Scots remember the growth united Labour governments delivered - and want to believe it can happen again - Lord George Foulkes

Change for Scotland is best delivered through frictionless partnership with the union, writes Lord George Foulkes

The road to devolution was long and convoluted, but with the passing of the Scotland Act in 1998 and the opening of the Scottish parliament shortly thereafter, it seemed like we were entering a new age of enhanced unity and co-operation.

This was much more than an overdue update to our constitution – it promised the people of Scotland real change, through enhanced responsibility for and oversight of the systems and structures which serve them.

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It is worth remembering that the SNP initially had no interest in helping to drive this historic change, taking no part in the campaign for a Scottish parliament or the Convention, and only moved to support our proposal when they realised the majority of Scots favoured devolution over independence.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer with Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar (left) after speaking during the Scottish Labour Party conference at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow at the weekend. PIC: Jane Barlow/PA WireLabour leader Sir Keir Starmer with Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar (left) after speaking during the Scottish Labour Party conference at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow at the weekend. PIC: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer with Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar (left) after speaking during the Scottish Labour Party conference at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow at the weekend. PIC: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

So Labour were the true architects of devolution, and from the moment we gained power in May of ’99 we began to build a new, stronger Scotland. Education, transport and health

were revitalised, and our record in office cemented a hefty majority in the new parliament for the next eight years.

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Of course we all know what followed, but at the time it was hard to imagine Scotland as anything other than the Labour heartland it had been since the 1960s.

I believe this hubris ultimately played a role in our eventual downfall, and it heartens me to see that Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar are taking nothing for granted this time around, even as the polls suggest that Labour is resurgent in Scotland.

The mood at conference this year reflects this – buoyant, with the spirit of ’97 in the air, tempered with a reasonable dose of caution. Much is at stake in this coming election, for

the future of Scottish Labour, but also, more importantly, the future of Scotland – as the last decade of SNP rule has left us at the mercy of an equally inept Tory government.

Instead of seeking to manage and counteract austerity as best they could, the SNP have neglected our public services, focusing all of their resources into a symbolic cause, which the majority of Scots have never supported.

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Independence is no closer today than it was when Alex Salmond led the party; if anything, it is even less likely now, as the reputations of the aforementioned totemic leader, and his replacement, have both been thoroughly tarnished. The consequences of building a political movement around personality, not policy, could hardly have been better demonstrated – it can only paper over so many ideological cracks, before the party starts to fracture.

The full list of misdeeds leading to this collapse is long enough to cover several pages, but a summary of the more outrageous highlights should include: spending on vanity embassies and trips abroad; attempts to undermine UK foreign policy; misuse of civil servant departments and spending to fuel a never-ending campaign for independence, and a

generally abysmal grasp of public and party finances, the latter culminating in an ongoing police investigation.

But their poll numbers have not collapsed to quite the same degree as the ruling party south of the border, and I believe this is because a substantial proportion of Scots remain

convinced that the union is not working.

In a sense they are right, and many of us within the Labour party acknowledge that the current devolution arrangement needs to be improved. However, this dissatisfaction is also

undoubtedly stoked by the SNP’s deliberate misuse and underuse of the powers they currently have at their disposal. Labour must therefore adopt a double pronged approach when they confront this issue: set out a positive case for reform of power sharing throughout the United Kingdom - something like a senate of regions and nations – and

expose the SNP’s negative, wasteful position, which has cost Scotland a decade of progress.

Ipsos polling towards the end of last year indicated that a majority of Scots are now unhappy with the SNP’s policy-light and provocation-heavy style of government, and the

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“rammy” revelations from the Covid inquiry only reinforce this point – at a time of national crisis they were intent on stoking division, rather than co-operating to protect lives.

The familiar refrain of “Westminster is to blame” has begun to ring hollow and, as the SNP accountability crisis grows, Scottish Labour has gradually re-established itself as the voice of hope and reason in Scotland. The revival has not been as flashy as the ’97 surge to victory, and there is still much work to be done, but there was only one British political leader who maintained a net positive rating across 2023 – Anas Sarwar.

The strongest indication that Scotland might be turning red again, is the impressive victory that Michael Shanks pulled off in the Rutherglen by-election towards the end of last year.

The candidate he ousted, Covid-rule-breaker Margaret Ferrier, embodied a recklessness and lack of professionalism that has become a byword for successive SNP governments, but the sheer size of the swing points to something stronger than dissatisfaction.

Scots remember the growth and regeneration that united Labour parliaments delivered at the turn of the century, and they want to believe that this can be replicated by a Starmer-

Sarwar partnership. This belief will only grow as the prospect of a Labour government, in Westminster, becomes more certain, but it will only carry across to the Scottish elections if

we show that we are serious about change, and that this change is best achieved through frictionless partnership within the union.

George Foulkes is a Labour peer and a former MP and MSP