Moving towards a federal UK?

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A day is a long time in EU politics

Not surprisingly, many commentators have simplified Sunday’s votes as meaning Austria: pro-EU and good; Italy: anti-EU and bad. I draw different conclusions from these results.

First, all the reports suggest that the biggest factors in the Italian referendum were anti-government feeling, coupled with concerns about the nature of the constitutional changes proposed by (former) premier Matteo Renzi. Fears about those changes may well have been well-founded. They were criticised for seeking to place more power in the hands of the premier and the government; an accurate criticism, given their stated intention  was to allow Italian governments to operate more effectively.

The reforms included endorsement of the electoral system giving the largest party a ‘super majority’ of seats to ensure ‘stable government’, so that if the largest party received more than 40% of the votes cast, it would be guaranteed a minimum of 54% of the seats in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. Although a system of this nature was first introduced in 2005 (and is under constitutional challenge), its effect is at present limited by the powers of the Senate (upper house). The proposed reform would have substantially reduced the powers of the Senate and the influence of the Regions, and so markedly increased the ability of a party with minority electoral support to get its way. From a UK perspective we can see the downside of an electoral system which gives governments with minority support a majority of seats in parliament (whether Westminster or Holyrood).

It would have been ironical, as well as dangerous, if the changes proposed by Renzi had resulted in a future populist government getting elected in Italy with a strong majority of seats, but with minority support. Given the rise in backing for the populist “Five Star Movement”, it is by no means inconceivable that an election could have brought them to overall power in that way. It is noticeable that opposition to the changes came not just from the populist and racist parties in Italy, but also from many politicians with impeccable democratic and European credentials.

The real significance of Italy’s referendum is not its immediate impact on the country’s membership of the EU or the Euro, but on the consequences that a weakened government would have in making it harder for it to deal with major problems such as the banking and refugee crises, which in turn could (in the case of banking) weaken the single currency and place further tension on European structures. Renzi’s departure is likely to have an impact also because it will remove a powerful voice in European policy making.

So, although the Italian referendum vote should not be seen as primarily an anti-EU vote, it may nevertheless trigger consequences which will be damaging for the future prospects of the EU.

On the other hand, the result of the presidential election in Austria, was undoubtedly good news for those who support the EU and liberal values. The new president campaigned as a political leader who was up-front about support for the EU; for green policies; for refugees and human rights; and against nationalism. It is probable that not all those voted for him supported all his policies – after all, he only won a little over 20% in the first round of the elections. No doubt many did so for the simple and laudable reason that they did not want a far-right candidate to be their president.  The fact that they did so, however, shows that the onward march of right-wing populism is not inevitable nor unstoppable, and politicians who make a stand against it can be elected.

What should also not be overlooked, however, was the reason Van der Bellen became the united standard bearer against the far-right was that the established parties of the left and right did so badly in the first round of the presidential elections. His victory should certainly not be seen as an encouragement of those, in the UK and EU as a whole just as much as Austria, who hope that politics does not need radical change.

Ironically, it might also be much too early to write off Renzi, or at least his reforms. The need for reforms of the Italian state is obvious. If he had not made the vote one of confidence in himself, there might have been a different result. And if the Five Star Movement performs badly in the management of the major cities which it has gained in recent municipal elections, as certainly seems to be the case in Rome, perhaps in due course some version of Renzi’s proposals for reform might be implemented, and voters turn back to his centre-left party (which is still – just – in the lead in the polls).

(First published in on 6th December 2016)

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Why Scottish Labour should oppose the triggering of Article 50

The result of the European referendum posed an immediate dilemma for those, like myself, who believe that the best future for Scotland is to remain in both the European Union and the union with the rest of the UK. It is not surprising, therefore, that many people started searching for options which would allow Scotland to remain in both the EU and the UK, even if the rest of the UK left the EU.

One of those who searched for such an option was Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, who went as far as to announce she had asked Labour’s Lord Falconer to look at possible arrangements.

It is clear that any such option of staying in both unions, even if the rest of the UK goes for Brexit, has now been rejected by Scottish Labour’s leadership. That is the only conclusion that can be reached from the decision by its MSPs a couple of weeks to reject the option of Scotland staying in the single market if the rest of the UK did not.

That decision is understandable, given that all the research done since the referendum has made it clear that there are no politically feasible options to allow Scotland to remain in the EU if the rest of the UK leaves, other than for Scotland to become a sovereign state (or as nearly sovereign as makes no real difference).

So, if Scottish Labour wants Scotland to stay in both the UK and the EU, the only practical way of achieving that is for the entire UK to remain in the EU.

And the inevitable conclusion if that is what Scottish Labour wants, then its elected representatives should vote against the triggering of Article 50 to give notice of the UK terminating its membership of the EU.

If Scottish Labour takes that position, we can anticipate that the Brexiteers will start shouting and complaining that would be to reject the democratic mandate of the referendum on June 23rd. The obvious answer to such a charge, of course, is that if Labour, both in Scotland and the rest of the UK, believes that the UK is now a partnership of equals, then there is nothing wrong in saying that fundamental constitutional change cannot be triggered by part of the UK alone.

To say that is not to take a nationalist position, but rather to recognise that it is normal in a state which is federal in nature (as the UK is now in many respects) for amendments to its fundamental constitutional arrangements to require much more than a simple majority across the state as a whole. In the USA, for example, constitutional amendments require two-thirds majorities, and approval by three-quarters of states. Most other states with federal or devolved constitutional arrangements have similar requirements.

So I urge Scottish Labour’s MP and MSPs to vote against the UK triggering Article 50, and in so doing reflect the choice of a clear majority of voters in Scotland.

I know that some in Scottish Labour might fear that to take such a line would ‘play into the hands of the SNP’: to which I suggest that if Scottish Labour doesn’t take a stand against the triggering of Article 50, that will certainly be used by the SNP to attack Labour, and provide a useful distraction for it from the fact that more SNP voters voted for Brexit than did Labour voters in Scotland.

Others might say that a vote against triggering Article 50 would be pointless, as the UK Parliament will vote for it anyway. To which I say that we have seen so many unexpected events over the last few months, nothing can be ruled out. Even if article 50 is eventually triggered by the UK Parliament, evidence that there are voices in Labour that are not prepared to allow the small minority of extreme Brexiteers who have taken over the government to go unanswered, will make it much more possible to build a majority in Parliament to keep close links with our European friends in the negotiations that will then take place.

Every day brings new evidence of the damage that the rush to Brexit is doing to our economy, our international standing, and our social cohesion. Now is not the time to be silent as the Brexiteers would like, but to speak up even more strongly.

(First published on on 29 November 2016)

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