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Constitutional change is in the air – so let’s put democratic federalism on the agenda

by Pauline Bryan

SINCE the general election was announced on Tuesday April 18 we have been assured in Scotland that it will be fought on the single issue of independence.

I suspect that many voters will have other issues on their minds when they decide how to vote on June 8.

The impact of seven years of Tory-inflicted austerity has been felt as much in Dundee as in Durham.

The attack on workers’ rights, welfare rights, pension rights and pay has hit every bit as hard in Scotland as elsewhere.

It was only a few short weeks ago that Nicola Sturgeon sprung her “surprise” by announcing that she would ask the Scottish Parliament to support a second independence referendum.

As surprises go it was not a huge shock, coming just a few days before the SNP conference.

Theresa May’s announcement was perhaps less expected but was similar in that it ignored the issues that most people are struggling with on a daily basis.

Sturgeon accused May of “putting the interests of her party before the country,” while she has done exactly the same by making every issue about independence.

Rather than using devolved powers to protect people in Scotland as far as possible from Tory austerity, she instead pointed the finger at Westminster and passed on the worst of the cuts to local government and the NHS.

Labour in Scotland will be fighting both Tory and SNP austerity, but at the same time it will have to make its case for an alternative to the Yes/No separatist/unionist choice that was offered in the last Scottish referendum.

The rest of Britain may think that this is a distraction in the middle of a general election, but constitutional change is happening whether we like it or not.

It is taking place without the big constitutional debates associated with the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly but it is happening nonetheless.

Next month a large chunk of England will be voting for six combined authority mayors, the Westminster Parliament has a procedure for English votes for English laws, there have been piecemeal changes to the House of Lords and soon there will be the repatriated powers from Brexit.

The case for a constitutional convention has never been more pressing.

The Red Paper Collective has consistently argued for the devolution of power based on a federal arrangement.

This would have to be part to a greater constitutional shake-up, alongside democratising the House of Lords, safeguarding the role of local government, reducing the age for voting, rationalising the electoral system, ensuring working people, women, people with disabilities and BAME citizens are fairly represented in all our elected bodies.

From a left perspective we need a constitution both in Scotland and the UK that

- Makes our economy democratically accountable

- Enables redistribution of wealth within the UK and within the nations and regions

- Consolidates and builds on class solidarity across borders We cannot, of course, here in Scotland, insist that the rest of the UK adopt a federal constitution, but that debate is happening anyway and we should align ourselves with those across the UK who are looking for radical change.

The Scottish Labour Party has adopted support for a “more federal UK” and the Labour Party is advocating federalism, based on socialist values. But most people will not be interested in the technicalities.

There is, however, an important difference that is central to how nations and regions work together across devolved governments is it: self-rule or shared rule?

Self-rule is what we currently have in the UK. The central government gives devolved power over particular functions to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and to some extent London, but it does not give the devolved governments any direct involvement in areas of reserved powers.

Progressive federalism, however, is about shared rule. It gives the nations or regions a direct role in the decisionmaking processes at the centre.

The asymmetry of the UK, with England making up more than 80 per cent of the population, does mean that there would have to be regional representation rather than one whole English Parliament.

Regions would quickly find the things they had in common regardless of national identity.

This general election will highlight the importance of breaking away from seeing issues in terms of Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and English interests, and instead to see class interests.

  • Pauline Bryan is convener of the Red Paper Collective.

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