Acts of disunion

John Osmond says the constitutional ideas being pushed by Carwyn Jones and now Gordon Brown are heading towards a confederation

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?

John Osmond is Editor of ClickonWales.

16 thoughts on “Acts of disunion

  1. As Carwyn Jones observed; “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.”
    Then the answer is clear. Scrap all parliaments, same laws, same conditions, same immigration or four separate countries doing business in the interests of their people.
    McCakeaneatit Brown is just about ready for the old folks home, it is free in Scotland of course so he can keep the millions he has been paid since leaving the British Government.

  2. Did anyone take any notice of Brown’s speech? This really is fantasy politics. But there again it is always far easier for some politicians to make the ‘castles in the sky ‘ speech than get on with the really important issue which is delivering improvements in public services. What I find always very interesting in the contributions from the political elite is how what the people actually want. Where is the evidence that there is a demand from the people for the UK to become a confederation ? Isn’t it also interesting that another supporter the confederation idea is the very right wing editor of City AM.

  3. The 50 million British citizens who live in England simply don’t see (because they don’t have) a UK constitutional problem to resolve – it is their Westminster parliament and their democratic tradition which is sovereign and politically dominant in the UK. The West Lothian question may be an aggravation but it does not present any existential crisis.

    There are perhaps 1 million British citizens who live in Wales, Scotland and N Ireland who do not see a constitutional problem for the UK because they would be more than happy to simply dissolve their own devolved government and be absorbed into this Westminster system.

    There are a further 2-3 million British citizens who live in Wales, Scotland and N Ireland who do not see a constitutional problem for the UK because they would prefer to simply walk away from England and Westminster and become independent anyway. They have no stake in the UK either way.

    That leaves perhaps 5-6 million British citizens (or their assumed leaders) who live in Wales, Scotland and N Ireland with a bit of a constitutional problem. They want to preserve devolved government whilst remaining politically unified with England. They also want to do this in a neat and tidy way and preserve some semblance of equity and harmonisation.

    This is a laudable and well-meaning solution to the problem of having asymmetric decentralised government in the UK.

    But it will never happen however because 55 million of their fellow citizens don’t even think there is a problem.

    Westminster will bungle along in a piecemeal and bilateral way vis-à-vis Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland post Referendum and beyond simply because there is no political imperative to do anything else.

    There is about as much chance of moving an English parliament to York as there is of moving the French Assemblée to Marseille simply to accommodate Breton and Corsican regionalism…

  4. While it is nice to hear that dear old Gordon is still with us, the wisdom of the man who inherited the most prosperous economy in Europe and drove it to the brink of disaster will cut no ice with most people. It is also a bit odd, to put it politely, to find him of all people complaining about ‘centralisation’!

    Talking of a bit odd, it is inaccurate for Professor Colley to suggest that ‘Call Me Tony’ Blair’s constitutional policy was “If it’s not broke don’t fix it.” The fact is that in 1997 the constitution was one of the things about Britain that was working well until that ignorant and short-sighted young man started meddling with it without understanding what he was doing or thinking through the consequences. Indeed, the question is did he ever have a constitutional policy?

    John’s confederate model sounds more interesting than the ghastly federal model some are now proposing. It avoids the inflexibility of a written constitution, and the confederate upper chamber is a neat solution to the dilemma of having a bi-cameral legislature in which two elected chambers essentially duplicate each other. However, the line between confederate and federal can be very unclear in practice – even in the US Civil War the Confederate Government came to resemble the Federal Government it was meant to be against. Moreover, there remains the fundamental objection that we will end up with three levels of Parliamentary government when we need only one.

  5. So much of this will, ultimately, boil down to the English question. But what politicians and public here have to display is a vision of how they see Wales being governed in the decades ahead. What system do they want? I’m not sure whether any of them, including Plaid Cymru, really know. Even respected statesmen like Rhodri Morgan seem unsure as to what Wales desires and requires post-September 2014. However Scotland votes, England will inevitably react – in England’s interest (quite rightly!). But what will Wales do? In twelve months time, or even less, we could feasibly be cast adrift with very little sense of direction. Worrying!

  6. Linda Colley is indeed a good historian, possibly brilliant. The fact that she is writing from Princeton University and is out of touch with ‘the English temperament and approach to politics’ is neither here nor there. The position, as she observes, is unsustainable and needs changing. The position Wales finds itself in needs changing. Rather than starting with options for a future UK which may or may not happen, we should be discussing what arrangement would be best for the people of Wales as a nation (including independence) and work from there. There is no clear leadership or direction on these issues from our political parties, as there has been in Scotland. I look forward to the IWA’s contribution to the debate.

  7. There are only two tidy solutions to the West Lothian Question; independence or federation. I find the second an attractive option in theory but it is practically very difficult to deliver. England is so much larger than the other nations that it would need to be divided into regions for which there is so far little enthusiasm. Even if that was achieved the hugely uneven distribution of resources could be entrenched and exacerbated. Why would London and the South East of England agree to spread its wealth to other parts of the UK. You might think that it could hardly get worse..but it could.

  8. This is by the way because I don’t want to talk about the constitution but to defend Gordon Brown against a gross calumny that he inherited a healthy economy and wrecked it. Mr Brown had disastrous flaws as a politician which ultimately caught him out. His economic stewardship as Chancellor and Prime Minister was not bad (I make no extravagant claims). He failed to anticipate the storm that was brewing in the financial sector – in common with all senior politicians of all parties. The Conservatives wanted even lighter regulation.

    When the storm broke, Mr Brown had his finest moment, urging leaders of the major countries to act in concert to prevent a slump. Had he not done so, the crisis would have been far worse. The weaknesses of the British economy that are now obvious have been there for decades, disguised by deflation from China and abundant credit.

  9. Mr Holtham, with all due deference to your uncontested professional knowledge, your analysis is far too generous to Mr Brown. Whatever financially illiterate politicians of all parties might say, the 2008 Crash was both foreseeable – and indeed foreseen by many in the business community. “This bubble can’t last forever” was a commonplace from as early as the late 1990s on. One would be surprised if you never heard or said something similar yourself.

    Mr Brown’s infamous response was the ludicrous “no more boom and bust.” What this meant in practice was trying to prolong the boom by more and more borrowing at the peak of the cycle – contrary to his own supposedly Keynesian principles.

    In addition to this gross macro-economic failure, there was also Mr Brown’s total disinterest in the micro-economic problems faced by business – but, in fairness, that is common to most recent governments.

    Although no one in this country is allowed to admit it, credit for preventing the Crash from turning into a slump belongs not to Mr Brown but to that much misunderstood trio of Paulson, Bernanke, and Bush the Younger, and their Troubled Asset Relief Programme. Another thing barely mentioned in this country is that most of the money loaned under that Programme was repaid within months. By contrast, the British taxpayer is still paying for Mr Brown’s instinctive panic-response, the nationalisation of bankrupt banks.

    To end on a more consensual note, there is, however, a great deal of truth in your last sentence. Britain, although much stronger than she was under Mr Brown, is still weaker than most people realise.

    Apologies to everyone else for going a bit off-topic, but it is legitimate to counter points previously made.

  10. Since your wisdom and insight is such that you were able to predict the financial crash of 2008 before it happened JWR (unlike me and my colleagues in the banking industry*), perhaps you would care to inform the rest of us mere mortals when the next one will happen and in which financial instrument its cause is already embedded? We’ll save a lot of time and money that way…

    * I do remember a fascinating conversation with a genius but eccentric Spanish academic in the field of financial risk modelling in Madrid in mid-2006 who absolutely believed that the system would crash in due course, despite my protestations that global financial risk management systems were sufficiently dispersed, heterogeneous and self-interested to prevent total breakdown. I, like many others I think, did not appreciate just how embedded the culture of greed and criminality is in London and New York investment banks. Oh the halcyon days of innocence before the fall…

  11. @ JWR

    I’m afraid you’re wrong on this one. Your assertion that the crash was foreseeable is written with the benefit of hindsight. Because of the complexity of collateralised debt obligations at the time, the extent of the problem was far from transparent. And your reference to the statement that, “the bubble can’t last” is hardly evidence since it could be said about anything at anytime. The recent rise in house prices in London has been described as a bubble that cannot last but no-one is expecting an imminent financial crash.

    In addition, Gordon Brown’s statement of “no more boom and bust” was not a response to the financial crisis of 2007-08. In fact one of its first outings was on 20th May 1997 when at speech to the CBI as chancellor of the exchequer he said,

    “The British economy of the future must be built not on the shifting sands of boom and bust, but on the bedrock of prudent and wise economic management for the long term.”

    This was 11 years before the period you refer to.

    With regards your sanctification of Hank Paulson and his handling of the financial crisis, perhaps you could explain why Time magazine held him to be one of the 25 people responsible for the crash, citing his interventions as being too late, his failure to save Lehman Brothers and his costly but ineffective bailout package?

    Gordon Brown will suffer from the last impression he left on the British electorate, namely that of being a pretty ineffectual Prime Minister, rather than the very competent Chancellor, as Gerald Holtham rightly states, that he was. Just as Tony Blair will be remembered for an illegal war in Iraq rather than a successful peace process in Northern Ireland.

    But however obscure his image may have become, his record as a successful Chancellor is there for all to see.

  12. Phil and Rhobat, it is a fair bet that Crash Part Two will be triggered by sovereign debt – anyone who could say exactly where and when would be a very rich man!

    That said, a proper response to all the interesting points raised by you both would surely annoy other people who come to this page to debate the constitution.

    Can we migrate this discussion to a more suitable thread?

  13. There were many people who were foreseeing a crash long before the time it arrrived. Gordon Brown sold gold when it was at cheap and about to enter a bull market. At the same time, there were people who foresaw that it would appreciate in price and advised to buy.

    And didn’t Brown oversee a masswive bubble in house prices while interest rates should have been increased to pour cold water over it’s over-heating. Oh yes…..the BOE is independent. LOL!

    It’s unfair to ask JWR about what will cause the next crash. I believe one is coming in the not too distant future. Little has changed since 2007/8 except for more debt piling…..but the trigger for the crash and it’s timing is impossible to foresee.

  14. And I apologize for not debating the constitution here but I felt the need to state the above.

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