18 August 2013

Devosomething: a dormouse aria...

Things we know: if asked, most Scots currently do not support independence, but a large percentage of folk are undecided. If polled, most Scots express positive views about Holyrood taking decisions - in a broad thematic sense, mind you - on welfare and taxation, with less enthusiasm respecting defence and foreign affairs. We also know that the 2014 referendum offers a binary choice, and that Yes supporters are generally convinced, with good reason, that substantial further devolution on the Scotland Act 2012 is unlikely to materialise.  

We also know, as some more candid Labourites recognise, that for many in the Westminster political system, devolution is mainly a sot to Scottish nationalism.  As a consequence, a defeat for independence-supporters in the referendum will eliminate, perhaps for a generation, the only raison d'etre for many supporters of the Union for the devolution of any significant powers from Westminster.  While you can find more principled cases for more devolution made in both the Conservative and the Labour Parties, neither doctrine can reasonably be said to be in the ascendant in either the red or the blue tribe. The elimination of the outside pressure of Scottish nationalism seems unlikely to stimulate more serious consideration of these issues.  

Only the Liberal Democrats have any substantial interest in thinking about the future of the United Kingdom in federal terms, and but for their bastions of yellow-Toryism in the south of England, the party is likely to be pummelled into a canary smear come the next general election.  However interesting these notions may be in the abstract, the views of the Liberal Democrats resound in the political sphere like a dormouse countertenor trying his paw at a Handel aria in the Royal Albert Hall.  However sweetly he sings, the sound is inconsequential. 

Meanwhile, both the Tories and the Labour Party continue to whistle tunelessly on further devolution, paralysed by indecision, and generally informed by no principled commitment to the idea of local governance, nor much of a conception about how political power might usefully be distributed across the democratic institutions of the United Kingdom. They hope, understandably from a venal political perspective, that Scots mistake this loose assembly of promising notes for a sustained melody, the three pro-Union parties singing in tune on devosomething, from a more-or-less similar hymn sheet. 

For me, the most interesting questions on the recent Panelbase poll, commissioned by the readers of Wings Over Scotland, mapped the gap between people's constitutional ambitions, and constitutional expectations.  The first questioned asked, "Which, if any, of the following powers do you think should be devolved to Scotland in the event of a No vote?"  

60% of all respondents suggested welfare should be transferred to Holyrood, 52% in the case of taxation, 53% in respect of oil revenues, and 35% in terms of defence.  Only 6% of those polled thought the powers of the Scottish Parliament should be pared back. For students of Scottish constitutional gender gaps, while only 4% separated men and women in their support for devolution of welfare (62% and 58% respectively), enthusiasm for investing the Scottish Parliament with a mightier sway of taxes generated the sort of differential we're used to seeing on the constitutional question itself. While 61% and 59% of men favour devolving control over oil revenues and taxation respectively, the equivalent figure for female respondents to the poll was 46%.

This question was followed by a second, asking which of these powers folk thought were likely to be devolved if we vote No in September next year.  The gap between aspirations and expectations is startling. Just 21% of folk thought it was likely that greater powers over the welfare system would be devolved, followed by 19% who thought it was likely Holyrood's jurisdiction would be curbed by a triumphant No campaign. Just 14% foresee a greater percentage of their taxes being set by MSPs, with 8% imagining that Swinney may get to spend (or save) the black bounty of the North Sea. 

What we do not know, however, is how much the electorate really care about these devosomething noises. To my knowledge, no poll has asked the critical question: if you thought it unlikely that a No vote would result in the devolution of more powers to Holyrood, would that make you more likely to support independence instead? Many Yes supporters seem convinced that the answer to this question will be a resounding aye.  I'm not so sure. At least, not yet.

The SNP has made a concerted effort to frame the constitutional debate as a choice between the status quo and more powers, independence being represented as the only credible mechanism to invest our democratic institutions with those powers.  If this Panelbase poll is anything to go on, the Nationalist framing of the referendum has gained purchase in the public consciousness, with little expectation amongst those questioned by the pollster that further devolution would follow on from a defeat for Yes Scotland in 2014. If Better Together intend to invest their hopes in jam futures, this leeriness can only be bad news. 

And yet, and yet: Yes Scotland are still trailing in the polls. Skepticism about the likelihood of further devolution hasn't - yet - matured into a view that independence is the least-worst constitutional option for the frustrated federalist, struggling to believe that the United Kingdom is capable of radically reforming itself, and devolving more power.  Is this simply a question of time, of folk slowly, slowly working out what the devil to do?

A pessimist might see a different story in these figures. When I was a child, my mother had a response to juvenile demands which killed all hopes that they would be answered. Pining for some toy, she'd survey the plastic, tartly. "That's a nice idea, we'll think about it", she'd say. The effect was fatal.  I soon learned that toy would never materialise in my grimy mitts.  It wasn't a no exactly, nor a yes, but a diffuse maybe, never capable of transforming my covetous childish thoughts into action. 

Part of me wonders if our constitutional expectations have something in common with this diffident, invariably disappointing response. The Scottish Social Attitude Survey has tended to show that Scots have a complex, often muddled picture about the impact different governments have on their lives and the public services. Few folk keep the schedules to the Scotland Act for bedtime reading, and being in a bit of a guddle about the powers Holyrood already has and might acquire is all too understandable. 

It has become almost axiomatic amongst pro-independence folk that Better Together will have to come up with something substantial on devolution, some offer, if it is to win over these waverers. Curiously, this view tends simultaneously to be articulated alongside the assertion that no more devolution would follow, whatever the implications of David Cameron's or Alistair Darling's promising statements.  Always a canny strategy, to damn your opponents if they do, or don't.

Could it be the case, however, that despite the high percentages who'd support measures to beef up Holyrood's powers, these are generally lukewarm and uncertain ambitions, without any of the warmth of feeling necessary to transform enthusiasts for devolution, deprived of any more congenial option of devolution within the United Kingdom, into tepid Yes supporters? Do Scots really care as much, in detail, about devolution as the independence debate often assumes? Perhaps Stuart Campbell will find out for us in his next crowd-funded poll, and test the temperature.

Nationalists don't want to end up singing our own dormouse aria.


  1. There are two factors to consider. However lukewarm it may be - and I see no reason to suppose that it is particularly so - enthusiasm for "more powers" is supplemented and amplified by growing unease about the consequences of a No vote.

    Put these two together and you have a increasingly powerful motivation for people to overcome the trepidation fostered by Project Fear and vote Yes.

    1. Peter,

      Don't misconstrue me: I can see the force of that, and the argument for folk with those ambitions for the country moving towards Yes as time goes on. Perhaps something along the lines I mention will find its way into a poll some time soon. It'd be interesting to hear what folk say, if only to allay my constitutional butterflies!

  2. worth remembering the mighty uptick in 1997 as 'don't know' realized that they were actually 'Yes/Yes' when they entered the voting booth.

    1. Derick,

      I know the phenomenon you mean, and suspect it might exercise a good deal of force, come September 2014. I like to think of them as "sod it" Yes voters, folk who won't blaze with passion in crossing their x, but who'll come to see independence as the best option before us. As someone said to me recently, if Scotland votes Yes, it will probably come as something of a surprise to us all...

  3. This is a sound assessment of where we are, but it demonstrates the naivety of the Yes campaign that these questions have only lately occurred to them. Cameron has gambled that Scotland will vote No and that Salmond's government will be discredited (ie existentially above all else). There will be naturally a moratorium on further devolution. Time has shown that Cameron is gambling with good odds.

    Of course, the electorate seem to generally favour further devolution, but Devo Max/Plus/Lite/Extra Cold was never going to be on the referendum paper. If the Devo option had won, Salmond would have stil been able to maintain that he had achieved something in the teeth of a No vote. And, from Dave's perspective, what's the point of a No vote if it doesn't discredit Salmond?

    Perhaps the Edinburgh Agreement only seems like a trap in retrospect. I cannot recall if I was arguing the above at the time.