The Union isn’t all bad
The new Scotland Bill doesn’t go far enough, and Labour should say so, argues JAMIE GLACKIN
The Union isn’t all bad. Our political masters in the SNP take the opposite view. The Union is the source of all of Scotland’s woes. London has an agenda – to subjugate a nation and leave it in chains, broken and destitute. That’s a rather negative view, don’t you think? And one (ironically) spouted by the SNP at every opportunity. Our Union is stunting a people by starving them of their natural resources (continue ad infinitum..).
The challenge that we have in Scottish Labour is to offer a positive vision of Scotland’s future. I for one don’t buy the dismal picture painted of Scotland by the SNP. But I’m realistic enough to know that not everything that they say has just been tweeted by their party machine a minute before. There are indeed lessons for the Scottish Labour Party that we must learn, or risk becoming irrelevant. When the referendum finally comes, the Tories and the Lib Dems will play their part in defending the Union. But it will be up to Scottish Labour to promote a better version of it. We cannot embrace the future by pretending that there is nothing wrong with the present.
In our worst election result since the 1930s, the SNP taught us three salutary lessons: don’t take the voters for granted, believe in a better future and lead from the front. In Alex Salmond, the SNP and Scotland have a leader who sincerely believes that his purpose in life is to lead Scotland, albeit incrementally, to full independence. Could Scotland be so bold as to follow him? The answer to that is almost certainly, unless Scottish Labour come up with a better alternative. The status quo is not an option.
So what could that alternative be? The strengthening of devolution is one answer. If we in the Scottish Labour Party are honest, we have never really come to terms with devolution and its full implications. Even Calman and its offspring, the Scotland Bill, doesn’t go far enough. The Scotland Bill is viewed by us a defence mechanism to prevent further calls for more powers for Scotland. But surely the reality is that they don’t go far enough? Why shouldn’t Scotland have control of its own natural resources? Why shouldn’t England, Wales and Northern Ireland have control of theirs? Surely we are mature enough to be able to set our own levels of corporation tax to balance a budget that includes free prescriptions and free university tuition if that’s what we choose? We should have the powers to control how Scotland is governed. I would argue that the exercise of those powers does not make separation more or less likely, but ignoring the question makes it substantially more likely.
There are definite benefits to being in the Union. The financial crisis was a reminder of that, regardless of how the SNP evoke their ‘arc of prosperity.’ In security, we are stronger as part of that Union than outside it. Even with Scotland’s enormous renewables potential, it needs a market to sell the electricity to. That market will most likely be England. And its not just energy; virtually all business done by Scottish companies is with counterparts south of the border. Independence probably wouldn’t change that, but it certainly wouldn’t make it any easier. Unionists have to make the case in a positive way. Just saying that we would be poorer as an independent country doesn’t cut it.
How about this? Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own parliaments, responsible for all devolved powers, including taxation. The UK government exists as a federal government with power devolved to it from the national parliaments. MPs become members of their own parliaments and assemblies and an agreed number are sent to the UK Parliament from their own jurisdiction. Seems fair to me and also negotiates the tricky West Lothian Question. The UK parliament can be balanced by the Council of Ministers. I accept that this won’t be the whole story but surely its worth considering?
The SNP victory in May should not be allowed to define us. But again, in a moment of modesty, we should recognise that Scottish Labour perhaps lacked any definition at all. The UK Labour Party is going through a redefining phase. I believe that it has to take account of the differences in Scotland and start to be more radical in its constitutional outlook. By offering more of the same, voters (across the UK) will not be sufficiently inspired to cast their vote Labour’s way. The root and branch review underway in Scotland also has to be sufficiently robust. Merely addressing structural issues in the Scottish party will not add a single vote to our haul in either the council or the next Westminster election, by which time it may be too late anyway.
It’s time we offered a positive vision to the people all across the UK and in doing so, finally get to grips with the constitutional questions that won’t go away and re-connect us with the values that saw Labour born in the first place.
Jamie Glackin is a member of Labour’s Scottish Executive Committee. When not working free of charge on behalf of the party, he is the managing director of a renewable energy consultancy. He failed in his bid to become Member of Parliament for Perth & North Perthshire at the 2010 general election and is now addicted to Twitter. Follow him at @Jamie4Labour