Independence is off the agenda and “independence-lite” is simply Home Rule by another name, writes ANDREW McFADYEN


“Sovereignty lies with the people”, not with any government or party. That was the founding principle of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. It implied that change could be built from the bottom up without having to wait for the election of a sympathetic government at Westminster.Just over a year into the Conservative-led coalition at Westminster, Scotland’s elected representatives need to consider carefully what those words mean.

David Cameron’s administration is pushing through the biggest cuts in public spending since the Second World War. In Scotland, this means that the number of teachers in our classrooms will continue to fall and standards of care in the NHS will come under increasing pressure as spending fails to keep pace with inflation.

Public sector employment in Scotland fell by 2 per cent last year, as 11,600 jobs were axed. The next set of figures may well show a dramatic spike upwards and the number of redundancies we can expect to see in local authorities is scary.

The Ernst & Young Scottish Item Club’s recent report predicts that the squeeze will continue until 2015. By then Scotland will probably employ 80,000 fewer people in the public sector compared to its peak in 2008. There is little that the Scottish Government can do about this because their budget is tied to the decisions taken by the Treasury for other Whitehall departments.

In these circumstances, social democratic politicians of all parties need to start making the case for a different kind of Union. Mr Cameron’s Conservatives are looking pretty tarnished by the hacking scandal, but his brand of politics has have never carried support in Scotland. In the recent Inverclyde by-election, both coalition parties lost ground, achieving just over 12 per cent of the vote between them. The message from the electorate is that they want border posts at Carlisle for Tory policies. Devolution is a process, not an event, and now is the right time to press the accelerator.

Wendy Alexander deserves enormous credit for establishing the Calman Commission, but Scottish Labour should revisit its conclusions in the light of recent experience. For example, Calman took the view that common standards of social security were part of the social citizenship of the UK. This case is strongest when it is made for universal benefits like child benefit and old age pensions. However, it assumes that governments in Westminster and Holyrood have the same approach.

When Chancellor George Osborne decided to remove child benefit from higher-rate taxpayers he melted some of the glue that holds Britain together. The government’s approach to social security is likely to reveal even wider divisions. Labour politicians should have the confidence to argue that they can do a better job in the Scottish Parliament.

Housing benefit is the most obvious example of a benefit that should be devolved.

Glasgow’s Govanhill is seeing a return to scenes of poverty associated with slum housing in the 1960s. The area has been dubbed “Govanhell” by concerned residents and contains some of the worst housing conditions in the UK. Unscrupulous private landlords are crowding tenants into dirty and often unsafe tenement housing. Evidence has been uncovered of flats infested with cockroaches, common closes penetrated with damp and loose bannisters posing an unacceptable risk to young children. One way to deal with this problem is to hit rogue landlords in the pocket by refusing to pay housing benefit to anyone who doesn’t maintain their property to a decent standard. Despite the fact that housing is a devolved issue, the Scottish Government doesn’t have the power to do this.

Scottish Labour should also be arguing for the Scottish Parliament to have much greater control over its own income than was proposed by Calman.

The shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, has repeatedly accused the coalition of risking the economic recovery by pushing through cuts that are too deep.

If Scottish Labour believes this then why not argue for the powers to take different decisions north of the Border? Taxes, including alcohol duty, fuel duty, corporation tax and revenues from the Crown Estate, should all be devolved to Edinburgh. The current lack of financial responsibility encourages a culture of gripe and grievance and prevents Scotland from having a serious, grown-up debate about policy.

It’s easy for the First Minister to complain about the high price of petrol when he doesn’t set the prices. Would he really be so keen to cut fuel duty if he had to cope with the multi-million pound hole it would leave in his budget? And what about corporation tax? Would the SNP really be willing to push through even deeper cuts in essential services like health and education to provide the Royal Bank of Scotland with a multi-million pound boost to its profits?

Even if you believe the Reaganite argument that lowering taxes would attract new companies and generate additional growth in the economy, it would take years to replace the lost revenue.

Giving the Scottish Government power to take these decisions would call Alex Salmond’s bluff. In fact, if Scottish Labour could only see it, the SNP have come on to their territory. Most Nationalists no longer argue for a classic nation state, in which Scotland would have its own army and currency. They sensibly want to retain the jobs created by military bases in Scotland and Scottish bank notes will continue to be denominated in pounds.

Full independence is off the agenda and “independence light” is simply home rule by another name.

There is now a broad Scottish consensus, shared by most members of the SNP and Scottish Labour, that Holyrood should be the centre of Scotland’s political life. But we want to have our cake and eat it.

Unlike Alex Salmond, it has never been my ambition to take tea with Prince Charles at Balmoral, but I do take pride in some of the world-class institutions that Britain has created and the values that they represent.

The BBC still produces some of the best television programmes and news coverage anywhere in the world and the NHS makes my heart swell. Its founder Nye Bevan came from the Welsh valleys. He said: “No society can legitimately call itself civilized if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.”.

He is just as much a hero to the Scottish Labour movement as Clydeside radicals like Jimmy Maxton or Tom Johnston and the values he articulated are part of our common heritage.

The actions of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in inviting private companies to bid for NHS services show that they have both different politics and a different idea of what it means to be British.

In order to be true to itself, Scottish Labour needs to make it clear that it will have nothing to do with any pan-unionist alliance or joint referendum campaign with the Conservatives.

Sharing a platform with Tory politicians, who are still seen by large sections of the electorate as anti-Scottish, would also do terminal damage to Labour’s own reputation in the run-up to the next Holyrood election.

The real danger is not that Scots vote for independence, but that a negative scaremongering campaign reinforces the caricature of Scottish Labour as a party that has run out of ideas.

Instead, the referendum should be grasped as a positive opportunity for Labour to change Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK and reassert its own identity as the party of progressive home rule.

Andrew McFadyen is a former senior media adviser to the Scottish Labour Party. He is writing a PhD thesis on the creation of the Scottish Parliament. This article was first published in The Scotsman.

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17 thoughts on “Time for Labour to take sides

  1. Ed balls threatens the recovery (a misnomer of a word giving our growth is comparable with Greece) but I can’t imagine him as chancellor. His barely concealed glee at the political capital of a floundering economy is distasteful at best. And his bully boy approach to ministerial duties (as in everything) has set the deficit reduction programme back by the best part of 2 million quid in the last few days with the shoe smith ruling

  2. You are actually arguing for independence.

    As a side note – one perhaps minor but specific point. The situation in Govanhill is mainly down to the remarkable concentration of Roma people – by far the biggest Roma population in the UK – and the incredible level of overcrowding – twenty, thirty people living in one or two bedrooom flats. I am not being racist before anyone jumps on me from a height – pretty much everyone will tell you the same thing.

    The solution is not to cut off housing benefit therefore because they don’t claiim it and are not entitled to it – as far as I am aware they are in the position of having no recourse to public funds in terms of the benefit system. Rather, we should be changing the rules so they ARE allowed to claim housing benefit as that might be the only thing that could break the gangmasters grip.

    Oxfam did a good report on the situation which you can google.

    A horrendous situation has been allowed to develop in Govanhill, this is true, but in fairness to the various council and other agencies which have been involved in trying to deal with the problems they were dealing with a completely unprecedented situation. What I am hearing now is that progress is beginning to be made with the Council and the Scottish Government working together which is good news.

    1. First, I am arguing for home rule – not independence.

      I believe that Scotland benefits from sharing a common currency with the rest of the UK and – whilst I strongly oppose nuclear weapons – I don’t want to set up a separate army.

      If you don’t have your own currency and your own army you can exercise considerable autonomy, but in classical terms you are not independent.

      The interesting thing is that mainstream opinion in the SNP also seems to be rejecting full independence.

      On Govanhill, most of the Roma come from EU countries. My reading of the Oxfam report was that those in employment are entitled ‘in-work benefits’ including housing benefit and child benefit — although it is true that those who work illegally will not receive this and are much more vulnerable to exploitation.

      I accept that there are complicated issues to work through – not least the lack of good quality social housing – but slum landlords should not be growing rich on public money.

      1. Firstly on the benefits thing – the DWP will only pay benefits if people from A8 countries have been resident for 52 weeks doing authorised work. It would be very difficult for Roma people to prove that because there is a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing – they are not necessarily here for 52 weeks on the trot. So effectively they are excluded from housing benefit and, unless they are permanently settled, from social housing. And while there are undoubtably slum landlords in Govanhill there are also decent landlords who let out a flat in good faith to a family of 6 and thereafter another 12 people move in. There has been a special unit set up in the Council funded by the SG to crack down on the rogue landlords but we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking they are all rogue. Part of the problem is that it is difficult to find grounds to take away a landlord’s license for running an unlicensed HMO if the people living there claim they are all related. There are arguments for changing the law on HMOs so properties are not exempt if the inhabitants are all related but that could cause problems for large families, so it’s not that straightforward.

        Regarding the independence issue – if having your own currency is a requirement of independence then most European countries are not independent. So that is not really an issue. It may be that in the “classic” 18th century definition of independence an independent currency is required but we are not living in the 18th century, we are living in 21st century Europe and that is the context within which Scottish independence must be understood.

  3. I’m not convinced by all this “standing up for Scotland, wrap yourself in the flag” stuff. For a start, the SNP is definitely not “standing up for Scotland”, they are manufacturing conflict (Supreme Court BOO!) and then turning it into newspaper headlines. Scotland, meanwhile, is no better off.

    I joined Labour because I wanted to make the people of Scotland and everywhere else in the country, better off in some tangible way…. Better education and more schools and teachers and better health and more hospitals and doctors and housing and roads and jobs and wages and infrastructure….

    None of these things requires “independence” or “more devolution” to deliver them – we did them all when we were in power.

    In fact, the SNP hasn’t delivered on any of them. In four years in power they spent all of it arguing about PFI and none of it funding new schools, there are fewer teachers and doctors than there were before they took power….

    I think the distinction between “Scotland” and “the people of Scotland” is the real difference between us and them. We care about the people, they care about abstracts like the constitution and a well-nursed sense of grievance.

    That’s whee we should concentrate our efforts….

  4. Housing Benefit is administered by Glasgow City Council, they have every right not to pay slum landlords & they don’t. These houses in Govanhill are all illegal houses in multiple occupation. The gang masters are not being paid in housing benefit.

  5. It’s not just in Govanhill incidentally, you can find houses in multiple occupation (illegal ones which are not licensed) in other areas of the city housing Poles & Chinese people amongst others.

    They are a fire hazard never mind anything else, rows of mattresses in a room. God knows what would happen if one caught fire.

    The problem is with the courts. When they have fined the owners, when they can be caught, the fines have been derisory.

    Personally I think it needs new legislation, & I don’t say that very often.

  6. I agree about the case for new powers but within the union. It is right that the Scottish Parliament is more finacially accountable and Labour should consider a few extra powers which do not damage the union.

    I do think the SNP’s corporation tax demand is a bit of a gimmick though but there needs to be some intellectual soul searching about how to be more creative on the issue of the economy than this.

    I’m not totally convinced that nationality/the Scottish nation state was necessarily a big factor in the SNP’s victory though so Labour should not get distracted here, it would be barking up the wrong tree.

  7. I agree about the case for new powers but within the union. It is right that the Scottish Parliament is more finacially accountable and Labour should consider a few extra powers which do not damage the union.

    I do think the SNP’s corporation tax demand is a bit of a gimmick though but there needs to be some intellectual soul searching about how to be more creative on the issue of the economy than this.

    I’m not totally convinced that nationality/the Scottish nation state was necessarily a big factor in the SNP’s victory though so Labour should not get distracted here, it would be barking up the wrong tree.

  8. As someone who studied Irish & Commonwealth history for a while at university the term ‘Home Rule’ to me does not mean devolution max or independence light. Nor would it have meant those things to Kier Hardy. Home Rule simply means dominion status within the commonwealth. To be a dominion is to be like Australia & Canada and I think you’d be hard pressed to argue they weren’t independent…

    1. When I use the term ‘home rule’ I mean ‘self-government’.

      Whilst there are some areas – such as monetary policy and defence – where I believe that Scotland benefits from sharing sovereignty with the rest of the UK, most of the decisions that affect daily life should be taken in Edinburgh, or at a more local level still.

      Personally, I dislike the term devolution (whether ‘max’ or otherwise) because of its associations with the 1970s and the implication that power is somehow handed down from Westminster. As I say in the article, the founding principle of the Scottish Constitutional Convention was that sovereignty lies with the people.

      1. We do not “share” sovereignty with Westminster. Westminster devolves power in certain defined areas to the Scottish Parliament but still remains sovereign.

        If you dislike the idea of Westminster handing down power to Scotland then you dislike devolution and you should vote for independence.

        In an independent Scotland the Scottish Parliament would be sovereign – and could then share soverignty with the UK parliament in areas where that was agreed.

        Personally I would be very much against agreeing to share sovereignty over defence or foreign policy, I want to see the Scottish Parliament having control of when and where Scottish troops are deployed. But there are other areas I would be happy to see shared powers.

        However unless the Scottish Parliament is actually sovereign to begin with this will simply not happen and we will remain subservient instead of being equal partners.

  9. So what is Labour for? If you fear to defend the Union by sharing a platform with the Tories why do you exist at all?

    1. That’s easy. As James Kelly says in another post on this site, people join the Labour Party because they want to change society. Alex Gallagher above makes essentially the same point – the purpose of the Labour Party is to make life better for people. That is what politics is about. As I see it, the main difference between Labour and the SNP is not our position on the constitution, but the motivating force of our politics.

  10. I liked this article until it started blaming Salmond. Fact is that any socialist worth his salt can see that Full Fiscal Autonomy hits at the Nats and the Tories in one blow.

    I visited Scone Palace recently and was angry at the oppulence displayed there and all during tough times for the Scots people yet still we allow all our funds to be handled by ex public schoolboys in the Treasury in the furtherance of the old school tie method of running the UK employing those self same Public Schoolboys in the FO., Home Office, Whitehall and indeed the Treasury, not forgetting the MOD and senior positions in the services.

    When Labour were in power nothing changed – at least if we had control of the Finances it would be Scottish Public Schoolboys up here(haha)

    Let’s stop attacking Salmond and start talking to him about Scottish finances and then we can have that face off on Independence…. if it is required!!!

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