Politics is a funny old game. I could have sworn the Yes campaign lost the Battle for Scotland in pretty decisive fashion last month. Scotland voted to remain a part of the United Kingdom. It did not vote for something that might be reckoned some kind of Independence Within the United Kingdom for the very good reason that was not the question asked.
The country may not have rejected independence – and endorsed the Union – overwhelmingly but it did do so decisively. But to hear SNP and Yes supporters speak these days you’d think nothing of the sort had happened at all. They lost the war but think they have a mandate to dictate the terms of the peace.
[Note to bone-headed literalists: it wasn’t an actual war. You know, with guns and tanks and paratroopers and all that sort of thing. It was, figuratively, oh never mind…]
Of course the defeat must be explained away. Since no level-headed, right-thinking patriot could possibly have voted No on the basis of an honest or considered preference it follows that the people were gulled or otherwise doped and duped into voting No. Damn them. The bastards.
So what did for Yes? Ah yes, The Vow. Who knew that a sub-editor on the Daily Record’s back-bench could determine the fate of a nation? It seems to have become an article of faith – at least in some Yes circles – that the Record’s splash on September 15th bearing the news [sic] that the three main Westminster parties were committed to further devolution was the factor that explained the final result. Depending upon whom you care to listen to, one in five – or perhaps one in four – No voters are supposed to have been persuaded by The Vow. No Vow and Scotland votes Yes, you see.
Awkwardly, there is very little evidence that the ballyhooed Vow made very much difference. Most No voters reckoned further devolution – of some sort! – would follow a No vote and though that confidence increased in the latter stages of the campaign it did so only marginally and nowhere near enough to alter the actual outcome of the referendum.
But never mind all that. Facts don’t matter. Appearances are more important. Which is why the SNP now talk of holding Westminster’s feet to the fire and try and persuade us that Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband promised something very different from what they actually did promise.
Stewart Hosie, for instance, has been chuntering on that so-called devo-max was promised and that means everything except defence and foreign affairs. That’s certainly one version of devo-max but it’s nothing like anything that was actually promised by anyone in any kind of a position to actually deliver something. (And, incidentally, with the price of North Sea oil at $90 a barrel there’s something to be said for taking a more modest, prudent, approach. SNP economic forecasts, you will recall, were based on an oil price of $110 a barrel.)
Even a one-eyed three-year old can see what’s happening here. The nature and extent of pre-referendum promises must be hyped so that when, as is likely, the reality fails to match the hype the SNP and wider Yes movement can cry Scotland Betrayed! Not just Scotland Betrayed either but We Told You So too.
I understand that any so-called settlement must disappoint the nationalists. I don’t expect them to like it. Why should they? It’s not what they believe in and in the aftermath of defeat even a consolation prize seems a pretty trivial kind of bauble.
And, of course, it’s not actually a consolation prize at all. It’s not a never mind Jock, have a sweetie kind of thing. It’s what Unionists – or at least some of them – think is actually best for Scotland. They may, for sure, be mistaken but that’s a different matter.
In any case, it might be worth reminding ourselves what the damned Vow actually promised. Rather less, it turns out, than the mythology surrounding it would now have you believe. Here is what it said:
The people of Scotland want to know that all three main parties will deliver change for Scotland.
We are agreed that:
The Scottish Parliament is permanent and extensive new powers for the Parliament will be delivered by the process and to the timetable agreed and announced by our three parties, starting on 19th September.
And it is our hope that the people of Scotland will be engaged directly as each party works to improve the way we are governed in the UK in the years ahead.
We agree that the UK exists to ensure opportunity and security for all by sharing our resources equitably across all four nations to secure the defence, prosperity and welfare of every citizen.
And because of the continuation of the Barnett allocation for resources, and the powers of the Scottish Parliament to raise revenue, we can state categorically that the final say on how much is spent on the NHS will be a matter for the Scottish Parliament.
We believe that the arguments that so powerfully make the case for staying together in the UK should underpin our future as a country. We will honour those principles and values not only before the referendum but after.
People want to see change. A No vote will deliver faster, safer and better change than separation.
Now the first thing to be said is that this is not a text destined to be preserved in museums to awe future generations and remind them of the peerless sagacity of the people leading British political parties in the year 2014. Then again, no-one has ever mistaken Nick Clegg for Thomas Jefferson.
There is plenty of flannel there and, rather tellingly, no details of any importance at all. It is not a commitment to devo max of any variety, far less the kind of commitment Yes people want you to believe is being betrayed right now. It is a promise to do something of some sort at some point in the foreseeable and predictable future. It says we will get on with this and get back to you before the general election in May.
If there are feet to be held to a fire here they are very tiny feet and it’s a very small fire in any case.
And, look, it wasn’t new then either. It’s true that there was an air of panic – useful panic, Better Together would say – in the febrile days before the referendum but The Vow was, in essence, little more than a restatement of existing pledges. The Conservatives, for instance, had pledged months previously that the Strathclyde Commision’s recommendations would be a manifesto commitment in the run-up to the election next year.
So this was, even at the time, reheated news. Reheated and given renewed prominence, it is true, but still not nearly as dramatic as its legend would now have you believe.
Of course Nationalists are going to ask for this and that and while we’re at it these things too to be added to the devolution shopping list but the failure to put them in the basket is no act of treachery. For the simple reason that the promise made to Scotland was so small.
As it happens, I think there are plenty of matters that could – and quite probably should – be devolved but that will not be. But even so we’d still be a long way from independence.
Some Yes voters seem to think the Vow was a kind of pre-emptive peace negotiation offered by Unionists while the battle was still raging. It wasn’t. It was merely a reiteration of previous declarations. A reminder, nothing more, that some kind of change (of a kind to be detailed at a later date and, prudently, in the fullness of time) would be coming along soon.
Which it is, even if it is bound to disappoint Yes voters. But it’s not just for them, you know?