"Please, have the new powers we explicitly ruled out extending to you just a few months back, and wouldn't give you as recently as 2012." According to the Observer this morning, that, in a nutshell, is the wizard scheme which has been concocted to make safe the Union. George Osborne was on the telly this morning, making the same case. "You will see," he said, "in the next few days a plan of action to give more powers to Scotland. More tax powers, more spending powers, more plans for powers over the welfare state." So much, so vague.
Better Together's misuse of its potentially powerful devosomething arguments has been amongst the most curious, and perhaps ill-judged, phenomena of this lengthy campaign. Months ago, all the talk was of the swithering middle, whose strong first preference was for greater powers for the Scottish Parliament.
These people, begging for a excuse to vote No, have heard next to nothing from the No campaign on these issues for months. Darling came to that critical debating platform with ammunition to wound Salmond on currency, but his magazine was bare on more devolution. Not only couldn't Darling explain anything about any of the Better Together party's devo-plans with any coherence, ("... um ... road tax..."), the opportunity to exercise greater autonomy within the Union formed a peripheral part of his rhetoric, rather than being front and centre throughout. He gave the distinct impression that he'd rather be talking about other things.
Better Together need no advice from me, bur this was madness. Labour and the Tories didn't repair to their devo yurts to think about addition powers for the craic of it, and they certainly didn't do so out of systematic and coherent ideological commitment to a stronger Holyrood. Their object was nakedly strategic from the get-go: how do we pitch a devo offer which could transform a No vote into a positive opportunity for additional powers? How do we reshape the negative into a positive case for the Union, which will meet most voters where they are: keen on greater autonomy, not convinced by independence? This shouldn't have been a high bar to leap over. But they've only now just started their run up.
Many folk are, understandably, unclear about the boundaries between devolved and reserved powers. That lack of clarity could be readily exploited, to suggest that greater autonomy was being offered than was actually the case. And when people want to believe something is true, want to believe that more autonomy is a real possibility, that desire easily fudges the detail. The No campaign was pushing on an open door. Or, could have been pushing on it, but has unaccountably failed to do so with any energy or conviction -- till now.
From a Yes perspective, there are key limitations of the Conservative and Labour devolution proposals which we haven't yet nailed. In part, this reflects the No campaign's voiceless devo-agenda. If they aren't talking about it, choosing to fight their battles on the territory of change vs the status quo, that suits us fine. But now the pips squeak, the issues come back into focus. Careless claims continue to slosh around that some sort of "devo max" forms the Westminster consensus. This simply isn't true. Neither of the new schemes promoted by the two big parties comes close to the generally accepted definitions of devo-max.
It remains unclear from the Chancellor's Shelley Levine impression this morning to what extent Osborne's fretful last minute flurry of promises represents any meaningful advance on the Tory and Labour proposals floated earlier this year. But the methodology is crackers. This has been a long campaign. The parties took their time, took evidence, deliberated -- and came up with nothing approaching the panicked wheeze which they seem to hope to roll out in the next week. Now, if the Observer is to be believed, all of that work is to be upended in the referendum's febrile final days.
Their purposeful and reflective consideration ruled out the devolution of most taxation, almost all welfare decision-making - and all of that is, apparently, to alter. This despite the fact that the Labour Party has made the shared provision of (some) social security a key plank of its case for the Union, and has firmly rejected any proposals for Scotland's welfare system to enjoy any autonomy from the Westminster agenda again and again. Darling underscored the theme again in the last debate. Is he to be gazumped? Can Labour really have any credibility, or will, to endorse substantial welfare devolution which it has set its face against consistently for the duration of the campaign? Good luck with that one. They're only hints, but if, as Osborne says, his colleagues want to extend Holyrood's "power over the welfare state," I can't see how Labour could coherently support it. This is meant to be a united platform to save the Union. It also has a great deal of potential to blow new rifts in Better Together's façade of uniformity.
The No campaign's real credibility gap on more powers doesn't derive from 1979, but from the behaviour and choices of its composite parts in 2012, 2013 and 2014. When they were putting together the Scotland Act 2012, rounding off the Calman Commission process, the UK government tinkered with the groups proposals, enacting some ideas, rejecting others, and going further in the devolution of some areas. The Scottish Government pitched for a range of additional powers to be included, and were mostly knocked back by this UK Government. So what's changed since 2012, to convince you that actually, the SNP had a point all along? Answer came there none.
Any gap between the last-ditch temptations of next week and the devo-offers of the Tories and Labour pose the obvious, even more uncomfortable question for Johann Lamont and her colleagues: what has changed between March and September of this year, to convince you that your lukewarm prospectus for more devolution was wrong? The arguments haven't changed. The practical and political challenges are largely unaltered. Squirm out of that one, if you can. It is an impossible, embarrassing bind, and a measure of the anxiety gripping some quarters this morning, as misplaced complacency finally dissolves into blind panic. In life, it's important not just to get things right, to get them right at the right time.
You had your chance. You blew it.