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Sarwar confirms that Labour has no plan to reform the UK

Scottish Labour leader reveals that the party’s ideas to solve the UK’s constitutional crisis are meaningless

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
4 July 2022, 5.15pm

Anas Sarwar speaking at Scottish Labour’s spring conference in Glasgow, March 2022

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Colin Fisher / Alamy Stock Photo

Britain doesn’t have a codified constitution. A fudge called the ‘Crown in Parliament’ is sovereign, and everything else is just laws, which Parliament can overturn as and when it pleases.

You’d think that Scottish politicians, after a decade of constitutional drama, would have got their heads around that by now. It seems not.

In a speech today to the Fabian Society in London, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said he would “call for a new legal duty of cooperation between the UK and Scottish governments” – which would be little more than a way of disciplining the Scottish government.

If such a law were to exist, the Scottish government would be legally required to cooperate with the UK government. But if Whitehall didn’t want to be pals with St Andrew’s House, it could simply rewrite Sarwar’s “legal duty”.

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The reality is that Anas Sarwar wants a law which would force Holyrood to collaborate with Westminster as it rounds up refugees and deports them to Rwanda, as it tries to abolish the Human Rights Act, as it cracks down on trade unions and flogs off public services. The whole point of a Scottish parliament was to cushion Scotland from the blows of Westminster. Now, Labour wants it to collaborate with these attacks.

Sarwar claimed, wrongly, that it was “20 years since devolution” (it is 25 since the referendums that established the Scottish and Welsh parliaments). He claimed (absurdly) to have started the work of rebuilding Scottish Labour in the 2021 Holyrood election – when his party lost two of its 24 seats in its worst result since Holyrood was founded. “We stopped Armageddon,” he said.

He claimed that a new referendum on independence would “pit Scot against Scot”. Apparently, the thing tearing our country apart isn’t soaring inequality, a right-wing culture war against the most vulnerable, or a desperate drive to assert ever-more corporate dominance under the shadow of the pandemic. No. Apparently, it’s democratic debate.

He repeated claims that Labour will not do any deals with the SNP. This is remarkably similar to his promise before Scotland’s local elections in May, which has left his party stitching things up with the Tories in city halls across the country; and remarkably similar to the promises Labour made before the 2015 election, when it was wiped out in Scotland.

Most of the communities that voted Labour in Scotland two decades ago now vote SNP, and Labour is still too grumpy about being dumped to behave reasonably.

Unless Labour is willing to radically reform the Commons, reforming the Lords would deepen rather than resolve Britain’s constitutional crisis

Sarwar – with all the might of one Scottish Labour MP and the third-largest group in Holyrood behind him – also proposed to reform the House of Lords (as UK Labour has promised to do for nearly a century), replacing it with a “senate of nations and regions”.

Ostensibly, this looks like a good idea. But there are two core problems. The first is that, with a proportional election system, it would make the upper house more democratic – and therefore more legitimate – than the first-past-the-post lower house. Unless Labour is willing to bring radical reform to the Commons, reforming the Lords would deepen rather than resolve Britain’s constitutional crisis.

The second problem is the very stage from which Sarwar made his announcement. Major constitutional changes to the British state will only come about if they are a serious part of the programme of a newly elected government. Taking on the Lords is not a small task, as Lloyd George discovered when he started to clip Lords’ wings with the Parliament Act in 1911.

Sarwar isn’t going to be prime minister. He wasn’t even capable of keeping his seat in Westminster. Promises he makes about reforming the UK aren’t worth the carbon he emits by uttering them.

Labour has attempted constitutional change before

The last time Labour was in power in the UK, from 1997 to 2010, it tried tinkering with the British constitution, pinning nice ideas on to the face of the monster in the hope they would change it. But in reality, the mess they left did as much damage as it did good, helping brew an unrepresented Englishness that eventually forced its way out through Brexit.

Labour went into the 1997 and 2010 elections promising major constitutional tinkering from the creation of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments to Brown’s promises of electoral reform.

And then Labour’s more serious thinkers decided more was needed.

Ahead of the 2015, 2017 and 2019 UK general elections, the party promised deep reform of the state as a whole, including constitutional conventions to rewrite the rules of British democracy, potentially ushering in a written constitution that would allow for serious decentralisation of power and curtailing Westminster’s capacity to overrule.

Only change on that scale will deal with the crisis of British democracy. But dissolving the sovereignty of the ‘Crown in Parliament’ and handing power to the people means confronting the role of the monarchy at the heart of British politics. And taking that message to the English will require a bold political leader, not a quiverer like Keir Starmer.

Since the last election, faith in British institutions has surely weakened. The deep sense of alienation across the country, the idea that ‘politicians are all the same’, that ‘you can’t trust any of them’, has only got deeper.

But so far, Labour’s response appears to be to work hard to look as ‘the same’ as the Tories as possible. Starmer secured his position as Labour leader on a pledge to keep Jeremy Corbyn’s policies, then appeared to ditch them as soon as he won.

Sarwar’s speech has made clear what constitutional change his party is offering at the next election: less than in any election since 2005. Vote for us, he’s saying, because the alternative is bogeyman Boris.

The British state is broken, and what Sarwar confirmed today is that Labour has no real plan to mend it.

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