Thinking about Devo-Max

In the rush to consider alternatives to independence, the parties at Westminster are flirting with different ideas about further devolution: further powers over taxation (probably income tax), welfare (housing benefit and attendance allowance) and borrowing.   These are being referred to as options for  “Devo-Max”; they’re not.  The clue about “Devo-Max” lies in the second part of the expression: it is supposed to be devolution to the maximum possible extent.  The powers that Scotland does not have, and which it would gain with independence, are

  • The constitution
  • Economic policy
  • Public expenditure
  • Benefits
  • International relations
  • Defence
  • Immigration and nationality
  • Access to information
  • Business law
  • Labour market law
  • Consumer protection
  • Energy
  • Transport
  • Broadcasting

Northern Ireland has (in principle) powers over transport and benefits; neither of these is likely to be devolved in full to Scotland.  Devo Max would cover pretty much everything that could be devolved, which leaves only the constitution, monetary policy, international relations and defence, and nationality.  That’s not dissimilar to the situation of the Crown Dependencies (the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man), which have their own economic policy, taxation and social provision, but (with the exception of the EU) share the UK approach to foreign policy, defence and money. That level of devolution isn’t on offer.

There’s a strong case for moving towards federalism in the UK, but federalism starts from a different place.  One of the key problems with the devolution settlement has been that powers have offered reluctantly, with restrictions, often requiring subsequent correction or special legislation.   The presumption in federalism is the opposite: power flows from the lower areas or member states, not from the top.

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