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How to save the United Kingdom

The pandemic has brutally exposed the dysfunctional British state. Nationalism is not the solution – but big change is required. Now is the time to decide how to act.

 

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Until very recently, the US looked like the West’s most divided and dysfunctional democracy. Now, those on the other side of the Atlantic would be excused for pointing the finger in our direction.

It is too early to say whether Britain will break up, but we can say already that it is breaking down. Wales, Liverpool and Manchester have been declaring their version of independence over their response to the pandemic. And as No 10 implodes, my own nation, Scotland, already has one foot out the door of its 300-year-old Union with England.

The virus and recession – and the well-publicised splits over local lockdowns, over who manages public health and welfare best, and who pays for what – have exposed a centre that does not listen and outlying areas that do not feel they are consulted.

On one level, this is a story about governmental failure. To control a pandemic you need public buy-in. A company chief executive may be able, at least for a time, to send down diktats that have to be obeyed. But when implementing lockdown and quarantines, “command and control” only takes you so far. Citizens have to be persuaded to follow the rules. A prime minister has to consult, communicate and coordinate, and build consent, for if trust breaks down and if, as the antics of Dominic Cummings demonstrated, there are doubts about the credibility, legitimacy and even-handedness of the rules, then any hope of unity disappears.

But I believe the crisis runs deeper than the No 10 problem and the travails of any one government. For in grappling as a country with the worst pandemic and the worst recession in living memory, fundamental flaws that go to the heart of our constitution have come to the surface. And it is the revolt of the regions – and of much-respected metro mayors such as Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram, Jamie Driscoll, Dan Jarvis, Marvin Rees and Sadiq Khan – that is proving to be the game-changer. It has shown that the government does not just have a Scottish or Welsh problem: it has a UK problem. The pandemic has brutally exposed a centre that has control over the country’s resources but does not know what’s happening on the ground; whose own ignorance has been juxtaposed with outlying communities who have far greater local knowledge but few resources. And Boris Johnson’s reported “devolution has been a disaster” outburst – implying his management from the centre is a great success story – shows how out of touch he is: part of that No 10 faction that does not even admit there is a problem and the days of over-centralisation are numbered.

So while No 10 may persist in dismissing unrest against the centre as the complaints of “restless and unruly natives” in Scotland or Wales, this is not the real story. The view from Scotland and Wales is the same as the view from the regions, too: an inflexible, insensitive centre still trying to imprison a multinational country of diverse regions, with their own histories and needs, into the straitjacket of a unitary state.

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While the pandemic has exposed these political divisions, the roots of the problem originate at a deeper level. For all the talk of levelling up, the economic divide within the UK has been growing fast and with Brexit will grow even faster, intensifying the battle over the allocation of resources across the country. Research by the respected economist Philip McCann has found – astonishingly – that the inequalities between our regions are now wider and deeper than in any other major advanced economy worldwide. In recent weeks McCann produced new evidence confirming that half the UK population today lives in areas in which productivity and prosperity levels are no better than the poorer parts of the former East Germany outside Berlin. Half the population today lives in areas in which access to healthcare, he says, is of a quality no better than in eastern Europe. And when we take a number of quality-of-life indicators into account, such as income, wealth, health, education, nutrition and life expectancy (what economists term multidimensional living standards), half the population lives in areas where quality of life is no better than one of the US’s poorest states, Alabama.

While there are huge pockets of poverty in London and the south, it is not surprising that it is the North-South divide that comes to mind when people talk of a Two Nation Britain. As the populist Brexit and nationalist rebellions have demonstrated, millions of people are saying they feel ignored – forgotten and invisible – and treated as second-class citizens in their own country.

[See also: Ten lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic]

When Abraham Lincoln said a house divided against itself cannot stand, he meant that a functioning union had to include everyone, with no one person and no one group left out. The logic is as true on this side of the Atlantic as it is on his. If there is to be any sense that we are all in this together, all regions and nations need to be part of a post-Covid resolution of our future. First, through the convening of citizens’ assemblies, which have been so successful as a unifying force in Ireland. Second, through a constitutional convention that brings together all communities of the UK to examine what are not abstract questions of interest mainly to lawyers, but – as we can see from recent events – life and death matters that directly affect our daily lives: how best we control diseases and manage our public health; what kind of support we give to employment and industry; how we deliver public services and social security; and how we approach a problem which recognises no borders, climate change. These are all issues where cooperation between the centre and localities has been exposed as wholly deficient and where we need to erect what I, and the think tank Our Scottish Future, consider to be the four pillars upon which a stronger United Kingdom can be built.

Pillar one

To deliver first-class citizenship for all we must ensure resources, opportunities and power are redistributed fairly across the country. For example, as a first move we should introduce a new Barnett-style but needs-based formula for allocating resources across the regions of England.

The lesson of recent years is that a one-size-fits-all UK won’t work and in future there will be no unity without a recognition of diversity, no national integration without effective devolution. The current governmental response to regional inequalities is to espouse the rhetoric of levelling up but, in practice, to level down. Take transport spending. While across the UK it averaged £481 per person in 2018-19, £903 per head – nearly twice as much – is spent in London, and around half as much – £268 and £276 respectively – is spent in the East Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber. Despite the publicity generated by the Northern Powerhouse initiative, inequalities in overall infrastructure spending between regions have become more glaring than ever. An economic devolution that redistributes resources based on need is essential.

We know that when 85 per cent of the UK population is in England our constitution will always be asymmetric. But there is no coherence in the devolution arrangements when the poorest regions in the Midlands and north have fewer powers, less autonomy and less fiscal freedom than our capital city, which is both the richest part of the UK and so close to the centre of politics that it is likeliest to have the most influence on it.

But if devolution is to work, the British state also needs not just to devolve more power and resources but to develop a devolution mindset. We don’t have one. SW1 clings to the myth that the man in Whitehall knows best, when in fact those closer to home in the regions know better. If all the promises made for devolution can be ignored, sidestepped or overridden, as the Internal Market Bill threatens to do, then the nations and regions will, as constitutional lawyers have always argued, come to see that power devolved is indeed power retained. That too has to change.

Pillar two

If the UK is to be a joint project, involving all of us no matter where we live, then there has also to be joint working between all layers of government. As a first move, we should create a decision-making Council of the Regions and Nations.

Astonishing as it may seem, there is no body that brings the leaders of the regions and the nations together in one forum. Those of us who were in government should hold up our hands: not enough thought was given to the mechanisms for cooperation when devolution was implemented. The Joint Ministerial Committee that was to be the bridge between the centre and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has now broken down. Not once has it met, other than on Brexit, during Johnson’s 16-month premiership, and as Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, has revealed, it is difficult to get the Prime Minister to reply to a letter.

Nor is there any sufficiently robust formal process for bringing the metro mayors and local councils into national decision-making. Instead, “devolve and forget” has all too often been the Whitehall approach. The crisis has shown that decisions that affect the whole of the UK are still made without any real consideration of the impact on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the regions of England, too. Across the whole world, no other devolved or federal scheme has survived intact without joint forums to thrash out problems that each part of their union or federation share in common.

Pillar three

There can be no national integration without political inclusion, and we must create new UK-wide institutions that reflect our multinational, regionally diverse state. As a first move, we should replace the House of Lords with a Senate of the Nations, and Regions based in the north, and at the same time guarantee the regions and nations places right at the centre of the government.

Devolution will create diversity without unity unless each region’s and nation’s voice can be represented at the centre of government. In other words, allowance has to be made to include minorities who can easily be outvoted by the majority but will never feel they are part of the system if they feel discriminated against or ignored.

The Lords will have to be abolished and a democratic second chamber created in its place. This should be a Senate of the Nations and Regions, as exists in the US, Germany, Australia and Canada, where the vote of electors in the smallest states are given a weight between ten and 20 times greater than the larger states and provinces.

[See also: Britain’s search for a national story]

But the Executive also has to include the voices of each region and nation. From 2007 to 2010 some progress was made, with senior ministers appointed for each region of England as well as for each nation. However, today’s Conservative cabinet looks more like a south-east, upper-class clique than a government representative of the whole country. We should be examining the success of many countries with minority ethnic groups – Switzerland and Singapore, for example – and how they ensure that these are represented at the heart of government.

Pillar four

To offer people hope of a shared future, we need to agree on the shared values we all espouse and the rights, responsibilities and opportunities we can expect as citizens of the UK. We should ask a Constitutional Convention to draw up a new UK constitution to set this out.

This, I believe, is the most important pillar of all, and it must be rebuilt. Britain cannot have a shared future without having shared values. It was naive to think we could create strong Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and regional decision-making bodies and automatically expect people to feel more British as a result. Equally, it was naive not to anticipate that devolution could create a megaphone for intensifying resentment.

And so we need to understand the enduring unity of the country depends not just on economics but on forging a modern story about our shared values and the cultural bonds that can flourish from our day-to-day interactions. Too much of that British story is essentially backwards in nature: what the late journalist AA Gill described as “Bisto nostalgia”, the harking back to the supposed better times behind us and a reverence for ancient institutions that are not fit for purpose. I, for one, do not want us to forget our past, but it is equally clear to me that we need to build a narrative about the present and the future, one built on the shared experiences and common values of people and communities in every part of the country; not just a “Land of Hope and Glory” but a Land of Here and Now as well.

I failed when after becoming prime minister in 2007 I tried to start a debate about what it means to be British and the importance we, as a country, attach to the values of liberty, fairness and social responsibility. I wanted a mission statement for Britain embedded in a constitutional document: a statement that would set out our enduring commitments to both civil and political liberties and social and economic rights and responsibilities. I wanted that statement to enshrine a promise that through the pooling and sharing of resources across the country, every citizen in every part of the UK would always be guaranteed the right to decent levels of social protection when sick, disabled, unemployed or poor. And that any citizen – wherever they were and no matter their income – could automatically draw on the NHS when in need, irrespective of different systems of administration.

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I believe today’s political leaders should try again. For the only Union that will survive is one that is built on more than ancient traditions and historic monuments, and that reflects the values, the aspirations and the experiences we share in common. If we do this well then the country most likely to leave the Union – Scotland – will decide to stay. For while in recent polls more than 50 per cent want Scotland to be independent, 60 per cent agreed that in spite of current challenges the different countries of the UK “still have more in common than divides us”, with a majority across all social groups. An even bigger majority – 76 per cent – say “the UK and Scottish governments should be better at cooperating on issues affecting my life”.

[See also: State of the nation]

It is through a focus on the benefits of cooperation and reciprocity, and the sentiments that inspire them – solidarity and empathy – that we expose nationalism for what it truly is. Nationalism must always have someone to blame, holding the “other” guilty for anything that is wrong. Nationalism divides us into us-versus-them silos and is quite different from patriotism, which is the love of your country. And so we have to demonstrate that our future lies in empathy across nations and not enmity between them; in reciprocity not resentment; in cooperation and not perpetual conflict; and, of course, in solidarity and sharing, not a policy of separate development.

Only through fundamental change will all the communities of Britain be persuaded that we are serious about building a future together. Constructing these four pillars on which a new united country can stand is no small task and it cannot be short-circuited. But it is necessary and overdue. And even a tone-deaf government must now understand this: that a Union preserved in aspic cannot work. The pandemic has revealed what has long been true: either we reform and renew and survive, or we resist and refuse and, in ten years’ time, having failed to act, the United Kingdom will follow the British empire into the history books as an anachronism whose time has passed. Either way, this is the moment to decide. 

Gordon Brown was prime minister of the United Kingdom from 2007 to 2010.

This article appears in the 20 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation