Why promise more devolution when it will never happen?
By ANDREW NICOLL
NICCOLO MACHIAVELLI gets a very bad press.
Describe somebody as “Machiavellian” and you make them out to be cunning and twisted — and not in a nice way.
But Nick wasn’t like that. Mostly he was just right.
I was reminded of Mr Machiavelli when I went along to the launch of the Devo Plus campaign’s latest plans for what Scotland will be like after the referendum. Not that they are even slightly Machiavellian. Anything but.
Now, as we all know, there will be only one question on the referendum ballot paper.
It’s a simple in or out choice with no third option where you can ask for a bit more devolution instead.
Since a bit more devolution is exactly what the Devo Plus people want, you might have expected them to go away and stop bothering folk as it’s not going to happen.
But no. They reckon they should keep working harder than ever to come up with a plan for improved devolution which all the other parties can unite around after Scotland votes No to independence.
They are not alone. Many of my chums think that Westminster is simply itching to give Scotland lots more control of its own affairs just as soon as the tiresome business of the referendum is out of the way.
After all, hasn’t every single one of the anti-independence parties said as much?
I’m not so sure. You see, call me an old cynic if you like, but it seems to me that every step along the way of devolution has been fired and driven by the threat of the SNP and a drift towards independence.
Take that threat away and there really is no reason to concede anything else.
Let’s look at the history books. Harold Wilson talked about devolution but nothing happened. Ted Heath promised it but nothing happened.
Then the SNP won a third of the vote in Scotland and, all of a sudden Jim Callaghan’s Labour government was determined to deliver.
But Mrs Thatcher said we should vote No and she would offer something better. The 1978 referendum failed, the SNP vote collapsed and Mrs Thatcher changed her mind — not a thing she did often.
Then Labour lost three elections on the trot. Scotland kept voting Labour and kept getting a Tory government. One more heave looked less and less attractive. Suddenly devolution was back on the cards.
And, when devolution finally came, nothing much happened until the SNP ended up as the biggest party in 2007.
Then, suddenly, we had the Calman Commission offering new tax powers to Scotland.
Holyrood will be setting your taxes after 2016, whether you like it or not.
Those chums of mine think I’m wrong, of course. Never mind that Labour’s George Robertson announced that devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead” — they think Labour delivered devolution because they actually believe in it, not just to head off the SNP.
My chums point to high-minded idealists like Donald Dewar who drove ahead with devolution because he truly believed it was the best way of running the country. Except he didn’t. Even the saintly Dewar saw a Scottish Parliament as a useful tool for beating the Nats.
Speaking at Westminster in June 1979, as the new Tory government set about dismantling the devolution proposals, he said: “If we failed in one thing in the referendum, it was not in the positive arguments for devolution; it was in getting it across to people not only that devolution had nothing to do with nationalism but that it was an effective and complete block to nationalism if it could succeed.”
He said that right after the newly-elected Ian Lang announced the Conservatives were “the natural party of devolution” — and we all know how that turned out.
Which brings me neatly back to dear old Machiavelli.
He was really just a humble civil servant but he was a man who understood as much about politics as anybody in the following 500 years.
Nick said many wise things. He said that men live on the land just like fish live in the sea — “the big ones eat the little ones”. He also said that “If men were good it would be better to be loved than feared but, since men are not good, it is better to be feared than loved.”
And, 500 years before it happened, he had a good deal to say about those politicians who are promising lots more devolution in exchange for a No vote.
Niccolo said: “No prince can or should keep his word when the circumstances under which he gave it have changed.”
And with the threat of independence gone, boy, that’s a big change of circumstance.
Why would the Tories give Scotland more devolution powers after that? Is it because we will stop voting for the Tories if they don’t? It’s too late, we’ve already stopped.
Why would the Lib Dems give us more powers? Is it because they said they would, like they did over university tuition fees? Do you think there is a single thing the Lib Dems would not give up if it meant they could find themselves in government again?
Why would Labour give us more powers? Is it because we might stop voting Labour?
Well, who else are you going to vote for? Vote for who you like, but you won’t be voting for independence any more.
There won’t be more devolution because there is no need. Just like there will be no need to keep giving Scotland more cash than the rest of the UK.
Independence has been a gun at Westminster’s head for decades. What do you think will happen when they find out there are no bullets in it?