Keir Starmer’s pro-union arguments were shockingly terrible – and that’s very bad news for Labour
Ifan Morgan Jones
I quite like Keir Starmer. He appeals to the middle-class, centre-left technocrat in me, and I suspect that’s also why so many of the UK media’s pundits are keen to defend him after his Labour conference speech.
But he has a real blind spot when it comes to devolution in general, and the national movements of Wales and Scotland in particular.
I have written about this before after Keir Starmer’s abysmal speech on devolution in December of last year, but the man really, really does not get it.
And that’s a problem for Labour, because without getting it they have probably lost Scotland for good, and any hope of forming the next UK Government with it.
Now, there are good arguments for retaining the union of the UK, just as there are good arguments for Welsh and Scottish independence. Most of the people on either side of these arguments are good people who genuinely want to improve how our lives are governed.
But Keir Starmer’s pro-Union arguments were terrible – shockingly bad. And it betrays a complete lack of understanding at the top of the Labour party about why the UK is in such a fragile state.
Let’s go straight to the nadir but also the most telling part of his speech was when he quoted Gordon Brown to say: “When a Welsh or a Scottish woman gives blood… she doesn’t demand an assurance it must not go to an English patient.”
This was only the second and final time Wales was mentioned at all in the speech. And it was supposed to be proof that in fact, deep down, everyone wants the UK to stay together after all.
But what on earth is he going on about? To follow this bizarre line of logic to its conclusion, a person who gives blood in the UK demands that it be given to someone else in the UK. And if they don’t care where it goes, presumably they must not be keen on the UK as a nation-state?
If I was happy for my donated blood to go to a French person, does that mean I want Wales to be run by President Macron and the French Assembly?
More worrying still it suggests that Keir Starmer thinks the national movements of Wales and Scotland are driven by (quite literally in this case) blood and soil ethnic nationalism.
They don’t want to be part of the UK because they don’t want to mix their bodily fluids with others. The analogy really is bizarre, and becomes stranger the more you think about it.
This is a complete misunderstanding of what those national movements are about, which are an attempt to take political, cultural and economic power out of a dysfunctional Westminster and bring it closer to home.
It has nothing to do with where people’s blood transfusions are going.
Of course, if he had done his homework, Keir Starmer would have discovered that a devolved Welsh Blood Service has existed since 1997 under devolution anyway.
And the Welsh Blood Service is part of the European Blood Alliance, so ‘Welsh blood’ (if there is such a thing) already travels across international borders. This has nothing to do with support or opposition to the United Kingdom, and to even think it does displays a real contempt for the topic.
But of course, Keir Starmer did not do his homework, because for whatever reason he thinks he doesn’t need to.
Keir Starmer’s only other defence of the Union in this speech was to repeat brainless mantras with no evidence to back them up.
“It’s not just that our union is in all our economic interests, though that is also true,” he said.
“It’s that we are more progressive together. We are more secure together. We are a bigger presence in the world together. We are greater as Britain than we would be apart.”
What evidence was proffered to support these assertions? Why are we ‘more progressive together’ and if we are how does he explain how Scotland and Wales are more progressive under a conservative Westminster government than their own left wing ones?
Keir Starmer went on to claim that “I believe in the union of the nations on these islands but we have a cavalier government that is placing it in peril.”
But the truth is that Keir Starmer is showing exactly the same cavalier attitude. He is a clever man so we must presume that his not understanding devolution is because he’s simply not interested in it.
The one problem he most needs to solve to win a General Election – how to ensure an electoral foothold for Labour in Scotland – is one he seems almost at pains not to get to grips with.
And presumably – given that his speech would be the combined work on the brightest minds at the top of the party – no one else there has a clue either.
It’s not like they don’t have the expertise to draw on. Mark Drakeford, their only national elected leader, stands by no doubt ready and willing to advise. The Welsh Government was however mentioned once in the speech and Drakeford himself spoke not as a keynote but to a half-empty hall during a devolution section.
There seems to have been almost no thought given to why Labour in Wales, uniquely in the UK, bucked the trend at May’s elections. In there had been, there was none in evidence in the speech.
And in that way, Keir Starmer and the leadership of UK Labour is a symptom of exactly the kind of detached, self-assured, London-centric and wilfully ignorant mindset that is driving the Welsh and Scottish independence movements and the UK further apart.