New Statesman article

The New Statesman has published this article from me on the Tories’ new ‘activist unionism’. Below I republish it with links.

 There is a new orthodoxy on the left – the notion that Brexit will inevitably mean the break-up of the Union. Scotland will secede. Northern Ireland will vote to reunite with Ireland.  These things are indeed possible. But equally possible is that we end up in a post-Brexit creaking UK able still to cling together through a new state overhaul driven from the centre.

Some attention has been given post-election to the Conservative plans for a constitutional commission. But less focus has been given to the significant plans being put together for a re-servicing of the Union. The Policy Exchange think-tank has called for ‘a Grand Strategy to modernise the United Kingdom.’ This is an activist Unionism of a kind only glimpsed before.

Since the 1970s, there have been two significant modernisations of the UK state. The first, the neoliberal Thatcherite agenda based on a hollowing out of the central state, with new central agencies, restrictions on local government’s freedom of manoeuvre, privatisation and deregulation. The second, the New Labour modernisation of 1997-2010, including devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, the Good Friday Agreement, the Human Rights Act, Freedom of Information and the Supreme Court, with centrally-driven targets for service delivery in England. We are now on the cusp of a third modernisation, outlined in the Conservative manifesto, reinforced in the background notes to the December Queen’s Speech, and fleshed out in a series of policy papers.

Some of this pre-dates the Johnson government. The Dunlop Review of UK Union Capability was established under Theresa May with the objective ‘as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union….to consider how through its institutional arrangements it meets the challenge of strengthening and sustaining the Union in the future’ . But the Conservative Manifesto and Queen’s Speech make it clear that this is now part of a strategic programme.

The Conservative Party has usually had a strong focus on the possible uses of state power, even when deregulating and privatising. Alastair Campbell’s second volume of diaries record an observation of the late Alan Clark that Conservatives were fascinated with him and the Blair project because they recognised a real enthusiasm for power and its uses. The Conservatives now have at the helm someone who understands the uses of state power. Dominic Cummings has, says Rachel Wolf, one of the authors of the Conservative manifesto, been thinking about the UK state for twenty years. Cumminsology, as Alain de Botton called it recently in the New Statesman, involves a focus on the need for a more efficient and modernised state machinery: and a profound fury at the inefficiencies of existing state procedures (which many who have served in governments will share).

Cummings, and his former boss Michael Gove, are often under-estimated by some on the left who prefer caricature to analysis. As I wrote about Gove in 2014, ‘he is a deeply serious, and deeply ideological politician, whose objective is shifting the political agenda strategically’. Ditto Cummings. He is, as Tony Blair’s former political secretary John McTernan wrote in July, ‘a man with a plan’.

The Conservative state modernisation agenda is extensive. If the range of Policy Exchange papers on the Constitution, the Judiciary and Whitehall is accurate, its possibilities range from limiting the powers of the Supreme Court – possibly even re-branding it as simply an Upper Court of Appeal, to remove the sense that it is a constitutional court – to an infrastructure modernisation programme for the UK, a re-casting of central institutions to oversee the Union, with the engagement of devolved authorities such as Mayors within England to address the UK/English delivery confusion, to a series of Whitehall reforms (some of which are pretty uncontroversial) and the creation of a UK form of the American defence-linked research agency DARPA, one of Dominic Cummings’ long-held ambitions .

Some of the approach to an activist unionism has already been rolled out in Wales, where the Wales Office has essentially been re-branded as the UK Government in Wales, central government funded initiatives such as the City Deal have been used to build stronger relationships directly between the UK Government and Welsh institutions including local authorities. A ‘Western powerhouse’ model, bringing together Cardiff, Newport and Bristol, was launched to undermine Welsh Government economic plans. Welsh appointments to bodies under the control of the UK government have been politicised, as Policy Exchange suggests should happen across the UK. In the General Election, the Conservatives even promised to deliver the M4 Relief Road, without the power to do so. The Queens Speech promises a cross-border Marches deal, and many other actions.

This activist unionism may not be enough. The latest state modernisation programme may well do nothing fundamental to resolve the post-Brexit challenges of the UK. It may simply leave us with the latest modernised version of what Tom Nairn three decades ago called Ukania. But no-one should assume that the break-up of the UK is inevitable, or that Gove-Cummings haven’t thought about these things. They have, and their previous experience in respect of English schools shows that they understand the uses of state power and are capable of fast and far-reaching action.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In memoriam: Carl Sargeant

We lost Carl two years ago today. On the afternoon of his death I was asked by friends to undertake an interview with BBC’s Good Evening Wales programme. Felicity Evans undertook the interview with great sensitivity.

The recording can be heard here: and this is the transcript: gew leighton

Love to Bernie, Jack and Lucy.

Like many others, I miss Carl still.

I’ve loaned my vote to the Greens.

My membership of the Labour Party lapsed in March. I’d decided months before that I wasn’t going to be caught out by an automatic renewal and cancelled my direct debit.

I might still have voted Labour, and the choice not to would have been harder in Wales if Derek Vaughan had stood for re-election or one or two of the other Labour candidates like Mary Wimbury, whom I’ve known for years, had been top of the Labour list.

But ultimately I decided not to vote for the pro-Brexit anti-Semitic shambles that the Labour leadership has allowed the party to become. In 2017 I voted Labour, and my vote has been waved around with that of millions of others as an endorsement of the leadership’s plans for a better Brexit. Well, stuff that. We won’t get fooled again.

When my postal ballot arrived two weeks ago, I returned it immediately with a cross against the Greens. Caroline Lucas has been the outstanding Parliamentary leader for a People’s Vote that I’ve now marched for several times in London. Green MEP Molly Scott Cato has done great work on the regulation of Facebook in the European Parliament, and I’ve just finished writing a book on this subject.*

There’s a bigger reason for voting Green of course, and that’s to do with the ceaseless drive of capitalist consumption that threatens our planet and human and other life on it. I’m voting for my grand-daughters and their future.

I know others will have made different choices, and there are good people standing for a number of the other anti-Brexit parties. I’m not saying the Greens are perfect, but strategically I’d like to see them to do well in these elections and in 2021 see them sitting in our National Assembly.

I’d like to come home, Labour friends, but hey, have you got work to do. If Labour enables Brexit I won’t be back.  If Brexit happens, and we end up in Ukania, then I’m not sure what future the unionist parties have in any case. The Leavers don’t care for the Union, after all. If we have to face life after Brexit, then other political choices may have to be made.

There’s no joy in this, by the way. Only sadness.

Ukania beckons, and the far-right is on the march. Labour leadership could have pointed the way to a progressive alternative. Instead, it ducks the key decision of our time.

*For Labour, both Jo Stevens and Ian Lucas have also done brilliant work on this subject in the U.K. Parliament, let me say, in the most exceptional Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry I have ever seen. But that’s another story. 

Remembering Sarge, one year on

We lost Carl a year ago today. My Radio Wales tribute that day can be found here.

Once again, I want to thank Felicity Evans for her sensitivity in interviewing.

I won’t be posting more on this as I expect to be giving evidence at the Inquest in a couple of weeks time.