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Scots and the English Centre-Left (August 2008)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Decentralised English government with new ideas, resources and institutions is a better solution than more metropolitanism


There is, as ever, a beam in the eye of the London body politic. Glasgow East has been swept up into the ‘last days of Brown’ narrative, and any discussion of the place itself thrown to the usual canaille of restaurant critics and motormouths. It was a crushing SNP victory, as core Labour voters must have deserted in droves. I thought Margaret Curran would scrape in because the aspirational ‘life-changers’ were off on holiday; but there must have been a seismic shift, with the elderly Catholic ranks becoming responsive to SNP argument.

The SNP may have a struggle to hold it at the next general election, but it is possible they could do so in a quite different context. Might the survival artists of the Glasgow Labour City State not do a deal with the Nats? I asked this hypothetically 10 days ago. Tom McCabe, MSP for Hamilton South, ex-Whip and standard-issue hard man, has hinted that ‘independence, Labour-style’ may be on offer. And pretty soon?

If Labour continues to shamble along as the undead, a grimmer prospect could face it, especially if at the next UK election the SNP gets close to its goal of 30 of Scotland's 59 Westminster seats. Constituent Assembly time, some of us might say. Particularly if we've read Robert Hazell's rather panicky Guardian piece on the constitutional hurdles. Yes, there are juridical obstacles, but they are being outpaced by the UK's economic and political dysfunction, and our European neighbours are evaluating the assets – where they don't already own them.

In Glasgow East the Cameroons got nowhere, and remain a public relations phenomenon; not a particularly resilient one in Boris Johnson's case. They are on song, but mysteriously detached from filthy lucre, the Chris Gents of Vodafone and not-so-long-ago, who have cashed in and cleared off, enjoying pensions and payoffs 10 times those of a cabinet minister. When do they reappear?

There have been rumours of Tory negotiations with the SNP for something that amounts to ‘independence in all but name’, but would Middle England, once it surges back, buy this? Or, if in government the Tories want a showdown with Europe, what if Brussels (or France plus Germany) make the Scots a better offer?

"Dismiss the impossible, and whatever remains, however improbable, will be true." Quite so, Holmes. What, then, about one Labour escape route: using the Scots crisis to foreground the constitution-in-danger, to be rescued by (in particular) proportional representation?

Would it be possible for a reborn Brown (or plausible successor) to revive the Robin Cook programme, fronting it with a symmetrical federal settlement in England – the return of regionalism – and getting the LibDems on board? Some Tories may even buy it, as in Scotland they've only survived through devolution and PR. Henry Drucker wrote in these terms in his wise Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party back in 1979, when he was godfather to both Brown and Cook.

My Fabian Tract 484 of 1982, Against Metropolis, has the blueprint of a British Bundesrepublik, with its eight regions: Northumbria, Lancaster, York, Mercia, Wessex, Anglia, London and the Downs, and the House of Lords converted into a federal senate. A post-football, post-motorway, post-shopping mall, post-Northern Rock England may find it a sensible basis for reconstruction. The public-spirited of the English provinces – Billy Bragg's admirable ‘Progressive Patriots’ – are, anyhow, welcome to use it.

This would give a conventional European centre-left regionally-grounded regime consensual enough to negotiate with multinationals, secessionists, and where necessary Brussels with greater confidence than the present set-up. It wouldn't lack talent, and it would certainly dent a Tory unity which has its limits: notably over Europe and equality.

Whether it could actually stop the SNP's redoubtable leadership is another matter. I think not: Alex Salmond's picture card isn't just the revival of the Atlantic Arc I wrote about in my Floating Commonwealth, 1860-1930 (Oxford) but the fact that London-Dublin relations are better now that at any time since Strongbow. Confederal cooperation between sovereign states can work. It's better to have as partner a revived, decentralised English government with new ideas, resources, and institutions, than another metropolitan generation on the qui vive.

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