By 21 December, the nation was ready to down tools. After a torrid 2020, knackered Brits were limping towards the Christmas break in the uncertain hope that when they re-emerged from the festive period there would be greater reason for optimism.
It is all the stranger, then, that Keir Starmer chose that flat day in the last knockings of the year to set out what was portrayed as a major policy announcement. With the UK heading towards a potential break-up, there would be (another) devolution commission that would look to “push power closer to people”. The Labour leader had charged Gordon Brown with fronting this effort to “consider how power, wealth and opportunity can be devolved to the most local level” across Britain.
From a Scottish perspective, involving the former PM makes complete sense. Brown still counts, and is one of the few major players from the New Labour golden era, when the party dominated the heights of Scottish democracy, who retains his authority and remains engaged with politics. He is a credible figure north of the border, and may well be the best – if not the only – choice available to lead a pro-Union campaign in the event of a second independence referendum.
Further, Brown has been a genuine devotee of devolution for decades, having learned his trade in a Scottish Labour Party that fought long and hard to deliver constitutional change. It’s also worth saying that for many mainstream voters, Brown and Starmer could make an attractive duo – men of moral seriousness and genuine belief in an age of political actors who too often lack both.
It remains a curiosity that Starmer decided to set out his big plan for the reconstruction of Britain at a time when, as any journalist knows, the newsdesk is beginning to look towards the “Christmas box” of pre-filed stories that would struggle to make the paper in busier times. People are barely reading, and hacks are barely writing.
[See also: Gordon Brown: How to save the United Kingdom]
Should we take this timing as a statement of the project’s urgency or of its tokenism? Is it driven by a genuine desire to remake the UK in a fresher, more sustainable form, or is Labour simply running scared of rampant Scottish nationalism? It’s hard to be certain, and probably a bit of both. But surely a new year launch, with a developed plan of action and timetable, would have more effectively caught public attention?
The truth is that, even though the Conservatives are in power, it is Labour to whom Scots are more likely to look for leadership on UK constitutional change. Boris Johnson’s subterranean polling levels in Scotland, and the perceived English bias of his party, mean there is little confidence in the PM or acceptance that he is likely to act in good faith. His recent comment dismissing devolution as a “disaster” and this week’s claim that without Westminster Scotland would have failed to access the Covid-19 vaccine, have been ill-judged and inflammatory. Michael Gove, who is leading the UK government’s work in the constitutional area, may be a Scot but these days is regarded as a creature of Westminster Conservatism: an English MP and minister who is at home in the Old Etonian social scene and who has made his name reforming England’s schools and England’s prisons.
It goes without saying that Britain needs reform. The country’s usual piecemeal approach to such matters has left it lopsided and Gaffa-taped together, a Heath Robinson nation in which the constituent parts have unrecognisably different arrangements. Elected mayors here, devolved parliaments there, 1950s-style Whitehall control of vast swathes, a second chamber that is close to a national embarrassment, a post-Brexit reintegration of powers that has created institutional stand-offs and rammies. Britain is a mess, and not in the “muddling through” way that used to be held up as a sign of national distinctiveness and even genius.
It is not for us Scots to say what English democracy should look like. We can observe the rise of the city mayors with some jealousy – Scotland, despite devolution, remains one of the most centralised states in Western Europe. We can see how the battle for the Red Wall distorts policy-making in a pork-barrel direction. We can shudder at the Trump-lite populism of Boris Johnson and a cabinet that is little more than the PM’s playpen. As I say, it’s not up to us, but there is surely appetite for greater order and a shared project of renewal?
Our own urge towards greater self-determination has consequences south of the border, too. Nicola Sturgeon’s robust approach to inter-governmental relations has put noses out of joint (even though her polling ratings outstrip Johnson’s in many English areas), and Scotland’s constant restlessness has left many English voters scunnered and resentful. Brexit and the growing spikiness of the Celtic nations is forcing the English towards the mirror and to self-reflection. Who are we? What do we want? How much change is enough? How much is too much?
[See also: Nicola Sturgeon: Britain’s most powerful woman]
If Britain is to be rescued then somehow the different parts of the constitutional jigsaw must be put together. Brown would seem more than capable of doing the intellectual heavy-lifting, but the Conservatives, even in these toughest of times, have shown little inclination towards even the faintest hint of a cross-party, all-hands-to-the-pump national effort. If there has been no place for the experience and talents of Brown, Tony Blair and John Major up to this point, it seems unlikely there will be a change of heart in 2021.
And Scots, at least, will not be bought off by reheated porridge, by a limp offer from a Tory government that isn’t hugely interested and can’t really be bothered, by Unionist parties at odds with one another and proposing different things. A fresh offer that looks something like federalism, that addresses the appetite for greater independence without economic calamity, must be produced, otherwise a more fundamental breach is on the cards.
Imagine that Johnson asked Brown to chair a national effort to redesign the UK – to bring greater democratic and economic identity to England’s towns and cities, to blow up the Lords and replace it with a modern, regionally representative institution, to give Scotland its head (and greater responsibility for facing the consequences of its policy decisions).
In narrow political terms, this would give the PM a legitimate reason to delay a second independence referendum for a few years, as the proposal was researched, drafted and consulted upon. It would spread the burden beyond party lines, and suggest the UK is still capable of coming together to fix its problems, that some solidarity is still to be found. It would introduce some grace into the situation – not everything needs to be a zero-sum calculation, despite the experience of the past few years.
Then imagine a second independence referendum with a third option of thought-through, cross-party pro-UK reform on the ballot paper, and the damage this could do to the independence vote. It may not work, of course, but it would surely stand a better chance. Remember, it would only have to do just enough, and persuade enough of that floating middle to sit tight.
If Unionists want the UK to stay together, it’s time to get serious. No soft launches when voters are busy ordering last-minute gifts from Amazon or out at Marks buying the turkey. No cheap columnist-rhetoric from the Prime Minister in a bid to entertain his bored MPs on Zoom. No divide-and-conquer games when issues that really matter are at stake.
To quote one of Johnson’s predecessors, Westminster should get itself in a position to make “a big, open and comprehensive offer” to Britons – Scots, English, Welsh and Northern Irish. This would be better done as one, and with passion, heart and commitment at its core. Retooling this dangerously frangible nation is probably the only way to save it.