Cat Boyd

Cat Boyd

The Unreality of Labour’s Devolution Politics

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Is Labour’s vision for devolution the key to solving its problems? Cat Boyd says it is not.

When Ed Miliband introduced the 2015 rule change in Labour, he couldn’t know it would worsen his fortunes. Designed to loosen the influence of those pesky trade union barons in Labour, Miliband’s one-member-one-vote fix ultimately led to the election of a man the PLP least wanted leading the party. Many political mistakes are made in this way: seemingly effective,  “modernising” solutions to irritating situations which inevitably then fail because, after all, they’re flimsy fixes.

Another such fix is on the horizon. Keir Starmer plans to save Labour in Scotland by announcing his grand new “modernising” vision for greater Scottish devolution. If Starmer’s hope is that more devolution will stop independence, then he’d do well to recall the fate of Labour MP George Robertson’s infamous assertion: “devolution will kill nationalism stone dead”. Not only has devolution failed to strengthen the status quo, it has also failed to stabilise it. The last fifteen polls show a majority for independence. 

Keir Starmer’s solution to the problem of Scotland is to give our managers more power to play with. But his feeble repair wont stop the rot, because devolution has coincided with – and accelerated – the deep and terminal crisis of the British State. The roots of that crisis don’t lie with the devolution of some powers to Scotland, but rather a complex of profound national, economic and social processes; among them austerity, the war in Iraq in 2003 and longer-term inequality. Support for independence reflects the disillusionment with ‘official politics’ typical around the world but exemplified by the UK. Nationalists have been the primary beneficiaries. The Labour party’s record in power, both in Scotland (PFI etc) and the UK (Iraq, austerity and muzzling unions’ fight against social inequality) undoubtedly contributed to the slim majority gained by the SNP in 2011.

Boris Johnson took a lot of flack when he said “devolution had been a disaster”. I couldn’t help but think, he has a point: If austerity ultimately destroyed the authority of the British State then devolution helped to accelerate it. The late Scottish Marxist, Neil Davidson in the run up to September 2014 spoke of the British state deploying “a neoliberal strategy of delegation (‘of the axe’)” – the transfer of cuts from central government to devolved and then local government. This remains a fair description.

I couldn’t help but think of this concept as I tuned in to listen to Rishi Sunak’s autumn statement wherein a public sector pay freeze and cuts to Scotland’s capital budget were announced. In response, the Scottish government can do as it has done for the last two decades – pass the cuts to local authorities, who then pass to services and departments, who pass them to workers. And they’ll get away with it too, because the majority of voters in Scotland aren’t irrational in thinking that Westminster will do any better. No amount of “Keep Calm and Vote for Starmer” is going to change the core ideology at the heart of government. And, if anything, the recent boost for defence spending should prove that the Home Rule argument for “everything but” answers few questions.

Devo max doesn’t solve the crisis in the British state. Neither does whatever “federalism” turns out as. These are technocratic fixes designed to demobilise a movement for democracy. “More devolution” is an answer to a question that barely anybody is asking. I can’t think of anyone I know, apart from a smattering of Labour activists, who are demanding measures which have no resonance in wider society. The annual tradition of political fights over Christmas dinner won’t be Dad shouting “more fiscal powers please”.

Devo Max is like a “life hack” for democracy, a Ted talk for a solution that won’t work. People want sovereignty and accountability, not legislative and bureaucratic solutions which will shelter our governments at Holyrood and Westminster from serious scrutiny. Social movements and popular demands are solutions to problems, and they can empower people to believe in their own democratic power. The last people socialists should want to empower are Whitehall mandarins and professional politicians for fixes are always advanced with the state’s stability and efficacy in mind.

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