In a striking intervention in the Scottish independence debate this week former Prime Minister Gordon Brown made the case for, in effect, a federal UK. Speaking at a ‘United with Labour’ meeting in Glasgow on Monday he called for a written constitution in which the powers of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly would be guaranteed against any threat of removal by Westminster and any countermanding of their decisions.
As he put it, “We propose a ‘new union for fairness’ whose watchwords are power-sharing, diversity, and constitutional partnership, replacing the old union of centralisation, uniformity and Westminster’s undivided sovereignty.”
More powers would be devolved – 0ver income tax, employment, health, transport and economic regeneration – and a new UK constitutional law would set out the purpose of the UK as pooling resources for the defence, security and well-being of the citizens of all four nations.
This is close to what has been termed ‘devo-plus’, and corresponds to what at least a third of Scottish voters responding to opinion polls say they want. Something along these lines will probably be agreed by Scottish Labour’s Spring conference later this month.
On the face of it Gordon Brown’s ideas have many attractions. Indeed, they closely mirror what our own First Minister Carwyn Jones has been arguing for in a number of thoughtful speeches on the UK constitution over the past few years.
They also provide an answer to a complaint made by former First Minister Rhodri Morgan at a meeting in the Pierhead in Cardiff Bay on Monday evening that was discussing much the same issues. He said he objected to being forced into the ‘unionist’ camp by the binary choice presented by the Scottish referendum’s simple Yes or No to independence. There was a third way, which was more devolution.
But therein lies the difficulty. That third way is not on the ballot paper. Ironically, it was the SNP leader Alex Salmond who tried to put it there. Yet it was the unionist Prime Minister David Cameron who insisted on a straight Yes /No vote in the negotiations that led up to the October 2012 Edinburgh Agreement between the Scottish and UK governments that laid out the terms of the referendum.
So, however attractive this third constitutional way might be, it won’t be a choice facing Scottish voters on 18 September. And it’s difficult to see what cross-party guarantees they might be presented with for more devolution in the event of their voting No.
Indeed, as the historian Linda Colley judged at Monday night’s meeting in Cardiff Bay, the likely London response to a No vote will be a return to the inertia, fudging and ad hocery that has typified the UK’s attitude to constitution building for more than a century. As she said, “Creating a written constitution would require a massive shock to the system”.
Of course, such a shock would be delivered by a Yes vote. But by then it would be just England, Wales and Northern Ireland that would be contemplating some form of written constitution. It hardly bears thinking about how that might work and how it might be negotiated. As Carwyn Jones observed in a lecture he gave back in July 2012, to Unlock Democracy, the UK that the departing Scots would leave would be fundamentally unbalanced. England would constitute nearly 92 per cent of the population of the new state, leaving Wales and Northern Ireland with the remaining 8 per cent.
Linda Colley’s recipe for avoiding such an outcome – unlikely later this year but still on the cards if a narrow No vote leaves open the prospect of another Scottish referendum – is to deal with the English question. In her new book Acts of Union and Disunion she says the solution is a full-blown federation, with an English Parliament separated from Westminster and located in the north, probably York. She writes, “The Westminster Parliament could remain as an arena for determining major cross-border issues such as foreign policy, defence, macro-economic strategy, climate control etc, but a great deal of power, decision-making and taxation would have to be devolved to the four national parliaments and to local and regional authorities.”
Linda Colley is a brilliant historian. But it seems to me that writing from her base in Princeton University in the United States has put her out of touch with the English temperament and approach to politics which just does not go in for such notions of constitutional engineering. The English already have their parliament. It’s at Westminster and highly unlikely to move anywhere else.
If Scotland is to remain in the UK the alternative likely constitutional destination for the ideas being propounded by Carwyn Jones and now Gordon Brown is a confederation rather than a federation. That would leave the House of Commons untouched as essentially what it is today, an English Parliament. The House of Lords might double-up as a confederal chamber. Probably, too, a confederal relationship between England and the rest could also be achieved without recourse to anything as un-English as a written constitution.
However, that destination is some way off. The UK will probably try carrying on fudging and muddling through in the wake of a No vote in September. The Whitehall instinct will be to adopt what Linda Colley described on Monday evening as the ‘Tony Blair position on the constitution’ – “If it’s not broke don’t fix it”. That position was now unsustainable she observed. On that she was probably right. Would we be having an independence referendum if there was not a problem waiting to be fixed?