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Not too later for a game-changing offer

Peter Duncan on Respublica

As we move into the last 200 days before Scotland’s big decision is taken on 18th September, something has happened to the debate in Scotland. Suddenly the volume has been turned up, and uncertainty about the likely result has increased. Everyone, other than rose-tinted bespectacled unionists, knew that the polls would narrow (and they have), and everyone knew that the New Year would see a significant boost to the profiles of the individual campaigns. Yet few could have predicted the heightened sense of doubt that now permeates civic society and business planning north of the border.

Of course, many of the old fundamentals remain true. There is not settled majority which backs a split from the rest of the UK, however, what is now clear is that this fact may, in itself, not be enough to ensure a win for Better Together in September. Polls regularly put the percentage of Scots planning to vote “Yes” at over 40%, amongst those who have made up their minds, and suddenly the prospect of a nationalist summer surge founded on Saltires flying at the Commonwealth Games and any increased prospect of a Conservative general election victory (and the resulting opportunity to spread panic amongst left-wing Labour voters) does not sound so fanciful. So, why is the momentum swinging so clearly towards the Yes campaign – what is it that has given them the turbo boost of self-confidence that has been apparent since January?

Fundamentally, it’s because the case for Scotland remaining part of the UK has remained unchanged despite the changing desires of the Scottish people. There is a core demand from Scots that is not being responded to by the unionist parties making up the Better Together campaign. Almost every snapshot of public opinion makes it clear that the most popular outcome, with greater support than independence or the status quo, is enhanced devolution within the UK. Put simply, the public of Scotland want to remain part of the UK, but they recognise that devolution to date has been piecemeal and unsatisfactory.

Ever since the 1970s, and arguably long before, there has been a sense that Scotland needed the ability to take its own decisions, and after the referendum in 1997 a substantial settlement was delivered and the Scottish Parliament re-formed. New powers over spending were devolved, including in key areas such as health, education and transport, yet with minimal say over raising the money that was spent, a major accountability deficit was created. Relative tinkering around the edges in recent years has moved us to the position that the Scottish Parliament will soon have boosted tax powers, but still only amounting to Scotland raising 15% of what it spends. Broadly, Holyrood spends over £30bn, but still has only marginal responsibility for raising it.

Devo Plus is the proposal put forward by Reform Scotland, which has the potential to make a significant difference to the devolved landscape and deliver a situation which is not only the most popular solution for most Scots, but also the best and sustainable solution. It would see Scotland responsible for raising all of income tax and corporation tax, amongst others, whilst Westminster retained responsibility for collecting VAT and national insurance. A more balanced situation would emerge where the Scottish Parliament had responsibility for raising over half what it spent in Scotland.

All the unionist parties have been “talking the talk” on devolution of powers, but time is now running out for them to “walk the walk” before Referendum Day. To truly maximise the chances of a resounding “no” vote, a genuine cross party agreement was required on what “no” meant for the future governance in Scotland. Instead of which, a piecemeal approach is continuing, some hints here, nods and winks there, but no fundamental agreement on future steps.

That lack of clarity is bound to have an impact on polling day. In the last weeks and days, Alex Salmond will, correctly, point out that no consensus exists on what will happen after a “no” vote, and will argue that the likely outcome will be the status quo. Whilst no-one truly believes that the post-Scotland Act status quo will last, he will be right in pointing out that no joint commitments have been made. He will hope for a late surge similar to the 2011 election.

I have always believed that a substantial new devolution offer, like Devo Plus, would open up the possibility of a “yes” vote below 30%, perhaps as low as 25%, and the potential for the SNP to survive that kind of result would be questionable. As time moves on there is a danger that any new co-ordinated offer will be reactive and will be portrayed as unionists being panicked into a response to rising support for the “yes” case.

That being said, enhanced devolution remains popular and it remains the right path for Scotland. It will deliver better government in Scotland and in the rest of the UK. Devo Plus remains the only credible, costed and deliverable option on the table for a more devolved Scotland, and it has support across the political spectrum.

What is required now is the political leadership that has been lacking to force a game changing offer onto the table, even at this late stage.