Why devolution must be a vital part of Labour’s UK manifesto, according to an ex-First Minister

A new constitutional alternative to independence is required to revitalise and reform a tired union

Rishi Sunak’s decision to hold an early election will free the electorate from the tyranny of a weary, failed, exhausted and out of touch government. A strife-torn Conservative party clinging to power, an exasperated, frustrated, angry and at times delusional Prime Minister mired in policy failures and the rise of the toxic right wing faction in his parliamentary group of MPs at Westminster, have convinced Sunak to offer himself to the country, astonishingly, as the only person who can save Britain, and from his delusional viewpoint, save the rest of the world as well. The impression given is of a Prime Minister just wanting it to be over!

Labour, in sharp contrast to the Conservative Party, is well placed to be in power on the 5th of July in the UK, and for the first time since 2007 become a major force again in Scottish politics. The timing is important. This could be the first step towards a much-needed victory in the 2026 Scottish Parliamentary elections.

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The two elections are inextricably linked. Key to this is the vital importance of developing a new updated narrative for devolution, especially in light of the failure of SNP governance in the last decade, its obsession with independence as a distraction from dealing with real issues of public concern, and in its role creating a deeply divided nation. Scotland is stalled and has lost momentum and direction. In the forthcoming general election the UK Labour Party must embrace the importance of moving devolution forward, both as the right thing to do, as a political “insurance policy” against an SNP revival and more importantly providing an attractive and enduring alternative to independence.

Henry McLeish, left, with the late Donald Dewar on the Royal Mile during the Scottish Parliament inauguration in 1999. Picture: Sutton Hibbert/ShutterstockHenry McLeish, left, with the late Donald Dewar on the Royal Mile during the Scottish Parliament inauguration in 1999. Picture: Sutton Hibbert/Shutterstock
Henry McLeish, left, with the late Donald Dewar on the Royal Mile during the Scottish Parliament inauguration in 1999. Picture: Sutton Hibbert/Shutterstock

There will be those who argue that there are more important issues to be put to a UK audience in this general election and that devolution must take a back seat because of its limited political saliency. This would be an error of judgement of some significance.

Devolution does matter. Westminster has never embraced a wider vision for the future of the union but this is the time for a reset in which the importance of a new phase of devolution is required to revitalise and reform a tired union. One thing is clear. The political and constitutional future of the United Kingdom is a multi-national and multidimensional challenge requiring a more imaginative and inspired approach. In this context, devolution must not be relegated in assessing manifesto priorities. Labour delivered devolution, and now must do more. The Tories are not remotely interested!

An intelligent and forward looking alternative to independence must be a key priority for both the UK and Scotland. The Scottish question is linked to what now should be described as the British question. The late Donald Dewar in his Spectator lecture in November 1998 said: “Clearly the debate shall not stop when the doors of the Scottish Parliament open. What we have done in Scotland may be a catalyst for change.” He added: “The Scottish Parliament must be seen as part of a wider democratic renewal in the UK. This agenda is large because it has been too long ignored.”

It is still being ignored.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer must listen to the advice of this great Scot, the architect of devolution, and Anus Sarwar, a modern leader who understands Scottishness and the need for the UK leadership to keep “signalling new directions” for the future of the devolved nations.

The focus on devolved government must remain a priority for Labour.

Ideas developed over the past fifty years are now dated and a limited expression of a way forward. The new objective must be to transform the concept of devolution into something more attractive, dynamic and inclusive, incorporating an extensive refashioning of the union; embracing the importance of nation building in Scotland; pursuing a progressive public policy agenda in the Scottish Parliament freed from an overbearing government and giving much-needed substance, identity, definition and shape to the idea of what devolution could mean and what it could deliver for Scotland, and posing the question: What kind of country does Scotland want to be?

Scotland is stalled, more deeply divided than at any time in the last 25 years with an electorate unwilling to embrace the idea of Scotland exiting the United Kingdom. After 17 years, the nation seems well placed to look a fresh at devolution and a political and constitutional alternative to independence.

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Why does devolution matter? For Labour at Westminster there are important truths to be understood. Scotland is unable to forge any form of political consensus on a way forward. The initial enthusiasm of the early devolved years has dissipated, and without a new approach there is little prospect of progress. Currently populism underpins the actions of both London and Edinburgh and this has created a battlefield where unionism, nationalism and identity politics are contributing to a destructive political struggle, generating its own momentum since 2014 and of no benefit to Scotland or the Union.

The narrow focus on Scotland should not disguise the fact that the United Kingdom operates without a clear idea of what four-nation governance should look like. The absolute sovereignty and exceptionalism of Westminster is restrictive and devolution was never viewed as impacting this impregnability or being part of a bigger vision.

Westminster has remained indifferent, indeed hostile to further reforms post 2016. There is now some urgency in looking at new ideas and to understand the politics driving devolution. This might address the interesting phenomenon, of the SNP losing popular electoral support while polling for Independence remains constant. What does this tell us about the Scottish mood? The current state of the SNP and their decline in opinion polls is significant but it would be a mistake to think that they are on an ever declining path and a spent political force. Does the decline of the traditional parties in Scotland highlight their lack of “Scottishness,” their unyielding political attachment to Westminster and their inability to psychological escape the gravitational pull of this ancient institution?

Devolution is the right concept, but requires new thinking. Westminster remains a formidable barrier to progress. Only Labour can change this. Tony Blair’s government started the process in 1997, Keir Starmer’s role is to build significantly on that legacy.

Building Britain or breaking Britain, that why Scotland matters.



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