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22 February 2023

How to remake the Union

The path is open to Labour, the founding party of devolution, to offer a reconfigured United Kingdom.

By New Statesman

For nearly a decade the UK has existed in a state of constitutional limbo. Rather than settling the Scottish Question, the 2014 independence referendum merely intensified it as Scotland’s politics became polarised along nationalist and unionist lines.

It was only two years ago that the SNP won a fourth consecutive term in office – a feat that would have astonished the founders of devolution. But Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation as first minister on 15 February confirmed that her party’s forward march has finally been halted.

Ever since the 2014 referendum, the dream of a second vote had bound the disparate nationalist coalition together. When in November last year, the UK Supreme Court affirmed that the Scottish Parliament has no right to hold one, Ms Sturgeon floundered. She proposed treating the next general election as a “de facto referendum” – an incoherent stance that split the SNP. This left Ms Sturgeon with little political capital as the Gender Recognition (Scotland) Bill divided her party and country. Her resignation was an admission that her project had failed.

But it was always a mistake to treat Scottish independence as inevitable. More significant than Westminster’s implacability has been the ambiguity Scotland’s voters have shown towards the policy. Outside of the Covid-19 crisis, the Yes campaign has never enjoyed a sustained poll lead. Rather than independence or traditional unionism, Scotland’s electorate appeared to settle for the halfway house of an SNP-led Scottish parliament.

Ms Sturgeon’s party differentiated itself from Westminster by pursuing a form of social-democratic welfarism: free university education, free adult social care, free NHS Scotland prescriptions and a more progressive tax system. But it never grappled with the fundamentals of independence, most obviously Scotland’s currency of choice.

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[See also: Three cheers for Nicola Sturgeon for knowing when to walk away]

Though Brexit strengthened the political case for separation – 62 per cent of Scots backed Remain – it presented grave policy challenges. Should Scotland seek to rejoin the European Union, as the SNP intends, it would face a hard border with the rest of the UK, with which it does three times as much trade as with the EU.

More recently, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine exposed the risks of the SNP’s anti-Trident stance. Some of the states that Scotland aspires to emulate, Sweden and Finland, are now in the process of joining Nato – an alliance unlikely to welcome Scottish unilateralism. The independence project, in short, has collided with geopolitical and economic reality.

But it is delusional to believe, as some Conservatives do, that the unionist status quo can be restored. ­Scotland’s desire for greater autonomy, if not full ­independence, will endure. Westminster should respond, as we have long argued, by forging a new federal settlement. As Andrew Marr argues on page 18, this means devolving more powers and more funding: “Until we get away from the greedy stockpiling of power in London, tensions across Britain will never be resolved.” The House of Lords should be replaced by an elected senate of the nations and regions.

A new constitutional settlement must be accompanied by mutual civic respect. Boris Johnson and Liz Truss helped fuel nationalism by treating Scotland with contempt. But it will do the SNP no good to take the credit for Scotland’s successes and blame Westminster for its failures. People living in Scotland deserve better from both governments.

After Ms Sturgeon’s fall, the rickety British state may have been given yet another reprieve. But it is not an unconditional one.

The UK is a country with deep economic and social problems. British living standards have fallen far behind those of its competitors and the UK is now the only G7 country whose GDP has not returned to its pre-pandemic size. Rishi Sunak’s politically exhausted Conservatives offer no prospect of renewal, merely more drift. As rebel Tories seek to thwart a settlement with the EU over Northern Ireland, they only further imperil the UK.

The path is open, then, to Labour, the founding party of devolution, to offer a reconfigured Union. Having been punished for treating Scotland as a fiefdom, Labour must now recognise its legitimate grievances. Nationalism, as parties on both sides of the border have demonstrated, remains one of the most potent political forces. Should Westminster fall short, the SNP will surely rise again.

Read more:

Nicola Sturgeon is the author of her own misfortune

Kate Forbes emerges as early favourite for SNP leadership

What is the most important lesson from Nicola Sturgeon’s time in power?

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This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon