“Obviously there is a red line, which is that we want the Union to stay united. That is very important. But otherwise I am open-minded about how we present positive arguments for the Union.
So said Sir Keir Starmer, Britain’s Labor leader, when he visited Scotland last week. It’s not a particularly new sentiment and has in fact been official Labor policy ever since Sir Keir became leader and asked former Prime Minister Gordon Brown to review UK structures and recommend a lasting solution.
The consequences, however, are widespread and could very well prove to be the central determinant of whether or not the United Kingdom remains united.
There’s good reason to believe Sir Keir will match his words with action. Labor has a history of leading people on constitutional change, rather than being led by them, the most obvious example of which is the creation of devolved parliaments and assemblies in the late 1990s.
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A fortnight ago in these pages I wrote that Labor was the true party of the Union and evidently rather upset many of my former colleagues in the Conservative offices of the Scottish Parliament. I made this point because shouting ‘no to indyref 2’ and waving union flags may be enough to carry the Tories through an election campaign, but it’s not a strategy to mend ties that unite the Union.
The Union is not in trouble because people are magnetically attracted to independence. The Union is in trouble because too few people think it works for them.
Labor seems to have understood this and exhibits the opposite trait to that of the Conservatives. They don’t have the absolutist rhetoric to gain center stage in an election campaign, but they are working on a long-term solution.
All that said, Sir Keir has to be careful not to back into a corner. On the same visit where he promised this quick and decisive handing over of more power, Sir Keir said: “We need change without a referendum”. It is a mistake.
I fully understand the reluctance towards another independence referendum from those on the Unionist side of the fence. They are scarred by what happened in 2014. They worry about the effect on society, which was unmistakably divided and not yet fully healed.
They worry about the effect on the economy – political uncertainty is bad for investing and bad for business. Above all, they are petrified at the thought of losing, after what they considered an unexpected near miss eight years ago.
By ruling out a referendum and simply enacting an overt commitment, Sir Keir (and Mr Brown, who I suspect very significantly influence this aspect of strategy) could quell the constitutional unrest in Scotland. He could push the pro-British polls up a bit and the pro-independence polls down a bit. And it could avoid another referendum on independence. At least for a moment.
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However, assuming Labor wants to close the veil on this issue, lock it up and throw away the key, it is very unlikely to achieve that goal without a second independence referendum.
There is something purgative about not being involved in party politics, or even the overly emotional environment of constitutional politics. It offers a clarity that I often find lacking among those in the bubble.
It is now clear to most people that Scotland has long-term structural problems in its economy, in the way it provides public services, in its transport infrastructure, etc. And it’s also clear to me that we can’t get into these issues, or even talk about them, until we stop talking about the constitution.
And, in the final analysis, there is simply too much of the population that will need an answer to this question by way of a referendum rather than by way of overt commitment in a general election.
The question is, how should it be done? The answer lies in a multi-option referendum. Besides being, obviously, the only way to empower those who believe in independence, those who believe in the status quo, and those who believe in self-reliance (or whatever we want to call the ” devo max” previously named option) a voice, it is also the structure that is most likely to produce the kind of clear and unambiguous result that would throw away the key, one way or another.
The logical structure, which was ‘played out’ by former Reform Scotland chairman Ben Thomson, would be to have two questions rather than one.
The first question would be something like: “Do you support further constitutional changes or do you wish to maintain the current provisions?”
A majority in favor of maintaining the current provisions would render the second question irrelevant, just as a vote against devolution in 1997 would have rendered the outcome of the tax variation powers question irrelevant in this referendum.
However, a majority in favor of a new constitutional change would mean that the outcome of the second question (on which people would be entitled to vote even if they voted against a new change in the first question) would be decisive. The second question would be something like ‘Do you favor independence or self-government’, with the definition of ‘self-government’ presumably set by the Labor government before the referendum.
The separatists, they gave a strong signal last week on what could be the result of such a referendum. When Chris Hanlon, the senior SNP politician, suggested something similar to this option, he was publicly and brutally trampled on by a number of SNP figures.
Why? Because they expect, as I do, that the autonomy option will win a referendum relatively comfortably and effectively end the prospect of independence.
It’s curious, isn’t it, that the thing nationalists are afraid of – autonomy in a referendum – is at the same time something the Unionist community seems so reluctant to do.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. It would not be the first time that trade unionists had missed an open constitutional goal.
Andy Maciver is Director of Message Matters