By Severin Carrell
Martin Sime is bored and impatient. “We’ve been here before,” he says. A senior figure in Scottish civic life, Sime is increasingly exasperated by sharply escalating disputes over the country’s future and Alex Salmond’s plans for a referendum on independence.
Sime is chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), an umbrella body for 50,000 voluntary and charity workers, and is close to the centre of a vigorous argument over the shape of the referendum and the questions it will ask.
Will that referendum, due in 2014 or 2015, ask one question or two? Will it give the Scots a choice? The status quo, full independence, or a middle course, one to greatly increase Scotland’s powers while it stays in the UK? This last option is known as “devolution plus” or, at its most ambitious, “devolution max”.
If there are two questions, Sime and other senior figures in Scotland could campaign for “devo plus”. They believe Scotland needs to wrest control from Westminster over one of the most significant areas of spending – that of welfare. For that, Scotland would need direct control of up to 90% of its taxes.
Sime stresses that SCVO has no formal policy on the referendum, but that there is now a “fast moving consensus” that control over social security, unemployment benefits and housing benefit needs to be devolved to Scotland.
Devolution has been debated and voted on for 30 years, but welfare reform was always rejected by the major parties. But dismay over the UK government’s welfare reform bill, particularly its impact on benefits such as on disability and jobseekers allowance, is now building up support for giving Scotland control over the welfare system.
“What we’re seeing from voluntary organisations is a realisation of the dreadful impact that the welfare reform proposals and cuts will have on the poorest people in Scotland,” he said. “There’s an immediate practical abhorrence of what’s on the table but a wider appreciation that we need to design a welfare system that fits Scottish values and aspirations as well as Scottish health and social care structures.”
Recent opinion polls confirmed that increasing Holyrood’s powers, whether described as devo plus or devo max, is the most popular option for Scots voters. Yet Salmond has ruled out any prospect of his government campaigning for this middle option, leaving him looking to people such as Sime and the pro-devolution thinktank Reform Scotland to make that cause their own.
Over the past few weeks, since Salmond revealed he was seriously considering a two-question referendum in an Guardian interview, figures in the UK government and Labour party have attacked the proposal. They accuse him of cynical opportunism, even hypocrisy.
Margaret Curran, Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary, said: “I just think they’re trying to manipulate it to their own advantage: at the core of this we all know Salmond doesn’t think there’s a majority in Scotland for independence.”
Curran said Salmond’s Scottish National party, which holds a majority in the Holyrood parliament, never asked voters in May for a mandate to hold a two-question referendum and, unlike Labour, was never the party of devolution. Independence and devolution were “two separate journeys” and had to be kept apart, she said. One was designed to break up the UK, the other to preserve it.
She added: “We need to have the referendum, there’s no doubt about that. The Scottish people voted for it. [But] it should be a clear choice: yes or no. I think we should have it sooner rather than later and there should be no games. I’m not against us having a question put to the Scottish people at some time about devolution and how devolution develops. Scotland needs to have that debate but it doesn’t make sense to tie that to a referendum about independence.”
Curran said Labour would be very sceptical about plans to devolve welfare to Scotland. Breaking up the British welfare state, she said, would be an incendiary proposal to many Scots, not least since a million voters supported Labour’s tougher stance on benefits.
“It’s just too crude to say we’re better in Scotland and we’ve a better attitude to the welfare state in Scotland,” she said. “The break-up of the British welfare state? If that’s what’s at risk in ‘devo max’, I think people will be very interested in that.”
The criticism is supported by constitutional experts and lawyers. Matt Qvortrup, an authority on referendums, said voters could back both independence and “devo plus”, but give the latter a larger majority.
Would the SNP then argue it had a mandate to choose independence? Salmond may well solve the conundrum posed by Qvortrup by restructuring the questions, but many lawyers expect significant court battles over the referendum’s legality before it is held.
Since their triumphant party conference late October, Salmond and the SNP have come under pressure on a series of fronts, despite the £1m cheque they had this week from Europe’s richest lottery winners, Chris and Colin Weir, both long-term SNP supporters.
UK defence ministers have stated that an independent Scotland would have no claim to lucrative UK contracts such as the two Royal Navy aircraft carriers being built on the Clyde and Forth.
Substantial doubts about Scotland’s membership of the EU have emerged again.
Meanwhile the chancellor, George Osborne, and his deputy, Danny Alexander, claim that multinationals are being unnerved by the doubts over Scotland’s constitutional future posed by Salmond’s referendum, fearing their investments will be at risk, though neither has cited a company by name.
But significant differences are emerging between the three UK parties – Labour, the Tories and Liberal Democrats – over what concrete alternative to offer supporters of a “devo plus” question in the referendum. And that split could undermine their efforts to kill off the two-question referendum.
Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary and most powerful Scot in the shadow cabinet, confirmed last Saturday that Labour’s stance on more powers for Holyrood had now shifted, in favour of greater devolution. He told student activists the party needed an “open-minded approach as to how the architecture of devolution can be improved”.
Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, takes a much harder line. She argues that very little more reform is needed for the foreseeable future because the Scotland bill now going through Westminster will give Holyrood significant powers to control Scottish income tax rates and borrow £2.2bn. Those powers have not yet come into force and will meet many of the demands of the Scottish electorate for greater powers and autonomy, she said.
“I think what we have to show is that the Scotland bill is filling that gap and that vacuum,” Davidson said. “This is the greatest fiscal transfer of powers ever. Let’s get it in on the ground; let’s demonstrate all of these new powers for Scotland that aren’t here yet. That fills the demand that’s being talked of.”
Davidson’s position is very close to the UK government’s policy. That policy was written by Lib Dem cabinet ministers but, to complicate matters even more, the Scottish Lib Dems have resurrected their long-held policy of greater home rule for Scotland.
Menzies Campbell, the former Lib Dem party leader, is now leading a new “home rule commission”, which will update proposals to cede further tax and policy powers to Holyrood, including welfare and social security.
Even so Willie Rennie, the Scottish Lib Dem leader, said he could not “see the circumstances” where his party would campaign for “devo plus” in a two-question referendum. He thinks Ovortrup’s criticisms are insurmountable. His party argues for a fully federal UK, which is a different vision to Salmond’s half-way house of simply giving Scotland more power but ignoring the rest of Britain.
Rennie also believes Salmond is under internal pressure from SNP activists to stage a single-question vote. “Activists in the SNP scent blood. They think they can win, and they will find it difficult that independence could win a majority but doesn’t win because ‘devo max’ is even more popular.”
Yet the polls still show independence is supported by only a minority of Scots. As it stands, Salmond still has a long and troubled journey ahead.