“A socially just Scotland in a modern United Kingdom” – Starmer’s full speech

Keir Starmer
© Chris McAndrew/CC BY 3.0

Below is the full text of the speech delivered by Keir Starmer this morning.

Good morning. I want to start by addressing the emerging situation relating to the pandemic. The news over the last 24 hours has been deeply disturbing. The number of coronavirus cases has nearly doubled in the last week. Over 67,000 people have now tragically died. And hospital admissions are rising. We cannot be in any doubt. The virus is now out of control. International flights have been banned. International borders have been shut. And there is now severe disruption at Britain’s ports. Make no mistake this is now a real emergency.

I have faith in the British people to once again step up to the challenge. As they have done at every stage of the pandemic. But they expect the government to do the same. We can have no more over-promising and false hope, confused messages and slow decision-making. We need strong, clear and decisive leadership. The Prime Minister needs to be straight with people about precisely what is going on. And precisely what he is doing about it. He must address the nation today after this morning’s COBRA meeting. And hold daily press conferences until the disruption has eased.

He must also get the Brexit deal he promised done this week. This is not a game of brinkmanship. This is people’s lives. People’s jobs. And people’s businesses. They need a deal. They expect a deal. And a deal is what must happen. I renew my pledge to act in the national interest to help us through these dark and difficult days. We will support further restrictions where they are necessary. We will work with government to help businesses get through the winter months. And we will offer constructive solutions to keep our NHS open and the vaccine distributed.

As we struggle against the pandemic, and the profound health and economic consequences of it, making the case for our United Kingdom could never be more important, we entered this pandemic together. We faced the enduring challenges of the pandemic together. We will come out of it together. And we must rebuild together. The duty to rebuild will be a shared duty. It is a duty not just in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. It is a duty across all four nations together. And believe you me, future generations will not forgive us if we shirk that responsibility.

That is why the case I want to make today is the case for the United Kingdom. Of course there’s a case for the United Kingdom that’s measured in power, prosperity, trade and security. We are all stronger because we choose to pool our resources to share the risks and rewards. We are all better off because we can live, work and trade across borders, rather than behind them. And as one United Kingdom we’re better able to weather the storms of a global financial crash, a pandemic, or the climate emergency.

But for me the case for the United Kingdom goes much deeper than that. The United Kingdom is shaped not just by our shared institutions, but by the people who made them, the history and experiences that shaped them and the amazing things we’ve achieved together. Together we’ve fought slavery, we’ve fought poverty, we’ve fought fascism and we’re fighting Covid.

The first baby born in the NHS – Aneira Thomas – was born in South Wales and named after the great Nye Bevan. Our welfare state was born out of the struggles of early Scottish activists who fought against the Scottish Poor Laws. Britain’s great achievements in science, innovation and discovery are all the greater because they drew on all our talents. The Open University was founded by a Scot, Jennie Lee and we’re a world leader in education, research and knowledge because of our great universities and our shared tradition of learning. The Labour Party was first led by Keir Hardie – a Scot – who ended up representing a Welsh constituency and such was the influence of that boy from Lanarkshire, that many years later a family in Oxted, East Surrey, decided to call their son Keir too.

My point is this: our nations are bound by our history, our values and our identity; our families live across borders; our businesses operate across borders; we’re interconnected and we’re interdependent. That’s not just a precious inheritance, or a description of the past, it’s what we are. It’s what I want for our children, for the next generation. I don’t believe in putting up borders across any part of our United Kingdom, in dividing people, communities, and families who have stood together for so long. It’s not, England, or Scotland, or Wales, or Northern Ireland. I’ve had enough of hearing that. It’s England, and Scotland, and Wales, and Northern Ireland, together.

I believe in that core Labour principle: that we achieve more together than we do alone. All four nations working together to build a more open, more optimistic and outward-looking country. A United Kingdom that’s a force for social justice and a moral force for good in the world. And that’s why I’m so determined to preserve and to renew the United Kingdom. But just as I believe in the United Kingdom, I equally believe in devolving power and opportunity across it.

This is the common thread that joins so many great figures of the Scottish labour movement. From John Mackintosh and Donald Dewar, to John Smith and Gordon Brown. A tradition that doesn’t simply see devolution as a process of shifting power from one place to another, but that sees devolution as a means to an end. To empower. To democratise. And to deliver social justice. The challenge for Labour now is how to carry on that tradition, to renew the case for devolution and to harness the energy, dynamism and creativity of all corners of the country.

Devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland was one of the proudest achievements of the last Labour government. Against, I might add, the opposition of the Conservatives and the indifference of the SNP. But since Labour lost power in Holyrood in 2007, and then in Westminster in 2010, that renewal hasn’t happened. In Westminster, successive Conservative governments have eroded the fabric of the United Kingdom. First, with a decade of austerity, which undermined our public services, widened inequalities and made communities across the country poorer and less secure. And then came Brexit.

Now, I know the Prime Minister is the only person in Britain who still wants to talk about Brexit. So I will just say this: whichever side of the divide you were on, we can surely all agree that the cavalier and chaotic approach the Conservatives have taken in the last four years has frayed the bonds of the United Kingdom. Take, for example, the internal markets bill – which was railroaded through Westminster without concern for the impact it would have on devolution or the damage it would cause across the UK. That bill could have been a huge opportunity to push power outwards, but instead the Prime Minister showed his instinct is to hoard power, not to devolve it.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, because we now know that the Prime Minister thinks Scottish devolution has been ‘a disaster’. And the reason Johnson’s comment struck home is because it spoke to a wider truth: the Conservatives simply don’t believe in devolution. They never have. And they are blind to the damage that their cavalier attitude is doing to our United Kingdom. They have no plan to counter Scottish separatism other than to defend the status quo. And – to borrow the Prime Minister’s terminology – in Brexit and in austerity they’ve given separatists two big boxing gloves to pummel the United Kingdom.

Scotland was once rightly proud and world renowned for providing an exceptional education to children from all backgrounds. For being a society where anyone could reach their potential. But after 13 years of the SNP in power, sadly that’s no longer the case. International comparisons show that children in Scotland are now lagging behind children in England – and in many advanced countries – for the first time. Scotland now has one of the largest average class sizes in any major economy. The attainment gap between the poorest and wealthiest children rises through each stage of primary education in Scotland.

Under the last Labour government child poverty fell by 150,000 in Scotland. But under the SNP, child poverty has risen sharply and is forecast to reach one in three Scottish children by 2030. And I’m afraid it’s the same story on public health. Life expectancy in Scotland is now the lowest in Western Europe – with Scottish men in the poorest areas expected to die 13 years before those in least deprived areas. The Scottish NHS hasn’t hit its cancer waiting times for seven years. And in the first wave of Covid, the death rate in Scotland, was the third highest in Europe. Tragically the percentage of Covid deaths in care homes was also far higher than anywhere else in the UK. And just last week, we saw the appalling extent of the drugs crisis in Scotland: Scotland now has the worst death rate from drugs in Europe.

The SNP has also failed to build the modern, dynamic economy Scotland deserves, or to protect Scottish manufacturing jobs – as we’ve seen with the shambolic handling of the BiFab plants in Fife and Lewis – and the loss of £52m of taxpayers’ money. So it’s no wonder that Nicola Sturgeon wants to make next May’s elections a referendum on another referendum. Because on education, health and social justice the SNP has no story to tell. Against that backdrop, it’s Labour’s duty to offer a positive alternative to the Scottish people.

To show that you don’t have to choose between a broken status quo and the uncertainty and divisiveness of separatism. And it’s our duty – my duty – to make the alternative case for a devolved and socially just Scotland in a modern United Kingdom. I’m under no illusion about the scale of the task Labour faces. We’ve lost four general elections and the last three Scottish parliamentary elections. For over a decade we’ve been in no position to decide anything, or to change anyone’s lives. That has to stop. And fast. Because when Labour loses elections we fail in our historic mission. We fail the people of Scotland. And we allow the fabric of the United Kingdom to be weakened.

So, I want to talk directly to people in Scotland who have given up on Labour – and given up on the United Kingdom. I’ve spoken to many of you since becoming leader. I’ve heard the arguments you’ve made and I’ve listened to your frustrations. I hear what you’re saying. I understand why you feel as you do. And I’m not surprised. For a decade there’s been a Conservative government in Westminster with priorities you don’t share. And there’s been a Labour opposition that keeps losing. When those are the alternatives, I can see why you’ve reached the conclusion you have.

But Boris Johnson isn’t Britain. Just as Nicola Sturgeon isn’t Scotland. The United Kingdom is much more than that, more than any individual. It has been before – and can be again – a great force for social justice. For Security. And for solidarity. Under my leadership, we will do everything we can to win back your trust, in Labour – but equally importantly, in the United Kingdom. I know that won’t be easy. Labour has a mountain to climb, nowhere more than in Scotland. And nowhere matters more to me than Scotland. The first step on that journey is to reaffirm Labour’s commitment to a United Kingdom based on social justice and solidarity.

And to set out the means to that end: a new phase of radical economic and political devolution across the United Kingdom. I want devolution and social justice to be the hallmarks of the next Labour government. In fact, I may be the first person ever to run to be Prime Minister of this country on a manifesto that will aim to win power – and then push as much power as possible away from Westminster. That’s because I believe there’s a desire across the United Kingdom for politics and power to be much closer to people. We saw this in the Brexit referendum and we’ve been ignoring it for years. Unless we grasp the nettle and deliver real devolution of power and resources, we won’t be able to renew our United Kingdom for the 2020s and 2030s. We won’t be able to tackle the root causes of the appalling inequalities and injustices that we see across our regions and nations. And we won’t be able to make Britain the country I know it can be: The best place to grow up in and the best place to grow old in.

The case for the next phase of devolution was urgent before Covid, but the pandemic has put rocket boosters under it. Our Labour council leaders, mayors and metro mayors have stood up for their communities against a centralised Westminster-knows best response. A national crisis on this scale should have been the time for central government to work with and empower local communities – to bring the country together. But too often the UK government’s approach has been to pit council against council; town against town; city against city, mayor against mayor. It’s no surprise that the many local leaders I’ve spoken to have felt distanced and ignored on decisions that have had huge consequences on people’s jobs, lives and their communities. This has got to change.

And that’s why I’m announcing today that in the New Year, Labour will launch a UK-wide constitutional commission to consider how power, wealth and opportunity can be devolved to the most local level. This won’t be an exercise in shifting power from one parliament to another – of moving a few jobs out of London, or to devolve and to forget. This will be the boldest project Labour has embarked on for a generation. And every bit as bold and radical as the programme of devolution that Labour delivered in the 1990s and 2000s. It will consider all parts of the United Kingdom. And it will focus on delivering real – and lasting – economic and political devolution across our towns, our communities and to people across the country.

It’ll start with listening to people in their local communities about what they want. It’ll look at the successes of devolution so far, but also where it’s fallen short. It’ll consider everything from how people can have more of a say in what happens in their community, to how we can break down barriers to democracy and participation. It’ll consider how we can make sure that powers coming back from Brussels are not just centralised in Westminster… but are shared across the regions and nations of the United Kingdom. It will be particularly important for the commission to hear from and work with our great mayors and council leaders – and to use their experience and ideas to guide our next steps.

The commission will make the positive case for the UK and it will champion devolution, but beyond that it will rule nothing out and I will look at the conclusions without preconceptions. It will have one overriding priority: to push power closer to people. And to deliver a more democratic and socially just United Kingdom. It will put our nations and regions at its centre: our metro mayors, mayors, local leaders and councillors. It will involve all parts of the labour movement: our members, trade unions and supporters. And it will welcome community organisations, grassroots groups, and movements for change.

Above all, it will hear direct from the British people. The shadow cabinet and I, and everyone involved in the commission will hear from as many people as possible from across the UK. That might have to start on a Zoom screen, but as soon we can, Labour will be out in local communities, in town halls, offices, colleges, factories and community centres. Because if this is going to work and to drive the radical change I know is needed across this country this cannot, and will not, be a project of Westminster, by Westminster and for Westminster. It will be of the people of the United Kingdom.

I’m delighted that our last Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown has agreed to be an adviser in the setting up of the commission. Of course, a project of this scale and this urgency should be initiated by the UK government. But in the absence of that leadership from the Prime Minister, Labour will do what is necessary in opposition. And, just as in 1997, we will make devolution a reality under the next Labour government. This will of course take time. But I expect the Scottish section – working with Scottish Labour and our leader, Richard Leonard, to be completed as soon as possible. Because frankly, there’s no time to waste.

The Scottish parliamentary elections are just over five months away. Labour will fight those elections, making the case, for a socially just Scotland in a modern United Kingdom. And we’ll make clear that five more years of separatism and division isn’t the answer to any of the challenges facing the Scottish people. Whether on Covid, improving Scotland’s schools and NHS, protecting jobs and the economy, addressing the climate emergency or providing greater security at home and abroad. Ultimately, there’s nothing that separatism can offer to a child living in poverty in Glasgow. Just as there’s nothing that nationalism can offer a child living in poverty in Camden.

And the last thing Scotland needs now is more years of division. So, Labour will argue passionately against another independence referendum. We will argue that today, we will argue that tomorrow. It would be entirely the wrong priority to hold another Scottish independence referendum in the teeth of the deepest recession for 300 years – while still fighting this pandemic, when there is such uncertainty about how Brexit, and coronavirus will affect us, and when the costs and consequences of independence are still so uncertain. That’s why Nicola Sturgeon’s call for an independence referendum in the ‘early part’ of the next Scottish parliament – perhaps even next year – is so misguided. Given the damage and division this would cause, no responsible First Minister should contemplate it – and no responsible Prime Minister would grant it.

There should not be another independence referendum while our economic and health outlook is so precarious, nor until there has been a proper assessment of the costs, consequences and uncertainties of separation – including the future of Scotland’s currency, our armed forces and national security, as well as the potential impact on the pensions, jobs, taxes and social security of the Scottish people. The sterile debate between the status quo and independence will not answer these questions. That is why our commission must also ensure that there is a fresh – and tangible – offer in front of the Scottish people. A path to a socially just and secure Scotland within a modern UK. Because only then can we ensure that the discussion on our constitution is not a re-run of 2014: with the huge uncertainty of separation pitted against an outdated status quo.

The labour movement has a long and proud tradition of fighting for greater devolution and social justice. For Labour, devolution has never been about power itself, but a means to build a fairer, more socially just society. Under my leadership, that will be our focus again. And if we get this right, then I believe Labour can play a key role in defeating the forces of separatism. And once again make clear that it’s only by harnessing the strength and dynamism of the whole United Kingdom that we can tackle the huge challenges we all face. Because a separatist agenda won’t solve inequality, injustice or poverty. And it won’t make us stronger on the international stage, and it won’t make us better able to lead in the global fight against climate change. Separatism will leave us all weaker – just as defending the status quo will. That’s why it’s time to build a new partnership between our nations and regions. To make Britain fit for the decades ahead. That is the challenge we face, and the Labour Party I lead must rise to that challenge.

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