Damned Third Question

As I write, the world has become fully aware that there might have been a third question in tomorrow’s referendum, the so-called Devo Max one, and that the responsibility for its omission lies with David Cameron.

His calculation (based of course on advice) was that the No majority was so great that he could afford to remove any middle ground. That has turned out to be a miscalculation of an enormous scale. He won’t now be allowed to forget that – for one thing, it’s been a gift from heaven for Nigel Farage.

It was only a few months ago, however, that the received wisdom was different regarding whose fault it was. Many voices were abusing Alex Salmond for depriving the Scots of the likely preferred option for many. Before that, the position was even worse: it’s amusing (or something) now to watch exchanges such as this one. Still, the truth will out and it did so eventually.

Yesterday The Herald newspaper finally came out with its declared stance on the vote, which is that Scots should vote No because further devolution really would be the better outcome. It’s taken a long time and some might wonder at the timing: was it simply a lengthy business drafting the thing and getting it approved or is it that it’s yet another part of the overall last-minute offensive, albeit a more subtle one than the other parts?

No matter. It’s a good piece of writing and it does attempt to cover the whole ground in an even-handed way. Clearly, it comes from the heart of someone who was never seriously tempted to vote Yes, but is also not happy with the conduct of the No campaign. It’s a commendable contribution to the debate and worthy of the newspaper’s fine heritage.

I write as a natural Devo Max supporter, as was covered in the very first post on this blog. I prefer gradualism, that is, incremental change. It helps, I suppose, not to be driven by any particular ideology, let alone an exclusively nationalist perspective.

I don’t agree with The Herald, however. I am still determined to vote Yes.

What has come to be dubbed the “Vow” is simply not credible. For one thing, the parties of the three “signatories” do not mean the same thing when they speak of more powers, which on its own means that we cannot say what we might actually get. For another, it’s become very clear that there will be significant difficulties in getting anything at all through the Westminster Parliament.

The Vow makes great play of its commitment to retaining the existing Barnett Formula. The perceived imbalance that represents has been seized on as the principal grievance by those unhappy with the pledge to the Jocks. Given the latter group’s perspective on things, dealing with that thorny aspect is going to be the biggest difficulty for Cameron (or whoever is in post at the time).

The West Lothian Question is now firmly in the mainstream of political discourse. On the face of it, it’s impossible to disagree with the point being made about a lack of symmetry in decision making. The real problem is, however, that the WLQ is founded on a false premise, namely that everything to do with England (with or without Wales) cannot be of legitimate concern for Scotland.

There is first the point to be made about making a distinction between those things which are located in England and those which are English-only. The majority of what are British institutions and public facilities are in London, for example. As a trivial example, consider a proposal to make some significant change to access to the museums in London (to do with pricing, opening hours or any other aspect); it would be as much a matter for Scottish citizens of the UK as for any others. The British Museum is our asset too.

More serious, there is the position of infrastructure projects such as the HS2 rail route and London Crossrail. These are located exclusively in England, but they are also funded by all of the taxpayers of the UK. If we did have a federal set-up, with a distinction then being made between the responsibilities of a UK Parliament and those attaching to a separate one for England, then things ought to be easier to disentangle; but, we don’t.

The most significant issue with the WLQ is in fact the Barnett Formula. The structure of the arrangement is such that the financial settlement for Scotland is linked to the size of the budget for spending in England (or E&W, where appropriate). That’s the NHS argument: policy may be decided by Scotland (how to carve up the pie) but the finances (size of the pie) are entirely dependent on Westminster’s choices for its own spending. A statistician would describe these two quantities (Westminster and Scottish spending) as dependent variables, not independent ones.[1]

I may be a lone voice north of the border in this, but I’ll say it anyway: scrap the Barnett Formula and instead give Scotland its own budget-setting and revenue-raising powers.

The Vow retains Barnett. If the WLQ is addressed by limiting the involvement of Scottish MPs then we simply have a new issue, a WLQ in reverse. Decisions would then be made which affect Scotland but without any say by Scotland.

A federal solution would be one approach. A federal structure, consisting of the four “countries” of the existing UK, is one thing. A re-invented conglomeration of regions and city states, with Scotland reduced to the same status as Greater Manchester, is really quite another. It’s the latter which is now being talked about.

So, I’m voting Yes. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have fears and doubts: I’m riddled with them.

What I’m convinced about, however, is that if we vote No very little of substance will be delivered. We may even end up worse off, with a revised Barnett Formula that decreases the settlement to Scotland, in order to remove the apparent subsidy. (No account is taken by Barnett of the credit side of the ledger; it deals only with the debit.)

There’s going to be a difficult negotiation. I wouldn’t be surprised if a post-No one turned out to be every bit as difficult as the post-Yes one would have been. The crucial difference is that, with a definite mandate, Scotland could negotiate from a position of strength. All a post-No team would be able to do would be to make vague threats of a potential backlash at the ballot box. (Cameron’s response? – “I can afford to lose one MP in Scotland if it means keeping the UKIP wolf from my door.”)

As I said in my first post, I would like ideally to see a two-stage process for the decision on independence: the vote on 18th September for a mandate to negotiate and then a second vote, a confirmatory step, once the outcome of the negotiation of terms is available.

Given the timetable put forward by Gordon Brown, we would know by then what the Vow had actually managed to deliver in terms of binding commitments, leaving the way clear for a shot at a meaningful three-question referendum.

Voting No means we will get nowhere. Whichever way you look at this, you have to vote Yes.




1. To be precise, there is a dependency link between the two, i.e. the two variables are not independent of each other.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *