Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

The night of 12th December 2019 was not a good night for Scottish Labour. In the country of Labour’s founding father and (subsequently elected, leader’s namesake) Keir Hardie, the party only managed to win one out of fifty-nine parliamentary seats. Neither was it simply a ‘bad’ night: it was one of existential crisis. For the second time in four years Scottish Labour faced annihilation at the hands of nationalism.

The latest, if unoriginal plan to reincarnate the parties’ fortunes comes from its new leader Keir Starmer in the form of a ‘federal UK’. Like Richard Leonard, Kezia Dugdale, Gordon Brown and countless other Scottish Labour figures’ touting of federalism, Starmer’s offer fails to fully understand progressive Scotland and much of the independence movement’s key demands.

Federalism might be a reasonable new constitutional settlement for Scotland if the injustices of Toryism and the British state were limited to austerity and a callous disregard for public services; which in light of COVID-19 seem especially negligent.

A federated Scotland could democratically decide to reverse cuts and create a social-democratic state with a properly empowered taxation system. In reality however, the rot goes much deeper and beyond what Keir Starmer and Labour can feasibly offer Scotland. The drives that animate the ‘Yes’ movement are rooted as much in foreign and defence issues as they are in economic and social policy.

A federal United Kingdom would not stop Scotland from having to contribute towards the £205 billion bill for a new Trident nuclear weapons system. These costs could easily cover the building of around 120 new hospitals with 150,000 new nurses and much more[1]. This is a weapons system that has no serious part to play in national security. The last strategic defence review described the UK’s main security threats as ‘terrorism’, ‘cyber-attacks’ and most poignantly: a ‘health crisis’. Nuclear weapons are in no way morally justifiable or consistent with international law and the Geneva convention, when their main targets are cities with millions of civilians. Scotland should not have to go along with the defence policy of a state which has defied international treaties for decades.

Neither would federalism separate Scotland from what Robin McAlpine, the director of the pro-independence thinktank Common Weal, describes as ‘where English politics has been going for a while.’ He is of course referring to the xenophobic drift of politics south of the border that culminated in Brexit. First it was Gordon Brown’s ‘British jobs for British workers speech’ in 2007 and the coalition Government’s ‘Hostile Environment’ policy towards migrants, that was led by Theresa May, who was the home secretary from 2010-2016.

Then followed the UKIP by-election victories in 2014 and the Conservative Party’s shift to hard-right. Now Scotland is faced with a Westminster government that has ripped up its European identity and plans to threaten its future prosperity with reduced European immigration and trade.

The xenophobia of English politics goes deeper than simply the historic mistake of Brexit or the appalling way in which the British state treats migrants. It goes a long way to explaining why in 2020 the Conservatives, with their seemingly unpopular neoliberal doctrines, occupy such a dominant position. Like the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s concept of ‘cultural hegemony’, the xenophobia of British nationalism reigns supreme over British voters.

Driven by the media and a section of the British oligarchy, it exploits the economic anxieties of the popular classes and derails social change. Part of why voters in Scotland wholeheartedly rejected the Johnson government in December is because Scottish national identity has been tied to social justice and cosmopolitanism by the SNP and the wider Yes movement.

Starmer’s federal offer is certainly better than the status quo. After all three of Westminster’s main party leaders solemnly vowed to devolve maximum power in exchange for a vote to stay in the union, Scots are still waiting six years on. With the British state being one of the most centralised in the world it is high time Westminster’s monopoly on power was challenged[2]. However, with the seismic issues of Brexit and Trident left unaddressed, the Scottish people should hope for, and deserve a lot better.


[1] “Resources Archive.” Resources. Accessed April 22, 2020. https://cnduk.org/resources/?filter=no-to-trident.

[2] “UK ‘Almost Most Centralised Developed Country’, Says Treasury Chief.” Government & civil service news. Accessed April 22, 2020. https://www.globalgovernmentforum.com/uk-most-centralised-developed-country-says-treasury-chief/.