The Scottish Problem

Harry Parsons examines the role of the next Labour government in bringing the union together and combating the rise of Scottish nationalism. 

Until 2007, with Labour in power in both Holyrood and Westminster, devolution worked. Shared government bound the nations of the United Kingdom together effectively. However, since the SNP took power in 2007 and the Conservatives entered Downing Street in 2010, devolution has been viewed as a policy that attempted to ‘fix’ Scotland within a flawed UK. Progressives are faced with several options. Either a united progressive force must govern from both Westminster and Holyrood, or the United Kingdom must define a new constitutional settlement. In light of a dominant New Labour’s inability to bind our nation together beyond their years in government, change to the UK constitution is required to craft a sustainable nation. There is a lack of solutions coming from the right. Only a Labour Government committed to progressive constitutional reform can finish the task of bringing our country together.

Alongside the secession of the Republic of Ireland, the 1998 Scotland Act provided the most foundational change to the United Kingdom’s constitution of the 20th century. Scotland can be seen as a nation in limbo: one that has never emerged as an independent nation but one that has never fully adopted a British identity. This tension has fuelled the argument that rages louder than ever today, with new faces representing old interests. The intransigence of Boris Johnson’s ‘muscular unionism’ butts heads with Nicola Sturgeon’s pragmatic, determined, and calculated drive towards independence. 

Tony Blair and Donald Dewar’s push for a new Scottish settlement was just, brave, and pragmatic. Rightly so, devolution had been acknowledged by critics and admirers alike as one of New Labour’s premier policy successes. After 2010, this academic and political consensus quickly began to shift. Labour holding power in both Westminster and Holyrood for the majority of the 1997-2010 period can be seen as a decisive factor, one that drove the success of devolution. There are several dimensions to this. 

Firstly, the absence of argumentation and tension between the governing parties of Holyrood and Westminster sidelined the independence question for almost 13 years. Following this line of thought, it can validly be asserted that the election of the same party to both legislatures could simply be enough to calm Scottish disquiet. However, dismissal of the problem may be unwise. As difficult as it is to swallow for those of us on the left, we must remember that the Conservatives have been in power for 52 of the 76 years following 1945. It is therefore the responsibility of the next Labour government to seek enduring solutions that sustainably bind our union together. 

Secondly, the progressive slant of New Labour broadly aligned to the mainstream in Scotland. It is no surprise that the now dominant SNP’s success has been built upon a largely progressive, centre-left governing platform. In contemporary debate, independence often functions as a catch-all for the deep policy-level disagreements between the SNP and the Conservatives. Nicola Sturgeon skilfully exploits Conservative ineptitude to burnish her case for independence. A Labour government that can satisfy Scotland’s social democratic leanings may be sufficient to, in the short term, quell much of Scotland’s disquiet. 

However, these dimensions speak to the desire of successive governments to ‘solve’ the Scottish problem, and herein lies the fundamental deficiency. All attempts to solve the ‘Scotland problem’ have been just that, attempts to cast the problem as intrinsically Scottish. This framing of the issue narrows the field of possible solutions, with such fixedness not acknowledging the broader picture. Delegating further authority to Scotland ignores the broader context. Whole system change is the most effective way to address the Scottish drive for independence; something even Gordon Brown acknowledges. Brown makes the case for the federalisation of Britain, explicitly stating that devolution did not go far enough. By many metrics, Scotland and England are orders of magnitude apart, so chunking the nation into comparably sized federal administrative districts is a logical solution to the issue of regional inequality and would have the added benefit of bringing government closer to the people. Keir Starmer has commissioned Brown to lead a new constitutional convention, a process that’s outputs may play a significant role in determining Labour’s electability over the coming decade.

For now, the perfect storm has emerged, with an intransigent Conservative administration at Westminster refusing to yield to the wishes of the powerful and patient SNP. Accountability for solving the problem lies constitutionally in Westminster, however, the actors involved apportion this responsibility to whoever best suits their political aims. The next Labour government must cut through the endless blame-game, and develop pragmatic solutions that bring unionists, devolutionists, and secessionists on a journey towards a sustainable United Kingdom.

Working for many years as an advisor to the public sector bodies, Harry Parsons has written extensively about the strategic impacts of public policies. He is also a student of Public Policy at the University of York, with research interests lying in postpositivist policy analysis and job guarantee programmes. He tweets at @HarryECParsons.

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