The Scottish media is predictably excited about Gordon Brown’s latest intervention in the independence debate. Giving a speech at the Edinburgh Book Festival, the Kirkcaldy MP who’s barely turned up in Parliament to represent his constituents in the two-and-a-quarter years since being deposed as Prime Minister abandoned any pretence at a positive case for the Union and presented a doom-laden picture of a future Scotland slashing pensions, welfare and defence while increasing taxes.
The No camp’s united policy on the Scottish constitution, in so far as one can be ascertained at all, is that the Scottish people should reject independence and then rely on Westminster to give Holyrood more powers, though the campaign steadfastly resists any clarification on what those powers might be.
But the remarkable and eye-opening thing about the former PM’s dire vision regarding pensions, welfare, defence and taxation was that it professed – despite the Scotsman’s clumsily inaccurate headline and confused and contradictory text – to describe a future Scotland not under independence, but so-called “devo-max”.
So if we take Brown as an authoritative spokesman on Scottish Labour policy – and it seems eminently reasonable to do so – we can safely assume that the only other party with even a chance of power in either Holyrood or Westminster has no intention of devolving anything substantial to Scotland any time soon. The petty tinkering of the Calman Commission/Scotland Act does indeed appear to be the limit of devolutionary ambition. And if you think about it, it’s hard to see how it could be any other way.
Because the interesting thing about the “Vote No for more powers” line that the Unionist coalition is trying to sell the Scottish electorate is how quickly it falls apart under the slightest scrutiny. There is, as Brown revealed yesterday, no combination of future Westminster and Holyrood governments under which it’s plausible to envisage any serious transfer of powers. And to illustrate that, let’s take a quick look at the various possibilities following a hypothetical No vote in 2014.
(NB We’re assuming majority governments, but the scenarios are fundamentally unchanged in the event of a coalition or minority administration in either Parliament.)
LABOUR WIN WESTMINSTER, SNP WIN HOLYROOD
As opinion polls currently stand, this will be the outcome of the 2015 and 2016 general elections on respective sides of the border. (In reality we don’t think there’s the slightest chance of UK voters choosing Ed Miliband as their next Prime Minister when it comes to the crunch, but this is a theoretical exercise.)
Hands up, then, if you can genuinely see a Labour government in Westminster handing fiscal autonomy, or anything remotely close to it, to a third SNP administration in Edinburgh. Exactly.
TORIES WIN WESTMINSTER, SNP WIN HOLYROOD
Again, the notion of the Tories voluntarily surrendering serious powers to the SNP is simply ludicrous. Let’s waste no more time on it and move on.
TORIES WIN WESTMINSTER, LABOUR WIN HOLYROOD
Let’s say the Tories hold Westminster because they’ve managed to bring some sort of stability to the economy in the next three years, or at least enough to keep the relatively comfortable swing voters of Middle England onside. And let’s speculate that defeat in the referendum has seen the SNP implode, perhaps rent asunder by a massive schism between fundamentalists and gradualists, and that Scottish Labour has seized its opportunity.
(We don’t think there’s even a ghost of a chance of that actually happening, but again we’re examining all possible theoretical combinations here.)
Once more, the reality of the situation is so stupefyingly obvious that it’s slightly insulting to intelligent readers like this site’s even to spell it out. David Cameron handing major financial powers to Johann Lamont? Yeah, right.
LABOUR WIN WESTMINSTER, LABOUR WIN HOLYROOD
This, of course, is the Utopia that Scottish Labour is desperate to have the electorate believe in. But yet again, even if you accept the frankly demented notion of the people of the UK really choosing Ed Miliband and Johann Lamont as their dream team, the fantasy crumbles at the slightest touch.
Any halfway-attentive observer of politics already knows that Holyrood is the dumping ground of Labour’s B, C and D teams. Its MSPs are such a source of embarrassment to the grown-up London party that Miliband infamously couldn’t even name all three of its Scottish leadership candidates at the end of 2011. Does anyone honestly believe that if it managed to get the levers of British power in the House Of Commons into the hands of its A-team again, Labour would willingly pass control of any of them to the likes of Richard Baker?
What Gordon Brown revealed in stark and explicit detail yesterday is that Labour considers the concept of any further degree of meaningful autonomy for Holyrood to be a nightmare scenario. (Probably at least partly for the reasons outlined in the paragraph above.) Of the four even remotely plausible outcomes of the next UK and Scottish general elections, three immediately rationally preclude any major transfer of powers, and Brown just unequivocally torpedoed the other one.
This won’t come as any surprise to most of us, and it certainly explains why Johann Lamont is so pathologically unwilling to specify which powers might be transferred to the Scottish Parliament after a No vote. But it’s not until you lay out the possible permutations of UK politics in 2016, as we’ve just done, that the “Vote No for more powers” pitch is fully exposed as the cynical lie that it is.
Let’s be clear, then: there is absolutely no chance of Scotland gaining any significant additional control over its affairs in the forseeable future if it votes No to independence. If anyone ever tries to tell you otherwise, direct them to Brown’s speech and then to the four scenarios outlined above, and ask them: which one would lead to London transferring worthwhile powers to Edinburgh, what would those powers be, and how likely it is that Westminster MPs will consider that MSPs would handle them better than they would themselves?
Doesn’t bear much examination, does it? That’s the real reason the Unionist parties won’t back an enhanced-devolution option in the referendum, and why there won’t be one. The choice will be between independence and the status quo, and the latter option will mean precisely that – the status quo, as it stands now, and will continue to stand for decades into the future. Take your pick.