Since he became Labour leader, Scotland has often been a weak spot for Ed Miliband. His decision to turn last year’s Holyrood election into a referendum on the coalition proved disastrous and he was famously unable to name all three of the candidates for the Scottish Labour leadership. But his speech in Glasgow today on Scotland and the Union was one of his most impressive to date.
Buoyed by his victory on Stephen Hester’s bonus (he accused Cameron of failing to act as a “responsible shareholder”), Miliband presented his own brand of social democratic Unionism. The crux of his argument was that “the real divide” in Britain is not between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom but between “the haves and the have-nots.” The task of creating a “more equal, just and fair society” is one best performed by the nations of the UK working together, he said. He spoke of the Scotsman who founded the Labour Party (Keir Hardie), the Englishman who led the “most successful Labour government” in history (Clement Attlee) and the Welshman (Nye Bevan) who founded the NHS.
In his Hugo Young lecture last week, Alex Salmond argued that an independent Scotland could serve as a “progressive beacon” for the rest of the UK but Miliband turned this claim on its head. Scottish secession, he warned, would trigger a “race to the bottom” on bank regulation, wages and conditions at work. For instance, citing the example of Ireland, Salmond has pledged to slash corporation tax should Scotland win fiscal autonomy. Perhaps partly for this reason, Miliband argued for a single-question referendum, excluding the possibility of a “devo max” option. There are some in Labour, citing Donald Dewar’s echoing of devolution as “a process, not an event”, who argue that the party should embrace devolution max, which is favoured by a majority of Scots, as a positive alternative to independence. The danger in leaving devo max off the ballot paper, they note, is that Scottish voters conclude that the only way to win fiscal autonomy is to vote for full independence. But Miliband, like Cameron, seems wedded to the high-risk option of a one-question referendum.