Beware of devolutionists bearing gifts
It is being asserted, with varying degrees of confidence and plausibility, that the most progressive outcome in the referendum would be the inclusion of and support for some sort enhanced devolution; ‘Devo Max’ in most people’s lexicon.
This is at least arguable, certainly much more arguable than to suggest that support for independence is any sort of left wing policy. But if Devo Max, and the term itself isn’t without problems, is to be considered as the left option then we should examine the potential advantages and pitfalls. The framework for such an examination, for anyone claiming to be on the left, should not be abstract notions like ‘sovereignty or ‘self determination’ but the interest of the working class.
Some of the argument for a Devo Max option is tactical. It allows for a political space between the petty bourgeois chauvinism of the SNP and a reactionary “Your Scottish nationalism is bad. My British patriotism is good” Unionism. Potentially it helps anchor debate in being about “the sort of Scotland we want to see” (fast approaching cliché status) diverting discussion away from “Scotland” and onto peoples actual lives.
For anyone on the left the needs of working people should be the major consideration of how any argument for more powers is formulated. It is not the case in devolution terms that more automatically means better.
The UKis, amongst other things a mechanism for transferring resources between one area and another. From a wealthy South East of Englandto relatively poorer areas like the English North East and (yes) Scotland (The Barnett formula for example) . Various suggestions have been made under the Devo Max heading which would make such transfers impossible. This indeed appears to be the point of the ‘devo plus’ idea floated by that outsourced arm of Conservative Central Office, reform Scotland. Such schemes must be opposed as reactionary in principle – wealthier areas should subsidise less well off areas – and that’s us.
Of course one could accept the nationalist case that “ We’ll all live off the whisky and the oil by and by – free heavy beer and pie suppers in the sky” etc etc. But even were this the case it should still be opposed. The argument that ‘Scotland would be fine’ is on a par with those egregious charity appeals where we are assured that “All the money raised in Scotland stays in Scotland” – and, by implication, if you live in County Durham and you need a motorised wheelchair – it’s bugger all to do with us. This might be (is!!) a sufficient state of affairs for nationalists. We are, or should be, better than that – in our concern for Dundee we do not forget Darlington.
This is certainly possible – in any event it is important that debates about the constitution/national question/freedom/ smashing the British state (delete according to distance from reality) are not allowed to become ones of pure principle. We have been here before. The first stirrings of the modern devolution movement in the early seventies – the assemblies called during the UCS work-in were replete with comments from the then STUC General Secretary Jimmy Jack that a Scottish parliament would be a “Workers Parliament” and who, other than George Foulkes, can forget the ringing declaration by George Foulkes in 1981 that “there would be an inherent socialist bias in devolution”.
Of course it hasn’t quite turned out like that.
As the 80’s and 90’s wore on devolution acquired greater political force – this is usually written up as a response to Thatcherism – which of course in part it was. But it also covered up the acceptance by political elites (especially but not exclusively in the Labour Party) of key parts of t Thatcher’s policies. “Should x be private in Scotland “. The interviewer would ask “That should be a matter for a Scottish Parliament “ the politician would reply. The campaign for a parliament completely overshadowed the aims that the labour party and Trade Union movement had originally wanted a Parliament for. What had been a means became an end.
“We have delivered devolution” was one of the proudest boasts of new Labour. It is a bit like proudly proclaiming the Establishment of the Low pay Commission rather than a minimum wage.
We cannot allow this to happen again. If powers are to be sought they must be sought for a clear deliverable purpose to improve people’s lives. Already we are seeing the SNP, when tasked about what an independent Scotland would be like resort to the “that should be a matter for the Scottish people” formula (the precise context was universal child benefit). Such statements – from anyone – should never go unchallenged. .
Our attitude on matters constitutional should be closer to that of Lewis Grassic Gibbon when he wrote:
“I would welcome the English in suzerainty over Scotland till the end of time. I would welcome the end of Braid Scots and Gaelic, our culture, our history, our nationhood under the heels of a Chinese army of occupation if it could cleanse the Glasgow slums, give a surety of food and play – the elementary right of every human being – to those people of the abyss.”
Arguing for some sort of enhanced devolution will provide a benefit only to the extent that welded to the clear purpose, intent and goals to be achieved for any powers gained. In essence this means never allowing discussion of powers to be detached from policy, legal entitlement from political intent. Devo never to be seen as an end only a means.
Stephen Low is a member of Glasgow Central CLP and a former journalist who has reported from both Holyrood and Westminster.