Westminster’s political parties cannot unite behind a cohesive vision for Scotland in the union without embracing Devo Max.
In the first Prime Minister’s Questions after David Cameron’s clumsy intervention on the date and wording of the referendum, David Cameron and Ed Miliband presented a united front on the constitution. In tones of calm consensus, they outlined their dedication to the Union, proselytising about being ‘stronger together’ and the need for a calm, measured and positive debate on Britain’s future.
Only moments earlier, the leaders of the two dominant political parties in the unionist camp were at each other’s throats, rallying contradictory statements back and forth about rail fare regulation. Miliband attacked Cameron for failing to tackle ‘crony capitalism’, while Cameron hit back with accusations that the Leader of The Opposition could not make tough decisions when they were needed. It is a shallow pantomime that has become the defining spectacle of Westminster politics.
Such a partisan display emphasises the serious challenges facing the unionist side in articulating a ‘positive case’ for the continuation of the United Kingdom’s political union. When it comes to ideology, Scotland is relatively united – there have been overwhelming successes for socialist and social democratic political parties in every Scottish election since the Unionist Party’s success in 1955. Even then, it was a devotion to the Empire and record levels of Church of Scotland membership that led to the Unionists’ popularity rather than support for right-wing ideology.
Scotland’s political unity makes it difficult to imagine an independent Scotland becoming a low-tax, small-government Friedmanite utopia. The SNP have become far more successful since largely abandoning their ‘Tartan Tory’ tendencies in favour of a centre-left identity, and they know full well that it is a vision of Scotland based on similar values that will be essential in building support for independence.
The SNP have displayed remarkable discipline and unity since coming to power in 2007, and this is sure to continue throughout the referendum campaign. Those in the independence camp who want to see a Scotland devoted to the free market and individualism will be instructed to keep schtum until after the referendum is won, while those with a collectivist, progressive post-independence design for the country will be thrust in front of the cameras to win over those crucial undecided Labour voters.
The unionist parties, on the other hand, are fundamentally divided. How can they make a case for the continuation of the Union that can excite and inspire the Scottish electorate if they have completely opposing ideas of what that country should look like? Alex Salmond is determined to hold the referendum in 2014, and it’s not just to give him time to win people over. Just a year before the next Westminster election, is it really feasible that Labour, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives will be capable of even sharing a stage with each other? Their campaign will almost certainly dissolve into a bitter competition for the support of the floating voters in the south of England. It is a gift to Salmond that the most populous and electorally undecided region of the UK is also the area that polls highest in support of Scottish independence.
There is an easy way out for the unionists. The bizarre decision by every Westminster party to oppose calls for a third option of ‘Devo Max’ may well go down as one of the greatest political follies of our time.
Let us look at the most persuasive argument for independence among Scottish voters: Scotland would be freed from the possibility of a distant Tory government in London that they never elected. Imagine that Salmond chose to spend his immense referendum war chest on plastering giant pictures of Margaret Thatcher across half the country’s billboards with ‘NEVER AGAIN: VOTE YES’ across the bottom – the referendum would be won by a landslide.
Now look at the most convincing case for the Union: The notion that Britain is ‘stronger together’, with an emphasis on our historic successes and shared institutions. Unionists know they cannot win over Scottish voters by telling them they are too poor or too wee to run their own affairs; a positive case for the UK will try to focus on unity, partnership and cooperation.
A winning referendum strategy for the unionist side would mix these two arguments, and would be very difficult to beat. Full fiscal autonomy would give the Scottish people exclusive control of their taxes, benefits and regulation – the three tools most essential in creating a more equal, democratic society founded on the principles of social justice and opportunity for all. It would also allow Scots to remain in a Union for which many retain a great deal of loyalty.
For evidence of the potency of this middle ground, look no further than the polling that has been done on all three options – Devo Max inevitably comes out as the favoured choice. It would win immense support in Scotland, but it would also be the most popular choice with the English electorate. No more would they be able to complain that our free, fair and responsibly funded public services were in some way ‘subsidised’ from English taxes. Perhaps they would also begin to realise that the quality, availability and sustainability of Scotland’s services is a result of political will rather than opportunistic freeloading.
What is most astounding about the unionist camp is that not only have they refused to campaign for this middle option, but they are trying to exclude it from the ballot paper entirely. The attraction for them of a two-option referendum makes some sense – with support for independence currently a clear minority, they have assumed that the tried-and-tested arguments for the union will triumph, and don’t want to risk splitting the ‘no’ vote across two options. This, again, shows breathtaking complacency. The way in which the Tories – a party with no legitimacy in Scotland whatsoever – have sought to dictate the rules and timing of the referendum will only stress the disconnection between Westminster’s political classes and the Scottish people, who have shown overwhelming support for a three-option referendum run by the Scottish parliament. It is sure to backfire, and the surge in SNP membership since Westminster’s intervention is a glimpse of this.
As it stands, there is no positive case for the Union. Sure, there are positive things about the Union, and these are at the root of many Scots’ reluctance to support independence, but they are largely sentimental and external. They are about Britain as it is viewed from abroad, not the future of Scotland and its place within UK politics. This is where the pro-independence camp has the advantage, and it is there that they must focus their efforts. Offer a vision for Scotland that is cohesive, united and inspiring, and the unionists will be incapable of replying. They have forsaken the one hope of defeating the nationalists by ruling out Devo Max. Their insistence on a two-option referendum is both political suicide and profoundly undemocratic. To deny the Scottish people the choice of something that they overwhelmingly support, simply to avoid undermining their own misguided position, is cynical and unfair – Alex Salmond must be delighted.