How much do you know about Devo Max? Probably not much,since there is as yet no agreement on exactly what it means. Despite this lack of agreement, some politicians are telling us it's the only way forward, whilst others claim it is a sneak tactic aimed at getting something close to independence by the back door. Alex Salmond, meanwhile, says that whilst it's not his preference he would be willing to offer it in a referendum – if another party wished to define and propose it.
Polls suggest that the majority of Scots want either independence or the mysterious Devo Max – more powers for the Scottish Parliament, at any rate. A defiant minority want things to remain as they are. Only internet troll Tom Harris and his pals seriously seem to think that it might be a good idea to return some powers to Westminster. Devo Max might seem like a natural compromise, but that assumption is based on another one – that the spread of support for this option is evenly distributed among unionists and pro-independence types. My research suggests that's not the case.
When I say research, I should make clear from the start that this was a small survey (with only 65 participants). It was deliberately kept as simple as possible. This leaves room for it to be developed and run on a larger scale, should any organisation choose to take that up. 57% of poll respondents favoured independence, which, in light of other polls, suggests it is not a representative sample. I do not think, however, that this compromises the validity of what says about Devo Max.
This is because the results are quite stark. Respondents were asked to answer on a sliding scale between being strongly in favour of Devo Max or strongly against. 54% of those who favoured independence defined themselves as somewhat supportive of Devo Max, with a further 19% strongly supportive (19% were opposed). This contrasts strongly with the picture for unionists, whose preferences were widely distributed. Unionist politicians may be mistaken in assuming that none of their constituency support this option – 14% described themselves as strongly in favour, 25% as mildly in favour. 11% were mildly against, 25% strongly against, and a further 25% didn't care.
What does this tell us? It suggests, first and foremost, that there is a wide spectrum of views within the unionist group, and that people belong to that group for a variety of reasons. The unionist campaign has largely centred on the premise that these people have strong British identities (even if they also have strong Scottish identities) and that they feel they benefit from the status quo. This may be true of some, but others, whilst unhappy about the idea of leaving the union, seems deeply dissatisfied with the status quo. Indeed, some may prefer to see Scotland go it alone as far as they think is reasonably practicable – their unionism may be less about loving Britishness and more about thinking it impractical, or dangerous, for Scotland to be entirely on its own.
If there is more overall support for Devo Max in the pro-independence group, might unionist politicians be making a mistake by calling for a simple either/or referendum? True, these respondents favoured Devo Max overall (though again, the sample is probably too small for this to be meaningful), but a Devo Max option might have the potential to split off more independence supporters than unionists. Of course, in the end, a simple three question referendum could come down to tactical voting and a game of bluff, which is why it is vital that careful consideration be given to the format – and that, for everyone's sake, this sensitive matter not be rushed. The recent referendum on AV, which involved the distribution of information later admitted to be false, should have taught us that much.
What about those pro-independence people who are strongly against Devo Max? There are two straightforward ways of interpreting their position. Some may think that any degree of support for Devo Max decreases the chance of getting independence (in which case they may change their approach in the context of a referendum that specifically removed this risk). Others may fear that further Scottish devolution would reduce the long term prospect of Scotland becoming full independent (though there are, of course, others who see it as a possible step along the way). Perhaps, on both sides of the independence question, there are concerns not so much about the uncertainty of what Devo Max means today but about the uncertainty of what it may produce in the future. In this context, the fact that the majority still seem to favour it (if this is borne out by larger studies) may indicate deeper support.
In any event, a proper understanding of the relationship between Scottish voters and Devo Max will be essential to winning the forthcoming referendum. Naturally individual preferences will change as the details of this option are pinned down, but given the variables participants in my survey were already having to consider, it seems unlikely it will change all that much. It's time people on both sides stopped taking the preferences of unionists, in particular, for granted. The real debate going on in Scotland is much more complex than the one reflected in the headlines.