Home rule for the new century

Alex Rowley explains why Scottish Labour supports a revised devolution settlement

Scotland remains divided on the question of independence, but on the question of holding a second referendum anytime soon, polls have shown a consistent and overwhelming majority saying now is not the time.

The Scottish Labour Party recognises the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine their own future and we respect the fact that at this moment in time there is not support for a second referendum. Given the uncertainty around Brexit and the SNP policy of independence within Europe, it would be difficult for any government to put a clear proposition to the people with the level of detail that would rightly be required.

Scottish Labour’s view is that the current standoff between the unionists and nationalists over a second referendum is simply smoke and mirrors and takes away from the more fundamental question of what is best for Scotland moving forward. The SNP is clear it wants independence whilst the Tories and illiberal Liberals want no change.

The no change parties constantly call for more investment from within the Scottish budget whilst advocating lowering taxation and supporting failed Westminster austerity. They have the nerve to call on Scotland’s Parliament to mitigate the worst effects of welfare reform like the inhumane bedroom tax that they, the Tories and Liberals, were responsible for introducing.

On the question of independence and what that would mean for Scotland, the SNP seems incapable of answering the big questions. Its Sustainable Growth Commission was established by Nicola Sturgeon in September 2016 with the purpose of providing the economic case for an independent Scotland. The final report lacked ambition, was about more of the same and was officially adopted as SNP policy in April 2019.

The Commission Report calls itself ‘a strategy for inter-generational economic renaissance’. However, this in reality is nothing more than a fancy way of endorsing the current ongoing status quo politics of austerity. The uses of terms like ‘flexicurity’ when talking about labour markets and the commitment to match Westminster in its corporation tax levels are examples of the ‘business as usual politics’ where working people are overlooked in the drive for economic growth within an independent Scotland within Europe.

The report commits to an independent Scotland paying its share of Britain’s existing national debt amounting to an ‘Annual Solidarity Payment’ of £5bn a year. On top of this, it recognises that an independent Scotland would start out with an annual budget deficit of just under 6%. For comparison, the current Westminster deficit is 2.3%. The plan is to reduce the projected unsustainable deficit rate, over a 10 year period, to a rate of just under 3% of GDP per year. This approach would see spending on public services and benefits fall by about 4% of GDP over that decade – in other words, not only more cuts, but much deeper and more damaging cuts.

It is no wonder that many on the left who support independence were quick to distance themselves from this report but in truth, the report exposes not just the risks but also, the inherent problems with independence.

Labour must move beyond simply criticising others no matter how justified this may feel. We must be in a position to set out a bold alternative to both the ‘no change’ parties and the more of the same neo liberalism wrapped up in tartan parties.

We can and should be proud that it was a British Labour Government that delivered Scotland’s Parliament and be equally proud of the achievements of the parliament over its short lifetime. We should also have the confidence 20 years on to set out the next steps on the devolution journey.

We need a new framework for continued devolution in Scotland, guided by the principle that where Scotland needs powers to deliver social and economic change to benefit the majority of people, then the Scottish Parliament is the lead body in negotiating to bring the powers from Westminster to Scotland. A new devolution settlement that increases the powers of Scotland’s Parliament for the twenty first century challenges our country faces.

These are complex issues that will take time. A small proportion of welfare is now devolved to Holyrood and that has taken years longer than was envisaged due to the complexity of unravelling the system at the Westminster level and designing a system fit for Scotland’s needs.

But to be clear, it cannot be in Westminster’s gift to refuse to transfer powers – Boris Johnson’s dismissal of Scotland’s request for a separate Scottish visa system is an example of why Scotland’s Parliament must be in charge of the devolution process.

Richard Leonard is encouraging Labour members to have this discussion on the way forward in order that we can come to a view and set out a clear socialist vision that will transform Scotland in the decades to come.

Alex Rowley is MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife and Scottish Labour’s spokesperson on constitutional matters.