Beware of devolutionists bearing gifts

 STEPHEN LOW examines the opportunities – and threats  – in campaigning for a third option.


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.

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20 thoughts on “Beware of devolutionists bearing gifts

  1. Good, some polemics. Then some invented quotes were inserted and the whole thing fell flat. I can recall a Labour MP claiming Scotland should not be independent while there were poor people in Liverpool. I cant recall who it was, but it may have been in the era of MILITENT and Liverpools poor were about to get poorer. Oil extraction has been going on for decades and there is a huge hole in Scotlands economy where our industry used to be. We have just had a long period of Labour rule and I didnt notice any efforts on their part to re-industialise this country. Or to eliminate poverty, in fact the gap between poor and rich widened. Labour in power were in hock to the City and seemed more interested in non-doms than in have-nots. They seemed to think services and banking were the future. As for the south-east being the powerhouse of the economy. In part this is because governments for decades have given it a special status. I read somewhere recently that 80% of Englands infrastructure spending was in and around London. It doesnt matter which party is in power.
    If we want to give priority to job creation or social housing or having a more just society, then we need the fiscal tools to do it. And elect into power people who will use those tools.

    1. The levels of poverty and the gap between rich and poor are not the same thing Gavin. Poverty fell considerably during Labour’s time in power across the UK (falling at a greater rate in Scotland – thanks to some of the measures taken by Labour at Holyrood which greatly reduced the levels of pensioner poverty. Sad that the situation is reversing since the SNP came to power and poverty is increasing once more). The SNP are not eliminating poverty so you have a bit of a cheek to attack Labour on this subject when we succeeded where you are now failing.

      Although the gap between rich and poor increased there are a few, vital, caveats to take into account. Firstly, the greatest redistribution of wealth since the Second World War took place under Labour between 1997-2010. Secondly, although the gap widened all wages increased, thanks to the National Minimum Wage, and not just those at the top. This means if you looked at a graph of pay in 1997 and 2010 you would see a similar distribution across the income deciles but the figures would all be shifted upwards to the right.

      Again you brush over some important points with your accusations regarding the failures in the approach taken to the manufacturing/industrial sector. Although the levels of employment and the size of the sector relative to the size of the economy has fallen there has been an increase in output from that sector and it is generating greater revenues than ever. Currently it makes up 12% of the UK economy.

    2. Invented quotes? If you are talking about the quote attributed to Grassic Gibbon, this was of course published by Hugh McDiarmid – and I dont think you could accuse HIM of being unionist!

  2. Has the UK been a little too centralized around London for too long? Perhaps that’s why all the wealth is in one place. The UK needs a more even economic development and that may be served by having more powers at the local level. It might also make for politicians that are more accountable to the electorate.

    1. That the UK is too centralised round LDN is unarguable. And the principle of more local decision making is certainly a good one… but my point is that delivering improvements in peoples lives is a mater of political will more than the arrangements of governance. Ms Sturgeon said at the weekend that an independent Scotland could abolish poverty – but (and as a nationalist this isn’t her concern) so could the UK or the US or any developed country. It is a matter of resolve far more than constitutional arrangements.

  3. There is one logical flaw underlying this whole article – devolution of power must be seen in the context of who would use that power if it were not transferred to Scottish control.

    For example, if the Scottish parliament chose not to make a change in a devolved policy area at a time when London was making changes against the interests of the working class, the devolution of that power has been to the advantage of the Scottish working class by protecting them from an adverse change.

    Since the UK is much more likely to have an anti-working class government than Scotland, the more power transferred to Scotland the better as far as Scotland’s working class is concerned.

    1. Since unemployment is higher in Scotland than the UK, and therefore we have a smaller working class as a result, it appears we have quite an anti-working class party in power in Scotland. Is a working class party not one which creates jobs for people so that they can, you know, work?

    2. What if changes make working class people in the rest of the UK worse off ( eg taking nationalist economic arguments at face value – taking Scotland’s subsidy to the rest of the UK away). How does the working class benefit then? Or have I to care less about Easington than Edinburgh?

  4. The Barnett formula has nothing to do with moving money from a rich area to a poor one.

    Given that the author here claims that to be so; could he possibly say what part of the workings of such a formula does this?

    The formula is based on giving Scotland a population share of the expenditure made in either an English, English & Welsh, English & Wales & NI, or GB as a whole context.

    There is no provision in the formula to take into account need or social deprivation. It is purely formulaic.

    I’m not saying whether that is good, bad or neither. However, that is the facts.

    The funding structure does not move money from the wealthy to the poor. Scotland could be Switzerland or Ethiopia in terms of wealth and would still get the same amount of money from the Barnett formula if the same decisions we’re made by UK Government departments.

  5. Stephen, You’ve lost me with this piece, I don’t know what you’re on about? Take the last para, is it in code? or have I had a mild cerebral vascular accident?
    “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”
    Please help. For my benefit, on a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is close down Holyrood as a bad idea, and 10 is an independent Scotland, where are you?

  6. Richard, apologies – the third last sentence is indeed mangled beyond deconstruction …It should have read something like “Arguing for some sort of enhanced devolution will provide a benefit only to the extent that we weld a clear purpose, intent and goals to be achieved for any powers gained.”

    I’ll skip your 10 point scale – because I don’t think it’s particularly helpful way of looking at things.I certainly wouldn’t close down Holyrood but I don’t support an independent Scotland – I don’t think it is likely to serve the interests of ordinary working people particularly well – and as a socialist that’s my primary concern.

  7. R Pollock – you are of course right that theBarnett Formula per se isn’t concerned with the effect of redistributing spending around the UK. It’s an emotion free population proportion metric. But it was put in place with the aim of maintaining relatively higher public spending in some parts of the UK that were deemed to need it. The efficacy, and indeed current usefulness of Joel Barnett’s contingency measure is certainly up for debate (ask the Welsh) – but it did have a progressive intent.

    1. Fair enough for admitting your error.

      However, as you clearly have not researched the formula I think maybe you should not use it to back up your redistributive argument. It does not stack up factually.

      Lord Barnett himself has claimed that the formula was merely a short term measure to tidy things over until the Assembly was approved. The only reason it’s lasted this long is because it’s entirely unemotional and negates potentially hostile negotiations.

      I’m sorry to write that I do not have faith that you know what you’re talking about here.

      Trust me. I don’t know what I’m talking about with most things. But having worked out models for this I do know about the Barnett formula.

  8. Not so.
    It was put in place to reduce Scotland’s imagined public spending benefit over other areas.
    This “benefit” was based on a false premise of partial account of identified public expenditure.
    “Identified public expenditure” was always of carefully chosen areas of expenditure, most of which reflected the manner in which Scotland’s geography meant many services were provided relatively expensively. This IPE only comprised about 60% of public spending in Scotland anyway nor did it in any way reflect the level of revenues raised in Scotland which were and are significantly higher that revenues raised per capita in many other parts of the UK.
    Nor does it reflect the fact that Scotland did not and does not attract its appropriate share of government procurement. This is particularly marked in defence expenditure of which Scotland (even including the costs of the huge redundant aircraft carrier hulls) is getting less than 50% of its population share.
    A whole article floated on a number of faulty premises is not a particularly useful contribution.

  9. Stephen, I thought you were going to say something like that ” (you) don’t think it’s (the independence debate) a particularly helpful way of looking at things”.
    You are in good company, Trevor Davis (a Professor of Urban Sudies and a recent contributor to Labour Hame) has a similar attitude to Scotland’s constitutional future. If I remember Professor Davis in one of his articles dismissed the issue as “the petty and parochial politics of nationalism”. And there are many others within Labour’s ranks that seem to consider themselves ‘above’ the constitutional debate, that compared to the class struggle, nationalism is in some way a bit demeaning, especially to a ‘political academic’ of the left. Alistair Darling exhibited the same attitude to the Scottish Parliament prior to it reconvening after 300 years. He said, if I remember, that he would “keep an open mind” (on the parliament) until such times as he could properly comment on whether it served any real purpose. I still don’t recall Mr. Darling coming to a conclusion.
    I can’t put this any other way but you and many others within Scottish Labour are in denial over the biggest issue in Scottish politics and culture in 300 years.
    The Scottish public sense Labour is running away from the argument that is why Labours doing so badly in the polls; there is no direction.
    Last week Brian Taylor chaired one of a series of debates being held throughout the country by BBC Scotland. Friday mid day in Glasgow, live on radio, no seats to be had, full of 16 to 18 year old Modern Studies pupils. Labour was represented by Tom Harris MP because “no Labour MSP was available”, (Brian Taylor’s words).
    Whether you like it or not, if you are to be honest to yourself you will have to decide where you stand on this issue.
    Try this, if you did’nt like answering my 1 to 10 scale; Holyrood, Westminster, Brussels, far too many parliaments and far too many expensive politicians for a country of 5 million. Which one would you do away with?

    1. Richard, I don’t know if you were present in the church when the programme was recorded, but it was two thirds empty. That’s fine, because the BBC were happy that all those invited turned up. However, at no point did Brian Taylor say that I was there because “no Labour MSP was available”. Surely you can make a point without resorting to making stuff up?

    2. Richard – it’s certainly the case that my concern is class rather than nation – but I’m a socialist – given that, any other concern would be odd.

      I don’t like the scale of 1-10 outlook – fine for movies but politics deserves a wee bit more sophistication. And I do say at the top of the article that i don’t think that Indpendence is particularly arguable from a leftist perspective.

      To answer your specific question – Scotland actually has far fewer politicians than many other countries, in comparison to whom we are somewhat undergoverned. ( there must be somewhere else that has single tier local government for example – but I can’t easily think of one). So I wouldn’t abolish (or withdraw from) any of the institutions you mention ( although I can’t say I agree with much that any of them are doing right now – and the latter two require extensive reform.

      And at the risk of being controversial even if Alex Salmond does get his wish to cut Rupert Murdoch’s corporation tax – as big cultural issues go it’s pretty small beer compared to say the industrial revolution, the contraceptive pill or the computer.

  10. Stephen, You say in your reply to my question on Scotland’s many parliaments and politicians “To answer your specific question – Scotland actually has far fewer politicians than many other countries”…………… So I wouldn’t abolish (or withdraw from) any of the institutions you mention ( although I can’t say I agree with much that any of them are doing right now – and the latter two require extensive reform.”
    So can I sum up your attitude to our present system of government as “It’s sh1t and we know it; but don’t worry because the important thing is workers of the world unite”?

  11. Well that’s massively simplistic..people should pretty much always worry – But of course workers should unite… that’s very important.

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