Friday, 14 April 2023

Timidity and leadership


This week, referring to the controversy over Gender Recognition Reform in Scotland, Sir Keir Starmer told us, “The lesson from Scotland is that if you can’t take the public with you on a journey of reform, then you’re probably not on the right journey.” In itself, it’s not an entirely bad point – any parliament which is about to pass a law which it knows that a majority of people would oppose should at least stop and think about the issue. But the Scottish Parliament did indeed give the matter a great deal of thought before passing the act; Starmer’s comments reveal a lack of respect for the right of that parliament to decide for itself what laws to pass. Even if it were an entirely valid argument for the parliament not to proceed with the act, it’s no sort of argument whatsoever for over-ruling that parliament. He’s confusing two separate issues. It could be deliberate, but it also could simply be that he, like most of his party, is so wedded to the idea of the absolute supremacy of the Westminster parliament in all matters that he thinks over-ruling Holyrood on a whim is entirely normal. That doesn’t bode well for the relationship between a future Labour government and the administration in Edinburgh.

But is it really as strong an argument as he thinks anyway? I wasn’t exactly a fan of the Wilson government in the 1960s for various reasons, but there were some important reforms to come out of that period. The death penalty was suspended in 1965 before being abolished for everything except treason in 1969 (Blair finished that job in 1998). Rather timidly, the suspension was the result of a private member’s bill rather than a government proposal, but it would never have become law without the support of the government. It was a significant change – but it would never have passed the Starmer test and, even today, there is still majority support in the UK for the death penalty in some circumstances. Taking his words at face value, one has to wonder whether he would have supported abolition. Perhaps I’m being unfair to Starmer; perhaps he would have supported abolition because ‘it was the right thing to do’. But that rather negates the argument he put forward earlier this week about gender recognition, and turns ‘taking the public with you’ from a grand principle into an excuse for inaction in selected cases.

Whether the Scottish government and parliament took the ‘right’ decision is open to debate (and it’s too long a debate to air here); it’s a complex issue with many disagreements of detail, not just of principle. But sometimes governments and parliaments need to show that they can lead, rather than follow, public opinion, particularly ‘public opinion’ as presented by the tabloids. It’s a point which Labour under Starmer doesn’t seem to understand. Being even more timid than Harold Wilson isn’t exactly a recommendation or compliment.

No comments: