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

St Andrews Day display at the Omni Centre, Edinburgh by Alister

Saltire and Giraffes
by Alister Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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 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.



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