22 January 2013

"And yet we all would wish to feed on certainties..."

It is probably unwise to take Francis Urquhart, of the House of Cards, for a moral and political tutor, but the old villain had a fine line in insight into the allure and peril of denying contingency.

"So hard to know who to trust in these suspicious days. Does passion engender trust? Not necessarily. And yet we all would wish to feed on certainties. To hear the word "always", and believe it true. She trusts me absolutely, I believe. I trust she does. And I? I trust her absolutely... to be absolutely human."

In politics as in life, it matters what you are pessimistic about. Whatever some political scientists might have us believe, we don't live in a world straightforwardly structured according to immutable iron laws.  We may be tolerably confident that the sun will come up tomorrow (or at least some wan vestige of the sun, during the winter months), but absolute certainty about the future has the habit of eluding us. Fortuna kicks sand in our eyes. Our best laid plans unravel. Marvellous opportunity strikes, upending disaster for triumph.  Optimism, pessimism, and dicing the probabilities, are the elementary stuff of human affairs.  The rational soul has to make the best of it, weighing up likelihoods, assessing past conduct, and in the final analysis, take a calculated risk.  

On twitter this afternoon, Deputy Editor of the Scotland on Sunday, Kenny Farquharson laments recent Nationalist responses to the latest devolutionary wheeze from Alan Trench for the IPPR, with David Mundell claiming yesterday that all three pro-union parties would come up with another batch of proposals to wing more financial powers Holyrood's way, if independence is defeated in 2014.  Quoth Kenny:

I can understand Kenny's frustrations on many levels. He's not in favour of independence, but does support more powers. The case for independence is undeniably advanced by cultivating the idea that the UK is sclerotic, unreformable, unwilling to decentralise decision-making on key economic and social issue.  As Sturgeon put it in a recent speech:

"Devolution - to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - was itself an attempt to renew the UK state. But the UK’s ability to re-invent itself is spent. The Westminster parties are at best sceptical and at worst hostile to further substantial reform in Scotland’s interests."

Kenny's thesis, as I understand it, is that this is an over-pessimistic assessment, underestimating the continued plasticity of the UK state, and under-egging the potential within the UK to secure more powers for Holyrood. On a broad, theoretical level, I agree with him. It is possible, for example, to see some routes towards greater devolution after a no vote.  With the United Kingdom's half-scribbled constitution, I suppose one can envisage circumstances coming around in which a new spirit of governance might, maybe, somehow subvert the centralising, controlling habits of the UK treasury, prying greater powers from their grasp. Certainly, if political forces committed to such ideas took over in Westminster, there appears little in the way of formal barriers, save perhaps the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, to prevent them from radically reimagining, from reconstituting, the British state.

After all, if we lose the referendum in 2014, and any honest supporter of independence must concede the possibility, we'll be linking arms with folk like Kenny, in the hope of finding effective strategies for coaxing or cajoling Westminster into relinquishing greater responsibilities for Holyrood.  That'll be a grim business if we go into it on the basis that the struggle will inevitably avail us nothing.  None of this is a given, a certainty.  We have to make a calculation about what is more likely to happen using our best resources, and best ideas. And like Nicola, and most other pro-independence sorts, on balance, I can't share Kenny's confidence in the hitherto very vague devolutionary nostrums emanating from the pro-Union parties.

The argument for pessimism has a pedigree going back at least to Tom Nairn, and goes something like this.  Although for many of its proponents, devolution was a political end worth pursuing in itself, for a great many others, support for the creation of a Scottish Parliament was a work of expediency, not of political principle. Devolution to shoot the nationalist fox, to negate a little trouble on the northern frontier and secure the British state. On this account, nationalist agitation is understood to be the prime driver of the devolution of powers.

A defeat in the referendum, by eliminating the risk of independence breaking up Britain, will simultaneously blunt one of the most effective rationales - some would say the only effective rationale - which could and has persuaded the Mother of Parliaments to part with a single iota of power or responsibility. A defeat for independence will mute the nationalist clamour and eliminate those anxieties for a generation, and in a trice, significantly diminish Westminster's incentives to devolve more power to Holyrood

One needn't favour independence to see that this argument is not without some force, even if you think that it overstates the role of pro-independence politics in achieving devolution, and understates the potential interest in more devolution in a United Kingdom which includes Scotland after the 2014 poll.  In that context, it seems eminently reasonable to me for nationalists to ask folk, musing on the likelihood and scale of any post-referendum devolution, not to take every claim at face value, and weigh up the risks and opportunities independently.  

An analysis of the past conduct and declared ideas of the major political parties in the UK must be part of that.  The Liberal Democrats have a long-standing commitment to federalism, which is well and good, but the calculating voter can hardly neglect to notice that they are 1) not likely to be elected as a majority party at the next UK election; 2) will in all probability receive a drubbing to relegate them once again to distant third party-status, frozen out of influence; and 3) even if, after 2014, they remain part of a coalition government in Westminster, their priorities will inevitably end up being significantly qualified by the politics of their partner.

And from neither the Labour Party, nor the Conservative Party, has any clear statement of principle yet emerged on what their preferred constitutional structures might look like, beyond the status quo. That flexible lack of programmatic commitments, of course, can cut both ways, leaving space for more devolution, and the door open for none, but it can hardly fill the doubting pro-devolutionist, considering voting yes in the absence of a better alternative, with much confidence that something like their preferred constitutional option is an incipient possibility. 

The Conservative Party was notoriously first opposed to devolution, and now it appears to have no principled position in favour of greater devolution. Although a right-inflected case for the devolution of fiscal decision-making is readily made, its most enthusiastic proponent in the Scottish party, Darth Murdo Fraser, stood and failed to be elected leader in 2011.  David Mundell their sole MP representing a Scottish constituency, it isn't at all clear that his English and Welsh colleagues are interested in further fracturing Westminster's powers, beyond some vague nostrums from David Cameron in that direction during 2011. Simultaneously, as anyone who has leant an ear to its recent rhetoric cannot have missed, the Tory parliamentary membership are increasingly fixated on parliamentary sovereignty. They hardly look like a mob, burning with enthusiasm to distribute Westminster and Whitehall's power with a more generous hand. 

On the Labour side of the chamber, things remain similarly opaque. If the tenor of their recent debate on the section 30 order is anything to go by, many of the party's Scottish MPs seem to want "devolution without devolution". Just a week ago, the House of Commons atmosphere was thick with condensation, and regret. For Scottish Labour's Deputy leader, Anas Sarwar, Holyrood was "not a democratic place in the conventional sense", crushed under the yoke of the (from his perspective, somehow illegitimate) SNP majority.

In other areas, including electoral reform, the Labour party has shown it to be every inch as conservative as their colleagues with the blue rosettes.  The party's parliamentary delegation from north of the border do not, to my eye, cut a compelling image of a crew keen to cut the Scottish Parliament in on more powers.  Its English MPs, by contrast, don't seem to give a fig one way or the other, beyond vaguely endorsing Labour's constitutional record during its last term of office.

In the absence of a clear body of principles from either of the large Westminster parties, it seems entirely admissible to look at their past conduct. Particularly their recent past conduct. Labour enjoyed office in this country between 1997 and 2010.  They are certainly not to be criticised for leaving the Scotland Act 1998 a decent time to bed down before revisiting many of its powers, but in the subsequent time, they've proven themselves implacably opposed to introducing just the sort and scale of powers which Alan Trench's IPPR report will seemingly propose. 

If they are such eager beavers for more devolution of further financial powers, why did they not make economic use of parliamentary time and ministerial resources in a penny-pinched period of our history, and use the latest Scotland Act as the vehicle to realise those apparently cherished ambitions? Remember, the Calman Commission proposals did not go unamended or enacted in full in the Scotland Act 2012.  Claims of fidelity to the proposals which Kenneth and his colleagues agreed upon simply won't do.

If you were such a grand enthusiast for greater devolution all along, why the devil didn't you tell anyone, act on those convictions, and even more mystifyingly, actually oppose introducing any further changes to Scotland's constitutional compact just a year ago? There may be persuasive answers to these questions. Frank ones, perhaps. We haven't the foggiest how we'd like to see new financial powers distributed, to be honest, but we're giving it a proper look now. 

I await worked proposals from the Tories and from Labour with anticipation. Until then, I don't think pessimism about loose commitments to greater devolution is disreputable, unreasonable grinchwork or a perverse conclusion to reach having weighed up the evidence before us, estimating what's plausible and what's probable.  Francis Urquhart has the right of it.


  1. It seems crystal clear that Labour (let's just stick with them) are only in favour of any increase in Devolution as a means to head off Independence.

    Given their underlying motive for pushing DevoWhatever, I wouldn't trust them as far as I could throw them to come up with a good 'design' when requirement #1 is "Kill Nationalism Properly This Time".

    I always find Kenny Farquarson's starry-eyed cheerleading of a (chortle) "Power House Parly" (his term) to be naive and unconvincing for that reason alone.

    "Come on guys, let's have a singalong!" Psht yeah okay dude whatever.

  2. That devolution was a response to rising support for the SNP seems to me unquestionable. And it seems equally unquestionable that proposals for enhanced devolution are also a response to rising support for the SNP.

    The proof of that is surely and simply that there were no solid proposals for Devo Plus or Devo Max or Devo call it what you will until there was an SNP majority government.

    That the IPPR et al did not think it worth their while to engage in any in depth analysis of how devolution could be extended before the SNP won such a stonking majority in 2011 is not a coincidence!

    Power concedes nothing without a demand. That is something that is actually absolutely true and explains everything in this case!

    I quite like Kenny F but he seems to have a blind spot in this area,or rather two blind spots.

    Firstly that Westminster would concede any further powers to Scotland without the threat, as they see it, of independence being held over them. Take that threat away, as would happen with a No vote, and we have nothing to threaten them with. And they have no reason to concede a single thing.

    Secondly, he seems bemused that SNP folks actually believe in independence and want to win the referendum. I guess there are a few people out there who also find that incredible, most of the Labour Party probably! They have always probably thought that independence was a power play by the SNP, the leverage to be used, but not an actual aim.

    If we lose the referendum we are screwed as far as getting any more powers are concerned because they - whoever they will be post 2014 - would just turn round and say people in Scotland voted to stay in the Union so they will just have to take things as they come.

    It may be that people like Kenny F think we have blown it by having a referendum at all. But the tactic - if that is what he believed it was - of using independence as a lever to extract more powers could only have been used for a limited period of time anyway. At some point you have to shit or get off the pot. And it was never a tactic anyway.

  3. LPW rightly identifies many excellent reasons why we should all entertain grave doubts about the worth of jam tomorrow sort-of-promises sort-of-emanating from the British parties. Past experience of politicians' assurances being not the least of these by far. In my view, however, he fails to give sufficient weight to the irreconcilable conflict between parliamentary and popular sovereignty as a barrier to truly meaningful devolution.

    We must bear in mind this the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, and by implication denial of popular sovereignty, informs everything that the British parties do - or "promise" to do. Their approach to devolution prioritises, not the interests of Scotland and its people, but the interests of the British state. For them, devolution is a means of preserving the power of Westminster, not distributing it. Whatever devolutionary measures may be spoken of now, they will ultimate come up against the obstacle of parliamentary sovereignty long before getting within hailing distance of implementation.

    We must also bear in mind that it is just talk. At the insistence of the British parties there is no "more powers" option on the ballot. In terms of the referendum, therefore, the talk is pointless and meaningless. However much the British parties may wish to deceive us into believing otherwise, the referendum offers only two choices. On the one hand, independence - which includes all the content of the jam tomorrow promises and more. On the other hand, nothing - with the distinct possibility (some would say probability) of losing many of the devolved powers we already already have.

    But there is another reason for dismissing these jam tomorrow promise which LPW does not touch upon. Any further devolution concedes ground to nationalists and makes it increasingly difficult to justify other powers remaining reserved. The tendency over time, therefore, must inevitably be for ever more powers to be devolved - even unto the acme of devolution, full fiscal autonomy (FFA). What unionists arguing against further devolution would doubtless call a "slippery slope". And they'd be right!


  4. ...continued

    There is a tipping point at which devolution takes on an unstoppable and irreversible momentum. Some, including myself, would hold that we have already passed this tipping point. But British nationalists are ever more persistent than perspicacious. They still suppose the tide can be turned and so they will continue to fight a rearguard action in the hope of preventing devolution ever getting near FFA.

    Ultimately devolution fails because it comes up against the barrier of parliamentary sovereignty - even before getting as far as FFA. But there is another reason it must fail. FFA is unworkable in practice. It is unworkable for the very same reasons that a currency union is infeasible (in the long term).

    (I am always amused by the naivety of those who see some sort of "misstep" in SNP proposals such as the "sterling zone". Why make the arguments against something when you can get your opponents to do it for you. Especially if it is something you don't want. Remember the "second question"?)

    As the eurozone has taught us, (as if we needed to be taught), a currency union breaks down when there is significant divergence in the economies of the members. When unionists rail against the SNP's suggestion of a post-independence sterling zone they do so in characteristically knee-jerk fashion heedless of the fact that what they are denouncing as "monetary madness" is precisely the situation we have now. Namely, a central bank which serves the interests of the centre regardless of the consequences for the periphery. They fail to acknowledge is this situation exists and that it is only sustainable so long as one of two conditions is met. Either the economies of Scotland and rUK are prevented from diverging, or the economic policies adapted to the the centre can be imposed of the periphery by main force of political power. That political power that is founded in parliamentary sovereignty.

    Sharper minds in the ranks of British nationalism must be aware of this. So there is no way that they are going to voluntarily drive another nail into the coffin of the British state by adding momentum to a devolutionary process that must inevitably spell its doom. Especially when they have a NO vote in the referendum that can easily be portrayed as an endorsement of the union and a mandate to roll back existing devolution.

    Let us be perfectly clear. A NO vote in the referendum is not simply a rejection of independence. It is also an end to devolution.

  5. The central problem that all devolution has danced around up to now is fairness.

    The initial devolution of powers to Scotland didn't cause a huge controversy in Parliament because all the devolution act did in terms of financial and economic powers was to create another Government department which acted as a unified department for Scotland.

    Its funding was linked directly to the public service funding of the relevant Government departments in the rest of the UK via the Barnett formula. It could lower personal taxes in Scotland if it was willing to pay for the reduction out of its departmental funding and it was allowed to raise personal taxes to increase departmental funding if it that was required.

    The Calman inspired Scotland Act does exactly the same thing. The only effective change is that it runs part of the departmental funding through HMRC first and allows more flexibility and range beyond the crude 3p on the basic rate of tax that the first Scotland act allowed. However Scotland's funding is still set at the Barnett formula and tax cuts still have to be paid for out of departmental funding.

    What neither scheme did was to give Scotland any financial control over its resources which would allow it to generate wealth independently from Westminster or allow it to benefit from any economic activity within Scotland.

    That's the fairness bit. Any devolution bill going through Westminster will be scrutinised by English based MP's on the basis that Scotland gaining control over its economy and resources will result in an unfair economic advantage over their constituents and they will vote any powers like that down.

    I will be interested to see what the IPPR come up with. If they want it to go through Westminster it will be Calman MK II. If they don't want it to pass through Westminster it will give Scotland access to some real economic powers.

    That's why we are already at Devo Max. We now have the maximum amount of power that Westminster is willing to devolve to Scotland. A No vote in 2014 is not going to change that especially with the threat of independence gone.

    I suspect that this IPPR report is just the fancy label for the Jam Tomorrow strategy.

  6. As noted on Twitter, a good read LPW!

    It's worth noting that the IPPR, and Alan Trench specifically, outlined on Twitter that Devo More is specifically designed to be workable, and quickly. That is, it a viable short-term solution, that might be met with the least resistance in rUK.

    I'm sensing a change, if not in polling, in general mood and momentum that might explain why Better Together members who previously dismissed a Devo-Something second question, are suddenly groping around for something firm to grab on to. As usual, they are 6-12 months behind the curve - had Devo More been firmed up and dropped in as a second question, I suspect this referendum might have been over before it started. With the benefit of hindsight, it concedes little for the UK parties, and probably puts independence out of reach for Yes Scotland. As such, looking back, I'm more confident of a Yes/No question than I have been for a while and am happy the 2nd question was dropped.

    My main criticism of Kenny's bizarre commentary was his suggestion the SNP were "at it" for quickly dismissing the latest Devo-revision. I've seen little from Kenny about why Better Together continue to show utter incompetence, but here he is criticising the SNP for not making their opponents case. I mean, narrating the vision of a post-No Scotland-in-the-UK is the main plank of Better Together's campaign, or rather it should be. That they haven't, won't or are unconvincing is a basic flaw in the No campaign. He might have missed it, but the campaign has started and both sides should show little mercy for failings in the opposition's campaign. That Better Together are consistently behind and consistently off-target is their own damn fault. The SNP are quite right to show no mercy - failure to do so would be a major weakness.

    I understand that these Twitter feeds are personal opinion and in no way reflect the opinions of any employer, but it's bizarre, yet unsurprising, to see an editor at one of our major titles airing such bizarre, naive or questionable criticisms at one side of the debate.

  7. @peter "... many excellent reasons why we should all entertain grave doubts about the worth of jam tomorrow sort-of-promises ..."

    Isn't "jam tomorrow" the essence of the Nat appeal, such s it is?

    And you're right about the grave doubts BTW...

  8. Excellent post. I am of the fundamentalist view that we'll never be given additional powers, we have to take them, which means voting yes...

  9. Braveheart said...

    Isn't "jam tomorrow" the essence of the Nat appeal, such s it is?


    As to the "Nat appeal", which party currently forms the democratically elected government of Scotland?

    Which party, according to polls, would win an election tomorrow?

    And how does the SNP's membership of around 25,000 compare with that of, say, the British Labour Party?

  10. Kenny just doesn't get it, and neither does anyone else who talks of the SNP being "opposed" to devolution, or similar such rubbish. In the event of a NO vote, the SNP won't just go "oh well, that's that, then", they'll say "Okay, Plan B - let's get some proper power devolved." When BetterTogether folk accuse the SNP of being anti-devolution, we can be pretty sure they're being purposefully disingenuous; but when the deputy editor of one of our "quality" papers says stuff like this, I'm not sure if I should be worried that he is clearly biased, or worried that he is so blind to reality.

    The public (supposedly) wanted Devo Max; some politicians tried to offer them Devo Plus, but it went nowhere. Now, they're offering Devo More, which confusingly is less than Devo Plus, since Devo Plus at least wanted to transfer a "geographical" share of oil revenues ("geographical" presumably referring to the false marine border created by Blair and Dewer.) But we all know fine that in the event of a NO vote, what we'll actually get is Devo Less, because the Scotland Act will require changes to Barnett, which will lead to a clamour from English MPs to "stop subsidising the Scots", and the infamous "9.6% of tax for 9.3% of spending" will seem like a fantastic deal in comparison.

    We have a right to be sceptical, and it's not good enough for this IPPR report to be used to inform 2015 manifestos - if unionist parties are serious about devolving more power, then why are they waiting until after the referendum to do so? If they acknowledge that things aren't right, then surely it's a dereliction of their duty to not just get it sorted now? What has changed between the Scotland Act being put through parliament and now to make them suddenly want an increase in devolved powers? (Well, we all know what's changed, but they won't admit it.)

    We know what powers Scotland will have if we vote YES. If unionists want us to vote NO, they have to tell us what powers we'll have as a result. The only way to prove how serious they are is to legislate NOW. Because if that path is so rosy and what Scots want, then they won't even need to bother campaigning in the referendum.

    If Kenny really can't see all this, then perhaps he should give his job to somebody who can?

  11. If Scotland votes no in 2014 despite an SNP government in Holyrood and a Conservative/Lib-Dem Government in Westminster then any threat of Scottish independence in the foreseeable future can be discounted.

    After a winning "no vote" a reasonable assumption to make would be that the Labour vote would continue to hold up in Scotland for the next general election in 2015.

    The question that Labour will quite reasonably ask in that scenario is, "What electoral advantage will a commitment to a new devolution bill for Scotland gain us in England because Scotland's in the bag already."

    The answer is of course is none, unless it involves reducing Scotland's funding or reducing the current Parliament's powers.

    After a no vote in 2014 there will be no more devolution.

  12. One interesting aspect of Ruth's speech this week: it explicitly recognises that Tory responses to the whole independence/devolution debate was animated primarily by concern about "separation". I.e. that any concessions given and not given were seen entirely through the prism of heading off independence, not a conceptual commitment to greater devolution of any kind. We shall see.