Home Rule proposals are a mistake

OFormer MP Sheila Gilmore, who helped run Labour’s successful campaign in Edinburgh Southern, says the idea of opening a new constitutional debate is a mistake. Labour’s focus should be on using the parliament’s powers.


Did Scotland move past the ‘constitutional question’ in this election?  No.  Does  that mean we should embark on another period of bringing forward yet another set of changes, whether these are called ‘Home Rule’, ‘Devo Max’ or something else? I would argue not.

The eighteen months since the referendum has tended to confirm people in the view they took then.  Those who voted No see economic developments since 2014, including the fall in the oil price, as demonstrating that it was ‘just as well’ Scotland didn’t become independent this year.  However such developments did not appear to change the minds of most of those who voted Yes.  As a result many voters continued, as in 2015, to align with political parties who most closely shared their views on the constitution.   As a recent Ipsos Mori poll explored, policies such as a 1p tax rise were approved by some people in principle, but less so if they were told this was a ‘Labour’ policy.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that independence in the abstract was the reason why the SNP vote remained high.  For many, independence is seen as the means to achieve whatever kind of society or change they want to see.  So continuing to vote SNP is seen as the best route.  For example, we met voters of a left-wing persuasion who liked Labour’s new UK leadership, but this had not persuaded them to vote Labour again.

In the constituencies where I was involved (mainly Edinburgh Southern but also Edinburgh Eastern) some people raised the constitutional question, but mainly to establish where Labour and our candidate stood.  Did we want to see a second referendum? Had Labour gone ‘wobbly’ on independence?  I would say that the majority of these questions came from former ‘No’ voters .  Virtually no one was saying they wanted ‘more powers’ or ‘Devo Max’ or ‘Home Rule’ either explicitly or indirectly.  One of my campaign jobs was to pass all the door-knocking queries to the candidate for a letter or a phone call. A need for yet more powers simply did not figure.

For those who want independence there is no middle ground which is satisfactory.  It is never enough.  And as the SNP has shown, it is reluctant to use what we have already got, in part because it knows that successful use of the additional powers would reduce support for independence. Those who favour independence as the best means to the ends they want may start to ‘peel off’ if these ends can be satisfied in other ways.  In part also, especially during this election, the SNP did not want to face up to the hard questions, especially those on tax, for fear of losing support.

One doorstep discussion during the referendum summed this up for me.  A woman with a young family told me she was thinking of voting ‘Yes’ because she thought there should be more powers. I explained about the new tax varying powers due to come in as a result of the 2012 Act .  “Oh no, I don’t think we should be paying more tax. We pay enough already.” In the SNP fairytale world, powers seem to resemble a pot of gold rather than a series of choices.

In the last 10 years we have been round the ‘more devolution’ course twice, and for the SNP and its more fervent supporters it will never be enough.

In one newspaper article last week an SNP supporter told a journalist that she had watched the parliamentary debates on the most recent Scotland Bill and  had been ‘appalled’ that English MPs had ‘voted to betray Scotland’ at the end of the debate.

Our experience speaking to thousands of voters was that the issues of concern were largely ‘domestic’ – issues about local schools,  about the health service, about lack of GPs, about getting care for the elderly.  For most of the last 9 years the SNP has added its own financial straight jacket to those existing because of having very limited revenue raising tax powers (i.e. the ones in the original settlement), by imposing the highly regressive council tax freeze with as much enthusiasm as George Osborne.  So services are under great pressure and people are noticing. However clearly many voters did not believe that we could make a difference.

What we need to do as an opposition party over the next 5 years is not only hold the SNP to account but also demonstrate with practical proposals how the new powers can be used to improve services.  If the Scottish Government says ‘can’t be done’, we need to be on hand with our suggestions. There needs to be a clear link made between  contribution and outcome. This would apply both at central and local levels. If a council wants to increase council tax , for example, it needs to be specific about the purpose and the intended outcomes so that the electorate can judge its performance.

We have argued for the increased powers now available because we believe that these can help us make real change and improvement in Scotland. Why start arguing now, even before these new powers have been tested, that these are not enough?  That makes it sound as if we don’t really believe our own arguments.  People whose GP surgery has shut down, who are waiting for a social care package, who need child care places and more teachers can’t wait endlessly for the debates about the constitution to start up yet again.

Of course people want to know where we stand – that is still firmly behind remaining part of the UK but in favour of making maximum use of the new powers now.

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14 thoughts on “Home Rule proposals are a mistake

  1. One of your biggest problems in Scotland is that no-one believes that you put the best interests of Scotland before the interests of the Labour party. You just aren’t trusted, especially after your proposals for more powers under the Smith Commission which were demonstrably the weakest of all parties, even the Tories for goodness sake!

    “Those who voted No see economic developments since 2014, including the fall in the oil price, as demonstrating that it was ‘just as well’ Scotland didn’t become independent this year.” and now we see that all the fear pedalled by the Tory/ Labour/ Lib Dem Sleepover turned out to be true but under Westminster control. Pensions, jobs at tax offices, steel plants, north sea, defence industry, military, renewables, currency, tourism,commerce, insurance industry on and on and on. All happening after a NO vote that you assured us would keep all these things safe.

    We didn’t vote for you basically because you lied to us.

    1. Robert, even if any of what you say is true, and it’s mostly not, the same charges could be made of the Tories, and their vote increased.

      To take your main points: Labour made proposals to the Smith commission. They don’t go far enough for you but then, if you’re believe in “independence” they never could. But they’re not lies and not betrayal, unless you really feel the need to be betrayed.

      Project Fear was in fact Project Dead Right. If we had listened to the Nats we would be in queer street with dire consequences for the people of Scotland. I care about that even if you don’t.

      If you really wanted to offset the worst of austerity on pensions, jobs, et al. you would be attacking John Swinney for his cuts (over and above Osborne’s cuts) to local authority funding. These cuts are against the most needy, the disabled, elderly, ill, and the poorest. And if you really wanted to make any inroads into those cuts you would have voted Labour in 2015 and in 2016.

      You believe in “independence” if you want, but please don’t pretend it would help the Scottish people in any material way.

      Which is why the article is correct in essence. Obsessing about the constitution is a distraction from the real problems of our people. And it’s a failure to face those problems that has, until now, been the defining characteristic of the so-called “independence” movement and they have dragged us all down with that obsession.

      It really is time to move on.

      1. Thanks for the civilised reply Alex, that’s appreciated.

        However, when I pointed out that Labours’s proposals for Scotland under the Smith Commission were the weakest of all parties, even the Tories, you defend that by saying they didn’t go far enough for me. That didn’t answer the point at all (and in a most typical politico swervy way too).

        “dire consequences for the people of Scotland. I care about that even if you don’t.”
        Get a grip man, that’s just a cheap insult.

        I do however agree with you that it is time to move on and my worry is that Labour in Scotland isn’t moving on and will be left behind by the electorate as an irrelevance. Labour are staring into the face of oblivion in Scotland and that makes me truly sad.

        Thanks anyway Alex, all the best to you.

  2. Spot on Sheila – this assessment echoes my and many other of our fellow Edinburgh Southern campaign team members’ experience on the doors, at stalls, and on the phones. Likewise this view is shared by a great many people in our business communities and across the cooperative and trade union movements.

  3. “So services are under great pressure and people are noticing. However clearly many voters did not believe that we could make a difference.”

    You can’t, your 1p tax rise was always on the wrong end of the debate despite what the “polls” say, the cuts are a direct result of the Tories cutting the SG DEL by 10% over the past 5 years, a cut that councils have been largely protected from until now. Better Together is coming home to roost and desperately trying to blame it on the SNP won’t cut with the voters you’ve lost.

    “People whose GP surgery has shut down, who are waiting for a social care package, who need child care places and more teachers can’t wait endlessly for the debates about the constitution to start up yet again.”
    Clearly it is not settled as by your own admission and that of other Labour members who are now talking further devolution, it is front and centre, a look at the voting pattern for the new government shows a clear divide along the constitutional question.
    Labour were unclear on this and ceded the “Union Defenders” crown to the Tories in the process, people will remember the ongoing u-turns on this issue and any attempt to take this ground back from the Tories is an uphill struggle.
    Labour ceded the devo-max/independence ground to the SNP and to a lesser extent the Greens and as the face of better together will not soon be trusted on that side either.

    Labour picked a middle road post referendum, and as a result got hit by the traffic on both sides.

  4. I completely agree.

    We have had two Scotland Acts in the last 4 years, and a referendum. The latetst one isn’t even in force yet.

    We just *just* campaigned on opposing more constitutional upheaval.

    Those agitating for yet another constitutional position to be espoused by the leadership perhaps do not give the same weight I do to the following considerations:

    (a) how chaotic that would appear to an already sceptical electorate. Multiply that by a factor of 10 for voters who support the status quo;

    (b) how it would be interpreted by people who voted for our 2016 manifesto less than a week ago. How would we communicate that change in position? We believed in this a week ago and asked you to trust us with your vote, but because we didn’t come second, we don’t believe it anymore and now we are going to advocate a different approach?

    (c) in particular with regards to (b) think how it would affect Iain Gray, Daniel Johnson and Jackie Baillie in their constituencies. From my distant perspective I gather they all communicated unequivocally on the party’s intention to maintain Scotland’s current place in the Union;

    (d) how Scotland could possibly maintain levels of public expenditure under home rule. Whether we succeed at the ballot box or not, we do not (do not) adopt policy positions on a whim which would harm the people we represent;

    (e) people who are voting SNP are not coming back to the party while the focus is on the constitution. Another debate on process does not shift the debate. Advocating our own policy agenda, with our 24 MSPs and one million votes just might. Especially if the SNP needs Tory votes for its budget. It may not work, but it is our best shot. It is also the right thing to do; and

    (f) above all, from the point of view of elevtoral strategy at least, how it would affect the party’s biggest problem with convincing the electorate on anything, not just the constitution. This problem is that many of the electorate are convinced that we are insincere.

    There is plenty constitutional reform to consider…at Westminster. Voting system, a line in the sand convention on devolution voted on across the UK in a referendum, approaching devolution from a UK strategic perspective, not always in response to nationalist agitation, inequality of devolution across NI, Wales and Scotland, the place of the Human Rights Act, the role of the Boundary Commission. Nobody in the labour party (nobody in Scottish politics) is addressing the serioys threat posed to the Union by English, Welsh frustration at Scotland’s relatively generous devolution settlement.

    However, if you open up anotber debate on the constitution, one that presumably precludes independence as an option, the nats will (justifiably) refuse to participate. And we’ll have given them another shiny new grievance.

    Henry McLeish’s suggestion of actively proposing indpendence on a ballot paper again, well, I don’t know what to say. Henry McLeish sounds exactly like an SNP politician these days.

    The short sightedness of the “home rule” proposal depresses me. Reassure me, someone, please, that Kez will see thtough it?

    1. I’m sure Dugdale will keep on the same old path, Hugh.
      Always bringing up the rear.

      And Labour will be back to having the same argument again in a few years time when we slip even further back, as Scottish politics polarises between the SNP and the Tories.

      Being stubborn UK nationalists might shore up the vote in a few constituencies where we can gain tactical votes from Tories, but it doesn’t bring back our heartlands, and it doesn’t mean that Tory supporters will lend us their vote in future general elections.

      A lot of it is about perception. The SNP is seen as supporting the Scottish people by proposing more powers and higher status for the Scottish parliament, and the Labour party is seen as blocking the road.. standing there with a giant STOP sign, whilst letting Tory cars pass on by.

      We need a positive vision to offer on the constitution, or at least an open mind. Instead of telling people to be satisfied with the limited powers they have. At least Henry McLeish seems to recognise that.

      1. If a lot of SNP support is about perception as to the continuing value of the Union to Scotland, perhaps altering that perception should be the priority, rather than distorting ourselves to be viewed more favourably through it.

        The SNP’s independence offering to our “heartlands” is cynical. It is wafer thin. It bears up terribly against the slightest scrutiny.

        The idea that the labour party should try to warp itself to be viewed in the same way our former voters now view the SNP, somehow as “Scotland’s champions” is not thought through.

        We will be percieved as lacking in the SNP’s undoubted sincerity to independence. It will be an easily called bluff, a charade. It is a pointless endeavour.

        A further pursuit of devolution debate also riskd alienating everyone who voted labour last week, many who voted Tory last week, many in England and Wales, and it would weaken something which is of demonstrable value to the people of Scotland…the Union.

        I want us to say that.

  5. Scottish Labour is where it is. Split on the constitution, apparently.
    ALL polling for years has shown Scots want a Parliament will nearly all powers, barring defence and foreign affairs. Labour has a chance to go for that (traditional Home Rule, promised during the referendum), or not.
    Is Scottish Labours future dependent on setting on a constitutional position and sticking to it?
    I don’t know, but I have always thought the Tories blew it when they reneged on their “Declaration of Perth”.
    I don’t think the “new” powers are what is required in Scotland. Too crude and without the ability to grow our economy, which is what we desperately need. In Westminster, direct taxation isn’t even discussed.
    And to propose an increase while most people are struggling with diminished incomes is close to crazy—the IPPR( Labour friendly) stated that incomes had DECLINED by 12% over the last 5 years.
    Did Scottish Labour not also commit to a council tax freeze till 2017? Hasn’t the freeze been fully funded over its period up till this year? Come on Labour, some honesty here!
    As for dodging a bullet by voting NO. Does it never occur to anyone that Scotland missed out on infrastructure and industrial development over the period of oil exploitation?
    A country with a great tradition of engineering discovers a vast oil field on its shores? Yet after 40 years of substantial revenues flowing south, the minute the price drops we are informed the Scotland is bankrupt. Something wrong with this picture? Well, Norway gave ITS industry time to gear up, Scotland was simply bypassed in the rush for revenue.
    I don’t blame the Tories for closing down industry here. We know what they are and as Cameron clearly intimated, he has no interest in Scotland.
    But Scottish Labour did very little to revive those areas which had lost industrial employment when they had power, in both Scotland and the UK. They ignored their supposed heartlands—so why are they now pondering their lost votes? 2+2 make 4!
    Scottish Labour needs to wake up, and enter the real world. Its close to being too late.
    People wont vote for a Party just to supply lobby fodder for Westminster.

    1. The argument about de-industrialisation is familiar; labour made it consistently throughout the 80’s and 90’s.

      The argument about an oil fund is more recent. There were precious few mentions prior to circa 2013. Kevin Hague has studied this. Someone agitating for independence based on Norway’s oil fund would, in order to be credible, have to explain what public spending we should have done without in Scotland between 1980 and now. I am also unsure why we should consider the clock to start ticking in 1980 for the purposes of assessing the constitutional question, and not 1945, when we saw the NHS designed, or the 60’s, which saw slum clearances and huge investment in public housing. All before oil.

      The price dropping is also only one factor in diminished revenues, the volatility of which are the real issue with a prospectus for funding public services when those revenues are 17% of the public purse.

      The argument that the Union generally has failed Scotland’s economy ignores the reality that our onshore GDP per capita, and tax take per capita, are broadly similar to rUK over the past 30 years.

      Where Scotland’s “bankruptcy” (your word) comes from is our far higher public spend as a %age of GDP. It is hard to craft an argument the criticises the Union for that. Absent the Union, not only would we have to figure that out ourselves, we’d witness a circa £8billion withdrawal from the economy in the form of public sector salaries and revenue/capital expenditure. It would be a painful adjustment on current figures.

      Your criticism of the devolution settlement sounds hollow to me. Other taxes being devolved either undermine the fabric of the Union in which we voted to remain (varying corporation tax rates possibly leading to capital flight) or are incapable of being set at different rates within the same member state of the EU (VAT).

      In any event, we have to survey the political landscape as it is; our space on this constitutional terrain is very small, but other terrain is incredibly hostile. Labour just campaigned on staying in the Union. It emphasised (correctly in my view) the transformational potential of the tax setting powers of the new Parliament. We were honest about the choices we face in regard to the public services we wish to see, and how they require to be funded. Council tax freeze, by the way, was not fully funded for any year after 2007. It was also funded by diverting resources from elsewhere. Labour proposed a commission on the CT freeze, and universal benefits, in 2012 under Joann Lamont. The SNP derided it as a “cuts commission” and refused to participate. There is an evidence base that these policies are regressive, transferring resource from poor to rich.

      “We support the Scotland Act 2015 settlement, we want to get on with the job” is the only credible message to the electorate labour can make on the constitutional question. A lot of people just voted for that message. If it weren’t so confused, in my opinion a few more might have voted for it too. Plenty of voters are weary of the reactive, never ending debate about devolution. We owe it to the people who voted labour to be true to our word and focus on the current powers, as Sheila says.

      Chasing yesnpers by promising Home rule would be to tilt at windmills. I suspect, for instance, that you are disinclined to vote labour. It would risk alienating the people who just voted for us. It would appear desperate, opportunistic, chaotic and insincere.

      Moreover, if it came to pass, it would actually be harmful for Scotland. See above.

      This isn’t the debate labour wants to have. It damages us, clearly. Our opponents both know they need the Labour Party laid low to achieve their various ambitions. Keeping the debate on the consituation helps them do that. However, as the economy improves, and the potential of the new parliament begins to permeate the public consciousness, perhaps the constitutional question will retreat to the firmly marginal position it has historically enjoyed. If it does not, we are done anyway. The current political debate cripples us. But if it does, Labour needs to have consistently and confidently stuck to the same message it put forward in the last election campaign. I genuinely think if we go soft on the Union, and legitimise an endless debate on devolution by re-visiting our policy position, we will be completely done within 5 years. I for one would likely leave the party, and I really do not want to do that.

      I just hope Kezia’s sticks with it.

      1. thanks for your reply, Hugh. A few points.
        Yes Labour raised deindustrialisation in the 80’s and 90’s, but only to attack the Tories. You did little or nothing to reindustrialise the areas which lost industry. I worked underground in Ayrshires last two pits—I would estimate 12,000 direct and indirect jobs lost there. There were also many factory closures at the same time in Cumnock, New Cumnock, Auchinleck etc–a semi rural area with few job prospects, and one associated with Keir Hardie and had a Labour MP for a century.
        No Jobs? Nope, but George Foulkes got a Peerage, any idea why?
        Oil fund. I can recall economists discussing the very idea in the 70’s and advising that Scotland would need to off-shore much of the revenue to prevent currency inflation—a problem we never had to worry our pretty little heads about as all the money flowed south. Scotland was repeatedly told the oil would run out “tomorrow”.
        Why do you think it a good election gimmick to raise taxes in an economically depressed society? I truly don’t get where your ideas are coming from. Grow the economy and raise more taxes that way. Oh, of course THAT extra money would flow south, and we would only get 9% return( actually less because Barnett accounts for 60% of the economy)
        If we had followed Norway’s path, and utilised Scottish industry to exploit the N Sea, we would not have worried about a deficit in the 80’s. As it was Scotland provided more tax per capita all throughout the oil years. And if our on-shore per capita GDP is similar to a UK per capita GDP, it does away with the argument we cannot fund ourselves.
        As for our higher public expenditure, you must realise the figure consistently used is that of 60% of public spending. The other 40% does Scotland no favours, so I’m very sure your £8 billion is not a true sum. “Bankrupt”
        ? Its not my term, but has come from the Unionist media, politicians and pundits. Gloatingly, I might add.
        As for the rest, if Labour is happy as it is, then go ahead with your ostrich meme. Your irrelevance and decline is not imagined and ignoring it wont make it go away.
        I left the Scottish Labour Party some time ago, and while I wish you well, Keir Hardie would shake his head at your antics.

        1. To be honest Gavin I am pretty confident in the 8bn figure. It is a Scottish Government figure. Whatever the arguments of the past, it is a present reality. With oil revenues not predicted to rebound anywhere near 2011 levels any time soon, that is a problem that yes campaigners are going to have to confront. Personally, I think it is insurmountable, and I suspect Nicola Sturgeon agrees with me.

          In the context of a debate on how the labour party should position itsrlf on the constitution, the SNP’s likely timidity for the forseable future maybe leaves a door open for labour. Independence has only been a 45% issue for 2 years, before that it was 25-30% for generations. I suspect much of the 45% harbour something approaching hatred for the labour party. They are not voters we should be chasing; strategically it is lose-lose.

          Maybe the 45% is entrenched. If it is, we are gubbed. We just won’t attract votes from among that constituency by promising home rule. We don’t support the end of the Union, which is what they want. The Union provides benefits to Scotland which are readily identifiable in the country’s balance sheet. I would reccomend chokkablog to anyone who wants to understand the figures. Popular or not for the party to point that out to former voters, it is a fact. A fact explained not by Scotland’s desperate economic performance within the Union, but explained almost entirely by our generous public spend per capita. I find it difficult to criticise the curent constitutional arrangements for that fact.

          Our only hope is that the 45% is not entrenched. If voters start to peel away, if the focus on the constitution begins to weary voters (and there are signs that it is starting to), labour needs to have a solid, long established and in my view credible policy offering on the bread and butter issues. Tax, spend, the possibility offered by the 2015 Scotland Act. You may disagree with 1p on the basic rate. Fair enough, but it should not be surprising to hear labour politicians proposing modest changes to taxation to protect public services. It is also popular with the electorate, albeit as long as the labour badge is removed!!

          More flip-flopping on the Union, I’m convinced, will fail to turn the heads of the 45 at all. If that support is entrenched, well, we are gubbed. No matter what we do. We have to hope people are willing, at some stage in the future, to listen to the party’s version of devolution and what it offers.

          This isn’t head in the sand. I am well aware of the position the party finds itsrlf in. Any attempt to play the nationalist card will be trumped by the folk that actually believe that message.


  6. Scots no longer hate or are angry with Labour for joining the Tories in Better Together. Scots have moved on and now consider the party to be irrelevant.

  7. Would the honest solution to this issue not be for a breakaway independent labour party to split and support independence? Scottish Labour could remain supporting the union and take a more centrist, Blairite path to try and rebuild for the next Holyrood election whilst a new and independent labour party would find itself unencumbered by the ‘toxic’ brand and could position itself left of the SNP?

    You would then have a situation where a future Yes vote in an independence referendum would be partly down to labour and they would have a good shout at capitalising on that win and forming part of a unity government.

    It goes without saying that devo-max or home-rule or whatever is a complete non-starter as anyone who watched the Scotland Bill debate and votes on the SNP amendments will testify. Whether it is the preferred desire of the Scottish people is irrelevant as the decisions are made down south and Westminster have made it crystal clear we will get what we are given.

    Tactically Scottish Labour find it outflanked by the tories and the SNP and there has been much discussion about how to somehow cope with this issue and fend off terminal decline. This may be a route to turn this disadvantage into an advantage and capitalise on all of those traditional labour unionist voters and reluctant tory voters, whilst giving an outlet in Scotland to those who want a centre-left alternative to the SNP.

    You are staring at the SNP on 59 constituency seats in Holyrood and if you do not want to bite a chunk off that just crack on but I think tactically this makes sense. One day I might even find myself voting labour.

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