One suggestion going around in the wake of yesterday’s Scottish Government white paper is that ‘devolution max’, with full fiscal autonomy as part of it, may be the basis for a constitutional deal between the SNP and Conservatives, assuming the Conservatives win the UK General Election.
Such an option would have considerable attractions for a lot of Tory MPs. It would resolve a number of Conservative concerns, such as those about the ‘unfairness’ of the Barnett formula or the strength of Scottish representation at Westminster and the West Lothian Question (as it would enable, and justify, a significant reduction in the number of Scottish MPs), while keeping Scotland in the Union. If such an option is indeed on the table, it shows the party-political dangers for Labour arising from their constitutional timidity in thinking about how devolution works.
But it’s worth thinking harder about this. This option has serious downsides for the Tories too. One is that it’s a good many steps down what many Conservatives think of as a ‘slippery slope’ to break-up of the UK which, as I’ve explained before, creates real problems for them. Another is that it may well not help with the economic goal of reducing the UK budget deficit (especially as ‘devo max’ implies more or less unlimited powers to borrow). A third is their inevitable uncertainty about whether the SNP would respect the autonomy of the UK Government on UK-wide matters under that deal. While a form of English nationalism remains influential among Tory MPs, it conflicts with their Unionism and to quite a degree with their Euroscepticism as well.