It is up to Labour to advance devolution

As the only truly national party, Labour will shape the future of the Union.

The rejection of city mayors in nine of the 10 cities that held referenda last Thursday has brought English devolution to a standstill. Apathy, an anti-political mood and feeble government backing conspired fatally to weaken the Yes campaign. In a number of cities, local party bosses neutered grassroots activism and prevented the mobilisation of party machines in favour of change. Yet the chief reason the case for mayors fell was the same as that which scuppered the ill-fated regional assembly for the north east: voters would not back reform when no meaningful devolution of power was on offer.

Labour’s ambivalence towards political reform must carry part of the blame. Labour had the casting vote on city mayors, just as it had on the AV referendum last year. It holds power in almost all the big cities outside London. It chose to exercise support for change only where local leaders wanted it, in Liverpool, Leicester and Salford, in each case without recourse to a referendum. Elsewhere, Labour was either split or straightforwardly hostile.

This doesn’t bode well for the party. The intellectual energies of its democratic reformers are currently focused on community organising, civic political engagement and party funding reform. Each is important and may yet bear substantial fruit. But Labour cannot advance a new politics without giving a convincing account of how to devolve power in England and revitalise local democracy. It needs to embrace a transformative localisation of power on major areas of policy, such as economic development, transport, housing, and schooling.

On some issues, like crime and housing, existing local authorities and the new Police and Crime Commissioners will take the lead. On economic development, transport and welfare-to-work, metro-mayors for city-regions, on the London mayoral model, are the best option (as an intermediate step, combined authority structures could be developed in the big cities, following Greater Manchester’s lead).  Whatever the chosen solutions, the project for English devolution must be set on a new path.

This is not just a matter of arcane local government reform. Englishness is on the rise, sparked by resentment at the devolution settlement, while feeding off deeper cultural and political trends. It currently finds voice in a clutch of fringe parties, rather than in the political mainstream, although UKIP’s recent success bears witness to the emergence of a new southern English political identity – one that is hostile to immigration, the European Union and the political establishment in equal measure.  Lacking progressive outlets, Englishness is channelled to the right of the political spectrum.

Developments in Scotland will bring new urgency to this question. Although the SNP’s advance was checked in the local government elections, Glasgow was no Stalingrad for Scottish nationalism. The SNP has continued to draw support away from all other main Unionist political parties bar Labour. Scottish liberalism, once utterly hegemonic north of the border, is on the verge of extinction.  The Liberal Democrats have been reduced to a rump of 71 councillors, taking less than 6 per cent of the popular vote.  Meanwhile, Scottish Conservatism shows no sign of reversing its fifty year decline.

As a result, between them, the SNP and Labour captured over two-thirds of the seats up for grabs last week (and this is in local government elections using the Single Transferable Vote). Thus we can now see the armies on the battlefield of Scottish independence clearly arrayed. It is a straight fight between Labour and the SNP. Anything else is just flanking support.

The most likely outcome is that Scotland gains more devolved power, rather than independence. But the consequences will still be felt throughout the UK. The gap between devolution to the nations of the United Kingdom and devolution within England has grown ever wider since 1997. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have accrued more powers and developed new political identities, increasingly divorced from the logic of party competition in England. Once Scotland advances to a form of fiscal federalism (so-called “devo-max”), or more devolution short of that position, the gap between the powers its Parliament will possess and those available in England outside London will have became a yawning chasm.

This prospect is viewed with acute unease in the north of England, where business leaders and politicians feel increasingly trapped between an assertive, powerful Scotland on the one hand and the economic and political clout of London on the other. Just as the devolution settlement of 1997 represented the unleashing of energies in the nations of the UK that had been blocked for years in the decaying Conservative Unionist state, so too the people of northern England may look to a new political settlement to remedy their political and economic marginalisation.

Last week’s local council elections hardened the north-south divide. Labour added to its control of the big northern cities, sweeping up a host of other urban seats (in some areas, such as Knowsley, local government has become a one-party state), while the Conservatives retreated further and the Liberal Democrats were routed.  This has left Labour as the only party that can now plausibly claim to be truly national in reach. Its success in the Midlands, strong showing in the Greater London Assembly and gains in the south mean that, while it remains a long way short of its 1997 high water mark, it is uniquely able to straddle the shifting terrains of devolution politics in the UK as a whole.

As such, it bears a significant responsibility for crafting a new constitutional and democratic settlement for the Union. The Liberal Democrats are too enfeebled, the Conservatives too conservative. It falls to Labour to put itself at the head of those forces that can be marshalled to the cause of a new democratic politics - one that advances the case for greater devolution, not separation for Scotland; gives voice to Englishness and the claims to power of its cities and counties; and draws the nations of the United Kingdom and their representativeness into new political relationships at Westminster.

It cannot do this alone, nor should it. Pluralism is the essence of democratic reform. But without Labour, there is no prospect of renewed progress.

Nick Pearce is the director of IPPR

A general view of Edinburgh Castle on February 7, 2012 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nick Pearce is Professor of Public Policy & Director of the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath.

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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.