21 June 2012

Devo-something: a measure of pessimism?

Compare and contrast.

Ipsos-MORI poll, 7th - 14th of June 2012 (all respondents):

Ipsos-MORI poll, 7th - 14th of June 2012 (all respondents):

Although the evidence already seemed compelling, Ipsos-MORI's twin independence polls this week provide the strongest confirmation yet that including any second question on the referendum ballot would pose clear problems for the pro-independence campaign.  Posed as a binary - independence or the status quo - independence attracts 5% more support than when it is set against a devolutionary alternative.  To put it another way, support for the Union - either reformed or unreformed - actually increases by fourteen percentage points, when a devo-something option is in play. These results look devilish similar to those published by TNS-BMRB late last year, but are arguably more significant, as they were conducted by the same pollster, over the same period, (and in all probability with the same bank of respondents). 

So what's to be done? A single question, two? I've written before about the tricky legalities of the referendum under the Scotland Act, which will have an impact on how any referendum will be framed, and what questions can and will be asked.  But let's bracket all potential legal problems for the moment.  What about the higher politics? What approach should a calculating nationalist pursue, on the available evidence? Do the potential gains of including a devolution question on the ballot outweigh the negative impact its presence seems likely to have on independence, and the risk of being defeated without any constitutional gains? 

As it stands, I find the attitude of the Scottish Government is exceedingly difficult to interpret. In a recent edition of the Drouth, dedicated to the theme of strategy, I posited four, speculative accounts of the sort of calculations which might be being made in St Andrew's House...

Account, the first: Alex Salmond is talking about “devolution max” as he is aware of its popularity. Anxious to avoid being blamed for its absence from the ballot, his goal is to pin the blame for its exclusion on Unionist parties, who seem happy to oblige. Appealing to the idea of UK recalcitrance, patronising, haughty – and gadzooks – Tory, he hopes to ensnare social democratic wobblers and erstwhile non-nationalists in a binary choice of independence or the status quo of Tory rule, so uncongenial to many Scots. “If Britain will not move, won’t countenance enhanced autonomy, what option have we?” On this account, “more devolution”, is a political ploy, with partisanship for independence in mind.

Account, the second: Salmond is a man of democratic sensibilities. While not endorsing the proposition himself as his primary preference, he believes that given public feeling, a “more devolution” question should be posed, whatever impact it might have on levels of support for independence.

Account, the third: the First Minister is pessimist enough to concede the possibility the independence will be defeated, and is gaming the counterfactuals. A belt and braces man, who plays the gambler but wagers soberly, a question on “more devolution” affords a sort of constitutional security and a sure basis for future, power-extending politics, if independence does not carry the day.

Account, the fourth: Salmond is doing more than mere contingency planning by promoting “devolution max”. He simply does not believe that independence is winnable at this time, and this extension of devolution is the prize he is really seeking, using the threat of independence to serve devolutionary goals. Because of party feeling, he won’t admit this publicly, and instead gives the impression he is motivated by the democratic commitments of the second account. He will, accordingly, only ask a yes or no question on independence if absolutely forced to do so by circumstances.

So which of the four is it to be? A devo-kite, democratic principle, caution or cynicism about the realistic likelihood of victory in the referendum? I know several of you feel that it is crystal clear which of these explanation really obtains, but for myself, I'm buggered if I can interpret the SNP leadership's position with any confidence.  Last week, an article in the Daily Record - no friend of the Nationalists, mind you - claimed that a "source" from inside the government had told the paper that "The First Minister has come to the conclusion that a second question is required – even if some of his ministers disagree".  This, "part of a behind-the-scenes drive to ensure a second question goes on the ballot paper." 

For those of you convinced by the first account I offered above, if the Record story has any basis in truth, it is just a spot of perfidious Nationalist mischief, stoking people's expectations, and so their disappointment if and when the UK Government attempts to veto any second, "devo max", "devo plus", or "devo something" question. I'm not so sure.  By no means am I questioning the commitment of the party leadership to independence as a first order preference, but it should hardly surprise us if more elaborate calculations are being made in Bute House. 

Ultimately, it probably comes down to this.  Just how pessimistic are nationalists about the possibility of winning the referendum?


  1. My guess is closest to interpretation 4.

    Call it pessimism or call it realism, the desire to have a second question on the ballot, given that it will more or less *guarantee* a 'no' to Independence, says one thing: the high-ups don't believe a Yes result is likely.

    And to be honest I can see where they would get that impression.

    The Machiavellian interpretation - "manoeuvre the bad Unionists into denying Scots the 2nd question" - doesn't ring true to me.

  2. somepapfaedundee21 June 2012 at 16:24

    I don't think it's about pessimism or optimism about the outcome, but strategy about the campaign.
    I think devo-x on the ballot will kill the independence movement stoen-dead just like the first devo settlement did!

    The polls also show that what looks like strong NO in the binary is reduced by some 26 points to the actual (current) core BritNats for a ballot inculding devo-x.

    If it's on the ballot devo-x allows people to be persuaded to a pro-indy point of view in stages rather than a single jump from no to yes.

    I'd take an apparent drop of 5 points from all-indy to get 26 points moving from No to devo-x. Then I have a new audience who already agree with most of what I want.

    Devo-x is a bridge that can carry voters both ways.

    After a campaign where much of the positives for devo-x and pro-indy overlap, the soft section of the binary NO set are already travelling in the direction of independence.
    Once you have that group in the devo-? camp, by the latter parts of the campaign I think it would be worth asking them 'Ok good, so we know that like us you want control over all this financial and economic stuff, but are you really saying you won't go all-indy because you want to keep nukes, and be dragged off into more wars by keeping UK defence & foreign policy?'

  3. So, dundee, you're saying that somehow psychologically having the second option on the ballot will help convert people into Yes voters. I see no reason to believe that.

    On the CND issue, to be honest I don't give that much of a monkey's about nukes, so it's not a universal no-brainer of an argument - just sayin'.

  4. somepapfaedundee21 June 2012 at 17:18

    In a binary vote there are a set of people who say no.
    Introduce devo-x and their willingness to move along the spectrum towards indy is revealed.
    Easier to *try* to target your message to a group of people who already share a large portion of your own postitions.
    It's ok no to see it the way I see it.
    I just think if were campaigning would I prefer to convince 50-odd percent saying outright no, or 20-odd percent saying 'well, only this far'.

    I can't find my claim to a universal no-brainer anywhere in my comment :)

  5. I'm absolutely in the Option 1 camp. Devo-max became Salmond's big problem as soon as he won a majority. The one thing I think just about everyone agrees on, and which is supported by this latest poll, is that in a three-way face-off devo-max would win comfortably. Its inclusion on the ballot 99.9% guarantees that independence will lose.

    Salmond will be almost 60 when the referendum happens, and he may never get another chance. (Even if, as I fervently hope, he lives for decades more, he may never again secure such miraculous majority at Holyrood.) So this is it. This is his big chance at achieving the thing he's worked his entire adult life towards. Do you really think he'd willingly trade away the chance of victory in return for securing a halfway house? I'd hazard the opinion that anyone believing such a thing has gravely underestimated the First Minister's belief in his goal.

    (And also his basic intelligence. Salmond knows fine that you can't impose a devo-max settlement on the UK, and how little the Unionists will be prepared to put on the table - look at the pitiful crumbs that resulted from Calman.)

    So how to avoid a devo-max question which guarantees the failure of independence, without handing the opposition a huge stick to beat you with by denying the Scottish public the option it likes the most? There's only one way - somehow get the other side to do it for you.

    I've said before and will say again now - in my view, the devo-max play is the crowning masterstroke of Salmond's political career to date. I don't believe anyone saw it coming (point me to a commentator saying otherwise last May), and he cleverly exploited the biggest flaw in Labour's psyche - its irresistible urge to reflexively oppose anything suggested by the SNP.

    By leaving the door open to devo-max, he succeeded in making them believe that that door must be slammed shut - which also forced the other opposition parties to go along with the idea for fear of creating a massive schism in the No camp.

    At a stroke, the SNP are the democrats trying magnanimously to offer the people the thing they want even though it's not the SNP's own choice, only to be frustrated by the dead hand of Westminster choking off Scotland's options yet again. The devo-max voters will have to choose one of the extremes, which ultimately comes down to who they trust more - Westminster, or Salmond and the SNP. You don't need to be a partisan nationalist to know the answer to that, because it's in all the polls.

    Salmond didn't join the SNP to get a few extra tax powers. He knows he can't win his life's dream in a three-way vote - not now, not yet, not in the middle of an economic meltdown - but he knows he has a fighting chance in a heads-up, especially in the circumstances outlined above. Working out which one he'd be likely to choose, then, is a no-brainer. I'm surprised anyone even doubts it.

  6. Wow, haven't we all said "no-brainer" a lot?

  7. I suspect that option 4 is closest as well (with more than a dash of option 1), not so much that the Yes camp can't hope to win, more so because Scotland per-se is not ready for Independence.

    I think that Fiscal Autonomy is probably the closest to the "settled will" of the Scottish people, and it is a will which neither Labour or Cameron's Conservative party are prepared to sucumb to.

  8. somepapfaedundee21 June 2012 at 22:28

    RevStu - Ok I agree that given the position of the independence movement and Salmond's age etc... that the devo-x option isn't necessarily being pushed with a view to actually getting it on the paper, and I agree it's corner painting of the highest order.

    But I wasn't trying to say that it was being pushed for its own sake, my point was more about whether the way the devo-x thing was being played was down to SNP pessimism.

    My view is simply that devo-x is the elephant in the constitutional room, and in the same way that you describe that the SNP has controlled the anti-indy position on devo-x, I believe they also have a strategy in mind for using devo-x to persuade people towards a pro-indy message (i think they'll get mileage out of it even when it's not on the ballot - it's a conceptual bridge for the nervous maybe-aye's).
    Also, there's still a way to go, and if the pro-indy vote looks like gathering momentum, then pushing for a devo-x option might start to look like the best plan for the anti-indy's. I'm sure the SNP have thought how they would need to try to use devo-x if it did get pushed on to the ballot.

    fwiw (and I've no doubt I'm in a tiny minority) - while I agree that devo-x would probably be the most likely outcome if included, I don't think it'd be the shoo-in landslide (versus all-indy) that everyone seems to believe, abd that all-indy would be well worth playing for.

    Yes - a lot of "no-brainer"s in early - let's hope we're (me at least) not all just unwittingly self-referential.

    Anyway, civ2 isn't going to play itself...

  9. "Ipsos-MORI's twin independence polls"


    This was one single poll (Scottish Public Opinion Monitor) in which - rather unusually - both the Times/Sun and Reform Scotland commissioned questions on Scotland's constitutional position. Times/Sun asked – “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”

    Reform Scotland defined independence as was “Scotland should become a fully independent country, separate from the rest of the UK”.

    The Times/Sun question was asked first. In the same telephone interview, they were then asked to respond to Reform Scotland's question. Not unreasonably, those polled might assume these to be two different positions. Hardly surprising that Reform Scotland's description produced a lower level of support for independence.

  10. I would propose an original idea here. That what the Scottish Government has said all along about the Devo Max issue is true.

    There is no sub-plot.

    Maybe I have lost my mind but that's how I think it is!

  11. GrassyKnollington22 June 2012 at 09:58

    Isn't the fundamental problem with this piece that it assumes Devo Max appearing on the ballot paper is a real possibility?

    It won't appear and voters will choose between independence and "maybe jam tomorrow"/ status quo.

    While I think Salmond has played a blinder here it's a bit of a risky strategy as so many people still seem to believe substantially increased powers within the union is a real possibility.

    Letting them know that it will indeed be a straight choice is no small task as I daily read about peoples Devo fantasies and curiously some of them purport to be independence supporters.

    Salmond is not arrogant despite what our unionist chums would have you believe and he would no more have stood up and denounced the substantial body of Scots who believe in astrology than he would the group who believe we can have hugely increased powers within the existing union.

    He always knew Devo Max was dead in the water but he had to show those who still believed in it, over the course of the unfolding campaign, who had actually strangled it.

  12. "while I agree that devo-x would probably be the most likely outcome if included, I don't think it'd be the shoo-in landslide (versus all-indy) that everyone seems to believe"

    Oh, definitely not. I'd be a little surprised if it even got over 50% - I reckon the result would be somewhere in the region of this most recent poll - maybe 45 DM, 30 Yes, 25 No, with a 5% margin of error on all figures.

  13. "Salmond will be almost 60 when the referendum happens, and he may never get another chance."

    This statement could be read as an endorsement of independence as a 'Salmond vanity project' rather than what is best for, or in the best interests of, the sovereign people of Scotland.

    Independence just will not win at present. Unless there is some miraculous rabbit hiding in the SNP hat, the momentous swing required will not happen.

    If, as some believe, that the SNP or Salmond will try some form of implicit electoratal coercion, to force a Yes vote, then they're deluded.

    Try a stunt like that and the Scots will vote accordingly.

    Look at what happened to the SNP vote post 79 after jumping into bed with the Thatcher lobby.

    The Scots voters punished them delivering a stinging rebuke.

    Salmond's too canny for that historical ignominy to be allowed to repeat itself.

    Compromise is the mark of the civilised man, or party for that matter.

    Faced with imminent defeat, there might even be an Account the fifth:

    Pick a legal fight with Westminster and let it wrangle on until it would be to late to call a referendum.

    Who knows?

    At least then the blame might not land at Mr Salmond's feet.

  14. It's an odd phrase "If, as some believe". It suggests that lots of people think something, though probably just means "me and my mates" (or even "My mates and I").

    We have known for a long time that most Scots, at this particular moment, would prefer increased powers for the Scottish Parliament within the UK.

    Thus far, the debate hasn't really taken place as to which additional powers should be transferred. Polling has suggested that defence, foreign affairs are seen as remaining with Westminster.

    Others seem to be "up for grabs". Over the next two years, there will be close scrutiny as to whether particular powers should be exercised at Holyrood or Westminster. The precise nature of the Devo-X that most Scots want will emerge.

    By the time of the vote, Both the Yes and No campaigns have time to adjust their vision of Independence or Union towards that Scottish consensus. At the end of the day, the only difference between the two might be "who finally decides - Scots people or the UK Parliament?"

  15. The game has hardly even started yet, so it's too early to read much into opinion polls. Outside a few anorakish forums like this one, not many people have starting thinking seriously about devo-X.

    It's not just a matter of the powers involved - there are also the practicalities of delivering any kind of devo-X. Compare and contrast devolution 1997 and devolution 1979. The former (whether you like it or not) was a coherent package thrashed out over many years in the Constitutional Convention. It sailed through Westminster with little change. The latter involved two shambolic years of late-night ambushes, parliamentary guillotines and unwanted amendments (Cunningham's 40% threshold, anyone?)

    What are the chances of getting cross-party agreement on a devo-X package? Maybe among the Scottish unionist parties, whose minds have been wonderfully concentrated. But hostile and indifferent English MPs, Labour as well as Tory, will have endless scope for obstruction.

    These questions will come into prominence in the next couple of years, and I suspect we will see lots of attitudes clarifying and changing.