Does the Isle of Man have answers to Scotland’s ‘devo max’ dilemma?

The Laxey Wheel, Isle of Man <em>Picture: Jim Linwood</em>
The Laxey Wheel, Isle of Man Picture: Jim Linwood
In all the scrabbling around for ideas on what “devo max” would look like, nobody, it seems, has looked on Scotland’s doorstep – or not until now at any rate.

SNP MSP Kenny Gibson has spent the last few weeks looking in depth at the islands round England’s coast to see how they co-exist with Westminster – and he is encouraged by what he has found out.

The Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey, Mr Gibson reckons, represent a pretty fair approximation of what “devo max” would mean in practice.

He also believes, with some justification, that using real examples within the British Isles would take the “fear of the unknown” away from the issue and make “devo max” much more acceptable to the Scottish people.

Unsurprisingly, his ideas have been treated coolly – in public – by the SNP leadership which doesn’t want to encourage any deviation from the main aim of independence.

But privately, senior SNP strategists are delighted that someone has at last come up with a formula for “devo max” which is cogent, coherent, workable and virtually autonomous.

Ever since Alex Salmond said he wanted the option of “independence lite” or “devo max” put on the ballot paper as an alternative to independence, there has been confusion as to what this might mean.

The Isle of Man may well provide that answer. The island, as is also the case with Jersey and Guernsey, is virtually autonomous, controlling all fiscal levers including tax rates and only relying on the UK for immigration rules and defence.

Jersey and the Isle of Man have control over customs and excise, postal services, telecommunications and social security, yet remain self-governing dependencies of the British Crown.

Mr Gibson has now tabled a motion at Holyrood demanding that Scotland be given the same powers and the same autonomy as these islands.

Mr Gibson and some of his SNP colleagues are particularly taken by the Isle of Man’s relationship with Europe. The Isle of Man is an associate member of the EU, which means it is not officially part of the United Kingdom member state, does not have to implement EU directives, but enjoys economic benefits with a series of trade deals.

“This is a real and practical example of ‘devo max’ in action,” Mr Gibson told the Times. “It should crystallise plans for ‘devo max’ and show it can work within the British Isles.”

And he added: “It should eliminate the fear factor about ‘devo max’. Here are a series of examples just off our coast which not only work and work well, but which enjoy more prosperity than we do.”

These semi-autonomous islands off England’s coast have small populations, ranging from 65,000 to 93,000, but they enjoy significantly higher standards of living than Scotland, with gross domestic product (GDP) per capita rates up to two-thirds higher than in Scotland.

The islands also have fewer natural resources than Scotland but much greater power to determine their own domestic policies.

Like his SNP colleagues, Mr Gibson wants full independence – but he also wants a second option on the ballot paper, one that would attract those who are not quite ready for full independence.

He defended the decision to come up with an option which falls short of full independence. “It would be wonderful to think that everybody would vote for independence,” he said, “but there will be those who are not quite sure. This option would get us 90 per cent there.”

Dr Nicola McEwen, an expert on governance at the University of Edinburgh, said Crown dependencies had many advantages but they also tended to lack clout in the big organisations they were members of, like the UK and the EU.

“Crown dependencies or federacies offer just one model of a middle way between the status quo and independence,” she said. “There are other ways of enhancing devolution, but these are being crowded out in a debate that is becoming increasingly polarised between supporters and opponents of independence.”

The main opposition parties have so far been unwilling to endorse a second question on “devo max” on the independence referendum ballot paper – despite several offers from the first minister for them to do so.

The Conservatives oppose it outright. The Labour leadership opposes the idea but some senior Scottish Labour figures – including former first minister Henry McLeish – believe the party should embrace “devo max” and start taking the momentum away from the SNP.

The Liberal Democrats have set up a commission under former leader Sir Menzies Campbell to decide its approach to the issue.

But none of them is as yet willing to take up Mr Gibson’s suggestion and call for Scotland to become a Crown dependency like the Isle of Man.

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