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Chris Game: Whatever additonal powers Scotland may get, they won't amount to devo max

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Devo Max – it sounds like a toilet cleaner that kills 99% of germs, or a dodgy West Country car dealer, but either way I visualise its initials in upper case. And that’s its problem. It’s the ‘must use’ expression of the month, and everyone has their own idea of what it is.

For desperate unionist party leaders, it was perfect Humpty Dumpty-speak: it means just what we choose it to mean. Pledge now, check it out on Friday the 19th.  

For Scotland’s ‘yes’ campaigners it was a verbal blob, impossible to pin down and attack – and ultimately frustrating.

They knew its precise meaning because they’d invented it, and it wasn’t at all what wavering voters were being offered. Nor, indeed, was it anything to do with devolution elsewhere in the UK.

It was actually spelt out in a 2009 Scottish Government options paper, Fiscal Autonomy in Scotland.

Five distinctive options were defined in this document, from the Scottish National Party government’s preferred full fiscal autonomy in an independent Scotland to a minimally changed current fiscal framework. This latter option gave Holyrood significant discretion over spending but little over tax revenue raising, borrowing, or broader monetary policy.

‘Devolution max’, the SNP’s fallback option, was and is FFA within the UK – the Scottish Government being responsible for raising, collecting and administering virtually all revenues in Scotland and the vast majority of spending; in short, very different from the third option of merely ‘enhanced devolution’.

The problem here, as noted by the 2009 Calman Commission on Scottish Devolution, is that, while a tax-based FFA might be at least conceivable in an independent Scotland, attempted within the UK it would clash with the Treasury’s expenditure-based economic model and its pooling and redistribution of taxes to fund common standards of public services and welfare benefits. It would therefore be incompatible with the controversial Barnett formula that all three major party leaders are committed to retain.

So, whatever additional powers Scotland may get, they won’t amount to Devo Max. Can we, then, stop trying to appropriate the term rather meaninglessly for English local government.

Yes, use Scotland as a benchmark – as when the labour MP Graham Allen MP said: “I don’t see any reason why English councils are not capable of taking on the powers that go to Scotland.”

The first-hand experience and pragmatism of Core Cities, Greater Manchester, the Council Councils Network, and their like offer our best guide to the scope for devolution in England.

Chris Game, honorary senior lecturer, Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham

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