John Major’s devolution endgame points towards full federalism

Former prime minister Sir John Major has made a suggestion about how to mitigate the risk of Scottish independence. This is basically that Scotland should be granted ‘devolution max’: the maximum degree of devolution that stops short of actual independence. In practice, this would mean devolving responsibility for everything except “foreign policy, defence and management of the economy”. In addition, the Scottish block grant would be abolished and would be replaced by fiscal autonomy: the Scottish government would have to raise in taxes and borrowing everything it required to cover its expenses. And the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster would also be reduced.

The rationale for this suggestion is that the ‘separatist’ case in Scotland “thrives on discontent with the status quo”, and that ‘devo max’ would remove that discontent because it would provide substantially all of the advantages of independence without any of the potential disadvantages, such as “the loss of funding and potential knock-on effect on free prescriptions and university tuition”. There’s a bit of an inconsistency here, surely: if the block grant were withdrawn and Scotland had to fund its generous public spending from its own taxes, as would happen under devo max, there’d be just as much of a risk that free prescriptions and university tuition for all would have to end.

However, ultimately, Major’s position is that if devolution is applied to its full extent, the Scots will finally be satisfied and content to remain in the Union. But we’ve heard that argument before: it was exactly what was said by the proponents of devolution back in 1998, who said that devolution would see off the Scottish-nationalist ‘threat’ once and for all. Even assuming that the Scottish people endorsed devo max in a referendum, what’s to say that independence wouldn’t be back on the table in ten years’ time, and the same arguments in favour of it that are made now would be made then: that devo max had proven a success and given the Scots confidence that they could run their own affairs, and that independence was just the next logical step forward?

In any case, the Scots probably will be offered the choice of devo max as a / the alternative to independence in the referendum that the SNP government plans to hold towards the end of its term in office, probably in 2015. So in a sense, Major’s contribution adds nothing, other than reinforcing the impression that the unionist establishment is in denial about the full extent of the Scottish people’s aspirations towards self-rule and continues to think that so long as they’re offered the carrot of ever greater devolution, they won’t want to take it to its logical conclusion: independence.

Major’s point of view is also blind to English dissatisfaction with the Union and with the present arrangements for England’s governance. For Major, English discontent comes down to exasperation with “Scottish ambition [that] is fraying English tolerance. This is a tie that will snap – unless the issue is resolved”. To be honest, irritation of this sort might be the mood in the English High Tory circles in which Major moves; but as far as a significant and growing minority of English people are concerned (36% according to the BBC poll published last week), they would be all-too happy for Scotland, and indeed England, to be independent of each other.

Major’s devolution endgame might well – temporarily – appease Scottish ambitions for independence, but what about English aspirations towards self-government? What is Major in fact proposing for England? The answer is nothing, at least not directly, and in this he is at least being consistent with devolution as it has been asymmetrically applied to date – but just how this would remedy what Major calls “the present quasi-federalist settlement with Scotland [which] is unsustainable”, I don’t know.

In fact, Major’s proposals are completely untenable with regard to England. What would they involve? Abolition of the Scottish block grant, which would presumably mean replacing the Barnett Formula with a needs-based solution for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. And yet, Scottish MPs (though fewer in number) would still be able to sit in the House of Commons and, presumably, vote on English legislation, as would their Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts. Why? What possible justification could there be for that in the absence of Barnett, which is the only factor that makes those MPs’ present participation in decisions on English matters in any way legitimate, because of the knock-on consequences for expenditure in their own countries?

In reality, once you take away the Barnett Formula, and even more so when you grant fiscal autonomy to Scotland, you might as well just have done with it and make the House of Commons an English parliament, and grant fiscal autonomy to the Welsh and Northern Irish to boot. Otherwise, the participation of non-English MPs in English matters hangs on the slenderest thread of the indirect consequences that English bills might have for the UK’s other countries, and of setting the needs-based funding formula for Wales and Northern Ireland. So slender would that thread be, in fact, that this smacks of desperately coming up with false pretexts for preserving the Commons as the / a UK parliament come what may.

If, on the other hand, you draw the logical conclusion from devo max and extend it all the UK’s nations, then the House of Commons becomes an English parliament without any further ado, thereby alleviating much, if not substantially all, of English people’s dissatisfaction with the present devolution settlement, and making that settlement genuinely sustainable and federalist, rather than quasi-federalist and unsustainable as Major himself calls it.

This is the logical conclusion to be drawn from Sir John’s premises. Asymmetrical, incomplete devolution is not capable of satisfying the aspirations towards self-government of either the Scots or the English. Completing the devolution process for the Scots only would be even less so. But if devo max is extended to the whole UK, making it a genuinely federal state, then this might, just might, save the Union – although, as I argued in my last post, I think we may already have passed the federal moment, and only full independence with or without confederalism will now work.

But will Major and unionist establishmentarians like him perceive the federalist logic of their own position in time for it to be of any practical consequence?

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5 Responses

  1. Spot on!

  2. […] Posted by englishwarrior Former prime minister Sir John Major has made a suggestion about how to mitigate the risk of Scottish independence. This is basically that Scotland should be granted 'devolution max': the maximum degree of devolution that stops short of actual independence. In practice, this would mean devolving responsibility for everything except "foreign policy, defence and management of the economy". In addition, the Scottish block grant would be abolished an … Read More […]

  3. And of us in Cornwall ? Still left surviving on the crumbs from the English table ? We are growing weary of it.

    • Rachel, did you see my reply to your previous comment, on my post about confederalism? I’m fully in favour of Cornish self-government if the majority there want it. I don’t see that as being excluded by confederalism or federalism – quite the contrary – even if I don’t actually explicitly mention the Cornish question in every discussion (but do so more than most).

  4. Scotland are ruled from Europe like the rest of us. Furthermore they don’t seem to have a problem with it. And yet they want to secede from the union? Doesn’t make sense. Politicians play politics.

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