From Alasdair ‘No relation’ Galloway
Gordon Brown’s review of the current constitution, including the Union, is promised by Keir Starmer to be a “fresh and tangible offer” to voters who had “turned away” from the party, especially to the Scottish National party in Scotland and the Tories in the north of England.
The report was initially leaked on Thursday in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/sep/22/labour-considering-abolishing-house-of-lords-if-it-wins-next-election-leaked-report-reveals). You might have missed it with the hoo ha about Kwarteng’s amazingly stupid whatever it was other than a budget (you might have noticed no red case – it means OBR won’t comment on it. Just as well!). It has though been the subject of comment since then, including in “Why I, as a Tory, want the next UK government to be a Labour one” in the Herald, written by Tory Adam Tomkins (https://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/22691686.tory-want-next-uk-government-labour-one/) this morning.
But back to Gordon. A whole range of recommendations are made, but an interesting thing is that push back is being reported already from some Labour MPs, as the Herald reported “several Labour frontbenchers are sceptical over the plans”, so we might find that not all of the proposals are in the final version, expected later this year.
But, perhaps the key observation – of many – about the review report was a Tweet by Adam Tomkins – “Has anyone ever met any Yes voter who would vote No if only the House of Lords was abolished and replaced? Why oh why does GB think this is how to save the Union?”
Or, as he notes this morning “Fiddling with the old British constitution will do nothing – nothing at all – to bring disaffected Yes voters back into Labour’s fold, and Gordon Brown should know better than to pretend otherwise.” And in this, Tomkins is absolutely right.
However, what he fails to do is to consider how far Brown’s report is from achieving even this, a substantial and permanent change in that Constitution. For instance, abolition of the House of Lords and replacing it with an upper house of nations and regions, as well as handing sweeping new powers to local regions and devolved nations, faces several problems.
- First of all, anyone who thinks that a new upper house of nations and regions is going to restrict in any way the current powers of the House of Commons really needs to think again. I have little doubt that Brown is well aware of this. The role of what he proposes would only be at the margins of UK politics, particularly as he has come out against a written constitution.
- What would this do in the fact of nationalism, not just in Scotland but in Wales and Northern Ireland as well? I think the answer is not much, for 85% of the new upper house would be from England. In other words, the domination of the lower house would be mirrored in the upper house. Brown can talk all he likes about “near federalism”, but while it is probably still a good sound bite, the fact is that in a Union where a single nation is 85% of the whole, federalism is quite simply nonsensical, for that part of the Union merely has to be sufficiently clear (not necessarily clear, but clear enough) and it will get its way. The Brexit vote showed this, as the majority to Leave in England was less than 2 million, and the Leave vote in England was only 53.4% of the total English vote (worth remembering next time they start on about a minimum majority for Scottish independence). Yet the UK majority to Leave was 1,269,501 or about 66% of the English majority. If it was “The Sun Wot Won It”, on Brexit it was “England Wot Won It”.
- How is Whitehall going to react to a range of new powers for local regions, or all over the place, when it is already pretty clear that they are well pissed off having to deal with just the devolved nations in Scotland and Wales.
Will any of this push back nationalism? Brown may well believe that it would. For instance, in March, he suggested that Scots didn’t want to become independent, citing a survey commissioned by his own think-tank ‘Our Scottish Future’ which found 47 % of the 2005 Scots asked would support a “serious plan to change Britain” over the country becoming independent. I wouldn’t like to say he is wrong in this.
Shortly before the 1979 Scottish Assembly vote, the Herald published this cartoon by the late Jim Turnbull. Ironically, while there was a majority vote, the gerrymandering by George Cunningham meant that the majority was not enough for 40% of the electorate had not voted Yes. So Scots were on the whole supportive – just not supportive enough.
Thus, is it really outrageous to suggest that – maybe even now – if there was a serious plan to reform the UK that nationalism and the independence movement would just melt away? But, is Brown’s a serious plan?
Almost certainly not because
- would Westminster would go along with it? Brown still has to get his ideas past even the Labour Party (not without difficulty it appears, and let’s not forget who sank the Scottish Assembly, and it wasn’t a Tory!).
- Even then, what chances of a Labour government that would actually legislate in this way. Or would they kick it into the long grass (Royal Commission for instance) because the Tories have left so much economic chaos and damage following Friday’s ongoing economic madness, that with the best will in the world Starmer would have little or no time to address the issue?
- even if this was a “serious plan”, that since Brown proposes no changes to the constitution (and thus to sovereignty and no government being able to tie the hands of a future one) how long would these arrangements last? The current Conservative government with varying degrees of unsubtlety are trying to undermine and short-circuit the existing powers of devolution.
Brown is therefore, in danger of getting shot up in the soggy middle ground. The debate is increasingly between parties seeking independence (most notably Scotland and Northern Ireland, though the role of Labour in Wales is frequently interesting) and a centralising British Unionism which would take us back to 1996, if it could. They may lack the confidence to say this too often or too loudly, but I am certain that is their preferred direction of travel. Brown’s kind of constitutional tinkering is in danger of being crushed between these two behemoths.
Turnbull’s moth-eaten Lion, though, might just jump at an easy answer – a plan to reform the UK state, to somehow square the circle of the demands for the nations to do their own thing but still centralise the UK state – but politically it looks to be leading a dangerous existence, and at some future point those who still think this way (thirty years ago, I still did) will be faced with the unpalatable (to them) choice between a UK state (albeit centralised) or the UK breaking up.
Could that circle ever be squared? It would mean offering local centres of power (eg Wales, Scotland, northern England) sufficient autonomy which at some point is going to threaten the coordination of the UK state. Probably how it is funded as well. It can though be made to work. For instance, in Germany poorer Lander are provided with additional resources by the wealthier lander to bring them up to the same standards. But while at one time Bavaria was in receipt of federal funds, now they don’t need this they complain about supporting others. Sound familiar?
I don’t mean local autonomy is a bad thing, but how far can different parts of the country do things in their own (different) ways until the UK becomes if not anarchic then discoordinated, certainly as Whitehall would see it?
On the other hand, if sentiment in the nations and regions is to be satisfied, is there any choice? Or is the problem one of structure alone, or is it perceptual, about identity as the idea of Britishness fades away into the past. Some 62% of Scots already think of themselves as Scottish. The split between people in Northern Ireland who think of themselves as Irish, and who think of themselves as British is almost equal. Certainly, I don’t think “Britishness” is the same powerful rallying cry that it was 50 years ago. Nor is the idea of independence as “out there” as it might have been then (when there were no SNP MPs).
In other words, the problems are not only about structure, but about sentiment, about self-perception and identity, as well. These are issues that Brown gives little attention to. But any “serious plan” has to have the capacity to give enough voters confidence that local autonomy could be achieved within the UK. The shallowness and even just the structural inadequacy of what we know of Brown’s proposals shows clearly that his is not that “serious plan”.