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Nicola Sturgeon has leverage over Theresa May on Brexit – and she’s threatening to use it

The Scottish Parliament’s relationship with the London mothership has always been testy. Now it is nearing constitutional crisis mode.

From the beginning, the relationship between Holyrood and Westminster has been based on antagonism. The Cabinet Committee set up by Tony Blair to deliver devolution was itself a hostile environment – inevitably so, given its chair, Derry Irvine, had previously run off with the wife of the Scottish Secretary and future first minister, Donald Dewar.

“They hadn’t spoken for 20 years,” New Labour veteran Jack Straw recalled in an interview with Holyrood magazine in 2013. “Derry was almost paralysed from being an active chair.

“Aside from the personal pain which both must have felt, this had a serious political effect too. It was… much harder for the committee to resist Donald’s increasing appetite to shift as much power as he could north of the border.”

Dewar’s significant victory, and one which has dictated Holyrood’s mindset ever since, was to ensure the Scotland Bill defined in detail those issues which would be reserved to Westminster, rather than listing those that would be transferred to Scotland. If it wasn’t listed, it belonged to Holyrood.

Tony Blair admitted that while devolution was “inevitable”, the whole thing, from the English end at least, was done through gritted teeth. As he wrote in his autobiography: “I was never a passionate devolutionist… you can never be sure where nationalist sentiment ends and separatist sentiment begins.”

In its two decades of existence, the Scottish Parliament has only ever enjoyed a testy relationship with the London mothership, regardless of who has been in power in either institution. Labour’s Jack McConnell clashed with Tony Blair’s Cabinet as he tried to show Scots their new gizmo had genuine muscle. Westminster ministers saw McConnell as a cocky upstart and Holyrood as an irritating necessity. When the Scottish National Party took over, those tensions naturally worsened.

This isn’t a bad thing – it’s vital that the nations and regions of the UK stand up to those stuck in the alluring and distorting hall of mirrors that is Westminster. It’s also a natural state of affairs, as can be seen from the growing bolshiness of the new metro mayors towards the centre.

The independence referendum aside, Brexit is proving to be the greatest challenge so far to the UK’s diversifying constitution and the relationships between its discrete parts. Bad faith and mistrust seems to dictate the discussions, and nowhere more so than on the issue of what happens to the powers that will soon be repatriated from the EU to the UK.

For the Scottish Government, run by an independence-supporting party, this provides a number of opportunities: first, to pick a fight with the Tories; second, to make it look like a Westminster power-grab is underway; third, to gain sweeping new powers for Holyrood, and to be seen to have fought for them, and won. Those are the politics, but it’s also true that the Nats – and many Scots, Nat or otherwise – have been consistent on Brexit and Scotland’s interests from the beginning. Not everything is cynical.

The row has intensified this week into something of a stand-off. Nicola Sturgeon is demanding that all 111 powers and responsibilities coming back from Brussels should go to Holyrood. “There is an issue of principle at stake that we won't compromise on because if we did, we would allow Westminster to exercise a power-grab on the responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament and I don't think any First Minister worth their salt should agree to that,” she told Peston on Sunday.

Theresa May’s administration is standing firm, however. It has agreed that 86 powers and responsibilities should go straight to Edinburgh, but wants to hold on to a further 25 until UK-wide frameworks can be agreed. Its concern is that without such binding agreements, the SNP might introduce changes in key areas such as agriculture and fisheries, undermining Britain’s internal market.

It’s possible to see both sides of the argument, of course. But at present Westminster is promising only to “consult” on the frameworks, rather than seek “agreement” with Holyrood. Sturgeon and her ministers, already stung by Scotland being taken out of the EU despite voting overwhelming to remain, worry they will be bullied into a corner, and that May will find ways to keep the new powers in London permanently.

Talks between ministers from the two administrations resume on Thursday. Next week the Joint Ministerial Council meets, which May and Sturgeon both attend. The First Minister has leverage over the Prime Minister – May wants MSPs to give consent to the EU Withdrawal Bill. With the Greens onside, Sturgeon has a majority to withhold consent if she feels Scotland has been ill-treated. This would create something akin to a constitutional crisis.

In the end, my guess is that a deal will be struck and the Bill will be grudgingly approved – Sturgeon, in the end, has usually opted for the responsible position. Before then, however, it suits the SNP that Westminster is seen to be ignoring Scotland’s wishes and disrespecting its devolved government, so gnawing away at the fraying relationship between north and south.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

Photo: Getty
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I'm not going to be General Secretary, but the real fight to change Labour is only just beginning

If Labour gets serious about a new politics, imagine the possibilities.

For a second time, I was longlisted for the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party this week. For a second time, just as in 2011, I was eliminated in the first round. The final shortlist now consists of two veteran trade unionist women leaders, Jennie Formby of the Unite union and Christine Blower - formerly of the National Union of Teachers and the Socialist Party. I met them both yesterday at the interviews; I congratulate them, and look forward to hearing more about their ideas for Labour party renewal.

Last week in both the New Statesman and LabourList, I explained why I thought we needed a General Secretary “for the many”. I set out a manifesto of ideas to turn Labour into a twenty-first century campaigning movement, building on my experience with the Bernie Sanders campaign, Momentum, Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and other networked movements and platforms.

I called for a million-member recruitment drive, and the adoption of the new “big organising” techniques which combine digital and face-to-face campaigns, and have been pioneered by the Sanders movement, Momentum, Macron and the National Nurses Union in America. I set out the case for opening up the party machine in a radical but even-handed way, and shared ideas for building a deeper party democracy.

I noted innovations like the Taiwanese government’s use of online deliberation systems for surfacing differences, building consensus and finding practical policy solutions. Finally, I emphasised the importance of keeping Labour as a broad church, fostering more constructive internal discussions, and turning to face outward to the country. I gladly offer these renewing ideas to the next General Secretary of the party, and would be more than happy to team up with them.

Today I am launching, a new digital democracy platform for the Labour movement. It is inspired by experience from Taiwan, from Barcelona and beyond. The platform invites anyone to respond to others’ views and to add their own; then it starts to paint a visual picture of the different groupings within the movement and the relationships between them.

We have begun by asking a couple of simple questions: “What do we feel about the Labour party and movement? What’s good, and what’s more difficult?” Try it for yourself: the process is swift, fun and fascinating. Within a few days, we should have identified which viewpoints command the greatest support in the movement. We will report back regularly on this to the media.

The Labour movement is over 570,000 members, thousands of elected representatives, a dozen affiliated unions and millions of Labour voters. We may disagree on some things; but hopefully, we agree on far more. Labour Democracy is a new, independent and trustworthy platform for all of us to explore our differences more constructively, build common ground, and share ideas for the future. I believe Labour should be the political wing of the British people, as close to the 99 per cent as possible – and it will ultimately only be what we make of it together.

Yesterday I spoke over Skype with Audrey Tang, the hacker and Sunflower Movement leader who is now Digital Minister of Taiwan. Audrey is a transparent politician, so she has since posted a video of our conversation on YouTube. I recommend watching it if you are at all interested in the future of politics. It concludes with her reflections on my favourite Daoist principle, that true leadership leaves the people knowing that they have made change themselves.  

This General Secretary recruitment process has been troubled by significant irregularities, which I hope the party learns from. The story is considerably more complex and difficult than is generally understood. I have spent considerable time in the last week trying to shine greater light on the process in the media and social media, and encouraging the national executive committee, unions and politicians to run a more open and transparent process. I even started a petition to the NEC Officers group, calling for live-streamed debates among the candidates for this crucial and controversial party management role. I very much hope that there is no legal challenge.

Most importantly, the last week has exposed a significant fault line in Labour between the new left and the old left. When Jon Lansman of Momentum entered the contest against the “coronation candidate” Jennie Formby, many people read this as a fight between two factions of the old left. But Jon’s intent was always to open up a more genuine contest, and to encourage other candidates – particularly women – to come forward. Having played the role only he could play, he eventually withdrew with dignity. His public statements through this process have been reflective of the best of the new politics. And despite our very different political journeys, he kindly agreed to be one of my referees.

There has been plenty of the old transactional machine politics going on behind closed doors in the last couple of weeks. But out in the open, the new left movements and platforms have shown their strength and relevance. Momentum emailed all its members encouraging them to apply for the role. On Facebook Live, YouTube and podcasts like All The Best, the Novara Media network has been thoughtfully anatomising the contest and what it means for the future of the left. Even the controversial Skwawkbox blog finally agreed to cover my candidacy, and we had a constructive row about the leaked memo I wrote for Corbyn’s office back in December about how to win the next election using data, organising and every new tool in the box.

I am worried about the old left, because I feel it is stuck in a bunker, trapped in a paradigm of hierarchical power and control. The new left by contrast understands the power of networks to transform conversations and win hearts and minds.

The old left yanks at levers, and brokers influence through a politics of fear and incentives. But this tired game is of decreasing relevance in this day and age. The new left has the energy, the reach, the culture and the ideas to build a new common sense in this country, and to win decisive victory for Labour and progressives in the next general election – if the old left will partner with it. 

I am keen to help. So are many others. I hope we can start to have a more constructive and equal conversation in Labour soon. Otherwise an exodus may begin before long; and no-one wants that.

Paul Hilder is an expert on new politics and social change. He is a co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of Labour in 2011.