Monday, 28 November 2011

Devo-Max and Full Fiscal Autonomy are very different animals.

There is a substantial and strong argument that Alex Salmond and Scotland’s SNP government should back the Devo-Max option which presently appears the preferred choice of Scots voters. Salmond himself has indicated it may be a third option on the ballot. It is an argument that Nationalists as a whole tend to reject wanting a simple yes/no.

Examination of Devo-Max and Full Fiscal Autonomy, FFA, indicates that while campaigning hard for an outright yes vote, independence supporters should also sing the praises of the third option. Any vote removed from the NO campaign has to instinctively be a good result for the Yes campaign, and in view of Westminster’s tactics many in the NO camp may find it substantially easier to slide to “maybe” than all the way to YES in the time allowed.

The middle choice, Devo-Max or FFA, are apparently halfway houses that neither Unionists nor Nationalists appear to want. This third choice is also an option that Salmond recognizes must be on offer if much of the Scots electorate is not to be disenfranchised.

The SNP acknowledgment of the need for a third question at the recent Inverness party conference is testimony to a belief in democracy. Although Alex Salmond declared he personally doesn’t want it and has promised he will not campaign for it, he acknowledged its need because of that indicated grass roots policy support.

The major problem for all political parties is that a compromise between the perceived extremes does have such widespread support, a fundamental reason it enjoys such popularity is due to the inherently conservative nature of the average Scot coupled to Westminster tactics and mainstream media reporting bias.

Many Scots have yet to realize that Devo-Max is the one option that it’s not in Alex Salmond’s power to give, nor is it in the Scots' electorate’s power to demand. We can accept the status quo. We can demand and take independence we can dictate FFA, but Devo-Max is Westminster’s gift. It is, however, a gift that cannot be left to Westminster to define.

As a fundamental difference it bears repeating, Scotland can dictate FFA, but Devo-Max is Westminster’s gift - or not - as Westminster alone chooses.

Unlike Devo-Max, FFA is is a declaration by the people of Scotland that they will control all decisions regarding their own finances. Fundamentally Scotland will be informing Westminster that the Treaty of Union is now formally over and invite Westminster to co-operate on measures for common benefit that Scotland wishes to support.

In a simpler manner, the Scots would authorize Holyrood to repatriate all fiscal powers from Westminster. It’s not that substantially different in concept than the repatriation of powers Cameron talks about from the EU to Westminster.

FFA would appear from Scotland’s perspective to be the better option if there must be a third choice. Unless public opinion alters dramatically, if we are to have even pretence of democracy in our new Scotland, that third option must be present.

If the Scots are given a referendum option of FFA and endorse it then Edinburgh will simply kick the ball to London on a set timescale and wait to see what London sends back.

Westminster quite simply has two options, they can either accept an ongoing union of truly equal partners with both Scotland and England having a veto on any policy, or it can reject it and accept the resultant fully independent nation on its northern border. This is why, politically, FFA is being played down and Devo-Max talked up by many Unionists.

FFA will directly result in a federal UK or the end of the Union, there is no other possible outcome to such a vote. Devo-Max could simply be another long step in an already overlong process. As evidenced by the Unionists attempts to derail autonomy within the current Scotland Bill it could easily end up “not fit for purpose” if the details are left until after the referendum.

From a Scots perspective FFA would be preferable; it retains the decision making process within Scotland.

Scotland will effectively tell London we’re going to “reap our own harvest and ring our own till” then wait for London’s negotiators to agree a new constitutional settlement, or not.

Effectively an FFA vote will turn back the Scots constitutional clock to 1705/1706. Scotland votes for Union but only under a union of true financial equals. These are terms England cannot foreseeably accept.

England should not be expected to accept these terms, a country with 10% of the economy and population having a veto on the decisions of a land ten times its own would be inappropriate. Just as it would be as inappropriate as any nation dictating to any other nation.

The FFA vote would also require the UN to stand behind Scotland’s democratic right to self determination, effectively removing the UK constitutional arguments. It is arguable that there is no UK constitution, as immediately Scotland decides to repatriate powers the Westminster government should be required to comply. We co-exist under a treaty, not by right of conquest.

With the fiscal veto authority that would inherently lie within Holyrood after an FFA vote being anathema to Westminster, the establishment therefore presently perceives its best interests to lie in Devo-Max.

There will be a considerable amount of both Unionist and Nationalist political maneuvering around the Devo-Max stance, defining what Devo-Max will really mean and what it accurately entails. There will be resolutions to be reached on taxation, foreign policy, defense, health, social security, welfare, the unemployment system and more.

Each area impacted by Devo-Max will have far reaching and presently uninvestigated consequences. Confusion in issues must be anticipated as far as possible, and statutes amended to avoid those confusions. Issues of potential conflict like the status of power generation [reserved] and planning permission [devolved] should be avoided or a process for resolution put in place.

Each area must be investigated as thoroughly as possible before the question is put into the referendum. The process should start early in the new year to allow a reasonable period of investigation and debate.

The only foreseeable method of doing this in the timeframe available before the referendum is for Alex Salmond to announce the convening of a cross party panel of MSP’s who will frame the fundamentals of the Devo-Max question. There should be members of every party invited and the roll, with party affiliations, acceptances and refusals must be publicized prominently.

It is the biggest question of our generation and will carry an impact for countless years.

If any of the Unionist party’s decline to participate then the panel would comprise those that remain. The panel would be tasked with deriving a set of constitutional adjustments in a defined timeframe that should be passed as a bill by the Scottish Government.

The bill as passed by Holyrood would also have a defined implementation timetable; it would go to Westminster for ratification well before the referendum. Westminster can then either ratify or reject the legislation.

Ultimately Westminster shall be the entity to easily enfranchise or make the attempt to disenfranchise this presently vast swathe of Scots, and those self same Scots will be very aware of Westminster’s actions, reasoning and underlying motives.

If Westminster refuses to ratify Devo-Max prior to the referendum, Holyrood can simply state that to avoid disenfranchising such a greater part of Scotland’s voters they will put forward the option of FFA as the third choice instead.

Independence, FFA or Devo-Max and the Status Quo are the options presently facing Scots.

The benefits of advanced constitutional debate at Holyrood and Westminster are clear. Scots will know who and what they are voting for at referendum time should they choose the Devo-Max/FFA option. They will know why they have which of the center options. There will be no confusion as they either vote to get the blue turbocharged sports car of independence, the nice conservative white minibus of Devo-Max or the nimble sedan of FFA.

Unless the Devo-Max minibus has the wheels removed by Westminster, as could be anticipated by the content of present comments from London. Scots will then know both who to blame for the attempted disenfranchisement and the true value of Westminster’s “respect agenda” – a fact which will be re-enforced on the ballot paper as they actually cast their vote.


  1. A fascinating distinction. I think you're right that if Westminster tries to fiddle the referendum, Scots will know and will not react well.

  2. Great post - a fine, thughtful distinction between FFA and Devo-max which I hadn't thought of. I agree that it is time for the SNP to convene a commission into defining what is what, so that the Scottish people cans see clearly the choices in front of them.

  3. Really good post, I had not appreciated the difference before reading your post. Thank you.