I am so tired, dear reader, of writing about Gordon Brown. I didn’t even cut my teeth as a blogger until after he had finally departed Downing Street. So why, in the Year of Our Lord 2022, is he still here?
That the former prime minister continues to enjoy such prominence doesn’t say anything good about the intellectual development of the Labour Party. Say what you like about David Cameron’s modernisation project, but when the Conservatives took office in 2010 they weren’t having their most important policy documents written by artefacts of Sir John Major’s ancien régime.
(This may also, in truth, be a reflection on the Tories; Labour until recently probably thought they had a whole extra cycle to prepare for government – more than enough time to let the waters close over Brown’s proposals.)
Yesterday, William Atkinson led us on a bleak ghost-train ride around the economic and governance aspects of Labour’s latest report, A New Britain. But this being Brown, the future of the United Kingdom is front and centre. Not that there would likely be that much of it, in the event.
As I have written previously, both here and elsewhere, his overweening priority is vindicating New Labour’s devolution project and reinforcing his self-image as saviour of the Union and, if these proposals are implemented in full, founding father (note the singular) of a new United Kingdom.
Of course, any defence of that project has to confront the fact that it has comprehensively failed to deliver on its promises, most obviously the bold pledge in Labour’s 1997 manifesto that “a sovereign Westminster Parliament will devolve power to Scotland and Wales. The Union will be strengthened and the threat of separatism removed”.
If you have to believe, because you have staked your historical reputation on it, that New Labour’s overhaul of the Union was a good thing, and need to reconcile that with the observable reality that the UK is in a far more parlous state now than it was 25 years ago, there is only one conclusion one can really draw: that we simply haven’t gone far enough yet.
That is very much the spirit of Brown’s proposals. There is absolutely no critical re-assessment of any of his previous decisions, or how the institutions New Labour established have panned out in practice. Instead, there’s just more.
First, the House of Lords will be abolished. This is bad news for British governance in its own right, as the upper house has in recent decades shouldered ever more of the burden of making legislation fit for purpose after Robin Cook, another of Brown’s New Labour comrades, slashed the sitting hours of the House of Commons.
In its place will be a Senate of the Nations and Regions. This will be elected, by PR. As an elected second chamber invites gridlock, Brown proposes to make it almost entirely powerless. This talking shop would in fact only have one function – preventing the House of Commons from touching the Barnett Formula or the devolution settlement.
(Worse, it would fall to the Supreme Court to mediate between the Commons and the Senate when it did try to exert itself. At a stroke Article IX of the Bill of Rights, which protects proceedings in Parliament from outside interference and safeguards the paramountcy of the political in our constitution, would be cast aside.)
Readers can probably guess what the impact of a glorified talking shop, populated exclusively by people who’s sole political role was championing their nation (or region) against the centre, would have on the already imperilled legitimacy of British governance and the institutions that make it possible.
Next, there would, inevitably, be the passage of even more powers to the devolved legislatures. Holyrood would even gain the right to enter into international agreements – what Yuan Yi Zhu rightly calls “the ultimate prerogative of sovereign states”, without even a say-so from Westminster.
The political role of the centre would wither, in the sphere of domestic government, to almost nothing, save (of course) the endless redistribution of cash; the rest would largely comprise constitutional rights, policed by lawyers and defined by judges.
We could probably fill as many pages addressing the flaws in Brown’s proposals as he did setting them out.
But for unionists wondering whether or not A New Britain is a good blueprint for the future of the country, we need only step back and ask a few big picture questions: will this actually save the Union? And when we say “save the Union” what do we actually mean?
On the first, the answer is clearly no – not least because the idea that this tranche of concessions will finally buy off nationalist sentiment, absurd as it was, is already visibly failing.
Wales needs radical change but Gordon Brown’s report isn’t offering it. My piece from today’s Western Mail: pic.twitter.com/hAU0LjrPsQ— Martin Shipton (@ShiptonMartin) December 7, 2022
The theory of the Union on which Brown’s proposals are based is a mixture of self-exculpatory motivated reasoning and pure faith; it doesn’t attempt a critical re-examination of the devolution project to date because its premises could not survive contact with one.
Instead, it strikes directly at the foundations of Britain in at least two ways.
First, it hamstrings even more that an present the role of the UK Government in the lives of the British people. Westminster would have a smaller remit than the central government of any actual federation, or even an embryonic federation such as the European Union.
This would, by changing the architecture of people’s political lives, make people feel less British, as indeed it has already done. It would also make it all but impossible to sustain a positive, pro-active case for the Union, because our shared government and institutions wouldn’t be able to act and build one. As I wrote last summer:
“It can’t be said often enough that we will only be able to make a positive case for a Union that actually does things, and is seen to do them well, in policy areas that voters actually care about. That means education, healthcare, welfare, and so on.”
Second, Brown’s plans rely on different parts of the UK being content to have completely different motivations for being part of it. This is most obviously the case with money, where he envisions fiscal transfers continuing unchanged even as UK-wide governance is dismantled and made unconstitutional.
Again, I don’t think I can put this better than I did back in January:
“It also attacks the foundations of ‘pooling and sharing’, the fiscal basis for even the most mercenary case for the Union. The logic of ‘devo-max’ repudiates the idea that Britain is a legitimate community for shared political government. But if this is the case, then it will not long remain a community for fiscal transfers either. No British governance, no ‘British taxpayer’ and no ‘British’ cash.”
To date, actual English nationalism has been (barring the bad-faith hysterics of some FBPE commentators) the dog that hasn’t barked.
But how long would voters in England, especially those bits which actually generate the revenues getting sent elsewhere, be content to be English at the ballot box but British on the tax return? Especially with a caucus of senators in a glorified talking shop whose only role is platforming national grievances?
It is bad enough that, at present, monies are raised from the British people and disbursed by the (British) Treasury, but then spent, often badly, without any accountability to the British people via their Parliament. Brown takes this a step further by all but abolishing the British political nation altogether.
Labour cannot dismantle the British nation as a political community and expect it to long endure as a taxpaying one. Such a settlement would be neither sustainable nor just.
Then we have our second question. Unionists have since 1998 been bad at articulating a positive vision of what they want the United Kingdom to be. This has been a boon to the nationalists, who can perennially demand that unionists compromise not between a full-fat Union and independence, but between independence and whatever the status quo happens to be, a dynamic that permits only one direction of travel.
But it also means that we have reached the point where seemingly any proposal which retains the technical existence of something calling itself the United Kingdom is being advanced as a solution to the problem of separatism, and assessed on whether it would work on those narrow grounds.
This isn’t good enough. Part of the strength of the UK is that we pool and share not just cash, but wisdom and decision-making in our united Parliament. Trading that in for a threadbare confederation is not a tactical manoeuvre to outflank the separatists, but a profound change in the character of our country, and a loss.
Moreover such a settlement, divided between devolved ‘self-rule’ and central ‘shared rule’, leaves no space for British self-rule.
More than half of census respondents in England and Wales (we don’t have a national census, which is truly deranged) were comfortable putting ‘British Only’ as their identity. (See graph at the bottom for the breakdown). Whilst this is doubtless in part an artefact of how the census was constructed, there are still at least millions, if not tens of millions, of people for whom British is their sole or primary identity.
Even a dogmatic nationalist who doesn’t accept the idea of overlapping nationalities has to concede that the British are the UK’s fifth nation. A settlement which dismisses their identity, and dismantles the institutions through which is expressed and reinforced, is chipping away the essential cement of a shared polity and depleting the ranks of its most loyal citizens.
Brown is the ideologue’s ideologue. He has devised a self-serving metaphysics of the Union that is impervious to evidence or challenge, and is determined to pursue it at all costs. We all deserve better.
And the most frustrating thing is, Labour should be able to do better.
After all, one can well imagine how a cynical, English nationalist Tory (of the sort Brown’s settlement would end up producing) might end up quite comfortable with a UK which secures right-wing hegemony in England but allows them to borrow British plumage on the world stage – especially after they pass full fiscal autonomy for Scotland and use the savings to cut taxes for their own voters.
By contrast, a progressive unionism should surely want to match fiscal transfers with active government. The litany of public service failures outside England – deteriorating school outcomes, food shortages on Scottish islands due to collapsing ferry services, and so on – should be a call to arms for any progressive movement which conceives of itself as British.
The extent to which Labour actually does think of itself that way is perhaps open to question; substantial elements of Welsh Labour certainly don’t.
But if Sir Keir Starmer does, and he doesn’t want to be remembered as the Prime Minister who at least teed up the dissolution of his country, then he needs to step out of the shadows of the extinct volcanoes of the New Labour front bench, approach the constitutional question with fresh eyes befitting of a new generation, and stop allowing the preoccupations and mistakes of éminences grises to define his policy.