Mark Lazarowicz, past MP and former chair of the Scottish Labour Party, argues that a policy of confederalism, or ‘Home Rule’, should be the party’s answer to the constitutional question in the 2021 election.

The Scottish Government has recently made it clear that it will be seeking a mandate at next year’s Scottish Parliament elections to hold a referendum on independence. That is hardly a surprise, but it confirms that the “constitutional question” of Scotland’s future relationship with the UK is likely to be the dominant topic in those elections. Like it or not, that means the Labour Party will also have set out its view on that question in that election.

Some in Scottish Labour would rather that the elections were about “bread and butter issues”  – the economy, the record of the Scottish Government, and Labour’s policies, rather than constitutional issues. Their answer to questions about the constitution is that these are a distraction from the “real issues”. Those with that attitude believe that devolution has gone far enough (some think it has gone too far) and the substantial changes made by the Scotland Act in 2016 following the referendum should be the end of the story.

The problem with that approach is that there is no reason at all to believe that it will be successful. There cannot be many voters who are unaware that the SNP wants independence, and a new independence referendum in the next Parliament, yet still the opinion polls indicate (in increasing numbers), that a large number, now a majority of the electorate, actually find the constitutional issue important.

That’s why many voices in Scottish Labour recognise that the issue of the future Scotland-rest of UK relationship has to be addressed by the party. But most of those have also generally accepted that Labour cannot just stand by the status quo and that it must instead come up with a new approach to the constitution if it is to have any chance of recovering its position in Scotland.

The suggestions for change vary. Most tend to call for “federalism”, but it is obvious that term is used to describe a wide range of options. For some, it means a few more powers for the devolved Parliament and administrations, and some strengthened regional government with England (perhaps directly elected, perhaps appointed by local government). For others, it means federalism in the true sense of the word, which I would consider means directly elected legislatures with accountable government in all nations of the UK, exercising powers which are enshrined in law, but still subject to a UK-wide federal government.

For others, “federalism” for the UK means much more – something which should in fact be better described as “confederalism”, where the UK is transformed into a union of sovereign nations, with constitutional arrangements which recognises that sovereignty remains with those constituent nations, but which agree that certain powers should be exercised by a central authority and legislature for as long as they wish to that to be done. Such an arrangement, of course, is one that the UK has become used to over the last 45 years as it is very much the constitutional basis under which it has participated in the EU. Interestingly, such a confederal – or as I would also call it, a partnership – union seems now to have much stronger support from Welsh Labour than Scottish Labour, even though Wales and Welsh Labour was historically the more “devo-sceptic” of the two. There has, though, also been a consistent strand of support within Scottish Labour for a more radical approach of this nature. It is certainly one which I share.

All these proposals tend to share one feature, however, namely the view that new constitutional arrangements are something that have to be taken forward on a UK wide level. That is also my view, but with an important qualification. I still believe that the interconnections – economic, fiscal, and social–between Scotland and the rest of the UK are so close, complex and interrelated that it would be best for those to maintained in a manner which is closer than would be the case if Scotland and the rest of the UK were separate states. I also think that it requires a giant triumph of optimism over reality to assume that a good relationship with the rest of the UK after independence could be easily worked out and agreed. The experience of the last few years, particularly the Brexit negotiations, does not give one much confidence in the competence and good faith of the British state if it was required to enter into negotiations into such questions; or, of course, that it is even prepared to countenance Scottish independence.

But there is a problem. And that is the brutal fact that the Labour Party has been talking about “UK-wide” constitutional arrangements for a very long time. There are good reasons, of course, why the initial impetus to change slowed down after the establishment of devolution for Scotland and Wales, and the reestablishment of devolved arrangements in Northern Ireland. Not least of these reasons is the fact that there is nothing like a consensus within England whether there should be devolution, whether it should be to be the whole nations or different regions, what their respective powers would be, how they would be financed, or indeed their very boundaries. It is not unfair to say that constitutional reform is not at the top of the UK Labour’s agenda at the moment – hardly surprising, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis and a pending ‘No-deal’ (or at best a minimal deal) for future UK-EU relationships).

For Scottish Labour, however, the clock is ticking towards Scottish Parliament elections in 2021. If, as I believe, it needs to have a clear policy for those elections on future Scotland-UK relations in those elections, then the promise that “at some stage, in the next few years, there may be a Labour government which will set up a Constitutional Convention which, after a few years, may come up with proposals” is hardly a proposition which will excite the voters.

So I suggest that while there does need to be a fundamental reform in the constitutional arrangements across the UK, Scottish and UK Labour also needs, now, to commit itself to changes for Scotland which would truly bring about ‘home rule’ for Scotland, as was promised by Keir Hardie, at Labour’s very beginning, and endorsed by Gordon Brown after the 2014 referendum. What ‘home rule’ means is something on which there is no unanimity either, of course, but if the political will is there, Scottish Labour could agree its policy within the next few months and UK Labour could commit itself to support and push for that policy at UK level. That does not need to wait for cross-party, cross-nation and regional arrangements for the entire UK which would take years or decades come to fruition (although obviously if Welsh Labour wanted to support such a radical extension of devolution, there is no reason why it should not do that). In due course, when and if there is a consensus on UK-wide constitutional change, new arrangements can incorporate a home rule Scotland, but home rule for Scotland should not wait, or be dependent upon that.

As I say, what ‘home rule’ means for Scotland is something for debate. For me it would include as an essential step a reform to the current Scotland Act so that it would no longer be possible for the UK Parliament to legislate outside reserved matters, instead of the present situation where the UK government and Parliament can always, in the last resort, overrule the Scottish Government and Parliament on devolved matters. I will not, in this article today, suggest a particular list of options for the transfer of powers, except to say that there should be an extensive transfer of existing reserved powers to the Scottish Parliament. The basic approach that should be applied is to my mind clear, however. Scottish Labour needs to recommit itself to the fundamental principle agreed across the party, including by every Labour MP except one, when it signed up to the plans of the Scottish Constitutional Convention almost 25 years ago – the principle that everything should be devolved unless there is a good reason for it to be reserved, and that should be the basis for deciding what powers Labour believes should be exercised by a real ‘home rule’ Scottish Parliament.

I can’t promise that if Scottish Labour Party goes into next year’s elections with this approach its political fortunes would be transformed overnight. But bluntly, it could hardly make things any worse. And maybe many voters would be attracted to an option which still has substantial positive support in its own right, but is also an option which would probably be acceptable to many supporters and opponents of independence, even if it was not their preference. That gives the possibility of it being a consensus position with as much substantial support as the Scottish Parliament received in the 1997 referendum, which could provide stability for the long term. At the very least, presenting a policy package combining real home rule for Scotland in its own right, and a longer term commitment to the UK becoming a partnership union, would show that Scottish Labour was prepared to contribute constructively to the debate about the future relationship of Scotland with the rest of the UK, rather than being perceived as the junior partner to the Tories in a hard-line unionist front. Ending up instead in that latter position, and for good measure throw in a bit of kamikaze in-fighting just before the elections, and Scottish Labour might find itself dropping into single figures in the poll percentages next year.

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24 thoughts on “Federalism is not enough

  1. A good article but too late as the Scottish elections are 8 months away. The reality is that Labour needs to revisit its line on a second independence referendum if it wants to be taken seriously. Arguing against another referendum even if pro-independence MSPs win a majority next May is both undemocratic and damaging to Labour’s standing. Labour should allow its MSPs and party members a free vote on the constitutional question and the ability to be either for or against independence if it comes to a referendum.

  2. This is a good article showing some strategic thinking, which is something that has been generally lacking in Scottish Labour.

    The only major issue it omits is Brexit. For me to go back to Labour I would need some commitment to at least partially reverse Brexit. Realistically this would have to mean something along the lines of the Norway option, which was of cause what was promised by many Leave campaigners in the first place. A full restoration of the UK’s position in the EU could then happen in the decades to come.

    Home Rule plus EU Single Market membership would be a pretty attractive combination to me at least.

  3. What a pity (for Scottish Labour) that this proposition wasn’t adopted before the 2014 referendum ( or even after it), as it has merit and constitutional heft.
    Alas, Labour has made clear its opposition to anything with constitutional merit, or even common sense. Every MSP and its solitary MP have rubbished any attempt to advance “Home Rule, and too embarrassed to admit fault, will assert “principle” as an excuse to stonewall, and just say NO, like Scottish Gaulists.
    And——-
    Who would believe a change of heart, with the same actors on board?
    Who would believe in “entrenched powers”, where Westminster “sovereignty” is as Holy Writ..
    If the constitution is the focus of the May election(and things might change), then Labour look doomed. With a small civil war ongoing, doubly doomed.
    Mark Lazarowisc is an old head and worthy of respect. A time when Scottish Labour still had people with independent minds–and lots of useless drones with closed minds.

    Perhaps that’s the solution. Start a new party (Scottish Labour 3) with people carrying no baggage; people who believe in, and would fight for, the Claim of Right; people who believe in, and would fight for, Home Rule.

  4. Mark,
    Anna is correct.
    What you are proposing is, to all extent and purposes, the same as Gordon Brown’s empty promise of ”as close to home rule” back in 2014. Calling it the first step to confederalism doesn’t make it more credible. You cannot implement it even if Labour wins the Holyrood poll next year. You still have to await the outcome of the next Westminster election; pray that KS wins; and further pray he regards your proposal as a priority. I suspect in that unlikely scenario of two such Labour victories, he will think the ”Scottish” issue is sorted, and therefore park it. Lets be honest, there is little credibility in the argument that Labour is interested in constitutional change – where is the evidence?
    The Scots simply wont swallow it – neither as a valid proposal nor as a serious strategy to make Labour in Scotland relevant again……just as Brown’s vow sank like a lead balloon as soon as the electorate recognised that it couldn’t be implemented.
    I am afraid you come across as twisting and turning and wearing blinkers in an effort to avoid the patently obvious – the Holyrood vote next May is about whether the people of Scotland should have a referendum on its constitutional future. You cannot out-Tory the Tories in staunchly opposing such a democratic event.
    Take Anna’s advice.

    PS. Looking as though you have no faith in the possibility of forming a social democratic/socialist government in an ambitious, independent Scotland – or indeed would ever want to when that situation is achieved – says much about the depths into which Labour has sunk. If you do not change course, Labour will be regarded with contempt for decades to come as the party that preferred this country to be held in the less-than-tender mercies of the Tories rather than being able to chart its own course.

  5. The time has come for there to be a separate Scottish Labour Party that is fully independent from the current British Labour Party (Scotland branch) that actually, misleadingly, calls itself the Scottish Labour Party. People like Mark Lazarowicz would be ideal to help guide such a party over the next few years.

  6. Mark it’s too late in the day for UK constitutional change talks, ideas and policies because in the next Scottish Elections the SNP will certainly stand on a manifesto for an IndyRef2 and if they win a majority there will be an IndyRef2 so for all Scot’s regardless of political allegiances it will be either a yes or no vote for Scottish Independence.

  7. A good article.
    The trouble with all this is its far too late.
    If Scots are to believe a word of it then they require a firm commitment to a fully formed constitutional offer from Labour.
    That’s never going to happen.
    Just take a look at the previous article on ‘Federalism’ on this website to reveal the true motivations of many within Labour who believe constitutional issues are an irrelevance.
    Scots will consider either Independence against the Tory power grab when casting their vote next year.
    A vote for Labour is increasingly an irrelevance.

  8. Christ almighty when is Labour in Scotland going to get it, none of your federalism , homerule , red-toryism load of bolloxs is going to work. Your support is dropping at every election and you have only ONE MP in Westminster representing Scotland, ONE only.

    Your only way out is Scottish independence and for your party to commit to it, you have nothing else left. No-one believes any of that federal, homerule nonsense, us Scots can see right through that rubbish.

    The numbers do not lie, so stop deluding yourselfs, it’s independence or down the pan for labour.

  9. If the UK had existed as a single state beneficial to all within it there would be no argument from anyone in Scotland about Independence, but the UK has never operated like that in any shape or form, it has operated as a London centric dictatorship drawing assets and finance to its central core of London and this has been done by both major British political parties, in short Scotland has been more than short changed and has indeed been completely shafted by successive *English Nationalist* governments that Scotland has never had a direct influence in voting for since 1955

    Both *British* political parties have in the past been well aware they do not require Scotlands votes to form a government of the UK, so the Labour party now only seem to recognise that in their desperation for votes to outweigh the Tories in England they scramble around making offers of anything they can think of to convince Scotland that all will be well if we just wait for Labour to win in England with Scotlands help that crumbs will find their way to Scotlands table, honest and double honest we really mean it this time

    If Labour as a political party wish to continue to exist in Scotland in any form the programme is simple, reflect the democratic will of the people of Scotland to make their sovereign choices, do it not and Labour will cease to exist in any form in Scotland, the 2021 Scottish election will see the demise of the Labour party in Scotland and it should be remembered the only reason on the face of this earth that a Conservative presence still exists in Scotland is purely and simply down to sectarianism which was the sole reason for the soon to be Baroness Davidson’s small increase in success and not as Westminster reports, her political acumen, she merely punched the air a lot and shouted no surrender, and that’s the same politics as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump but thankfully most folk in Scotland are just not that stupid

  10. The author wasn’t to know that the day after publishing this article, the UK government was to announce a roll-back of devolution including anything to do with sale of goods, professional qualifications, infrastructure, education, and cultural or sporting activities.

    The replacement for the EU Structural Funds are now to be entirely controlled by the UK government with no local say whatsoever.

    It’s quite shocking and of course in complete contradiction to what Vote Leave promised Scottish voters at the referendum.

  11. Mark Lazarowicz. Like the purser on the Titanic. Still in his little office, still counting his tickets.

  12. I welcome a voice in Scottish Labour that acknowledges the wish of so many of the electorate for whom the constitutional question is foremost.

    More problematic is the proposed pace of proceeding. Others here have pointed out that there isn’t the time. The available choice to move further towards home rule is to support indyref2. Scottish Labour is moving towards irrelevance unless it engages urgently with the changes is needs internally and in the constitutional issue. This article helpfully opens up the constitutional question and so is a good start.

  13. Mark Lazarowicz wrote:
    “But most of those have also generally accepted that Labour cannot just stand by the status quo and that it must instead come up with a new approach to the constitution if it is to have any chance of recovering its position in Scotland”.

    Labour’s only chance of recovering its position in Scotland is to realise the UK and the status quo are a lost cause and embrace independence with a view to forming the first govt of an independent Scotland. The Tories have got the “Union” vote wrapped up while vast numbers of “Labour” supporters are already in the SNP/Indy camp.

    Labour are currently on about a third of their former vote, almost half of whom support Indy. Of the two thirds they have lost, the overwhelming majority are already voting for SNP/Indy. When will the penny drop for “Scottish Labour” (sic) that their “natural base” wants independence and if they want to be relevant again they’ll need to acknowledge and act on that. Footering with Federalism/Confederalism/Home Rule is not going to cut through to an electorate that is already gearing up for indyref2.

  14. I don’t expect to see this comment published, Duncan doesn’t like to see discussion about The Scottish Labour Party and its recent decline. But here goes any way.
    The fact that Labour people don’t want to talk about it is interesting in itself. Take the last few articles on Labourhame. This one, about the constitution. 7 September – the national care service. 24 August – Stand up for Hong Kong. 10 August another one about the constitution. 6 August – the economy.
    Scottish Labour is about to ditch another leader. How many leaders has Scottish Labour had in the last 6 years. Its a pub quiz question now. 10 points if you can name them. Labour has one MP. Labour came fifth in last years EU elections. Fifth.
    And yet, not a word about why Labour got to where it is. Its weird. The magnitude of denial is staggering to witness. Its comical from the outside looking in. It must be terrible for the life long supporters to experience.
    I have my own thoughts on this but like any good analyst that is not going to help the Scottish Labour Party. Its for Scottish Labour to say where it went wrong. Its only after, what will be, a long and difficult self analysis that Labour has any chance of understanding where it went wrong and therefore how it can make progress and win back support.
    Maybe it doesn’t want too. Maybe those left in the Scottish Labour Party aren’t interested any longer in government? I heard or read sometime ago, don’t know if it is true or not, (so ‘allegedly’) Ian Murray say “it was worth it” . ‘It’ being the damage inflicted on Scottish Labour in ‘saving the union’ back in 2014.
    If that is so, and the consensus within Scottish Labour is that Better Together was a good thing then Scottish Labour has to have that conversation and then say it to the Scottish people. That way it will at least have a chance of winning back some of the unionist vote.
    Until Scottish Labour has that talk to itself the downfall will continue.
    Good luck the next leader. You’ll need it.

  15. A thought provoking article . However it is often international issues which move people towards taking up an Indy position . I think considerable numbers of people sympathise with Devo max for Scottish Parliament – but the lack of a say on decisions about going to war or on the removal of nuclear weapons causes problems for supporting that position .

  16. A word on Sir Keir Starmer. A bit of an enigma: what does he actually stand for? He stood alongside Corbyn, silent while the media/Red Tories ripped him to shreds, then stepped into his shoes. Wont commit to anything of consequence, and on Brexit he stays quiet, though we know he is against free movement and accepts Brexit will now happen. He seems perfectly content for Boris to destroy his own credibility—though he is wrecking he country in the process. Absent from parliament, during this serious Withdrawal Bill debate? How convenient. Milliband showed just how wide open the goalmouth is, but Boris just splayed out on the benches, showing smirking indifference—-then disappeared.

    Starmer was in favour of a second EU referendum while hypocritically opposing a second Scottish referendum (which has a far better electoral mandate), and oddly claims “no one in Labour want Scottish independence”. Up to 40% of Scottish Labour supporters DO want independence, which is why Scottish labour are in a terminal decline—in the face of such political lightweights as Davidson, Carlaw and Ross..

    Go for indyref2, accept the result, and move on.

      1. Thanks Gavin did anyone notice the demolition job Ed Miliband did on our PM and Angela Raynor followed up at PMQS

  17. Good to see the self chosen self destruction is proceeding apace.
    Could not happen to a more deserving shower of incompetent, muddle-headed, wrong-headed dross.

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