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The University of Southampton
Centre for English Identity and Politics

Labour, England, Scotland and the union

These three papers are drawn from presentations to a seminar hosted by the Centre for English Identity and Politics in October 2020. The seminar addressed a range of issues confronting the Labour Party as it considers the future of the union.

Prof John Denham, Director of the Centre, argues that the future governance of England, and its delineation from the government of the union, will be key to finding a new future for the union and to Labour’s electoral recovery.

Rory Scothorne, writer and postgraduate researcher, outlines the challenges facing Labour in a Scotland where the possibility of creating a better nation and society is inextricably bound up with debates about Scotland’s constitutional future.

Prof Mike Kenny, Professor of Public Policy at Cambridge University, provides a response to both papers and asks whether Labour’s assumption that rebuilding a common tradition of Britishness can meet the issues raised in the discussion.

John Denham: The union and the governance of England

The legacy of history

The empire that forged the union is long gone. That imperial union relied on a constructive ambiguity. It allowed England to see the union as the extension of English institutions and interests. It fostered the Anglo-centric British nationalism that dominates England’s parties even when their other politics differ. This British nationalism cannot acknowledge England’s existence or identity as a nation. By contrast, the union allowed Scotland both to belong to the union and enjoy its own national identity, institutions and culture.

This ambiguity is under terminal pressure from the rise of Scottish nationalism and the increasing assertiveness of Anglo-centric British nationalism. While Anglo-centric British nationalists dominated the Brexit campaign, the ‘political English’ who emphasise English identity and interests have become a significant force. A somewhat inchoate group, containing many former Labour voters, the political English were the decisive influence on the Brexit vote and Johnson’s election.

A second imperial legacy is England’s highly centralised state. The unitary state was important to Labour’s post-war success but over recent decades it has primarily facilitated the financialisation, de-industrialisation, and internationalisation of the economy. Though Labour introduced Scottish and Welsh devolution for transactional reasons, it never re-thought the union, the state or England’s position within it. England remains subject to the union government.

Anglo-centric British nationalism is not confined to the Conservative Party nor to Brexit campaigners. UK Labour is equally British nationalist, uncomfortable talking about or to England, and sharing the core assumption that England, Britain and the union are the same. Yet there is no longer a ‘British politics’. For years now, each part of the union has been contested and won by different parties.  COVID-19 has forced some dim awareness that the nations of the union are not the same. The return of powers under Brexit has highlighted the role of ministers representing both the union and English interests. But politics in England has yet to grasp their significance.

Labour should have two over-arching objectives:

- To find a new mutual basis for union (rather than the defence of the existing union) that can be attractive in each part of it

- In England, to extend it electoral base to include the ‘political English’ who are at the core of recent defeats.

The union and England

The current  asymmetry in the union is that, to the smaller nations, an English dominated union government appears to impose English priorities across the whole irrespective of national and democratic desires (as in the Single Market Bill). Yet at the same time, under the union constitution, England is badly governed: centralised, an imbalanced economy, underfunding of its poorer regions, and shorn of entrenched democratic rights to determine policy at any level. What is more, the deep fracturing of English society that was apparent in the Brexit vote and since cannot be healed in a nation that has no forum or institutions in which its future can be debated.

The future union must constrain union governments in Westminster from imposing Anglo-centric British nationalist priorities on the whole of the union and allow the recognition of England as a political nation within that union. This will require both some form of reformed and federal union within which England should be able to function as a nation as do the other parts of the union, with legislative, executive and political control over issues already devolved to other nations.

While the case for English nationhood is not widely articulated in contemporary politics, polling shows consistent majorities for the idea that English MPs should make English laws. Deep dissatisfaction with the operation of the political system is well documented. The case for reform in England is as much civic and democratic as it is national.

The key challenges in establishing a reformed union will be:

- To define UK functions and governance, including means of protecting rights of the smaller nations.

- The articulation of more robust mechanism for intra-government coordination

- The ultimate replacement of the Barnett formula with a union-wide needs-based formula, from which national budgets are constructed. 

Electoral challenges and political legitimacy

Labour needs to win England, particularly amongst voters who emphasise their English identity. Both devolution and EVEL make unviable any long-term strategy of relying on Scottish MPs to sustain a union government in which Labour has no English majority.

Labour ‘got away’ with tuition fees and NHS trusts in the early 2000s, but politics has moved on as Conservative 2015 election ‘Miliband in Salmond’s pocket campaign’ proved. It is a peculiarly British nationalist view that asserts that England has no interest in how it is governed, nor who by. It is doubtful that a UK government could legitimately impose unpopular legislation on England that was opposed by a majority of English MPs.  A government whose first act was to abolish EVEL to allow Scottish Labour MPs to determine English only legislation would have a difficult start. Reliance on the SNP would be even more toxic.

An incoming union Labour government might survive for some time without serious challenge. But as a longer-term strategy and given that the future of the union requires a separate political definition of England, Labour should accept the democratic principle that English laws should be made by English MPs.

Labour must also win in Scotland, but these will be largely separate political contests taking place in different political nations.  A vision for the union and the articulation of a vision for Britain in the world may provide an attractive edge in both, but little more than that.

Winning England

Labour’s deep pessimism about its English electoral chances prospects does not stem just from its current position. Deep in Labour’s traditions is the idea that the party represents the deprived and industrialised parts of the union against English conservatism. Having casually (but unavoidably) shattered that alliance with devolution, Labour now has no choice but to re-imagine itself as a party than can win in every party of England.

UK Labour frequently confuses English, union and devolved policy. It rarely names England even when talking exclusively about it. For a critical minority of England’s voters, English interests and identity – which is closely related to their sense of political, geographical, social and economic marginalisation - are important. It is worth noting that Boris Johnson’s English victory in 2019 was entirely amongst voters who identify as ‘English not British’ or ‘more English than British’.

The English identity does not need a nationalist appeal but does need to be recognised and respected, as should its democratic aspirations and desire to be heard. Labour should talk about England as naturally as it does about Britain. While there is much more to electoral success than identity and nation, these should provide a framework within which the party talks about policy for England and for rebuilding its connections with lost English voters.

English devolution

England undoubtedly needs internal devolution, but this has to be as a complement to nationhood within the union, not as an alternative. It would be ridiculous to establish seven or nine legislatures within England, but if England’s domestic policy remains under the tutelage of the union government the scope of any devolution will be limited to  serving union priorities as it has been over the past twenty years.

English voters and English democracy

Westminster does not provide the forum in which England’s future is  provided by other parliaments and assemblies. (It serves a union state, and its English constituencies are dominated by British nationalist parties)

There is no coordinated machinery of English government, nor is there any direct ministerial accountability for the coordination or delivery of English policy.

Polling shows a consistent majority in favour of only English MPs making English laws.

Every other part of the union have had referendum on how they are governed in the past 21 years. (It was Remainers’ misfortune that the EU referendum provided an outlet for the democratic frustrations of the political English). Labour should open a wide-ranging debate about how England is governed from national to local level. It should expect support for reform of the Commons, and for administrative and executive devolution to identifiable localities. The discussion should primarily be civic and democratic.

A Labour strategy for change

It is hard to imagine a single constitutional reform process that deals with every issue from UK federalism  to finance to English decentralisation.  On the other hand, one constitutional reform leads to others (remember how Scottish devolution was going to kill nationalism stone dead?).

The status quo is untenable, both constitutionally and electorally. Any Labour proposal such as a ‘Federation of the Nations and Regions’ will ultimately open all the issues covered in this paper. (For example, replacing the Lords with a Senate of nations, the UK government and a few English mayors of council leaders immediately changes the Westminster process for English legislation, prompting debate about how the Commons works. Even as a toothless body it would provide a platform to challenge the gross unfairness of the Barnett formula to Wales and the English regions. In turn these will trigger pressure for further change).

Labour’s strategy should embrace  incremental change but holding a clear vision with a clear vision of the ultimate outcome the party seeks and expects. It could well start with clear principle for reform.

These might include:

· Commitment to a reformed union of nations, coming together because it makes sense for the 21st century, with guaranteed rights for each nation in relation to union policy.

· England should be allowed the same level of democratic control over its domestic policy as is enjoyed in the other nations with English only laws made by MPs elected for English constituencies.

· Constitutional change must be a democratic process, open to citizens through deliberative assemblies and constitutional conventions, and subject to popular ratification.

· This reform will change the culture of our politics requiring negotiation, collaboration and cooperation across politicians of different parties and from different nations.

John Denham

29.9.20.

 

Rory Scothorne: Labour’s Scottish Questions

What kind of Scotland?

As James Mitchell has recently argued, there is – or at least should be – no single ‘Scottish Question’.[1] The last half-century of debates over independence and devolution have been tangled up with another, richer discussion about ‘what kind of Scotland’ these constitutional options should encourage. Yet as far as commentators, journalists, politicians and scholars alike are concerned, the brash primary colours of constitutional argument have been the easiest to pick out amongst subtler political shades. The feedback loops encouraged by the modern, marketised and attention-driven media landscape have made it increasingly hard to talk about these more complex ‘Scottish questions’ without also talking about the Scottish question. Without an answer to the latter, the Labour Party has little chance of being heard when it tries to talk about the kind of Scotland it wants.

I will outline Labour’s past, present and possible ‘answers’ to the constitutional question below, but it is worth asking first whether Labour even knows what kind of Scotland it wants. The party may have some sense of what kind of society it wants, but that is not the same thing. One of Scottish Labour’s greatest problems is a failure to see the nation as a powerful way of bringing abstract ‘social’ questions down to earth, into the world of popular symbolism and everyday identification with territorially-bounded networks. There is a related problem here, where the very real differences that exist between the institutional, cultural and political lifeworlds of the UK’s constituent nations are considered unspeakable by Scottish Labour politicians and members, for fear of reinforcing “nationalist" ideas. The result is an abstract opposition to the language and politics of Scottish nationality that appears absurd from outside the party bubble.

The Same, But Different

Those differences can not, as some opponents of independence insist, be boiled down to mere fabrications of nationalist propaganda or the atavism of an austerity-stricken public. While social attitudes surveys repeatedly show relatively small differences between Scottish and English voters, this sidesteps the issue rather than debunking it.[2] Decades of scholarship on Scotland’s distinctive political dynamics have identified the overwhelming importance of culture, tradition and institutions in mediating and nationalising popular experiences and attitudes which may be otherwise shared across the UK.[3] Indeed, the most intriguing paradox of Scottish nationalism is this: for much of the nation’s history, Scotland’s economy, sociology and culture were considerably more distinct from the rest of the UK than they are now, though also more internally divided between the lowlands and the highlands and islands; it is only as these differences were progressively eroded in the second half of the twentieth century that Scotland’s ‘banal’ popular nationalism began to rearticulate itself as an independent, and increasingly pro-independence, political force.


[1] James Mitchell, ‘Why Scotland’s future is more than just a simple binary choice’, The Herald on Sunday (27th September, 2020), https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/18751554.professor-james-mitchell-scotlands-future-just-simple-binary-choice/
[2] John Curtice, Ian Montagu, ‘Do Scotland and England & Wales Have Different Views About Immigration?’, NatCen Social Research (December 2018), https://natcen.ac.uk/our-research/research/do-scotland-and-england-wales-have-different-views-about-immigration/
[3] David McCrone, Understanding Scotland: The Sociology of a Nation (London: Routledge, 2001)

Scotland has always had a distinctive political ‘system’, with UK-wide parties aligning themselves with national traditions.[4] Yet from 1959, Scotland also began to vote in a noticeably different way from England, moving towards Labour as England moved towards the Conservatives.[5] The emergence and rise of the SNP and the unpopularity of Thatcherism in Scotland increased this political divergence, and devolution has consolidated and expanded it further.[6]

How Scottish is Scottish Labour?

Labour was once skilled at embedding its British ambitions in Scotland’s distinctive political opportunity structures, and articulating itself as an authentically Scottish political force. This left-wing ‘unionist-nationalism’ was based in part on those deep structural differences noted above: the concentration of heavy industry, and thus party heartlands, in Scotland meant the country was well-represented within the UK party.[7] It also depended on a degree of genuine intellectual nationalism amongst party thinkers, keeping their attention focused upon Scotland and its complex webs of political meaning in spite of London’s noisier appeal. During the Second World War, a group of Scottish Labour intellectuals styling themselves as the “London Scots Self-Government Committee” produced a richly detailed pamphlet titled The New Scotland, drawing together distinctively Scottish traditions of socialism, radical liberalism and the democratic, communitarian localism of the Kirk into a powerful vision of explicitly national transformation.[8] As the new millennium and a new Scottish Parliament approached, Labour also promised a “New Scotland,” yet this was far more in tune with the general ‘modernising’ priorities of New Labour than anything uniquely national.[9]

Since the rebirth of the Scottish Parliament, Scottish Labour has declined to provide a vision of Scotland that is meaningfully distinct from its wider vision for Britain. While Labour formed the Scottish Executive (now called the Scottish Government, a change protested by Labour) in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, there were occasional bouts of differentiation, such as free personal care for the elderly. These emerged, however, in a largely ad-hoc fashion out of the distinct political and policy environment of devolved Scotland, rather than as part of a clear political strategy. While Labour spent much of the 1980s and ‘90s advertising and embracing Scotland’s dissent from Thatcherism, this dissenting energy largely vanished once the party was returned to government at Westminster.

[4] James Kellas, The Scottish Political System, 4th ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p.5
[5] I.G.C. Hutchison, Scottish Politics in the Twentieth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), p.99
[6] Richard J. Finlay, ‘Thatcherism, Civil Society and the Road to Home Rule: Scotland 1980-1997’, in Alexander Murdoch (ed.), The Scottish Nation: Identity and History (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2007)
[7] David Torrance, Standing up for Scotland: Nationalist Unionism and Scottish Party Politics, 1884-2014, p.121
[8] London Scots Self-Government Committee, The New Scotland: 17 Chapters on Scottish Re-construction, Highland and Industrial (London: London Scots Self-Government Committee, 1942)
[9] Chris McWilliams, Charlie Johnstone and Gerry Mooney, ‘Urban Policy in the New Scotland: The Role of Social Inclusion Partnerships’, Space and Polity 8:3 (2004), pp.309-319

Cosmopolitan Nationalism

That energy was taken up instead by the Scottish National Party, who have effectively combined the broader question of “what kind of Scotland?” with their specific constitutional answer of independence. The SNP have been able to grasp the implications of the paradox noted above, in which Scotland’s diminished social and economic ‘independence’ from the rest of the UK has been accompanied by greater political divergence. Scotland’s new nationalism, shared in particular across young Scots, who overwhelmingly support independence, is not predicated on a deep divergence of social and economic experience from England, but in contrasting institutional options, and divergent representations of Scotland and what we might call ‘Anglo-Britain’ in media (including social media) and popular culture.

British political identity increasingly serves as a proxy for an Englishness defined by cultural conservatives who feel alienated by globalisation and the cosmopolitan identification it encourages. Mainstream Scottish nationalism, however, articulates itself as a way of bringing those processes ‘home’. Scottish identity, embodied in shared institutions, provides a highly effective container for the uncertainty and flux of globalised life, combining feelings of territorial belonging with an explicit emphasis on being ‘welcoming’ and ‘open’.[10] It taps into an international cultural zeitgeist – promoted throughout popular culture and counterculture alike – which celebrates ‘authenticity’ and ‘roots’, without ever demanding too much substantiation of what those ‘roots’ really are.[11]

To reiterate the irony here: the collapse of the more ‘rooted’ industrial basis of Scottish difference throughout the twentieth century (following on from the earlier uprooting of industrialisation) has left the country with a remarkably malleable national identity which derives much of its political appeal from its easy compatibility with the de-nationalising processes of globalisation. It requires neither radicalism nor nativism, and offers a means of negotiating entry into globalised supply chains in a way that reinforces national identity rather than diminishing it. It is no coincidence that what is perhaps the founding slogan of modern Scottish nationalism, uttered by Winnie Ewing after taking Hamilton from Labour in 1967, captured this logic perfectly: “stop the world, Scotland wants to get on.” As Britain very publicly attempts to extricate itself from its international commitments, the contrast is all the more powerful.

Anywhere But Somewhere

The combination of this with the prevailing collective political memory of Scotland’s 1980s – deep hostility to the Conservative Party – ought to make Scottish nationhood naturally compatible with the combination of cultural cosmopolitanism and centre-left policy that is the common sense of the modern Labour Party. Yet Labour’s new preoccupation with performing a culturally conservative ‘patriotism’ only reinforces their Scottish dilemma. This English nationality politics, disguised as Britishness, may or may not be electorally justifiable south of the border; it makes little sense north of Hadrian’s wall, even when it comes to competing in a three-way fight for a dwindling minority of committed unionists. Nor can Labour hide behind devolution: while Scotland may have a different political system, the ‘attention economy’ of the whole UK remains concentrated in London and Westminster. Scottish voters can hear Keir Starmer’s appeals to a barely disguised English identity as clearly as voters in the ‘red wall’ can.


[10] Alex Law, Gerry Mooney, ‘Competitive Nationalism: State, Class, and the Forms of Capital in Devolved Scotland’, Environment and Planning 30:1 (2012), pp.62-77
[11] Scott Hames, The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019), p.257

Labour’s challenge in England has been framed as a negotiation between city-bound “anywheres” and country- and town-dwelling “somewheres”, a distinction which is itself markedly Anglocentric.[12] In Scotland, somewhere and anywhere are already closely entangled with one another – indeed, some Scots will infamously support “anyone but England” at sporting contests, reflecting the way in which Scotland’s relatively cosmopolitan political consensus is itself a performance of difference from England.

This is not only a question of different nations, but entirely different logics of national identification which are only pushed further apart by attempts to force them together. They are nevertheless continually being forced together in the British public sphere. The Scottish media pay no less attention to Westminster politics than English media do, but the ‘British’ media’s attention is understandably focused on English politics. In this highly competitive British economy of attention, the more forcefully Scots identify with their institutional distinctiveness, the more likely they are to be heard, and see Scotland’s distinctive issues represented.

Devolution or Radical Federalism?

Can constitutional reform resolve any of this? Labour has had two default responses to constitutional questions. ‘Devolution’ has been the pragmatic, somewhat improvised approach of British Governments to territorial divergence for over a century, in ‘administrative’ and ‘legislative’ forms. This retains sovereignty in Westminster, while providing opportunities for the expression of national difference where permitted. This has only served to buy time for a deeper structural crisis, and now – with Scotland highly devolved already – the union is running out of long grass into which the problem can be kicked.[13] Despite previous opposition, Scottish Labour now supports the devolution of the key areas of employment law and borrowing powers, but has reaped no electoral reward from this almost completely unadvertised change of position. The unitary logic of the UK Government’s Internal Market Bill has also exposed the cynical correctness of the claim, attributed to Enoch Powell, that “power devolved is power retained.”[14]

The second response has been to propose ‘federalism’, though little detail has ever been publicly added to this despite considerable recent policy work behind the scenes. The scheme of ‘radical federalism’ developed – and then abandoned, incomplete – by Scottish Labour in the run-up to the 2019 election considered a UK-wide written constitution incorporating social, economic and civil rights as a ‘floor’ below which no federal unit could fall; extensive further devolution of powers to the existing devolved governments and new regional assemblies in England; and an elected ‘Senate of the Nations and Regions’ to replace the House of Lords. While something along these lines could indeed resolve many of the tensions of the current, highly asymmetric union, the political conditions for its realisation – essentially a revolution in British constitutional politics, including the break-up of England, the abolition of parliamentary sovereignty and the writing of an entirely new constitution with popular consent – are glaringly absent.

[12] David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (London: Hurst & Company, 2017)
[13] Tom Nairn, After Britain: New Labour and the Return of Scotland (London: Granta, 2000)
[14] Michael Keating, ‘Back to the Unitary State?’, Centre on Constitutional Change (September 2020), https://www.centreonconstitutionalchange.ac.uk/news-and-opinion/back-unitary-state

Pro Patria Mori

Advocates of ‘radical federalism’ such as Baroness Pauline Bryan identified Brexit as a ‘constitutional moment’ in which the UK’s political structures could be remade.[15] Yet it is worth wondering who the possible political subject of this remaking would be. In understanding the UK’s somewhat spectral constitutional order, it makes little sense to view things in terms of deliberate artifice, like the coherent and ‘universal’ products of those great nation-making ‘constitutional moments’ achieved by revolutionary national movements elsewhere. Instead, the UK should be seen as a kind of constitutional ecology, a ‘community of fate’ which is determined not by genuine collective agency but the mutual entanglement of several semi-autonomous but overlapping polities.

Insofar as the UK mobilises its whole people politically - rather than, for instance, mobilising unionists in the North of Ireland - it does so as a means of constitutional re-legitimation in general elections. Beneath this appearance of a level electoral playing-field lie multiple distinctively national political systems, ensuring that constitutional protest and political upheaval is always highly territorialised, reinforcing the unevenness of British political change over time.[16] It is in this context that the British left’s continued efforts to engage with ‘patriotism’ take on a markedly religious character, reflecting the reality of a British political culture that has evolved largely outwith the deliberate control of its public. If there is a British patriotism, it requires the passive acceptance - or to put it more critically, helpless worship - of the constitutional status quo in the absence of any means of fundamentally reshaping it in a collectively agreed direction.

Towards Confederation?

If the British left’s constitutional options seem exhausted, then it could be time to let the idea of the ‘British left’ have a long overdue rest – perhaps in the comfort of the People’s History Museum. As Starmer’s territorially confused ‘patriotism’ suggests, the left, or lefts, across these islands would benefit from a little more clarity about where they actually are.  After much wavering between the fudge of ‘devolution’ and the utopia of ‘federalism’, Labour will eventually be forced to recognise and accept a political environment that is increasingly confederal in spirit, if not yet in fact.

[15] Pauline Bryan, ‘Creating a Constitutional Moment’, Red Paper Collective (March 2019), https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Red-Paper-Publication-Pauline-Bryan.pdf
[16] James Mitchell, ‘The Westminster Model and the State of Unions’, Parliamentary Affairs 63:1 (2010), pp.85-88

This is not a question of ‘letting Scotland go’ – if that is how it feels, its Anglocentric logic only illuminates the problem – but of transforming the nature of the relationship between Scotland and the UK, from one based on hierarchy and central power, to a free association that is permanently decentralised in nature. If the UK cannot be transformed from the centre, then it also cannot be remade from the peripheries without those peripheries first asserting their own independent agency. Only Labour can ensure that such a process of rebalancing happens according to some kind of consistent confederal vision, without cynical obstructionism from the centre souring the relationship permanently.

This certainly does not mean accepting the SNP’s roadmap and vision for independence. It does, however, mean articulating a confederal vision for Scotland and the UK that can incorporate the demand for independence rather than trying to suppress or divert it: one in which Scotland is spoken for, as an independent and equal member of the union, rather than spoken to as a wayward subordinate of the UK state. If it is to lose its current image as UK Labour’s voice in Scotland, Scottish Labour must begin to rediscover its traditional appeal as a left-wing negotiator on Scotland’s behalf. Now that the demands and identities of ‘the north’ or the ‘red wall’ are given greater airtime by the UK’s political classes, Labour can not abandon the right to speak for Scotland to the SNP. All too often this is misconstrued as a need to oppose the SNP’s right to speak for Scotland, an approach which tends to appear tribal and partisan rather than genuinely national. Instead, Labour must be seen to be grabbing the attention of the UK media on Scotland’s behalf, expressing clear demands for greater empowerment and investment that place the UK Government on the back foot.

When it comes to independence, Labour can present itself as the only party capable of providing a secure and socially just basis for a truly free choice to be made about Scotland’s future. A Labour Government could provide Scotland with both the powers and investment it needs to develop its economy to a level of resilience and autonomy where independence can be debated on its political merits rather than its economic feasibility. Acting in the spirit of confederalism means treating independence as if it is a perfectly normal and understandable objective, and ensuring that there are as few structural obstacles to choosing it as possible – which includes supporting the right of the Scottish Parliament to hold a binding independence referendum. Should independence then be achieved, Labour would have created the conditions for close and friendly relations between Scotland and the former UK which could form the basis for a new, more egalitarian and democratic partnership.

 

Michael Kenny: Labour’s National Questions

Both John’s and Rory’s contributions -- written with the very different English and Scottish national contexts in mind -- point to some of the major political and policy dilemmas which are emerging in British politics as questions of sovereignty, nationhood and union become  increasingly contentious in the context of Brexit and covid-19.

They both also return to a long-rooted problem for Labour. What kind of ‘national story’ should it aim to tell as the different parts of the multi-national union it seeks to govern are moving in different political directions?

Back when he was leader, Ed Miliband depicted Labour as the party of ‘one nation’. But even then, and certainly now – in the wake of the Scottish Referendum and the territorial tensions that Brexit has accentuated – the question of which nation the party is speaking to was ambiguous, and Labour appeared unable to come to terms with the challenge of telling multiple stories in the different national contexts where it competes, while also finding elements of commonality and connection in its political appeal.

Under Keir Starmer, there has been a notable shift in the party’s approach and tone on the question of where Labour stands in relation to the kinds of patriotic feelings that are important to many of the voters it wishes to win back. This suggests both an acceptance of the need to broaden the party’s appeal and an attempt to reconnect with its pre-Corbyn political traditions.

However, painting Labour as a patriotic party will not itself guide the party through the mounting crises facing the domestic union. And it will not shape how it deals with the emerging political conflicts over Scotland’s nationhood and potential constitutional futures, or the politicisation of questions about identity and devolution in relation to England. Nor can we assume that such a discourse will leave a mark in a country increasingly fractured by the significant divisions that have opened up between the UK’s different territories, and between the devolved administrations and the UK government in recent years. And, it seems pretty certain that paens to Britishness will do little to address the growth of support for independence in Scotland.

John Denham observes a deeply rooted current of resentment that has been growing for some while across large parts of England, and argues that Labour needs to engage these feelings of frustration and dispossession. One question this raises is what exactly engagement means in this context. The sentiments to which he draws attention suggest the need for a political discourse which blends the language of redistribution and economic security – the familiar comfort zone of Labour politicians – with an engagement with the growing desire for recognition and desire for greater control.

A related question is whether Labour is ready and willing to shed its deeply centralising instincts and engage directly with the calls for devolution in England which were powerfully expressed by Andy Burnham in his recent stand-off with the Johnson’ government.  And there is, as John suggests, an increasingly pressing issue – as yet largely unaddressed in British politics – about where England as a whole fits into the post-devolved union, and how its voices can be heard in the increasingly discordant territorial politics of the UK.

Labour’s leadership seems to be a long way from these issues, and does not appear primed to engage the distinctively English mood to which John points, despite evidence that voters in so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats are more inclined to identity with Englishness than are voters elsewhere. Instead, a reliance on familiar formulae about empowering the nations and regions of the UK suggests an ingrained unwillingness to accept that the English have long been, and are increasingly likely to see themselves as, a nation. Such thinking overlooks the pressing need for Labour to engage with the different, locally rooted forms of English identity that have emerged in the last twenty years, some of which are undoubtedly amenable to its own values and ethos.

The nations and regions idea also reflects an inability to heed the plentiful evidence that very few people identify with ‘the region’ as a meaningful form of place-based identity in England, in contrast with its cities, counties and towns.

Rory offers an acute analysis of some of Labour’s failings in Scotland. One question that arises here is whether the weakness he detects at the level of political discourse about the national future is really a manifestation of deeper rooted causes of the party’s decline – which have important political, organisational and cultural dimensions.

However, the way in which he counter pose appeals to Britishness and the Union, on the one hand, and the kind of open and democratic thinking about Scotland’s future that he wishes to see, feels unduly binary. Consider the case made by the SNP for independence in 2014. This was in key respects advanced in unionist as well as nationalist terms – evoking ideas of the social union, the monarchy and the case for a shared approach to security – and which targeted the constraints associated with the political union. Arguments for independence have evolved in some ways since that point, but it is still easy to discern the residual influence of a combination of nationalist and unionist themes within its leading expressions. Labour in Scotland might do well to recoup parts of the rich heritage of unionist thought, while also committing to telling a more distinctively Scottish story.

The challenges it now faces are undoubtedly enormous. And it will need the support of a UK party that has evolved some sort of account of the kind of union it wants the UK to become, and does not merely default to the familiar mantra of supporting federalism. Indeed, the moment to strike more forward-looking, and concrete, notes in this area may be emerging before our eyes. As the Conservatives under Boris Johnson continue to pivot towards devo-scepticism, the opportunity to ‘own’ devolution from a unionist standpoint now presents itself. There is other policy territory which the current government appears to have vacated too which might also prove fertile – articulating the case for more respectful and constructive relationships with the devolveds, for instance.

Policies aside, these contributions present acute challenges to the ingrained assumption in Labour circles that rebuilding a common tradition of Britishness is the best answer to the growing heap of problems facing the UK. Not only does this response continue to cut the party off from an appreciation of the sentiments and identities of large numbers of people across the UK, but it also sustains a blank refusal to consider why the politics of self-determination and demands for recognition that are rooted in locality and nationhood have become such powerful forces right across the UK.

Michael Kenny is Professor of Public Policy at Cambridge University.

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