As anyone who has followed my blog and tweets over recent years will know, I have argued every aspect of the devolution/more powers versus full independence arguments, and have expressed fears – and often astonishment – that the complex implications of the shifting currents of voter opinion and preferences on devo within UK, full independence, and the missing second question are being avoided or argued inadequately.
The way this argument is handled will impact crucially on the way the Scottish electorate will ultimately resolve this, faced with a simple YES/NO choice on September 18th 2014.
Although there seems to be a dawning recognition of just how this question will dominate the debate in the months remaining - and some evidence that both YES and No campaigns have at least grasped the essentials - there is still a flabby sogginess in the YES (and SNP) arguments, and continuing failure of media commentators and TV political news anchors to ask focused questions. This is allowing Better Together to pump out a miasma of vague promises to deliver more powers, without a shred of evidence of exactly how they could do this.
So let me reiterate again what I see as the fundamentals, with a plea that all parties to the public debate fully present and explore them, and that media commentators ask the key question again and again.
The Scottish Parliament exists only by the grace and favour of the sovereign UK Parliament under the Scotland Act, and its limited powers are in the gift of Westminster. They can be amended, curtailed or withdrawn at any time by the Westminster UK government. Scottish MPs can vote against this but have not got the power to block it, given the massive disparity in their numbers versus rUK MPs.
In the lead-up to the Edinburgh Agreement, all polls and virtually all expressions of opinion by Civic Scotland indicated a majority for more powers for Scotland – devo max, devo plus and other variant – while remaining within UK, i.e. with defence and foreign affairs remaining under Westminster. (There is an inherent contradiction in this preference on defence and foreign affairs with the Scottish electorate and Civic Scotland’s wish for a nuclear-free Scotland. A WMD-free Scotland cannot be delivered under such devolution.)
The Scottish Government was open to a second question in the 2014 referendum, offering not just a binary choice between full independence and status quo, but a question on more powers within the UK. Civic Scotland was highly vocal in support of a second question.
(There were formidable, but not insuperable problems in framing such a ballot paper – or papers – and even more formidable problems in evaluating the various possible vote outcomes. During this period of the debate, the political parties and the media showed a spectacular naivety and ignorance in addressing these complex issues.)
The 2nd question veto
The second question was effectively vetoed by David Cameron and the Better Together Parties, and their negotiator, Michal Moore, was mandated to treat this as a deal breaker in the Edinburgh Agreement negotiations.
The reason advanced by Cameron and the Better Together axis was that the will of the Scottish electorate had to be determined with absolute clarity on independence before any question of more powers could be addressed. This was a patently specious and self-serving argument, given that the will of the Scottish people seemed evident from the opinion polls and Civic Scotland.
The real reason – in my view – was that if a second question was offered and proved decisively to be the preferred option, the UK Government would be under major pressure to deliver more powers – and they had – and have - no intention of doing so.
The power realities of Scottish Better Together and Westminster parties
Scottish Labour, Scottish Tories and Scottish LibDems can have their little think tanks, commissions, etc. under various exciting and pompous titles, they can pass resolutions at Scottish party conferences, they can make recommendations to their London party masters, they might even conceivably reach a core consensus – but they cannot deliver such powers.
Only the Westminster parties can decide whether or not to include all or any of these recommendations in their 2015 general election manifestos – and they won’t, because to do so would be electoral suicide, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and God’s gift to UKIP.
Here’s my analysis again from a recent posting on Scotland-US.
The only mechanism by which more powers can be delivered, now or after a No vote, is The Scotland Act. It has already delivered a dribble of powers after the Calman Commission. The Scotland Act leaves absolute control with the Westminster Parliament over Scotland’s devolved powers: it created the devolved Parliament, it has the power to vary its powers by adding to them or subtracting them. It has the power to end devolution and dissolve the Parliament by vote in which non-Scottish MPs massively outnumber the 59 Scots.
In other words, until and unless it votes for full independence, Scotland is wholly dependent on the grace and favour of the British Parliament for its Parliament and any powers it has.
There are powerful voices in the Commons and the unelected Lords who have always bitterly opposed the creation of a Scottish Parliament, regarding devolution as the thin edge of a wedge that would end the Union. There are a growing number of voices in England, notably the local authorities who bitterly resent what they see as Scotland privileged status in the Barnett Formula
There are strong voices, encapsulated by The West Lothian Question – coined by a Scot, Tam Dalyell – that questions the ability of Scots MPs to influence English legislation on purely English matters by their votes in Westminster, while English MPs cannot influence devolved matter in the Scottish Parliament. There are moves to reduce the number of Scottish MPs in Westminster. There is growing resentment in England and Wales about what they see as Scotland’s privileged position under devolution.
To grant more powers to Scotland after a No vote, or even promise them before one would be greeted with outrage by the English electorate and the Welsh Labour voters. It would be political suicide in the 2015 UK general election for any party that promised or committed such powers.
The Scottish electorate do not trust the UK on promises of more powers after a No vote in a referendum, because they have already reneged on just such a promise in 1979 after a referendum – they have form!
But the decisive argument for Scots is that, had the UK Parliament and government any intentions to consider or grant more powers, they would not have opposed the second question in the Scottish referendum addressing the wish for devo max within UK revealed in poll after poll.
Alex Salmond and the SNP government were willing to consider such a question and option, offering a middle road between independence and the status quo. The resolute opposition to the 2nd question – a deal breaker for the Edinburgh Agreement – by David Cameron and all the UK Better Together parties – told the Scottish electorate all they needed to know – that a No vote, far from producing more powers, was almost certain to produce a clawback of powers and a £4 billion reduction in the Barnett Formula.
The Scottish electorate know that a No vote, in addition to attracting the astonishment and thinly veiled contempt of the world for a nation that rejected its chance to be independent, would result in either devo zero or devo minus.
Only independence will deliver to Scotland and the Scottish people the freedom they need to determine their future in this uncertain world and the challenging times ahead.