Labour and devo max: Flogging a dead distraction

Labour MSP Alex Rowley has called for “home rule” to be considered as part of the ongoing debate around a second independence referendum. The MSP said that “all options” should be on the table as part of the ongoing debate around a second independence referendum, and that devo max should be included alongside yes and no options.

It’s progress of sorts that a representative from the Labour party is prepared to put his head above the parapet and challenge the Conservative enabling British nationalism which dominates in Labour’s Scottish branch office management and is at least acknowledging that a referendum needs to be had. Rowley thinks that including the option of devo-max in a multi-option referendum would allow Labour to differentiate itself from the Conservatives in the referendum campaign and would allow the party to participate in the constitutional debate in a way distinct from the Conservatives. Rowley conceded that it was difficult to see how Scotland’s constitutional debate could be resolved without another referendum.

To an outside observer it seems that Rowley’s proposal is aimed more at extricating the Labour party from between the independence rock and the Tory British nationalist hard place to which Anas Sarwar’s hard line and uncompromising unionism has confined it. Many in the party fear that Labour in Scotland could not survive being seen as allies of the Conservatives in a Better Together Mk 2. The experience of appearing on the same platform as the Tories in Better Together destroyed Labour’s previous electoral dominance in Scotland and saw it lose almost all its Westminster MPs. Labour has struggled to find a space for itself in Scotland’s post referendum political landscape, which is dominated by the constitutional issue and in which, whether you support or oppose it, you have to take the idea of Scottish independence seriously. The prospect of another referendum where Labour shares a platform with Johnson, Gove, Rees-Mogg and the Anglo-British nationalist Brextremists could consign Labour in Scotland to an oblivion from which there would be no escape.

Even Anas Sarwar has been trying to backtrack on his absolute rejection of Scotland’s democratic right to determine its own future, telling the BBC on Sunday that he is not opposed in principle to another independence referendum, explaining that he and his party stood during last year’s Holyrood election on a platform of opposition to another referendum during the term of this Parliament. Aye, so and you did, Anas, that’s just lovely, and that would be the election in which your party came third would it not. So let’s just file you under “sore loser who willnae take a telling.” The questions of whether to have another referendum and the timescale on which it would be held were decided by the electorate during that election.

Labour sees the offer of devo-max on the indyref ballot as its get out of jail free card for the next referendum, but for Scotland it would be a trap. There are several problems with the idea, problems which are insurmountable. First of all there is the problem of definition. What exactly is meant by the phrase “home rule” or devo max”? The Labour party’s idea of what it means is likely to be very different from the understanding of its meaning held by an independence supporter such as myself, and both those understandings are going to be different yet again from what a Conservative government at Westminster believes it to mean.

Even if a definition could be settled upon which all parties agreed on, we would still face the problem that if devo-max did indeed come out of the referendum as the preferred option of the Scottish electorate, we would have to rely on a Conservative government at Westminster which seeks to roll back the existing devolution settlement to implement this “neo devo max.” Good luck with that one. Or are we to be expected to hope that voters in England will vote for a Labour government to introduce devo max for us.

The essential problem here is that whereas independence is a decision for the people of Scotland alone to make, such a far reaching change to the devolution settlement requires a fundamental and permanent cession of powers from Westminter, and that will require the approval and consent of the English electorate. There is no evidence that there is sufficient support in England for such a radical set of constitutional changes.

More immediately,what guarantees would Scotland have that the proposal would not be eviscerated by the anti-independence parties following the defeat of independence in the referendum? We saw what happened to the Vow in the years following 2014. It turned out that the promise that no Westminster government would ever make changes to the devolution settlement without the express consent of the people of Scotland and their parliament was not worth the newsprint it was printed on. So how can we be certain that devo max would not go the exact same way. We can’t, is the short answer. If there is one thing that we can trust this Conservative government to do it is to lie, lie and lie again.

Even in the unlikely event that this devo max was implemented in full, how can Scotland be sure that it will not be undone by some future Westminster government? It is a fundamental tenet of Britain’s unwritten constitution that no government can bind the hands of a future parliament. The doctrine that “Parliament can do anything except bind its successor” is the official ideology of the British constitution. This means that even if devo max was agreed upon and fully implemented, there can be no guarantee that some future British Government will not decide to rip it up.

We saw this with the devolution settlement. The Sewel Convention which states that he UK Parliament “would not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters, except with the agreement of the devolved bodies in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.” was written into the Scotland Act following the 2014 referendum but the UK Supreme Court later ruled that it had no force in law as it violates the doctrine that that “Parliament can do anything except bind its successor.” The Conservative Government has since made a number of unilateral changes to the devolution settlement, all of which have allowed Westminster to by pass Holyrood and intervene directly in matters which are supposed to be devolved. The Conservatives have not bothered with even the pretence of seeking a democratic mandate from the people of Scotland to do so. If Scotland has learned anything frombeing stabbed in the back after 2014 it is that backstabbers are only powerful when your back is turned. Now we see the British nationalists for what they are. Remember, a mistake is an accident, lying and cheating are deliberate choices. Scotland cannot afford to let the British nationalists do it again.

Promises of devo max are a distraction, and a dead distraction at that. The time for Labour to flesh out a detailed and credible proposaol for devo max was during the 2014 campaign and to implement it afterwards. But after the No victory that year Labour was too busy trying to water down the promises made in Gordon Brown’s vow. The devo max ship has sailed, hit the iceberg of Gordon Brown’s duplicity, and now rests rusting at the bottom of an ocean of British nationalist lies and broken promises.

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