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Looking Ahead: Unionism, Independence and Devolution After the Elections


On May 14, we hosted an interesting panel discussion looking at what the results of the May 6 elections in England, Scotland and Wales could mean for devolution, unionism, and independence in the UK.

The election results were varied. The Conservatives had a net gain in English councils in former Labour heartlands and won the Westminster constituency of Hartlepool, but Labour emerged with an even stronger position in the metro mayoralties and some council gains in the traditionally-Tory south.

In Wales, Mark Drakeford’s government won another term as voters threw support behind his handling of the pandemic, and Plaid Cymru’s hoped-for swell of support for independence didn’t materialise. But in Scotland, the SNP won a historic fourth term, just one seat shy of a majority. With the Green Party’s eight seats on side, Nicola Sturgeon says this is a pro-independence parliament and has been clear she intends to push for a second referendum in this term.

We asked our panel to talk us through what the results could mean for the future of devolution and the prospects for the independence movements in Scotland and Wales. Scroll down to watch the discussion in full.



IPPR North’s Jonathan Webb cautioned against inferring too much from local elections, particularly given the current circumstances, and pointed out that incumbents generally did pretty well across all England, Scotland and Wales. But he said the real story is the success of the metro mayors, which shows the effectiveness and power of devolution in England; where mayors have been able to show a clear pattern of delivering for the people of their region, they’ve been handed re-election, particularly in the cases of Ben Houchen in Tees Valley and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester. Webb pointed out that where mayors haven’t had as clear a track record of delivery, such as in Cambridge and Peterborough and the West of England, the incumbents lost, with both mayoralties switching from Conservative to Labour.

Webb warned that we’re at a ‘very critical point’ for English devolution, with the government ‘almost fearful’ of devolved powers which it sees as potentially creating opposition to government policy. Webb said that centralised policy-making doesn’t serve the UK well, and that devolution needs to be nurtured and empowered to deliver results, not nipped in the bud; however, there is a growing sense that the Westminster government sees devolution with an underlying suspicion and a ‘Westminster knows best’ attitude, which fundamentally undermines it.

We also discussed devolution in the context of regional identities – Webb said that devolution offers a sensible way of responding to differences that proved to be incredibly divisive during the Brexit referendum and as part of the politics which followed it. If different parts of England want different policies, regional leaders can be empowered to deliver them, whereas over-centralisation imposes a sense of ‘that isn’t how we do things’, which increases contestation and conflict. Webb said this is another reason devolution should be nurtured – it allows us to ‘do government better’, giving people the best decisions and the best public services to suit their needs, which is fundamentally why devolution matters in England.


Former Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones credited Labour’s success in Wales to the party’s support among ‘red shirted patriots’ – people with a strong sense of Welsh identity who are in favour of further devolution of powers from Westminster but not in favour of independence, though warned that these factors are hard to replicate elsewhere in the UK. In Wales, he said, it amounts to ‘We like devolution and we want more of it’. But he pointed out that there are many Labour and Conservative supporters who vote Plaid Cymru as second preference – something he said wouldn’t happen in Scotland – and that with up to 40% of Labour’s supporters sympathetic to independence, the party can’t be complacent about the change that’s needed to keep those people voting for a unionist party. ‘We need a radical restructuring of the UK if it’s to survive,’ Jones said, advocating for a more equal partnership between the four nations that pools sovereignty rather than having one parliament sitting above the others, with an agreement on matters such as defence, immigration and the fiscal and monetary union that are handled at a national level.

Jones also warned against imposition from Westminster both in terms of policy and in terms of identity, a ‘kind of Britishness that doesn’t chime with people in Scotland and Wales’, which he said threatens to fracture the UK. As people become more fed up with how the UK government operates, they will move further toward support for independence; and even if that happens more quickly in Scotland than in Wales, Jones said that a Scottish vote to leave the UK would leave the union incredibly unstable, pointing toward growing support for Welsh independence as well as the potential for a movement in England which would want independence from ‘subsidy junkies’ in Wales and Northern Ireland. On that basis, Jones called for ‘radical change’ and careful thought about how the UK functions in order to stave off further pushes that could threaten the union.


SNP candidate and Aberdeen Independence Movement co-chair Fatima Joji said that fundamentally, the Scottish results tell ‘a tale of two governments’, with the historic SNP victory in 62 out of 64 constituency seats and the pro-independence majority in parliament a clear sign that Scotland wants complete independence rather than maximum devolution. Joji said the pursuit of a second referendum is justified by a ‘change in material circumstances’, most notably Brexit, which showed that the UK is not a union of equals but one where Scotland can be ‘reduced to a non-entity’. She pointed to voting patterns which show that in contrast to Westminster, Scots haven’t returned a Conservative government in decades, and want the chance to govern themselves under a different set of priorities. Joji said recent events in Glasgow’s Pollokshields area, where protesters forced immigration officers to release men who had been detained for deportation, showed that Scotland has a different approach to immigration than Westminster, which still reserves power over it. Meanwhile, Scotland chooses to focus its spending on human development – a 4% pay rise for NHS staff and the exploration of a minimum income guarantee were among SNP manifesto promises – rather than on defence, nuclear weapons and austerity; ‘Westminster has its priorities wrong,’ she said.

Arden Strategies MD and former Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, unsurprisingly, had a different take. Murphy said that the SNP’s landslide victory was partly a function of the fact that three parties – the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems – compete for the unionist and devolutionist vote in Scotland, while the SNP has the independence vote mainly to themselves because the Green Party generally only stands in regional lists. He said that polls show public opinion is broadly in the same place it was during the 2014 referendum, and warned against allowing the experience of the Brexit referendum to ‘contaminate’ any second vote in Scotland, arguing that the SNP haven’t answered questions on their currency policy for an independent Scotland, without which there’s no clear sense of how they would respond to a financial or pandemic crisis. Murphy advocated for clear decisions and negotiations on some of the bigger issues first in order to create an informed choice should a second referendum take place. Without a clear prospectus, Murphy said, ‘I fear for the conduct of a referendum,’ which he thinks would devolve into a Brexit-style ‘facts and alternative facts’ campaign.

But ultimately, Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson both agree that now is not the time for a referendum; Sturgeon has promised one in this parliamentary term but after the COVID-19 recovery, which means it’s likely to be two and a half years away at the earliest. The big point of contention will be the request for the referendum when it does come. Joji said the Conservatives have already set themselves up defensively and made it clear that a referendum won’t be granted easily, with a potential court battle on the cards, while Murphy claimed the SNP is ‘trying to generate a grievance about a referendum they don’t actually want’.

Murphy and Joji both shared some more in-depth arguments for and against Scottish independence, particularly when it comes to public spending and the currency question, and Carwyn Jones also volunteered some thoughts on borrowing costs and the problem of potential EU membership for either Scotland or Wales. Listen to the whole discussion below to hear more.


We asked our panellists whether the devolved authorities are gearing up for a fight with Westminster over its flagship levelling up agenda, following the government’s announcement that funds for communities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would be centrally directed, and the decision to replace the long-awaited Devolution White Paper with the Levelling Up White Paper.

Carwyn Jones said yes, but that it doesn’t have to be this way and governments can and should work together through City Deals, for example, in the interest of the people they represent. The danger of a central fund doling out money is that Westminster will take all the blame if it doesn’t work; devolved governments will say they would have done things differently, and that doesn’t do much to keep the UK together. Jones said his great fear is that a centralising Conservative government will ‘act as an engine’ to turn people toward independence, and that imposing policy from Westminster would simply drive more resistance. He also raised concerns about how and where the money would be spent, noting that a Conservative Party which figures it can have a majority without any MPs from Scotland and Wales may spend money to prop up the former ‘Red Wall’ in the north and midlands of England instead, which would create further friction for the UK.

Fatima Joji said the policy does create tension in the union because the central allocation goes over the Scottish Parliament’s head without clarity on how much is going to be spent or any say in what to do with it. Joji said this amounts to a ‘power grab’ which disrespects the devolution settlement, particularly as it was done not long after the spending review cut Scotland’s capital budget by 5%. She said the new Westminster-directed funding is a ‘fleece’ to suggest the union is working and that Westminster is working for Scotland. Jim Murphy said a centralised policy doesn’t work because Scotland needs to have a different type of levelling up conversation, one that’s focused on levelling public spending between the middle class and poorer Scots rather than regionally. Murphy said that public spending policies such as long-term care for the elderly, tuition fees and council tax freezes disproportionately benefit the middle classes, and that any levelling up conversation in Scotland needs to take that into account when talking about where to direct funds.

Jonathan Webb said levelling up needs to be a holistic conversation and not about throwing money at places that are politically important. The government needs to think about connectivity between cities, the jobs of the future, and the social infrastructure that sits beneath the physical infrastructure where spending may be concentrated. At the moment, Webb said the levelling up agenda doesn’t really have any substance to it, and the government needs to explain what makes the current approach distinct and different to the ones that have come before, like the little-discussed Northern Powerhouse. He said the government will fall short if the it doesn’t start delivering good policy that actually improves people’s lives.


With two former Labour leaders on our panel, we were able to get some insight on what went wrong for the Labour Party and what it needs to do in the future to regain ground in England and Scotland.

Carwyn Jones said that since 1999, when Plaid Cymru actually polled higher than the SNP, Welsh Labour has been able to go after people with a strong sense of Welsh identity who have stayed with the party ever since. He said it’s difficult to extrapolate that to other areas of the UK; there’s some suggestion that a strong sense of English identity pervades in north east England, but the specific combination of a strong national identity without the nationalist politics is hard to replicate outside of Wales. Jim Murphy said that while Scottish Labour did ‘camp on patriotic grounds’ for 25-30 years, politically this meant fighting for the Scottish Parliament and constitutional convention, and the party didn’t make the argument that devolution was the opposite of nationalism and not a staging post to independence.

On the national stage, Murphy said the party could take a lesson from the Welsh election and Mark Drakeford’s leadership, which he said showed that voters respond to serious policies about how we get out of the difficulties we’re in. Calling Keir Starmer a ‘serious, really substantial, thoroughly decent, deeply principled man’, Murphy said the Labour Party needs to treat people as adults and develop specific, radical alternatives to the Conservatives’ relatively superficial, three-word slogan policies.

In terms of what went wrong, Murphy said Labour still hasn’t figured out why it won in 2005 nor why it lost the four subsequent elections. He said the party can’t simply be a tribute act to New Labour, but that equally when leading figures speak publicly as if the last Labour government was a failure, they don’t inspire people to elect a new Labour government. Murphy said disowning the Blair/Brown achievements without offering hope for the future is ‘a recipe for permanent opposition…Politics and elections are decided by who has the most compelling sense of a positive story about the nature of our nation’s future.’

Watch the full discussion:


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