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Why Labour doesn’t want devo max

Posted on January 30, 2012 by

You can’t heave a brick into the Scottish political media and blogosphere without hitting half-a-dozen Labour MPs, MSPs or activists all claiming that they belong to the party of devolution. This self-awarded title is based on the premise that Labour “gave” Scotland the limited degree of home rule it currently enjoys. It’s a premise of dubious merit – given that it was the Scottish electorate which actually made it happen by voting for it – but let’s be generous for a moment and treat it as truth.

Labour also regularly claims ownership of the phrase “devolution is a process, not an event” – although despite it being commonly attributed to Donald Dewar (whom the party self-aggrandisingly dubbed the “Father Of The Nation” in much the same way that Michael Jackson presumptuously crowned himself “King Of Pop”), the term was in fact coined by the former Welsh Secretary, the pre-disgrace Ron Davies.

So how can it be that Labour is suddenly so desperate to disown and deny the thing it claims so proudly to have invented? Because the party’s extraordinary outbreak of poisonous hostility towards devolution as an ongoing process – in the shape of its advanced forms, so-called “devo plus” or “devo max” – since the SNP won a majority in the Scottish Parliament can only be interpreted, on any sort of remotely rational examination, as a complete reversal of its entire ideology on the subject. But why?

Devo max is, in poll after poll after poll, currently the Scottish people’s most favoured constitutional choice. On that nobody disagrees. But Scottish Labour has been so spectacularly and deftly manoeuvred off this ground by Alex Salmond in the last eight months that it now finds itself in the absurd position of actively and bitterly opposing the policy it has advocated since 1999, and which most of its own supporters also back. Pitifully, the party’s leader Johann Lamont is now reduced to feebly offering the Scottish electorate a vague promise of some extra powers, sometime, somehow, with neither the powers nor the schedule nor the method specified.

(Which makes a hypocritical mockery of the party’s obsessive demands that the SNP must detail every last microscopic “i” and “t” and “p” and “q” of life in an independent Scotland before the referendum, as if independence would grant the Nats the right to govern Scotland and determine its policies in perpetuity.)

But let’s take a quick look at just how illogical and unviable that position is. To actually make good on their “promise” and deliver this undefined greater devolution to the Scottish people at some unknown point in the future rather than now, what would Labour have to do? The list is considerable:

1. For a start, it would need to decide which powers it wanted to give the Scottish Parliament. As we’re talking about a party that recently spent three years looking for an alternative to the Council Tax as the means of funding local government, only to eventually throw up its hands in defeat and offer no ideas whatsoever, that’s no small job in itself. At a bare minimum, then, we’d better allow four years for any sort of blueprint for Devolution 2.0 to take shape.

2. Then it would have to secure a democratic mandate for the proposals by winning control of the Scottish Parliament. A great many Labour supporters have all but conceded the 2016 election already, and while an awful lot can happen in four years it’s about as easy to see Hamilton Accies winning the SPL as Lamont being the next First Minister. (Lamont could of course go the way of Wendy Alexander and be ditched without fighting an election, but who on Earth would they replace her with?) So we’re probably up to 2020 at the earliest.

3. To be able to actually implement the changes, Labour needs control of both Parliaments. So the party would need to win a UK General Election too (because an SNP-controlled Holyrood could reject any new Scotland Bill from Westminster in the way it may well reject the current one – Labour would never be able to resist imposing terms the SNP would refuse to countenance, such as the return of planning controls to Westminster to enable the building of new nuclear power stations). And again, even the most optimistic Labour cheerleader can’t be realistically placing that any earlier than 2020.

So throw in a year or two to get the bill actually through Parliament and we’re already at least a decade (and a whole load of luck) away from Labour being able to make good on their pledge, uphold the wishes of the majority of Scots and devolve any more powers to Edinburgh. And in reality, Labour’s trajectory in Scotland seems locked in freefall – the party currently looks more likely to crumble into complete irrelevance by 2022 than storm back to power.

(In so far as we can detect any coherent strategy operating in the nerve centre of Scottish Labour at all, it’s counting on a No vote in the referendum damaging the SNP so badly that Labour would be able to win Holyrood in 2016. But we already know that around 40% of SNP voters in 2011 didn’t back independence and voted for the SNP on the basis of competent domestic governance, so that seems like deluded fantasy.)

Of course, there’s a much easier way. Labour could throw together an enhanced-devolution package right now (or let civic Scotland do it, or even pinch whatever the Lib Dems’ much-derided “Home Rule” commission comes up with), call the SNP’s bluff and force it onto the referendum ballot paper, and very likely win it. Any imperfections in the plans could be thrashed out in the negotiations with the UK Government which would have to follow – the SNP would have to grit its teeth and allow Labour a big voice in the discussions, as the “owners” of the victorious option. (The boost to Labour’s popularity might even make success in the 2016 Holyrood election a believable scenario, strengthening its hand further.)

If Labour truly believed in the ongoing “process” of devolution, it’d be a no-brainer. They’d be near-certain to secure a popular mandate for a popular policy backed by most of their own voters, from opposition, while at the same time making it much harder for the SNP to secure a Yes vote to independence. It would be a political triumph on a par with the SNP’s 2011 landslide – even if they didn’t get all their demands from the coalition, they’d be bound to achieve at least some substantial advances, to the gratitude of the Scottish electorate. So why aren’t they doing it?

The only conceivable reason (if for the sake of argument we discount the actual most likely one, namely that the party is so utterly blinded and paralysed by hatred of the SNP it just can’t think straight) is that Labour, just like the Tories, doesn’t actually want devolution to go any further at all. And there are two main driving forces behind its fear of the prospect.

Firstly, because horrified by the idea of ceding any additional power to possible future SNP governments it’s reflexively retreating behind its safety blanket – the status quo, where if the nasty Nats threaten to shake things up too much Labour can always run to Mummy Westminster, knowing that even if the Tories are in power the Unionist parties all share a single voice when it comes to Scotland.

And secondly, because the reality of the situation is plain – the people with by far the most to lose from greater Scottish devolution are Labour MPs and MSPs. The former because their influence at Westminster would almost certainly be reduced significantly in the devo-max negotiations: the Tories would demand a solution to the West Lothian Question as the price for granting greater powers to Holyrood (marginalising Labour’s Scottish delegation by isolating them from a large percentage of UK Parliamentary business), and/or a further reduction in the number of Scottish MPs altogether. And the latter because either of those scenarios would make the beefed-up Scottish Parliament grow enormously in attractiveness to Labour MPs (compared to staying in the Commons in their much-diminished roles) and lead to a brutal cull of the, let’s be kind to them, B-team which occupies the Holyrood benches at present.

There’s no other intellectually coherent explanation of Labour so furiously fighting against the best chance it will ever have to secure the policy it still publicly claims to believe in. If you want a clear democratic mandate for enhanced devolution, a referendum is overwhelmingly the best possible way to get it. (And doubly so if you’re not in power.) The alternative option means waiting half a generation or more to even have a chance of progress, and perhaps much longer. So ask yourself the question: what exactly is it about devo max that Labour’s so afraid of?

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12 to “Why Labour doesn’t want devo max”

  1. ianbeag says:

    A good analysis and articulates their quandry.  Why don't you submit the article to LabourHame for the worthies over there to test their responses.  They probably would not permit it's publication since it would impinge on too many raw nerves. Worth a try.

  2. RevStu says:

    I’ve tried offering friendly advice to LabourHame before. Oddly, they declined.

  3. TYRAN says:

    None of the London parties want devo max or top rung powers to Scotland or they'd of went along with it right now and possibly stopped independence in the process. All this, "you cannot do it during this thing" I think is nonsense.    
    With independence outcome, there is nothing they can do. They cannot say you aren't getting such and such powers. It is outwith their control now. Game is over.
    With devo max outcome, they have to do something. Then there are big problems over all these things like taxes, oil, broadcasting, etc. coming to Scotland-only control. They just don't want to give these away. 
    So they'd rather have independence outcome as worst case scenario than devo max thingy. That's what I feel anyway.

  4. John Böttcher says:

    It's because "devo-max", or rather full fiscal autonomy would cause the collapse of the British State. It's completely unworkable from a Westminster perspective. Different tax regimes? Different Social Security? No votes for Scottish M.P.'s on purely English legislation? How would that work? It wouldn't.
    The contradictions are so great, the entire system would collapse unless the U.K. constitution could become federal – which the Tories will never, ever allow. If Westminster is no longer Soveriegn representing the Crown, what's it for?
    So called "Devo-Max" is a poisoned chalice. It would lead to the break up of the U.K. within 4-5 years.
    Salmond has played an absolute blinder in this: it's a huge trap the Unionists can ignore at there peril – or accept it as a possibility by defining it and putting it forward on a referendum – then fall into the trap anyway.

  5. John Böttcher says:

    D'oh for the above post, the internets maked my grammar and spellings bad!

  6. Bugger (the Panda) says:

    I have said this on other sites before.
    DevoMax or any variant needs to be proposed as a coherent package, defined and guaranteed to be implemented no matter which of the three parties are in power at the point when it is supposed to be put in place. Only the three major unionist parties can offer it, Salmond has no mandate for it.
    Therein lies a bear trap for the SNP.
    Can the 3 parties agree a common front?
    Can they actually offer 1 version of anything short of indpendence without it being the status quo?
    If there is some half baked undefined alternative concocted and on the ref ballot paper, the Sir Humphries would spin the definition out until the end of the Universe.
    Cameron has already "Euro-vetoed" any increase in devolved powers and so his implied position is that he wants the status quo. He is playing a dangerous game with his United Kingdom.
    I wpould put a small wager on a simple yes / no question on independence and then bloody interminable byzantine negotiations on dividing the family silver.
    In my view

  7. Bugger (the Panda) says:

    There are some orphans in my above post. I havnae a clue where they came from and how to edit them.

  8. Morag says:

    I don't see why that's a bear trap for the SNP.  The SNP is well aware that it has no power to deliver devo-max, and has merely said that it is open to adding such an option to the ballot if it is proposed and defined and backed by one or more of the other parties.
    If there is no amendment proposed by a party in a position to offer devo-max, it won't be on the ballot paper.  And if Salmond has played this chess game as well as his past form indicates, everyone will know who is to blame and it will not be him.

  9. DougtheDug says:

    The only conceivable reason…is that Labour, just like the Tories, doesn't actually want devolution to go any further at all.

    I think that you're right about Labour's reluctance to give Scotland any more powers. They had their chance with Calman and all they could think up was raising the Scottish variable rate from 3p in the pound to 10p in the pound.

    Calman was meant to be the show stopper. The expectation was that with an SNP minority Government in 2011 or even better a Labour minority/majority in the Scottish Parliament then the Scotland Act would be the grand prize of devolution and devolution could be put to bed for another decade and could be safely ignored by Labour for the next two to three UK or Scottish elections.

    When the SNP won a majority Government in 2011 it put the cat among the pigeons because there was no Plan B for devolution with powers way beyond the limited mess of Calman in either the Labour locker or the Lib-Dem locker.

    As you've pointed out Labour are dead against any more devolution of power to Scotland. But they're now in a cleft stick as the only way that they could have differentiated themselves from the Tory, "No", campaign would have been devo-max but they don't want any more power to go to Scotland and they don't have time to think up some scheme which delivers nothing but appears to do something like Calman.

    Cameron has said he doesn't want devo-max full stop, on or off the ballot paper. The silence from Labour has been deafening. It was Ed Milliband's big chance to put clear blue water between Labour and the Tories in his speech today with the chance to step in and differentiate between the two parties by endorsing devo-max as a future solution.

    But they've said nothing because they can say nothing.

  10. Siôn Eurfyl Jones says:

    Ron Daavies, the former Wales Secretatry who coined 'devolution is a process not an event' is now a member of Plaid Cymru. 

  11. Bugger (the Panda) says:

    What I really meant was that there could be a an enormous and concerted pressure to push them into such a position.
    I suspect that will be the unionist fall back position as the status quo option becomes more and more exposed as a load of. They will use every possible emotional argument that could be argued and a lot of people could be swayed by it. There are a lot of voters who get their voting clues from the DR, Sun and the BBC.
    Another wee point is that if you look at the politcially coloured map of Holyrood, the Blue is only painted in the borders area. Is that perhaps where most of the people who have moved from England have settled?

  12. Morag says:

    I think it's going to be very strange if the unionists do a u-turn and start pushing the SNP to put a devo-max question on the ballot paper, even now – if that's what you mean.  I don't see it as such a danger, myself.

    Another wee point is that if you look at the politcially coloured map of Holyrood, the Blue is only painted in the borders area. Is that perhaps where most of the people who have moved from England have settled?

    I'm in the Borders, and no not really.  There aren't that many English people, and quite a lot of the ones that have been here for a while vote SNP anyway.  I'm far more worried about the home-grown Tories!  And actually, not that worried about them either.
    Also, it's only two constituencies, one of which (Galloway) has returned SNP MPs in the past.  And besides, the third Conservative constituency is in Ayr.  So the thesis doesn't really hold up.
    Finally, bear in mind that every single constituency in the South of Scotland returned an SNP majority on the list vote.  (Only 4 constituencies didn't – Shetland and three Labour strongholds in the Central Belt.)  So don't give up on the Borderers yet.

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