Scottish Labour calls for new federal state to unite UK after Brexit
The Guardian, by Kezia Dugdale
Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour leader, has called for a radical reshaping of the UK into a federal state with Scotland taking control over fisheries, farming and social rights now covered by EU laws.
In a speech in London, Dugdale said the UK needed “a new political settlement” to prevent it splitting apart over Brexit, and to tackle an erratic and uneven distribution of power between its regions and nations.
It would be underpinned, she told the Institute for Public Policy Research thinktank on Wednesday, by a new act of union designed for a post-Brexit era, to replace the treaty signed by England and Scotland that unified their parliaments 300 years ago.
This new structure would be designed in part by a new “people’s constitutional convention” of civic and political groups that would mimic the Scottish civic convention that helped frame the 1999 devolution settlement, which led to the creation of the Scottish parliament.
“This would mean a radical reshaping of our country along federal lines where every component part of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions – take more responsibility for what happens in their own communities, but where we still maintain the protection of being part of a greater whole as the UK,” Dugdale said.
“It would involve significant changes to how central government operates.”
Answering questions after the speech, Dugdale said the confusion of Brexit provided the ideal opportunity to “renew the mission” of the UK be looking at what powers were exercised where.
“Much of the debate around that has been about the threats of Brexit to Scotland, of which there are substantial concerns, but also there’s an opportunity here,” Dugdale said.
“The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union, and there will be powers coming back from Brussels. I think it’s important to start now to talk about where those powers go.”
Dugdale said she would not be meeting the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, while in London, but was in “regular contact” with him. She had “talked him though the basic bones of the speech” last week, she added.
“While this is an argument I’m putting forwards as leader of the Scottish Labour party, it’s very much the trend of what Jeremy Corbyn has been saying,” she said.
Dugdale’s agenda, intended to help strengthen her party’s faltering popularity while undermining preparations by Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish government for a possible second independence referendum, echoes proposals from the former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown.
Earlier this year, Brown called for the House of Lords to be replaced by an elected senate and floated proposals for a federal system, bringing himself alongside similar plans set out by Liberal Democrats in Scotland.
Similar proposals were also mooted by Dugdale and senior Scottish Labour figures including the former lord chancellor Lord Falconer immediately after the referendum revealed a deep split between Scottish and English voters over the EU, when Scotland voted heavily to remain.
Dugdale said core tax, state funding and social policies would still be controlled in London – a policy framework often nicknamed devolution-plus.
She added that after the UK leaves the EU:
Scotland should take control over fishing and agriculture – areas overseen now by the EU, but coordinated with the rest of the UK.
Scotland take charge of employment rights covered now by the EU social chapter, and be empowered to top up a basic minimum wage.
The UK government would retain control over foreign affairs, overseas aid and defence.
Core funding would still come from the Treasury in London while state pensions, or major taxes such as corporation or inheritance tax, would remain under the control of a federal parliament.
Dugdale said this structure would preserve the sharing of resources and the principles of solidarity that Labour was set up to champion.
“The UK provides the redistribution of wealth that defines our entire Labour movement, and it provides the protection for public finance in Scotland that comes from being part of something larger. Something good. Something worth fighting for,” she said.
Dugdale’s speech was designed to rebuild her personal profile as well as Labour’s declining popularity in Scotland, which has worsened under Corbyn’s leadership.
A YouGov poll for the Times last week said 32% of Scottish voters had no opinion on Dugdale’s leadership qualities, while 42% thought she was doing badly. She has been outmaneouvered by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, who has positioned herself as the champion of the union, while critics inside the Scottish Labour party have accused Dugdale of being too weak on the constitution and post-referendum policy.
Linda Fabiani MSP, a former Scottish government minister who sat on the Smith Commission which agreed Holyrood’s new £14bn tax and welfare powers after the 2014 independence referendum, said Dugdale’s proposals were “just the latest version of the same old song.”
“Labour has been promising a supercharged, powerhouse, federalism-max for years – and consistently failing to deliver it. In fact it was Labour politicians that specifically blocked the powers over the minimum wage they are now asking for,” Fabiani said.
“Kezia Dugdale is always quick to accuse others of obsessing over the constitution, but Scottish Labour’s default answer to bad polling numbers is to promise powers that they don’t deliver. Billions of years from now I half expect Labour politicians to be staring into the dying sun calling for a constitutional convention.”