John Curtice: A solution that dare not speak its name

'Devo max' could suit both Scotland and the UK, but there are risks

Share
Related Topics

It is a curious battle. One side wants to keep alive an option in which it does not believe. The other side is insistent it be killed off, even though many of them would like something like it to happen.

Welcome to the paradox at the heart of the fierce dispute between the Scottish and UK governments about how the Scottish independence referendum should be conducted.

The cause of the controversy is "devolution max" – the idea that Scotland should become responsible for nearly all her own domestic affairs, but still be part of the UK, with defence and foreign affairs remaining the responsibility of Westminster.

Such a step would represent a huge change to the current devolution settlement, with important ramifications for the rest of the UK. But it would keep the Union together – and the UK's nuclear weapons in the Clyde.

It is not the Scottish National Party's goal. Mr Salmond, its leader and Scotland's First Minister, wants his country to be a player on the international stage – and nuclear weapons out of the Clyde. Nevertheless, he says that if someone can come up with a properly developed proposal for "devolution max", he is minded to put it before Scotland's voters.

There is a simple reason for his stance. The idea seems to be popular, far more so than independence.

According to the Scottish Social Attitudes survey, at least three-fifths of Scots believe the Scottish Parliament should take charge of taxes and welfare benefits north of the border, the two key areas of domestic policy still in Westminster's hands. Where the Scottish people draw the line is at the idea that Edinburgh should be responsible for defence and foreign affairs.

Equally, Ipsos Mori recently found that as many as 68 per cent back an extension of the Scottish Parliament's powers, whereas only 38 per cent support independence.

Winning a Yes vote for independence looks like an uphill struggle. In contrast, devolution max looks a sure-fire winner. Most supporters of independence are willing to back it, while at least half of those who want to stay in the Union prefer it to the status quo.

So although devolution max is less than Mr Salmond wants, it is much closer to his ideal than the current devolution settlement. If it were to be introduced, he could at least claim to have brought Scotland within sight of the promised land.

Therein lies the rub for his opponents. Instead of simply ensuring the SNP's dreams of "separation" are dashed for a generation, the independence referendum would give the nationalists a significant consolation prize – and leave them still able to fight another day.

But in insisting on a simple Yes/No vote on independence, unionists are playing a game of high-stakes poker. The outcome would turn on who could succeed in appealing to the one-third or so of Scots whose preference is to stay in the Union but who reckon their country should be able to run more of its domestic affairs.

The unionists' presumption is that these voters would stick with the Union. But, denied the chance to vote for what they want, they might begin to wonder whether a vote for independence is not the better option of the two actually before them.

Ironically, many in the unionist camp favour a significant extension of devolution. The Scottish Liberal Democrats have established a commission under Sir Menzies Campbell to look at "home rule". Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, Douglas Alexander, has given thoughtful speeches pointing his party in much the same direction, while the new Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, has indicated she is open to the possibility of further devolution.

Yet, to a man and a woman, they all argue that more devolution should be pursued only when independence has been defeated. The trouble is, if unionists are not prepared to put the idea to the test now, will Scots trust them to deliver it later?

John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Principal Arboricultural Consultant

£35000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Principal Arboricu...

Trainee Digital Forensic Analyst

£17000 - £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Trainee Digital Fo...

Legal Recruitment Consultant

Highly Competitive Salary + Commission: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL BASED - DEALING ...

Planning Manager (Training, Learning and Development) - London

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glob...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

What's the most meaningful response we could have to the murder of James Foley?

Archie Bland
The back page of today's i  

i Editor's Letter: Your response to our new back page of sports

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment