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28 June 2023

How to end the war between Scotland and Westminster

If Labour wants to preserve the Union it must treat Holyrood as an adult partner.

By Chris Deerin

Poor Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby. In the Brexit age, the role of British ambassador to the EU must be almost as tough as the one Ed Miliband held when he was Gordon Brown’s envoy to Tony Blair. Miliband was known in No 10 as “the emissary from Planet F**k”.

Croisdale-Appleby will have to be at his diplomatic best today (28 June) with the thankless task of “babysitting” Scotland’s First Minister Humza Yousaf during his meeting with Maroš Šefčovič, the vice-president of the European Commission. Due to an edict from the Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, Holyrood ministers are banned from discussing the constitution or foreign policy with overseas leaders.

I hold no candle for the SNP in its obsession with dismantling the country, but Cleverly’s diktat is at the crass end of cross-border relations. It’s a juvenile example of the muscular unionism that Westminster is supposed to have jettisoned. It suggests paranoia on the part of the British state, and hardly emanates confidence about the country’s robustness. Far better to let the Nats do what they will – foreign leaders know perfectly well how to play them, and the party is anyway in decline. Let Yousaf talk about independence if he wants – it will be a waste of breath, a display of skewed priorities, and will only show his impotence.

But more than this, Scotland’s First Minister – whoever they are – should be able to talk about whatever they want with whomever they want. As the shadow foreign secretary David Lammy put it in a smart speech to Chatham House in January, “foreign policy has become domestic policy”. Should Yousaf say nothing about Scotland’s trading relations with the continent? Does that count as foreign policy? What about its overwhelming support for Ukraine? Is European and global energy security beyond devolution’s remit, despite the vital role Scotland will play in the renewables revolution? Must Croisdale-Appleby sit with a list of topics that are acceptable and those that are not?

An incoming Labour government might want to have a look at this daftness. It would be something of an easy win among Scots, and a sign of grown-up government, if Cleverly’s rule were immediately and publicly discarded.

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Indeed, how Keir Starmer would treat Scotland from Downing Street is a subject of growing fascination. There clearly isn’t, and nor should there be, any inclination to grant a second referendum – the SNP is anyway increasingly unable to credibly demand one. 

[See also: Why Scottish business is putting its money on Labour]

The focus will obviously be Gordon Brown’s commission on the UK’s constitutional future. One of Brown’s proposals is that Holyrood be given the right to enter international agreements in relation to devolved policy areas. This would be another quick hit that would develop and empower the Scottish Parliament without threatening the Union. But Starmer might be preoccupied with living standards, the NHS and multiple international crises. It’s already been suggested that Brown’s agenda, which includes the planned abolition of the House of Lords, is a second-term aspiration.

Starmer has shown that he understands the need to change the hostile terms of engagement between London and Edinburgh. If he wins the next general election he will have to live with an SNP administration until 2026. But if his party succeeds in office, a devolved Labour government could follow.

He should ponder how he could help enable the latter scenario. One way to boost Scottish Labour, and impress those voters already intrigued by the party’s revival, would be to grow the devolution settlement in organic and sensible ways.

First, Labour should address Scotland’s demographic problem by loosening Whitehall’s grip on immigration policy. The Edinburgh government should at least be given formal involvement in drawing up the government’s shortage occupation list – jobs for which Britain is understaffed. Even better would be the creation of a visa allowing migrants to move specifically to Scotland – regional immigration is hardly uncommon in countries with sub-state legislatures.

Second, Labour should grant Holyrood the ability to borrow in order to better manage its annual revenue spending. The lack of fiscal flexibility in the current settlement has been a problem for consecutive SNP finance ministers, but will be an issue for whichever party controls the budget. It’s perfectly possible to fix this without costing the UK Treasury anything, and to agree rules that ensure careful use of such a power. 

Third, improve and invest in the official channels between London and Edinburgh so that potential conflicts are caught and managed ahead of time. It might suit the SNP to take debates over what is devolved and what is reserved to the Supreme Court, but it’s no way to run a country. The system as it stands is unfit for purpose.

If Labour wants to safeguard the UK’s constitutional integrity it must treat Holyrood as an adult partner rather than a jejune opponent. The attritional warfare between the Tories and the SNP in recent years has been to no one’s advantage – it’s certainly not been to the benefit of the benighted Scottish public. It’s time for the Union to grow up – and ultimately, only Labour can make that happen.

[See also: Will the SNP be swept away by Scottish Labour?]

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