In last night’s TV debate with Alex Salmond, Alistair Darling – the leader of the campaign against Scottish independence – argued that staying in the Union would represent the “best of both worlds” for Scotland: a strong devolved parliament, with increased powers, along with the economic and security advantages of remaining part of a much larger economy and state.
By contrast, I contend that the so-called ‘devo more’ option, or options, promised by all three unionist parties in the event of a No vote would constitute the worst of both worlds for Scotland: insufficient powers for Scotland truly to shape its own economic, social and security policies, along with increased anger towards Scotland from English and, to a lesser extent, Welsh and Northern Irish people who already perceive the existing union settlement as discriminating against them in favour of Scotland.
What powers would or could Scotland gain if there were further devolution in the wake of a No vote? Probably, this would involve more power over taxation and control over revenue, along with increased powers in the areas of social security and welfare. But it wouldn’t involve any additional powers in the areas of macro-economics, monetary policy, security or international affairs.
So Scotland would be tied to the UK’s austerity policies, with no additional leverage on interest rates, borrowing or even capital investment. It would be in the pound but with no ability to influence the Bank of England or shape the monetary policies of the UK government, with its over-reliance on the City and on sucking investment into London and the South-East of England, attracted by the high value of the pound propped up by North Sea Oil. And if you have so little control over macro-economics, monetary policy and interest rates, it is impossible to be fully in charge of economic development and to direct investment to where it is most needed.
In addition, Scotland would be unable to rid its soil of the Trident nuclear weapons system or avoid committing its precious resources to Trident’s £100 billion upgrade. Alistair Darling and the No campaign claim that being part of the UK allows Scotland to benefit from the security provided by Trident, and by the UK’s strong armed forces and powerful position in world affairs. But is it a rational or effective defence policy to commit such astronomical sums of money to replacing a WMD that could never be used while making cuts in ‘conventional’ defence? But whatever the whys and wherefores, Scotland would be lumbered with Trident and with the UK’s questionable security and foreign policies if it votes No.
So despite gaining more powers through devolution, in the event of a No vote, these would not be sufficient for Scotland to shape its economic, social and security policies in accordance with its priorities. That’s if ‘devo more’ were delivered, of course, as there’s no guarantee that it would be or that it would fulfil even the modest expectations the Scottish people have from it. Indeed, which of the three unionist parties’ devo more proposals were eventually implemented – if they were at all – would not directly depend on the Scottish people but would be decided in the UK general election of 2015. This means that it is effectively the English electorate that would decide which party’s devo more proposals were adopted, and it is quite likely to be the Conservatives: the least popular party in Scotland.
This brings us to the second part of why devo more would be the worst of both worlds for Scotland: along with insufficient extra powers at home, devo more would involve less influence for Scotland at Westminster. This is not just because Scotland would continue to be stuck with UK governments it had not voted for, including potentially a Conservative government’s devo more solution.
In addition, devo more, even in the limited form described above, would generate irresistible pressure for MPs elected in Scotland to be excluded from voting on England- or England and Wales-only legislation. English people would not tolerate Scottish MPs having a potentially decisive say over legislation affecting things like the NHS, education and community services in England – and voting for further cuts in these – while at the same time Scotland was perceived (wrongly or rightly) as being guaranteed an unfair share of UK tax revenue for services of these sorts (via the continuing Barnett Formula) whilst also gaining additional powers to pursue tax and welfare policies that shield Scottish people even more from the harmful effects of austerity.
Devo more would, therefore, generate resentment among many English and Welsh people, and would result in the marginalisation of Scottish Westminster MPs, reduced to being mere lobby fodder endorsing the UK government’s laws and policies (often unpopular in Scotland) in a depleted range of reserved matters. Not only this, but it would be widely resented if Scottish MPs were awarded ministerial portfolios even in reserved matters, let along prime ministerships, as people would object to Scots exercising any form of decisive government influence in decisions affecting mainly or exclusively English and Welsh citizens.
In other words, what Alistair Darling presents as ‘the best of both worlds’ would be perceived south of the border as wanting to have your cake and eat it – and this would not be tolerated. Net result: Scots would be resented and squeezed out of positions of influence in Westminster and Whitehall, while the Scottish government would still not have the reigns of power needed to direct Scottish affairs in keeping with the people of Scotland’s priorities.
This would indeed be the worst of both worlds for Scotland.