The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. Whatever the referendum results, more powers will be devolved to the government. Photo: Getty
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Leader: The United Kingdom in its current form is unacceptable

Whatever the outcome of the referendum the status quo should not endure. Constitutional change is coming to Scotland and the rest of the UK, and we are all the better for it.

There are now fewer than 100 days remaining until the Scottish independence referendum. As Alistair Darling says in our interview this week: “This is a vote that’s not like a normal general election. This is something the nationalists have to win only once, by one vote. It is irrevocable. You would never come back.”

Despite the criticism of Mr Darling’s performance as head of the No campaign, the polls suggest that the unionist side remains on course for victory. But whatever the outcome of the referendum – and it could be very close – the status quo cannot and should not endure. Constitutional change is coming to Scotland and the rest of the UK, and we are all the better for it.

Before the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, it was predicted, in the words of the former Labour cabinet minister George Robertson, that devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead”. Yet it was those who argued that devolution was “a process, not an event” who were correct.

Under the terms of the Scotland Act 2012, Holyrood will win the right to vary the country’s income-tax rate by up to 10p, as well as gaining complete control of stamp duty and landfill tax and new powers to borrow for capital expenditure. All three of the main Westminster parties have vowed to go further than this, with the Scottish Conservatives pledging on 2 June to devolve income tax in full to Holyrood.

That the party that campaigned against devolution for so long (albeit on the grounds that it would serve to encourage nationalism) has changed its stance is evidence that the UK political establishment has belatedly accepted the long-held desire among Scots for greater autonomy, whether for full independence or so-called Devo Plus or Devo Max. However, Tories’ hopes of a revival in Scotland, where they have only one MP (out of 59), will be disappointed. The Conservative and Unionist Party has been decisively defeated north of the border.

Perhaps, of the three main parties, it is only Labour that can win a fair hearing in Scotland, if indeed it deserves to. It is regrettable, therefore, that its proposals for further devolution have been so timid. Unlike the Conservatives, Scottish Labour is proposing only to allow Holyrood to vary income-tax rates by up to 15p on the grounds that going any further would risk triggering a “race to the bottom” and undermine the ability of the UK to redistribute across the nations. Neither argument bears scrutiny. Income tax represents just 23 per cent of UK tax revenue, leaving much to redistribute, and it is up to Labour to win the argument for progressive taxation, not to maintain control for fear that it will lose. Such caution validates Alex Salmond’s argument that only by voting for independence will Scots win the new powers they both want and deserve.

Further devolution is also necessary to address the grievance felt among English voters that Holyrood is able to spend money – on free university education, free prescriptions and free social care for the elderly – without having the responsibility of raising it.

Where Labour has an advantage over its rivals is in recognising that new powers for Scotland must be coupled with greater autonomy for England and for its cities. Labour has pledged to devolve at least £20bn of funding to the regions, a figure that should increase once Andrew Adonis’s growth review is published in full. It is hoped that, by ensuring decisions are made closer to those they affect, trust can begin to be restored in a discredited and overly centralised political system.

Beyond the important but technocratic arguments over the currency, North Sea oil and EU membership, the case for the Union is ultimately emotional: what unites the people of these islands is surely more important than what divides them. The possibility that the most successful multinational state in modern history could soon be broken up is cause for regret. For now, the Union might yet endure. But unless the grievances that have led to our present constitutional crisis, in Scotland and in England, are resolved, the ties that bind us will become ever more frayed. One day, quite soon, they might well snap.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.