Henry McLeish: Can Labour convince that federalism is not just a make-over of the status quo?

Written by Henry McLeish on 28 February 2017 in Comment

The federalist option deserves a serious airing, with 50 per cent still unconvinced and uninspired by the current debate

Former first minister of Scotland Herny McLeish - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood

For nearly a decade, Scottish Labour has been defensive about the future of Scotland.

Its party conference gave it a chance to change this, find a new role in the constitutional debate and embrace federalism.

Brexit has made Britain’s future more complex and uncertain.

It has also shown that Scotland has no real political power in what remains a Britain dominated by the ideas of absolute sovereignty, superiority and a Westminster mired in the politics of the past and an increasingly authoritarian mindset. Power devolved is not power shared.


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Labour faces some unpalatable truths. First, the status quo is not a viable option for Scotland’s future or an alternative to independence.

Second, England is now the problem, after all. This was an English exit and the Conservative Party has demonstrated that it does not want to be a team player.

Third, only federalism can offer an alternative to independence – the devolution of more ‘powers’ is not a solution when real political power is not on offer.

Federalism is complex, has many forms, requires leadership and vision and is a tough constitutional alternative but it could provide Scots with a real choice and a positive alternative to independence.

However, for the SNP, interdependence in the EU will become the rallying call, out of one union but into, for them, a much more attractive, welcoming and prosperous alternative.

The powerful political message this offers shouldn’t be underestimated.

There is no fixed model of federalism. It is best defined as two levels of government, each of which has independent powers and neither has supreme authority over the other.

Devolution doesn’t meet this criteria, hence we have to be very careful about selling ‘devo plus’ as federalism.

The best known and most studied example is the USA. However, there are three major problems.

First, it requires a written, codified and accessible constitution, something the UK doesn’t have.

Second, England would require a constitutional status similar to the other nations of the UK; and would it agree to a parliament or assembly that is not Westminster?

Third, the House of Lords would have to be abolished and if recreated would, through elections, have representatives from each of the nations of the Union – new life could revive a second chamber, thus ending Westminster’s absolute sovereignty.

The new constitution would be a check on Westminster’s powers and confirmation that federalism was, for the first time, giving power to people and their nations.

Scottish Labour must debate this and reach out to the whole country, asking the questions that are central to Scotland’s future.

Five big questions, which will help Scotland decide, need to be posed by the party and answered by the people. Labour needs to engage!

Will the gloom and uncertainty about the prospects of a change of government at Westminster in the next 10-15 years worry Labour voters in Scotland – the most important body of voters still to be won round to radical change – that there is no immediate escape from Tory rule? 

Could Labour convince electors that it is capable of delivering federalism as an alternative to independence, but not just as a make-over of the status quo?

Could Westminster, so steeped in the history of absolute sovereignty, political exceptionalism and collective centralism and now gripped by English nationalism and authoritarianism, offer and share real power with any of the nations of Britain?

Will Scotland’s future ultimately be determined by England’s block on Britain’s progress, its new and virulent strain of right-wing populism and because politically, Scotland is diverging so dramatically from England? 

These are questions for people who don’t support Scottish nationalism, the SNP or independence and haven’t been interested in or supportive of radical change.

This is the 50 per cent who remain unconvinced and uninspired by the current debate. In the chaos of a declining UK and the madness of Brexit, they could be sympathetic to the idea of a different future.    

Brexit has made the debate about Scotland’s future more confused, complex and uncertain. The timeline is hard to define, the battle lines and big issues remain clear. The federalist option deserves a serious airing.

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