Lord Smith, King Alexander, and what it all means for England

Scotland has opened the door to radical changes to Britain's constitution.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
28 November 2014


800 years ago next week, a sixteen year old boy called Alaxandair mac Uilliam was crowned King of Scots. Months later, when a group of English barons launched a revolt against their King John, Alexander II (as he has become known) led his armies south to support them. The role of the Scots in helping the English secure the Magna Carta is rarely discussed. But as we approach the 800th anniversary of its signing at Runnymede and, a couple of months earlier, the 2015 general election, it's worth listening for an echo of history.

Last weekend, 15,000 Scottish activists gathered like a storm on the banks of the Clyde, preparing to unleash hell on a Westminster Parliament which may come to regret working so hard to maintain its grip on a land where people now pay attention to how they are ruled.

3000 of them were supporters of the Radical Independence Campaign, planning their next steps as they lead Scotland in its charge to the left. There were numerous recurrent themes: that radical ideas are now mainstream, the need to mobilise this vast movement against the plundering of profiteers, the importance of internationalism. But some of the biggest cheers came for a shorter term aim; perhaps a surprising one for a conference whose mood was more excited than angry: the shared desire to kill off the Labour party in Scotland.

The other 12,000, in the building next door, were SNP supporters welcoming their new First Minister home to Scotland's biggest city – to a city which voted yes. With foam hands, glitter rain and Red Hot Chilli Pipers, this was a different vibe entirely: the sort of mass support even Blair in 1997 couldn't have dreamed of. This is politics, but not as it's known in the UK. The next day, as if to mark the contrast, the once mighty Glasgow Labour Party held a leadership hustings. I'm told 200 people showed up to hear from their would-be commanders. That's fewer than the Greens can expect at their regular monthly branch meetings in the city these days. The question isn't so much who the next Scottish Labour leader will be, but if they'll have any followers left.

But of course Labour's troubles in Scotland are a reflection of their problems in much (though not all) of the UK. Just before Glasgow, I was about as far away as you can get from the banks of the Clyde without leaving the UK – and I don't just mean geographically. In Rochester and Strood, people I spoke to were upset, downbeat, and angry. They were crying out for someone to give them hope. And yet Labour there polled 17%, in a seat they held most of until 2010, despite UKIP and the Tories fighting over the right.

What does all of this mean for England in its Magna Carta year? First, anger in Britain isn't just about particular policies. It's about how we are governed. It is, in other words, in the broadest sense, about the constitution. Of course, it must be seen in a global context – it's no coincidence that the two party system is fracturing in the years after the bursting of the economic system – the old order is breaking up everywhere. But, in a sense, that's because the story is similar everywhere. The rise of neoliberalism shifted power even further into the hands of a small elite. For a while, this was masked with debt bubbles and consumer luxuries – at least for enough of the population. But when the crisis hit, the underlying power dynamics were revealed.

Second, the way this will play out will be interesting. The Smith Commission proposals, announced yesterday, don't go as far as many wanted - not including most social security, for instance. But they go a lot further than many MPs, particularly Scottish Labour MPs, would have wanted. The near-full devolution of income tax in particular tugs at the seams of a British State in which the Treasury has long been all powerful. Labour MPs are despondent, saying it marks the beginning of the end of the union.

The commitment to making Holyrood permanent means Westminster parliamentary sovereignty is dead. As Carwyn Jones has argued, a written constitution is the only viable way to deliver this. West Lothian Questions will need to be answered either with an English round of devolution, or with English votes for English laws - creating an unstable parliament of unequals.

Looking forward, it seems there are two likely options as to who the next UK government will be. Either it will be Conservative led, perhaps with the support (either in coalition or less formally) of a combination of Lib Dems, the DUP and UKIP, or it will be Labour led with the support of the SNP (and possibly also Plaid Cymru and a Green or two). Looking at their inability to spin their way out of one little tweet, a Labour majority without Scotland seems less and less plausible. The country is waiting, but the party is not ready.

If Ed Miliband becomes Prime Minister on the back of the votes of SNP MPs, they will demand even more powers for Holyrood – Nicola Sturgeon has already said as much. And this means that the British constitution will continue to unravel. If Cameron stays on at Downing Street, he will have to deliver on his European referendum. And while I don't expect them to have the same intensity as Scotland's vote, I see no reason why we shouldn't expect some of the same forces to emerge during this plebiscite. And I see no reason to believe why it won't be equally disastrous for the traditional parties.

All of this leads to a simple conclusion. Those in England (and Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall, though they have different stories to tell) who wish to redistribute the power in our political system need to get organised. Cracks are opening up. Where exactly they split is yet to be seen. But we can be sure that those who wish to defend the system will work hard to paper them over, and many of those who want change wish to go in the wrong direction. Forces coming south, led, as 800 years ago, by a Scotsman called Alexander, will put huge pressure on the way England is run. But now as then, it will be up to those who live here to build something new. Time to get organised.

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