The fact that nationalists have never supported a referendum on any form of devolution in the past should serve as a warning to Labour supporters of “Devo Max”, warns TOM HARRIS


During the recent Scottish Labour leadership contest, a friendly journalist asked me my views on so-called “Devolution Max” or, as I had dubbed it in the House of Commons last October, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Independence”.

Devo Max is a mirage, I pointed out; undeliverable and undefined, it finds support in opinion polls because it can be whatever the respondent wants it to be. “But surely, if you’re not offering an increase in powers for Holyrood, people will be more likely to opt for independence?”

“If that’s the case,” I asked him, “why do the SNP want a Devo Max question so badly?”

And they really do. Salmond’s recently-launched consultation on the referendum is being engineered, it seems, almost exclusively to give him some justification to include a third option on the ballot paper. How odd that, having won a resounding victory at Holyrood and the right to dominate the political agenda in Scotland ever since, the SNP are trying to promote a policy they have never supported.

Let’s be quite clear about this: not only does no party have any kind of mandate to ask Scots to offer a view on Devo Max, the SNP have never supported a referendum for anything less than full separation. In 1996, when Tony Blair announced he would put Labour’s plans for devolution to the Scots in a pre-legislative referendum, Salmond excoriated him. When the Calman Commission delivered its conclusions about the next tranche of devolution, the SNP did not insist that they be put to a referendum before they were enacted.

Crucially, and most importantly, the SNP’s own winning manifesto from last May promised a referendum on independence and committed the party “… in the meantime, (to) make the current Scotland Bill better” by arguing for full fiscal autonomy (or Devo Max). So, even the nationalists, as recently as last year’s Holyrood elections, rejected the idea of a referendum on any form of devolution.

So why have they now performed a 180 degree turn on this? You would have to be incredibly naive to believe that this is a position of principle, that it is based on a desire to offer self-determination to the Scottish people. If it were, why have they only supported such self-determination for less than a year?

And now, having switched from opposing a referendum on any form of devolution to supporting one, the SNP are publicly contemptuous of anyone who doesn’t agree with their new position. If you agree with last year’s SNP manifesto, you’re apparently anti-democratic and trying to deprive Scots of their right to self-determination.

Even for the SNP this is cynical beyond anything most of us have ever encountered in politics. It should serve as a warning – though I fear it won’t – to Labour colleagues who have fallen into the separatists’ trap of supporting Devo Max.

The logic is straightforward: the SNP have spent a great deal of money in polling to prepare the way for their referendum; if the evidence they have gathered as a result had indeed concluded that, deprived of a third option on the ballot paper, Scots will opt for separation from the rest of the UK, then not a single member of the SNP would be supporting that third option.

So there’s the challenge to Alex Salmond: stand by your own manifesto commitment and ask the Scottish people to give a straight yes or no to separation. I will abide by the result. Will Alex Salmond? 

Tom Harris is the MP for Glasgow South.