Where’s Labour when the UK may be about to break up? Here’s a modest proposal

In barely a year’s time, Scotland will vote for or against independence from the UK. Current polls indicate a majority against, but given the Tory-led Westminster government’s unpopularity in Scotland and Alex Salmond’s legendary political skills, it would be recklessly complacent to assume that this will persist until the referendum.

A recent post on my Ephems blog, too long for LabourList, regretted the lack of Labour (or Conservative) policies offering Scottish voters a positive alternative to independence, other than the status quo. Virtually none of the crucial issues analysed in an important new book, Scottish Independence: Weighing up the Economics, by Professor Gavin McCrone, have begun to be resolved in even preliminary discussions between Edinburgh and Westminster or between Edinburgh and Brussels: what proportion of North Sea oil and gas revenues and the UK national debt would pass to an independent Scotland? What Scotland’s application for EU membership would involve? Questions around currency management and fiscal as well as monetary policy implications remain unresolved as well as many more.

Professor McCrone [full disclosure: he is an old friend of mine] suggests varied possible answers to all these questions, stressing that if the Scots vote for independence, many of the most vital ones would have to be negotiated with the government at Westminster before independence could be achieved; that it’s impossible to predict what the outcome of those negotiations would be; and that others would fall to be negotiated with the whole of the EU, including the government of the rest of the UK, both before and after independence, the outcomes in each case similarly unpredictable.   Unfortunate Scottish voters will have to make their decisions on independence in just a few months’ time without having the slightest idea how these questions, fundamental to their own future welfare and security, are likely to be answered.  A pig in a poke indeed.

In a striking passage in his book, McCrone warns that

“If independence is rejected, … there is a real danger that politicians at Westminster and officials in Whitehall may think that they can put away the files and not worry about Scotland any more. Proposals for increased devolution might then be shelved. That is quite a likely outcome but it would be a huge mistake.  It would probably mean that the next time there was a big surge in support for independence for Scotland, maybe in ten or twenty years’ time it would carry the day in a second referendum.  That has been the pattern in the past over devolution.”

(I predict this surge will occur much sooner)

Here then are five key elements for an urgently needed Labour strategy for the future of Scotland and the whole United Kingdom:

1.  Labour should promise that if the 2014 referendum goes against independence, a future Labour government will negotiate a further significant expansion of devolution for Scotland. According to the polls, more Scots want this than want independence or the status quo, and there’s no conceivable reason not to agree to it. Why should Scotland have less control of its own internal affairs than California or Massachusetts in the US or New South Wales in Australia?

2.  Labour should recognise that full internal self-government for Scotland will prompt pressure for the same status for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and should agree to make this its long-term aim (and to work tirelessly for a national consensus in favour of it).

3.  This would result after many years’ transition in a fully federal constitution for the UK and its four nations, and would entail, at some stage during the transition, a new separate parliament and government for England, probably sited in the midlands or north of England.

4.  The transfer of significant further powers to the parliaments and governments of the four UK nations will greatly reduce the functions and powers of the federal parliament at Westminster, justifying a radical reduction in the size of the (already semi-federal) House of Commons and especially of the House of Lords, the latter from nearly 800 at present to a maximum of 100 in the new elected federal Senate, in which (as in the US and Australia) all four nations would have equal representation, an essential protection for the smaller nations against domination by the biggest.  The creation of a new modest-sized parliament for England would thus be consistent with a sharp net reduction in the total number of UK politicians.

5.  There is no other durable or feasible answer to the West Lothian question than a gradual move, over 15 to 20 years, to a federal UK constitution as proposed, supported by a broad consensus across the whole political spectrum.  It would create a lasting, democratic relationship between the four UK nations and between them and the federal centre, satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the Scottish and increasingly the English (and Welsh and Northern Ireland) peoples, and complete the long interrupted devolution process of which Labour is, or should be, the proud godfather.

The whole process will require countless individual decisions on points of detail by the five parliaments, Royal Commissions, constitutional conventions, and assorted referendums along the way. There’s little point in debating these now.  But for Labour to adopt the broad outline of a future UK federation now as a long-term commitment would be a huge advance – and give our Scottish fellow-citizens a massively attractive alternative to either independence or the status quo.  Be bold, Ed!

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