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  1. Election 2024
14 March 2017

We need a new constitutional settlement – and not just for the Scots

Our centralising state has failed many communities across our country. We need a new constitutional settlement, not a divorce.

By Jim McMahon Jim McMahon

The mood of our country following the Brexit vote is gloomy, aside perhaps from those impatient to leave the European Union. Not only is there a complete absence of vision for what Britain’s place in the world will be, but our domestic foundations are being put under immense pressure too. Yet at a time when our country needs a United Kingdom more than ever, Nicola Sturgeon wants to break it up.

The harsh reality is that we’ve lost focus on what it means to be part of the United Kingdom – or, more importantly, what it feels like to have a stake in the political decisions that affect our lives more than we realise. While much of the attention is on the process, terms and cost of Brexit, there is a complete absence of a compelling new settlement to address the underlying reasons why many voted to leave. Though for some it was as simple as leaving what they considered to be an overbearing bureaucracy, for many it was wanting to feel some power and influence over their lives.

The emerging conclusion is that many who voted for Brexit did so because the political status quo is simply not working for them – and that it shows no signs of improving in the future.

But the chaos and uncertainty that has followed has created an opportunity ripe to be exploited. This is the excuse the SNP has been looking for.

In September 2014, 85 per cent of the Scottish public headed to the polling stations to decide if they wanted to remain in or leave the United Kingdom. After more than two years of intense campaigning and heartfelt pleas, more than two million people in Scotland – a clear majority – voted to remain part of the UK.

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I’m pleased voters in Scotland supported remaining in a stronger United Kingdom. But like many across the Union I am concerned that as it stands we seem neither stronger nor united. That isn’t a reason to throw even more uncertainty into that already toxic mix, but to take a collective responsibility to get through what will be a difficult decade ahead. A Union is a union through thick and thin; not just for the good times, but when the difficult times come as well.

But that doesn’t mean people in Scotland, or for that matter, anyone else in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, should accept the “like it or lump it” deal arrogantly offered by the Tories and our unelected Prime Minister. They are not a government that weclomes the scrutiny that is essential for good governance. Nor do they believe in being inclusive, or putting our national interests above narrow party interests.  

We should look at the way the debate has moved in Ireland, where people on both sides of the border are expressing concerns about future stability in the area.

None of us, in whatever nation we live in, should accept what has gone before. Nor should we blindly follow a vision of what is being offered for the future. But if the debate over this parliament is about the breakup of the United Kingdom, folk in England will rightly feel aggrieved. Many of us in England see plenty of talk of devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but we are waiting for a compelling vision for England.

We all see the real disconnect between people and the tools of government exists in every part of England, including many communities in London too.

Our centralising state has failed many communities across our country, and the loud and clear cry to “take back control” must be heard. But this needs to be genuine control, not just the tired old machinery of Westminster and Whitehall recreated in our home nations.

We need a new constitutional settlement, not a divorce. We need a relationship of equals, where we provide fair funding to deliver decent and well-resourced public services. We need freedoms devolved to drive sustained economic and inclusive growth.

We must also drive fiscal freedoms; because power without hands on the purse strings isn’t power at all. We must rewire who governs who, and on whose behalf.

To allow any of that to happen the government or the official opposition must not be dragged into another politically driven call to break up the United Kingdom. It risks all of our future. But it must not ignore calls for change either.

The English public hasn’t significantly changed its position on support for constitutional change at a national level. The last British Attitudes Survey still showed support for a UK parliament (50 per cent) above regional devolution (23 per cent) or an English parliament (20 per cent). But perhaps that misjudges how the question is received by the public, who may well be hearing a different question: “Do you want even more politicians?”

We don’t need to throw all our cards in the air in any part of the country and start again. We already have the democracy, economic and public service infrastructure in place with our established local government network. They are efficient, accountable and flexible – exactly what’s needed to rest a future settlement on. But we must ensure that power genuinely passes beyond the town hall too. This will be giving real power and influence to the public, and we must ensure it rests on firm foundations of fair funding.

The SNP hasn’t changed its view that Scotland should be independent, but all of us in the United Kingdom have a right to call for stability in these deeply uncertain times. Using the EU referendum as a hook to justify another ‘once in a lifetime’ referendum on Scottish independence is cynical and opportunist.

For better or for worse, in good times and in bad, we are one United Kingdom. Let’s work together to demand a new settlement for all of us.

Jim McMahon is the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton.

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