Labour must present a bold constitutional offer to save the union

Carwyn Jones

The hysterical hyperbole over the First Minister’s travel restriction announcement this week served as yet another reminder that when it comes to devolution, too many decision-makers and commentators simply do not have a clue. Worse than that, they wilfully misinterpret something like a sensible geographical public health measure as an assault on the very idea of Britishness. This is absolute garbage. It is this blinkered approach that underlines the importance of Keir Starmer’s commitment to a federal solution to the question of the future of the UK. If you truly care about the country, you look to modernise it, not treat it like an heirloom.

In 2016, I said that a bad Brexit carried with it the seeds of the UK’s own disintegration and, with every misstep of the Tories handling of the pandemic, that fear seems to be getting closer and closer to realisation. Support for independence in Scotland is 10% higher than in 2014 and now represents a consistent majority in Scotland. The SNP are riding high, and it will take a massive effort for Scottish Labour to put a dent in them at next year’s elections.

In Wales, we are still ahead in the polls and are on course to be the largest party in next year’s Senedd elections for the sixth time in a row. And although Welsh Labour has had more success in harnessing a patriotic vote, support for independence is showing signs of firing into life. Some of the polling is now consistent with where Scotland was 15 years ago, when independence there seemed very unlikely.

The argument, for the moment, has crystallised between those who support the constitutional status quo and those who back independence. Labour’s task must be to provide another way to keep the UK together. There is a moral imperative for this. But there’s an electoral reality here, too. Unlike the Tories, we cannot win a general election without winning a significant number of seats in Scotland or Wales. There are no signs so far that we will be able to do this. And if we fail, there might not be another general election in the UK as we know it in its current form.

Part of the answer, at least, lies in constitutional reform. I have long argued for a constitutional convention, and for a long time the idea remained the preserve of academics and anoraks. There have been some exceptions. Gordon Brown has been steadfast in his support for the idea – and absolutely understands the urgency of Labour’s role in this mission. Keir, too, clearly expressed his belief that today’s UK structure is not fit for the future. It is time to dust down the anoraks, and actually get on with this work.

Without a bold constitutional offer, Labour risks getting stuck in the middle of a battle between the present imperfect and independence. I genuinely believe that there are huge swathes of voters who can be attracted back from the ‘Yes Cymru’ movement, and other pro-indy organisations, once we clearly express that we have an alternative to the outdated systems of today.

The alternative is a proper partnership between four nations – one that recognises the essential sovereignty of each is in everyone’s interests. Such a partnership will of course recognise that there are some areas such as defence, borders and immigration and the fiscal and monetary union, that need sovereignty to be pooled. It was once a radical idea for sure, but in these febrile political days, nothing else will cut it. And the model is close to the current constitutional arrangements of Canada, with no apparent detriment to that country’s stability or prosperity.

None of this is easy, but the UK is now going through an existentialist crisis of a sort it has never seen before. The fractures are not just along national boundaries – witness the entirely justifiable and worse, predictable, reaction from northern council leaders and mayors to being ignored, bounced and bullied by Westminster bureaucrats. It simply isn’t the way modern nation states should be run.

Ultimately, the UK is a union. It exists only because its constituent parts want it to exist. My fear is that those days will end if there is no change. The Tories don’t get it; their inflexibility will cause the union to crack. Rolling back on devolution and power grabs such as the internal market bill are a sure way to wreck the UK. The Lib Dems are too weak to do anything, and the nationalist parties have other agendas. It really is beholden on our party to come up with a new structure that will save this political union. It could be our last chance.

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