Towards the end of last year the Scottish Fabians held a conference in Edinburgh to discuss the implications of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. With Brexit set to dominate British politics for the foreseeable future, the conference provided a valuable opportunity to consider the economic, social, and constitutional ramifications of the EU referendum result and the left’s response to them. Fabian members from across Scotland were joined by politicians, academics, and representatives of the trade union movement to begin this important conversation.
The keynote address was given by John Denham, former Labour MP for Southampton Itchen and current Director of the Centre of English Identity and Politics at Winchester University. In a provocative address, Denham insisted that the left could no longer afford to ignore identity politics. Questions of identity had come to play a central role in British politics. Scottish voters had abandoned Labour in favour of the nationalists and people in England were beginning to raise distinctly English concerns about ‘voice’ and representation. Denham argued that as people sought new forms of belonging, it was essential for the left to connect with voters at a deeper level. In particular, it was time to engage with English identity and to recognise the distinct demands of the English people.
John Denham was joined by David Martin MEP, Professor Nicola McEwan (Associate Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change at Edinburgh University) and Stephen Boyd (Assistant Secretary of STUC) for an engaging panel discussion of the economic, social, and constitutional impact of Brexit.
David Martin MEP argued that the EU referendum result presented opportunities for further devolution and that Scottish Labour should be proactive in its constitutional thinking. For example, he suggested that employment rights could be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. A new constitutional offer could provide an alternative to ‘Tory Unionism’ and Scottish nationalism.
Last week saw the SNP call for a second referendum in response to Brexit and this was rejected by the Prime Minister a few days later. By the end of the week, Gordon Brown put forward proposals for more powers to come to Holyrood following Brexit. In a bid to offer an alternative between “die hard conservatism” and “hard line nationalism” Brown’s proposal would give Scotland the freedom to set VAT rates, sign international treaties and take power over agriculture, environment and fishing agreements.
At our conference, Professor McEwen thought that a bespoke arrangement between Scotland and the EU was unlikely. However like Brown he felt there was a strong case for revisiting the current devolution settlement. Consideration could be given to a wide range of policy areas, including areas such as migration and international relations which were typically reserved. It was also important to consider ‘shared rule’ mechanisms through which devolved administrations could influence decisions on reserved matters. These had largely been ignored in the devolution debates.
Stephen Boyd focussed on the economic implications of Brexit. The long-term impact of Brexit on the Scottish economy was likely to be significant but would depend on the nature of the UK’s future relationship with Europe. A closer relationship with Europe would be better than a so-called ‘hard’ Brexit. Boyd was sceptical of the arguments made during the referendum campaign that leaving the EU would bring economic benefits.
Following a break-out session in which attendees discussed the themes of the conference, Ian Murray MP gave the closing remarks. Murray urged Scottish Labour to revisit the devolution settlement and think creatively about how to deliver what the people of Scotland wanted – close ties with the rest of the UK and Europe. However, Labour also had to discuss issues other than the constitution. It had to ask questions about funding public services, protecting socio-economic rights, and building a fairer society in post-Brexit Britain.
Scottish and UK politics will be dominated by the question of what Brexit means – economically, socially, and constitutionally – for many years to come. Although people at the conference disagreed about the way forward, with some expressing concern about John Denham’s emphasis on identity politics and different views on the future of devolution, there was widespread agreement that Labour and the wider left must play a full part in defining the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU.
This conference provided an excellent starting point to take forward our “Future choices for Scotland” project. Scottish Fabians will be inviting a wide range of academics and experts in specific fields to contribute their thoughts on how Scotland moves forward post Brexit. We will host one day conferences in Edinburgh and Glasgow later in the year for our members to discuss the choices for Scotland.
Article 50 will be triggered on March 29, Scottish Fabians have an important role to play in what that means for Scotland.