Monday, 4 July 2022

Smart thinking?


For as long as I can remember, the Labour Party has been promising either abolition or reform of the House of Lords. Under Blair, they actually took a few baby steps, and managed to reduce the number of seats occupied by hereditary peers to a ‘mere’ 92, but then progress stalled, partly because it was too hard and partly because they’ve never been able to agree with each other on exactly what reform is needed. They’re at it again today – the current temporary manager of their Scottish branch office has said that Labour will replace the House of Lords with an elected Senate, in which the members have “…a mandate to represent their nation or region”, and in which “Scotland and other parts of the UK [will be given] a greater say in UK-wide legislation”. It’s meaningless waffle, announced before the work has been done to flesh out how such a mandate would work in practice (spoiler: it can’t and won’t), let alone how ‘Scotland and other parts of the UK’ can avoid simply being outvoted in a whipped vote (spoiler: they will be outvoted).

This is, apparently, one prong of Labour’s three-pronged ‘big idea’ “as an alternative to Nicola Sturgeon’s plan for a second referendum”. Another of the prongs is “a legal duty to cooperate between the UK Government and the Scottish Government”. Well, yes. The chances of English politicians – even Labour ones – accepting that England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland should be represented as and treated as equals has a probability close to zero. And what exactly does it mean if the different governments have very different views on what needs to be done? It sounds more like a demand that devolved administrations do as they are told than a means of guaranteeing no interference in devolved issues. His third prong is “joint governance councils to replace the Joint Ministerial Committees [which] would have a statutory footing”. And how exactly does that future-proof devolution against the next Tory government which can simply repeal the legislation or, if it follows the current example, just ignore it? This master plan is supposed to persuade Scots, in particular, that they should forget any idea of taking control of their own affairs and depend on Labour instead. It’s embarrassing that Labour should be reduced to such half-witted sloganizing.

The problem with devolution is, and always has been, that devolving power within a unitary state whose constitution is based on the belief that God invested all power in the monarch who merely allows parliament to exercise it on a temporary basis means that power is only ever loaned and can always be taken back, something which the Johnson government is doing ever more frequently. No form of words in any Act of Parliament can ever be depended on as long as such Acts are based on the absolute right of the legislature to reverse them and the sacred doctrine that no parliament can ever bind its successors. It’s a constitutional principle in which Labour are as heavily invested as the Tories. The UK could be saved (leaving aside whether that is desirable or not) as a political entity, but it depends on reform on a scale which Labour are incapable of even imagining, let alone implementing. A written constitution, an acknowledgement that it is the people not the monarch who are sovereign, switching to full proportional representation – these are the minimum guarantees which can allow the degree of effective autonomy which might be enough to deter some from seeking independence.

Labour is not only offering none of those things, it is instead declaring that it will form a minority government and dare the SNP and other non-Tory parties to bring it down by opposing any of its policies. And that’s another half-baked plan in itself. Whilst it’s true that voters in England might be mightily annoyed if the SNP brought down a Labour government in a way which led to a return of the Tories, the assumption that the same would be true in Scotland is a very shaky one. It assumes that SNP voters will accept a Labour government for which they did not vote imposing its will on them because the alternative is a Tory government for which they also didn’t vote imposing its will upon them. Threatening to be as dictatorial as the Tories they hope to replace doesn’t immediately strike me as the smartest of moves. But then, it wasn’t being smart which led to Labour losing almost all its support in Scotland. At least they’re consistent.

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