I propose the following basic elements in a new constructive policy on Scotland for the Labour Party:
1. Scottish independence, just as much as devo max, will (or would) require the collaboration of the Westminster government, with whom its terms and practical application would have to be negotiated. It’s a myth that Scotland could simply take independence on its own terms without the government of the rest of the UK (“rUK”) having a major say in, for example, the division of assets and liabilities as between the two countries.
2. It is very much in the interests of all concerned, independentistas and unionists alike, that when the Scots come to vote in the autumn of 2014, they have a reasonably detailed knowledge of the implications of both independence and devo max. Work should begin without delay on negotiations between Holyrood and Westminster, ideally on an all-party basis, to find as much common ground as possible about what either independence or devo max would entail. Any agreement on the implications of a vote for either would necessarily be provisional, with final decisions on all the issues deferred until the result of the referendum is known. If broad provisional agreement between all concerned could not be reached by the time of the referendum, both sides would need to publish an account of the negotiations, so that voters in the referendum would have a reasonably clear idea of the positions of the two governments and other parties, and the nature of the issues that would need to be resolved if the result turned out to be a majority for either independence or devo max.
3. The referendum is most unlikely to result in a majority vote for the status quo. As between independence and devo max, those who wish to avert the disintegration of the United Kingdom have a strong interest in encouraging a vote for devo max. The best hope of securing that result lies in a decision by the UK Labour Party, including the Scottish Labour Party, to give full support to devo max and to collaborate with the SNP and other Scottish supporters of devo max in working out which additional powers a Labour government at Westminster would agree to devolve to Scotland in the event of the referendum confirming majority support for devo max. If the Conservative and Lib Dem parties could also be persuaded to support devo max, so much the better. But at least Labour should do so, whatever the other parties decide. Labour, after all, is the father of devolution and should recognise its merits – or at worst accept that devo max would be the least damaging outcome of the referendum.
4. Both independence and devo max would have huge implications for rUK (the rest of the UK). The unionist parties should begin now to develop their policies for dealing with either a UK without Scotland, or a UK in which Scotland would be to all intents and purposes fully internally self-governing. In the latter case, full self-government for Scotland would inevitably prompt demands for the same status for England (which would require the creation of a separate parliament and government for England) and for Wales and Northern Ireland. This would take several years to achieve. The result would be the creation of a federation of the four UK nations, with all the institutional and legal safeguards required by a federal system. Such a radical change in the relationships between the four nations, and between the nations and the federal centre at Westminster, could well inaugurate a revival of the politics and constitution of Britain, to the benefit of everyone. Scottish independence, on the other hand, could well spell disaster for rUK. It is questionable whether the three remaining UK nations could form a viable federation, even if, as seems unlikely, the secession of Scotland were to prompt a desire for one.
5. There is not the slightest reason to suppose that devo max for Scotland would signal the beginning of the end for the UK. Scottish devo max would not be likely to turn out to be a stepping stone to full independence: quite the reverse. The full internal self-government enjoyed by, for example, California or New South Wales is not regarded in either state as a preliminary to independence from the rest of the United States or Australia. Indeed, the opposite is the case. The completion of the devolution project in Scotland could well pave the way to the completion of devolution in rUK and the establishment of a durable, democratic federal system, as suggested in (4) above.
6. Devo max for Scotland would not mean that Scotland’s MPs at Westminster would only be able to vote on foreign affairs issues. The Westminster parliament, already a quasi-federal organ, would have roughly the same powers in respect of Scotland as the federal government of the United States has in relation to California or Massachusetts. No one regards these powers and responsibilities as trivial.
[The writer and commentator Gerry Hassan has posted an interesting and thought-provoking article about the Scottish Question in the Open Democracy website forum, provocatively entitled 'Historic day for the UK: Salmond consults Scotland but can't civilise Paxman'. This has prompted a number of equally interesting responses, some of which however reflect surprising misconceptions. This post first appeared, with some minor editorial changes, as my own comment on Mr Hassan's article and on some of the responses to it.]