One of my favourite Gordon Brown factoids (so beloved that I included it in my book) is that as prime minister he made more speeches about the need to tax disposable plastic bags than he did about crime. And yet he left office without having imposed the plastic bag tax.
It is a familiar theme of historians of the Brown years: earnest anxiety about having to make unpopular decisions, delaying any decision until it’s too late to effect change, then blaming others for his failures. Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow by setting up a review?
The former prime minister was at it again today, delivering a speech in which he announced not only support for a second EU referendum, but also what he has chosen to label a “People’s Royal Commission” on leaving the EU. Unconcerned with admissions from the likes of Sir Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, that Parliament cannot negotiate a departure deal, Brown now believes that a commission can achieve what the government has been unable to. He draws comparisons between his commission and “deliberative assemblies” organised in Ireland to discuss the consequences of constitutional referendums on, for example, abortion.
Such assemblies might have been a good idea – before the triggering of Article 50, for example. But the whole idea reeks of a senior politician looking for ways for other politicians to avoid having to take tough decisions. In a democracy, we hold the Government and Parliament to account, whereas commissions – Royal or “people’s” – can been used to allow governments to avoid that same accountability.
Brown is to be congratulated for refusing to bow out of public life; former prime ministers should be seen and heard. But his language today was so measured and equivocal, his comments so guarded and nuanced, that it was difficult to divine exactly what he intended to say. All options should be considered by the Commons, including demanding a renegotiation of any deal and even an extension to the Article 50 process. But which would be his preferred option?
He doesn’t want to make predictions as to what the final deal will look like, but the option to rejoin the EU in a few years should be open. Is that an option he would support?
Oh, and it’s wrong to say that the EU has taken away all of Britain’s sovereignty – an unusual observation since no Brexiteer has made such a claim. Where was the principled defence of Britain’s EU membership? Where was the legendary pulpit-thumping rhetoric that on a good day could bounce the whole Labour conference to their feet in spasms of hero-worship? What does Gordon actually believe?
He did no better when he was asked, in the Q and A session afterwards, about the Scottish dimension to all this. Ever since Scottish Labour was effectively wiped out at the 2015 general election, following its unequivocal opposition to independence the year before, the party has been reluctant to accept the label of “Unionist”. Following Brown’s lead, the Scottish party has been banging on about “federalism” as some kind of half-way house between the status quo and separatism. Unsurprisingly, this has not caught the imagination of voters, who prefer their political leaders to be for or against something.
A second independence referendum is, according to Brown, “unlikely at the moment” – hardly the unequivocal vote of confidence in what even non-Conservatives still regard as “our precious Union”. And he gave Union-supporting Scots (still the majority, remember, Gordon!) more cause for concern by suggesting that the devolved Scottish Parliament should have its own relationship with the EU.
Transferring foreign affairs to the devolved institutions flies wholly in the face of the letter and spirit of the devolution legislation Brown himself championed back in the day. Yet more concessions to nationalism by Labour will restrict even further the options open to Unionists when the next general election rolls around.
Brown is at least consistent: let’s review the Brexit deal, even if it takes years. Let’s mess around even more with a constitution that has been grotesquely weakened already by well-intentioned missteps. Let’s have another referendum, because the two most recent ones haven’t quite divided the nation enough.
Some prime ministers become more radical when they leave office, finally daring to say things that party unity and civil service caution prevented them saying earlier. Brown has, in retirement, shown the same level of leadership that he showed in Downing Street: very, very little.