Guest blog by Mark Perryman
Labour has always been essentially a Unionist party. Scottish Labour for decades was deeply divided over devolution, though this changed in 1997 when the party united behind Tony Blair’s devolution settlement. In Wales the change in party culture has been even more significant with Welsh Labour in coalition with Plaid Cymru. Yet at the centre the Brown government continues to campaign vigorously in favour of Britishness, Britsh values, and most notoriously at Brown’s inaugural party conference ‘British Jobs for British Workers, with – just in case the point might be lost – a huge Union Jack as the platform backdrop.
The process of devolution which began a decade ago with elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly is now irreversible, no mainstream party seeks to reverse this shift and while fracture into four independent nations is not immediately likely the once united Kingdom is certainly not what it was. This is often ignored by the Westminster-fixated political class and their hangers-on. Perhaps because however central England might become in any eventual fracture, the separation is being driven not from what has traditionally considered itself the centre, but from nations that have been previously relegated to the margins.
Ten years of devolution have begun the transformation of the British state. The next ten years could well see these gradualist beginnings take more drastic shape. A General Election in 2010 with a Cameron majority built on English seats yet minority suppprt in Scotland and Wales will surely create immense constitutional pressures. A year later elections will follow to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. Despite the Tories rising fortunes under Cameron there is absolutely no evidence of a significant recovery of his party in either Scotland or Wales. Labour will be reeling from the 2010 defeat. Having propped the party up with millionaire donations and turned their annual conference into a money-making corporate trade fair Labour will struggle to hold its social and organisational fabric together. Party membership which soared when Blair became leader has plummeted ever since, demoralisation and disorientation will now deepen. Through three consecutive General Election defeats, 1979-1992, Labour maintained the semblance of effective opposition because the promise of a Labour Government remained for millions the alternative to Thatcherism. After 2010 that prospect may not have the compelling purpose it once had, certainly not in the immediate aftermath of the wasted opportunity for change that the new Labour years will come to represent after being defeated by Cameron’s Blair-lite Tories. The trade unions, who for all the glitzy rhetoric of modernisation remain the foundation of Labour’s finances and infrastructure will themselves be suffering from the impact of the recession on their members. Many of whom will be questioning what their support for Labour has earned the unions in terms of influence.
There couldn’t be a worse situation for Labour to campaign to restrict Scotland and Wales to more-or-less the current devolution settlement in the 2011 elections. Nationalist fervour, fundamentally anti-Tory, will be rampant, perhaps not with the breadth to secure independence in a referendum but almost certainly a solid enough bloc to entrench the movement towards that ambition.
In Scotland and Wales after 2010 independence won’t simply be an end in itself. In place of British labourism it will be the purpose of opposition, and unlike 1979-1997 thanks to Labour the institutions to fulfil that ambition now exist.
Mark Perryman is the Editor of Breaking-Up Britain : Four Nations after a Union. Available from www.lwbooks.co.uk.
A free download of Mark’s keynote essay in the book ‘ A Jigsaw State’ is available from www.lwbooks.co.uk/books/archive/Breaking_up_Britain_Perrryman.pdf