6 December 2022

If it’s Brown, flush it down: the former PM is doubling down on constitutional failure


Gordon Brown is a man on a mission, and that mission is to file a second draft of his obituary. 

Out will be the under-appreciated hero of the financial crisis who sulked his way through Tony Blair’s premiership, bottled his chance to win his own majority, and who’s own time in Number 10 ended up as a sort of appendix to the New Labour story. In will be the saviour of the United Kingdom, the architect of a comprehensive reordering of our constitution and the founding father (singular) of New Britain, the object of Labour’s new report.

The contents are abject, abject stuff. The House of Lords, a valuable institution which has taken on more and more of the legislative heavy lifting after Robin Cook’s woeful reforms to the House of Commons, will be replaced with a near-toothless talking shop for the “nations and regions”. Article IX of the Bill of Rights, which protects proceedings in Parliament, looks like it would be set aside as the Supreme Court is charged with mediating between the Commons and the new Senate.

We have not the time nor space here for a comprehensive survey of the horrors, although whistle-stop tours of the worst of it are not hard to find. But at least a gridlocked, functionally ungovernable United Kingdom would still be, well, a united kingdom. 

But Brown is determined not to leave even that. If his vision is carried out, the UK will be decisively remodelled as a sort of archipelagic mini-me of the European Union – not a nation, but a ‘Union of Nations’. Each of the devolved territories would not only have ‘expansive’ self-government – and remember that Holyrood in particular is already one of the most powerful sub-state legislatures on Earth – but a formal role in the setting of UK-wide policy.

What that means in practice is the abolition of British self-government, replaced by confederal horse-trading and grandstanding by national representatives out for what they can get. Scotland would be granted the power to enter its own international arrangements! 

The role of central government would, inevitably, wither to the redistribution of cash via the (now constitutionally entrenched) Barnett Formula. On this, I can only refer you to what I wrote the last time Brown reared his head:

‘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.’

In fact, a blow-by-blow attack on the individual proposals would probably just end up being a tour of my back catalogue, which can wait. Instead, it’s worth looking at the deeper question of why, thanks to the Tories’ squandering of the last few years, this catastrophe is a real, if by no means certain, prospect after 2024.

On one level, it is simply that the current Labour leadership seem scarcely to have done any more deep thinking about the nation and the constitution than their Conservative counterparts. Outsourcing their thinking on this most vital of questions to Brown is an abdication of responsibility, but he is at least there, thinking his weighty thoughts. Easier to adopt them than think their own.

As for Brown, he is simply the most high-profile member of a cadre of guilty men from the New Labour era who have no option but to keep doubling down on devolution because the alternative would be admitting they were wrong.

They were wrong, of course. New Labour’s 1997 manifesto made the nation a simple promise: ‘a sovereign Westminster Parliament will devolve power to Scotland and Wales. The Union will be strengthened and the threat of separatism removed’. It did not, obviously, pan out quite that way.

After the objective failure to fulfil that objective, that same promise has been made for every subsequent tranche of concessions, with the same result. Yet here we are, a long-quarter century later, with Labour insisting that this time their proposals will ‘end the debilitating dilemma between independence under the SNP and an embattled status quo under the current government’. Pinky promise.

‘Muscular unionism’, to co-opt a phrase coined by its opponents, was born of the recognition that devolutionary unionism has not kept its promises. And it couldn’t, because there is not actually a tidy constitutional fix for separatist sentiment. 

Scottish nationalists want independence, a perfectly cogent and reasonable aim. Buying them off strengthens their hand – because it chips away at the case for the UK, which rests on a Union which actually does things – but it doesn’t sate their appetites. We have 25 years of data to prove it.

The SNP are not good-faith partners in a well-run UK. They want Britain to fail, and have unfailingly used every lever handed to them to effect that end. Brown has no answer to this; when pressed on the Nationalists’ exploitation of ‘inter-governmental’ arrangements to stonewall COP26, back at the These Islands conference in 2020, he could only lamely insist that we have to ‘make this work’, which is no answer at all.

Devolutionary unionism has woeful predictive power. Whether it promises peace, via the next concession, or dire calamity, as with Brexit and the UK Internal Market Act, its prophets are usually wrong. So why do they persist?

There are no windows into the souls of men. But I think that persistence is the only way to reconcile two positions: the manifest reality that devolution has consistently failed as a unionist strategy, and desperate, overwhelming need to have been right to embark upon it. With every tranche of concessions, men such as Brown have staked more of their reputation, and their legacy, on the project. And if devolution was right, but the Union has nonetheless not been ‘strengthened and the threat of separatism removed’, that admits only one option: that we have simply not devolved hard enough yet.

The foundation of this outlook is the belief, succinctly expressed by Tony Blair last year, that: ‘If the Labour Party hadn’t implemented its manifesto commitment to do devolution in 1997, the union would already be in tatters.’

This position is widely professed. But it is entirely unfalsifiable; we can never glimpse the alternate timeline to test it. As a result, it subtly shifts the belief in devolution (as a unionist project, at least) into a pre-evidential faith; a crow of a premise, in the borrowed feathers of a reasoned conclusion. 

And given the poor performance of devolutionary predictions that have actually been tested, we have scant reason to take the culpable at their word that they nonetheless got this one, existential, unprovable call right.

It is too much to expect Brown and his confederates to recant their faith, and the attendant image of themselves as great statesmen. But we can move on. There will be no excuse, 15 years after New Labour left office, for allowing him to serve as a backseat driver (good or otherwise), and deliver a final, fatal dose of the medicine which has been killing his patient since 1998.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.