A Devo Plus option for Scotland, as part of the decision to be taken on its future, was launched at Holyrood today by representatives of the three main unionist parties: Labour (Duncan McNeil MSP), Liberal Democrat (Tavish Scott MSP) and Conservative (Alex Fergusson MSP).
Where what has come to be called the Devo Max option would see pretty full financial controls devolved to the Scottish Government, Devo Plus would continue to reserve to Westminster control of pensions, VAT and national insurance. It would though, devolve to Scotland full control of income tax, corporation tax and most welfare spending.
The possibility of devolving tax raising powers to some degree was first raised in the fudgy Calman Commission which the Scottish Government’s disdainfully distanced position rendered a minor league game.
However, the move was immediately interesting because of its knowing political strategy.
Power is seductive but power brings responsibilities – and tax raising power brings disaffection and more. Remember the lead boots of Alex Salmond’s ‘a penny for Scotland’ in the failed 1999 election campaign.
The Trojan Horse which went into construction during Calman has now been wheeled inside the citadel as Devo Plus.
In the hypothesis of Scotland opting for independence on that school holiday Saturday of 18th October 2014, floating as the date with destiny, the crunch would come at once on the axis of taxing and spending.
At the moment, everything can be blamed on Westminster and it is that device that has, in a devolved Scotland, allowed the First Minister to lassoo together the very different and historically warring factions of his party.
If Scotland were independent – or still devolved but with these financial powers – and with an SNP administration as its first or continuing government, the throw up for the party’s own Ba Game would be the arrival of the power to control its own tax and spending regimes.
The conservative Nats would point to the obesity of Scotland’s public sector and insist on a fiscal gastric band. The socialist Nats would be up in arms and counter-insist on spending on a serious social justice agenda.
Devo Plus craftily offers the powers that would tempt those conflictual philosophies within the SNP to come out to play – and if that is the way the country chooses to go, this has all the capacity to be the prompt for the SNP fox to cannibalise itself under devolution. There would be no need for a gun.
The real issue is that this problem is not resolved by choosing Devo Max or independence instead (although which unionist voter is going to opt for Devo Plus anyway, when they could have Devo Max?)
The question is whether this sleeper in the nature of the SNP undermines the independence proposition before or after it is a reality.
The current SNP majority and its potential majority were it leading an independent nation, removes the last restraint on such internal disputes once Scotland possesses these financial controls.
This is about internal party discipline holding opposites together. At the moment, there is every reason – in the interests of achieving the party’s raison d’etre, to accept that discipline. But what happens afterwards – either when independence becomes a reality or under, say, Devo Max, with independence off the agenda for another decade, will be the tough one.