21 December 2020

Labour’s great anti-SNP gambit…yet more powers for the SNP

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When you’re in opposition, frustratingly denied the baubles of office and the power to actually do anything that will impact on people’s lives, you make do with what you’ve got. Labour has been making do for quite some time now and it has settled on its favourite alternative to action: setting up a review.

In this case, it’s a UK constitutional convention. It sounds quite radical, doesn’t it? Headed up by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, it promises a “radical alternative to nationalism” and “a constitutional revolution” The current Labour leader, Keir Starmer, meanwhile, has set out his party’s store for the upcoming Scottish parliamentary elections in May. The status quo is not working, he said in the J P Mackintosh Memorial Lecture (when was the last time, I wonder, when a Leader of the Opposition expressed the view that the status quo was working just fine, thank you very much?).

“People are crying out for more control, power and say over their own lives and local communities,” he said. “This can’t be delivered by tinkering around the edges or with short-term fixes. We need a new constitutional settlement… This will involve building a new long-term political and constitutional consensus. I believe that could best be built on the principle of federalism.”

Are people really “crying out” In the manner described by Starmer? Or is he simply reflecting the views of the tiny numbers of people who have most to gain from federalism – civic society and the usual chattering classes who always lead these debates?

One of many problems with this unthinking march towards yet more constitutional change is that Labour’s record on constitutional conventions – in Scotland, at least – is not great. It was the driving force behind the Scottish Constitutional Convention established in 1989 to draw up a blueprint for devolution, which it duly accomplished. Its conclusions formed the basis for the Scotland Act that created the Scottish Parliament a decade later. The whole idea behind the convention was to tap into the broad consensus in support of devolution to create a long term, stable solution. 

And then, less than a decade after the Scottish Parliament was founded – a blink of an eye in constitutional timescales – Gordon Brown himself ripped up that consensus. In 2007 the SNP had secured a tiny lead over Labour and although it had nowhere near a majority, the Unionist parties figured it would be better to have Alex Salmond as First Minister than be seen to be uniting around an alternative pro-Union figure. After all, what possible harm could he do?

Brown should not have been surprised at the 2007 result. An SNP administration at some point was inevitable before the ink on the Scotland Act was dry, and a sensible, mature party of government would have planned for such a situation. Instead, Brown panicked. The Constitutional Convention’s proposals were judged to be fatally flawed and, frankly, a bit rubbish. If Scots had, by a sliver of a difference, preferred the SNP over Labour, then surely only more powers for Holyrood was the answer. Another commission – the Calman Commission – was set up to give the gloss of “consensus” to the new tranche of powers. But what do you know? Those ill-mannered, ungrateful Scots responded by giving Salmond, not Brown’s party, their confidence at the 2011 election.

There was only one thing for it. After Scots rejected independence at the 2014, referendum, a shedload of more powers had to be agreed. Just because nationalism hadn’t been deflated by the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, or by the subsequent award of even more powers, didn’t mean that yet another tranche wouldn’t do the trick. Cue the third commission – the Smith Commission – which agreed to devolve more tax and welfare powers (and, for some bizarre and absurd reason, abortion policy).

There. Sorted.

But wait a minute! Support for independence and the SNP at historical, record highs? There’s only one thing for it: that’s right, you guessed it! Even more powers for Holyrood. It’ll definitely work this time…

The question is whether the nationalists are even remotely concerned by Labour’s latest concession to their agenda. Are they holding fraught, late night emergency meetings to discuss a counter-strategy to see off this latest Unionist initiative? Do they fear that their most precious dream of independence is to be lost thanks to the bravery and imagination of the Labour Party? “And we would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those pesky democratic socialists…”

No, they are not. Nicola Sturgeon must consider herself very lucky in her opponents. Every time she runs into difficulty – as she has in recent weeks over her anti-Covid strategy and her government’s disgraceful failures over drug deaths – Labour Unionists come to her rescue with another rehashing of “federalism”, ensuring that yet again, the Scottish media will be talking about constitutional politics rather than real people’s lives for the next few days. 

I asked a former colleague, who lost his seat at the same time as me in May 2015 when the nationalist tide was at its highest, why even more powers for Holyrood would bolster the Union, given that such an exercise had been proved a lamentable failure every time it had been used in the past. His answer was that a new offer on federalism offered the only hope of winning a rerun independence referendum, which he felt was imminent.

Now, this poses two interesting questions. The first is why on earth Unionists – and especially Unionists who lost their jobs in defence of the Union five years ago – would indulge nationalist rhetoric in favour of the case for another referendum just a handful of years after the last one. The second question is why the so-called federalists cannot justify their cause except to whimper that the status quo is untenable and unpopular and that “something must be done”. If federalism is right today, it was right 20 years ago, in which case the likes of Donald Dewar, John Smith – and yes, even good old Gordon Brown – were little more than gullible saps for approving the first constitutional convention blueprint.

Starmer spoke in his speech with much passion about the importance of the Union. But like every other Labour politician, he just cannot bring himself to defend the Union as it is. As it may be in the future, in some far off, alternative universe? Sure, no problem. But he’s the leader of the opposition, so how can he ever say that things are OK as they are?

Labour constantly – and rightly – point out that Holyrood is one of the most powerful devolved assemblies in the world. It believes it already has enough powers to address most of Scotland’s domestic problems. It claims to believe in the Union. All of that being the case, what is the case for change, other than that the party is well behind in the polls and needs something new to say in the run-up to May? 

Crucially, they are depriving themselves of a vital weapon in their political armoury: if, by their own admission, Holyrood needs more powers, then the governing party there is let off the hook for their failures, which can be blamed on a lack of powers, not the incompetence of SNP ministers.

It’s easy to criticise, and God knows being in opposition is difficult enough. So here’s a suggested alternative: the Scottish Parliament will be receiving new powers anyway as a result of Brexit, when various devolved powers are repatriated from Brussels. The SNP are pledged to send every one of them straight back there as soon as they can wrest Scotland out of the Union and back into the European Union – the European Unionist Party, if you will. Labour should go into the May election telling the electorate: “We want to see Scotland’s fishing industry run from Edinburgh – why don’t the SNP?” Substitute any other repatriated power for “fishing” and hey presto! A campaign.

It won’t be enough to win in 2021 but it might be enough to spur the party forward a bit, which, realistically, is the most ambitious target Scottish Labour can hope to have right now. At the very least it could stop the reversal in their fortunes.

The issue of repatriation of powers is one on which the SNP feel their own vulnerability. Why do you think Sturgeon was determined to hold another independence referendum before Britain left the EU? If all those powers were still in Brussels at the time voters had to make their choice, it would be far easier to allow them to remain where they were than to try to make the case for repatriating them abroad. Which is, perhaps, one of her motivations in calling today for a further extension to the transition period; to give her a chance of holding another referendum before the awkward prospect of repatriated powers from Brussels becomes a reality.

Labour – and the wider Unionist community – has failed miserably in challenging the nationalists because they insist on playing the game by rules set by the SNP and, to a lesser degree, in Wales by Plaid Cymru. That is why they have consistently lost, and it is why they will continue to lose, perhaps bringing to a premature end the Union they claim, without very much conviction, to support.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.