"More Powers" Debate: Labour must be Careful not to Concede anti-UK Premise to Nats

Maybe Aye, Maybe Naw

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If the Labour Party (not forgetting the Lib Dems and Tories) goes into the referendum promoting further devolution as "the alternative", then it is in danger of accepting the premise of the nationalists that the UK is a bad thing, moving the terms of the debate onto vulnerable grounds, and making it very difficult to argue convincingly to stay with the UK, says Alistair McConnachie. Posted 5 October 2012.

It was reported this week that the Labour Party is setting up a "devo commission" which may "embrace radical new powers for the Scottish Parliament" (Scotland on Sunday, 30 September 2012, p.1).

The SNP has argued that there should be two questions on the ballot paper. It has done this for obvious strategic reasons. It gives it two bites at the cherry. If it loses the vote for "independence", it has a fall-back position of "more powers" from which it will be able to keep its party together and to continue its relentless aim for full separation.

From the perspective of the unionist parties, granting such a "consolation prize" would be the height of strategic folly. It should be the aim of the unionists to ensure that, after defeat, the Nats have nowhere to go, nothing to hold onto, and nothing to do, except turn inwards and destroy themselves.

Why, therefore, at the point when it appears that the Nats have conceded a one-question referendum, should Labour start talking about finding new powers for Holyrood?

The "Maybe Aye, Maybe Naw" Fuddle of "More Powers within the Union"
It's claimed that "polls show" there is a "substantial proportion" of the Scottish population who want "more powers", but who don't want separation.

We've said before, this is a sitting-on-the-fence position, adopted by people who don't have the courage to come down on one side or the other, and who want to have their cake and eat it too.

It's a "maybe aye, maybe naw" fuddle, which is mentally weak and morally unsustainable. As we said in our letter, published in The Scotsman on Monday 10 September 2012 (at bottom of this page), "morally speaking, demanding more powers for oneself is inconsistent with membership of a union."

It is also a never-ending process (you can never have too much power or too much devolution). It will almost certainly mean Scotland moving to a point where it is legally separated from the United Kingdom in all but name. It should be called "Independence Later", or "Separation Lite".

Labour thinks that by offering "more powers within the Union" then it can get the votes of these people. This is an error, for at least 3 reasons.

3 Reasons why it is Wrong to Indulge those Alleged to want "More Powers"
1. Do these people even know what powers we have at the moment, and the new ones we're going to get in the future?
Many, if not most, Scottish people could not easily describe the powers held by the Scottish Parliament at the moment. How many of those who want "more powers" even know that "more powers" are also happening right now, as a consequence of the Scotland Act 2012 (a Westminster Act which sets out amendments to the Scotland Act 1998, in accordance with the recommendations of the Calman Commission). Do those who have heard, even know what these new powers are?

It is a fact that the "let's have more powers" statement is often being made by a proportion of the population which is making this statement in a general cloud of constitutional ignorance, in the first place!

2. If you want a different answer, try rephrasing the question
It may not even be true that a substantial proportion want "more powers within the Union" if they really thought about it. Maybe that was the answer they gave, because that was the question which they were asked.

Perhaps if we ask, "Do you want more powers for the Scottish Parliament, if it could be shown that it would lead to the eventual break-up of the Union?" then we might get a different answer.

Perhaps if we ask, "Do you want more powers, even though the inevitable logic of any kind of continued asymmetrical devolution is complete separation?" then we might get a different answer.

Perhaps if we ask, "Do you want more powers for the Scottish Parliament, although it is morally wrong to demand more powers in a shared Union to the exclusion of your partners?" then we might get a different answer.

Perhaps a lot of people wouldn't be so keen on "more powers" after all!

Importantly, such questions would force people to come off the fence, and force them to decide, one way or the other.

3. The people can be wrong and politicians are not obliged to follow their errors
Even if it could be shown that most people wanted "more powers within the Union", it doesn't mean that most people are correct.

It should not be the job of politicians to follow the opinions of the people, when the people are wrong. It is the job of a politician to lead (or to attempt to lead) debate and thought - not to follow the bad ideas of the crowd, submissively.

People who are wrong should not be indulged in their mistakes!

Offering "more powers within the Union" is also a grave strategic error, for at least 2 reasons.

2 Strategic Errors of Advocating "More Powers"
1. You grant Nats the Premise that the UK is a Bad Thing
The question we must debate, and decide upon, at the referendum is "UK, in or out?"

That allows us to make the case for the UK, and to explain why it is "a good thing". We will definitely win the referendum by arguing vigorously that the UK is a good thing to be part of.

However, if Labour (and the Lib Dems, and maybe even the Tories) go into the referendum offering a "more powers" compromise, then they position the UK as something from which we should be breaking away.

Rather than a clear debate about whether to stay in the UK, it becomes a debate about whether we should break away completely, or whether we should break away a bit more - and the argument is only over the extent to which we should be out of it - either entirely or by a larger part.

It switches the premise from the solid and winning ground of staying with the UK because it is a good thing, to the dangerous ground controlled by the Nats, where the UK is something from which we should be separating, and the only questions are "How far and how quickly?"

It makes it a lot harder to promote the benefits of the United Kingdom. After all, if the UK is so good then why are we proposing taking more powers from it?

It is politically schizophrenic. You cannot make the case for the Union at the same time as you make the case to take more powers from the Union. You may as well just go the full distance and argue for complete separation.

In effect, it grants to the Nats their premise that the UK is fundamentally a bad thing - from which we should be either out of completely, or out of more than we already are - and where the clear logic would be to get out completely. This is the political state of mind which would be generated, unconsciously, in the electorate - and many of them would vote accordingly.

The referendum will be won on the question of "UK, in or out?" The debate should not be deviated to a choice between "largely out, or out entirely".

Labour and the Lib Dems must be careful not to inadvertently change the terms of the debate, accept the false premise of the Nats, and pull the rug from under us all.

2. You Compromise your Ability to Argue against Full Separation
As we emphasise, the debate should be about whether to stay in, or separate from, the UK. If Labour, and the Lib Dems, change the terms and argue about whether to devolve ourselves further away or separate completely, then they will set themselves up for failure and ridicule.

For example, why should it be fine for Scotland to have new tax powers on things like VAT and Corporation Tax, but not for National Insurance? Where is the line in the tax-collecting sand which says, "this far and no further"? It doesn't exist. There is no logical reason (other than an obscure, technical fiscal reason, which is too complex for most people to bother with, let alone understand) to presume that one is OK and the other is not.

For many people, it would seem clear that if Scotland is able to raise certain taxes for itself, then logically it should be able to raise all its taxes. Why put some arbitrary line in the tax-collecting sand, based on some technical point of no interest to most people?

Clearly the SNP line on tax (all or nothing) is quite logical, while the "more powers in the Union" line is not logical. It is a confusing and contradictory stance which would be difficult to sustain.

The referendum will be won on "UK, in or out?" It will not be won around the intricacies of additional devolved powers - a debate which is far too complex for most people.

It should not be fought over the question of "who is offering the best new powers for Scotland?" because obviously, the Nats are offering the best deal on that one!

Labour must also be careful not to set itself up with promises and policies about devolution to the extent that, if it were to win the 2016 Scottish election, it would constantly be a hostage to the Nats, forced to appease them at every turn.

Its aim should be to ensure the SNP barely exists as a credible force after 2014!

The Alternative to Separation
The Nats will say that we offer "no alternative". On the contrary, the alternative to separation is simply, not to separate. The alternative is to stay with the UK.

The Nats will say that we are "offering nothing to Scotland". On the contrary, what we are offering is a great product. What we are offering is an amazing thing, and it's called "the United Kingdom".

Promoting its many benefits today, and its great potential in the future, is what will win the referendum. It will not be won by obscure (to most of us) complex constitutional and fiscal debates about how Scotland "should take responsibility for VAT but not National Insurance", and other such nonsense - the very premise of which concedes to the Nats that the UK is something to break from, albeit at a slower rate.

The strength, the influence, the global goodwill, the security, the opportunities, the huge potential - yet to be realised - provided by, and possible within, the UK, should be quite sufficient to win the referendum. Let's develop those arguments, rather than appease the Nats and accept their false premises.

Letter from Alistair McConnachie, published in The Scotsman on Monday 10 September 2012

David McCarthy says that greater devolution need not involve the rest of the UK and the precedent is the 1997 vote (Letters, 7 September). Legally perhaps but, morally speaking, demanding more powers for oneself is inconsistent with membership of a union.

For example, it can be legitimate to be in a political, personal or business relationship and say, "I want to stay" or "I want to leave", but it is not legitimate to say, "I demand more powers, some of which will affect you negatively. Oh, and by the way, you will have no say over this, but we will stay together anyway."

Many of us believed this was the morally illegitimate posture adopted by Scotland at the 1997 referendum.

To the extent that the establishment of the Scottish Parliament within the Union negatively affected our Union partners, then its establishment was illegitimate in a moral sense. Some of its actions remain so today to the extent that, within the Union, they impact negatively upon the English, Northern Irish and Welsh, and harm the trust which binds the Union together.

If a significant proportion of Scottish people really think we can demand even more unilateral devolution, continue to ignore our partners, and still stay within the Union, then we are sitting on the fence in a state of moral error. We need to come down on one side or the other.

Stop Press: Since this article was written, the author has published a major Paper on the subject of more powers for the Scottish Parliament.

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