Federalism is not enough

(This post was first published on Labour Hame (8 September 2020), at https://labourhame.com/federalism-is-not-enough/)

The Scottish Government has recently made it clear that it will be seeking a mandate at next year’s Scottish Parliament elections to hold a referendum on independence. That is hardly a surprise, but it confirms that the “constitutional question” of Scotland’s future relationship with the UK is likely to be the dominant topic in those elections. Like it or not, that means the Labour Party will also have set out its view on that question in that election.

Some in Scottish Labour would rather that the elections were about “bread and butter issues”  – the economy, the record of the Scottish Government, and Labour’s policies, rather than constitutional issues. Their answer to questions about the constitution is that these are a distraction from the “real issues”. Those with that attitude believe that devolution has gone far enough (some think it has gone too far) and the substantial changes made by the Scotland Act in 2016 following the referendum should be the end of the story.

The problem with that approach is that there is no reason at all to believe that it will be successful. There cannot be many voters who are unaware that the SNP wants independence, and a new independence referendum in the next Parliament, yet still the opinion polls indicate (in increasing numbers), that a large number, now a majority of the electorate, actually find the constitutional issue important.

That’s why many voices in Scottish Labour recognise that the issue of the future Scotland-rest of UK relationship has to be addressed by the party. But most of those have also generally accepted that Labour cannot just stand by the status quo and that it must instead come up with a new approach to the constitution if it is to have any chance of recovering its position in Scotland.

The suggestions for change vary. Most tend to call for “federalism”, but it is obvious that term is used to describe a wide range of options. For some, it means a few more powers for the devolved Parliament and administrations, and some strengthened regional government with England (perhaps directly elected, perhaps appointed by local government). For others, it means federalism in the true sense of the word, which I would consider means directly elected legislatures with accountable government in all nations of the UK, exercising powers which are enshrined in law, but still subject to a UK-wide federal government.

For others, “federalism” for the UK means much more – something which should in fact be better described as “confederalism”, where the UK is transformed into a union of sovereign nations, with constitutional arrangements which recognises that sovereignty remains with those constituent nations, but which agree that certain powers should be exercised by a central authority and legislature for as long as they wish to that to be done. Such an arrangement, of course, is one that the UK has become used to over the last 45 years as it is very much the constitutional basis under which it has participated in the EU. Interestingly, such a confederal – or as I would also call it, a partnership – union seems now to have much stronger support from Welsh Labour than Scottish Labour, even though Wales and Welsh Labour was historically the more “devo-sceptic” of the two. There has, though, also been a consistent strand of support within Scottish Labour for a more radical approach of this nature. It is certainly one which I share.

All these proposals tend to share one feature, however, namely the view that new constitutional arrangements are something that have to be taken forward on a UK wide level. That is also my view, but with an important qualification. I still believe that the interconnections – economic, fiscal, and social–between Scotland and the rest of the UK are so close, complex and interrelated that it would be best for those to maintained in a manner which is closer than would be the case if Scotland and the rest of the UK were separate states. I also think that it requires a giant triumph of optimism over reality to assume that a good relationship with the rest of the UK after independence could be easily worked out and agreed. The experience of the last few years, particularly the Brexit negotiations, does not give one much confidence in the competence and good faith of the British state if it was required to enter into negotiations into such questions; or, of course, that it is even prepared to countenance Scottish independence.

But there is a problem. And that is the brutal fact that the Labour Party has been talking about “UK-wide” constitutional arrangements for a very long time. There are good reasons, of course, why the initial impetus to change slowed down after the establishment of devolution for Scotland and Wales, and the reestablishment of devolved arrangements in Northern Ireland. Not least of these reasons is the fact that there is nothing like a consensus within England whether there should be devolution, whether it should be to be the whole nations or different regions, what their respective powers would be, how they would be financed, or indeed their very boundaries. It is not unfair to say that constitutional reform is not at the top of the UK Labour’s agenda at the moment – hardly surprising, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis and a pending ‘No-deal’ (or at best a minimal deal) for future UK-EU relationships).

For Scottish Labour, however, the clock is ticking towards Scottish Parliament elections in 2021. If, as I believe, it needs to have a clear policy for those elections on future Scotland-UK relations in those elections, then the promise that “at some stage, in the next few years, there may be a Labour government which will set up a Constitutional Convention which, after a few years, may come up with proposals” is hardly a proposition which will excite the voters.

So I suggest that while there does need to be a fundamental reform in the constitutional arrangements across the UK, Scottish and UK Labour also needs, now, to commit itself to changes for Scotland which would truly bring about ‘home rule’ for Scotland, as was promised by Keir Hardie, at Labour’s very beginning, and endorsed by Gordon Brown after the 2014 referendum. What ‘home rule’ means is something on which there is no unanimity either, of course, but if the political will is there, Scottish Labour could agree its policy within the next few months and UK Labour could commit itself to support and push for that policy at UK level. That does not need to wait for cross-party, cross-nation and regional arrangements for the entire UK which would take years or decades come to fruition (although obviously if Welsh Labour wanted to support such a radical extension of devolution, there is no reason why it should not do that). In due course, when and if there is a consensus on UK-wide constitutional change, new arrangements can incorporate a home rule Scotland, but home rule for Scotland should not wait, or be dependent upon that.

As I say, what ‘home rule’ means for Scotland is something for debate. For me it would include as an essential step a reform to the current Scotland Act so that it would no longer be possible for the UK Parliament to legislate outside reserved matters, instead of the present situation where the UK government and Parliament can always, in the last resort, overrule the Scottish Government and Parliament on devolved matters. I will not, in this article today, suggest a particular list of options for the transfer of powers, except to say that there should be an extensive transfer of existing reserved powers to the Scottish Parliament. The basic approach that should be applied is to my mind clear, however. Scottish Labour needs to recommit itself to the fundamental principle agreed across the party, including by every Labour MP except one, when it signed up to the plans of the Scottish Constitutional Convention almost 25 years ago – the principle that everything should be devolved unless there is a good reason for it to be reserved, and that should be the basis for deciding what powers Labour believes should be exercised by a real ‘home rule’ Scottish Parliament.

I can’t promise that if Scottish Labour Party goes into next year’s elections with this approach its political fortunes would be transformed overnight. But bluntly, it could hardly make things any worse. And maybe many voters would be attracted to an option which still has substantial positive support in its own right, but is also an option which would probably be acceptable to many supporters and opponents of independence, even if it was not their preference. That gives the possibility of it being a consensus position with as much substantial support as the Scottish Parliament received in the 1997 referendum, which could provide stability for the long term. At the very least, presenting a policy package combining real home rule for Scotland in its own right, and a longer term commitment to the UK becoming a partnership union, would show that Scottish Labour was prepared to contribute constructively to the debate about the future relationship of Scotland with the rest of the UK, rather than being perceived as the junior partner to the Tories in a hard-line unionist front. Ending up instead in that latter position, and for good measure throw in a bit of kamikaze in-fighting just before the elections, and Scottish Labour might find itself dropping into single figures in the poll percentages next year.

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