Our United Kingdom is in urgent need of renewal. Boris Johnson and his party have failed every corner of our country, leaving too many communities behind. This has sparked a growing demand for politics and power to be closer to people.
Throughout this pandemic, we have seen that same disconnect with communities in Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool and Cardiff – just as with those in Glasgow, Edinburgh and beyond. It demonstrates that Johnson isn’t Britain. Just as Nicola Sturgeon isn’t Scotland.
As we come through this pandemic, it is clear that true leadership now means pulling our people together, not seeking to divide them further. Unfortunately, the Tory and SNP governments choose to spend their time picking fights with each other and refusing to cooperate. They manufacture grievances, while almost a quarter of Scottish children grow up in poverty.
For the SNP it’s the signature policy of independence at all costs; and for the Tories it’s the status quo. Neither is what our country needs.
As we emerge from the pandemic, it would be irresponsible to return to the old, divisive politics. In the years ahead, lives and livelihoods will remain at risk, with millions worried about their jobs and their families.
That’s why the main priority of the next five-year Holyrood term should be healing the wounds in Scotland and rebuilding our country with a parliament focused on Covid recovery. At the heart of that lies an economic recovery, a green recovery and a community recovery. It also must be a recovery that works for everyone – that’s why it must empower local communities.
We can achieve that by bringing power closer to people without the protracted and deeply divisive process of a constitutional referendum. It is deeply irresponsible to even consider a referendum in the midst of a pandemic and an economic crisis. Change can – and must – be about much more than just devolving power from Westminster to Holyrood. Local government in Scotland has endured a decade of SNP austerity, with council budgets slashed as the nationalists centralise power in Edinburgh. We will never tackle the underlying inequalities in our society while councils are forced to close essential facilities.
The starting point for a new settlement must be bringing people together to discuss our future, not tearing our communities apart. The UK Labour leader, Keir Starmer, recently announced plans for a UK-wide constitutional commission to consider how power, wealth and opportunity can be devolved to the most local level. Advised on by Gordon Brown, it will be the boldest project Labour has embarked on for a generation.
The starting point recognises that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone – the words written on the back of Labour membership cards. If we pool and share our resources, and stand in solidarity with each other, there is no task too difficult to overcome.
Over the coming months, I plan to work closely with the constitutional commission to deliver a devolution framework for Scotland that is fit for the 2020s. There will be an open door for Scottish Labour members to share their views on the options directly with me, and we will also ensure that everyone in Scotland can take part in the process. The change in our country should not be dictated by bureaucrats in Whitehall or in Edinburgh.
There is already a debate about public health powers to tackle the drugs crisis, and Labour in government previously used Holyrood to address Scotland’s immigration needs – Jack McConnell’s “fresh talent” initiative – but the devolution settlement also needs to work when two governments are in disagreement.
I want Scottish Labour to be at the forefront of rebuilding local communities. I will work closely with Starmer, who has shown what can be achieved when Labour looks outwards, with a focus on winning support across the country. But I will also be clear with him that my job is ultimately to represent the Scottish people.
And under my leadership, we will never again have the spectacle of a shadow chancellor dictating Scottish Labour’s constitutional position on a visit to an Edinburgh Fringe show, as happened in 2019.
It is Labour’s duty to offer a positive alternative to both the broken status quo and the recklessness of independence. Our country deserves better than what has been offered. By focusing on what unites us – wherever we live on these islands – Labour can rebuild the United Kingdom so that it works for everyone.