Domestic Politics Politics

An English Solution to a Scottish Problem

Kier Starmer and Gordon Brown propose English devolution to confront Scottish nationalism

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Image Credit: Ninian Reid

With the vaccination roll-out now triumphantly underway, the passionate feelings of collectivity which had underpinned our communities’ spirited resilience and that which hurtled the nation into a euphoric reminiscence of the British Home Front, is now with every vaccine slowly dissipating. To the plight of Unionists, as things gradually return to normality, so too do the not-so-distant clamorings north of the English border grow ever more fervent.

Combined with consistent government back peddling and the opposition's proclivity to scrutinize the lateness of government action strictly after the fact, has in its wake left the SNP and the nationalist movement as the only party to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic totally unscathed, if not hardened by the exploits of poor public relations. Where Boris Johnson has failed, commentators claim that the SNP has presented consistent communication and greater clarity and direction of lockdown restrictions. Sturgeon’s headstrong strategy in pursuing unilateral regulation, despite responding equally deficient and if not worse a public health record, has itself produced paradoxical results.

Opposition leaders have accused Sturgeon of using her daily public briefings as a platform from which she may informally broadcast party political messages and manipulate the extent of the Scottish government's competency over the issue. That the pandemic has provided an ample platform from which she and the nationalist party may tug at the loosened threads desperately clinging together the national fabric is nothing to underestimate.

The resurgence of Scottish separatist popularity has unionists in Holyrood and at Westminster anxious. With polls consistently identifying First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as the political leader who has most competently handled the Coronavirus pandemic, the likelihood that the SNP will return with a strengthened majority in May’s Scottish parliamentary elections makes it difficult for the Prime-minister to continue pursuing the current strategy of simply denying the Scottish people of a second independence referendum on the basis that economically “now is not the time” or that the last referendum was intended to be a “once in a generation” vote.

With the SNP pushing for a draft bill seeking to legislate the timings for a new ballot, and several surveys indicating that a slight majority of Scots are in favor of independence at 51 per cent (The Sunday Times), the momentum behind the independence movement, and the prospect of the United Kingdom’s imminent demise has evoked within the Labour party a reinvigorated approach in tackling the secessionist threat.

Rather than resigning disquietly to the inevitable dissolution of the United Kingdom, as a foregone conclusion of the post-Brexit era, the Labour party have been amping up their efforts to save the union by acknowledging the lessons that are to be learned from Brexit and the mistakes the European Union made which attributed to the loss a member state. In December 2020, Sir Keir Starmer instigated a constitutional review. This report was to be spearheaded by the party’s constitutional commission and at the helm,  former Labour leader Gordon Brown. The purpose of the review is to investigate how, by devolving further powers to disconnected regions and cities south of the English border, a more federalised United Kingdom could present a solution to the issues that have arisen from the imbalanced constitutional settlement of the 1990s.

What is apparent from the Pandemic, especially the emotive political flexing from metro- mayoral jurisdictions such as that of the Greater Manchester Authority’s Andy Burnham, is that there is a real yearning from England's northern towns and cities for greater powers to be decentralized so that localities may more effectively address concerns that Westminster is too economically and socially disconnected to comprehend.

As Danniel Hannan has shrewdly pointed out, If Brexit has proven anything, it would be foolish for the British government to downplay the north’s concerns over an unresponsive and over-centralized body, which of course underpinned much of the Leave campaign’s rhetoric in 2016. The project, which is designed to explore the UK’s  “next phase of devolution”, has been described by commentators as one which attempts, in the lead up to the Holyrood's elections, to push forward a spatial dissociation between what it is meant to be from England and London.

Behind Brown’s calls for a more federal system of regional and metropolitan authorities in England, is the need to counterbalance the antiquated establishment of an institutionalized Celtic-fringe, who have since the bestowing of legislative competencies used their powers to the frustration of the relationship between the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom by portioning significant blame of all that has not been achieved on the obstacles that Whitehall has placed in their way. This, in turn, has gradually evolved these institutions into what has become a talking shop for nationalist political parties, as has been seen by the elimination of the Labour party in Scotland since 1995, contradicting what had been predicted by former Scottish secretary George Robertson, that devolution in the form of a Scottish parliament would kill “nationalism stone dead”.

Former permanent secretary to the Department for Exiting the European Union, Philip Rycroft, in a letter to The Yorkshire Post has asserted that only by fulfilling the promises of the “leveling up” agenda, by granting significant concessions from Westminster to areas of England with distinct senses of identity beyond London, in control in areas relating to taxation, healthcare, transport, education, and even legislative matters, can the government seek to dismantle the capital’s monopoly over decision making.

With the establishment of a new West Yorkshire Combined Authority, and the election of its first-ever Mayor this year, will moving power away from London to the proud historic counties and cities of Northern England prove to the Scottish people once and for all that having a choice over one’s destiny is a feeling, that we, as distinct peoples on this small island can share together?

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