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14 June 2024

Can Keir Starmer prove the Union works for Scotland?

Labour has made a series of overtures in its manifesto.

By Chris Deerin

With the publication of Labour’s manifesto, Scotland now has a clearer idea of what a change of government at Westminster will mean for Holyrood.

Keir Starmer is promising improved relations between the two parliaments. The SNP and the Conservatives have been at loggerheads – often deliberately – for most of the past 14 years. This has played its part in driving up support for independence and further loosening the weakened bonds of British identity.

Starmer knows that one metric his term in office will be judged on is the re-strengthening of those bonds. He hopes Labour will take office in Edinburgh at the next devolved election in 2026, which would make his task considerably easier, but he can’t rely on that happening. The SNP could win again, stretching their time in government to an extraordinary quarter of a century. Whatever happens, Labour has to find ways to show that the union works to Scotland’s advantage.

If there are no surprise announcements in the manifesto, there are nevertheless some sensible pledges. Labour accuses the Tories of “disrespecting the legitimate role of devolved governments and parliaments”. To remedy this, the party plans a series of dull but potentially important technical changes to smooth tensions. These include a new Council of the Nations and Regions, bringing together the prime minister, the first ministers of Scotland and Wales, the first and deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, and England’s directly elected mayors of combined authorities. If it’s not quite clear what this body will actually do, at least they’ll have a forum in which to talk to one another. There is also a promise that British trade negotiators will work more closely with the devolved administrations, while Holyrood rather than Whitehall will be allowed to decide how to spend the structural funds that have been created since Brexit – addressing a key SNP complaint.

Labour isn’t looking to shift significant new powers to Scotland – there is, for example, no commitment to a distinct Scottish immigration system, or any suggestion of passing on more tax powers. But then, no one expected that, even if these ideas have merit and are worth further debate. Instead, the manifesto says the UK government will support the Scottish administration in partnering with international bodies, such as collaborating with global health initiatives. There is no mention of whether the bossy Conservative policy of having the First Minister babysat by senior UK mandarins when meeting foreign leaders will continue, though Labour insists “the UK Government will retain full responsibility over foreign policy”, so perhaps it will.

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One new power proposed for Edinburgh is the extension of privilege to the Scottish Parliament chamber, as the Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser recently called for, which will give MSPs greater freedom of speech. The Sewel Convention, whereby Westminster seeks to avoid legislating in areas of devolved competence unless Holyrood has agreed in advance, will also be strengthened after various Tory breaches.

None of this will set the heather alight. But a basic minimum for those who wish to keep Britain together is a happier and more respectful relationship between those who run the various parts of the country. The new First Minister, John Swinney, has said he wants to be more collaborative than his predecessors, and time will tell if he means it. However, the SNP will never allow relations to become too warm, and will seek to establish points of difference and moments of outright hostility. How Downing Street responds to these tensions will matter as much as any new bodies it sets up.

The manifesto is not without edge. Labour accuses the Nats, like the Tories, of failing “to uphold the standards expected in public life. The scandals may be different, but the SNP has similarly sought to protect its own at various points, and failed to address the behaviour of its MPs and MSPs, from sexual harassment scandals to accusations of financial mismanagement to defending the inappropriate use of public expenses. The people of Scotland also deserve better from their representatives.” A blow landed – but there may be a hostage to fortune in the follow-up promise of “a reset in our public life; a clean-up that ensures the highest standards of integrity and honesty”. No new government goes for long without attracting its own scandals and misbehaviours, and Starmer’s administration will not buck that trend.

Gordon Brown, in his review of the British constitution for Starmer, had proposed abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with a chamber of the nations and regions. That was always likely to be a bridge too far for the new government – it would take up vast quantities of time, energy and political capital. Instead, it is mentioned as a future aspiration (and will probably stay that way). Instead, hereditary peers will be removed from the Lords, and peers will be required to retire at 80. They will also have to meet a “participation requirement”, and it will be made easier to remove those who find themselves in disgrace.

There is little love for the archaic second chamber in Scotland, with its fierce passion (in theory at least) for meritocracy. The changes proposed for the Lords are, like much of Labour’s manifesto, modest and designed not to scare the horses. But they could make a difference to how Westminster is viewed from north Britain.

As ever, it will be the doing rather than the saying that counts. Many Scots, even unionists, have lost much faith in Westminster and need to see Starmer deliver a real change in both policies and values. This manifesto won’t satisfy indy-hardliners, but then it could never do that. It may not even please the devo-ultras, who want to see a much more significant rebalancing of power from London to Edinburgh. But perhaps, by not over-promising, and instead offering the baby steps contained in this manifesto, Starmer can show that change and improvement is possible.

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