Labour’s attitude to abortion devolution says a lot about their attitude to Scotland

When I wrote about the Smith Commission report last week, I was intrigued by its decision not to devolve abortion law to Scotland despite all the parties wanting to do so,  Here’s a reminder of what I said:

One last point: I’d quite like to know the story behind the fudge on abortion and embryology:

  • The parties are strongly of the view to recommend the devolution of abortion and regard it as an anomalous health reservation. They agree that further serious consideration should be given to its devolution and a process should be established immediately to consider the matter further.
  • The devolution of xenotransplantation; embryology, surrogacy and genetics; medicines, medical supplies and poisons; and welfare foods (i.e. matters reserved under Sections J2 to J5 of Head J – Health and Medicines, Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998) should be the subject of further discussions between the UK and Scottish Governments. Those discussions are without prejudice to whether or not devolution takes place and in what form.
  • If they all agree, why not just devolve it?

    Scotland on Sunday had an explanation. Apparently, it was Labour who vetoed its inclusion:

    LABOUR forced the Smith Commission to drop abortion law from its final package minutes before a deal needed to be done after threatening to walk away if it remained in the package.

    The dramatic piece of brinkmanship, which saw Labour MP Gregg McClymont telephone Ed Miliband to seek permission to make abortion a red-line issue, came after a week of debate on the subject.

    And why?

    But Labour’s concern was that the influence of SNP backer Brian Souter on the Nationalists could lead to a more conservative abortion law on the time limit for termination in Scotland with teenage girls being forced to make cross-Border journeys to have the procedure.

    This supports what I’ve been hearing about it. I believe Harriet Harman was the Labour MP responsible for Labour’s attitude. I have a lot of time for Harriet but, honestly, it is pretty poor when a London based MP decides that the Scottish people can’t be trusted to do the right thing.

    Labour spent the entire referendum campaign going on about how our social attitudes across the UK were similar. I agree with that. So why now decide that Scottish MSPs are so conservative that they would bow to pressure from various religious organisations and millionaires. Certainly the SNP did give in to the Catholic church over HPV vaccinations back in 2008. The new First Minister was responsible for that decision. She’s making much of her feminist credentials at the moment. Perhaps she might like to make sure that decision is reversed. It’s just an idea.

    However, Harriet should look to the same sex marriage debates north and south of the border. Our equal marriage law in Scotland is  much more progressive, particularly for transgender people and the tone of the debate was pretty tolerant. And though Brian Souter made it very difficult for Wendy Alexander over Section 2A (as Section 28 was known in Scotland), we got there in the end. Mind you, the Liberal Democrats made sure of that.

    When every other health related decision is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, there is no reason why abortion should not be. I’m glad that Mike Moore held firm and refused to budge. Mind you, way back in 1997/8 when the original Scotland Act was being discussed, Jim Wallace tried to get it devolved then and Mike backed him, so there’s no great surprise there.

    London Labour’s attitude to Scotland having this power, though, speaks volumes about what they think of the Scottish people, even though the evidence does not back them up. No wonder they are in such a mess up here.

    But hang on a bit. Maybe Harriet’s fears were more to do with the next likely Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, who has previously talked about courting the religious vote? His voting record on things like equal marriage is ok, though.

    Whatever the reason, the fact that Labour has blocked a key decision on a social issue being made in Scotland speaks volumes about its confidence in the Scottish people. That’s a real shame.


    * Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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    • Labour are clearly terrified that devolving power will raise the WLQ. In a way they are right to be worried.

    • I’m not sure I agree with you here Caron. Why should Scottish women have different abortion rules and rights to those in England or Wales? Seems like a strange thing to devolve to me. I would much rather the Scots fed into the larger discussion on abortion in Westminster than did their own thing. Surely abortion is as much a women’s rights issues as it is a health issues, and on women’s (and human) rights I think we should all be singing from the same hymn sheet, and contributing to a UK wide debate in Westminster. I also think this should be the case with Gay marriage, euthanasia and digital rights. On the wider issue of civil liberties and human rights we should very much be a United Kingdom, I can think of very few reasons why abortion devolution is a necessary or useful thing (though I may have missed an obvious argument here).

    • Caron,
      You spent months in LDV pushing the Unionist line against independence.

      You did so because presumeably because you thought that on some issues — “the Scottish people can’t be trusted to do the right thing.”

      If when it comes to basing nuclear weapons in Scotland — “the Scottish people can’t be trusted to do the right thing.”, then why should they be trusted on abortion?

    • David Faggiani 1st Dec '14 - 5:09pm

      Yes, I second James Borg and FrankBooth on this. It’s a larger issue of policy deviation. I think we’re going to end up having more and more arguments like this, though, because Devolution, as an idea and as a practice shy of Independence, has no consistency to it. I don’t know what the Lib Dem stance (perhaps a firmer, clearer, Regional Federalism?) should be but this is clearly going to slide into a morass of issue-by-issue ‘red lines’.

    • No, Caron. Labour are wholly correct not to devolve abortion.

      Scotland has a powerful and nasty religious lobby that has much greater power than equivalents in England, if less so than NI. AN

      The SNP too has many senior members (and it is male dominated at the top, with the exception of Sturgeon) who are social conservatives.

      The myth that Scotland is socially liberal as portrayed by some Yes activists, particularly the Greens and Radical Left risks great harm.

    • The worry is that for all the good work on equal marriage there have been some serious and unfortunate concessions to the religious lobbies. One has been mentioned above. there was also the permission to the catholic adoption agency to carry on in business despite discriminating against gay people.

    • Abortion is not a “social issue”; it is a human (women’s) rights issue. It’s disgraceful enough that women in Northern Ireland are denied free access to abortion without making the matter worse by allowing further variation within the UK.

    • While I suspect Labour are using Souter as a paper tiger – their own catholic wing is just as conservative, surely? –
      I agree that it is wrong if there is to be a union that NI women can have different laws to deal with than those in the mainland.
      Interesting though that people who are progressive on equal marriage etc can be uncomfortable with abortion.

    • Maybe Harriet Harman was more concerned about what would happen in England and Wales if the power were devolved to Scotland. If Scottish MPs were compelled to abstain on abortion limits for E&W it is a lot more likely an amendment would be passed.

    • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 1st Dec '14 - 10:46pm

      I am as pro choice as they come but I still think the decision should be made in Scotland. Every other health decision is. We could even get rid of the ridiculous two doctors requirement.

    • Until we have a decent federal system with a constitution providing overarching checks and balances I feel some issues are better left to the UK Parliament. In the present arrangement, improving as it may by the proposed changes, who provides our Roe vs Wade?

      My understanding is that the USSC in this judgement restricted the ability of the individual States to impose restrictions thereby allowing abortion until the 24th week of pregnancy.

    • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 2nd Dec '14 - 9:54am

      G, Agreed. Some of the stuff they came out with during the equal marriage debate was arguably incitement to hatred. Did them absolutely no good whatsoever though. I don’t see why Scotland shouldn’t decide this issue. There is evidence that attitudes are broadly the same in Scotland as England.

    • I think Labour were totally right and that we should be using this decision to bring the situation in NI back into line with the rest of the UK.

    • nvelope2003 2nd Dec '14 - 12:15pm

      Devolution seems fine until they want to do something you do not like. You are either for it or against it. There is no middle way.

    • Andrew Colman 2nd Dec '14 - 12:29pm

      Agree with Caron and others

      Abortion is an ethical issue and should be decided by the people.

      I would support a referendum on abortion law allowing ordinary people
      to choose between various limits. There is no reason why Scotland should have the same rules as England

    • Posts like these confirm to me that not voting is probably the best opinion at the moment.

      If you’ve got the SNP who are supposed to want everything devolved not wanting this devolved yet in public they say they want everything devolved… I can’t even put my disgust into words, this whole thing just sounds like back room scheming after saying a totally different thing in public. I still don’t believe Nick Clegg wants an IN/OUT EU vote either if there is a chance it doesn’t go his way. You just can’t trust any of them to mean what they say in public.

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