This truth I hold to be self evident: so long as there is breath in a unionist politician’s body, Devo Max shall never die. Like its alter ego, federalism, it is the Lazarus of Scottish politics, often buried, but never quite dead. And always capable of leaping from a shallow grave every time there is a serious prospect of independence.
It will rise again at the end of this very week as Sir Keir Starmer, the UK Labour leader, gives the John P. Macintosh lecture on the subject of devolution 2.0. How it can be reconfigured to re-envision a more powerful Scotland and a more equitable share, along with rUK, of powers and pennies hitherto clasped to the Westminster bosom.
Yet we risk making a cardinal error if we merely dismiss this as yet another empty vow, yet another promise of deliverance from a London politician on a day/zoom trip, or a Fife based one replaying his less than greatest hits.
That is the obvious riposte of those of us who consider anything less than independence for Scotland to be a) wholly unacceptable, and b) likely to be a host of empty pledges signifying nothing of substance.
But, to paraphrase the late Diana, there are three of us in this marriage…the independenistas, the unionists, and the undecided. And it is this latter group to whom we should pay careful attention.
The Better Together tribe have also risen from their temporary grave and they have their sights firmly trained on the Don’t Knows. Rely on them to sell a halfway house with the skills and silvery tongues of half decent snake oil salespersons. Even if the house in question has all the credibility of an artist’s impression.
For they know, and we must accept, that there will be a tranche of the electorate who might favour independence in their hearts, not least with Boris at the helm of the good ship UK, but who will still be fearful of taking the full plunge.
Devo max may be as likely as partial pregnancy, but it will be given a very hard sell nonetheless. Allied to all the old rattling sabres of currency, hard borders, isolation etc it will be packaged as the all purpose answer to the long standing problem of constitutional imbalance. (Think Kaa, in The Jungle Book, hypnotically enticing his prey.)
Some of this sales pitch can be deflected by the hard work needed to both answer the obvious and honest concerns of swithering voters, and hammer the answers into the kind of memorable sound bites a successful campaign will require.
Never under estimate the potency of the snappy soundbite. We don’t want to go down the duplicitous route of a “Get Brexit Done”, but neither do we want to be out-sloganed by those long practised in these darker arts. “Too wee, too poor, too stupid” is endlessly recycled not because it’s true, but because it’s memorable.
Another aspect to which great care must be given is the attempt to re-write the very clear question posed in the 2014 referendum. The Unionist argument is that reducing the ask to a binary Yes/No offer, is unfair, in as much as Yes always sounds more enticing. The 2014 result rather gives the lie to that.
However the argument for inserting a devo max option is a rather cleverer manoeuvre. It was one proposed by Alex Salmond in 2014, and rejected by David Cameron, at a time when both men thought the No vote was well in the ascendancy. Six years, three Prime Ministers and a pro Brexit vote later, the electoral landscape has changed beyond recognition.
For Sir Keir Starmer, there are other party political arguments for resurrecting this nakedly false premise. False, not least because he and we know that the chances of a Labour government at any foreseeable juncture are embarrassingly slender. In short, he can promise us the moon with peach trees, but can deliver precisely nothing.
He is acutely aware, however, of the political giant Scottish Labour once was, and how big a part it once played in delivering a Labour administration in the UK. The question he has to resolve, is whether this giant is merely slumbering, or if it is a barely breathing, near corpse.
He knows too that Richard Leonard, formerly Corbyn’s representative on Scottish earth, is not about to tear open his shirt, pop into a call box, and re-emerge as Labour’s Supersaviour.
And unless he’s completely daft, which I doubt, he must also know that Scottish Labour’s posture on the constitution, has been a massive and continuing cause of self harm. Hence the selection of the topic for his lecture. (Idly wondering if Ian Murray MP will have been allowed to help with the text!)
Another danger for any upcoming independence campaign is that while his message is hardly new, the messenger still is. Unlike his predecessor, Starmer is a man the electoral lieges can envisage on the steps of number ten, a vision aided by the obvious inadequacies of the current resident.
So we must be careful not to project our own cynicism about yet another revival of hollow pledges on to those undecided voters at whom they are mainly targeted. Nor should we underestimate the range of weaponry, not excluding the kitchen sink, which will be deployed to derail Scotland’s path to statehood.
We will win if we take these tactics seriously, debunk the more spurious claims with hard facts, and defuse the more obvious emotional blackmail with a sound, defensible vision of our own. One of the reasons I keep banging on about getting our campaigning boots on, is that the opposition to independence is already half way down the road.
Keir Starmer is a much more likeable opponent to Indy than the Gove/Johnson/Jack combo. Which makes him, and the latest set of shiny beads for the natives, all the more dangerous.
First published in The National