Labour and Devolution

Labour and Devolution

Scottish Labour met last weekend, its motion on the Constitutional question welcomes the Brown Commission report entitled, “A New Britain: Renewing our Democracy and Rebuilding our Economy. Report of the Commission on the UK’s Future”, on the UK constitution and wealth, which I reviewed last month. I wanted to write a preview of that debate but as I did my research, my views changed, it took time to come to a conclusion and what I thought I was going to say changed. This has come from rereading the Brown Commission together with the Scottish Parliament’s page on devolved and reserved powers, and the Wikipedia pages on the Calman and Smith commissions.

In my view the motion is confused, fails to define what more powers Scotland should have and its final call to arms, could equally be made in any of the other nations of the UK. Clearly there are some in Labour who believe that the Scotland could come to be satisfied with the status quo; friends of mine suggest this cannot win in Scotland. Those in Labour who disagree clearly think a quiet unionist approach is sufficient and that the anti-tory tide will turn votes towards Labour, even in Scotland.

From my recent reading, I have concluded that if one wants a single labour market, and single monetary & fiscal policies, there’s little more devolve. The Brown Commission came up with the job centres, skills and workers’ rights, the minimum wage and a suggestion that Scotland should adopt directly elected mayors. It’s clear to me that the reason the Commission found difficulty in finding more powers to devolve as its authors are committed to that single labour market and monetary & fiscal policy. While they look at tax raising powers for the Scottish Parliament, they note that these, albeit requiring Treasury permission, have never been requested. If one is committed to these common policies, either on the grounds of a superior welfare economics solution or through political commitment, then there are few powers left to give Scotland with the final say.

If one studies the current settlement and recognises the current lack of further options, then Brown’s proposals for improving the joint consultation and monitoring processes may deliver some benefit, but only if Westminster’s self-entitled and de-jure pre-eminence is undermined. On co-operation, Brown proposes, “A new Council of the Nations and Regions, replacing the present dysfunctional Joint Ministerial Committees, based in statute and with an independent supporting secretariat, to drive joint working.”

So these co-operation/consultation mechanisms exist, but we can see by observing Cameron’s announcement of English Votes for English Laws, May & Johnson’s Sewell Convention busting, failure to effectively consult with Scotland on Brexit and Sunak’s vetoing of the Scottish Parliament’s gender recognition reform that like all UK law, there is no long term certainty as Parliament may not bind itself or its successors. Any proposals on devolution or subsidiarity have to answer the question as to how one entrenches such guarantees within the UK, as parliament as constituted cannot be bound, and any promise given can be revoked.

Fortunately, Brown, makes proposals about removing this overreaching power. His commission proposes that the UK adopt a basic law, in which individual and community rights are established, with constraints on the Government and Commons and that the second chamber be revised to act as guardians of that law, with a right of veto of laws that adversely changed this basic law. It’s clever and needed, the question is whether Labour’s leadership north and south of the border will seek allies and pursue it. Composite 7 at SLP conference doesn’t seem to recognise the opportunity, and I wonder if this is laziness or a lack of commitment. Given what policies the Labour leadership is throwing overboard, I am surprised that Scottish unionism seems to be a red line for them.

In the full blog article, overleaf, there is an analysis of the Brown Commission recommendations for Scotland, and a further analysis of why there’s no more to devolve, and thus why co-operation between Westminster and the nations of the UK is necessary. Use the “Read More” button to view the complete article. …