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Opinion: On Scotland, Devolution, and The Labour Party

Despite its history of over two decades, it would be fair to say that we are only now witnessing the true extent of power and influence that devolution has brought to Scotland, with events that could well go on to shape the entire future of the nation. Brexit and the Coronavirus Pandemic have exposed the fraught relations between Holyrood and Westminster; simply looking at the deep criticisms Nicola Sturgeon has made of Boris Johnson’s handling of both issues confirms this. 

The wavering nature of this relationship, which I believe to be worsened as a result of devolution, is a challenge to the Union and a driving factor in calls for independence. It is not only the United Kingdom that devolution has put at threat though. The future of the Labour Party and its ability to succeed in Elections has been put at risk. Some in the Labour Party may claim devolution as one of the greatest achievements of Blair-era policy. It goes without saying, though, that devolution has ultimately led to the downfall of Labour in Scotland.

You only have to look at the post-devolution trend of election results in Scotland to see this; at the 2019 General Election Labour picked up just one Westminster seat compared to fifty-six seats in 1997. In what has now been fifteen years since Labour held a majority of Scottish Westminster seats, it is little wonder why there is increasing doubt of Labour ever returning to power in Westminster without some support in Scotland. This would explain the discussion that Sir Keir Starmer has kickstarted this week.

Last Monday, Starmer gave a brief insight into how he believes a return to power in Scotland might be achieved: an expansion of devolution in the “boldest devolution project for a generation”. To help on this journey, Starmer has drafted in Gordon Brown — Labour grandee, key architect of the 1998 devolution programme, and unionist heavyweight in the 2014 independence referendum. Brown has agreed to advise on a constitutional committee that aims to focus on the distribution of wealth, power and opportunity through devolution.

Considering the role that devolution has probably played in leading to Labour’s downfall, is an expansion of devolution the most appropriate policy for the party to pursue? If this is the approach that Labour is to take, then it must couple proposals of devolution with, first, firm opposition to a second Scottish independence referendum, and, second, a repositioning to present Labour as ‘The Party of the Union’. Such repositioning can only materialise through a new understanding of unionism, characterised not by traditional notions of mutual benefit, but by a compassionate approach that factors in a distribution of wealth, power and opportunity. If, and only if, the Labour Party does this do I feel they have any chance of cutting through to the disillusioned Scottish electorate.

There is a clear issue with the approach that the Labour Party has historically taken towards the independence debate: it has failed to take a decisive stance, instead settling (in typical Labour Party fashion) for a middle-of-the-road position that attempts to quell the argument through the ill-defined promise of further devolution. In fact, there is little that is revolutionary to the proposals that Starmer is making: Labour has taken a position of expanding devolution for at least the last three general elections, in hope that it will appeal to the electorate. Considering Labour’s declining vote share in Scotland, this clearly hasn’t worked. As former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale pointed out, in relation to the party’s vacillation on the issue of independence, “when you stand in the middle of the road, you tend to get knocked down”. And this is exactly what has happened.

To his credit, Starmer seems at least aware of these past mistakes, with recent comments  emphasising the need to rebuild Scotland’s trust in the United Kingdom, and how “nowhere matters more” in the climb to power than Scotland, if we are to build a socially just Scotland in a modern United Kingdom. Such comments must not be confined to the occasional month in which Labour talks about Scotland though. To offer bold plans of devolution in recognition of the importance of the Union, yet provide no firm, definitive clarity of opposition to a second referendum will quickly place Starmer in the same losing position of Corbyn and Miliband. A new approach that has potential for success can only materialise once Starmer starts to take a harder line in favour of the Union and in opposition to a second referendum. Without a clear-cut position, the Conservatives will caricature Labour policy on Scotland as anti-unionist — something that could never win against the SNP or the Conservatives who will claim the two positions in what is generally considered a binary debate.

Indeed, Labour have historically struggled to present themselves as a party of the Union due to their fence-sitting, causing the Conservative Party to have a ‘monopoly’ on arguments in favour of unionism. Without a definitive position on a second referendum this struggle for Labour will continue, and they will continually find themselves failing to gain the unionist vote.

Starmer finds himself in a unique position, too. So long as the leader takes a clear line against a second referendum, then there is in this unique moment a real chance of placing Labour as the party of the Union. Boris Johnson has recently struggled to form a positive impression on the Scottish people. In his most careless moments or ill-judged phrases Johnson almost comes across to many Scottish voters as if he holds an outright disregard or contempt for Scotland. Writing that “government by a Scot is just not conceivable” was certain to not improve this perception. With such little care, this provides a key chance for Starmer to manoeuvre Labour towards the role of the Good Cop of Unionism to the Conservative’s Bad Cop.

Though there is currently a gap for repositioning, “unionism as usual” must not be the continued approach. The unique moment the Labour Party finds itself in may only be a brief window of opportunity; Party leaders change and so too can the discontent that Johnson has created. His party’s unionist position can be quickly reconciled. 

Starmer therefore has a true chance to play out his bold plan for devolution if he redefines the idea of the Union and takes it beyond its now dysfunctional arrangement. Mutual economic benefit is not enough to sustain a Union that is arranged via devolution — a genuine, heartfelt arrangement must be proposed. Unionism can only work if all nations are satisfied: a real regard for the Scottish people must be made. Such regard that is formed by compassion and a distribution of wealth, power and opportunity would ensure that this positive situation is not only made but sustained.

If Starmer can achieve this repositioning and solidify Labour’s position as party of the Union then there is a real chance for Labour. There are a number of clear lines for Labour’s attack at devolved government led by the SNP — the SNP are well off-course to meet its interim child-poverty targets, life expectancy in Scotland is now the lowest in Western Europe, Scotland has the worst drug death rates in Europe. If the Labour Party can therefore cut through on the case for unionism alongside presenting the domestic failures of the SNP and the case for why Labour should be trusted, then a path to power becomes far more viable for Starmer’s Labour Party.

It will be interesting to see where Starmer takes the Party over the next few years, especially in how it faces up to the mountain that it needs to climb to win a General Election. Devolution is a good starting point, but to use this as a successful tool to power, a true attempt must be made to —finally— present the party as the genuine unionist alternative to the SNP. Without this, Scotland and the UK might well be lost to Labour for quite some time.

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