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7 September 2014

Westminster prepares to offer further powers to Scotland – but is it too little, too late?

The decision to keep devo max off the ballot paper may come to be seen as the Unionists' biggest error. 

By George Eaton

Even before last night’s dramatic poll putting the Scottish Yes side ahead for the first time, the Westminster parties were planning to unite this week to outline the further powers that would be transferred to Scotland following a No vote. But the remarkable momentum acquired by the nationalists (who have gone from 22 points behind to two points ahead in a month) has made a new offer even more imperative. 

Perhaps the biggest weakness of the Unionist campaign has been its failure to clearly spell out what powers would be devolved and the process by which they would be so. Alistair Darling’s worst moment in his second debate with Alex Salmond came when he was asked to name three job-creating powers that the Scottish Parliament would gain after a No vote and was unable to answer. Since polls have long shown a majority of Scots in favour of devo max (which goes beyond anything yet offered by Westminster), the Unionists should have been much better prepared.

In an attempt to compensate for this failure, George Osborne promised on this morning’s Andrew Marr Show: “You will see in the next few days a plan of action to give more powers to Scotland. More tax powers, more spending powers, more plans for powers over the welfare state. 

“That will be put into effect – the timetable for delivering that will be put into effect – the moment there is a no vote in the referendum. The clock will be ticking for delivering those powers – and then Scotland will have the best of both worlds.”

This doesn’t suggest that any new powers will be offered, beyond those previously announced, but it does suggest that, for the first time, a clear timetable will be outlined. 

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The hope is that this positive offer, reminiscent of that made to Quebec separatists by the Canadian government in 1995 (which helped give the No campaign victory by a single point), will persuade Scots that a vote for No is not a vote for the status quo, but a vote for a reconfigured Union. But the danger for the Unionists is that this is all too little, too late. As I’ve said, there is no indication that any party will offer devo max (which would entail full fiscal autonomy), as demanded by some No campaigners, such as J.K. Rowling, today. Others justifiably complain that this more explicit offer comes after some have already cast their postal votes. And that it coincides with the Yes side moving ahead means it looks like an act of desperation, rather than an act of principle.

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If Scotland does vote for independence, the moment the Union was lost may come to be seen as October 2012, when David Cameron vetoed the inclusion of a second question on further devolution on the ballot paper. Back then, this was regarded as necessary to deny Salmond a “consolation prize” that would aid his gradualist strategy. But it has ended up endangering the Union anyway. Had devo max been an option on 18 September, Better Together could have told Scots to vote “No” to independence and “Yes” to further devolution: the best of both worlds. But it now faces the far harder task of convincing them that “No” also means Yes.