Where’s Labour when the UK may be about to break up? Here’s a modest proposal

Of all the many opportunities now being missed by the Labour party for a vigorous, radical campaign to win over solid popular support, one of the saddest is Labour’s silence on the real possibility that in barely a year’s time, on Thursday, 18 September 2014, our fellow-citizens in Scotland may vote to leave the United Kingdom to become an independent state.  Current polls show a clear majority of Scots opposed to independence, but much can change in a year, and not that many Scots seem content with the status quo.  A Tory-led government at Westminster, with virtually no Conservative party support in Scotland, is waging a class war against the poorest and most vulnerable in the country, outraging widespread progressive opinion in Scotland.  The Tories are appeasing their own loopiest supporters by increasingly putting British membership of the European Union — much more valued in Scotland than in England — at risk.  The independence campaign is led by probably the most skilful and charismatic politician in the UK,  Alex Salmond.  Blandly assuming that the referendum due next year will come down against independence, and doing nothing at all to persuade the Scots to vote accordingly apart from nit-picking over the small print of the independence campaign, is a reckless gamble with the future of our country.

Yet there’s no sign of a Labour strategy aimed at offering Scotland a worth-while alternative to independence that could command support both in Scotland and in the RUK (rest of the UK).  The Tories have clearly written off Scotland and have no policy for its future apart from complacently assuming that Salmond will lose his referendum and that the Scots will be content with the minor improvements to Scottish devolution in the Scotland Act 2012.   The LibDems have a radical and forward-looking policy for Scotland and for the constitutional future of the UK, but no-one else seems to take any notice of it or to take it seriously.  A bold Labour policy, supported by the LibDems and offering a brighter constitutional future for the UK, including for Scotland, would fill a yawning vacuum.  It could form one of the key elements in an imaginative Labour programme offering an optimistic long-term alternative to the break-up of the UK, leaving a sadly diminished little England searching for a role with Wales and Northern Ireland in tow, as envisaged in a striking recent Observer article by Henry Porter.  Deferring the unveiling of such a programme until the eve of a May 2015 general election will be too late: by then the Scots will have had their referendum and the die may have been irrevocably cast.  The need is for a brave Labour initiative within at most a few weeks.

McCrone_BookCoverEnglish lethargy in the face of the threat to the integrity of our country ought to have been brutally shaken by the publication of an important new book, Scottish Independence: Weighing up the Economics, by Professor Gavin McCrone, a distinguished former public servant and academic economist (full disclosure: Gavin McCrone is one of my oldest friends).  This book is an invaluable guide to the main issues, political as well as economic, arising from the choice facing Scots next year. Short, pithy, commendably cheap, available as an e-book or paperback, written in clear English, accessible to the ordinary reader as well as to trained economists, amply supported by facts, figures and statistics, Scottish Independence could well have been published in a well-known series of handbooks and re-named Scottish Independence for Dummies.  It ought to be required reading, not only for Scottish voters before their referendum next year, but also for everyone in England (and the other two UK nations) with an interest in the future of the United Kingdom.  It has been widely discussed in the Scottish print and electronic media but, inexplicably, it has so far barely been noticed at all in England.

Professor McCrone, who sensibly refuses to disclose his own referendum voting intentions and remains resolutely impartial throughout his book, discusses the numerous questions that would need to be answered before Scotland could become independent, if that’s what the Scots vote for in 2014: could an independent Scotland continue to use the pound sterling and if so how much influence could it have on its own monetary and fiscal policies?  on what basis would Scotland take on a fair share of the UK’s income from North Sea oil and of the UK’s national debt? could an independent Scotland afford to bail out its very large banks if they were to fail again in future? what would be the implications for both Scotland and England of Scotland going it alone on renewal energy policy?  would Scotland need to apply for EU membership as a new state? what if England voted to leave the EU in the in-or-out referendum threatened by Mr Cameron, but Scotland, having voted to remain part of the UK, voted massively to remain in the EU?  if Scotland applied for EU membership as a new state, would other EU member states with their own internal secessionist movements (Spain and Belgium, for example) be tempted to veto the Scottish application for fear of setting an awkward precedent?  would Scottish EU membership require a new EU treaty whose ratification would trigger referendums in some EU countries, referendums that might well go against Scotland? would Scotland, if admitted as a new member to the EU, inherit a share of the UK’s EU rebate? would Scotland, as a new member, be required by current EU doctrine to join the Euro and the Eurozone, and/or the Schengen Agreement – which would mean immigration controls on the border with England?

Professor McCrone suggests possible answers to all these questions, stressing that if the Scots vote for independence, many of the most vital questions would have to be negotiated with the government at Westminster before independence could be achieved, and and that it’s impossible to predict what the outcome of those negotiations would be; and that others would fall to be negotiated with the whole of the EU, including the RUK, both before and after independence, the outcomes in each case similarly unpredictable.  Professor McCrone notes that some of the principal questions have apparently not been discussed, even in a preliminary way, between Edinburgh and London or between Edinburgh and Brussels.  It looks as if Scottish voters will have to make their decisions for or against independence in just a few months’ time without having the slightest idea how these questions, fundamental to their own future welfare and security, are likely to be answered.  A pig in a poke indeed.

In a striking passage in his book, McCrone warns that

If independence is rejected, … there is a real danger that politicians at Westminster and officials in Whitehall may think that they can put away the files and not worry about Scotland any more. Proposals for increased devolution might then be shelved. That is quite a likely outcome but it would be a huge mistake.  It would probably mean that the next time there was a big surge in support for independence for Scotland, maybe in ten or twenty years’ time [Note by BLB:  I predict that it would occur much sooner], it would carry the day in a second referendum.  That has been the pattern in the past over devolution.  [Scottish Independence: Weighing up the Economics, Birlinn, p.147]

Here are five key elements for an urgently needed Labour strategy for the future of Scotland and the whole United Kingdom:

1.  Labour should promise that if the 2014 referendum goes against independence, a future Labour government will negotiate a further significant expansion of devolution for Scotland. According to the polls, more Scots want this than want independence or the status quo, and there’s no conceivable reason not to agree to it. Why should Scotland have less control of its own internal affairs than California or Rhode Island in the US or New South Wales in Australia?

2.  Labour should recognise that full self-government for Scotland will prompt pressure for the same status for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and should agree to make this its long-term aim (and to work tirelessly for a national consensus in favour of it).

3.  This would result eventually in a fully federal constitution for the UK and its four nations, and would entail, eventually, a separate parliament and government for England, probably sited in the midlands or north of England.

4.  The transfer of further extensive powers to the parliaments and governments of the four UK nations will greatly reduce the functions and powers of the federal parliament at Westminster, justifying a radical reduction in the size of the (already semi-federal) House of Commons and especially of the House of Lords, the latter from nearly 800 at present to a maximum of 100 in the new elected federal Senate, in which (as in the US and Australia) all four nations would have equal representation, an essential protection for the smaller nations against domination by the biggest.  The creation of a new modest-sized parliament for England would thus be consistent with a sharp net reduction in the total number of UK politicians.

5.  There is no other durable or feasible answer to the West Lothian question than a gradual move, over 15 to 20 years, to a federal UK constitution as proposed, supported by a broad consensus across the whole political spectrum.  It would create a lasting, democratic relationship between the four UK nations and between them and the federal centre, satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the Scottish and increasingly the English (and Welsh and Northern Ireland) peoples, and complete the long interrupted devolution process of which Labour is, or should be, the proud godfather.


11 Responses

  1. Pete Kercher says:

    “The need is for a brave Labour initiative within at most a few weeks”.
    While it has been said that a day is long time in politics, a few weeks is probably a far shorter time frame. Brave initiatives call for brave, decisive leadership. I think that sums up why you will see no such thing.
    As I’ve commented before, Brian, your proposal for a consistent federal reform is eminently sensible, therefore it will be rigorously ignored.

    Brian writes: Thanks, Pete. It’s just that the myopia and short-termism of the party leaders ought not to deter us from saying what needs to be done, even if we have little or no confidence that they are listening, or would take any action accordingly even if they were.

  2. Richard Thomas says:

    A fine piece Brian. 
    The difficulty Labour have may be neatly put by a quick glance at Scotland’s Labour contingent at Westminster.   They despise and sideline (even undermine) the Scottish Parliamentary representation because put simply they cannot share power.  Add in the the underlying difficulty that with a few exceptions they are a bunch of stalinist numpties whose main capacity is their ability never to forget anything (a previous Scottish government espousal of STV for local elections is a good example – which is why Labour support for the Lib Dem proposals is absent).   They are also inacapable of working with the MSPs whom they despise, disparage and work to undermine in a spirit of true Scottish Labour comradeship.  The Falkirk fiasco anyone?  I can’t see Ed Miliband managing to do anything effective about this in the time remaining to the referendum as the root cause remains the quality of the Scottish MPs behind him.and as far as I can see the internal politics of Scottish Labour mean that a package which will attract the electorate’s aspiration for more devolution is a long way off.

    Brian writes: Thanks for this, Richard. I’m afraid that you’re probably right. I just have a slim and no doubt unrealistic hope that Ed Miliband might find the intestinal fortitude to take on these warring factions and force federalism down their throats, as the likeliest policy to outflank the independistas.

  3. I’m sorry but an English parliament would do nothing to serve the interests of the 5th UK nation – Cornwall – its culture, environment or economy.
    Yes, a 5th nation, unpalatable and inconvenient as it is to Labour and Brian, a significant and increasing number, of people claim Cornish as their national identity rather than English or British (see increase from 2001 to 2011 in UK census figures). This despite Cornwall having no ‘home nation’ status and being much smaller.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I wondered when a Cornish nationalist would weigh in!
    I’m afraid that despite a deep fondness for Cornwall I don’t see it as qualifying for separate status in a UK federation without raising as host of insoluble problems with other counties or regions of England claiming similar special treatment. I don’t believe either that nascent English nationalist sentiment would tolerate what would be seen, not unreasonably, as the fragmentation of England. It might easily scupper the whole federal project, which would be tragic for England — including for Cornwall. It would be up to an English parliament to decide whether to give Cornwall a special degree of self-government within England to take account of strong Cornish nationalist sentiment: further devolution within England, in other words.

    But I don’t want this thread to be diverted into a discussion of Cornwall’s claims to nationhood, which belong elsewhere in the blogosphere.

  4. Oliver Miles says:

    It is certainly alarming to think that consideration of these questions is being left until the morning after. Unfortunately historical precedent suggests you may be right. The small print of the partition of Ireland, admittedly in different and much more difficult circumstances, seems to have been done on the back of an envelope.

    Your summary of the questions dealt with by Professor McCrone doesn’t include NATO and defence. It isn’t just Faslane (on which perhaps we should be looking at the leasing arrangements the Russian navy enjoys in Sebastopol, now a Ukrainian city – or on second thoughts perhaps we shouldn’t). What will happen to the Royal Navy, which is full of Scotsmen? Do we assume something similar to the arrangement, unwritten so far as I am aware, by which Irish citizens simply serve in the British armed forces no questions asked?

    I think I have mentioned before my half-serious question about the future of Northern Ireland. We have promised the people of Northern Ireland that they may remain in the United Kingdom so long as they wish, but we have not specified which bit of the United Kingdom. Shouldn’t they be given the choice? They would of course choose Scotland (audible sigh of relief from Land’s End to Gretna Green). By the way, exactly the same goes for the Falkland Islands.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Oliver. On Faslane and defence, Professor McCrone’s book does refer several times to defence, but his subject is the economics of independence, so questions such as membership of NATO and the future of Faslane fall outside it. (I urge you to buy the book anyway!) I have seen recently somewhere that SNP policy is to retain Faslane as a Scottish naval and military base, denuclearised, in the event of Scotland becoming independent so the question of the Royal Navy leasing it back presumably wouldn’t arise. As I understand it SNP policy is against the presence of nuclear weapons anywhere on Scottish soil.

    As for Northern Ireland, the UK commitment surely applies only when a majority in NI desire a change, which is obviously not the case at present, and my recollection is that it applies only to a majority desire for [re-]unification with the Republic of Ireland. But I don’t think your proposition is meant entirely seriously. In any case, it seems unlikely that a newly independent Scotland could be compelled to take on responsibility for NI (still less the Falklands!) against its will, whatever the majority of people in NI, the Falklands or England might want.

  5. You might be surprised to know that I also wish to see an English parliament but one achieved through the independence of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, and via the reunification of Ireland. The English would then no longer have to tolerate sharing a parliament they dominate, located in their capital, with a handful of Celtic MP’s. Hopefully this parliament would cover a federal and highly decentralised England, and accompanied a clear separation between the legislative, executive and judicial powers, but I’m not convinced the English are fully aware of the benefits of having a democracy fit for purpose in the 21st century. Equally I’d like to see a federal arrangement uniting Cornwall, Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland but but why stop at these Atlantic isles?
    As for Cornwall. Whilst not so quick to dismiss the rights of smaller nations and national minorities to recognition and autonomy simply because their size and location are an inconvenience to ruling establishments and bureaucrats, I will concede that your point of view is prevalent amongst the British ruling cast. Thankfully international organisations such as the Council of Europe have a more tolerant position. Should peoples and nations be flexible and change to meet the needs of ‘convenient’ government structures or vice versa?
    Brian writes: No: I’m not at all surprised that you favour an English parliament. But if support for an English parliament and a UK federation of its constituent nations were to be conditional on Cornwall being placed on the same footing as England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it would never happen. And anyway this is a bad case of mission creep. Future comments will be accepted only if they relate to the blog post above, which is not about Cornwall.  

  6. Oliver Miles says:

    You are right about my being only half serious, but wrong I think about the commitment. My recollection is that the people of Northern Ireland have been promised both that they can stay in the UK if they wish and that they can leave if they wish.

    Brian writes: Thank you again. Some cursory googling confirms that

    ‘The agreement reached was that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland and of the Republic of Ireland wished otherwise. Should that happen, then the British and Irish governments are under “a binding obligation” to implement that choice.’

    I think the half of you that’s serious about this will agree that if and when there’s a majority in the whole of Ireland in favour of Northern Ireland leaving the UK, it won’t be in favour of NI being absorbed by an independent Scotland, a solution that would obviously be just as robustly rejected by the Irish nationalists north and south of the border as by the Ulster loyalists — even in the highly unlikely event of an independent Scotland being willing to take on Northern Ireland!

  7. Maria says:

    Philip R. Hosking: “Celtic MPs”? But the Cornish, Scots and Welsh are not Celts. That is a modern invention. They were not referred to as such until a couple of hundred years ago. Neither are the English Anglo Saxons. By all means be Scots, Welsh, Cornish or English, but any ethnic definition beyond that is nonsensical.

    Brian writes: No more comments about the status of Cornwall or the Cornish in relation to England will be accepted. Please let us return to the subject of this post: the implications of the Scottish referendum and the case for a federation of the four UK nations.

  8. shaun toft says:

    [Brian writes: I have regretfully deleted this contribution since it is not a comment on my blog post. There are plenty of other blogs with posts about Cornwall: please comment on one of them, not this.]

  9. Mel Spence says:

    Brian, an excellent piece, if only we had more contributions like this from Scottish Labour. Sadly, Richard Thomas’ analysis is spot on, it’s the best description of Scottish Labour internal politics I’ve seen. If the current opinion polls are accurate then my preferred outcome is on course to lose, but… for once I agree with Prof McCrone, that is exactly how Westminster will react. There is a precedent after all, Sir Alex Douglas Home’s promise of a better deal if we rejected the ’79 deal. Where I disagree with Prof McCrone is on timescale, it’ll be closer to 5 years, and the atmosphere will be much rancorous than at the moment – in these circumstances there will be no Velvet Divorce.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I’m very much afraid that you may be right.

  10. A bit late coming to this post, but some interesting comments.  Though your post is itself a bit late in the debate on Scottish independence.  As for Labour coming up with anything positive, I wouldn’t hold your breath.  At Westminster, Labour is only concerned with winning enough votes in England to oust the Tories, that they seem to have no interest in Scotland at all.  As for Labour in Scotland, they are so wrapped up in their hatred of the SNP that they no longer seem able to think or act rationally.  Not much hope there.  As for your long term Federal solution, this too is at least a century out of date.  The time for moving towards a federal UK was in the late 19th century.  You talk about the four nations in the UK, but Northern Ireland is not a nation, it is a small part of a nation.  The shambles which led to the independence of Ireland and the rump statelet in the north is emblematic of the continuing incompetence and blindness of our ruling establishment at Westminster when it comes to imagining a better future for all of us.  Hanging on to delusions of imperial grandeur via a useless nuclear weapon is more important that creating a stable and more equal society.  And Labour still supports this neo imperialist vision for the UK.  Sad times indeed.  Still we need more people like yourself in England to start thinking about a better constitutional future for all of us.  

    Brian writes: Thank you for these generous comments, Alister. I agree of course that Northern Ireland is sui generis among the four UK ‘nations’ but it enjoys extensive devolution almost amounting to internal self-government and there seems no reason to exclude it from a federation, although the federal constitution might need to contain provision for NI to leave the federation if a majority in both parts of Ireland voted for it to do so. As to timing, it’s always possible to regret that positive proposals weren’t made earlier, but better late than never. I agree that resistence in both parts of the Labour party would be formidable but I harbour a faint hope that Ed Miliband has steel in his spine for use when needed. I agree entirely about the utter folly of the UK not-independent nuclear not-deterrent and the feebleness of our political leaders of all parties in lacking the guts to demand that it be scrapped without further ado.

    As for my own lateness in putting forward these ideas for a better offer to Scotland than independence or the status quo, viz. the obvious need for a UK federation as outlined in this post, I have been advocating this in Labour List, on my own blog, in numerous letters to the newspapers (including one in last Sunday’s Observer) and at meetings and debates consistently for well over two years. Politicians think it is so radical that I must be barmy. Lucky for us that the Victorians and Lloyd George and Keynes and Beveridge and Attlee and Bevan — and even Churchill on his good days — were less timid!

  11. Brian says:

    Readers of this post and the comments on it might also be interested to read the 33 comments so far (including my responses to many of them) on an abridged version of the same post now published by the Labour-leaning blog, Labour List:  see the comments appended to
    http://labourlist.org/2013/08/wheres-labour-when-the-uk-may-be-about-to-break-up-heres-a-modest-proposal/.  By all means contribute comments there, too!