1. There is no democratic mandate for a referendum for anything but independence.
The SNP said in 2007 that they would hold a referendum on independence for Scotland after they’d won two elections. They won in 2007 and in 2011, so they have a clear democratic mandate to hold a referendum on independence in this term of the Scottish Parliament, and the Scottish government has a right to set the date for the referendum.
There is no democratic mandate for a referendum on devo-plus or devo-max. This wasn’t part of anyone’s manifesto or pre-election statements.
2. There is no clear definition of devo-plus or devo-max.
My general understanding is that devo-plus means the Scottish Parliament will run the welfare system, set and collect income tax and corporation tax – and oil revenues: devo-max would give the Scottish government borrowing powers and control of pensions, national insurance and VAT.
But I have not seen – from any party or party leader, from Better Together or Yes Scotland – any clear, detailed undertaking about what financial powers they want for the Scottish government and how they propose to have them legislated at Westminister.
If we don’t know what’s involved, then the broad political support that keeps being cited is completely meaningless. It’s like citing how pleased people were at London winning the Olympics – true, but in 2007 no one knew this was going to mean more troops in London than were sent to Afghanistan, missiles on the roof in housing estates, dedicated roads for IOC members and Olympic athletes that are banned even to emergency vehicles, and corporate sponsors setting up in Olympic tax-havens. It’s a basic rule of democracy: Tell us what your plans are, and we’ll decide if we want to vote for you.
3. We’re not going to get the oil revenues.
Devo-max or devo-plus will have to be legislated for the Scottish Parliament at Westminster, just as the 1998 Scotland Act was. If you think Westminister is going to write a new Scotland Act that hands over all of the UK oil* to the entire control of the Scottish Parliament, I have this handsome bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.
(*Yes, while it’s in Scottish territorial waters, while we are part of the UK it’s UK oil.)
4. Everything will have to be legislated at Westminster, did I mention that?
Supposing we go to the polls in autumn 2014, with a second question on the ballot paper, and it turns out that 52% of those who voted, voted yes for the devo-plus or devo-max option.
In 1997, when a clear majority voted for the Scottish Parliament, the outline of what the Parliament would be had been worked out over six years by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, published in 1995. Labour had a clear majority at Westminster, there were many Scottish Labour MPs in the Cabinet, and there was a clear democratic mandate from Scotland for a Parliament as described in Scotland’s Parliament, Scotland’s Right. Even so, shepherding the Scotland Act 1998 through Whitehall and Westminster was not a cakewalk – and none of these advantages apply to devo-plus or devo-max.
5. A huge change like independence ought to have a very, very clear referendum.
If we go to the polls in autumn 2014 and a clear majority of Scots vote for independence, then there’s absolutely no doubt: that’s what the country wants, that’s where we’re going.
Make no mistake, though, this is a huge change – and even if there’s a majority of those who voted, that will leave a large minority of Scots facing a change they explicitly did not want.
The only way to make this change democratically satisfactory is if it is clear. That means one question, a yes / no vote, win or lose.
6. The proper time to debate and vote on devo-max / devo-plus is 2016.
If status-quo/devolution wins over independence in 2014, then all of the parties interested in advancing the powers of the Scottish Parliament (devo-max/devo-plus), can put their plans for this into their manifestos and we can all vote on them at the May 2016 election.
7. With great power comes great responsibility.
A nation’s finances are the product of a national economy. What the devo-max people appear to be proposing is something akin to the US states, which have internal taxation and spending systems but are still part of the federal government, which taxes and provides revenues across the US.
In essence, what appears to be being proposed for Scotland by devo-max is that the Scottish government shall have all of the fundraising powers of a national government – while still being part of the UK. If Scottish devolved finances failed, the UK government would still have to bail Scotland out.
I know this sounds like The Economist making jokes about Scotland the Broke. But the basic check of financial regulation is to ensure that the risks of a decision will be borne by the decision-maker. The idea behind devo-plus/devo-max is to give the power to make financial decisions to the Scottish government, while still leaving the UK government final responsibility for the risks.
Be as optimistic as you like about the good sense and financial probity of Holyrood as compared with Westminister, this isn’t a good idea.