Back in 2014, during the heady days of the referendum, the Yes campaign were guffawed at by opponents for claiming there was a “natural majority” in favour of independence. Fair enough you might say. As it turned out, a majority of Scots were not in favour; and anyway, what the hell is a “natural majority”?
What they meant by a “natural majority”, was that when the idea of independence was worded in almost any other way, it could command a sizeable majority of support. For example “should all decisions affecting Scotland be made in Scotland”, or “should every aspect of government be devolved to the Scottish Parliament”. The problem with all that, is that it’s irrelevant. The question on the ballot paper was “should Scotland be an independent country?”, and so opponents simply needed to focus on the word “independence”. For politicians, what people actually want isn’t the important thing, it’s all about perception, and appearing to be on the side of the majority.
A similar thing is happening now in Scottish politics, with regards the much ballyhooed “Full Fiscal Autonomy”. Scottish Labour appear to be focusing their entire election strategy on the dangers of Full Fiscal Autonomy, a seemingly mad nationalistic whim which nobody wants, and which would plunge the Scottish economy into unprecedented chaos. Except, polls have consistently shown a majority of Scots in favour of it, and politicians from all parties have spent the best part of the last four years arguing that Full Fiscal Autonomy is the will of most Scots. If that sounds strange, and a bit unfamiliar, don’t worry, it should. You see, up until a few months ago, Full Fiscal Autonomy went by another name entirely: Devo-Max.
Having spent so much time – and campaign resources – arguing against independence, on the basis that Devo-Max was the preferred option of the Scots; the Labour Party couldn’t realistically start campaigning against the SNP on an anti Devo-Max ticket this quickly. It’d make a mockery of their 2014 referendum campaign, and they’d inevitably start haemorrhaging votes (alright, stop laughing at the back).
Yes, in fairness, Scottish Labour aren’t fooling many, but they have created a scenario where they don’t have to campaign – quite so brazenly – against more powers for Scotland. More importantly though, they’ve made it extremely complicated to rebut their argument. Undoubtedly, the best way to sneak through an indefensible argument, is to add in a variety of complex layers – they don’t even have to make any sense:
“the cost of Full Fiscal Autonomy as identified by the IFS: £7.6 billion of extra austerity over and above the Tories plans. On Wednesday [the SNP] finally owned up to their policy, on Thursday they acknowledged the cost, now they must own the consequences of their policy. Because this is the worst time in Scotland’s modern fiscal history to be suggesting that we should remain in the UK but give up on the transfer of funding from around the UK. First, because our relative fiscal position, which is worsening compared to the rest of the UK. With our deficit projected to be double that of the UK as a whole as a share of GDP.”
~ Jim Murphy (Scottish Labour Leader), speaking at A Scottish Labour Press Conference on 10/04/15
Whoever is then tasked with responding to such questions, will have to spend a lot of time extracting the substance, which can have the effect of making them look as though they’re dodging the question, or being slippery. It’s a devious setup certainly, but fairly standard. But in politics, this sort of thing is par for the course.
The arguments levelled by the Labour Party, against Full Fiscal Autonomy/Devo-Max are practically identical to those that were levelled against independence. The problem then, as now, is that those arguments are premised on a continuation of an identical economic policy, within which we’d supposedly find ourselves hugely short on cash.
For the same reason that an independent Scotland with an unchanged political structure, would be utterly pointless, so too Full Fiscal Autonomy/Devo-Max with a continuation of the same economic policies, would be nonsensical. For that reason, the so-called “tax bombshell” or “7bn shortfall” are premised on a convenient fiction, and it’s the same fiction that underlined last year’s Better Together strategy. But most worrying of all – for the democrats among us – is the fact that the Labour Party in Scotland have now set themselves against the very incentive they offered Scots in return for voting No last year: Devo-Max.
Scots no more want Full Fiscal Autonomy/Devo-Max for the opportunity to hoist a saltire above their own Exchequer, than they wanted independence in order to put Alex Salmond’s face on a banknote. It was, and still is, about having the ability to make genuinely radical change.