Gordon Brown's backseat driving won't depose the SNP
If the next election plays out as today’s polls suggest, Sir Keir Starmer will get a comfortable majority no matter what happens in Scotland. But his party’s long-term future — and that of the United Kingdom — depends on reviving Labour’s fortunes north of the border. With this in mind, Starmer has been in Scotland this week on something of a charm offensive.
The Opposition is best placed to benefit from the slow-motion collapse of the Scottish National Party — not least because Tory voters tend to be the most prepared to switch to whichever Unionist candidate is best placed to oust the local Scottish nationalist. More often than not, that’s a Labour politician.
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Yet any revival will pose its own hard questions for Starmer about the future of his party and the Union. This was recently illustrated when Michael Shanks, the Labour candidate in the upcoming Rutherglen & Hamilton West by-election, publicly disavowed his leader’s position on gender reform, as well as the two-child benefit limit.
Starmer, with an eye on the national picture (and, on gender, perhaps Scottish public opinion too) has refused to promise to overturn either the benefit restriction or Alister Jack’s veto of Nicola Sturgeon’s controversial Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill.
Shanks says the dispute simply shows the “maturity of devolution”. But it also highlights the dangerous — though common — tendency for devolved politicians to avoid, wherever possible, the hard work of defending national institutions to their own voters.
Scottish MPs should of course be advocates for Scotland in their parties and in Parliament. But they ought, if they represent a pro-Union party, to also be advocates for their party and the UK in Scotland.
Too many neglect this second responsibility, and the problem is especially acute within Labour. Read the paeans to the interconnectedness of our country from MPs opposing English Votes for English Laws, for example, then look in vain for similar arguments during debates on the many Scotland and Wales acts.
Our institutions also reflect this one-sided, New Labour vision of devolution. The Barnett formula distributes cash around the UK without any British oversight of how it gets spent; powers are devolved without any enforceable responsibility to deliver.
This attitude is taken to its apogee in Gordon Brown’s proposals for constitutional reform — formally sponsored by the Labour Party — which would entrench entitlements to money and autonomy so deeply that even an elected British government could not easily challenge them.
Such an approach might buy off the separatists, year on year. It might even stave off independence, at the price of Scotland and the rest of the UK becoming largely separate societies which politely ignore each other, à la English Canada and Quebec.
But it’s a poor vision of solidarity. And, intriguingly, there are some signs that Starmer understands this. The main policy he highlights in his article yesterday for the Scotsman is Labour’s plan to establish GB Energy, a nationalised clean energy provider “run for the British people”.
In that context, his caution on Section 35 (which Jack used to block the GRR Bill) makes sense. The Equality Act 2010 is a Labour accomplishment — so why would a Labour leader not want an equal, nationwide framework for upholding its provisions?
Brown’s proposals are also unlikely to be taken forward, at least in their full-fat form, with the Shadow Cabinet reportedly almost uniformly cold on his grandiose attempt to double down on his original vision.
But shaking off the influence of New Labour’s guilty men on his party’s constitutional thinking isn’t enough. Starmer needs something to replace it, a vision for the Union in which money and power come with accountability, and solidarity flows in both directions.
That means ensuring not just that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are heard at Westminster, but also that the British Government is heard in those nations too.