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Leader: Brexit, Ireland, Scotland and the Union

Devolution has proved an incomplete solution to the disunities of the UK. Now, we must ask: can the Union survive Brexit?

The ties binding the nations of the United Kingdom have long been fraying. Where once the Irish Question dominated our political discourse, today the Scottish Question threatens to destroy the UK’s fragile unity. The pressure for Scottish independence pre-dated the vote for Brexit, but while England and Wales voted to leave the EU, the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain.

Theresa May’s self-declared mission is to deliver Brexit (in accordance with the majority view) and also to maintain the Union. Yet the former task risks undermining the latter. When a majority of Scots voted to remain in the UK in September 2014, David Cameron had already promised to hold a vote on Britain’s membership of the EU. Yet he made this pledge in the belief that he would win the referendum. Indeed, Scots were told that opposing independence was the only sure way to guarantee their nation’s future in the EU. Now that this falsehood has been exposed, they are entitled to revisit their decision in a second referendum.

Before Mrs May’s Lancaster House speech on 17 January, Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, said that her ultimate goal of independence could be “put aside” if a “soft Brexit” were pursued. A red line for her would be the UK’s withdrawal from the EU’s single market. The Prime Minister has confirmed that Britain will leave the single market and perhaps also the customs union. The onus is now on Ms Sturgeon to act or stop endlessly threatening to hold a referendum and accept that Scotland remains part of the UK, as the Supreme Court reminded her in its ruling this week.

In her speech, Mrs May vowed to ensure that as the “right powers are returned to Westminster” the “right powers are passed to the devolved administrations”. Like Mr Cameron in 2012, she is attempting to call the nationalists’ bluff. Though the Scottish National Party rushed to reopen the possibility of a second independence referendum, it has been careful not to commit to one. There has been no spike in support for independence. The collapse in the price of oil, the SNP’s failure to answer the currency question, concern about a hard border between England and Scotland and economic uncertainty have all weakened the case for separation.

It does not follow, however, that the backing for the break-up of the UK will remain unchanged. In 2014, the unionist side won by making the economic case against independence. During the 2014 referendum campaign, unionists could also point to the possibility of Labour returning to power at Westminster (potentially even in alliance with the SNP). Yet the Conservatives’ double-digit national poll lead suggests that Labour, which has collapsed in Scotland, could be out of power until 2030 or beyond, by which time the British state may not even exist.

After 62 per cent of Scots voted to remain in the EU, the Nationalists could frame an independence referendum as a vote to rejoin the bloc and preserve European citizenship for all Scots. Though it is doubtful that Scotland could simply inherit the UK’s membership – not least given secessionist pressures in Spain – the EU may well welcome a new member state as Donald Trump and others predict its demise.

Besides reviving the Scottish Question, Brexit has thrown Northern Ireland’s future into doubt. The Republic of Ireland’s continued membership of the EU raises the spectre of a hard border between the north and south on the island. The UK and Irish governments alike have dismissed this prospect, but Mrs May has conceded that, at the very least, customs controls on the island of Ireland are likely to return.

Devolution has proved an incomplete solution to the dis­unities of the UK. While we acknowledge the frustration of all those who voted Remain, in Scotland especially, we have not given up on the UK. Yet the status quo is not good enough. A new constitutional settlement and the creation of a fully federal state are necessary if the UK is to survive.

England’s political and demographic dominance has long stoked nationalist ambitions. It now threatens to remove Scotland and Northern Ireland from the EU against the will of the majority. The Union survived the partition of Ireland, two world wars, the demise of the British empire and the rise of Thatcherism. It may not survive Brexit.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West

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Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

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