Reform or retrenchment? Wendy Alexander on the constitution

24 March 2008

Tom Griffin (London, The Green Ribbon): Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander made a bold bid to take back the Scottish constitutional agenda on Sunday with the launch of her policy document, Change is What We Do:

We know that when Labour is the party of ideas on the constitution, it typically commands support. We know also that there is unfinished business from the 1998 Scotland Act and it is Scottish Labour’s job – in partnership with other parties and with our Labour colleagues in the rest of the United Kingdom – to fix it. Scottish Labour needs to rediscover its distinctive voice on the future of the United Kingdom.

The document is an important pointer to Labour’s strategy for the forthcoming Scottish Constitutional Commission. If Alexander has embraced the language of constitutional reform, she does not see it as exclusively a matter of devolving further powers from Westminster to Holyrood:

By implication the Commission should also consider any reasoned arguments for the boundary moving in the opposite direction, for example in national security related matters such as counter terrorism and contingency planning.

Alexander denounces as ‘woolly thinking’ Nicol Stephens insistence that “the Liberal Democrats will have nothing to do with stripping powers away from the Scottish Parliament.”

This difference of opinion is potentially a significant problem for the Commission, which is meant to produce a consensus between Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories. The SNP were quick to seize on the signs of disagreement:

The Commission started off seeking more powers for Scotland but has now been downgraded by Brown to a working party which would take powers back to London.

By parroting Gordon Brown on taking powers away from Scotland [Alexander] has only confirmed that she is not leading Labour in Scotland but being led by Labour in London.

It is certainly true that it was Gordon Brown who first broached the subject of returning powers to Westminster, in an in an interview with the BBC's Brian Taylor:

I think on terrorism and security there are some issues that have been raised by recent events. If you also take the outbreak of foot and mouth in the last year, and the responsibilities we all have in relation to that, perhaps both the Scottish Executive and Mr Salmond and the UK Government would want to say we could probably look at how these arrangements could be potentially different in the future for the benefit of everybody.

The powers mentioned by Brown are the same ones identified in the Alexander document. This suggests that Labour is serious about strengthening Westminster’s control over security and contingency planning. Almost certainly this is designed to include the issuing of British ID cards and the construction of a single British information registry

Labour has long seen the SNP as vulnerable on these issues. In 2006, then Home Secretary John Reid warned that: “In the face of the environment, international crime and terrorism, and mass migration, the narrow Nationalists stand helpless. Because these challenges cannot be tackled by putting border guards at Gretna Green."

The June 2007 attack on Glasgow Airport has since shown the potential for terrorism in Scotland, but also produced an assured response from the Scottish Government, which allowed Alex Salmond to push for greater powers in the area.

On foot and mouth too, there have been calls for further devolution, notably from the National Farmers Union.

In the face of such developments, it is difficult to see how an attempt to return powers to Westminster can achieve the kind of popular support that animated previous Labour constitutional reforms. Without that consensus, Alexander’s worthy attempt to reclaim the spirit of 1998 is in danger of being reduced to an exercise in Westminster control freakery.

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