In context: Devo max
The idea of a third way through the constitutional logjam has reared its head once again, despite no one really knowing what it is.
Why are we talking about this again?
It might seem a bit of an odd time to be talking about devo max, or home rule, or full fiscal autonomy, whatever you want to call it, again when the conversation on a second independence referendum has barely moved in the last seven years.
Stranger still that the latest iteration of the debate seems to have been sparked by someone from within the SNP. Former policy development convener Chris Hanlon penned a column in The National at the start of the month, admitting he had “always been uncomfortable” about the binary choice put before the Scottish people in 2014.
Motives were quickly attributed to Hanlon about why he wrote the piece. But whatever the cause, it certainly got political circles talking about a third option. Again.
So… what is it?
That depends on who you ask! Broadly speaking, it means devolving as much as possible (the max) to the Scottish Parliament. Typically, that has referred to Westminster retaining power over defence and foreign policy, and currency and monetary policy.
However, there are significant differences of opinion among supporters as to what ‘max’ means and a divide between theory and what is practically possible. Immigration, for example – would Scotland have full control of its international borders, would it have some control for specific circumstances (to combat labour shortages, for instance) or is it better to have the UK government decide all policy across the UK?
Interestingly, Hanlon himself defined devo max as “the smallest amount of increased devolution that I think those who support independence can live with”. But he also admits he views this option as a way to “create a path to independence” rather than an end in itself.
Why does everyone seem to hate the idea?
Well, for pro-independence people, devo max is often seen as diluting the case for independence. There are concerns that people who would be ‘soft’ Yes voters would instead opt for devo max. Fundamentally, this third option wouldn’t deliver independence immediately – and it also does nothing to respond to the biggest change to the constitution between 2014 and now: Brexit.
On the other side, pro-Union folk are concerned that devo max would not be the end of the debate – that it would simply be another step towards Scottish independence. In fact, some have even argued that it would speed up that process. Former Tory MSP Adam Tomkins warned in The Herald: “Devo max would destabilise the United Kingdom to such a degree it would end the United Kingdom.”
Of course, not everything thinks it’s a terrible idea. Former Labour MSP Neil Findlay has long called for a three-option ballot because he believes “we should devolve all powers to the lowest possible level unless there is an overwhelming reason not to”. While some might agree with that concept, they may disagree with framing it as devo max – nor what an “overwhelming reason” would be.
Is a three-option referendum possible?
There are a number of suggestions but no agreement on how it could be done. It is difficult to distill complex topics to one ballot paper.
Supporters of devo max would need to make sure what that means is clear to save months of wrangling afterwards (‘devo max means devo max’ wouldn’t cut it). While independence supporters will have to set out what independence looks like (currency being a key example), it is fundamentally a cleaner break than devo max which, as mentioned, could take several forms.
Then come the practicalities. The Electoral Commission says referendum questions should be “easy to understand” and “unambiguous”. That doesn’t rule out multiple choice, but it does make it harder. Three or more options also means no one answer is likely to achieve more than half of all votes, which threatens legitimacy of the result. You could resolve this by having voters rank options, but that adds confusion.
There have also been suggestions you could ask two questions, where the first asks whether there should be constitutional change, and the next on how. But then the existence of the second question assumes the answer to the first, which may impact how people vote, while holding a second, separate referendum (or round) comes with extra costs.
So, essentially, yes, a multiple-choice referendum is possible, but it raises challenges a binary poll would not.