No matter if one thinks of Scottish journalists as paid hacks of the British state, and let’s be frank, most are, a few do hold tight to their integrity, but they tend to be freelance. Iain Macwhirter is one who has managed to say out of the bag of old rusty bits and ridiculed for it by his peers, and by too-quick-to-condemn Internet tweeters.
Macwhirter announced early that he supported Scotland’s independence, and has held to that while the SNP tortoise is still asleep. He went further and criticised BBC Scotland, a place where he promoted his opinions and earned a fee for his time, only to see himself cold-shouldered by that oh-so terribly impartial news and opinion gathering corporation. You will not see him fronting a television walk-about series on as much as restoring a Clyde steamer, let alone Scotland’s politics. (I hope he is given air time.)
Here, courtesy of his weekly column, Macwhirter looks at the latest wheeze, Home Rule, actually a very old idea. To me, ‘Home Rule’ signifies more of the same from England’s Home counties. The excuse for discussing what is no more than a halfway-house compared to genuine autonomy is the same as ever, the fashionable falsehood that it ‘avoids a divisive referendum’, people at each others throats. Who claimed politics of any national importance involving equality is always conducted harmoniously, peace and light flooding into dark corners? Securing equality means upending the comfortable, and they are sure to squeal blue murder.
A history of England’s conquests reminds us that the half-way solution leaves colonised nations in a worse mess that before, the bungled withdrawal of a dominating British state able to say, we told you so; you needed England’s guiding hand. “We taught you the intricacies of cricket – you still cannot play it properly. What are we to think of you?” When dealing with England, we are dealing with one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and it is all legal.
As one quick-witted reader posted: “England would still choose where the nukes were kept, when and who we went to war with.”
The question that advocates of Devo-Max avoid is also as old as the hills. Alex Salmond offered a version of keeping good links with England yet was thoroughly rejected by opponents for his consideration. To make sure he did not propose it again, he was denounced as a non-person, Politburo-style, aided and abetted by the SNP he had helped create. The notion English interests will not trample all over a Home Rule bill is delusional. If England ever accepted Home Rule the dice will be loaded. A solution must come from the Scots, by Scots, for Scotland.
Moreover, dscussing Home Rule gets the SNP off the hook. We submit to poor leadership, Nicola Sturgeon’s chronic fear of the real thing – independence.
One is tempted to introduce Macwhirter’s article as just a piece of topical whimsy, but Home Rule is bound to gain momentum with Westminster free of influence and leverage from the European Union, one of the smartest moves by the Tory far-right to lasso runaway ‘territories’ and bring them to heel.
Faced by a weak SNP leadership, the Tory Party is having a field day. Instead of ‘what currency will you use?’ they can throw in a whole series of complications to self-reliance on top of climate change and a never-ending pandemic of economic woes.
I have always been of the opinion a Scottish journalist cannot be trusted; he or she will always revert to type. Macwhirter makes good my observation, but he will argue a dry oat cake is fine when cheese is unavailable. Readers can judge his remarks for themselves. To my mind, Home Rule, Devo-Max, however you label it, is the biggest squirrel let loose, so far. Watch our feckless ‘leaders’ chase it.
DEVO-MAX IS BACK
by Iain Macwhirter
Here’s a counter-factual to reflect upon this week. If Scotland had voted Yes in 2014, would Brexit have happened in 2016? I very much doubt it.
David Cameron, or rather his successor, would surely not have risked a referendum on leaving the European Union after such a disaster as Scotland voting to leave the United Kingdom. The Westminster Government would anyway be up to its oxters in negotiations with Scotland over borders, currency, debt, Trident … There just wouldn’t have been the bandwidth to cope with another massive constitutional upheaval.
But of course, Scotland voted No in 2014 by a decisive majority. Mr Cameron went ahead with the Brexit referendum in 2016 thinking it was a slam dunk for Remain. It wasn’t. So we are where we are.
Remainers console themselves by tweeting told-you-so’s about trade and the Northern Ireland Protocol. But the UK will not be rejoining the European Union in the foreseeable future. Vaccine nationalism by Brussels was bad enough, but the imposition of a regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK will only harden Brexit opinion.
The NI border trouble is beginning to weigh heavily on the minds of independence supporters in Scotland. There is no way around it: leaving the UK, post-Brexit, will a create a hard border with England and a massive currency headache for the provisional government of an independent Scotland. The SNP, having realised this, has opted for denial. Nicola Sturgeon has said precisely nothing of substance about the constitutional future despite last month’s landslide “mandate” for indyref2.
But politics like nature abhors a vacuum, and while the First Minister waits for a referendum that will never come, others are busy reviving the constitutional equivalent of flared trousers: devo max.
Out of fashion
Maximum devolution went out of fashion after 2012, when Mr Cameron insisted on a binary referendum. But it’s suddenly being talked up in the most surprising places. The Alba MP Kenny MacAskill shocked many Alba members last week by calling for “home rule” as an alternative to the present indyref deadlock. He has lost any confidence in Ms Sturgeon as an agent of change. Home rule, the original devo max, has a respectable history, here and in Ireland. It might, Mr MacAskill says, “break the log jam”.
Perhaps he’s right. An unlikely coalition of devo-maxers has emerged from the the closet recently. The former Labour front bencher Neil Findlay, and the Red Paper Collective called last month for maximum devolution of economic powers to deal with Scotland’s social problems. One of our leading academic authorities on nationalism, Professor Jim Mitchell of Edinburgh University, has been arguing for a “third way” that will avoid another divisive referendum. Like many on the nationalist left, he wants to avoid the kind of chaos and angst that the Brexit referendum left in its wake.
How we dislike dissonance
The former Labour MEP David Martin is also worried about social division. Before he left the European Parliament, where he specialised on constitutional issues, Mr Martin had moved toward Yes on the Scottish Question. He is now calling for what he calls “independence in the UK” which sounds like an oxymoron but is a form of asymmetrical federalism.
Under this version of devo max, Scotland would assume completely control of its economy: tax spending and borrowing. The late Donald Dewar once called for something similar back in the day. Further back still this used to labelled “dominion status” when applied to former colonies like Canada and Australia in the 1940s.
Scotland’s “independence” would still be severely constrained under this arrangement, not least by retaining the pound. But that would also have been the case had Scotland voted Yes in 2014. Indeed, Alex Salmond always said his objective was to create a “new UK” based on partnership by self-governing states under the Crown. The 1603 Union would have remained even as the 1707 Union was revoked. The 2013 independence White Paper envisaged a continuing “social union”, guaranteed by common membership of the EU.
That 2014 project is clearly dead. But there may now be space opening for a new constitutional settlement along similar lines but without a referendum. Mind you, it would require a lot more than another Vow, or another Smith Commission. To be taken seriously it would have to atone for the breach of trust over the Sewel Convention. That was supposed to ensure that Westminster could not legislate in devolved areas without Holyrood’s consent. But we now know that Sewel wasn’t worth the paper it wasn’t printed on.
Perhaps something like the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 might work. A statement that Westminster had no “selfish, strategic or economic interest” in Scotland might be the basis for change, as it was in Ireland. The declaration would make clear that Scotland is a sovereign nation, but that it would agree to “pool sovereignty” (rather like states in the EU) in the areas of currency, foreign affairs, strategic defence. That is pretty much the substance of Mr Martin’s “independence in the UK”.
Many nationalists would scoff, especially if this new arrangement were brokered by Prince William after his grandmother passes away. It may sound naive. But what is the alternative?
If a second independence referendum were, by some remote chance, to happen, the best the independence movement could hope for is a narrow victory for Yes. That result would be contested by the unionist minority, just as the Leave vote was resisted by the Remain minority – Ms Sturgeon included – all the way to the Supreme Court.
Independistas have to ask themselves: do they continue with fruitless bickering over an independence referendum that, if it ever happened, would cause a decade of social instability? Scotland is not as far from the politics of Northern Ireland as we’dlike to think.
The SNP is anyway committed to “fiscal autonomy”, which is devo max by another name. Tory and northern Labour MPs would be happy to see the end of the discredited Barnett Formula. The SNP is pro NATO so there need be no strategic issues.
Scotland and England will have to coexist on this small island. Devo-maxers think they can achieve the same objectives as 2014, only without the referendum. Who knows: they may be right.