I don’t know who needs to hear it, but Gordon Brown is not the man to save the Union. In fact, I do know who needs to hear it: he does.
Earlier this week, the former Prime Minister penned an article in the Daily Telegraph in which he set out his blueprint for keeping the UK together. In it, he scorned the tendency to just give devolved politicians more powers whilst advocating a strategy which seems mainly to involve giving them more power.
That powers / power distinction is important, as it’s the space in which advocates of a federal Britain intend to hide from the disastrous legacy of devolution as a unionist strategy. It’s what makes their idea a “fundamentally different concept”, in the words of Nick Timothy (another man trying to salvage his legacy with a turn as a constitutional sage).
Instead of giving the devolved assemblies control over more policy areas, the federalist model boils down to extending their reach into the institutions which oversee reserved policy. The details differ from scheme to scheme, but common features include replacing British decision-making by British ministers with horse-trading between representatives of the Home Nations, with expanded roles for the courts and perhaps the ability of sub-national units to veto national policy.
But what these two strategies have in common is more important than what divides them: each locates the problems of the Union at the centre (‘Westminster’) and on those bits of it which have not yet had the cleverness of the reformers applied to them. This has the happy effect of avoiding any awkward clash with the self-interest of the devocrats, and of sparing those who have spent decades advocating devolution from engaging in any critical re-assessment of their handiwork.
It isn’t difficult to see why Brown, of all men, might place a high value on the second point. Because as half of New Labour’s ruling duo, and the one that drove forward devolution and the rest of its Scottish policy, he has perhaps more claim than anyone else to be the architect of our present situation.
This ought to concern those holding him up as a potential saviour far more than it does.
Last February, he and I clashed on this topic at the inaugural conference of the pro-UK organisation These Islands, which was held in Newcastle. His keynote speech, in which he set out much the same broad thinking as his Telegraph piece, contained some important gaps in its reasoning.
First, Brown advocates for more inter-governmentalism in UK-level decision-making but has no apparent answer to the fact that this means granting separatist ministers hugely expanded scope for fouling up the functioning of the Union. The battle between the Government and the SNP is not a good faith dispute about the distribution of powers within the United Kingdom. It is a head-on clash over whether this country should continue to exist or not.
Referring to the upcoming COP26 climate conference, a particularly egregious case of the Scottish Government making life as awkward as possible for London, all the former Prime Minister could say was “we have got to make this work”. But that isn’t an answer. The Nationalists have no incentive to make it work: the less well-functioning the Union is, the harder it becomes to justify to voters.
(It is also very naïve to assume, as Brown does, that Mark Drakeford and his increasingly nationalist comrades in Welsh Labour would not also prioritise their own power and political convenience over the UK’s best interests.)
The Forsyth saga
Second, and in a way even more telling, was the extended attack he launched on Michael Forsyth and the admittedly hapless efforts of John Major’s government to take the fight to the SNP.
Brown’s account of Forsyth’s efforts to buy off Scottish sentiment with the Stone of Destiny was well told. But the purpose it seemed intended to serve – assuming he wasn’t simply settling scores with a politician who has not held office in almost a quarter-century – was to frame his style of hold-the-line unionism as the alternative to Brown’s thinking and discredit it by pointing out, not unreasonably, what happened to the Scottish Conservatives shortly afterwards.
The problem with this is that if you measure Brown by the same yardstick, the result is extraordinarily damning. Just like the Tories before them, Scottish Labour have collapsed and ceded their role in Scottish politics to the SNP. But given Labour’s previously hegemonic position, that failure is an order of magnitude more catastrophic for the Union.
Brown also has less excuse than Forsyth, who had a few years to try and stem the affects of both long-running structural issues and acute political crises. Brown, by contrast, was one of the masters of Labour’s policy on Scotland at a time when Labour’s Scottish policy was the only one that mattered. A simple question: are his party or his country stronger after those efforts, or weaker?
If you read back through the original debates on devolution in the 1990s, the people whose predictions have mapped most closely to our experience are not the likes of Brown and Donald Dewar, but their most determined opponents: Tam Dalyell on the Labour side… and the now Lord Forsyth of Drumlean on the Conservative.
This won’t persuade the die-hard devolutionaries. As I previously explained for These Islands, they take comfort in an unprovable (but increasingly implausible) hypothetical that things would always have been worse if they hadn’t done whatever they did. But more sceptical readers should note that such reasoning transforms the devolution strategy from a conclusion drawn from the evidence into a premise from which the evidence is approached. It becomes unfalsifiable.
None of this is to say that Brown can’t or won’t play an important role in any future campaign, far into the future as it will hopefully be. He clearly cares passionately about the subject and remains a stand-out orator and effective message carrier.
But that doesn’t mean that he has the structural answers Britain needs. His constitutional analysis, like that of many other ex-politicians, is too obviously built around a deep-seated aversion to criticism of his own record. If he will admit a shortcoming, it is only having not gone far enough.
But if he and the other devolutionaries are to earn a high place in today’s debate, in light of their record, they need to be prepared to admit that maybe, just maybe, they were wrong. Or they may yet do to the nation what they did to Scottish Labour.
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