The Labour leader wants to convince Scotland’s ‘squeezed middle’ that he can get everything back under control
Engraved above the entrance to the Donald Dewar room in the Scottish parliament is a quote from the Labour party intellectual and MP John Pitcairn Mackintosh: “People in Scotland want a degree of government for themselves. It is not beyond the wit of man to devise institutions to meet those demands.” Few are fortunate enough to be cited so prominently within a gigantic vindication of their argument, but Mackintosh’s early support (he was first elected to parliament in 1966) for political devolution made him a rather isolated figure, especially among his Scottish colleagues in Labour. Where they saw devolution as a form of pandering to territorial grievances, Mackintosh saw an opportunity to relegitimise British politics by handing down power from the centre. The contemporary relevance of his ideas was asserted this week by Keir Starmer, who used the annual JP Mackintosh memorial lecture as a launchpad for his proposals to “win power, and then push as much power as possible away from Westminster”.
Mackintosh died in 1978, aged just 48, as a new generation of Labour MPs in Scotland – people such as Gordon Brown and Donald Dewar – were stepping into the constitutional breach created by the explosive arrival of the SNP to the political mainstream. Labour’s “New Scots” saw devolution as an essential way of steadying the tortured state they hoped to inherit. In 1980, Brown argued that “devolution must be taken out of the relatively restricting confines of Scotland and Wales and seen as part of the attempt to make British government more acceptable to the British people”. The former prime minister is now Starmer’s choice to lead a new, UK-wide “constitutional commission”, tasked with working out all the details of Labour’s new constitutional horizon.