The taste for freedom: questions raised by campaigners for Scottish independence signal directions for a refreshed democracy for all Britons. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
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Union does not mean uniform

Are we moving to a federal United Kingdom and a written constitution?

Throughout the 15 years of devolution the defenders of the old United Kingdom have comforted themselves with the belief that only Scotland and Wales had changed and that the British constitution remained intact.

To give reassurance that Britain would not fundamentally change, the sovereignty of parliament was reaffirmed in the 1997 white paper that preceded devolution, Scotland’s Parliament, which declared: “The United Kingdom Parliament is and will remain sovereign in all matters.” This claim was repeated in the 1998 Scotland Act’s assertion that the Scottish Parliament “does not affect the power of the Parliament of the UK to make laws for Scotland”.

Now with more devolution to Scotland on the way and with even more inevitably to follow, the reality is slowly dawning: Britain cannot be Britain without Scotland and yet Britain cannot keep Scotland unless Britain itself changes.

It is now time to admit the truth – and end years of denial – that it is not just the Scottish part of the British constitution that was in need of overhaul. What is happening in Scotland is rocking the British constitution to its very foundations and has forced us to have a fundamental reappraisal.

No one can now ignore the basic fact that the United Kingdom is no longer and will never again be the all-powerful centralised unitary state of the constitutional textbooks. With one parliament, two legislative assemblies and a high-powered London authority taking powers from the centre, Britain is not the unitary state we were taught about at school.

Nor does the old theory of an undivided Westminster sovereignty conform to the new realities. In its own sphere the Scottish Parliament holds undisputed power and its decisions are not overruled by Westminster.

The idea of parliamentary sovereignty has taken a bashing because referendums, reflecting popular sovereignty, are now in effect required before important constitutional decisions are made.

But does this mean we are becoming a federal state? The classic case against federalism in the UK was put in the 1970s by the Kilbrandon commission, which said that it was “not a realistic proposition”. The commission concluded that the UK would be “dominated by the overwhelming poli­tical importance and wealth of England. The English Parliament would rival the United Kingdom federal Parliament, and in the federal Parliament itself the representation of England could hardly be scaled down in such a way as to enable it to be outvoted by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.” But is this asymmetry, with England 85 per cent of the whole, an end to the federalist’s dream?

Federal systems are typically characterised by a clear division of powers between different tiers of government, a set of autonomous institutions, a formal division of competences, rules for the resolution of conflict and arrangements for the policing of the distribution of competences. To make all that work there is usually a codified constitution that places defined boundaries on the powers of the national parliament, in contrast with the traditional British assertion of parliamentary sovereignty.

Today, with the passing of the Scotland Act 2012 and other developments, we not only have a far clearer division of powers between Westminster and the devolved legislatures, but also a procedure for the adjudication of disputes between Scotland and Westminster. In practice, one parliament cannot simply overrule the other and the UK Supreme Court is able to pronounce upon the constitutionality of Scottish legislation – as demonstrated by its 2011 decision in Axa General Insurance Limited v the Lord Advocate. It is now accepted that where conflicts about legislative powers arise, a resolution will not be imposed by the Westminster parliament under the old theory of its unchallengeable sovereignty but will be adjudicated by the Supreme Court.

And we have also moved from the constitution of the old legal textbooks by dev­eloping a mechanism through which constitutional change can happen without a constitutional crisis, regular referendums or Westminster imposition: where there is a consensus on reform, this can be agreed between Westminster and the Scottish Parliament in the form of an order in council under Section 30 of the Scotland Act.

These arrangements are as yet only partially in place for Wales and operate differently in Northern Ireland but our changing understandings on finance also mark a departure from the notion of the unitary, centralised state. Finance is no longer wholly centralised but a mixture of national and devolved taxation. While there is no agreement yet between the Westminster parties on the final range of tax-raising powers that the Scottish Parliament will have, there is a sufficiently strong consensus emerging that can form the basis of a tax-sharing agreement, which over time Wales may also wish to adopt. And it looks as if the Barnett formula, the mechanism for the UK-wide distribution of resources, would not be altered without at least a serious attempt at a cross-national agreement.

Thus many of the defining characteristics of a new constitution are already coming to life and there is no constitutional bar to proposals – set out in reviews by David Steel and Menzies Campbell – for formal partnership arrangements between the nations of the UK which might include a mutual requirement for statutory consultation and even reciprocal powers of initiation, enabling one government to request formally that another take action to facilitate policy objectives.

But in one respect the nations of the United Kingdom have defied localising tendencies and are far closer and more uniform today than they were 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago. Our UK-wide system of pooling and sharing risks, rewards and resources means that not only defence, foreign affairs and the administration of our single economic market remain in UK hands, but so, too, does almost all welfare (Northern Ireland excepted) and guarantees for the funding of key services such as health care. Indeed, what is unique about the modern United Kingdom – and distinguishes it not only from the US and other federal countries but also from the European Union – is the extent to which UK citizenship guarantees fundamental social and economic, and not just civil and political, rights. It means that regardless of whether you are Scottish, English, Welsh or Northern Irish you have a right to a UK-guaranteed pension; a right to UK-guaranteed assistance when unemployed; a right to fully funded health care free at the point of need; and a right to minimum standards of protection at work, including a UK-wide minimum wage and tax credits, no matter who you are and where you reside. The system of sharing across the UK creates a form of equality between the citizens of the four nations that no other group of countries can match for its depth and sophistication and this is arguably the defining characteristic of the Union today.

Can you pool and share resources for services as extensive as these while also enshrining the autonomy of the devolved parliaments and assemblies in other areas of domestic policy? I believe that all the evidence suggests that this is what most UK citizens support. Contrary to the Scottish nationalists’ claim that Scotland believes in social justice in a way that England does not, there is in fact no fundamental difference in the attitudes of Scots, English, Welsh and Northern Irish citizens when an overwhelming majority of people in each of the four nations support a health service free at the point of need, the same generous provision for pensioners and, at least in Britain, the same system of business tax to pay for these. And the citizens of each nation seem happy to contribute to the security of people across the four nations of the UK.

It is therefore possible to imagine support for a system of government in which welfare, the funding of health care, defence, foreign affairs and most macroeconomic issues are managed at a UK level, while the devolved assemblies and parliaments are autonomous in most other areas.

But can England’s interests and needs be met within such a constitutional framework? Lord Irvine once said that the best way of dealing with the West Lothian question was not to ask it at all. Others feel that there is a West Lothian answer as well as a West Lothian question, even if there is little desire on the part of England to have a separate English parliament.

I do of course strongly support the growing movement for regional devolution that responds to what has become a widespread desire for an answer to the growing power of London, but there is a desire to acknowledge specifically English concerns within the current UK parliament. There are two possible routes. The first potential innovation was in fact discussed by the last Labour government. On a second reading of an English-only bill, English members could of course be outvoted by the rest of the UK. So it would be standard practice to have a second vote on a second reading, which would allow a period of reflection. The second – and in my view more difficult – proposal is the McKay commission’s recommendation that in a grand committee-type arrangement, solely English members – or, if it was an English and Welsh bill, solely English and Welsh MPs – could amend and return draft legislation before the final vote by all the UK MPs.

In both these proposals English members would have a procedure for their views to be represented fully and in each case the final decision would rest with all MPs in parliament – and thus the principle that all MPs have equal voting rights in Westminster would not be breached.

No solution is truly federal because the asymmetry of the constitution – through the lack of an English parliament – remains. But in so far as these reforms would entrench a formal division of powers between the different legislatures and support the resolution of disputes through a system of adjudication, many federalists will likely find them appealing. The arrangement is close to “home rule” for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the sharing of risks and resources in health and welfare means that not all domestic legislative powers would be devolved. Indeed, I believe that the sharing of risks and resources across the UK in welfare and in guaranteeing the funding of health care now defines the UK and is central to the continued unity of the United Kingdom – and even the nationalists, who desire to maintain a currency union with the rest of the UK (while ceding the power to shape it), recognise the desirability for sharing in some areas.

One further set of reforms might help cement the arrangements. While there are mechanisms for adjudication of disputes between the different tiers of government and for achieving further constitutional change by agreement, there is no arena where consensus between the different parts of the Union can be built. Joint forums for dealing with issues such as poverty and housing where powers converge and co-ordination is required would benefit all parts of Britain. There is an argument that the House of Lords should be replaced with an elected Senate-like forum that represents the nations and regions, is sensitive to their needs and recognises that there are areas so controversial that they may cause such polarisation as to jeopardise the Union.

But whatever the post-Scottish referen­dum arrangements are, the UK already looks more like a constitutional partnership of equals in what is in essence a voluntary multinational association. At some stage it will make sense to codify the new division of powers and the new power-sharing, tax-sharing, risk-sharing and resource-sharing rules in a written constitution. And when this is done, Britain will move as close to a federal state as is possible in a country where 85 per cent of the population comes from only one of its four constituent parts. 

Gordon Brown was prime minister from 2007 to 2010. His book “My Scotland, Our Britain” is newly published by Simon & Schuster (£20)

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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