Devo-max isn’t a solution, it’s a whole new can of worms

Matt Gwilliam argues that devo-max is constitutionally untenable, turning the West Lothian question into a crisis


One of the most contentious issues around a referendum for Scottish independence is whether or not so-called devolution-max should be offered as an option. But as Matt Gwilliam argues, devolution-max creates far more problems than it solves.

Cameron’s apparent decision to force the pace of the Scottish independence is a gamble but possibly the right one. Politically it may be the astute move played against a backdrop of growing impatience in the rest of the Union with a Scottish leader in grave danger of overplaying his hand.

If the UK government gets its way, a straight up or down referendum is a good policy from a prime minister keen to change his possible fate from the one who resided over the end of the Union, to the one that closed the issue for a generation.

The polling shows that Scots have limited appetite for full independence, but are keen on the idea of devolution-max, a policy that many feel would continue to fuel the debate about independence for years.

If it may be the right thing politically, it is also the right one democratically. The oft floated, devolution-max option pushes the barely tolerable status quo of devolved power to Scotland and Wales but not England to breaking point.

Allowing just one of our nations into a position of such autonomy changes the nature of the entire country and stretches our current parliament past its limits. With so much power devolved, is it really appropriate for Scottish MPs to vote on almost anything but the most blatant of pan-UK issues?

A compromise whereby Scottish MPs are barred from some votes seems problematic and unlikely. What would be considered a UK-only issue and who would decide this? For example, if Scotland has major tax-and-spend powers, is a UK budget really a clear-cut pan-UK issue? If Scottish MPs were barred from voting, a government could struggle to pass a budget.

More significantly, could a party with a narrow majority made up of Scottish MPs really claim to have a mandate to govern at all?

With all the associated trappings and power that government could block and obstruct debates and legislation on non-Scottish issues.

A shadow government made up of opposition parties could emerge within parliament that would dictate legislation on non-Scottish issues whilst the actual government would be forced to implement them. The minister responsible for universities would have no say over legislation for that department.

Any solution to these problems would seem inelegant and require fundamental changes to our constitution and the relationship that all the people of the Union have with their governments. Therefore, any move towards devolution-max requires the consent of the entire Union.

Scotland is its own nation and a referendum on independence should be respected. Devolution-max however, raises so many issues about the nature of the UK that it should only occur after a wider UK debate and with the consent of all nations.

See also:

• SNP: Cam’s “economic uncertainty” argument is nonsense; we’ll stick to our timetable –  Humza Yousaf MSP, January 9th 2012

• Scottish Labour leader: “I want the referendum to be held as quickly as possible”Johann Lamont MSP, January 9th 2012

• Salmond tells Westminster it’s time to end interference in Scotland – Ed Jacobs, October 24th 2011

• Super-confident Salmond has the air of a man who seems untouchable – Ed Jacobs, September 8th 2011

• Nomination for most influential left-wing thinker of the year: Alex Salmond – Ed Jacobs, September 3rd 2011

• What do the SNP mean by “independence”? – Ed Jacobs, May 16th 2011

• The five steps to Scottish independence – Professor Robert Hazell, May 7th 2011

14 Responses to “Devo-max isn’t a solution, it’s a whole new can of worms”

  1. Anonymous

    People are already asking these questions about the *current* settlement. To pretend that only devo-max will bring up these questions, and that it therefore must be stopped looks like choosing your position (against devo-max) then looking backwards for a simple justification.

  2. Patron Press - #P2

    #UK : Devo-max isn ’t a solution, it ’s a whole new can of worms

  3. Paul Taylor

    It may arguably be undemocratic to impose devolution-max on England without further steps being taken. But given that you concede that “the polling shows that Scots … are keen on the idea of devolution-max”, it seems highly undemocratic to prevent Scots having a chance to indicate this preference in a referendum. How can one exclude what is potentially the majority position, and then claim that the referendum result still indicates the will of the people of Scotland? The proposed SNP referendum is non-binding, so let’s allow Scotland to indicate their preference, and then take that preference to the rest of the UK and see what can be achieved.

  4. MG

    I’m not “pretending” anything. In fact I referred to the current settlement as “barely tolerable”. My point was that devo-max would amplify these issues beyond breaking point.

  5. MG

    Good point. Though I would argue that there’s no point in having a referendum indicating a preference for a policy which does not exist. So many questions have yet to be answered about the consequences for the Westminster parliament.

    My other point is that such a settlement would have to be put to the whole country for approval, not just the Scots. If the referendum were put to Scotland first, any ballot paper question would have to start, “on the condition that the English, Welsh and Northern Irish also approve to fundamentally change the constitution for the entire UK….”

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