Let me show you a very important distinction between two kinds of devo max:
- the big one that people often seem to support, but can’t get; and
- the smaller one that seems to be on offer, that people confuse with the big one they can’t get.
The big one that people often seem to want but can’t get
If you look at opinion polls on devo-max, the understanding is this:
Devo max This term has become short hand for the idea that the Scottish Parliament should become responsible for nearly all of Scotland’s domestic affairs, including taxation and welfare benefits, while foreign affairs and defence would remain the responsibility of the UK government (What Scotland Thinks glossary). The BBC has reinforced this definition: ‘Devo-max, n.The devolving of all powers to Holyrood other than defence and foreign affairs‘. The Scotsman has plumped for ‘most powers short of defence and foreign affairs’.
Then, this is what people respond to in opinion polls:
- ‘59% agree that the Scottish Parliament should become primarily responsible for taxation and welfare benefits, the two principal areas of domestic policy that are still reserved to Westminster’ (John Curtice 15.9.13)
- Pensions might go up or down or stay the same if the ‘Scottish Parliament made all decisions for Scotland apart from defence and foreign affairs’
- Maybe Scotland should leave the UK “If 75% vote for ‘full financial independence’”
So, this is the maximum devolution that many/ most people seem to want.
The smaller one that seems to be on offer, that people confuse with the big one they can’t get
Yet, this is not on offer, partly because no party is offering it, and partly because they can’t offer it. Instead, some parties have begun to think about offering the maximum devolution you could expect to get if you stay in the UK and want a UK-wide economic policy framework. This kind of devo max is not about autonomy over economic policy as a whole. It is about devolving some more income tax, and maybe some other taxes, and maybe more of the social security system. And yet, what you read is that you are now being offered devo max:
- Scottish Conservatives deliver their Devo Max plans for a no vote
- U-turn as Tory leader unveils devo-max plan
This is ‘devo max’ only if ‘devo max’ means the maximum you can reasonably expect to get under devolution. It does not mean becoming responsible for ‘taxation and welfare benefits’.
So, the crap thing about the public and media discussion so far is that most people say they have heard of devo max in much the same way that they might respond to the question: ‘have you heard of that EU guy?’
Neil McGarvey and I wrote this (in Scottish Politics) when the discussion was more popular: