Earlier this week we noticed the curious lack of media coverage of the “Devo Nano” report. As the document spelling out Labour’s “more powers” offer to Scotland in the event of a No vote, its release was ostensibly the most important milestone so far in the independence debate, so we found it very strange to see it get such a muted reception, particularly from the Daily Record.
Two days later the explanation arrived, in the form of the so-called “Red Paper”. Described by some journalists as a “mini-manifesto”, it was a 64-page uncosted wishlist of vague feelgood notions like reducing child poverty. (A brave, daring and controversial step there to be sure.) And this time the papers were all over it.
The odd thing was that even Labour weren’t overplaying the glossy pamphlet.
“Sarwar said the document was not a manifesto: many of its pledges, such as plans to pay NHS staff a living wage and increase free childcare, were not detailed or fully costed. Those would be set out before the 2015 and 2016 elections. ‘This is not a manifesto: it’s an ambitions document,’ he said.”
An “ambitions document”? Even in politician-speak that’s a wishy-washy phrase, meaning “We’d kind of like to do some of this stuff, but we’re not committing ourselves to anything”, but to the press it was akin to the Ten Commandments.
“Scottish Labour unveil radical vision for a fairer Scotland in battle for country’s future”, blared the Daily Record, though the document offered nothing even remotely matching that description. An even more over-the-top leader column proclaimed it the magic bullet that shot the independence fox:
Labour’s Red Paper offers undecided voters a road map to a fairer Scotland with crackdowns on poverty and a share in prosperity. It is a Scottish document which outlines how it is possible to take different approaches on key issues north of the Border while still working together across the whole UK.
And yet it was plainly none of those things. Its few concrete proposals (eg those concerning the living wage, abolishing the bedroom tax and introducing a 10p tax band) are wholly dependent on the election of a co-operative Labour government at Westminster – an outcome which appears to be growing less likely by the day – not areas where “different approaches” can be taken north and south of the border.
And in any direct comparison with the White Paper, the Labour effort comes off very poorly indeed. Take for example the respective pledges on childcare. The “Red Paper” sets out its aspirations (Essentially, “We think more childcare would be a good thing”) in just nine paragraphs spread thinly across pages 14 and 36.
Not once is the cost of the policy mentioned, nor where the money is to be found. By comparison, the White Paper is clear and specific on both.
Among scores of other mentions, pages 78 and 79 (electronic edition) of “Scotland’s Future” specify both the anticipated cost of the SNP’s improvements (£500-600m) and where the money will come from. Whether one accepts the figures or not, they’re at least there to be scrutinised, which is more than the “Red Paper” manages. It’s a sharp contrast all right, just in the opposite direction to the Record’s claim.
The rest of the Labour document is just as vacuous. It promises to “build on the success of Scotland’s national parks”, without elaborating on what that might possibly mean. It talks of transforming education, alongside not one but two graphics promising to “half” things. (The verb form of reducing something by 50% is “halve”, halfwits.)
Much of the “Red Paper”, whose official name is “Together We Can”, is in fact padded out with graphics suggesting that we cannae. Dire stats about demographic timebombs and fiscal deficits which will be very familiar to students of “Better Together” literature, litter the pages in a gloomy red-on-grey livery, without even the smallest print hinting at the sources of the data.
(By comparison, the White Paper is stuffed with footnotes and references backing almost every figure it cites. The “Endnotes” section alone, containing clickable links for every annotation, runs to 34 pages.)
We could go on, but to do so would miss the point. It’s self-evidently absurd to put out a meaningless wishlist of hopes for an election that’s still more than two years away, within 48 hours of the document you’re counting on to win a referendum in just six months’ time. Unless, that is, you know the document is such a lame duck that you want to distract people’s attention from it.
The Devo Nano report has been almost uniformly rubbished by anyone who’s bothered to talk about it at all. Even diehard Labour activist Ian Smart, well-known to readers of this parish, called it “a complete mess” of nonsensical “posturing”, while our other best friend Euan McColm writes in Scotland on Sunday (the paper which has tried hardest to make a silk purse of the Devo Nano sow’s ear) calling it “an unloaded gun. But that doesn’t matter because there’s nobody in the party itching to pull the trigger”.
McColm (a deeply unpleasant human but not an idiot) concurs with our own analysis that Labour has deliberately and cynically pledged to devolve only powers which can never be used in practice:
“It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the commission has attempted to appear bold by suggesting something that would never be enacted”
On Thursday we published several posts analysing different aspects of the Devo Nano report, inserting a picture of squirrel to hopefully-comic effect in each one to signify places where Labour hoped people wouldn’t look too closely at all the yawning chasms in its reasoning. The “Red Paper”, a brightly-coloured decoy seemingly rushed out with the sole purpose of burying Devo Nano before anyone realised what a shambles it was, is the biggest squirrel of all.