If Scotland is to remain in the UK, there is a growing recognition among the Unionist parties that they must hold out the prospect of further devolution. David Cameron set the ball rolling in his speech in Edinburgh last month when he promised to consider greater powers for Scotland. Now, for Labour, Douglas Alexander has suggested that his party could embrace what’s known as “devo plus”. Unlike “devo max” (an option rejected by Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont), which would grant Holyrood full fiscal autonomy, devo plus would leave pensions, VAT and national insurance in Westminster’s hands. But it would give Scotland contol of income tax, corporation tax (which the SNP would significantly reduce) and most welfare spending.
In his speech at the Scottish Labour conference, Alexander will say:
True to our history and alive to contemporary currents, we must be open-minded on how we can improve devolution’s powers, including fiscal powers, but be resolute in our rejection of separation
The political logic behind devo plus is that the SNP will remain unassailable so long as Alex Salmond can spend money without having to raise it. In Alistair Darling’s words, Holyrood must “take the pain” of raising sufficient revenue to fund spending of £30bn a year.
Added to this is the fact that the majority of Scots have consistently supported greater devolution. A new Times/Ipsos MORI poll (£) shows that 59 per cent want a question on greater powers included on the referendum ballot paper. All three Westminster leaders, however, have so far insisted that the referendum should be a straight yes/no vote on independence. The danger of this approach is that Scottish voters conclude that the only way to win greater autonomy is to vote for full independence. To counter this risk Unionist leaders need to make clear, in advance of the referendum, exactly which powers they would be willing to devolve. Scots will not be persuaded by vague promises of “further devolution” at some unspecified future date.