Reforming Devolution, Deepening Union

About a year ago Ruth Davidson MSP, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, asked me if I would act as an independent adviser to the Strathclyde Commission. This is a Commission, chaired by the former Leader of the House of Lords, Lord Strathclyde, set up to review Scottish devolution. The Commission’s work is ongoing: it is due to report to Ruth Davidson next month and, as I understand it, the report will be made public in May.

On the opening day of the Scottish Conservatives’ 2014 conference there was a question and answer session with two members of the Commission and with me. I was asked to say a few remarks setting out how the Commission has approached its work. The full text of what I said is set out below. For the record, I should of course stress that these are my views. I am speaking neither for the Strathclyde Commission nor for the Scottish Conservative party.

My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour to speak with you this afternoon.

Our most important task is to win the referendum in September. Everything the Commission does is undertaken with that over-riding objective in mind.

The choice before us in September is not “independence versus the status quo”; “change versus no change”. A No vote is guaranteed to mean that devolution will change and develop. How do I know this? I know it because it’s already been legislated for, in the Scotland Act 2012. This Act, described at the time of its enactment by the then Secretary of State for Scotland as the largest transfer of fiscal powers within the United Kingdom in its history, will bring to Holyrood a substantial degree of fiscal devolution. These new powers — as long as Scotland votes No to independence — will come fully into force in 2015 and 2016. Now, this is not “jam tomorrow”, as Nationalists sometimes claim: it has already been legislated for. So the choice we face on 18 September is one between bringing devolution to an end (for there will be no devolution if Scotland becomes independent) and developing devolution further.

The Scottish Parliament is already a remarkably powerful body. Since 1999 it has been responsible for more than 60% of the public money spent in Scotland. It has a budget of £35 billion. This puts the spending powers of the Scottish Parliament on a par with those of the German Lander, the Canadian Provinces and the Australian States. This is the context within which any clamour for “more powers” should be understood. This is not to say that we cannot or should not seek to make it even more powerful — but it is, as I say, necessary to remember that Holyrood is already a Parliament possessing very significant powers. Perhaps, if I may say so, it has been one of the failures of the Unionist parties not to have made this rather clearer to the people of Scotland.

I want to clear up a little terminological confusion. There is a tendency amongst commentators to describe any conversation about further powers for Holyrood as a conversation about “devo max”. This is a mistake. Devolution is a Unionist solution to the problem of multi-national government in the UK. We have the one state — the UK — but there are distinct nations within that state. Devolution is an avowedly and firmly Unionist solution to that rather unusual characteristic.

“Devo max”, by contrast, is a Nationalist invention. Invented and articulated in the SNP’s “national conversation” of 2007-09 it is designed not to strengthen or to deepen the Union, but to break it. And that, of course, is the very opposite of what the Strathclyde Commission is seeking to do. The Commission’s job is to take a hard look at the devolutionary arrangements we find ourselves with and to consider how they may be improved and developed to the mutual benefit of Scotland and the rest of the UK alike. This means, for example, that we are thinking not only about the devolution of powers to Scotland, but also about the devolution of powers within Scotland. And it also means that we are thinking about the issues with the whole of the UK in mind. No Unionist party should be thinking about the future of devolution in one part of the United Kingdom without thinking through the consequences for the Union as a whole.

The Commission’s aim is ambitious, but the prize is great. Our aim is to find a Unionist and devolutionary future for Scotland so compelling that the alternative — separation and the break-up of Britain — looks so misguided that it simply become unthinkable. The prize, if we are successful, is that Scotland’s place in the Union will be as secure for the next 300 years as it has been for the last 300.

Thank you very much.

There is, of course, much more to be said about how and why “devo max” is (as I described it at the conference) a “perversion” of how a Unionist would understand devolution. There is not a single country anywhere in the world governed under a system of “devo max”. I write more about this in an academic article which is about to be published in the Law Quarterly Review. There is also a good deal more to be said about the specifics of further devolution. For now, I shall say nothing about that. The issues are mined in depth in the ongoing series of “devo more” papers published by the IPPR (and freely available on their website).

There is just one point of process that I shall make now. Consider how devolution has been delivered in the UK. It has never been imposed by London. It has been delivered only after a clear demand for it has been made in the relevant part of the UK. Oftentimes the strength of that demand has been tested in a referendum (including in Scotland in 1997). Now that we have devolution in Scotland there is only one body that could legitimately make that demand: the Scottish Parliament. After the independence referendum there will — alas — still be an SNP majority in the Scottish Parliament. For Westminster to deliver further, enhanced, devolution consistently with the way in which all devolution in the UK has been delivered to date, it will require the SNP to make the case for it. Thus, “what No means” is a question not only for “the No camp” (as the Deputy First Minister likes to call us) but is also a pressing question for the Scottish Government and for the SNP.

If, after independence is defeated on 18 September, the SNP want “more powers” for Holyrood, they had better start engaging with the very questions the Strathclyde Commission is engaging with: what is the best future for Scottish devolution?