The UK might not survive the decade unless politicians learn the lessons of Brexit and hand power back to the people, Keir Starmer has warned.
The Labour leader announced a constitutional convention today designed to hand power back to communities across the country.
He promised that the commission, which will be set up by ex-PM Gordon Brown, would be “every bit as bold and radical as the programme of devolution that Labour delivered in the 1990s and 2000s” which set up devolved assemblies in Edinburgh and Cardiff.
In a speech designed to buoy up the party’s sinking support in Scotland, Mr Starmer said Scots were being failed by an SNP government in Holyrood and Tories in Westminster.
Mr Starmer said leaders across the UK had a “shared duty” to “rebuild together” after Covid-19.
Support for independence is on the rise in Scotland – with consistent leads in the polls.
Ms Sturgeon has said if she wins the Holyrood election she will try to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence early in the next term of the Scottish Parliament.
This could be as early as late 2021 or 2022.
Mr Starmer said: “I believe there’s a desire across the United Kingdom for politics and power to be much closer to people.
“We saw this in the Brexit referendum and we’ve been ignoring it for years.
“Unless we grasp the nettle and deliver real devolution of power and resources we won’t be able to renew our United Kingdom for the 2020s and 2030s.”
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has argued that independence is “essential” to rebuilding Scotland post-pandemic.
Mr Starmer said: “It is Labour’s duty to offer a positive alternative to the Scottish people. To show that you don’t have to choose between a broken status quo and the uncertainty and divisiveness of separatism.
“Boris Johnson isn’t Britain, just as Nicola Sturgeon isn’t Scotland.
“The United Kingdom is much more than that, more than any individual. It has been before – and can be again – a great force for social justice, for security and for solidarity.”
Mr Starmer said this was about more than shifting powers from one parliament to another or transferring “a few jobs out of London”, adding: “There’s a yearning across the United Kingdom for politics and power to be much closer to people.”
And while he said a “project of this scale and this urgency should be initiated by the UK Government”, he added that “in the absence of that leadership from the Prime Minister, Labour will do what is necessary in opposition”.
With Holyrood elections due to take place in May, he also stressed the Scottish element of the commission’s work would be completed “as soon as possible”.
Here he said there was “no time to waste” as he set out how Labour would fight the next Scottish elections on the basis of opposition to a second referendum.
Ms Sturgeon has already made clear she will use the Holyrood campaign to try to win a mandate for another independence vote – with polls currently indicating a majority of Scots in favour of leaving the UK.
Mr Starmer insisted: “The last thing Scotland needs now is more years of division.”
He said: “Labour will argue passionately against another independence referendum
“We will argue that today, we will argue that tomorrow.
“It would be entirely the wrong priority to hold another Scottish independence referendum in the teeth of the deepest recession for 300 years. While still fighting this pandemic. When there is such uncertainty about how Brexit, and coronavirus will affect us.
“And when the costs and consequences of independence are still so uncertain.”
He added that given the “damage and division” a fresh independence referendum would cause “no responsible First Minister should contemplate it – and no responsible Prime Minister would grant it”.
He added: “There should not be another independence referendum while our economic and health outlook is so precarious – nor until there has been a proper assessment of the costs, consequences and uncertainties of separation.”
Mr Starmer also rejected calls for an extension to the Brexit transition period, demanding that the Prime Minister agrees a trade deal with the European Union this week and arguing that “delaying it further isn’t going to help”.
Mr Starmer said: “I don’t want an extension – I want the deal. The Prime Minister promised a deal. He said he had an “oven-ready deal”. He needs to get on and deliver that.
“And just delaying it further isn’t going to help with the great uncertainty there already is for businesses. So, I say to the Prime Minister, get on and deliver the deal that you promised. Get on and deliver it this week, today, tomorrow, and then we can recall parliament and deal with it.”
He added: “Businesses I’ve spoken to in Scotland and actually across the UK are tearing their hair out on that uncertainty because the government is saying to them ‘prepare for this, prepare for that’. But they don’t know what they’re preparing for.
“Their strong message to me is get the deal done. That’s what you promised. End the uncertainty and let us get on with the preparation. They’re equally clear that no deal would be a very bad outcome and a complete failure of the government.”
The SNP’s deputy Westminster leader Kirsten Oswald dismissed Labour’s plans, saying the system was “broken” and “not working for Scotland”.
“No amount of constitutional tinkering of the kind proposed by Labour will protect Scotland from Brexit or the Tory power grab being imposed upon us against our will,” she said.
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said: “This isn’t leadership from Labour on the union, this is the same old tired argument that they’ve made before and they’re offering nothing to challenge the SNP.
“Scottish Labour won’t work with unionist parties to stop the nationalists, and they won’t stand up to Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for another independence referendum as early as next year.
“Only the Scottish Conservatives have the strength to take on the SNP right across Scotland and the determination to stop their push for indyref2 again.”