9 September 2014

Devo-Max? Devo-Won't..

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.


  1. More broadly, this debate is also democratically depleted. The half (or possibly slightly less) of the population who are voting for the Union are being told that their vote has been interpreted as a demand for more localism and more devolution. There's no actual basis for this interpretation: indeed, barely 50% of Scots voted in the last Scottish parliamentary election.

    This might be a case of the Union giving up on the people before the people have officially given up on the Union.

    1. Pretty bleak view but I share it. Eck made the mistake of saying that only 3% of the electorate voted Ukip at the Euro elections, thus provoking the response yes, but only 10% of the electorate voted SNP. I still haven't got over the Hillhead council by- election turnout of 14%

      There is expectation of a large turnout next week - the Quebec turnout was 92 or 93 % - but I think ours will be a fair bit less alas.

      Re the panic measures - so ably darted by LPW - they seem to have worked in Quebec and may well work here. My sister voted Yes postally but would likely have gone No had the measure been on the table before now.

      Strange times. If the Yes campaign wins they will have Cameron to thank, for keeping Devomax off the ticket.

    2. Sorry to hear about your sister, Edwin. My cynical support for independence only extends so far, but it can't be right for folk, who've been extended a postal vote, getting screwed over by the UK government inciting Gordon Brown and comrades into breaching the spirit of the purdah agreement struck in Edinburgh.

      In terms of turnout, I've had my fingers crossed for something in the 70% + range rather than the 80% currently being bandied about, and would be cheerful about that.

      As to the measures proposed? They're essentially about mood, not detail as far as I can see, and as I argued last week, there is clearly a sizeable body of Scottish opinion which wants to believe that further devolution of meaningful powers is possible (even if, as Tychy says, the co-opting of the whole ~ 50% inclined to vote No to this position is somewhat problematic.) That's a powerful force if it can be pulled behind No again. From my point of view, I've always been a bit more sceptical than many of my comrades about the likelihood of the Yes side carrying the day: hence my current good cheer. It is as good as we could hope for, going into the last week. And in retrospect, the exclusion of a second question - controversial in the SNP too, though it was - may look like a calamitous error, if an understandable one.

    3. My "half of the population" may be painting with broad brushstrokes, but the devo options will need to acquire democratic legitimacy.

      In opinion polls, the public always sound very merry about devolution. But when you ask them about, say, the identity of the opposition leader (which is supposed to be slightly important, in a democracy), then 40 or so % of them cannot name her. This isn't the best argument for powers flowing back to Westminster, but I don't think that the devo lobby should get such an easy ride.

    4. Oh forgot to add thanks for the Atkinson Grimshaw - Glasgow still looked a lot like that when I was growing up in 50s!

  2. Interesting.
    There's this real sense, isn't there, of the last few days having laid bare the colossal distance between the UK political class and the people of Scotland (not that they are in touch with any part of the UK population, except in the very limited sense that they focus on manipulating voters in SE England to vote for them every few years).
    To see Osborne, Brown etc etc etc running around like the proverbial decapitated fowl ...well...it's all very enjoyable, all very thrilling....
    But I just want to see that Yes on the day. Just that.

    1. Indeed. We can hear and see it enacted on the airwaves. Much of the UK media, which is arguably now taking the lead on the referendum coverage, is weeks (months even?) behind on many of the issues, the history of the campaign, the vocabulary in which it has been transacted.

  3. The change in language has been noticeable; I have heard "devo max", vague references to 'more powers', and, most surprisingly of all, we even had Brown mention the words "home rule" yesterday which I found especially startling. I suppose this is the kind of lexical dissonance is to be expected when Unionist panic has set in with a feverish vengeance. All the verbal ambiguity and sophistry employed here cannot however divert from the fact that this is mutton being dressed as lamb, an act of conjuring and misdirection for which BT deserves to be righteously excoriated.

    1. It could probably be quantified, after the event, tracking how often the term appeared in any of the papers over the past month. I imagine the statistical disappearance and reappearance of the idea of "devo max" would be vivid.

  4. Before campaign BT wanted a 2/1 ratio in favour of NO,kill two birds,nationalism,devo+.

    Now they would take 50% + 1

    Every time they say more new powers,without stating what they are,is a nail in the coffin.last couple of days painful to watch!Scotland is no mood to have the piss taken out of them

    1. As you say, Water, that vagueness about the character of the actual proposals can be double edged. On the one hand, it is liable to raise the hackles of some folk, unconvinced by vague statements of intention and principle, on the other, I think there will be folk who want to find - in these empty formulations - a pre-text to vote no. Delving into the detail of what is proposed is very unlikely to deliver that pretext for many, I'd suggest. Remaining at the surface level has its advantages too.

    2. Heard this morning ( 9.30ish) on some kind of BBC Scotland phone in programme the ubiquitous Alastair Darling stating that yes, Westminster could dissolve Holyrood, and remove the devolved administration from Scotland. So, it's on record now, if the statement survives the targeted editing process of BBC Scotland. Probably not, then.