Starmer paints Labour devolution project as bid to prevent UK break-up

Labour leader says party would oppose a second Scottish independence referendum

Keir Starmer has promised that a Labour government would deliver the boldest devolution project in a generation as an alternative to Scottish independence and the break-up of the United Kingdom. The party will set up a constitutional commission in the new year to consider how power and wealth can be devolved to the most local level.

“This won’t be an exercise in shifting power from one parliament to another – of moving a few jobs out of London, or to devolve and to forget. This will be the boldest project Labour has embarked on for a generation. And every bit as bold and radical as the programme of devolution that Labour delivered in the 1990s and 2000s,” Mr Starmer said in a speech delivered virtually from London.

“It’ll look at the successes of devolution so far, but also where it’s fallen short. It’ll consider everything from how people can have more of a say in what happens in their community, to how we can break down barriers to democracy and participation.”

Mr Starmer said the commission, which will be advised by former prime minister Gordon Brown, will not be limited in the constitutional changes it can consider, including the creation of a federal Britain. He said it would consider all parts of the UK, including Northern Ireland, but his speech focused on Scotland, which has parliamentary elections next May.


Sturgeon ‘misguided’

Recent opinion polls have shown a consistent majority in favour of Scottish independence, and first minister Nicola Sturgeon has promised to seek a second independence referendum if her Scottish National Party (SNP) wins a majority at Holyrood. Mr Starmer said Labour would oppose a second referendum and he urged Boris Johnson not to agree to it if Ms Sturgeon requested it.

"It would be entirely the wrong priority to hold another Scottish independence referendum in the teeth of the deepest recession for 300 years, while still fighting this pandemic, when there is such uncertainty about how Brexit and coronavirus will affect us and when the costs and consequences of independence are still so uncertain," he said.

“That’s why Nicola Sturgeon’s call for an independence referendum in the ‘early part’ of the next Scottish parliament – perhaps even next year – is so misguided. Given the damage and division this would cause, no responsible first minister should contemplate it – and no responsible prime minister would grant it.”

Kirsten Oswald, the SNP's deputy leader at Westminster, dismissed Mr Starmer's proposals as "constitutional tinkering" that would not protect Scotland from Brexit or from the possibility of another decade of Conservative government in London.

"It's clear that only with the full powers of independence will we be able to properly protect our interests and secure our place in Europe – and that decision lies solely with the people of Scotland, not an out-of-touch Westminster system," she said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times