Labour lines up against a second Scottish referendum… 

The Corbynite tide is going out, and not just at the top of the UK party. Last week Jackie Baillie, the MSP for Dunbartonshire, was elected as deputy leader of Scottish Labour.

Baillie, who was previously sacked from the front bench by leader Richard Leonard, has been described by one left-wing activist as representing “kamikaze unionism” and is also a vocal supporter of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. She won by 10,311 votes to 7,528 against Matt Kerr, a Glasgow councillor.

Unionists have been quick to spot the implications of this for Labour’s internal debates. Between Baillie in Edinburgh and the appointment of the staunchly unionist Ian Murray as Shadow Scottish Secretary, the Party is lining up against both independence and facilitating another vote. Indeed Murray made this explicit to the Daily Express.

This is significant because another faction in Scottish Labour have been advancing the line that, in an effort to try and win back some pro-independence voters, the Party should facilitate a referendum if they perceive the SNP to have won a mandate for one at the next Holyrood elections. The danger in this approach was that it risked once again leaving the Scottish Conservatives in sole possession of an unambiguously unionist position.

…but Starmer mulls federalist folly

However this doesn’t mean that all is well in terms of Labour’s constitutional thinking. This week Sir Keir Starmer, their newly-elected national leader, committed himself in the Daily Record to setting up a constitutional convention with the aim of working out a ‘federal’ model of governance for Britain.

Notably, and depressingly, he even explicitly says that he wants this to include not only a re-assessment of the relationship between the devolved governments and Westminster, but more powers for the Scottish Parliament. This illustrates how under-developed this thinking is: even the likes of Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and a committed federalist, told a recent pro-UK conference that the Scottish Government has “sufficient powers”.

In fact even Gordon Brown, in the middle of his argument with me at that same conference, was at pains to disclaim the suggestion that he was calling for even more powers for Holyrood.

Starmer’s policy shows that Labour’s constitutional thinking is stuck in an extraordinarily deep intellectual rut. Rather than taking the opportunity afforded by devolution’s 20-year anniversary to reflect on their core assumptions in light of experience, brittle pride leaves them doubling down on the same prescription in the un-evidenced hope that it will work this time.

In fact, as I’ve noted in the last couple of columns and in a piece for CapX this week, the Covid-19 crisis is actually exposing the shortcomings of the devolution settlement as never before.

Just yesterday we found that vulnerable Scottish residents, like their Welsh counterparts, have been left without access to priority service from supermarkets because of foot-dragging by devolved politicians. There is now a public petition calling for the Scottish Government to match Westminster’s policies – something which would happen automatically if we had a unified, UK-wide response to the crisis.

Likewise, the Scottish Government’s decision to ditch the common ‘Nightingale’ brand for emergency hospitals – even whilst British institutions like the Army play a vital role in getting them built – has been followed in Wales.

As I wrote after my confrontation with Brown, the real constitutional challenge facing us right now is working out how to rebuild at the centre. Until Labour show themselves willing to take a cold, hard look at their constitutional record, they won’t be equipped for that task.