Keeping it simple

A proposal has been made by Chris Hanlon, formerly the chief of SNP policy, to have a three way referendum with the option of “Devo Max” being included on the ballot paper in the next referendum alongside the options of independence or the status quo. Chris was making the proposal in a personal capacity, it is most definitely not the preference of the Scottish Government or the SNP.

What he has proposed is very similar to the suggestion made a few weeks ago by the Alba party MP Kenny Macaskill that the next referendum should include the choice of what Macaskill called “Home Rule” alongside the binary choice of yes or no to independence.

It’s fair to say that Macaskill’s idea was not well received. Even many Alba party supporters on social media were aghast at the suggestion, and it was rejected outright by senior figures in the SNP just as Chris Hanlon’s proposal has been given short shrift by senior people in the SNP such as the SNP President and former constitutional affairs secretary Michael Russell and SNP MSP Kevin Stewart,the Scottish Government minister for mental well-being and social care, who derided the idea as “idiotic, foolish, nonsensical.” Why don’t you tell us what you really think, eh Kevin?

The suggestion was likewise soundly rejected by a large majority of readers of the independence supporting newspaper The National, in an online poll, 91% of respondents disagreed with the idea that there should be a third devo-max option on the independence referendum ballot paper with just 9% supporting it. When Kenny Macaskill aired the idea he suggested it might be a a way around what he claimed was the “constitutional impasse ” of a “deeply divided” nation. Well he was certainly right about it being a way to unite people on Scotland’s constitutional question, because just about everyone thinks that his idea was rubbish.

There are many reasons why Hanlon and Macaskill’s suggestion is a non starter. It is indeed idiotic, foolish, and nonsensical. First of all there is the problem that no one knows what devo max /home rule actually means. Supporters of the idea of a third option on the ballot can’t even agree on what to call it. Far less can anyone agree on what it would mean in practice. For some it would mean a status similar to that of the Faroe Islands or Greenland within Denmark, which are independent in all important aspects except defence and foreign affairs. Greenland is even outwith the European Union even though it retains its constitutional ties to EU member state Denmark.

Others see devo max as some sort of federal or quasi-federal arrangement where Scotland would still send MPs to a Westminster which only dealt with issues defined as federal. Under this arrangement Scotland would have greater taxation and revenue raising powers but would remain a part of the UK and remain outside the European Single Market and Customs Union. We’d also still be stuck with Trident missiles on the Clyde.

The original understanding of Home Rule when the phrase first entered the vocabulary of the Scottish constitutional debate back in the late 19th century was for Scotland to become a dominion of the crown like other self-governing parts of the British Empire such as Australia or Canada. Essentially it meant full independence but with Scotland retaining the British monarch as its head of state and remaining militarily allied to the British Empire. A modern version of this conception of home rule would allow Scotland to rejoin the EU if it chose, but it would not in any practical sense be different from full independence and therefore there would be no need to have it as a separate option on the ballot in a future independence referendum.

There are yet other ideas about what devo max or Home rule might mean. During the final days of the 2014 independence referendum campaign, Better Together supporters insisted that Gordon Brown’s infamous vow amounted to “devo max”, an assessment that was enthusiastically taken up by BBC Scotland. As we all know, it was later proven to be no such thing.

In order for it to appear on the ballot paper as an option in a future referendum devo max / home rule would have to be precisely defined and agreed upon by both the pro and anti-independence sides in a future referendum campaign. We cannot have devo max or home rule or whatever you want to call it on the ballot paper unless we know exactly what it means and we have no doubts about what we are voting for.

That’s going to be no easy matter when dealing with Anglo-British nationalist parties like the Conservatives or the avowedly “British patriotic” Labour party of Keir Starmer who define devo max as the absolute minimum that they can get away with in order to placate those in Scotland who want greater powers for the Scottish Parliament but who are not entirely sold on the idea of full independence.

This means there can be no place for Westminster’s weasel words and get out clauses in the definition of devo max. We saw what happened with the promise that no Westminster government would ever tamper with the powers of Holyrood without the consent of the Scottish Parliament. This became a clause in the new Scotland Act saying Westminster would not “normally” change the powers of Holyrood, and the Conservative Government went on to define “not normally” as “whenever we feel like it”. It also obtained a ruling from the UK Supreme court that the clause was effectively meaningless.

However even if a cast iron wriggle room free definition of devo max could be agreed upon by all parties, that leaves us with the fundamental problem that should this devo max prove to be the winning option in a future referendum we would still have to trust a Conservative dominated Westminster to implement it. There is absolutely no chance of the aggressively Anglo-British nationalist Conservatives agreeing to the restrictions and reductions of the powers of the Westminster Parliament that meaningful devo max would entail.

They had no problem reneging on their agreements with the EU, they would not hesitate for a second to renege on their agreements with the Scottish Government about the definition of devo max. They have proven time and time again that they are a bad faith actor, the inclusion of a devo max option would merely give them yet another opportunity to demonstrate their perfidy all over again. It’s not even like they are ashamed of it, as Dominic Cummings recently admitted “cheating the foreigners” is a part and parcel of the job description of a British prime minister.

The Tories would announce that the referendum result was merely “advisory” and kick it into the long grass with a royal commission which would then eventually deliver a report recommending something which it would insist on calling “devo max” but which had been eviscerated and watered down out of all recognition. This report would then in turn be watered down even further in committees in the Commons and in the Lords. Eventually a bill would be passed giving the Scottish Parliament the power to slightly alter the timing in the red-amber-green sequence of traffic lights and Westminster would triumphantly announce that devo max had been delivered.

The next referendum must be a simple binary choice – independence yes or no? It’s only by keeping it simple that we can avoid being cheated yet again by a deceitful, lying, and untrustworthy Conservative party.

Please note there won’t be a blog tomorrow as I have my physiotherapy appointment and as usual will be wiped out afterwards. I will try and do something on Friday if I have recovered sufficient energy.

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