Scotland's Decision: The result, the devolution offer, Barnett & a poisoned chalice

Published: 19 September 2014

Michael Keating on the result, offers of further devolution, the Barnett Formula and a poisoned chalice. 

The No side has scored a clear victory, clearer than has been anticipated in the last two weeks. On the other hand, a Yes vote of nearly 45% would have looked like a moral victory just a few months ago, when 40% looked like the most that could be expected. Yes fought the better campaign mainly because it was present on the ground, while No spent months on an ‘air war’. This allowed the Yes campaign, including social movements not affiliated to the SNP, to reach traditional Labour voters and non-voters. The negative campaign of No appears to  have been largely ineffective, as it included some rather absurd claims, such as the one that supermarket prices would rise after independence, which simply diverted attention from real issues such as the currency.

The No campaign’s panic reaction in the last week, with all three UK party leaders promising new powers by next Spring, has created a raft of problems. It is by no means clear what powers are involved, since the three parties have earlier proposed different things. Labour’s proposals, in particular, do not, as claimed provide for substantial taxation powers or any role in welfare policy. This is not, by any definition, devolution-max. If the package is agreed between the three parties and whipped through the UK Parliament, this looks like the type of old-fashioned Westminster fix that the parties have promised to renounce. The referendum campaign triggered a remarkable degree of public engagement and debate and a serious examination of the issues. This new package would have none of that. It is curious that Alex Salmond, in his speech, insisted that the new package be enacted by the unionists’ own deadline, as elements of it might prove a poisoned chalice. The promise to retain the Barnett formula is meaningless since there are several interpretations. Barnett should have led to a convergence of Scottish and English spending levels but this did not happen, for a mixture of technical and political reasons. So if the unionists really do mean Barnett in its pure form, this would not be good news for Scotland. Moreover, opinion in England and Wales is ever more alert to what they see as Scotland’s spending advantages.

There is a clear demand in Scotland for change, but not for independence. A stable constitutional settlement would require this. Change cannot be postponed indefinitely but a time for reflection and study would be useful. The Scottish parties also need to take ownership of the issue and discuss it among themselves, rather than leave the lead to their UK leaderships. If there is broad agreement, this can then be negotiated with Westminster

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