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Brown’s PR gamble

Could a referendum on Scottish independence be held alongside a PR referendum on election day?

Gordon Brown has been widely criticised on the left for coming late to the constitutional reform party. He is a self-professed believer in first-past-the-post, and his instincts, like Tony Blair’s, have been to push big constitutional change into the long grass of inquiries and commissions. Even in the wake of the great expenses scandal, and after a brief debate in cabinet, there appeared to be little momentum for the introduction of proposals such as proportional representation and an elected second chamber. Steered by the conservative Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, Brown seemed destined to ignore what Roy Jenkins called the “breaking the mould” agenda.

Until now? Word reaches me from a senior cabinet ally of the Prime Minister that the recent proposal by Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, for a referendum on PR to be held on the day of the next general election is being considered at the highest levels. Like Roy Hattersley, a recent convert to PR and a Labour weathervane, Brown is said to be increasingly aware of PR’s merits. He is also in favour of a written constitution.

First-past-the-post provides a system in which general elections are determined by roughly a million people in marginal seats. From the power of these Middle England voters flows an entire media and political culture that is skewed to the right of Labour, while the progressive majority is disenfranchised. This helps to explain the disproportionate influence of Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail on government. Like an abused wife, new Labour has self-destructively sought the approval of its own enemy. However, Brown may yet implement a proposal that was, after all, a Labour manifesto commitment in 1997. He knows that to do so before the next election would be portrayed by the Tories and across the media as “changing the rules of the game”. But to do so on election day itself would, at best (if the party pulled off a surprise electoral victory), liberate a future Labour government and, at worst, lessen the likelihood of a two-term Tory government.

Meanwhile, a separate idea, bold if controversial, is quietly being considered for the same election day: a referendum in Scotland on independence. This reflects a rueful and secretly held sense among some in New Labour that devolution was a mistake which emboldened nationalists and strengthened the hand of Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party’s leader and Scotland’s First Minister. Brown has long fretted about British identity and about how people increasingly define themselves as English, Welsh and Scottish, rather than as British.

A referendum would call the Nationalists’ bluff. It would be a high-risk strategy. But Brown would be gambling on the majority of Scots who continue to recognise that the social, economic and political union remains much more than the sum of its parts.

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Amid the criticism levelled at the government for attempting to conduct the Iraq inquiry in private, one should note that the inquiry’s remit does at least begin in the summer of 2001. This means that we may discover not only the extent to which the invasion was a (warped) reaction to the 11 September attacks, but also the truth behind exactly when Tony Blair signed up for war.

We know that David Manning, Blair’s chief foreign policy adviser, wrote to the prime minister on
14 March 2002 after dining with Condoleezza Rice in Washington: “I [told her] that you would not budge in your support for regime change but you had to manage a press, a parliament and a public opinion that was very different [from] anything in the States.”

However, in February 2003, during his eleventh-hour speech to the Commons, Blair claimed: “I detest his regime. But even now he can save it by complying with the UN’s demand. Even now, we are prepared to go the extra step to achieve disarmament peacefully. I do not want war . . . But disarmament peacefully can only happen with Saddam’s active co-operation.”

It will be the unenviable task of the latest inquiry to explain the contradiction between these two positions.

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Tony Blair once declined to read the Guardian, saying, “I’d rather read a Labour paper.” Gordon Brown, it seems, is less willing to let the broadsheet go. After the paper published an editorial calling on the PM to step aside, Ed Balls, Brown’s combative cabinet ally, was swiftly despatched to the Guardian’s headquarters in King’s Cross in an attempt to make peace.

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George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, recently “came out” as an open advocate of spending cuts, speaking of his regret at “tiptoeing” around the issue. In fact, he has a long record of state-slashing rhetoric.
In one Commons speech four years ago, he bemoaned “waste on a huge scale”, talking of the need for a “change of direction” for the benefit of “hard-working families”. With no apparent irony, however, the
thrifty shadow minister ordered a DVD copy of the speech – entitled “Value for Taxpayers’ Money” – at a cost of £47, which he then claimed on expenses. As he said in that same speech: “It is not just the big-ticket items that tell the story of waste . . . sometimes the small examples can be just as illuminating.”

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Could the government be on a collision course with the heir to the throne? The Prince of Wales, who charges into public affairs with the delicacy of a bull in a china shop, caused controversy when he derailed plans for the redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks by the architect Richard Rogers. Now the Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw, has contacted Rogers to express support. “Ben,” says a source, “is worried about implications
for fairness and openness when schemes are blocked by powerful people or organisations who cannot be challenged.”

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It was the NS wot won it
Behind the Speaker’s Chair on Monday night, John Bercow bumped into the Prime Minister. Hidden from the Press Gallery above, the two men shook hands heartily. Brown, it turns out, privately told aides weeks ago that Bercow – originally tipped on these pages – was the best man for the job. In this, he was in rare disagreement with his Chief Whip, Nick Brown, who wanted his old friend Margaret Beckett to win.

Though Nick Brown made no calls himself, Beckett was damaged by counterproductive attempts by junior whips to cajole MPs to support her, as I revealed at the weekend on As well as recognising that Bercow was the most progressive candidate, the Prime Minister understood that the election of a Labour MP as Speaker in the aftermath of the expenses scandal would have damaged the government further.

The Tories, meanwhile, are angry. “Disaster”, was how one senior shadow cabinet minister described Bercow’s victory. A flushed David Cameron, the last MP in the House to join applause for Bercow, did not look like a man comfortable with defeat.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape