Ian Swanson: Is the writing on the wall for full independence

The independence debate rages on
The independence debate rages on
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Politicians are not known for delivering straight answers. Political editor Ian Swanson wonders if voters can be expected to deliver a “yes” or “no”

SIR Tom Farmer is not convinced about independence. The Kwik-Fit founder and entrepreneur has been happy to give large amounts of money to the SNP and back Alex Salmond as First Minister, but he wasn’t at Cineworld in Fountainbridge last Friday for the launch of the Yes campaign.

He wants to see a third option on the referendum ballot paper, giving voters the chance to vote for more powers for Holyrood.

“My views were that I wanted to see a Scotland that was more independent, rather than a Scotland that was separate,” he says. “I’m still of that opinion. I lean towards devo-max or devo-plus.”

He’s not alone. Another leading Scots entrepreneur, Jim McColl, a member of Mr Salmond’s Council of Economic Advisers, has long argued for Scotland to have full economic powers but says he sees advantages to remaining part of the UK.

It’s the option no political party will put its name to or wants to see on the ballot paper, yet opinion polls suggest it is the preferred choice of most Scots and has support from a diverse group across the political spectrum and beyond.

Former Glasgow Labour MP George Galloway, now back in the Commons after winning the Bradford West by-election for Respect earlier this year, argues for more powers for Holyrood within the UK.

He has promised to campaign hard against independence, but he says: “The Scottish Government needs power over the economy, pulling the levers for the worthy rather than the wealthy, which is why I favour a second question option on the ballot paper, however it’s phrased and whatever it’s called.”

Former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish also wants more powers rather than independence. He prefers the devo-max solution, where Scotland would be responsible for all taxes and send an agreed amount to Westminster to cover shared services like defence and foreign affairs, but he says he would be content with devo-plus, where the UK parliament retains more powers and responsibilities.

The Scottish Parliament’s first presiding officer and former Liberal leader, Lord Steel, has spoken out in favour of devo-plus.

Even the Archbishop of Canterbury is supportive. As a teenager in Swansea, Dr Rowan Williams was an enthusiastic supporter of Welsh independence but says he is now “more interested” in devo-max or devo-plus.

He says: “I have a lot of instinctive sympathy for small nations. The problem is that small nations in a small island have got to live together in a sustainable way.

“You’ve got to find ways of working economically together, even if there is a higher degree of operational political independence. It’s too small an island to put up with rivalries.”

It’s easy for people in the other camps to dismiss devo-max or devo-plus as a cop-out for those who want to hedge their bets, a compromise for faint hearts or a dangerous sop to appease the Nationalists.

But it can also be seen as a rational response which would give Scotland wider powers without having to dissolve the UK.

Critics often dismiss devo-max as an idea which no-one has defined precisely enough for it to be considered, but all sides in this debate still have to spell out what their visions really mean. The SNP’s ongoing redefinition of independence – keeping the Queen and the currency, and sharing all sorts of things from tax discs to army bases – means people cannot be quite sure what they’re being asked to vote for there.

When it comes to the pro-union parties, David Cameron’s vague talk of possible extra powers after a No vote on independence leaves even the “status quo” looking distinctly unclear.

The Yes campaign supporters say they are now engaged in winning “hearts and minds” for the principle of independence and the policies to be followed in an independent Scotland would then be decided at the following election, when each party puts forward its own manifesto.

Independence, though, is a big step. People naturally want to know what they are signing up for.

And as politicians know from their own experience, not all questions have a simple Yes or No answer.


• INDEPENDENCE: Scotland negotiates an independence settlement with the UK. Under the SNP proposal, the new country would keep the pound, with interest rates set by the Bank of England, the Queen would remain head of state and some UK-wide bodies, such as DVLA, could continue.

• DEVO-MAX: Holyrood would take full control of all taxes and send an agreed amount to the UK Government to pay for shared services such as defence and foreign affairs.

• DEVO-PLUS: Westminster would retain responsibility for VAT and National Insurance, but most other taxes would pass to Holyrood, including income tax.

• STATUS QUO: Extra powers will allow Holyrood to vary income tax by 10p in the pound, control firearms and speed limits.