Since all the Labour leadership candidates are English, it is perhaps inevitable that they might stumble over the Scottish question. But as Boris Johnson issues a bald “no” to Nicola Sturgeon’s request for a second referendum, there has to be a better answer.
The reality is that Scotland, and Northern Ireland, voted to remain in the EU. Brexit is unquestionably a constitutional question – it strips UK citizens of rights they’ve enjoyed for over 45 years, for one thing.
Labour’s constitutional problem over recent decades is that it has largely been dragged to a position of constitutional reform more by a fear of nationalist uprising than a clear and coherent advocacy of constitutional reform. New Labour’s constitutional modernisations of 1997 to 2010, including devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, the Good Friday Agreement, the Human Rights Act, Freedom of Information and the Supreme Court, were radical and important, but they did not amount to a thorough overhaul of the UK’s creaking constitution.
The last 20 years of constitutional reforms have been a history of adhocracy. After the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, as a minister in a Labour government in Wales, I watched as Labour colleagues in Westminster – sitting in opposition – signed up to constitutional and taxation reforms for Scotland without discussion with the one Labour government in office. I still have the angry texts I exchanged with UK Labour shadow cabinet members and former ministers. A former No 10 insider tried to reassure me that keeping National Insurance as a UK-wide levy meant we were keeping a fund that underpinned the pooling of risk and redistribution across the UK. Quoting Aneurin Bevan, I texted “but there ain’t no fund”. He replied: “That comrade, is the beauty.”
Post-Brexit, adhocracy won’t work. It is hard to argue that Brexit is not a material change to the UK constitutional settlement. Being seen to side with Boris Johnson in a straightforward negative response to the SNP is not a sufficient response. Nor, bluntly, is a response born of unionist panic.
But there is a straightforward answer available. It recognises the significant change that Brexit represents, but instead of addressing the issue as one of the Scottish government vs the UK government, it recognises the need for a radical re-examination of the UK constitution. The answer to “‘what would you say to the demand from an SNP government for another referendum on independence?” should be this: “We can’t settle the constitutional future of the UK in an ad-hoc manner. We need a comprehensive review of the UK constitution, which looks at relations between the nations and regions of the UK, the role of the central state, the future of the House of Lords, and wider devolution all round. A radical re-shaping of the UK constitution could allow greater autonomy for the UK nations. Any discussions on a further independence referendum should follow those discussions, not precede them.”
In the short-term, this might not be popular in Scotland. But long-term it is a feasible approach and the SNP knows that a revitalised radical unionism that addresses the current imbalances in a considered and ordered way is a realistic challenge to its independence option. There are detailed and feasible proposals available from organisations like the cross-party Constitutional Reform Group.
It’s a long time since there was a popular radical campaign for constitutional change across the UK. The People’s Vote campaign, had it not collapsed for reasons well understood by the readers of the New Statesman, could have morphed into a campaign for constitutional reform. The ability to get a million people on the streets has not been replicated by any recent constitutional reform campaign, such as Charter ‘88.
Constitutional reform may not be the priority issue for voters at the present time. But strategically, it is a no-brainer and could sit well alongside the other proposals currently emerging from Labour leadership candidates. It also has the benefit of providing further reasons for attracting liberal-minded anti-Brexit voters and activists from other parties.
In any case, the Johnson government has some clear proposals emerging, driven in part by the Policy Exchange think-tank, for a “Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission” of its own, heralded in the Queen’s Speech. If Policy Exchange gets its way, the commission will be led by people committed to “a shared appreciation of the UK’s traditional constitution”. This amounts to the re-establishment of the Westminster Model, a narrow and unnuanced parliamentary sovereignty, and the diminution of the role of the Supreme Court. Is Labour simply going to respond to that with a re-assertion of the 1997-2010 settlement? That seems unlikely – and would certainly be counter-productive. It’s time for a new agenda.
Leighton Andrew is a professor at Cardiff Business School and a former Labour Welsh Assembly member