As one reads through Sir Keir Starmer’s speech today setting out Labour’s attempt to salvage its position in Scotland ahead of next year’s Holyrood elections, it’s difficult not to feel at least a little sorry for them.
Just like Irish Labour a hundred years before, socialist and social-democratic parties tend to get screwed whenever the focus of politics shifts to existential national or constitutional questions. So it’s understandable that their instinct has been to try and find a magic bullet that will just make the problem go away.
Thus their forlorn quest for a devolution ‘settlement’ – the word implies a wholly illusory stability – that will, as the now-infamous saying goes, “kill nationalism stone dead”.
More than two decades on from the advent of Labour’s devolution experiment, it is now patently obvious that it hasn’t worked, even if there is still an omertà against saying so in public (unless you’re Boris Johnson). Support for separation in both Wales and Scotland stands at record highs, and in Edinburgh the nationalists have used the power of the Scottish Parliament to suborn civil society.
But Labour can’t admit this. Not only is devolution their handiwork, but its principle New Labour architects still dominate the party’s constitutional thinking. Gordon Brown’s mission is to vindicate himself at all costs and, ideally, file a second draft of his political obituary. Such priorities preclude any honest admission that devolution has indeed been a ‘disaster’.
This tension riddles Starmer’s speech, to such an extent that it on the important questions it essentially repudiates itself. Take this: “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.”
By putting ‘just’ in that sentence, the Leader of the Opposition implies that the importance of those institutions goes without saying. But this is impossible to reconcile with his actual proposals, which amount to the tritest populism. If common experience of shared institutions is vital to holding together the United Kingdom, how can he so blithely commit Labour to pushing “as much power as possible away from Westminster”?
And when they say “as much power”, the scope of what seems to be being debated inside the party is staggering. Katy Clark, a peer and former Scottish MP, has suggested going so far as to give Scotland not just complete fiscal autonomy but the power to veto military action. At that point, the UK would cease to be a functional state at all. The ‘British Isles Customs and Pensions Community’ would be a more accurate description.
What Starmer seems not to grasp – or what Brown et al won’t permit him to admit – is that you can’t make the case for the United Kingdom whilst simultaneously arguing that the United Kingdom should play as small a role in our lives as it possibly can. If you want people to feel British, you need to defend and indeed expand the spheres of life in which we live and act as ‘the British’. If you believe in the United Kingdom, you need to believe in a United Kingdom that does more things than, say, the European Union. Or Austria-Hungary, for that matter.
Every time you gold-plate the ‘devolution settlement’ to lock Westminster completely out of bread-and-butter policy areas such as health and education, you make the case for the Union harder to make. Here’s another key line:
“We are all stronger because we choose to pool our resources to share the risks and rewards.”
That’s entirely correct. But the case for the UK can’t rest on fiscal transfers alone. Not just because 2016 showed that voters won’t forever content themselves with such emotionally thin gruel, but because under Labour’s devo-max proposals consent for those transfers will soon run out. You can’t reject the British nation as a community for political government and expect it to survive as a community for redistributing cash.
More devolution – specifically, to weaken and circumvent the ultra-centralising devolved legislatures and put power directly in the hands of communities like Aberdeen or North Wales – definitely has a role to play in the fightback against separatism. But this childish, Britanno-phobic aversion to Westminster does not. It might win easy applause from the devocrat chorus line, always enthusiasts for any solution that involves increasing their power, pay, and prestige, and those Westminster politicians and academics who have staked their reputations on devolution. But they’ve cheered on every disastrous misstep of the past twenty years.
If Starmer has not yet got his head around the importance of the UK Internal Market Bill, and the obvious case for ex-EU market powers being vested in the next-highest authority, he’s in no position to be calling a ‘constitutional convention’. Unless such a move was accompanied by a clear willingness to challenge cherished devolutionary orthodoxies, it will simply be Labour having their one idea one more time and hoping that this time the clocks finally strike thirteen before Britain’s time runs out.
Perhaps all that might be forgivable, at least from a narrow and tactical perspective, if there was a big constituency for this. But Nationalist voters aren’t holding out for a less competent and less charismatic alternative to the SNP with a less inspiring spin on their big idea. And after two years of being sold retreat with promises of peace, unionists voters are going rightly cold on this nonsense too. There are some battles you just can’t triangulate your way past. Someone tell the ghosts of New Labour.