Nicola Sturgeon answers questions after delivering a speech at University College London on February 11, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Unless Westminster responds to what is happening in Scotland the Union will be doomed

The UK's ancient constitution must be reformed to spread power more evenly. 

One recent evening I chaired a discussion on our disunited kingdom at the London Welsh Centre. It was a good panel: Professor Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University; Tom Holland, the historian and romantic unionist; Adam Tomkins, a professor of law at Glasgow University and adviser to the Scottish Tories; Billy Bragg, the singer-songwriter; and Joanna Cherry, the SNP’s prospective parliamentary candidate in Edinburgh South-West, which is held at present by Alistair Darling. Our discussion was given a charge of energy by the release that evening of Michael Ashcroft’s latest poll of Scottish marginals, which suggested that the SNP was poised to win a majority of Scottish seats at Westminster.

There followed over the next few days a series of panicked interventions from Tory grandees, urging Ed Miliband to rule out any post-election pacts with the SNP. This culminated in the poetry-loving Kenneth Baker, an education secretary under Margaret Thatcher, calling for a grand coalition between Labour and the Tories to save the Union. So far, Miliband has refused to be drawn. Why should he be, when a deal with the SNP might offer his best opportunity of becoming prime minister, something he believes is his manifest destiny?

What was fascinating to me about our discussion that evening was how much consensus there was. No one supported the status quo. Everyone agreed that more devolution, even full federalism, was necessary if the UK was to survive. Each of us conceded that there was no demand in England for regional assemblies or an English parliament, not least because Englishness has for so long – too long – been coterminous with Britishness.

The Cambridge historian David Reynolds, author most recently of The Long Shadow, has correctly called the UK a mini-English empire. Yet it is one that is unravelling, undermined by its asymmetries and internal divisions between a wealthy, entrepreneurial south and a more collectivist north.

This much we know: the centre cannot hold, the British state is fractured, the UK remains imperilled, and we are entering a new era of multiparty politics and hung parliaments. Our first-past-the-post voting system, which was supposed to deliver strong and decisive government, seems no longer fit for purpose when Ukip could win 15 per cent of the vote in May but only a handful of seats. Indeed, a sixth of Scots still vote Conservative but the party has only one MP out of the 59 in Scotland; under a proportional system this would translate into as many as ten Scottish seats, an outcome that would weaken the SNP’s claim that David Cameron has no legitimacy north of the border.

Under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP has repositioned itself as Scotland’s authentic left-wing party. Joanna Cherry, who used to be a Labour Party member, said: “Labour put down its left-wing clothes and we were happy to pick them up.”

Yet in recent days London commentators have absurdly dismissed the SNP as nothing but a “receptacle for protest”. Max Hastings, writing in the Daily Mail, denounced Sturgeon, who is a mainstream European social democrat, as “almost Stalinist”, because she supports redistributive taxation and some kind of moderate land reform, long overdue in Scotland as it is in the rest of the UK, where 158,000 families, the so-called cousinhood, own most of our 60 million acres.

In Jim Murphy Scottish Labour finally has a competent leader. He is a good communicator and campaigner, as he showed on his “100 Streets in 100 Days” referendum tour, during which, standing on a soapbox, he addressed crowds and took a fair bit of abuse in return. But Labour’s decline is deep. Murphy has had too little time to win back some of those voters who feel betrayed by a party that was abandoned first by the intelligentsia (writers, artists, academics and commentators) and then by the poorest and most disaffected.

In the late 19th century, after Gladstone converted to home rule for Ireland, the British establishment, harried by a bloc of nearly 100 Irish MPs at Westminster, failed to answer the Irish question. In time, Ireland was lost and civil and guerrilla wars followed because of intransigence and a kind of magisterial imperial disdain.

In May there could be a formidable bloc of SNP MPs at Westminster, somewhere between 25 and 40 of them, the greatest nationalist force at Westminster since the Irish Parliamentary Party entered into coalition with Asquith’s Liberals in 1910. Their presence will ensure that the main Westminster parties honour their pre-referendum “vow” to the Scottish people (which was written by Gordon Brown, it is said) to create one of the world’s most powerful substate legislatures. Yet much more is needed. There has to be a serious regeneration of local government in England, more decentralisation of power and spending of the kind that George Osborne has begun in Manchester, as well as electoral reform.

The Tories claim to have a long-term economic plan. What is required is a long-term constitutional plan, says Adam Tomkins, one that addresses the grievances of all four nations, such as they are. Scots are not suffering from buyer’s remorse. A majority still wish to remain part of the UK, and there will be a second independence referendum in the short term only if Britain votes to leave the EU, which is unlikely.

In The Crisis of the Constitution, an inval­uable new pamphlet published by the Constitution Society, Vernon Bogdanor quotes Disraeli’s dictum that “England is governed not by logic but by parliament”. But parliament, for all its illogicalities, codes and cherished customs, has to give up more powers – or the Union will be no more.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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