The Debate in Review #1 - In Search of ‘Devo-Max-Woman’

Published: 10 September 2013

One of the regular features of the Future of the UK and Scotland blog will be ‘The Debate in Review’ – a digest of some of the key issues that have come up, an update on what’s happening in the Future of the UK and Scotland programme, spiced with some reflection and comment. This is the first …

The last couple of weeks have seen some prominent speeches. Those by Michael Moore and Alex Salmond formed a twinset. Mr Salmond spoke in Campbeltown while in town for one of the Scottish Cabinet’s periodic roadshow meetings around Scotland. He focused on the opportunities for fresh thinking that constitution-making would bring if Scotland voted Yes, but also returned to his recent theme of the UK as a series of unions, only one of which – the political union – would be dissolved should Scotland vote Yes. The others – unions of monarchy, currency and defence, common membership of the European Union and the ‘social union’ of enduring social and family ties – would remain intact and shared with the rest of the UK.

Speaking at Glasgow University for the Institute of Public Policy Research, Mr Moore took this idea on as – in his view – a dubious sales pitch aimed at ‘de-risking’ independence which over-stated the level of continuity that Scots could expect and under-stated the disruptions independence might bring.

What those speeches showed was what politics academics call the search for the ‘median voter’, that is the heartland of public opinion which anyone wanting to win an election (or a referendum) needs to conquer. Remember the ‘Essex man’ of the Thatcher years and the gender-balanced duo of ‘Mondeo man’ and ‘Worcester woman’ of the Blair years – these were attempts to describe the ‘median voter’.

The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (SSA) gives us the independence referendum equivalent: the ‘Devo-Max-er’. Check out the 2012 data, analysed by Future of UK and Scotland researchers John Curtice and Rachel Ormston. Away from the yes-no choices of most polls, SSA asks about underlying constitutional views and finds that around a third of Scots favour independence, around a third the status quo plus a few who would be rid of the Scottish Parliament altogether, and around a third – the Devo-Max-ers – who would like the Parliament to be responsible for significantly more than now (notably taxes and benefits), but with Scotland remaining in the UK.

Mr Salmond’s vision of mostly continuing unions appears aimed to appeal to ‘Devo-Max-Man’ (and in particular ‘Devo-Max-Woman’ given lower support for independence among women). Mr Moore’s warning about risks and over-simplifications is an attempt to counter that appeal and hold Devo-Max-ers in the No camp.

The search for the median voter will continue. That much was clear from a number of polls published in the last ten days or so which showed that the state of public opinion is far from clear. One showed a widening No lead, another a dead heat, and another still a clear No lead, but with a growing number of don’t knows.

Explaining these differences is a fine art, which John Curtice displays in his analyses on our excellent sister website What Scotland Thinks which keeps track and tries to make sense of the latest polling (see John’s blogs there from 1st, 2nd and 4th September). Much, it appears, has to do with the wording and ordering of survey questions, that is how what’s at stake in the referendum is framed (or, if you prefer, slanted). Whoever succeeds in framing/slanting the issues in a way which appeals to the median voter – the Devo-Max-er - will likely win next year.

Over the last week we saw two different approaches to framing the issues in the pro-union cause. One was Gordon Brown’s speech in Glasgow last week. Its title ‘A positive, principled and forward-looking case for the union’ was clearly an attempt to create distance from the accusation of negativity (‘Project Fear’) that its opponents make of the Better Together campaign. Brown focused on his long-held ideas on sharing risk and argued that sharing risks – like financing pensions in old age – in a bigger union limits the level of risk that any one part acting independently might face. Brown also argued – with the beginnings of a nod towards that median voter – for some kind of constitutional innovation that would make the Scottish Parliament ‘permanent and indissoluble’, which it technically is not at the moment.

The second approach was in the latest of the UK Government’s Scotland Analysis series of papers making the case for Scotland remaining in the UK. This, the fifth paper in the series, was on Macroeconomic and Fiscal Performance with George Osborne launching it in Aberdeen. Like the others it is very long at 124 pages and quite scholarly in its style, with lots of evidence cited in footnotes. It prompted the usual discussion about the kind of evidence used and how selective that might be.

But it is worth looking up from that and at the bigger picture that surrounds the series as a whole: while also putting forward Gordon Brown-style arguments about the benefits of sharing risk and opportunity in a bigger union, there is a default position which is to defend the status quo by arguing in various ways that Scottish independence would be risky and could well bring economic disadvantage to Scots. There are two ways of looking at this.

First, quite a few economists seem to agree that independence would bring risks which would be challenging to manage (these risks and their management will be the key theme at our conference  on The Economics of Constitutional Change on 19-20 September, with some of those previewed in the launch of a report by Future of the UK and Scotland researcher Angus Armstrong on Scotland’s currency options on 17 September).

But second, a systematic defence of the status quo may not, in the round, and especially when the Scotland Analysis series moves into areas like welfare or immigration, resonate so well with Devo-Max-Man and Woman, Scotland’s median voters, who appear to want more than the status quo. The approach of the Scotland Analysis series may be a logical response of a government trying to maintain the unity of the territory it governs, but it may not be as logical a way to approach a referendum campaign.

There lies the conundrum for the coming year: the referendum creates a hard Yes/No choice of independence versus status quo, but Scots do not see their constitutional options just in those hardened terms. So expect both sides to try to soften the boundary and appeal to the median voter: on the Yes side by developing further the theme of continuing unions and interdependence with the rest of the UK; and on the No side likely through the Better Together campaign working up some kind of cross-party agreement on further-reaching devolution. That softening process will not be easy on either side. It is likely to grate with more diehard pro-independence voices in the Yes Scotland camp, and similarly diehard pro-union but devo-sceptical voices in the Better Together camp. So expect over the coming months to see disputes within as well as between the two campaigns.

Scottish Tories still suffering tremors from Brexit earthquake

What has Covid-19 meant for devolution in Wales?

Unionism, Conservative thinking and Brexit

Response: The Internal Market White Paper