As a lawyer, you get used to the plasticity of language and anxiety about definitions. What do we mean by that precisely? How are you using that term? They're always important questions, as there's always somebody trying to make the slipperiness of language work to their advantage.
Yesterday, I argued that the tin-ear of the new wave of advocates for continuing union represents a potential problem for the No campaign. These nervous blow-ins don't know their audience, don't understand and haven't been following the referendum debate, and are likely to mis-pitch their arguments. Enter Boris Johnson, stage right, with a bizarre cri de coeur in the Telegraph yesterday, replete with disturbing "English rose complexion" digressions, to prove the point. The Mayor of London's article isn't seriously pitched to persuade anyone of anything: it is just an anguished shriek.
But this morning, we see the other, rosier side of the complacent neglect of the referendum campaign for Better Together: the belated reappearance of the language of "devo max". Columnists and commentators across the UK airwaves and papers are tossing around the claim that if we vote against separation, "devo max" is to be our concession prize. Characteristically, few of the folk using this term hazard to define it, and most seem unaware of much of the detail of the diffuse Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat proposals for further devolution which has been percolating quietly for months through the debate north of the border. Too quietly, perhaps, for Better Together to get much good out of them, but percolating none the less.
If they had attended to this detail, however, they'd soon recognise that Scotland is being offered nothing like the accepted definitions of "devo max". Professor Paul Cairney of the University of Stirling blew this conflation to bits months ago. Whether or not you think independence or further devolution is desirable, this is simply a statement of fact. It is time the UK media, trying to get their bearings, caught up and mastered the language. Take this definition, used by the What Scotland Thinks glossary, as being uncontroversial:
"This term has become short hand for the idea that the Scottish Parliament should become responsible for nearly all of Scotland’s domestic affairs, including taxation and welfare benefits, while foreign affairs and defence would remain the responsibility of the UK government."
Over-spun as a radical federalist break on Sunday, in fact, what seems to be on the table is simple a rushed, implausible timetable to realise the lowest common denominator consensus between the three Westminster parties for more powers. Short version: what we're being offered is the expedited chance to realise Labour's crap devolution proposals, and no real opportunity to improve them. Be still my throbbing pancreas. I'm yet to meet a Labour member willing seriously to defend the proposals of their party's botched, incoherent, nakedly partisan devolution commission.
An up-not-down income tax policy which even its party leader cannot explain, unassailable resistance to any devolution of corporation tax, and no allocated share of oil revenues. Don't get me wrong: there are reasoned, reasonable arguments against devolving some of these issues, from a Labour standpoint, but the report, in its totality, was an unmitigated disaster precipitated by complacency, a lack of ambition, and tawdry internal compromise. Whatever this is, "devo max" it ain't.
But a critical thread running through the document, not always consistently, is the idea that shared social security systems, shared social and economic entitlements, is the glue holding the Union together. The unemployed or disabled person in Tayvallich and Tyneside can expect the same level of support from the state, whichever part of the UK they call home. Unless it upends its thinking entirely, and rats on a key pillar of its referendum rhetoric, Labour cannot support welfare devolution in any serious way.
In his senior statesman bit yesterday, Gordon Brown put welfare first in his list of new powers which Holyrood might gain. But what precisely are Labour and the Tories proposing? How is the universal credit to be untangled? Start with an easy one. Unemployment benefit? Nope. Disability entitlements? No, not those either. Pensions? Don't be daft. Minimum wage? You must be kidding. Pool and share. Pool and share.
The greater welfare powers we're promised are ... well, is ... housing benefit. And inconveniently, that too has been folded into the universal credit project. We're assured that it can be pried out of Iain Duncan Smith's universal credit system, but nobody seems quite clear how. Oh, and attendance allowance. And that's it. Important decisions which touch many people's lives, without question, but if you think controlling housing benefit even begins to approach "devo max" as it has conventionally been understood, you've come up the Clyde in a banana boat.