“What we have is what I always wanted, which is one single question, not two questions, not devo max, a very simple single question that has to be put before the end of 2014 so we end the uncertainty.” – David Cameron, October 2012.
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“If we get a No vote, that will trigger a major, unprecedented programme of devolution, with additional powers for the Scottish Parliament – major new powers over tax, spending and welfare services.” – David Cameron, September 2014.
There’s an old trick politicians use when trying to force an unpopular option down the electorate’s throat. Don’t give them the opportunity to vote for the middle-of-the-road option they actually want. Instead offer them only two choices: an extreme option that you figure they’ll find too risky and radical; and your choice, that they’ll have no option but to vote for through gritted teeth.
Back in 2012, Alex Salmond wanted the referendum ballot to offer two questions that would deliver three options:
- Stick with the status quo, with a limited, devolved parliament within the United Kingdom.
- Stay within the United Kingdom, but have significant, further powers devolved to the parliament (a.k.a. “Devo Max”).
People could have voted yes to independence and yes to Devo Max, no to independence but yes to Devo Max, or no to both independence and Devo Max. But David Cameron vetoed the twin question option, insisting on a straight choice between status quo and independence. I think it’s pretty clear that he did this thinking that independence had no chance, and by doing so he would torpedo the option that the majority of the Scottish people wanted, but he clearly didn’t: Devo Max.
The problem with this old politicians trick is that sometimes the electorate call your bluff, and it was when – two weeks ago – it looked like the Scottish electorate might be about to do just that, that Cameron was belatedly, “miraculously” even, converted to the cause of Devo Max (a.k.a. “The Vow”).
I guess we can’t know, but I think that if we’d had a two question ballot paper, with an explicit Devo Max option there right from the start to dilute and divide the yearning for self-determination, the yes vote would have been depressed. Perhaps 45% would have been 40%, or even 35%. Meanwhile, I think a big chunk – perhaps half – of the people who voted no yesterday would have voted for Devo Max, along with pretty much all of the yeses. I’d therefore see a Devo Max option, one that you could have voted for as well as independence, getting perhaps 70-75% support.
But, you might ask, how is that significantly different from the situation we have now, where a no option which mutated to a Devo Max option has won with 55% support? Well it is different, in two important ways:
Firstly, Scotland could now be uniting behind an option that three quarters of the voters had selected. Instead, we have a result so divisive that it cannot help but leave a legacy of bitterness and division.
And secondly, instead of voting for a Devo Max option agreed, defined and debated over more than two years, people have instead voted for an off-the-cuff, emergency lash up birthed in an atmosphere of panic and confusion. And not surprisingly, this spit-and-chewing-gum construction is already starting to unravel.
Scots voters were promised the best of all worlds: Cameron, Clegg and Miliband promised them increased devolution on an accelerated timetable with no strings attached, including a continuation of their funding under the Barnett formula; and Gordon Brown promised them that they could have draft legislation ready by May next year.
But that was pre-vote then, and this is a post-vote now.
This morning David Cameron alluded to the West Lothian question by speaking of “English votes for English MPs”, additionally adding that further Scottish devolution could only proceed in tandom with hearing “the millions of voices of England”. Meanwhile, this afternoon, when Alex Salmond phoned him, Cameron was now apparently saying that he “would not commit to a second reading vote (in the House of Commons) by 27 March on a Scotland Bill.” And that’s before we mention the 63 Tory MPs who have apparently already gone on the record as opposing Devo Max. Basically, Cameron promised something that he didn’t want, and probably can’t deliver.
My prediction is this. Devo Max will either be stalled indefinitely by arguments over English representation or devolution, and calls for constitutional conventions. Or it will come with unpleasant strings attached, such as a significant diminishing in power of the Scottish representation in the UK parliament at Westminster (by turning Scottish MPs into second-class MPs who can only vote on UK wide-issues), and possibly an adjustment in the Barnett formula that will lead to harsh spending cuts in Scotland.
Which will nicely open the way for the SNP to run in the Scottish elections of 2016 on a platform of a second independence referendum, on the grounds that previous one’s result has been rendered invalid by the promise and then effective withdrawal of a no-strings, “best of all worlds”, Devo Max.
Nice one Dave. You’ve certainly cocked this one up.