You know, the Scottish National Party might just save the Union.
Now, that might seem a little (okay, more than a little) counter-intuitive. Of course, the SNP is Scotland’s party of self-government, and the party which delivered this year’s historic Independence Referendum. Ever since its formation in 1934, the party has fought for Scotland’s right to self-determination. Nevertheless, as ironic as it may seem, the SNP has produced a blueprint which, if co-opted by Britain’s Unionist establishment, offers one last chance to save the very Union it seeks to end.
In the aftermath of Scotland’s referendum, in which over 1.6 million Scots voted for independence, Prime Minister David Cameron announced the creation of the so-called Smith Commission. Led, somewhat ironically, by an unelected peer, Lord Smith of Kelvin, the Commission’s task is to forge a consensus between the main political parties on a common way forward for democracy and devolution north of the border. Just days before the referendum, the three main Westminster party leaders – Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband – ‘vowed’ in the Daily Record to implement ‘devo-max’ if Scotland voted No. Former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown went as far as to promise that a No vote would lead to the UK becoming “as close to a federal state as you can be in a country where one nation [England] is 85% of the population”. Alistair Darling, leader of the anti-independence Better Together campaign, repeatedly insisted on the campaign trail that ‘devo-max’ would swiftly follow if Scots rejected independence. Many Scots were convinced to vote No by these clear promises of vastly greater power for the Scottish Parliament.
So what does this all mean? What exactly is ‘devo-max’? What would it mean for the Union?
‘Devo-max’ – or, to give it its Sunday name, ‘maximum devolution’ – is widely understood to mean full fiscal autonomy for the Scottish Parliament. Under ‘devo-max’, Holyrood would have all powers currently reserved to Westminster devolved to it with the exception only of defence and foreign affairs (and perhaps monetary policy and/or immigration). In other words, Scotland would become as independent as possible, but without ending the Union of 1707.
For those of us who believe in independence, ‘devo-max’ is too little, too late. A ‘devo-max’ Scotland would not stop £130 billion Trident nuclear weapons remaining situated just 30 miles from our largest city. A ‘devo-max’ Scotland would not stop our sons and daughters from being forced to fight in wars we oppose. A ‘devo-max’ Scotland would still have an expensive, unelected head of state and an expensive, over-sized military. Only with independence can Scotland stop paying for these things. Nevertheless, ‘devo-max’ would be a step forward. Plus, it has strong popular support.
An October survey from pollsters Panelbase found that 66% of Scots want the Smith Commission to result in the devolution of powers over everything except defence and foreign affairs, with only 19% opposed. Voters of all parties back ‘devo-max’ – 59% of Lib Dems, 60% of Tories, 62% of Labour, 71% of Greens and 79% of the SNP.
So, the Scottish public are supportive of ‘devo-max’. But will they get it? Well, there is one party agitating for precisely that. You guessed it: the SNP.
The SNP’s submission to the Smith Commission makes a substantive democratic and economic case for ‘devo-max’. The Scottish Greens have produced similar proposals. But there is one rather big problem: none of the Unionist parties want to give Scotland ‘devo-max’, despite the fact that they ostentatiously and repeatedly vowed to implement it on the referendum campaign trail.
Labour, the Tories, and the Lib Dems have all produced starkly different and haphazard plans for the future of devolution, none of which come close to ‘devo-max’. In fact, only the Tories have got the guts to promise to devolve all income tax powers, never mind all other domestic powers. This is a fatal position for any Unionist to take. The referendum result did not save the Union; it was merely a stay of execution.
There is only one way to truly save the Union, to forge a constitutional settlement across these islands that stands any hope of being sustainable and long-lasting: the swift implementation of ‘devo-max’ for Scotland.
If ‘the vow’ is not fulfilled, if the trust of the Scottish people is broken, there will be no going back. There is a serious appetite for more powers across Scotland that must be satiated. As has been proven since 1999, giving more powers, in a haphazard, incremental fashion, to the Scottish Parliament simply increases the desire for further powers. Only ‘devo-max’ will be enough. It is the only intellectually coherent and politically comprehensive solution.
Even then, a ‘devo-max’ strategy may not work. Scotland may decide, having competently discharged its powers in every other area of policy, that it is capable of handling defence and foreign affairs after all. Why on earth wouldn’t it? However, there is a chance that Scots will settle. Many Scots are ‘conservative’ and wary of change. But they are also sticklers for honesty, integrity and keeping promises. Beware, Cameron & Co.
If Westminster does not keep to its ‘vow’, Scots who voted No on that basis will, rightly, feel betrayed. Seeing that the prospect of significantly greater autonomy has evaporated, they will agitate for the only route to change now open to them: another independence referendum.
Many Scots voted No reluctantly. They were aware that Britain is broken, that Westminster is out-of-touch, that Scotland can make a success of self-government just as it has of devolution. Anxious about the future, they opted to give Westminster one last chance. Now Westminster needs to deliver. Any half-hearted attempt to give Scotland only some of the powers it wants and needs will inevitably create a backlash against the Union. As the Unionist parties have prevaricated over the issue of more powers, post-referendum support for independence has already risen from 45% to 52%.
Scotland’s No vote was not a blank cheque. Rather, it was a straightforward demand (for ‘devo-max’) from a tenuously loyal and increasingly frustrated customer. The SNP is giving Westminster one last chance to save the Union. Will they take it? We’ll soon find out.
By David Kelly