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Phillip Blond: Double devolution is best bet for the Union

ResPublica Director Phillip Blond writes for the Scotsman

With support for independence waning, a more radical devo-max is the answer.


If recent surveys are to be believed, only about a third of Scottish people would now support full independence in any coming referendum, and more than 50 per cent intend to vote no. With the economy worsening, projects such as Scottish independence look inordinately risky with only the most devout nationalists believing independence would create anything other than a further downswing.

Quite why Scots are increasingly dubious about independence is a matter for debate, perhaps because even a cursory analysis shows starkly negative outcomes. For example, only those with a total ignorance of European law would suggest that with independence, immediate accession to the EU would follow. In reality, due process could take years and EU membership would not be made easy with countries such as Spain not wishing to create an example for its own independent-minded regions. And any interregnum might be even more peculiar if Scotland went independent. Brussels could demand that the UK enforces border controls so as to secure EU boundaries – hardly a recipe for Scottish growth and stability.

Moreover, unless it wants to surrender its newly-won financial autonomy to the Germans, the coming EU fiscal pact would force Scotland to avoid the euro and maintain the pound, in which case it would have its monetary policy decided by an England with no care for Scotland. Plus the much mooted nationalist oil reservoir is not all it appears to be. By the 2020’s, many fields will no longer be productive and because of technical difficulties around extraction, Scottish oil production may no longer be at scale by 2040. And all of this analysis ignores the shale gas revolution which may well force oil down to $50 a barrel rendering the majority of Scottish fields uneconomic to operate.

But all of this is by the by, though the debate around independence has been primarily economic, the true rationale for the Union is cultural and historical. Once one believes the source of any union is economic benefit, then the relationship is already over. So to be honest I couldn’t give a damn about economic arguments for or against the union – whether England subsidises, as it does, the Scots to the tune of 13 per cent more public spending per head than Britain as a whole, and whether this is due recompense for the past benefits of North sea oil – which it probably is – is all beside the point. One is not for or against one’s brother or sister on the basis of how much they earn or how much they cost.

I am I confess a believer in the Union, quite simply because we are greater together and have achieved more in the history of the world than we could ever have done apart. The loss of Catholic Ireland was a disaster for England. We lost a romantic and visionary people and they lost the ability to communicate and propagate through and with us their own particular national genius.

While support for independence has waned, backing for “devo-max”, whereby yet greater policy and fiscal powers are awarded to Holyrood, has steadily risen. The desire of Scottish people for greater power over their own fate and more economic and political autonomy from Westminster is an attractive idea.

David Cameron’s most astute political move has been to force an either/or choice on the nationalists – allowing devo-max on the referendum issue would obscure the principle of staying together and maintain the steadily eroding culture of the status quo. What Scotland fears is that a Tory-dominated English parliament would undermine a specifically Scottish settlement. This is the nationalists’ greatest weapon – given that our two cultures have diverged, one legitimately fears submission to the greater power of the other.

What Alistair Darling’s Better Together campaign might well be advised to do is persuade the English government to offer, if independence is voted down, devo-max as a guard against such a fear but offer it not just to Holyrood but to Scotland’s towns, cities and regions as well. One of the poisons that the independence campaign has injected into the Scottish body politic is an almost complete paralysis of debate around public services, regional growth and a future vision for Scotland. Innovation, change and much needed reform has been forced out of the debate.

A new offer of radical decentralisation to and concentration of powers in Scottish cities and local authorities would take power away from not just Westminister, but Holyrood as well. It would parallel similar demands by local government in England and Wales and it would allow Scottish city states to exist once more and innovate and address their own problems in their own ways.

As such this double devolution would bypass nationalist centralisation and stagnation and make a new offer to the Scottish people more radical than the current devo-max which would just empower a centralised standardised state, one that has so manifestly failed to deliver for the poorest and most needy in Scotland.

A new localist offer should incorporate both welfare provision and building on the new tax-raising powers due to come in in 2015 as full a fiscal autonomy as possible. Then the Scots could rest assured that they could pursue their own settlement without fear of its derailment by an English parliament.

Paradoxically, the path to securing the union lies in a more radical form of devo-max than the nationalists could ever conceive off.

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Date Published
05 September 2012

About The Authors

Phillip Blond

Phillip is an internationally recognised political thinker and social and economic commentator. He bridges the gap bet...