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politics. Scotland. referendum. Alex Salmond. Devolution Max. Labour Tom Harris. Henry McLeish.

Labour has no option but to adopt "devo max".

     Things are stirring in the Scottish Labour undergrowth.  While MP and leadership hopeful, Tom Harris. and the former aide to Tony Blair, John McTernan, continue to insist that Scotland has no future outside the union, and are warning Scots not to get big ideas about going it alone, others are beginning to realise that this is a doomed prospectus.  The former Labour First Minister, Henry McLeish, and Malcolm Chisholm, the only Labour MSP who remained standing in Edinburgh after the May massacre, are urging the party not to fall into the trap being left open for them by Alex Salmond.  Labour cannot afford to back the No campaign in the Scottish independence referendum.  It has no real option but to support “devolution max” or federalism.  Otherwise, Alex Salmond will win even if he loses because the SNP leader has colonised the centre ground.  Alex will be quite happy to accept fiscal autonomy as another giant step towards full independence.  He’s a betting man and he likes an each way punt.  

  The phone rings. It’s the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, wanting to talk about his forthcoming speech in Stirling. It’s a long time since I’ve had a call from this stellar figure in the Labour firmament, even seen by some as a possible future leadership contender. But this isn’t about Ed Miliband, it’s about his unfinished business: Scotland. And he’s serious.

Mr Alexander was the architect of Labour’s most successful Scottish election campaigns and he’s credited with having invented the slogan: Divorce is a Costly Business in 1999. He clearly thinks that politics in his own back yard has been allowed to fall apart while his back has been turned and sounds genuinely upset.  “Labour were gubbed at the Holyrood election” he says – echoing the celebrated “Gubbed in Govan” pamphlet published by neo-nationalist Scottish Labour Action in 1988 after Labour’s defeat in the Govan by-election.

“Gubbed in Govan” urged Labour to start taking home rule seriously and get behind the Scottish Constitutional Convention. Which under Donald Dewar it finally did The SNP lost the plot after 1988 largely because it boycotted devolution as a unionist trap, and allowed Labour to run away with Scottish hearts and minds. The Big Question Alexander addresses is why the party that delivered the Scottish parliament has almost been destroyed by it. Six months on from its worst election defeat in 80 years, Labour is still without a Scottish leader, and the candidates inspire little enthusiasm. Indeed, Douglas Alexander is unprepared, at this stage, to support any of them.

So, if Labour was indeed gubbed in May, is Alexander proposing anything similar the response to Govan 23 years ago? A radical extension of home rule? Well, no. Alexander isn’t ruling out changes to Labour’s line on devolution – but he isn’t ruling anything in either. His analysis is that the SNP got where they are by a: being positive about Scotland, against Labour’s 1980s negativity, and b: being competent in office. Both of these are true. But I’m afraid it will take time for Labour to convince Scottish voters that it has either become more positive or more competent – and time is something Labour doesn’t have. As soon as the new Scottish leader is in place he or she will have to position Labour for the referendum on independence.

Labour cannot afford to go into a Scottish referendum “No” campaign alongside Tories like Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Liberal Democrats like the Treasury Secretary, Danny Alexander. These are the most politically toxic elements in Scottish politics. But as things stand, Labour will have great difficulty avoiding this radioactive alliance. The No campaign, clearly, will be based on the offerings in the UK Coalition’s current Scotland Bill – based on the work of the cross-party Calman Commission in 2009 – which proposes increased tax powers for Holyrood. It was Douglas Alexander’s sister Wendy who set up the Calman Commission and it would be very difficult for Labour to disown it. But I fear they may have to.

Alex Salmond has opened the door by offering a multi-opton referendum including the status quo (Calman); independence lite within the UK; and full independence without it. Labour has to colonise what will be the centre ground if it wants to marginalise the SNP. It can only do this by adopting independence lite – a form of federalism that essentially puts Scotland on the same economic and constitutional footing as states like Quebec in Canada or Catalonia in Spain. Labour has spent so long dissing Quebec as a backward nationalist anachronism that it has failed to notice what an egalitarian and prosperous place it has become. Go compare Glasgow and Montreal today. Universal child care for 7 dollars a day?

There can be no half measures any more. No dodgy divisions of income tax that sound like a post-Barnett fiddle. Professor Calman said that, to ensure accountability and responsibility, a parliament needs to raise what it spends. What’s the point of making Holyrood half responsible and half accountable? Give Holyrood excise duties and sales taxes if it wants them. Even corporation tax if possible within the EU, which it probably isn’t. Sweep away all those petty reserved powers on the Crown Estate, broadcasting, drugs and the like that make it look as if England thinks Scotland cannae be trusted.

Labour should also admit that Scotland is the only country, state, province, region or local authority that has discovered oil and has not directly benefited from it. An apology for that may be in order, given what we know about how Whitehall played dirty over Scotland’s oil in the ’70s. Scotland doesn’t want nuclear weapons and England does – well, it doesn’t take a genius to work out what to do with Trident.

Yes, it is true that lots of Scots are married to English people. But don’t go around talking as if the SNP is going to repatriate English aliens and erect border posts or that an independent Scotland would be thrown out of the EU, because that kind of thinking arouses scorn and derision. Once all that negative baggage is thrown overboard, only then can Labour start refocussing on what the UK is good at.

The UK has been at is best when it has been serious about fighting poverty, disease, ignorance and idleness: creating the welfare state, the NHS, and offering free higher education. Unfortunately, that UK isn’t really on offer at the moment, and New Labour didn’t seem all that keen on it when it was in office. Well, Labour has a chance to reinvent social democracy in Scotland. It can start by not equivocating on things like tuition fees, prescription charges, minimum pricing on alcohol.

The Arc of Insolvency? Labour’s response to the 2008 crisis was to jeer at “wee Scotland” and how it couldnae save its own banks. This was offensive and intellectually disreputable because,as the former Chancellor, Alistair Darling, knew perfectly well, RBS and HBOS had long ago ceased to be Scottish banks – they were UK behemoths and had to be rescued on a UK basis.

    Labour should say this: that Scotland is a nation and should run its own affairs – all of them – except in those areas where UK cooperation is either unavoidable or clearly in the interests of both countries. Finance, currency, foreign affairs, non nuclear defence and social welfare.  Only that will ‘gub the nats’ in 2015. What’s the story? The UK is good for some things – for everything else there’s Holyrood.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


7 thoughts on “Labour has no option but to adopt "devo max".

  1. Iain, you are quite right but will the party do it willingly and collectively? I think it will massively divide the party and help deliver a yes vote to independence. The Lib Dems are the strange ones (for a change!). Offered the chance to advance the case for a constitutional settlement that they believe in to their core, they shy away and kick into long grass, taking negative pot-shots as they retreat. The tories are an irrelevance, whoever wins through as leader. If Labour don't unite behind devo max then it's time to wave cheerio to the Union. I, for one hope that they continue aimlessly sleepwalking into independence!

    Posted by Gav 10 | October 27, 2011, 12:20 am
  2. As for the nonsense that somehow an independent Scotland would alienate families, my aunt lived in Australia. She was still my aunt, didn't make one bit of difference where she lived. These Unionists really should get a grip and stop talking rubbish.

    Posted by Family Friend | October 27, 2011, 10:37 am
  3. Unfortunately I fear Labour are too wedded to their "negative baggage". How can they suddenly now disown it without losing face? Instead they'll carry on peddling the same tired old inanities whenever independence is mentioned.

    Posted by forfar-loon | October 27, 2011, 10:45 am
  4. Great article Iain – shame Labour will not take any notice.Scotland has had its own parliament for 12 years now, and in those 12 years, we have successfully managed to avoid blowing up the country and losing the economy down the back of the settee. It's time to stop with the baby steps and just hand Scotland the keys to its own future. If Labour and co must insist on keeping Scotland wedded to the union, then they must at least back the idea of Scotland becoming as autonomous as possible within that union. Anything else just isn't credible.

    Posted by Doug Daniel | October 27, 2011, 10:55 am
  5. ""Labour has spent so long dissing Quebec as a backward nationalist anachronism that it has failed to notice what an egalitarian and prosperous place it has become.""And not just Quebec. There was Montenegro, Norway, Iceland, Ireland and on and on hardly the way to win friends and influence people is it?As to Mr Alexander, he may be concerned about what is happening in Scotland but NOT so concerned that he would consider coming back here and try for a seat in Holyrood which tells you all you need to now about Labour and its attitude to Scotland.I, for one, am heartily sick fed up of Labour's constant negativity and their wholly manufactured stories and arguments against Independence that would insult the intelligence of a two-year old and their constant accusations of this that and the next thing that NEVER hold up to even cursory scrutiny.

    Posted by CWH | October 27, 2011, 5:15 pm
  6. Ian Gray’s use of his final speech to the Labour Party Conference yesterday does immense damage to hopes for change and adaptation in his Party. It seemingly did not occur to him that this was an opportunity for a more statesmanlike and more meaningful admission of culpability for the self-inflicted mess that Scottish Labour are now in.Instead he played up much of the worst features of the current malaise in the movement. "You will be attacked, you will be smeared, you will be lied about, you will be threatened,""It is no consolation to know that any journalist or commentator who gives you a fair hearing will suffer the same. This is the poison some have brought into our politics and it is vile.”This is little short of paranoia, and a failure to offer a real-world basis for the overdue analysis and progressive politics with which to address contemporary politics in Scotland.Other parts of his talk was about ‘cyber nats’ as though shallow, ignorant and sheer nasty online rants were the exclusively territory of individuals who are (allegedly) ‘Nationalists’. This particular aspect of his talk revealed a failure on the part of the speaker that is shared by many in the movement – a failure to understand and address contemporary Scottish politics that includes the nature of the ‘online’ arena.There are others in the movement in Scotland who could be champions of significant progressive change; those are the ones who display a comprehension of the tribal modes and introspective mindsets that the movement has to discard and move on from.

    Posted by Ted Harvey | October 30, 2011, 2:01 pm
  7. 'Lest We Forget'In a Guardian interview, printed on 22/9/2007, Douglas Alexander,as a cabinet minister in New Labour's adminstration under PM Gordon Brown, made the following assertion:'We have shown we can govern the country' As a close confidant and aide to PM Brown, Alexander would have been well aware of the parlous state of the westminster finances at the time of the interview.With the relationship between income and spending in negative territory, aggravated by a burgeoning trade deficit, the westminster government was,in truth, technically bankrupt.In a later edition of the Guardian Ashley Seager had this to say:'The UK government has allowed the public finances to deteriorate over the past four years by letting spending run ahead of revenues, which means we head into this recession in very bad shape. The next government will have to raise taxes or cut spending, or most likely both!'However 'This stellar figure in the Labour firmament',would prefer not to address the issue of shared culpability for the mis-managment of the UK economy when he was a member of the government.Apologise? Never! Conceding that the minority SNP government was 'competent in office' is welcome but his approval adds but 1 to the overwhelming majority of Scots who on 5th May 2011 gave the incumbent party an overwhelming vote of confidence.Alexander may wish things were as they were, with Labour again the dominant party in Scotland. If so he should demonstrate ambition by aspiring to becoming Scottish labour's new leader and not just be content to carp from the wings.

    Posted by Ian Innes | November 2, 2011, 2:05 pm

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