Genuine devolution must mean building class solidarity across borders

20th October, 2017 4:00 pm

The case for a federal-type arrangement in the UK was made the moment that we voted for a Scottish parliament, a Welsh assembly and a year later when Londoners accepted a mayor and an assembly while at the same time leaving Westminster untouched.

When Red Paper Collective was established in 2011 it didn’t start from the basis of being anti-independence but it asked, from a left-wing perspective, what should any constitutional change try to achieve? We came up with three things:

  • To make our economy democratically accountable;
  • To enable the redistribution of wealth both geographically from wealthier parts of the UK to less wealthy and within a nation/region from richer to poorer;
  • To build class solidarity across borders.

When we applied these tests to independence most of those involved recognised that it could not fulfil the three demands and neither could the popular idea of “devo max” because it argued for full fiscal autonomy and included no way of redistributing wealth across the UK. Through debates and discussions we arrived at support for radical federalism. Federal because it requires some means of making decisions that affect the whole of the UK, while devolving significant powers to more local bodies, and radical because it would have built into it the means of redistributing wealth.

Rather than rushing into the Smith Commission following the no vote on independence, it would instead have been a good time to deliver a constitutional convention. Such a discussion would have covered the whole UK and would have provided an opportunity to consider more than just a list of powers. And since the EU referendum it makes even more sense to have such a discussion. So we were pleased that one of Jeremy Corbyn’s first speeches when he was elected leader stated that there would be a constitutional convention.

Central to the discussions about federalism is the difference between self-rule and shared rule. Self-rule has been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and to some extent London. It covers a range of devolved powers but does not give the home nations’ governments direct involvement in areas of reserved powers.  

On the other hand, shared rule allows the participation of nations and regions in decision-making processes at the centre where they can participate in or co-decide national policies. This is the direction we should travel.

It is clear that leaving England as one large unit has implications for the rest of the UK. For a start, the centralisation of economic power in London means the Scottish government has little control of over its own economy. Even with greater fiscal autonomy to the devolved administrations it is the English economy and its fiscal strategies that dictate the economic strategies of devolved areas. It is hard to imagine that a federal structure could survive the dominance of a single English unit. It is, however, a question for English voters to decide.

If powers are devolved to English regions it would have to be on a very different basis to that favoured by new Labour and the Tories in which mayor-led city regions compete with each other to attract external investment. They will soon learn that the power still lies in the City of London. We want regions and nations to work in cooperation not competition.

One of the Red Paper aims is to build class solidarity across borders so ideally we would break away from seeing issues in terms of Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and English interests, in favour of class interests. A federal parliament could be the arena in which this can begin to happen.

What we have seen in Scotland is that having more powers – even of taxation and welfare – does not automatically result in them being deployed. What we have also seen is a tendency for the parliament to weaken and take powers away from local government.

What this has made clear is that if the political will isn’t there then constitutional powers are irrelevant. So before we argue for more constitutional change let’s make sure we win the arguments for political change.

Pauline Bryan is convener of the Red Paper Collective which aims to provide a labour movement alternative to Scotland’s nationalist vs unionist debate.

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