Why are we even talking about devo max again? In Scotland today, a vote for Labour is first and foremost a vote against self-determination for the people of Scotland. As the demographic trend towards independence continues, the Labour Party in Scotland finds itself battling the Conservatives for a dwindling hard Unionist vote, largely in older age groups. They would like to be in a position to challenge the SNP but that looks like a distant prospect.
Anas Sarwar’s strident Unionism is not polling well – a recent Opinium poll showed Labour’s revival south of the border is not matched in Scotland – they are predicted to get just one seat in a General Election. The May council elections will be another test and the omens are not good for Labour.
Labour leader Keir Stamer is waiting for, or rather banking on, the result of Gordon Brown’s Commission on the Constitution and says that he does not support the status quo. The Labour Party may then try to break the political deadlock by moving to a more nuanced position – such as that they support another referendum if devo max is on the ballot paper – but it won’t be.
They may see devo max as positioning themselves as being in the political centre. There is evidence that if you offer people three choices – eg “large”, “medium” and “small” drinks, people will choose the middle one regardless of what they would select without that prompt.
If the devo max position had been adopted straight after the 2014 referendum, as promised in the Vow, it might have helped Labour to hang onto more of their support. But now, it seems too little too late. How could Scotland vote No for a second time based on the same promise made in 2014 but never delivered? Here are five major reasons why devo max is not a good option in the Scottish context.
1 Devo max can’t address the Brexit issue
A lot of people voted No in 2014 largely because they thought that was the best way to preserve Scotland’s EU membership. One of Better Together’s strongest arguments was that a newly independent Scotland might find itself out in the cold for years. (Insert image of Better Together’s Tweet about indy Scotland being out of the EU.)
In the 2016 EU referendum, there was a clear division between Scotland and England. Scotland voted 62% Remain and every council area in Scotland voted to Remain. Only a third of voters and a much smaller percentage of the total electorate than in England voted to leave the EU.
And yet this huge constitutional change was forced upon Scotland without any attempt to respect its democratic will. The Scottish Government’s offers of a compromise – something like the NI protocol were dismissed out of hand.
Brexit is hurting Scotland’s economy. The only part of the UK that exports more than it imports, since Brexit, its export trade has suffered a major hit. Imports are becoming more expensive, pushing up the cost of food and consumer goods. Supply chains have proved most vulnerable at their endpoint – rural areas in the Highlands and Islands which have seen repeated breakdowns in supply.
Scotland’s agriculture, food production, hospitality, and care sectors have been hit by the exodus of EU staff. Not being able to recruit from the pool of EU citizens is pushing many of these industries to breaking point.
Opportunities for Scots are also much reduced – the ability to live and work freely across Europe has gone. Looking across the water, we can see Ireland’s people embracing everything the EU has to offer; from opening Irish bars in European towns, to encouraging the young to aspire to be the next Ursula von der Leyen (the Irish Government “A Career for EU” strategy aims to increase the number of Irish people working in EU institutions).
2 Devo max can’t deal with immigration
One of the events of last year that will make it into the history books was the Kenmore Street protest when a peaceful crowd surrounded a van that was attempting to deport two people from the area, eventually winning their release.
The UK Government’s “hostile environment” has little support north of the border. Scotland has an aging population. It needs to attract young and talented people to come here in order to build a strong society. But the Home Office mandates that asylum seekers and refugees who live in Scotland can’t work – despite evidence that this is the best way for them to integrate and that they often have a great deal to offer their communities. The EU is adopting a much more enlightened policy on this.
This week, Bloomberg ran a story headed Migrants Are Saving Germany From a U.K.-Style Trucker Shortage reporting that a quarter of German trucks are now driven by migrant workers who also fill a quarter of chef roles.
Another example – Scottish universities are now much less able to attract EU staff and students and their ability to offer work visas to global international students post study is under Home Office control.
3 Devo max would not confirm the“Rights of the Child”
In 2021, the Scottish Parliament ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law. This was the culmination of many years of work by children’s rights campaigners. Any attempt to protect children from abuse starts from a position of respecting their human rights as individuals.
This convention is the most widely recognised in the world. It mandates that children have a right to be consulted over decisions that concern them. They have a right to housing, food and education.
These rights were unanimously accepted by every party in Holyrood. But the UK Government chose to go to court over it. There may be cases, for example, where the UK’s determination to deport children and families could conflict with the Convention.
In October, the UK Government succeeded in establishing that because the UK Constitution rests on the principle of Westminster’s Parliamentary Sovereignty, Holyrood could not ratify this convention.
4 Devo max can’t get rid of Trident
Devo max would leave defence in the hands of Westminster. They would retain Trident at its base in Scotland. It is unlikely that any area of England would consent to have nuclear submarines based there. With defence being one of the powers that would still be reserved to Westminster not only nuclear weapons policy but the decision to send troops to war would be out of Scotland’s hands.
Devo max would indeed leave all of the great offices of state in the hands of the UK Government. Whatever its political colour, Westminster would appoint the Secretaries of State for defence and foreign affairs, it would appoint the UK’s representatives abroad such as ambassadors, consuls, people nominated to international bodies and committees. It would determine the policy choices for the UK at state level, whether that was NATO, the UN or climate change conferences. History suggests that these choices would often be against Scotland’s wishes.
5 Pensions would still be subject to Westminster cuts
The UK Government pays the worst state pension in the developed world and has recently broken its Manifesto pledge and removed the triple lock protection on state pensions which will see Scottish pensioners lose £520 in 2022, and a cumulative £2,600 over the next five years. In direct comparison, the Scottish independence movement is campaigning for a pension rise in an independent Scotland to £200.00 from the standard basic UK pension of £137.60 a week.
We have seen over recent years how defenceless Scotland is against a hostile UK Government determined to cut pensions and Scotland budgets in real terms with austerity budgets. Westminster has declined to pass to Holyrood the powers that have come back through Brexit, even the ones that were already supposedly devolved, making its own decisions about Scotland’s spending priorities without consulting Holyrood.
UK Government in 2014 rejected the opportunity to add Devo Max to the ballot paper – probably because polling shows it would be likely to split the No vote more than Yes. On the eve of that vote, the Gordon Brown made a Vow that devo max would effectively be delivered anyway. It wasn’t. Devo max won’t be on the ballot paper in 2023 either and Scotland wont fall for that trick twice.
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