Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

Devolution and Unionism: Labour’s Achilles Heel?

Fifty-six years ago, in Hamilton, Winnie Ewing won the SNP its first Westminster seat, with 46 per cent of the vote. A landmark in Scottish politics, the 1967 by-election gave the Scottish question momentum. It welcomed the SNP to the political mainstream and forced Labour and the Conservatives to articulate their vision of Scotland in the UK.

Fast forward to 2023, and the momentum is with Labour, who are keen to frame as “seismic” their by-election victory over the SNP in Rutherglen and Hamilton West earlier this month. With 58.6 per cent of the vote, it was a remarkable win. Writing in the Times, Prof. John Curtice projected a similar swing could increase Labour’s Scottish MPs from 2 to 40 in a general election.

As the first by-election defeat the nationalists have suffered at Westminster, Rutherglen plays into a narrative of SNP decline. Amidst investigations into party finance and a lacklustre leadership in Nicola Sturgeon’s vacuum, the lack of enthusiasm amongst members debased Scotland’s governing party to outsource leafleting to a private firm. Having long mastered their role as a Janus-faced government of opposition, the SNP’s machine is running on empty.

At Labour’s conference, Keir Starmer was triumphant, emphatic that “Scotland can lead the way to a Labour government.” Which is just as well, because the route to Downing Street demands Labour gains north of the border. But with talk of 40 MPs, “seismic” change, and a Scotland “at the heart of a Britain built to last,” is Labour getting ahead of itself? Absent at conference was any articulation of Scotland’s constitutional future under a Labour government. This poses a problem, as despite the SNP’s political woes, support for Scottish independence remains high, hovering between 45 to 48 per cent.

Yet this stasis in the polls obfuscates a shift in nationalist thought. In 2014, there was a thin divide between nationalism and unionism. Both sides shared a vision of a strong welfare state, membership of the EU, and greater Scottish control of Scottish affairs. Stressing continuity, Alex Salmond located Scotland within six unions: political, monarchical, monetary, defence, European, and social. Independence was to sever the first of these, but to leave the others intact. 

Just as the SNP has lurched left-ward in government with the Greens, however, so it has become more separatist. Not only the political union but now the monarchical, monetary, defence, and – thanks to Brexit – the European and social unions would alter. As the SNP move towards republicanism in Europe, requiring membership of Schengen and calling into question free movement within the British Isles, independence has less in common with unionism than ever before. In turn, the Scottish Tories have moved in a unitary direction to bypass Holyrood and interfere directly from Westminster in devolved matters. All the while, Scottish Labour are yet to articulate an answer to the Scottish Question beyond a vapid promise to “protect devolution and stand up for Scotland’s role in the UK.”

It has now been a year since Gordon Brown published his committee’s report on the UK’s future, imagining a “reunited kingdom.” Brown’s key recommendation, to abolish and replace the House of Lords with a democratically elected Assembly of the Nations and Regions, has yet to translate into Labour policy. Coupled with Brown’s recommendations on increased fiscal power for devolved administrations and “double devolution” from Westminster and Holyrood to local communities, this would be the seismic change Labour desperately needs. 

It would give voice to a de-centralising unionism that makes permanent and enhances the devolution settlement, whilst building consensus in a polarised Scotland. For Brown’s recommendations bear striking similarity to Alex Salmond’s ‘Council of the Isles’ proposed during the 2014 independence referendum: bringing together the UK’s four nations to work collaboratively on issues that affect everyone. Such policy would reinvigorate Donald Dewar’s “independence within the UK,” and reclaim Labour’s place as champions of devolution. It would see a return to the spirit of 1707 unionism, which sought to safeguard Scottish nationhood and civil society, whilst joining with our larger neighbour to pool resources and work collaboratively on issues that affect us all. Labour’s history of progressive collaboration – on the welfare state, the NHS, social housing – make the unionist arguments most likely to sway Yes voters. James Callaghan’s argument for devolution in 1976 still stands, that “national identity and a United Kingdom are not competitors or rivals,” but rather “partners, each enriching the other”.

But without firm policy on devolution or “levelling up,” Labour risks peddling a unitary unionism that bursts at the border; riding the polls only whilst Scottish voters prioritise the cost of living above independence. This unitary unionism bears the spectre of Thatcherite misunderstanding in red, white, and blue; wary of difference, rendering devolution as “separation by degrees.” It risks returning to Labour’s pre-1970 scepticism of devolution as anathema to socialist solidarity: to a centrally planned economy, nationalised industries, and full employment.

Each of these strands of unitary unionism were evident in Keir Starmer’s keynote speech to conference. Standing in front of a huge Union Jack, with the slogan ‘Britain’s future’ on his podium, Starmer echoed Margaret Thatcher in 1984, with a patriotic rebranding designed to appeal to English Conservative swing voters. Likewise, the tricolour placards happily brandished at the by-election wins in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire enjoined “Let’s Get Britain’s Future Back.” By contrast, there were no Union Jacks (or Saltires) on the placards at Rutherglen, where Michael Shanks and Anas Sarwar campaigned for “the change Scotland needs.”

Starmer’s speech made no reference to the United Kingdom, or its constitutional future, but mentioned Britain forty-five times, working up to Labour’s central policy for “Great British Energy,” a publicly owned green energy company. The difference between the United Kingdom and Britain may seem semantic – the difference between four nations and one – but points to a fraction between Westminster and Holyrood in unionist thought and campaigning. A general election fought with UK Labour’s British branding may not resonate with Scottish voters or deliver the success of Rutherglen. The Union Jack may have been conceived to combine symbols for Scotland, Ireland, and England, but for many Scots it is now synonymous with ‘British’ identity, set against Scottishness.

If this really is “a changed Labour party,” as Starmer declares, it needs a better policy on Scotland’s future. A general election focused on the economy and the poor governance of the Tory party might just land Labour more seats north of the border. But to sustain a lead over the SNP and to win control of the Scottish Parliament in the 2026 elections, Labour needs an answer to the Scottish Question, and to deliver change for Scotland within the first term of a Labour government.

As far as there is a ‘settled will’ of the Scottish people, we are still split right down the middle. If Labour seeks not only to win power but to retain it, the party needs to articulate a deliverable vision for Scotland’s future within the UK – one that can reclaim the constitutional centre ground.

Image Credit: Keir Starmer/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles