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Brian Monteith

The Unionist parties have this week performed what was always the most likely outcome of their sometimes shambolic deliberations over the thorny topic of devolving greater powers to the Scottish Parliament: they have coalesced around a commitment to move forward together once the independence referendum is won.

This week they issued a joint statement, which really said nothing significantly new, but it did serve to reiterate their consensus about wishing to bring more constitutional reform well short of independence. By implication this has also opened up the same prospect of greater powers for the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies.

Beforehand, the Scottish Secretary of State, Lib Dem Alistair Carmichael, said that English devolution was the “unstarted business” of British constitutional reform that might require an English Parliament, and an end was needed to the West Lothian Question whereby Scots MPs can vote on English-only matters but could not themselves vote on the same Scottish matters.

Why do this when all three parties were committed to having a simple Yes and No ballot paper? Surely they could have left the issue alone, why pander now to calls for change? The reason for this is simple enough if not often stated. Their aim is that, by having a simple Yes/No vote on independence, nationalism will be rejected and dealt a serious blow for at least a generation, leaving the finalisation of devolution to the unionists.

Devolution is a unionist concept, it always has been and was always intended it should remain so. And while there are differing approaches amongst the three main parties about what further change there should be, it was always likely that new proposals would in time develop. The key question was how to ensure that nationalists could not become the drivers of devolution so that it ended up as a constitutional train wreck.

(In this regard, the unionists missed a trick by not calling their own confirmatory referendum celebrating the Union around its tercentenary in 2007 that could have finished the nationalists off).

The nationalists have never been confident that they could win an outright Yes/No vote and having that optional question would have given them the consolation prize that they were looking for with their faces-saved because they could claim that they had brought about the change.

By holding the option of more powers back from the ballot, but keeping it on offer later, unionist leaders can claim that devolution is about making the UK work better, and that having “saved the UK” they will get to work on rebalancing responsibility and accountability in the various parliaments and assemblies.

This nuance – which is all about who exercises the power for change, the nationalists that would wreck the UK or the unionists that would reform it – also provides the background for phrases such as Devo Max, Devo More and Devo Plus. In truth, all are generally meaningless clichés, for the public has no concept about what they really mean other than “more powers”. They are, however, all different.

Only Devo Plus was developed into a proclaimed list of reforms by the think tank Reform Scotland, while Devo More is a catch-all literal phrase anyone can use – but Devo Max is an intentionally ill-defined nationalist concept designed to lead to independence. By failing to ever adequately explain what it meant by Devo Max the SNP’s intention was to have a vague idea on the ballot paper, and if it were the preferred option (it is generally accepted it would be the most likely outcome) to then argue that “Max” was not being achieved but being watered down.

The SNP would claim the electorate was being betrayed by unionists, so that new grudges could be nursed. At a date sooner rather than later an SNP-led Scotland would take a strop and seek once more to walk off.

Where, then, does this week’s statement leave us?

There is still much to be done to reassure the Scottish electorate that the unionist leaders will deliver. A Panelbase poll conducted for the Yes campaign reported that only 35 per cent believed the proposals of new powers would materialise, while 43 per cent did not.

This should come as no surprise for one of the strategic errors of the Unionists has been to downplay the fact that the Scotland Act 2012 will introduce changes to constitutional arrangements in 2015/16. Another poll showed that 60 per cent of the public was unaware of this fact – this needs to be addressed.

For Conservatives there remains a need to crank up the importance of making Holyrood more self-sufficient, more accountable and responsible for its actions – and, secondly, to talk up the prospect of being able to reduce taxes and reshape the Scottish economy so it is more entrepreneurial and less dependent on the public sector. There is little point in advocating further powers if Conservatives are not willing to countenance using them, but by talking about policy options the impression that the powers will be delivered will be strengthened and there is the prospect of seducing those on the right that have indulged themselves with the ice of voting Yes.

These tactical but honest and sincere moves would strengthen the Unionist hand.

By comparison the continuing descent of the YeSNP campaign into the world of discredited neo-Keynesian economics and make-believe fantasies continues. The SNP’s first oil revenue predictions were shown to be sheer invention and now the second revised version has also been shown to be hopelessly optimistic. As if that did not make the sums impossible, Financial Secretary John Swinney this week said that a Scottish government would borrow its way to economic growth, when study after study suggests the SNP will need to borrow more and pay greater interest just to achieve the status quo. And then the Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, published a draft Scottish Constitution that included such empty promises as a citizen’s right to a home.

The unionists have to continue to resist being complacent, and hold their nerve when polls might upset them. For independence the economics just don’t add up, the closing down of business, cultural and social opportunities for Scots will wreak havoc to people’s lives and even the hoped for independence from the UK Treasury, Bank of England and Nato will not materialise. Meanwhile the EU will be in the driving seat to demand a higher price for membership.

All that’s left for nationalists is to make more eccentric bribes and finally appeal to the heart: that this is a once and for all chance (which is already being said).

Exactly. It is a once and for all vote – that’s why there are no optional answers to muddy the outcome. And when the YeSNP loses we should hold them to that point – and get to work on revitalising the institutions that bind the UK and ensure we never have to go through this again.

8 comments for: Brian Monteith: Why the Unionist parties have united behind greater devolution

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