singapore, a tiny nation of a little over five million people with no natural resources to speak of but one of the highest GDP per Capita in the developed world. It has built this amazing prosperity out of almost nothing in a little under fifty years since their independence.


On September 18th, my friends and family back home have a momentous decision to make:


“Should Scotland be an independent country?”


Sadly I don’t have a vote in that decision, but I have been watching the debate closely and carefully and I think I’m standing on an interesting patch of ground to lend some insight from.


This will require a small amount of bravery, to step up on the soap box and hear whatever feedback is offered to me. But not as much bravery as those who bear the responsibility to cast a vote on this next month. There is no return to the status quo from here, and both paths will require bravery to face.


If I had a vote, where would I stand?


When the referendum first came up following the SNP’s election win and mandate to hold one, I was comfortably in the “Devo Max” camp. With that off the balot, “No” was the obvious best option to pick; improving and expanding the processes of devolving power is the best way forward (even if that wasn’t available in this referendum) but wholesale independence just seemed fullhardy and built on a dream made out of shortbread and old battles that should be left in history where they belong. Reject Independence but build a case for more devolution, was my opinion.


My opinion has changed as the months of the debate have worn on. The light under which I have viewed Scotland’s position within the UK has changed. The Better Together No Thanks campaign retoric has shone a cold, blue forensic evidence lamp on matters rather than the warm, inclusive one it should have. The relationship I thought Scotland could have with Westminster doesn’t look to be available after all and increasingly it even begins to look like an abusive relationship that needs to change.


So I am a convert, if only theoretically as I have no vote, to “Yes” and I’d like to lay out the reasons for that and examine them. I also think it is almost the best thing that could happen for the remaining United Kingdom and I’ll try and explain why that is too.



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Master of Tools

Travelers Notebook by koalazymonkeyThere are an extraordinary amount of really random things that can distract you, right when you were in the middle of a really productive bout of work, that can knock you off of the rails. What can be particularly odd are the situations where you know this has happened, but are not quite able to ascertain why.

The common examples, where you do know why, are things like new and urgent projects being dropped on you from on high with little warning but flashing red deadlines or, more simply, just running out of steam and getting sick. Both of those examples you can at least try to have a mechanism for dealing with – make sure you always have “spare bandwidth” available to devote to the unexpected or to concentrating on unwinding and staying fit.

Suddenly noticing you’ve been procrastinating for an hour or two and sifting the Internet looking for pearls but feeling that all the shiny you discovered was nothing but pyrite and the top item on your task list just got more uninviting for being all the more urgent. That’s just classic akrasia and there are a few strategies to try and avoid the worst of it.

Here is what knocked me off a really productive run three weeks back that took me a week to figure out what was wrong and I’m only just picking back up to speed now: My paper notebook was almost full.