Yesterday, as the full (lack of) magnitude of Labour’s feeble devolution proposals became apparent, we wondered how they’d go down with the Union’s supporters in the media. We’d been detecting a certain anxiety over the last few weeks, a feeling that those in the press who back a seriously beefed-up settlement were uncomfortable with what it was becoming increasingly clear was going to be delivered.
So we were genuinely unsure which way the newspapers would leap. Would they flog Devo Nano for all it was worth, hyping it to the heavens as the only thing they had to go with, or would some be so dismayed at Labour’s quivering, lettuce-limp absence of ambition that they’d turn on the party in disgust?
The truth was somewhere in between.
The biggest shock for us was that the proposals didn’t even make the front page of the Daily Record. The most loyal Labour cheerleader in the land didn’t have so much as a little flash referring to Lamont’s big reveal. The four front-page leads were a Ned Crime story, the suicide of Mick Jagger’s girlfriend, an English lottery winner and – most surprising of all – a major interview with SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon.
The politics section of the website doesn’t so much as mention it today. A dutiful, half-hearted Record View yesterday had attempted to put a brave face on the commission’s report, but even that was pretty non-committal and wishy-washy, vaguely noting that it wasn’t the powers but what was done with them that mattered.
The Scottish Sun also didn’t consider it worthy of the front page. Inside a single story proclaimed Lamont’s plans to “hammer the rich” if Scotland voted No, though we’re not quite sure how a No vote would be a requirement for that – presumably if Lamont was First Minister of an independent Scotland (don’t have nightmares, readers) she could pursue the same agenda, and if she’s not First Minister her plans are irrelevant no matter what the referendum result.
The same applied to the Scottish Daily Express’ low-key coverage, in one small and restrained piece – it’s only the 12th story down on the page – entitled “Johann Lamont and Scottish Labour want to hike taxes on higher earners”. The Telegraph was almost as relaxed in a very similar vein (“Labour unveils devolution plans to tax better-off Scots”), and only Labour’s erstwhile bosom buddies at the Scottish Daily Mail made any real effort at putting the boot in.
Columnist Peter Duncan delivered a pretty scathing assessment:
“The outcome was not pretty. Johann Lamont, after marching her troops up to the top of the hill last year with an interim report hinting at the devolution of significant new taxes, marched them back down again with a report that is timid and incoherent. Rightly, it has been roundly criticised, not least by some inside the Labour Party itself.
Labour […] is effectively proposing to tinker around the edges of further devolution. That tinkering must be a massive let-down to many in its ranks who made the case for something game- changing. Among them, Shadow Foreign Secretary and Paisley and Renfrewshire South MP Douglas Alexander wanted Labour’s devolution commission to ‘range widely, act boldly’. He must be sorely disappointed this morning.
However, what is even more corrosive is that these proposals seem to be a politically motivated antidote to those of the SNP.
Who would have thought the Tories in Scotland would be presented with such a massive opportunity to leapfrog Labour as the party of devolution, reversing the situation whereby they have been behind the curve of Scottish constitutional aspirations for 30 years? They could seize the gap Labour has left – or once again drop the ball with the try line approaching.”
One might, if one credited Scottish Labour with that much wit, posit that the paper was a deliberate attempt – much as with the formation of the fake front that is “United With Labour” – to elicit just that response, distancing Labour from its toxic Tory allies in the No campaign. But it seems a desperate move indeed to leave the job of satisfying the desire of Scots for enhanced devolution in the hands of the Conservatives.
And what of Scotland’s own “quality” press? The Herald went with a referendum-related front page, and a splash for a 20-page “Scotland Decides” supplement inside, but neither was about Labour’s devo plan. The website did lead for a while with a Magnus Gardham piece attempting to make the proposals sound as exciting as possible, but it was balanced by a rather broader-ranging Iain Macwhirter column uncompromisingly entitled “More powers for Holyrood? Don’t believe the hype”.
“It is just possible that a common commitment to minor tax-raising powers and the guaranteeing of the constitutional status of Holyrood might survive this process. As I say, the LibDems and Labour will probably commit to something along these lines in May, and it is possible the Tories could endorse it. After all, a few pence on income tax and a bill of rights hardly amounts to the break-up of Britain. But even if this made it to the legislative stage it would not amount to devolution max, and might actually be a step backwards.
Oil revenues would not be included, without which the fiscal numbers for Holyrood don’t add up. Welfare would still be a UK responsibility. Business taxes would not be devolved, nuclear weapons would remain in the Clyde, UK immigration controls would still be imposed on Scotland.
Any new tax-raising powers proposed by the Conservatives will almost certainly form part of a plan to reform the Barnett Formula and will serve to cut public spending drastically in Scotland. This is because more is spent here than is raised in direct taxation. Scotland would need business taxes and crucially oil revenues to balance the books. But on this basis the Tories could put their signatures to a three-party pledge to devolve more tax.
This is why the decision that Scots will make in September is such a difficult one. Most are not nationalists and want to salvage something from the UK, which they helped to build. But the old UK isn’t on offer, and after a No vote, there is a risk that Scotland will fall off the Westminster map, as it did after 1979. It’s a tough call.”
Macwhirter, as he hints in the final paragraph, has long been considered a federalist, and the sense of disappointment in the article is palpable. We suspect it will only grow stronger when the Tories finally come up with their own plans in May – assuming they don’t delay them, as Lord Lang suggested last week, until after the referendum.
Which leaves us with the only Scottish paper which DID put Devo Nano on its front page (and as the lead story to boot) – the Scotsman.
The main article went, as one might expect, with the right-wing “Labour to hammer the rich” line, but weirdly the text inside appeared to conflict with the print edition’s sub-head, which warned that “New powers aimed at wealthiest will also cover those earning £41,000”. The copy, however, had a different view:
“Last night, Labour sources indicated that the party planned to use the new tax system to extract more revenue from the 14,000 or so people in Scotland who earn more than £150,000 by raising the rate from 45 per cent to 50 per cent.
There were no plans, however, to use the proposed powers to hit those earning more than the £41,451 threshold.“
The front-page piece had a neutral tone, but an editorial tried to talk the report up:
If and when that moment comes, the weaknesses in this Labour proposal would be unlikely to survive the negotiations, but its strengths could provide a solid basis for a deal. This is not a fully-formed template for a new Scotland in the event of a No vote. But it may prove a useful starting point.”
And thus, implausibly if by default, the Scotsman became Labour’s new best friends. But its assessment is a bizarre one that reeks of anti-independence straw-clutching.
Labour introduced devolution in 1999 as the “settled will” of the Scottish people. That will remained settled until the SNP won the 2007 election, at which point the Unionist parties suddenly decided devolution needed a bit of a buff-up.
The result was the Calman Commission, which opened the following year and delivered its underwhelming final package of minor tweaks and twiddles in 2009, which became the Scotland Bill and began a long journey through Westminster.
The electorate’s response was to give the SNP a landslide, at which point the referendum became an unexpected reality and the Unionist parties hastily concluded that even though the Scotland Bill was still some way off becoming law, it had already been rendered obsolete and once again required a major revision.
Labour announced a new devolution commission in February 2012, just nine months after the SNP’s victory (although it didn’t then meet for the first time until that October). Just two years of agonising later, it delivered what amounted to Calman 1.01, except this time written by idiots.
But we’re rambling. Our point is that historically, enhanced devolution has only ever been undertaken as a response to an increased threat from the SNP. The notion, then, that Devo Nano could possibly be a “starting point” is a completely irrational one.
If there’s a No vote in the referendum, the SNP has already pledged that the subject is off the table for “a generation”, said by Alex Salmond to mean somewhere in the region of 15-20 years. So the parties of the Union will have no impetus to re-examine the devolution settlement for several elections to come.
Also, while the SNP remain comfortably ahead in the polls, the chances of them achieving another overall majority at Holyrood must be rated slim. Three years into their majority rule, familiarity dulls the recollection of what an unlikely achievement the scale of the 2011 victory was, and all governments are wearied and their popularity worn down by office. Even if they wanted to hold a second referendum in 2029 should they lose this year’s, it’s very far from certain that they’d have the ability to.
When we spoke to the Scotsman’s Kenny Farquharson this morning, he insisted the mere threat of the SNP winning in 2016 would be enough to keep Labour alive to the need to build on devolution. But that seems so far along the path of wishful thinking as to veer dangerously close to outright delusion. Because what have Labour to fear?
The Scottish party has all but conceded the 2016 poll already. But how much worse could it possibly do? The proportional electoral system at Holyrood almost certainly ensures it of a “floor” of 30+ MSPs, so with just 37 currently in situ most if not all of its incumbents can count on job security. If there’s a No vote, they also needn’t be concerned about ousted Westminster MPs coming after their seats.
With a highly challenging fiscal future ahead for any devolved Scottish governments, with funding already being cut and the end of the Barnett Formula surely looming, the opposition benches will seem a very attractive place for Labour to stay. Why endure all the stress of actually having to do things yourself in difficult times, when you could just pick up the same wage for sniping from the sidelines and wait for things to get better?
So the idea of “Devo Nano” as a start, rather than an end, is a fantasy. Johann Lamont has already explicitly said it represents the absolute greatest amount of devolution up with which she is prepared to put. The Scotsman is fooling nobody but itself. But interestingly, it seems to be the only paper in Scotland still clinging on to a shred of hope for the mythical “devo max”.
Pretty soon now, everyone else is going to have to pick a side.