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Yes or no, Labour should offer a new federal vision of Britain, north & south of the border

union flag melts away from scotlandThe only thing about the vote on Scottish independence on which we can be pretty sure is that it will be close. I’d certainly prefer a no vote although I’m no more a unionist than a nationalist. I just question the very possibility of independence for Scotland in a sterling currency zone within the European union, in a global economy in which many corporations wield more power than all but the largest states.

If there’s a yes vote, the shock waves will be enormous, but much will still remain to be resolved in the negotiations which Alex Salmond has said will be conducted by a cross-party ‘Team Scotland‘. And as Paul Mason says, “even if the yes vote fails on 18 September, scoring somewhere in the mid 40s, the pattern of all future Scottish independence debates is set,” and there is no doubt that Salmond’s successors will bring the question back within 15 or 20 years. Whatever happens, the UK game has changed.

In either case, Scottish Labour faces a severe struggle: for survival itself in the realignment of politics which would surely take place in an independent Scotland in spite of the triumph of the SNP. But in the event of a no vote too, if it is to reverse the increasing domination of Scottish politics by the SNP in Westminster elections perhaps as well as at Holyrood. In 2011, the SNP won 44% of the Scottish list votes and an absolute majority. To better that in a vote on independence would be a remarkable achievement, and the prospect of a Labour majority of Scottish MPs or MSPs in 2015 and 2016 looks like an impossibility.

Labour needs a new radical agenda which can see it though the struggles in either scenario. But why not the same agenda? One that is radical but consistent with its principles, its commitment to further devolution in all parts of Britain, and even what it has said in recent debates. A federal Britain has already been trailed by Gordon Brown in the event of a no vote. Why should it not also be advanced in the event that Scotland votes for “independence” as something a sovereign Scotland should attempt to negotiate with England and Wales?

After all, the SNP has no problem being part of the European Union with its own legislative structure and parliament. Why should not Scotland also seek an agreement for such things with those with whom it wishes to share a currency in Britain?

Labour would have to commit to Scotland being part of the Sterling zone. It would also have to commit, as it should in any case, to radical devolution to the English regions. I’d favour large English regions in the North, the Midlands, the South as well as London, to which most public services, including health, education, transport and all local authority functions could be wholly devolved.  Like the German Länder, Britain’s nations and regions should lead in Europe on these issues. The government of a social democratic Britain, one that would encompass the aspirations of the SNP and Plaid Cymru as well as Labour, must embrace its nations and regions as equal partners of the federal centre.

No half measures will work in the new UK game. If it isn’t bold, it just won’t capture anyone’s imagination. The time has run out for further deferral of the West Lothian question. A UK parliament for England, Scotland and Wales will only work if it deals only with those issues which cannot be devolved. That leaves plenty – achieving the investment and growth needed for a healthy economy and rising living standards for the bulk of our people who’ve seen them decline; redistributing income and wealth for a happier Britain; regulation of corporate interests to ensure decisions are taken in the interests of people not profit, relations with the rest of the world in keeping with all of these.

And you can say goodbye to the sovereignty of the House of Commons too. Whether it is through a Senate of the nations and regions or through other mechanisms to share government decision-making, shared it must be.

And how do we achieve these things in a parliament in which Labour will certainly not have a big majority? By working in close partnership with the SNP and Plaid Cymru in Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff. The 2015 election must be fought on that basis, and we should seek the backing of the Scottish people at the general election fas well as in 2016 for seeing it through. Perhaps in Scotland we can overcome our hatred of the SNP to do this. It may be the only way for Scottish Labour to regain its influence in that country.

If possible, that may involve agreeing coalitions with the SNP and Plaid in Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff after the general election. Whilst I would not welcome any coalition with the Lib Dems who have cooperated in the destruction of Britain’s economy and public services, the two nationalist parties are clearly social democratic in their nature. No-one can claim, whatever their feelings about the SNP, that they are to the right of Tony Blair. So by what principle can we discount working with them? We might need to anyway, but to achieve the radical constitutional transformation we must work for as well as economic recovery, we will need one even more. The SNP and Plaid are more suitable allies than the Lib Dems in achieving economic recovery too.

I do not underestimate the difficulties in determining the boundaries of the English regions, but I suspect that in practice voters will be encouraged more than anything else by the willingness of the politicians of the Westminster village to give away their power (and that of their mandarins in Whitehall). Whatever the boundaries, devolving power closer to home will give comfort.

2 Comments

  1. James Martin says:

    We had all this nonsense a decade ago (around the same time the elected mayors nonsense started), but it was a non-starter. Why? Well, I guess there may be something in someone identifying themselves as ‘Scottish’ or ‘Welsh’ and which therefore translates into political identities on a regional basis (be that devolution or independence). But English regions? Don’t make me laugh! If you’re a scouser everyone else is a woollyback. If your a Manc (and I guess some people have to be, sadly) everyone else is a tosser. If you live in West Lancs your perception of people from East Lancs is that they have 6 fingers and very low IQ’s (a perception that has some merit btw), and that’s before we even start on what people in Lancashire think of Yorkshire. Over in the NE the Geordies hate the Mackems and vice-versa and everyone hates the monkey-hangers.

    In other words there is no regional identity, never has been and never will be. And that is why no one outside of the politicos supported regional government when it was proposed by New Labour (despite the TUC bureaucracy trying – and totally failing – to rally the unions behind the idea) and it is unlikely to be any different now. And at the end of the day why would anyone want another layer of ineffective glorified councillors claiming endless expenses and with little or no power (unless someone really does think it possible to push through a socialist republic on a regional basis)? It’s a distraction, and a waste, and rather like regional MEPs makes political representatives so remote that no one knows who the frig they are.

    So let’s bin this now before we even start eh?

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      That’s one of the reasons why I favour large regions. The North, not based in Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle or Sheffield, with very strong powers over industry & employment in its region, transport, utilities, health, education, planning, housing, and at least some tax revenues. Likewise the Midlands, and the South. I think people do identify with those (perhaps more than with ‘England’), though their identities are more complex than that. I think London with 15% of the population should constitute a region too – with a real assembly not an executive mayor.

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