Once every generation or so, the question of constitutional reform emerges from its anorak-clad obscurity to take centre stage in British political life. 2014 is that moment for this generation, as next September’s referendum on Scottish independence prompts people throughout Britain to reflect on their national identity and national interest.
In Wales, England and Northern Ireland, as much as in Scotland, where the decision will rightly be made, the prospect of separation will focus minds on what it is to belong to Britain. Politicians of all parties have a duty to engage in this debate, to explore and explain the cultural, social and economic ties that presently bind us: how they serve us and what their severance might mean.
Labour, as the only party which represents people in every corner of these isles, has a unique mandate to lead these national conversations, and to reflect them through our one nation lens. But more than that, as Britain’s last progressive and unionist party, Labour has a duty to lead this debate, and to make the case for maintenance of the union.
That duty stems from the fact that we ourselves are part of the glue that binds modern Britain together. Our roots are found in every nation and region of the British state: in London and Lanarkshire, South Wales and South Yorkshire. Indeed, The Labour Party is one of the great uniting institutions of 20th century Britain and our mission from the start has been to bring people together and build with them a more equitable society and a just economy. Today, in the 21st century, that mission is as important as it ever was. Perhaps more so, as this Tory-led government deepens the divides, in wealth and power, between those who have the most and those with the least.
And this, notwithstanding the technical, economic and structural questions that we will ask about the feasibility and sustainability of an independent Scotland, is the most important challenge Labour might offer Alex Salmond in 2014. Not how will he maintain membership of the European Union, nor why a sterling currency zone might include an independent state, nor even how the Queen might relate his new fiefdom – crucial though those questions are, and telling that he has no answers – but why he is asking the working men and women of Scotland to abandon their brothers and sisters south of the border.
Because nationalism, in Scotland as elsewhere, is all about the selfish gene. It’s I’m alright Jack philosophy little different in its effect from the divisive ideology of the right, though founded on ethnicity rather than class, or wealth or Boris Johnson’s IQ test.
Labour rejects nationalism’s division based on blood and soil, though we recognise, respect and cherish the national identities which issue from it. Our ideology is about strength through unity, in Britain and internationally, and even the existence of a hard-line right wing government in Westminster should not shake our faith that we are always better together. That is why devolution, however difficult or imperfectly formed, is the right framework within which we both empower and celebrate national identity and local autonomy, while maintaining a core of state-wide provision and protection.
However, devolution, as has often been remarked, is a process not an event, and it is incumbent on Labour to reflect on how the settlement might further evolve, expand and reach its fullest potential: how we might strengthen Scotland, Wales – and England too – within the uniting framework of the Union. Incumbent on us, in particular, because our credentials as the party of devolution are unimpeachable: we campaigned for it for 100 years and more and in 1998 we delivered it, ‘winning power to give it away’, as Bevan once urged us. That will mean Labour articulating a new and compelling vision of devolution within the one nation of the British state, one which confronts the legitimate concerns about the centralisation of resources and power in Whitehall, that are expressed throughout Britain. And one which is radical and trusting of the British people to exercise fuller control over their countries, cities, counties and communities.
So, as much as our task in 2014 will be to win the hearts and minds of the Scottish people for the cause of the union – to ask them to insist on their rightful place as equals alongside their neighbours from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and not to succumb to the mean-spirited separatism that would drive us apart.
It will also be a year in which we remember Bevan’s vision and reflect on how decentralisation and redistribution of power and resources is part of Labour’s birthright. A year in which we also look beyond the referendum, to 2015 and the prospect of winning power to give it away once more.