Jim Sillars: Devo is in the detail for Alex

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The political games about who can or cannot run a referendum are not yet over. Alex Salmond has played a good political hand, bordering on the superb, while skating on very thin legal ice.

Challenged by Willie Rennie, Alex quoted Professor Chris Himsworth, who wrote that a referendum Bill’s purpose “could be interpreted as the testing of opinion rather than the amendment of the constitution. Such a Bill would almost certainly be within the parliament’s competence”.

That is academic twaddle. A referendum on independence isn’t about asking for an opinion, it’s about the citizen having an opinion as he/she walks into the polling station and then, when inside, turning that opinion into a decision the moment that X goes on the ballot paper.

It isn’t about amending the UK constitution, it’s about ending it, with Scotland leaving the British state.

However, let us move on to whether there should be a second question on devo max as well. As the SNP has a mandate only for an independence question, it needs a groundswell of public demand to table that second question. How could Alex resist? After all, he has said he wants the Scots to have a fair say in what their constitutional arrangements are to be with the UK.

One of his advisors is on record as saying that such a two-question referendum would be legitimate. He cited the 1997 two-question referendum that asked, firstly, if we wanted a Scottish Parliament and, secondly, if we wanted it to have tax-raising powers. Those questions were complementary. Even with a “no” vote, the second one did not destroy the first. Both had to be implemented by Westminster.

But a devo max second question is a different matter altogether. Independence and devo max are not complementary, they are opposites. Independence takes Scotland out of the UK, devo max keeps us in. Furthermore, while it is the Scots in Scotland who can deliver independence, it is only Westminster, not the Holyrood parliament, that can deliver devo max. A higher devo max vote than independence and independence is sunk.

Devo max will be sold as giving us all the economic and social powers we need, while remaining in a cosy relationship with England. We’ll be told it’s the best of both worlds. Try and get a majority for independence when that siren song is in the air.

Like many seemingly easy solutions, devo max is anything but. First, there is no agreed definition of what it means in terms of the powers to be divided between Holyrood and Westminster. One version has Scotland keeping all taxation raised within our land and sea boundaries, paying Westminster our share of defence, the foreign office, contribution to the EU and overseas aid. Power over Trident on the Clyde would remain with Westminster.

But even that version of devo max leaves important questions unanswered. Would Scotland be allowed to have different tax rates from the rest of the UK on income, national insurance, company profits, fuel duty and VAT, or would we have to toe the tax-setting decisions of Westminster? Would we run our own social security system with higher pensions and benefits than in England, or would we be bound by the levels set by Westminster?

As Alex Salmond and Holyrood cannot deliver more devolution – that power lying with Westminster – will the government down there agree to set out in a White Paper what devo max means, and guarantee to implement it if we vote for it? If that is not done, then the question isn’t worth the paper it will be printed on.

There is the added difficulty with devo max, which the Lib Dems have put their finger on – devo max isn’t just about Scotland. It involves the rest of the UK because the economic and political situations down south would be changed by it.

If Scotland had control over corporation tax, and decided to halve the present rate to keep and attract business, the effect on the north east of England would be devastating. Newcastle would be apoplectic. Its region wouldn’t stand a chance of keeping or attracting companies on its side of the Border when just a few miles north they could save huge amounts on taxation.

Then there’s the politics. We lost a number of Westminster seats when Holyrood was created. There will be another big reduction if devo max comes in. That means a re-ordering of the House of Commons, including more boundary changes in England, and resolving the West Lothian question of whether our MPs could continue to vote on English business.

Consider this – a big reduction in Scottish MPs means a big reduction in Labour MPs, leaving Labour highly unlikely ever to form a UK government again.

So, you can see that, no matter what is claimed about Scotland’s right to devo max, in both economic and political terms, it involves the deep interests of people south of the Border, and so cannot be a question only for Scotland.

Last time, in 1997, those in the south didn’t bother. All the evidence is they are going to demand their say this time.