Labour starts its U-turn in Scotland

Henry McLeish was the Labour First Minister of Scotland between 2000 and 2001, but he is now leading a movement to try and get the Labour Party to reverse its position and support fiscal autonomy for Scotland.

Henry McLeish: Scotland needs freedom to run its finances

Former First Minister Henry McLeish has called for Labour to back Scottish financial independence or face political oblivion north of the Border.

   

Labour veteran Henry McLeish said yesterday that complete fiscal freedom from the UK is the only way his party can return to the front foot against the SNP. He has put the case for the sensational policy U-turn to UK Labour leader Ed Miliband and senior Scots MP Jim Murphy and said he is “very optimistic” they will agree.

Mr McLeish, who was First Minister from 2000 to 2001, said the Labour-backed Calman plan to give Holyrood more power was “not sufficient”.

He added: “Fiscal autonomy or devolution max, when Labour gets to that point then we will have a credible alternative to put against independence and there is no doubt it would win the support of the Scottish people in a referendum.”

Scottish Daily Express, 21 August 2011

This is interesting on a number of grounds. First, it is a realization that if the Unionists are to have any hope of defeating the referendum on Scottish independence, it won't be enough to argue that the UK is OK the way it is. The UK is not OK, and any hopes for keeping it together can no longer rest on scare stories about all the horrible things that will happen if Scots dare to vote for independence, but of radically re-inventing the UK so that it goes at least half way towards meeting their desire to take more responsibility for their own affairs.

Second, it is a realization that only Labour can invent a credible alternative to independence. As the article goes on to say:

Mr McLeish also said it would be a mistake to form a “Unionist alliance” with the Conservatives ahead of the SNP’s independence referendum.

That's a statement of the obvious. Put bluntly, it doesn't matter what plans the Tories or the LibDems might have for creating a better UK, because few people in Scotland care two hoots for what either of those parties think. If the three Unionist parties put on a united front, the No to Independence campaign is going to be tainted by the Scottish distrust of the Tories and LibDems ... something that will only grow into contempt—if it hasn't already—as the policy decisions of the ConDem coalition in Westminster really begin to bite deep. For if we think things are bad now, just wait a couple of years to see how much worse things will get.

But there is a third factor, which is particularly relevant to us in Wales. It will not be sufficient to offer the Scots a little bit more of what they already have. Nor will it be a question of just working out a deal between Scotland and Westminster. The problem with the current devolution settlement as it applies to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England is that it is asymmetric and badly thought through ... so making it even more lop-sided is only going to make things worse. A radically different UK requires dealing with the problems of over-centralization as they affect all the peripheral parts of the UK, not just one part.

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What might Labour come up with? I don't want to second-guess that decision, not least because for me and other nationalists the only real answer is independence and anything short of that is just going to be a messy compromise. But if the Labour leadership do embrace this plan—and Henry McLeish is "very optimistic" that they will—they will be very tempted to come up with something that sounds wonderful but actually offers only the minimum that Labour think they can offer in order to keep Scotland as part of the UK. Political principles and short-term electoral politics don't always go hand in hand. The battle will be whether Labour can grasp the first or whether they will settle for the second.

So the touchstone of whether Labour's alternative to independence is serious or not will actually be how it deals not only with Scotland, but with Wales and Northern Ireland too; and specifically whether it will allow the devolved governments of Wales and Northern Ireland the same freedom to run our finances as Scotland's former First Minister is convinced is right for Scotland.

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9 comments:

Siônnyn said...

Only last month John Major, uber-unionist came to the same conclusion. He has the ear of David Cameron, it appears, and his views will certainly be influential in the tory approach to the referendum. It could well be that all the unionists parties will be arguing for 'independence light', which will change the nature of the UK irrevocably and forever.

What is important for Plaid to do now is not prepare itself to fight the battles of the past more effectively, (which is what I am afraid the review is concentrating on) but to position itself to take full advantage of the situation that will obtain in 5 years time.

Of course, the unionist parties also need to cast their minds over correcting the democratic deficit in England, ideally with devolution to their regions and Cornwall. That would leave Westminster a much reduced Federal parliament.

Whatever happens, the times they are a changin'!

glynbeddau said...

The sad death of the Canadian Opposition leader the NDP's Jack Layton reminds us of the difference between his Party and that of Labour here .
The latter should look at how the NDP has responded to the Quebec sovereignty issue but I doubt they ever will.

MH said...

I couldn't agree with you more about the need to focus on the political battles which are coming rather than the ones of the past, Siônnyn. I would hope that Plaid's review team will do that, but my fear is that it won't. I think we've been bounced into a timetable that is too quick, partly to get things sorted before the local elections next May, and partly because IWJ wants to go sooner rather than later. He seems tired.

You're right to point out that Tory Grandees (that's a great word, and one which only seems to fit the Tory party) like John Major and even our own David Melding are coming to realize that the only way of keeping the UK together is to move towards a federal structure. So perhaps it was unfair of me to say that Labour need to "re-invent" the UK. What I should have said is that whatever the Tories come up with, whether brilliant or hopeless, is not going to win Scotland over. Nor will the fact that the LIbDems have consistently advocated a federal UK (though they've never really spelt out the details). The only version that could hope to "sell" as an alternative to independence is going to be the one that Labour come up with, simply because they have more support in Scotland and Wales than either of the other two Unionist parties. The mistake that Unionist politicians are making is to think that the decision involves England, and therefore to frame arguments in terms of what concerns England (and the London based media, both broadcast and print, do exactly the same). Of course people everywhere can have their say in the debate, but the decision rests only with the Scots, and with us in the case of Wales.

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But the main point is not to ignore the significance of this change ... if the Labour Party choose to embrace it, that is, but I think they will. Labour before the 2010 election were, and now the ConDem coalition after them are, seeking to implement a new Scotland Act based more or less on the Calman recommendations. But Calman has already become hopelessly obsolete.

Yet we have the ConDem coalition going through the motions of setting up a similar Calman Cymru for Wales, when the need is to work out a much more radical and comprehensive solution based on what's happening now rather than what was happening a few years ago.

MH said...

Yes, sad to hear about Jack Layton, Glyn. What the NDP achieved in the last election was quite amazing, and seems to show that embracing the demand for more autonomy in a looser federation is better than a stand off in which neither side is prepared to budge an inch.

The question for us is whether Labour in Wales is prepared to measure up to a comprehensive federal structure for the UK. It's worth stressing that Labour has no separate policy making capacity for Wales and Scotland; there is just one, central, Labour party. Carwyn Jones is only the leader of the Labour AM group in the Assembly.

Is he going to be fighting for a place around the table when the Labour party make their decisions. And if he's at the table, will he be fighting for Wales to get the same degree of freedom as Scotland? We will see.

Anonymous said...

The trouble with comparing the situation (and Labour's response) in Scotland with here in Wales is that whereas in Scotland Labour have had to face up that it us the SNP who are their No. 1 rivals in Scotland and need to adjust their viewslpolicies accordingly. Whereas in Wales it's still very much the tory bogeyman that dominates. So here in Wales, Labour much prefers to leave all the real power/resonsibility with Westminster so they can whige endlessly about how poorly we beeing treated and blame all oue woes on westminster hoping to benfit in the next UK general election.
The last thing they want is for any responsibilty to be laid at their door, so its a big no to any further real powers.
DaiTwp

MH said...

It's true that many in the Labour party in Wales don't want devolution to go any further, Dai. It's also true that the last thing Labour want is for people to think of Wales and Scotland in the same breath. But that really doesn't matter if the big picture changes.

The big picture is that if Scotland becomes independent, Labour's chances of forming a government at Westminster become very much more remote. They might be out of power for a generation. So Labour needs its seats in Scotland, for even if it loses some of the 41 it has now the figure will never get to be much less than 35. The simple fact is that the independence referendum matters more to Labour than it does to any other party.

Labour are coming to realize that the UK can't hope to hold onto Scotland by offering them just a bit more. What is needed is radical change, and any radical restructuring of the UK must include Wales, by definition. Because keeping Scotland is so important to them, the needs of the Labour party as a whole will trump whatever their politicians in Wales want.

Of course the wonderful irony is that the more devoutly pro-union politicians in Welsh Labour—the likes of Hain, Murphy and Bryant—are the ones who will be most aware of how important it is to keep Scotland in the UK, precisely because their main interest is being in government at Westminster. If the price of that is a new federal structure in which the Welsh government has to be given more responsibility, they will hold their noses and pay it. For them, politics is simple pragmatism: if you're not in power, you can't do a thing.

Lionel said...

which is why next year's council elections are key to giving Carwyn a kick up the arse, to start earning his money. The best way is to take Carmarthenshire RCT and Ceredigion. Keep Labour out as a majority party in Cardiff, Swansea and Torfaen, hold Gwynedd and Caerphilly and give them a good going over elsewhere

Siônnyn said...

'Grandee' is, as you say. almost exclusively and 'old school' tory idea. I think, however, that Dafydd Elis Thomas likes to think of himself as a Plaid 'Grandee'. Fortunately, it is not an adjective that many members would use to describe him.

In my view, with the Welsh unionists fighting so hard to retain the status quo, Plaid should start NOW to set the scene for the Welsh electorate of what they will be faced with in 5 years time. It is not 'carry on as before' (as the unionists in Wales will portray it).

Something (the UK) IS going to change, whatever happens in Scotland. We have to implant that idea in the electorate NOW.

Wales will have to choose between being re-integrated into England, and further asserting its own identity, demanding at least as much as Scotland has. A marketing campaign, if you like (used to be called propaganda). Seed the idea.

While Carwyn and his 3rd rate team flounder ineffectually, we should be positioning ourselves as the party with a vision for the future. We should be trumpeting the opportunities that lie ahead - while pointing out the dangers of feint heart.

In the forthcoming council elections, our candidates should use the chance to trumpet Plaid's vision, rather than get bogged down in local issues - even if it means losing votes this time.

I don't mean they should ignore local issues , but don't headline them in an attempt to camouflage our commitment to independence ( which has so often been the case in the past, as I know in Swansea). Put them proudly in a context of Plaid national aspirations. It is what the SNP did, and look where it got them in 10 Years!

The old Plaid of tweaking and micro-managing was successful in getting us far further down the road to independence than I ever thought it could, but now it is the time to dump those tactics and be bold.

Welsh Ramblings said...

M H mentions the focus on Westminster, and the British neo-colonial mindset that looms large in sections of the Labour party in Wales. This is important. For them, as British politicians who happen to have constituencies in Wales, Wales is just the regional arena. Those kind of Labour MPs do not necessarily believe a Welsh Minister is that prestigious compared to a UK Minister, whereas nationalists for example believe (despite their unease with the limited devolution project) that Welsh Ministers should have far more influence over Welsh affairs than UK Ministers- Welsh public opinion consistently supports this basic idea. A federal Britain is not as easy a concept for the devo-reluctantists as might be imagined. An actual federal settlement would make the constituent parts proper nations. It would be difficult in that sense for Westminster Ministerial careers to be really pursued from the position of Welsh seats. Not to the extent they used to. We are already seeing moves in this direction. It is not the same as Welsh independence, but legalistically, and psychologically, some kind of new UK is probably a precondition to building the case for Welsh independence.

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