Keir Starmer's refusal to ditch Tories' two child benefit cap may herald the end of the Union – Joyce McMillan
Summer 2023; and another poll shows the young people of Wales swinging towards the idea of Welsh independence, with a majority of those under 35 now in favour. Across all ages, support remains low by Scottish standards, at around 35 per cent. Yet still, the changing mood in Wales is something of which those who see themselves as friends of the Union should take note.
One of the least helpful aspects of Scotland’s current constitutional stalemate is the tendency to pathologise it as some kind of unique “Scottish problem”, caused – some would argue – by a peculiar Scottish attachment to the “politics of grievance”; whereas in fact, as soon as we raise our eyes from the local detail of Scottish politics, we can clearly see that many aspects of our situation are mirrored not only across western Europe, but here within the UK, where both Wales and – with added complexities – Northern Ireland share, often with increasing irritation, some part of our experience of being a nation within a nation, bound to defer to a central government naturally dominated by the politics of England.
And it’s perhaps in the light of that wider picture that we should consider this week’s little local difficulty for the Labour party in Scotland, currently on something of a roll, following the recent improvement in the party’s UK fortunes. This week, though – after a series of other notable U-turns and retreats on left-leaning policies – the Labour leader Keir Starmer abruptly announced that the party, should it win the next UK election, will not be reversing the 2017 two-child rule on UK family benefits, or the notoriously obscene and intrusive “rape clause” which accompanies it.
Naturally enough, Starmer’s attempt to take a right-wing, tough-guy stance on this issue has caused a major row across the Labour party. As many have observed, this Conservative policy is a classic example of a false economy; and debate will doubtless continue to rage, across the UK, over the idea that Labour can now only become “electable” at Westminster by taking such pointlessly punitive attitudes to the most vulnerable.
One aspect of the question that Keir Starmer seems not to have considered at all, though, was how this announcement would play in Scotland, where the Scottish Government is already paying out around £350 million a year in its new Scottish Child Payment, designed to mitigate the effect of recent UK cuts in family benefits. All parties in the Scottish Parliament strongly support this policy; and it seems already to have had a positive impact in helping to reduce poverty in Scotland below Welsh and English levels.
All of which invites the question of what, exactly, Keir Starmer and his team were expecting Scottish Labour politicians to say, in response to his decision not even to do half as much for poorer families in England; and my guess is that they simply did not think of it at all. In the world of day-to-day news management at Westminster, and of the toxic relationship between UK politics and much current UK media, real Scottish politics and policies barely seem to figure; and the chances are that many in Keir Starmer’s circle had therefore never heard of the Scottish Child Payment until this week’s row emerged, and were, in any case, instinctively indifferent to the impact of the announcement on Scottish voters.
Now from the Conservatives, in their post-Brexit Empire 2.0 mode, we have of course come to expect this kind of thing, given Tory ministers’ routine hostility to the devolved administrations. What is more troubling for those concerned about the future of the Union, though, is the extent to which the Labour party tends to mirror similar thinking. Even the Blair government of 1997, which implemented the manifesto scheme for Scottish and Welsh devolution, did so over the heads of hundreds of backbench Labour MPs who had no idea what was happening, and no interest in its implications; and that initial Westminster failure to internalise the fact of devolution, and to take full account of it in envisaging the nation’s future, has only intensified during the last 13 years of Conservative power.
All of which is the more tragic, because there was a moment, back then, when the UK could have taken a very different path; one that aimed to celebrate the unity-in-diversity of these four island nations, and to use the experience of devolved governments to enrich the UK-wide and UK-and-Ireland policy debate, as we all moved forward within the EU. The new devolved UK that I and others imagined back in 1997 never came to pass, though, in any deeper cultural and institutional sense; and it certainly seems unlikely to emerge now. Indeed this week, Keir Starmer’s office announced that even Gordon Brown’s modest plans to devolve strictly limited tax powers to England’s city mayors will not now be featuring in the Labour manifesto.
As one who spent much of the 1990s thinking about, and campaigning for, UK constitutional reform, I fully acknowledge – and sometimes even marvel at – the huge step that was taken in 1999, with the coming of the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd. The failure to embrace and to build on that reform, though, has been comprehensive and tragic, at a Westminster ever more focussed on the fevered short-term politics of its own media-political bubble.
And whether or not Scottish Labour manages to navigate its way successfully through this week’s little political embarrassment, the episode bespeaks an underlying indifference to the real politics of the Union, at the top of both main UK parties, that will be the death of the UK within a decade or two, unless someone at Westminster finally breaks the spell under which UK politics has been operating for the last 40 years, and begins to embrace new structures and new forms of sovereignty, for new times.
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