The obvious one is what powers he actually thinks should be devolved, and as has been pointed out by the First Minister and others, it would be grossly irresponsible to tell Scots that if they vote “no” in the referendum, they will get more powers, without even telling them which ones, never mind putting in place a guarantee that this “jam tomorrow” will indeed be forthcoming. Unionists often claim that the SNP have not fleshed out what exactly “independence” means, but generally they can only refer to how things will be implemented, rather than what will be implemented – there’s no question we will have a separate defence force, for example, but they ask how this will work in practice, although even this has been explained by Salmond. By contrast, we quite simply do not know which powers Cameron et al would like to devolve to Scotland. In a manner of speaking, independence is nothing more than the full devolution of powers to Scotland, so that there are no more reserved powers at Westminster, and as a result, anything less than that requires spelling out so people know which powers are included and which aren’t.
But this leads onto the next question: if Cameron is already acknowledging that Scotland needs more powers devolved, then isn’t this a tacit admission that the Scotland Bill which is currently going through Westminster is not good enough? After all, if it was good enough, he would be telling us that we’re getting all the devolution we need in that bill. So if it’s a dud bill, why not scrap it? This then leads onto the next question – why wait until after the referendum to hand these powers to Scotland? If there is acknowledgment that we need these powers, then why not replace the Scotland Bill with one that puts these powers in place? If Cameron was serious about wanting to devolve these powers, then surely the easiest way to quell people’s appetite for independence is to give them the powers they seek, thus making the “no” vote a vote for this brand new set of powers. The unionist argument against having a devo max option on the referendum is that we don’t require a public plebiscite to devolve powers – the mechanism is there already. If devolution and independence are indeed two distinct processes – as people like Anas Sarwar are so fond of telling us – then there is no need to wait until after the referendum to hand these powers to Scotland.
Well, I’ll tell you the answers to these questions, although I think we all know the answers already. Cameron is not actually in favour of devolving more powers to Scotland, and he’s certainly not in favour of letting ordinary people have a say in deciding which ones they might be. Consider how the Scotland Bill was constructed – a group of people, including several unelected peers, were hand-picked by the unionist parties to come up with a range of proposals to fit the following remit: “To review the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998 in the light of experience and to recommend any changes to the present constitutional arrangements that would enable the Scottish Parliament to serve the people of Scotland better, improve the financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament “and continue to secure the position of Scotland within the United Kingdom.”
That last clause is perhaps the key phrase, and describes the unionist attitude towards devolution. Devolution it nothing more than a way of keeping Scotland within the union, as we’ve known ever since George Robertson said it would “kill nationalism stone dead.” It’s primary concern is not Scotland or the people of Scotland, but the union. Any powers which might benefit Scotland, but would put the union at risk, will never be devolved. It is for this reason that we can state, quite categorically, that devolution is only about preserving the union, and not about empowering Scots.
But there is another facet of this. As I said, the Calman Commission was an unelected body, hand-picked to come to a rough conclusion with unionist peers in there to ensure nothing too radical came out. This is how unionists like devolution to work, because it ensures they retain control of the process. However, allowing the wider public to discuss what powers they would like devolved, and then giving them a vote on it, removes that power from the hands of politicians completely. They are left with the option of saying “no”, and risking the wrath of the electorate, or giving in to the public’s demands. Politicians hate this, which is why the Tories and Lib Dems were so overjoyed at being able to throw their manifestos out the window and come up with a “coalition agreement”, safe in the knowledge that this new post-election “manifesto” would not have to get public consent. If you ask the public what they want devolved, there is no way of knowing for sure what they will want – the only certain thing is that they will not seek to reserve any powers back to Westminster, which the Scotland Bill does.
As I said in an earlier piece on devo max,
giving people free reign to pontificate on which powers to devolve allows them to question why certain things are and aren’t devolved, and coming to conclusions that are dangerous for anyone hell-bent on keeping the union intact. There are very specific reasons why unionists do not want certain things devolved, as (Captain) Alistair Darling hinted at when talking about which powers he would like devolved. He mentions income tax as an “easy” one to devolve, since it’s a straightforward process to identify who is Scottish and who isn’t, but he also mentions other taxes as being more complicated, like corporation tax. Now, apart from the question this raises in regards to Northern Ireland (“if it’s so complicated to devolve, how come it’s being considered for Northern Ireland?”), this highlights the fact that there is more to consider when devolving powers than simply “is it in Scotland’s best interests to have this power?” Letting us, the great unwashed, decide which powers should be devolved would not only entail saying “no” a lot, but also having to explain why. It would soon become apparent just how much of a hindrance the union is, to all but the most ardent unionists, and independence suddenly becomes not just attractive, but essential.
This is why unionists want to stifle debate. In order to save the union, they need to have the notion of discussing further powers pushed into the long grass until after the referendum. If they succeed in this, then all they need to do to win the referendum is convince people that what they want is not independence, but some unidentified “further devolution” – then they can worry about how to skirt past doing it. But if they are forced to spell out what this further devolution would consist of, then the referendum becomes independence vs further powers, and they have to make “further powers” attractive enough for people to vote for (which is a whole other problem in itself), and then deliver on it afterwards. It’s also not entirely clear whether it would be easier to defeat independence using further powers as a “spoiler”, or if it would then make people more open to the idea, with the rationale being: “we’re devolving all these powers anyway, why not just go the whole way?” So they will try to counteract this by avoiding proper debate, instead choosing to claim that any good ideas the SNP have for independence “can be devolved later” and hoping people fall for it.
It’s not going to wash, though. We’re not stupid, and even those who say we were fooled before by the last Tory who offered “better devolution” seem to forget that we actually weren’t, as the 1979 referendum was actually a 52% vote in favour of devolution. A non-binding promise to consider jam tomorrow, of an unidentified flavour and unspecified size of jar, will not work. It’s just another unionist trick, and people can already see right through it.
Mr Cameron will not devolve any more powers, it is all spin. To paraphrase Alan Partridge in I’m Alan Partridge series 1 episode 1: “Revolution, not devolution. I mean, that is me. I revolve, but I don’t… Devolve…”