While in membership of the EU, its common standards covered many of the powers that had been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Environment, fisheries, agriculture and state aid for economic development were controlled by the EU though technically devolved. The devolution settlement was predicated on the UK being part of the EU. If that hadn’t been the case, the 1999 settlement would have had to have included a means of integrating those devolved powers that were cross territorial and this would have meant considering some kind of federalism.
As the number of powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament, the Senedd in Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly have increased and with the creation of metro mayors, directly elected mayors, city deals the case becomes more obvious.
But as it is the UK remains one of the most centralised states with much of the power, political, legal, financial, cultural all placed within a few square miles in London.
Unfortunately the 2014 independence referendum did not allow space for discussing a third option. The question was independence Yes or No and the Better Together campaign was a disaster for Labour. Since then Labour has never been able to get a hearing on constitutional issues even though it made commitments to constitutional change in the 2015, 2017 and 2019 general election manifestos.
Keir Starmer has stated his support for a federal system with further devolve powers on regional investment banks and regional industrial strategy as well as abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with an elected chamber of the regions and nations. But few in the Scottish Party would want a major manifesto pledge to be dependent on future constitutional change across the whole UK.
That isn’t to say that we should avoid the issue of decentralisation, subsidiarity and bringing radical change to Scotland as well as renewing a commitment to abolishing the unelected House of Lords.
The most important issue for next year is I believe how we emerge from the Covid crisis. This will strongly influence the shape of our society into the future both at a UK and a Scottish level. One clear lesson has been that over centralisation has slowed down our responses and resulted in avoidable deaths, subjecting care and NHS staff to unnecessary risks and chaos and distress for school students over exam results.
The care home crisis, PPE, testing, schools reopening, exam results would have all benefited from the greater involvement of local government, local manufacturers, trade unions, students, teachers, and parents. Labour should be making the case for decision making at the most appropriate level and involving those with real expertise.
For example, Scottish Labour’s plans for a national care service should not be about creating one centralised service run by central government. Local services, trade unions, care workers, service users and their families need a voice. If these groups had been involved and listened to it could have prevented the Scottish government (along with UK government) directing elderly people diagnosed with covid into unsuitable care home accommodation often in the private sector.
Secondly, Labour must have a clear strategy for the regeneration of our economy. This should be based on the New Green Deal using investment in green energy as a central plank in supporting manufacturing and creating high skilled well paid jobs. We should not be giving money to the private sector or supporting the import of turbines and blades from the other side of the world, but ensuring that work is carried out with public investment here in Scotland.
We must contrast Labour’s plans for investment against the SNP’s Sustainable Growth Commission plans for continuing its existing neo-liberal policies. The Growth Commission’s approach is to make the Scottish economy a happy hunting ground by offering incentives to footloose capital either, like Amazon, to exploit low paid workers or for overseas private equity firms to strip our manufacturing assets leaving skilled workers unemployed or facing the rest of their working lives in low paid service industry jobs. Their plan is to continue austerity measures for years if not decades to come.
Richard Leonard should lead Labour into next year’s election supporting the right of a Scottish government to have its own economic and industrial policies. Not however on the basis of the SNP’s growth commission approach but by going back to the original objective of the first Scottish Assembly held in 1972 when it called for a workers’ parliament to resist deindustrialisation.
This would mean opposing the UK government’s White Paper on a UK Internal Market. In Scotland’s case the White Paper involves repealing a section of the 1998 Scotland Act that enables the Scottish Parliament to give “financial assistance to commercial activities for the purpose of promoting or sustaining economic development or employment.”
The White Paper would rather aim to replicate the EU single market and in the process would replicate the same problems. A level playing field cannot be fair if the players are radically different in size. We know from our experience in the EU that there was enormous differences in wealth between the north and south which led to uneven development and repeated financial crises leading to mass unemployment, migration and enforced austerity. What is good for Germany wasn’t always good for Greece.
Another motivation of this white paper is to ensure that the UK government has control of trade deals. It wants to be able to offer a full and comprehensive single market across the UK so for example the Scottish Parliament couldn’t have higher food standards. I would argue that trade deals would be exactly the kind of issue for a federal body such as a Senate of the Nations and Regions.
This brings me back to how federalism can be part of Labour’s position, not from a purely constitutional argument. But rather to demonstrate how it could allow a Scottish parliament to work with, Wales, Northern Ireland and the regions of England as a counter balance to the sovereignty of the government in Westminster.
A federal UK should be based on partnership not hierarchy. There would common minimum standards across the UK on human rights, employment rights, consumer protection and environmental protection, but the nations and regions should have the power to enhance but never detract from the minimums standards. I believe if UK Labour argued this case it would appeal to the left behind areas in England that do not believe their voices are heard.
The central aim of a labour led call for progressive federalism is to deliver
Redistribution of wealth
Democratisation of our economy
Subsidiarity of powers combined with solidarity between the nations
A Scottish people’s parliament should use the powers it has to benefit the people of Scotland but also to unite with working people in the rest of the UK in their common interests. The SNP can’t offer this, the Tory’s can’t offer it but Labour can.