“More powers for Scotland – guaranteed.” In defending the Union the No campaign have been notably uncomfortable defending the status quo, instead trying to present a No vote as a vote for enhanced devolution within the UK. The “guaranteed” powers are simply a set of small reforms already agreed. But with all three No parties putting forward their own, albeit contradictory, proposals for further devolution, as well as federal ambitions outlined by Gordon Brown and Murdo Fraser, there is a sense of momentum behind further powers being deliberately created to appeal to those swing voters who were left frustrated at the exclusion of a Devo-Max option from the ballot.
We can have both, so this argument goes. Scotland can benefit from greater decision making power without the great ‘risk’ of independence. But risk is a funny thing. Voting No out of fear that independence is a risk is like refusing the offer of a brand new bike because you’re worried about being hit in traffic. Sure, it’s possible that you could get by a bus – but a lifetime of lethargy on the sofa is more likely to kill you. Independence might seem like a leap of faith but only if you ignore the risk of managed decline within the Union.
The response of the Yes campaign to the federal offerings has generally been to dismiss these proposals as a pre-referendum bribe that will fail to find serious support following a Yes vote. This is not simply a debating point – any extension of the Scottish Parliament’s powers would depend on the support of MPs from the rest of the UK. It is hard to imagine circumstances in which Scotland would vote No and backbench Tories would then line up to give Scotland further autonomy.
But if we imagine that federalism could be achieved, is it desirable? In arguing for greater devolution, the anti-independence parties endorse the central argument of the Yes campaign – that decisions about Scotland should be made in Scotland – while insisting that many decisions about Scotland should be made elsewhere.
Generally, devo-max is understood as the ‘everything but’ option. A devo-max Scotland would stop short of the trappings of nationhood, sharing defence and lacking independent citizenship or a diplomatic network, but would have complete control over as much as could feasibly be devolved. Former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell has even gone so far as to suggest that Scotland could have its own independent immigration policy while remaining in the UK.
The proposals put forward by the No parties are pitiful in comparison. A bit of leeway of tax-varying powers might be beneficial to Scottish policymakers but it is hardly life changing. But then, maybe that’s the point. And there’s a huge contradiction between the insistence that independence is a grave threat and that greater Scottish autonomy
If Scotland votes Yes, one Labour politician tells us, then border posts will need to be set-up to deal with differing immigration systems; if Scotland votes No, another Labour politician tells us, we can have our own immigration system within the UK. Sharing a currency while having divergent fiscal policies would lead to economic collapse, a Tory politician tells us; but Scotland should have much greater freedom over economic policy after a No vote, another Tory politician tells us.
The central benefit of remaining in the UK put forward by the No campaign – that the Union allows us to pool resources and share risk and reward – would be completely undermined should Scotland pool resources for only a shrinking set of government functions in this imagined federal future.
It is possible to imagine a federal settlement that would deal with many of the problems that Scotland, and Britain, face. The English regions would benefit greatly from the sort of autonomy that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already have. Reforms to the way Westminster functions – the introduction of proportional representation or an elected second chamber, for example – would drag British politics into the modern age. But the idea that a No vote is a vote for this sort of change is self-evidently ludicrous. The very best – the very best – we are being offered is a gradual transfer of powers from Westminster to Holyrood.
This approach might massage the fears of those who see a Yes in September as a risk. But the risk of waiting is great too. How many more Scottish children will be born into poor households while Holyrood waits for job-creating powers? How many families will struggle to afford the basics while Holyrood waits for power over wages? How many disabled Scots will suffer under unfair benefit sanctions while Holyrood waits for power over welfare? How many more years will we have to wait for Trident to be decommissioned? How many more years of unelected Tory governments will we have to endure?
If we’re to believe that September’s vote is a choice between all powers and some powers, then what powers, exactly, should we not demand?
Image from Documenting Yestival