10 January 2022

Rash Gordon: the former PM’s plans for the Union are as terrible as ever

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Ten years after losing office in 1997, the Conservatives were two years into David Cameron’s root-and-branch reform effort. More than ten years after voters booted him out in 2010, Labour are still taking their lead from Gordon Brown.

Sir Keir Starmer has appointed the former Prime Minister to head up a commission on Labour’s approach to the constitution. And unsurprisingly, the stories coming out of it are abysmal.

Naturally, the headlines have been stolen by suggestions that Labour might run pro-independence candidates in Scotland, as they already have in Wales. But whilst the national party’s failure to crack down on this is deeply concerning, this time at least it looks like someone freelancing.

It’s the actual proposals in Brown’s upcoming report, to which Starmer appears to have committed himself in advance, that are the real cause for dismay. Once again, he is touting ‘devo-max’. From the Times:

“Gordon Brown’s blueprint for devolving further sweeping powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is expected to recommend Holyrood be handed responsibility to set its own policy in most areas but not defence and foreign affairs.”

When I have crossed swords with Brown and other devolutionaries over the past couple of years, I’ve been told that my characterisation of their position as just being about ‘more powers!’ is unfair. It’s actually so much more imaginative, all about finding ways to reform the centre so the Union works better and…

But no. With the bleak inevitability of an unloved season, here we are again. Keep giving more powers to the devocrats and hope that this time, for reasons that cannot be clearly explained, it works.

Of course, Brown isn’t the only person to suggest that the Union should wither to such an extent that it barely features in the domestic government of the nation. Alun Evans, a former head of the Scottish Office, suggested last year that only ‘wholly UK issues including the currency and national defence would be reserved to Westminster’.

Step back and think about it for a couple of seconds, and this is an extraordinary position – especially because it is usually packaged up with proposals for so-called ‘shared rule’ which would further increase the role of the devolved governments in setting even what little UK-wide policy remains. It suggests that Britain should become something which barely amounts to a modern state at all.

We’re a very long way from the promise made in New Labour’s 1997 manifesto: ‘A sovereign Westminster Parliament will devolve power to Scotland and Wales. The Union will be strengthened and the threat of separatism removed.’

Ultimately, what unites men such as Brown and Evans is not just their prescriptions. It is their culpability. They played leading roles in the British state’s abysmal response to the challenge of Scottish nationalism over the past few decades, and cannot bear to admit that they got a series of really big calls so catastrophically wrong.

As a result, we push through into the land of magical thinking. If devolution must be the answer – and it must, because it was their big idea – then it can only have failed because we haven’t had enough of it yet. And if we need yet more devolution (far more than envisioned in 1998), then the ramshackle confederacy that results must actually be a ‘new United Kingdom’ we wanted all along.

Devolutionary unionism’s increasingly neurasthenic efforts to persuade itself (never mind the rest of us) that this was the plan from the beginning make for an abject spectacle. Yet for some reason it continues to entrance one of our parties of government.

This is especially baffling in Labour’s case because ‘devo-max’ strikes much more deeply at the heart of a left-wing case for the United Kingdom than a right-wing one.

It is possible to see, after all, how one of those fabled ‘English nationalists’ we keep being told run the Conservative Party might be content to secure right-wing hegemony over England on domestic issues and then borrow the feathers of the UK to peacock on the world stage.

For Labour, on the other hand, ‘devo-max’ means less and less national tax policy. It means removing the British state from areas such as health and education that matter most both to the party and the electorate.

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.

Once again, the problem comes down to culpability. There is a strong left-wing case to make for a more ‘muscular’ British State. But making it means not only embarking on a critical reassessment of devolution that the ‘extinct volcanoes’ of the New Labour era would find deeply discomfiting, but also confronting the often-dire records of Labour devocrats in office.

But the Opposition has not yet passed into the hands of a generation with sufficient imagination, courage, or distance from the original decisions to undertake this work. So instead Starmer stumbles on towards the precipice, not standing on the shoulders of giants but lost in their long shadows.

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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.