Unkind souls – you know who you are – have been describing Johann Lamont’s latest contribution to the debate on Scottish self-government as devo-nano. This is unfair. A nanometre is a real unit of measurement. It may be tiny, it may be invisible to the human eye, but it does actually exist and is an incremental step forwards. Johann’s proposals don’t even go that far. They’re more of a devo-event-horizon.
The event horizon, for those of you who don’t devour bad science fiction, is the region surrounding a black hole where the force of gravity becomes so strong that light is not able to escape. A black hole is what is left after a massive star collapses in on itself, its mass falling inwards into a singularity where the normal laws of physics break down. To the outside observer, anything falling into the black hole appears frozen for all eternity on the event horizon. Meanwhile the person or thing falling into the black hole continues to plummet to its doom, and is crushed out of existence. That’s the final destination of Labour’s devo-journey.
Despite being two years in the making, despite the constant assertions from Johann that she wants to listen to the people of Scotland and engage in debate about Scotland’s future, Labour’s devolution proposals have got nothing to do with responding to the long standing demand from Scottish voters for greater powers for the Scottish Parliament. Instead they have everything to do with the Labour party attempting, yet again, to score party political points at the expense of the SNP.
Every single one of the increased powers which Labour would grant to Holyrood is motivated by a desire to stick one on the SNP. What the party describes as all the powers that Scotland could ever want or need are in fact all the powers that Labour hopes it needs in order to make a campaigning point against Alex Salmond.
The much vaunted ability to vary the top rate of income tax exists solely in order to give Jim Murphy and his pals a point to make in interviews with friendly media hacks – to attack Alicsammin and demand he raises the top rate of tax. It’s an unusuable power, but it provides Labour’s politicians with a few nice sound bites. That’s its sole purpose. The ability to vary the other bands of income tax by 15p instead of the 10p allowed by 2012’s Scotland Act is meaningless. The tax varying powers have never been used because any increase in revenues will be eliminated by a corresponding cut to the Scottish block grant. Holyrood has no ability to vary the tax rates, or increase the taxes paid by the rich but decrease those paid by the poor. That’s not going to change.
Anyone who’s been paying attention over the past decade or so knows that Holyrood’s tax powers are cosmetic and will never be used. Labour knows that better than most since they designed the system. So you might think that the party could have made the headline catching offer to increase the powers of Holyrood to vary the tax rate by 100p in the pound, safe in the knowledge that the powers will never be used. But they couldn’t even do that. It might send the wrong message to voters south of the border, and that would never do.
The powers over the Bedroom Tax are in order to neutralise one of the strongest points of the Yes campaign – that Scotland gets benefits policies imposed on the country even though a large majority of our political representatives are against it. Labour wants to treat the worst of the current symptoms to make the itch go away, but doesn’t propose curing the underlying condition. And that’s before we start to consider the mechanics of the process. Labour has not explained exactly how the new system will work. It seems they don’t know.
The increased powers for local authorities exist purely in order to transfer power from a Holyrood where Labour can no longer be assured of power, to local councils which remain party strongholds. The same goes for the powers over the Crown Estates.
There is absolutely nothing here which provides evidence that Labour has engaged with the electorate of Scotland in order to put forward devolution proposals which meet Scotland’s needs. Instead what we see are the results of Labour arguing amongst itself about the best way to attack the SNP without damaging the status and position of Labour’s Westminster contingent. This isn’t a devolution proposal. It’s a security blanket for Jim Murphy.
Labour can’t help itself. You might have thought that in the lead up to an independence referendum which threatens to bring the Westminster gravy train to a shuddering halt north of the border, that Labour would have raised its eyes from its party political navel and looked at the bigger picture. But no. Even when faced with a radically altered political landscape where the concept of independence has been normalised, Labour is still playing the Westminster game. It’s the only game they understand.
We got the usual cant about the “redistributive Union”, as though the UK existed as a genuine mechansism for equalising the gulf between rich and poor, between London and the South East and the rest of the UK. Yet when Labour was in power for 13 years under Blair and Brown we saw Peter Mandelson (remember him and his serial resignations amidst assorted accusations?) telling us that Labour was intensely relaxed about a small number of people getting filthy rich. We saw the gap between rich and poor widen, we saw London and the South East continue to grow at the expense of the North of England, Wales and Scotland.
And now with Ed Miliband at the helm Labour is returning to its centralising instincts. Ed’s slogan of One Nation – ripped off, without any apparent shame, from 19th century Conservatives – points to the past, not the future. When the great hope for progressive politics in the UK rests upon aping the aspirations of Victorian Tories, you know that the Labour party has not just lost its way in the desert, it’s already dead from thirst and exposure. The best we can hope for is a crumb of patronising attention from those who think of themselves as the great and good. Labour’s redistributive Union doesn’t exist except in Johann’s imagination.
Even Gordon Brewer was roused from the torpor in which he’s spent the past few months, and tried, but failed, to get Johann Lamont to explain Labour’s thinking in a car crash of an interview on BBC 2’s Newsnicht. Only to discover that Johann herself doesn’t understand Labour’s thinking, or indeed any thinking at all. When the leader of the Labour party in Scotland doesn’t seem to understand either her new proposals nor the devolution settlement the proposals claim to build on, it’s clear to one and all that we are not being presented with an architectural blueprint for the future of Scottish government. It’s more of a child’s scribble with a crayon. But that’s what you get when you let Ian Davidson influence policy.
So now we know. All those voters who were holding out for devomax, a federal UK, a means of rebalancing the UK to prevent London and the South East devouring the rest of the country – you can forget it. Labour’s told you it’s not going to happen. And if it’s not going to happen now, when Labour and Westminster are facing a Scottish electorate for whom the concept of independence has become normalised, when we are in a tightly fought campaign a few months away from an independence referendum that could bring Ian Davidson and Jim Murphy’s careers to a shuddering halt, you know it’s never going to happen at all.
It’s not Scotland which is frozen on the event horizon. It’s not Scotland which is plummeting to certain doom, crushed by the forces of gravity from Westminster and the City of London. It’s the Labour party.
The Labour movement remains a force for good and for progressive social change, but the Labour party is not fit for purpose. There’s only one way in which the Labour movement in Scotland can get a political party that truly represents the aspirations and desires of the Scottish Labour movement. When you put a cross beside Yes in September, you’re not just voting for the independence of Scotland, you’re also voting to make the Labour party in Scotland independent. For Labour voters in Scotland, that’s the only way they’ll ever get a Labour party that represents what they believe in.
I’m fed up with crumbs from the table. I’m fed up with promises of jam that never materialise. I’m fed up with a Labour party which has collected the cash for my order for sweet and sour pork with fried rice but which delivers a tiny wee bit of stale prawn cracker and tells me I should be grateful. I’m not grateful. I want the banquet. I want independence.