Theme: Government & Parliament | Content Type: Blog

Can Gordon Brown and Keir Starmer Save the UK?

Ben Jackson


Scottish Labour

| 11 mins read

Gordon Brown’s Commission on the UK’s Future received a brief flurry of public attention on its launch before creeping back into the usual obscurity faced by worthy enquiries into policy issues. But there was a lot to like in this report, more in fact than was evident from the media coverage.

It has not been sufficiently credited, for example, that the report’s diagnosis seeks to align Labour with a substantial left critique of the UK, familiar to, among others, Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalists; assorted New Left thinkers; and many of the great writers on British political economy who have graced the pages of Political Quarterly, such as David Marquand, Andrew Gamble and Will Hutton.

The Brown Commission states quite plainly that the UK is a highly unequal and regionally polarised society and does not shrink from attributing part of the blame for that to an overly centralised system of government that is concentrated on London and south east England. An impressive range of statistics, graphs and charts are assembled by the Commission to support this claim (albeit many of them conveniently starting in the year 2010 rather than tracking back to 1997 or earlier).

Another feature of the report that has been neglected is that, alongside recommendations such as House of Lords reform and greater decentralisation within England, the Commission proposes the introduction of legally binding social rights. The report concluded that there should be UK-wide rights to healthcare ‘free at the point of need’; ‘to free primary and secondary education’; ‘to decent accommodation’; and to protection from poverty if unemployed, disabled or elderly. These would be legal commitments, enforceable in the courts against governments who resiled from meeting them. The Brown Commission, and hence the Labour Party (if they accept Brown’s analysis), are making a significant wager: that the UK can palpably be reformed in a politically and economically egalitarian direction by a Labour government in London.

A riposte to Scottish nationalism

Why did the Commission take this advanced position on totemic issues such as regional inequality and social rights? One reason, of course, is to give Labour a distinctive response to the Conservative aspiration of ‘levelling up’. But another is that the Commission’s report is also intended by its principal author as a riposte to Scottish nationalism. The central political claim of the SNP for many years now has been that the UK is irredeemably right-wing and undemocratically centralised. This has always been a tricky argument for Labour unionists to answer, since the revealed policy preferences of the UK government since 2010, and on some accounts before that, have indeed between quite right-wing and centralising.

The strategic gambit of the Brown Commission is to accept the basic thrust of this nationalist critique, but to counter that a Labour government will be able to chart a new, more progressive direction for the UK state. The hope, presumably, is that a UK with strong devolved parliaments and local government; revived, regionally dispersed economic growth; guaranteed social rights; and a new democratic second chamber, will no longer resemble the unmodernised imperial state that Scottish nationalists love to hate.

Gordon Brown’s preoccupation with the Scottish question may explain, but does not excuse, why the Commission’s proposals for reforming Welsh devolution are disappointing, perhaps reflecting strong lobbying by Welsh Labour MPs not to concede any further powers from Westminster to the Senedd. The obvious political move for Labour at this point would be to grant the Senedd similar powers to the Scottish Parliament (if the Welsh electorate want them), but the Brown Commission opted not to go there, offering only the devolution of youth justice and probation as new powers for Cardiff Bay. The Welsh government has in any case set up its own Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, which will hopefully come up with more creative proposals that Labour could then champion.

Secessionist movements

There is another notable absence from the Brown Commission’s report: any guidance on how a new, decentralised UK should deal with the democratic claims of secessionist movements. As Ciaran Martin has pointed out, if the British Union is indeed (as unionists have long argued) based on popular consent, then there must be some democratic means for the opponents of that Union to achieve their political goals.

The Supreme Court has now ruled that the Scottish government does not have the power to call a referendum on independence, a ruling that was greeted with jubilation by certain opponents of Scottish independence. But the Supreme Court decision only kicks the can further down the road. The UK government has already conceded in principle that the Scottish electorate has a right to determine their preferred form of government, in two previous referendums on devolution and one on independence. Another referendum on independence cannot be definitively ruled out in the future by the UK government, if only for the prudential reason that such an intransigent position is likely to heighten demands for a referendum in Scotland. This has been tacitly recognised by UK government ministers, who now stolidly maintain the line that the time is not yet right for another referendum on Scottish independence rather than ruling one out forever. The debate on a Scottish independence referendum would be vastly improved if the UK government were willing to disclose some explicit conditions that must be satisfied before another referendum on independence can be held.

Whatever we may think of the merits of the question, it is plainly not in Labour’s political interests to concede a referendum on Scottish independence any time soon. It would hand the Conservatives an electoral attack line and it would eat up the early years of a new Labour government with a fraught and destabilising plebiscite. A more politically realistic demand is to ask Labour to draw up some rules about when an independence referendum could be held in the future.

There is a parallel that is worth pondering here. According to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, a border poll can be called in Northern Ireland when, in the view of the Secretary of State, ‘it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the UK and form part of a united Ireland’. In truth, this is not a very clear guideline, but it does at least establish a means by which a border poll might be brought about and a legal duty on the part of the UK government to support the unification of Ireland if this is endorsed by the Northern Irish electorate in a referendum.

In the Scottish case there is no equivalent pathway to independence. One move that Labour could make would be to propose a clear set of criteria that would have to be satisfied before another Scottish independence referendum could be called. Such criteria would presumably be based on an assessment of public opinion in Scotland over a sustained period: a consistent, long-running lead for independence in opinion polls, say, or in election results (measured, as the SNP have recently suggested, in terms of a vote share of over 50 per cent for independence-supporting parties). The political wager, of course, would be that a more defensible unionist position could be assembled by Labour in government, so that either these criteria would never be met because of subsiding support for independence or, if a referendum is eventually held, the unionist case would look more compelling than it did in 2014. Such a refreshed unionist case could draw on Labour’s record in office to claim with greater credibility than in 2014 that the Anglo-Scottish Union was organised around resource sharing and risk pooling. If another independence referendum does have to be fought, then from a unionist perspective it would surely be preferable to hold it under a Labour government with a record of social reform to defend.

High stakes

The stakes are high for Labour, and for the country, if they win the next election. The Conservatives are likely to get less, not more, moderate if thrown into opposition, and to become even more impatient with devolution. The future of the United Kingdom itself will hang in the balance as Labour seeks to deliver an ambitious agenda. As anyone who has studied previous attempts to reform the House of Lords will know, there is clearly a significant chance that the reforms laid out by the Brown Commission will prove to be too difficult to implement. Yet, it is also possible to detect the glimmerings of a political opportunity for Labour now. History suggests that such opportunities don’t come around very often, so let’s hope Labour is able to seize this one.

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  • Ben Jackson

    Ben Jackson

    Ben Jackson is Co-Editor of the Political Quarterly journal. He is also Professor of Modern History at Oxford University.

    Articles by Ben Jackson