Pic: AFFG 17-6-17.
INTRODUCTION: This detailed 7,000 word analysis, from think tank and campaign group A Force For Good, examines the 155-page document A New Britain: Renewing our Democracy and Rebuilding our Economy which was published by the Labour Party on 5 December 2022. It is the Report of the "Commission on the UK's Future", which was assembled by the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
On the evening of Thursday 1 June 2023, he and his organisation "Our Scottish Future", held a rally at the Central Hall, Tollcross, Edinburgh in order to promote the ideas in this Report.
Our purpose below is to examine the premises upon which the Report is based, to summarise its recommendations, and to consider them from A Force For Good's pro-UK unionist perspective which believes that the United Kingdom is a Unitary State and One Nation. We will finish by suggesting some simple proposals of our own, which would help strengthen the UK.
A large part of the report is promoting the idea of local government changes in England, along with various economic propositions for economic renewal in England. We will not examine these in any depth. We will concentrate upon our area of expertise with particular regard to devolution in Scotland.
Although the Commission is composed of 16 people including Gordon Brown, we will, sometimes make reference to Gordon Brown when we quote from the document, since he is the Chairman of the Commission, its driving force and its main promoter. For example, we will say "He says", rather than "The Report says".
When we use the term "Second Chamber", we are referring to what is presently the House of Lords. When we speak of "the centre" we mean the "British Parliament and the Government which flows from it". When we speak of "the Union Parliament" we mean the British Parliament, also known as the UK Parliament.
All emphases in bold are our own.
Our 7,000 word analysis breaks down into the following Chapters:
- 4 Fundamental Premises of the Report
- Entrenching the Sewel Convention in a New Second Chamber
- 6 Recommendations of the Report
- Our 7 Conclusions Summarised
- It's Time to Respect the Union Mandate and the Union Settlement
- Appendix 1: What we Propose Instead – also see our Magazine "Do More Together"
- Appendix 2: 10 Reasons Why an "Assembly of the Nations and Regions" is a Bad Idea for the UK (and Bad for the Labour Party too)
- Appendix 3: "Shared Government" is not necessarily a Unitary Idea
4 FUNDAMENTAL PREMISES OF THE REPORT
1. The UK is Over-Centralised: Despite considerable devolution already, a "continuing over-concentration of power in Westminster and Whitehall is undermining our ability to deliver growth and prosperity for the whole country." (p2) It is claimed that "The UK is the most centralised country in Europe." (p6)
This is surprising, since one of the intended reasons for devolution in 1999 was meant to remove this "centralisation".
At the same time that the Report talks about the supposed centralisation of the UK, it also states that "Scotland's Parliament and Wales' Senedd are among the most powerful devolved institutions in the world, comparable to or more powerful than many states or provinces in federal countries." (p100)
Therefore it may be that its "centralisation" complaint refers mainly to England (as per p75) although that remains unclear throughout; and the report does make reference to the centralisation of Scottish politics by the SNP. (p105)
2. The Answer is to Devolve More Power: Apparently, we remove this over-concentration of power by devolving more power – "an irreversible shift in power outwards to people across the country". (p5) This will enable greater prosperity, particularly in the "regions" of England (the 9 regions which are listed in the bar chart on page 29).
"We start from the principle that we do best when we secure the benefits that can flow from both self-government in areas where making decisions closer to home can yield the best results, and shared government where cooperation across the whole of the United Kingdom can benefit all." (p100)
The Report is very open about its aims. "Our recommendations are intended to strengthen that self-government, by entrenching the permanence, enhancing the status, and widening the powers of the Scottish Parliament." (p101)
It wants to give Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland "stronger self-government and fuller shared government." (p100)
3. People are said to want This: Apparently, polling by Brown's organisation shows people want more devolution and they want power closest to where they are located. This is questionable.
For example, he claims there is a "common desire for more local control" and this should be "reflected in a legal requirement, to require decisions to be taken as close as meaningfully and practically possible to the people affected by them". (p11)
Is this true? On some issues, maybe? But what's stopping this principle being extended endlessly on virtually all matters? For example, some say "defence" is best reserved at Westminster. SNP supporters who hate Trident, don't say so. They want it to be one of those "local" powers!
Anyway, how close is close?
In our small group of Islands, everywhere is relatively "close".
And why should decisions made, and power exercised "closer" be automatically better? The SNP administration has proven itself thoroughly incompetent in building ferries, for example.
And has the context and the consequences of more power devolved been made clear to the person who is being polled?
For example, if you ask someone, "Do you want more power devolved to Holyrood", they might answer "Yes".
If you ask them, "Do you want more power devolved to Holyrood if it would make the breakup of the United Kingdom more likely?" then they might answer "No".
4. Devolution is meant to be Threatened: The Report believes that the "devolution settlement" is under threat by the British Government, and things must be done to "entrench" (ie make it very hard to change) devolved power within the British constitution.
Brown even uses the pejorative nationalist term "Muscular Unionism" stating, without any evidence whatsoever that "Today, people in Scotland and Wales want to see an end to muscular unionism". (p41)
He seems to imagine that there is some kind of epidemic of devolved institutions being "overridden". (p42)
He is annoyed that when powers came back to Westminster after leaving the EU, that they did not go automatically to the devolved areas. He seems to think this "contravened the spirit and letter of the devolution settlement" (p103) – whereby everything is considered to be automatically devolved unless specially written down as reserved. Clearly, he doesn't want this to happen again!
He claims, "The constitutional convention, followed by all governments since 1999, that the centre should not legislate on devolved matters or alter the powers of the devolved legislatures without their consent, has been systematically disregarded by the Conservatives." (p43)
This is an exaggeration. And even if it were true, then so what? Not everyone is a supporter of Labour's particular form of "devolution settlement" – whereby everything is presumed to be devolved by default, unless written down as reserved.
What does he plan to do about it?
ENTRENCHING THE SEWEL CONVENTION in a NEW SECOND CHAMBER
His main way of strengthening his so-called "devolution settlement" and dissuading or preventing Westminster from getting involved in devolved matters, and making it very difficult for Westminster to prevent, or change or override devolved bills or laws, or take back devolved powers, is by making "the Sewel Convention" a protected constitutional power.
The Sewel Convention is the "convention" (a convention is a general way of doing things, and not a law as such) which states that Westminster cannot "normally" legislate on any matter which is devolved – including over-ruling or over-turning or taking back, any Holyrood bill or law or power – without Holyrood's consent.
Brown wants to change the "normally" requirement to something equating virtually never (although he doesn't use those words), make it a law, and ensure that a new Second Chamber will "entrench" this power.
He wants to do this by giving his new version of the Sewel Convention a "constitutionally protected" status which would enable his proposed Second Chamber to vote on, and potentially reject, any such disputed matters related to devolution. (pp140-142)
That is, if a situation similar to the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill were to come up again, and the British Parliament wanted to prevent such a law coming into place in Holyrood, or if it wanted to remove some devolved competencies in order to ensure better pan-UK governance, then not only the House of Commons, but the new elected Second Chamber – made up of representatives from all the devolved areas – would have to agree.
In other words, the new Second Chamber is going to be a chamber which will take upon itself the presumed duty to defend devolution from all attempts to affect it or change it.
It doesn't take much imagination to realise that such a body will quickly turn into a belligerent chamber which exists to prevent the House of Commons from touching anything to do with devolution.
For example, imagine a future government in Westminster trying to prevent something like the GRR Bill going through Holyrood. If the government were Tory, and there were a Labour, Lib Dem, Green and SNP majority in the Second Chamber, then they will all vote it down simply because they want to make life difficult for the Tory Government. It could also work against Labour if there were a Labour Government and the majority in the Second Chamber was anti-Labour.
It will become a vocal arm for the devolved nations and regions; a recipe for continuous constitutional aggravation and chaos.
"Defending devolution" will become its mantra and it will develop in such a way that it constantly challenges the power of the House of Commons and gives voice, and represents, not pan-UK concerns, but those of "the nations and regions of the UK in a very explicit way." (p145)
Any UK government will be scared away from touching any devolved matter – even ones which negatively impact the integrity of the UK – because it will be just too much hassle.
Instead of having to pick a fight with Holyrood, they'll have to pick a fight with their own Second Chamber in their own Parliament – and they will just not be bothered!
This proposal is creating a heavy rod for Westminster's back, and could make unitary legislation – ie legislation for all of the UK – almost impossible. It is not a unionist proposal by any stretch.
Also, who is impressed by this?
Does Gordon Brown imagine the nationalists are now going to say, "Yippee, the Sewel Convention is entrenched in a reformed Second Chamber? Now we don't need independence!" Chances are they won't even know about it, much less understand what's happening if it were explained to them.
It doesn't seem as if any of this has been thought through.
It is as if the Report is written in a fantasy world where there will be a perpetual Labour Government in the House of Commons, a Labour majority in the Second Chamber, and the devolved nations and regions will all be run by agreeable Labour administrations!
THE 6 RECOMMENDATIONS of the REPORT
We summarise the recommendation headings in our own words.
Recommendation 1: Developing the "Purpose" of the UK, based on a "Union of Nations" Frame
The first set of recommendations seek to embed in law "common understandings and duties of Government" – central to which is laying out the "political, social, and economic purposes of the UK as a union of nations." (p11)
Of course, we at A Force For Good believe the UK is more properly understood as a Nation of Unions which is a different philosophy, and which leads to different policies!
In contrast to Brown's "union of nations" frame – which has its uses – we much prefer instead the "Nation of Unions" frame which concerns the fundamental integrity of the United Kingdom as a Unitary Nation State.
We define "integrity" as "the state of being whole and undivided in the first place".
Brown's "union of nations" frame sees the UK as a conditional arrangement, which is valuable only for its "purpose". This concentrates on the individual nations, and leads to policies which tend to pull apart the integrity of the Nation of Unions, and move it towards a federal structure.
We've explained these two frames at "The UK is a Nation of Unions (not a union of nations)".
An emphasis on "the purpose" of the Union avoids "the integrity" which is also crucial to the survival of a Union, in order to give effect to purpose in the first place! For something to have a purpose, it must also start with a fundamental solid existence.
A "union of nations" frame tends to move things naturally in a federal direction – where we essentially have 4 completely separate countries joined loosely around a set of ever-decreasing and often controversial matters, such as defence and immigration.
Federalism doesn't work in the presence of powerful separatist elements. Federalism only works, after a fashion, when all parts are in over-whelming agreement to stay together in the first place.
Developing a (Devolutionary) Statement of Purpose
Chapter 6 is entitled "Renewing the Purpose of the United Kingdom", and it continues to controversially claim "Most people in the country want decisions about what matters to them made as close to them as possible." (p66)
This chapter seeks to make a case for "a new constitutional statute" which lays out "the political, social, and economic purposes of the UK as a Union of Nations". (p67)
(A "statute" is a law which has been passed by Parliament.)
He attempts the wording of such a statement, which is an interesting exercise. (p68)
It's a good idea to develop such a Statement of Purpose – but like all these things, it depends what you put in it, especially if you are going to make it binding in law. After all, as the report admits, such a statement "guides the allocation of power and responsibility within the UK." (p69)
In this case, the Statement is being manufactured deliberately in order to guide the devolutionary process. It is to be included in the legislation which gives effect to the new devolutionary proposals. (p68)
The Report states, "Our understanding of what the UK as a Union is for, and what issues must be guaranteed at a UK wide level, has a mirror image: that matters which do not as a result require to be managed in Whitehall or Westminster should be devolved or decentralised." (p69)
Similarly for Wales, where "As a matter of principle, devolution to Wales should be constrained only by reserving those matters which are necessary to discharge the purposes of the UK as a union." (p112)
All this adds up to "a legal requirement to require decisions to be taken as close as meaningfully and practically possible to the people affected by them". (p70)
This is a highly devolutionary, and not unitary, recommendation. A UK built upon that sort of statement of devolved purpose, with a Second Chamber to protect that specific philosophy, is going to be one which is constantly dissolving itself.
Where are the Union Safeguards?
There is no assurance that serious Union Safeguards – to protect the integrity of the United Kingdom itself – have been built in.
Before everything, when we consider constitutional change from a pro-UK perspective – that is, one which wants to keep the United Kingdom together and maintain it as a unitary state, albeit devolved in parts – then all matters proposed should be considered from the hard fact that Scotland has a powerful separatist movement that wants to destroy what Brown is calling "shared government" (see Appendix 3 below).
We have to remember that giving power to the local can be a problem in areas where a certain party will always tend to dominate.
For a better balance of power, it is necessary for the central power to also have power in that same area in order to represent those who do not always vote for, or support, the local power.
For example, it is important in a devolved nation like Scotland, where the SNP may continue to dominate at the Holyrood level for quite some time, that there are other sources of power which are able to represent those of us who do not vote for separatism. That's where the power of the centre comes in, and that's why its power must also be protected.
There will be times when the centre – the British Parliament and Government – has to stand up for all those of us who believe in the UK and who want a devolved institution, which may be hostile to the continued existence of the UK, to be restrained where and when appropriate.
To try to set up constitutional barriers to such a Union Safeguard, is to make it easier to destroy the UK.
The centre must be able to hold!
Recommendation 2: Various Local Government Changes in England
To ensure "the right powers in the right places in England so that every town and city can take control of its economic future". (p12) This is about devolving more powers to towns and cities in the belief that this will enable these places to become more economically prosperous.
Some of the suggestions in this section may or may not work, and may or may not be a good idea.
The idea of a "British Regional Investment Bank" could be a good one.
"Regional partnerships" might be a good idea. We were interested to note the existence of "The Western Gateway, spanning South West England and South Wales" (p88) – which is not only cross-regional but joins England and Wales. That sort of inter-linking is valuable to help bring us together. We'd like to see this sort of local government alliance being made between the South of Scotland and the North of England.
The idea of moving the headquarters of various Civil Service departments around the country is also a good idea which can help break the London metropolitan dominance of the Service.
There is, however, a stand-out policy in this section which is intriguing: Local authorities to be able "to initiate local legislation in Parliament". That is – as we understand it – rather than an MP bringing forward a Bill at Westminster, instead a local authority, or "local leader" (p13, pp95-97) is able to do so. This seems to apply only to England.
Recommendation 3: More Powers for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales
These are a set of proposals to devolve more powers to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, including, for example, the devolution of elements of Foreign Affairs, in order to allow the Scottish administration "to enter into international agreements and join international bodies in relation to devolved matters." (p15 and p104)
The intention is to "offer Scotland and Wales both more self-government and better shared government". (p52) Indeed, the closest the Report comes to the idea of defending and building the Union is this phrase "shared government" – which as we say in Appendix 3 – is not necessarily unitary government!
So what are the policies to enable this "shared government"? There are not very many, other than the following.
Recommendation 4 – Council of the Nations and Regions
This is intended to enable devolved Nations and Regions to stay in touch and cooperate. (This "Council" is different from the proposed "Assembly of the Nations and Regions", which is intended to replace the House of Lords.)
Chapter 9 expands upon this idea for "cooperation" and "intergovernmental relations" which will be facilitated by a new "Council of the Nations and Regions" (p118) which will have a "solidarity" clause, to which, presumably, the SNP and all those who oppose UK-wide solidarity will somehow sign-up?
This Council of the Nations and Regions would have a couple of connected bodies; a Council of the UK, and a Council of England. Interestingly, the "Council of the UK" appears to take second billing to the primary "Council of the Nations and Regions" (p119), suggesting an overall federal approach, where the UK is meant to take the back seat!
These Councils will be used in "resolving disputes". (p120)
However, we're told that "it will no longer be possible for the UK government, relying on its Commons majority, simply to overrule the Sewel convention, as happened in relation to the UK internal market legislation". (p120)
So straight away, the UK government will have no bargaining power around the table, and will consequently have no incentive to take part. Very soon, circumstances will move to render the UK government's seat at any "Council" table pretty pointless.
Furthermore, we're told that "the oversight of the new second chamber of Parliament will add a fresh level of accountability and scrutiny to the process." (p120) Not a fresh level of arguments, then?
Our conclusion on this one is that Brown's idea for these Council of the Nations and Regions might be a good idea as far as general cooperation is concerned, but he wants to neuter the UK government's power in them. He's skewed power heavily towards the devolved position – which may well be represented around the table by open separatists or closet separatists, or by Mayors of English towns and cities whose knowledge of Scottish matters, let alone the unionist position, is minimal.
To hope that a "solidarity clause" – which everyone is meant to agree on – will somehow balance out the best interests of the UK as a whole, seems wishful thinking!
After all, in order to get agreement on a "solidarity clause" – from those who oppose the existence of the UK in the first place – would require the clause to adopt an extremely weak pro-UK position!
However, even if we could be assured that everyone is going to "cooperate", it wouldn't be sufficient to hold the Union together when the "nations" are building more powers, and more of their own self-governing power, which itself is being constitutionally entrenched by a Second Chamber.
He also wants a Member of the Cabinet for each English Region. (p122)
Recommendation 5: Cleaning up Politics
These are recommendations on "cleaning up our politics", and addressing the excessive influence of donors. Some of the points here are valid and we reserve further comment.
Recommendation 6: Abolish the Lords and Replace with an Elected "Assembly of the Nations and Regions"
The major recommendation is to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a democratically-elected Assembly of the Nations [Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales] and Regions [9 in England].
This is to be "capable of ensuring that power cannot be clawed back to the centre by future governments." (p9) This is to be done via the entrenchment of various constitutional statutes.
However, setting up a squabbling Second Chamber representing "the nations and regions of the UK in a very explicit way" (p145) and entrenching the Sewel Convention, is not a unitary policy, and is potentially disastrous.
It is difficult to see an "Assembly of the Nations and Regions" as anything other than institutionalising a new platform for national conflict between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the regions of England.
It cannot be described as unionism, and is more likely an attempt to move the UK towards a federal structure!
We examine objections to the "Assembly of the Nations and Regions" in more depth, in Appendix 2 below.
Constitutionally Protected Statutes
He wants several statutes to be constitutionally protected via the mechanism of the Second Chamber.
That is, they cannot be overturned, and laws cannot be made to override them by the House of Commons, without the explicit agreement of the Second Chamber.
As already noted, the Sewel Convention is to be strengthened, written into law and made constitutionally protected in this way.
This would make it extremely difficult for Westminster to affect devolved policies in any way. It is not a unitary policy by any stretch of the imagination!
It is suggested that the Acts of Union could be included in such constitutional protection. (p142) This might seem appealing to some of us, but at what cost on other matters?
The Report says, "We see this approach as a way of gaining for the UK many of the benefits of a written constitution while continuing to uphold the principle of the supremacy of Parliament, as there is still no law which Parliament cannot change." (p142)
It is suggested that the new Chamber has around 200 members, elected democratically, on a different electoral cycle from the General Election, and for members to be able to serve as Ministers. (p143)
It seems likely that Labour will have many more ideas for increased devolution because it states, "Once we have seen the Welsh government's Commission, the Labour Party may wish to undertake a formal consultation, including with the devolved administrations, on these recommendations." (p146)
We're not Getting a Referendum on This
There is a sense of urgency in the Report. "It is our view that these recommendations could all be delivered and have impact within a single Parliamentary term, and without recourse to a referendum." (p144) It emphasises that "more needs to be done now, to prepare the ground so that change can be brought into effect as soon as possible in the first term of a Labour government." (p145)
OUR 7 CONCLUSIONS SUMMARISED
1. The Union has a Right to Protect itself. We have a Union Mandate. We have a Union Settlement that must be Respected
If we believe in one United Kingdom, then its democratic expression – the Union Parliament – has to be able to assert itself on behalf of all the people who believe in one United Kingdom, and who vote for that Parliament.
We should not devolve power to such an extent that the Union Parliament has no ability to assert or defend itself on behalf of all the people who vote for it!
Nor should we "constitutionally entrench" laws which prevent the Union Parliament from operating for all of the United Kingdom. Too much devolution, and the centre cannot stand.
2. Plans to "Safeguard Devolution" are Unnecessary and risk Dissolving the Union
The "safeguards" in this Report are primarily intended to dissuade or prevent the Union Government from getting involved in devolved matters, and to make it very difficult for it to prevent, or change or override devolved bills or laws, or take back devolved powers, even if the law or power is being misused to the detriment of the entire UK body.
The Report says it wants to "entrench self-government in Scotland" (p13) but what about entrenching the Union?
3. Too much Emphasis on the Purpose of the UK and nothing on its Integrity
The utilitarian emphasis on "the purposes of the UK as a union" – while important – avoids the integrity of the UK as a nation; the state of being whole and undivided in the first place!
Both the integrity and the purpose go together, and if you show little consideration for the sort of policies which keep it together, and if you do things which negatively affect its ability to stay together, then the purpose of it will eventually wither.
4. No Union Safeguards Built-In
In chapter 4, he makes a case for a British identity as a useful possession.
It is good to see him bring this up and identify the importance of this, and also to say that we "have been bound together in one United Kingdom" (p46). At one point, he calls the UK "a voluntary nation of nations". (p51)
He makes the important point that "Although in the heat of politics the differences across the different geographic parts of the UK can be exaggerated, the fundamental differences in priorities are quite limited." (p47) "Historically the agreement to share across our country is far stronger and more entrenched than in many other countries, or indeed far deeper than in a union like the EU." (p48)
Given these correct insights, it should be easy for him to see the importance of the centre holding.
It should be important for him to see that if he is going to devolve power, then he needs a mechanism to affect that power when it is misused to the detriment of the entire body.
Otherwise, all you are doing is potentially weakening the entire body.
He says his Assembly of the Nations and Regions is "charged with safeguarding the institutions of self-government". (p14) But who is charged with safeguarding the Union – as expressed through the British Parliament and Government?
What if pro-UK people want the centre to intervene in order to protect the health of the UK? Where are the mechanisms to make that easier, not harder? Where is the balance of power to defend the Union Settlement?
By "entrenching" certain devolved constitutional matters, we are weakening the centre, and making it harder for the entire body to protect itself when it needs to!
5. It's not Possible to "Cooperate" if the UK Government's Hands are Tied in the First Place
Recommendation 20 idealistically imagines that "There should be not only enhanced self-government for Scotland but strengthened cooperation with the UK Government to address the challenges Scotland faces today." (p110)
"Cooperation"sounds fine. But cooperation only occurs between people who want to do so, in order to further a joint interest. To the extent that the SNP is willing to "cooperate" then it will be for their own interests, and if they don't get their way then they will blame you.
And if cooperation fails, then he wants to make it virtually impossible for the UK Government to act without the consent of Holyrood anyway!
That is, he is tying the UK Government's hands around the table before they have even started discussions; he is giving the SNP no reason to "cooperate"; and he is giving the UK Government no reason to take part.
6. Creates a Separatist Squabbling Shop for a Second Chamber
His proposal to abolish the House of Lords is turning what is presently a pan-UK body – which does not argue issues on an England v Northern Ireland v Scotland v Wales basis – into something which is "very explicit" in its national basis. (p145)
It gives the SNP another platform where they don't have one right now! This is not a unitary move. It could potentially turn the Second Chamber into a squabbling separatist arena. That's not good for the integrity of one UK. It's not even good for the Labour Party (see Appendix 2).
7. Moves the UK in a Federal Direction
Running through the entire document appears to be a cavalier attitude towards the integrity of the Union. There seems no sense that when you give away powers, and entrench these powers, then the centre – the Union Parliament itself – will struggle to hold.
There seems to be an unspoken notion that if you only devolve enough powers, then the separatist demand in Scotland will somehow go away. However, the Scottish nationalist dynamic is a far more complicated matter, which has many motivations – few of which are appeased by devolution.
After all, if that had been the case, then devolution in 1999 would have "killed nationalism stone dead", as stated by George Robertson, one of Gordon Brown's Labour Party colleagues.
It's well past time to learn that lesson!
IT'S TIME to RESPECT the UNION MANDATE and the UNION SETTLEMENT
The deeper issue which gives rise to this attitude is that there is no respect here for the Union Mandate, and therefore, no respect for the Union Settlement. Everything is seen from the point of view of the noisy nationalists.
The Report ignores the fact of – what we call – the Union Mandate.
That is, the fact that the British Parliament has constitutional, democratic and popular mandates (which we mention in this article) to govern for all of the UK and to keep it together; mandates given to it by everyone who votes at the General Election.
The Report speaks as if this Union Mandate does not exist or has not even been thought about! It is as if the only mandate which is to be respected is the separatist mandate.
Really? Where is the Respect Agenda for unionism?
We hear all about the "devolution settlement". Well, what about the "Union Settlement"?
It seems to be all about trying to appease the noisy nationalists. What about respecting the majority of people in Scotland who don't want the Union to break up. How about respecting our views?
How about doing things to make our Union safer and stronger?
How about a Respect Agenda for those who believe in the Union and want to maintain it! See Appendix 1 below.
APPENDIX 1: WHAT WE PROPOSE INSTEAD
There is no "magic fix". There never is, in politics. However, we can institute protections for the Union. And we can encourage circumstances which enable us to grow together socially and economically, as one UK.
We've covered this philosophy, and over 100 policies, in Do More Together, our 40-page magazine on how to keep the UK together. But here are some obvious ones:
1. Overturn the idea that things are Devolved by Default.
We must overturn the presumption that everything is devolved by default unless it is explicitly reserved. Instead, the presumption should be that everything is reserved to the centre by default, unless specifically devolved! Unfortunately, this is definitely something that Brown will not want to do.
2. Ensure the Civil Service cannot be used on any project when its purpose is to break-up the United Kingdom.
3. Brand UK Payments Clearly – which means Overhaul HMRC's Bland Communications!
We need to raise the profile of the Union. Here's an easy way: The UK Government sends physical letters to millions of people, telling them that they are going to be paid hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds, for example for "Cost of Living Payments", or for "Furlough payments", but they don't tell anyone that the money is coming from the British Parliament and Government!
The letters are bland beyond belief. We've been urging them to brand themselves properly for several years!
For example, during August 2022, personally-addressed letters were sent out in Scotland – from HMRC – informing people on low incomes that they were to receive a £650 "Cost of Living Payment" by the end of the year. Yet there was no indication that this money was coming to such economically vulnerable people – who are also voters – from the British Government! There was no indication (other than the web address "gov.uk") that this was a result of being part of the United Kingdom.
The positive power of the British Treasury to create money and to get it to people in Scotland is not being properly explained and promoted. The British Government must stop getting the easy things wrong.
4. Move the seat of British Government around the United Kingdom. Westminster is crumbling. Let's take the opportunity to move it around the UK! See our "Do More Together" magazine for over 100 of these kind of ideas!
APPENDIX 2: 10 REASONS WHY an "ASSEMBLY OF THE NATIONS AND REGIONS" is A BAD IDEA for the UK (and BAD for the LABOUR PARTY too)
Here we examine Gordon Brown's idea to abolish the House of Lords and turn it into an "Assembly of the Nations [Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales] and Regions [9 of England]".
Whether the House of Lords needs reform is an important question. However, from a unionist perspective, the first thing we ask is: How will this affect the politics of the Union, and ultimately, the integrity of the United Kingdom itself?
1- It's Turning the Second Chamber from Pan-UK to Nationalistic
Putting aside whether the House of Lords needs reform, there is one good thing about the House of Lords at present. That is, it is not associated with any particular part of the UK. It represents it as a whole. We're calling this element of its character, "pan-UK".
The Lords do not conduct their business by thinking of the UK in a fragmented way – as England v Northern Ireland v Scotland v Wales. At present, the Second Chamber is a pan-UK chamber which thinks first and foremost of the UK, rather than competing parts. In that sense it can be considered to be a quietly "unionist" chamber.
Brown says that "the present House of Lords...does not look at issues from the perspective of the nations and regions of the UK." (p139) He says it as if that's a bad thing! However, that's a strength!
The Lords are appointed, and don't claim to speak for any particular area of the UK, although each may have his or her own local interests. They come from all over, and they don't make a thing about their political Scottishness or Englishness or otherwise. They examine policies for all the UK.
That is, the House of Lords avoids platforming the separatist voice, and it avoids nationalistic arguments. In fact, the SNP boycotts the Chamber!
What Brown wants to do is up-end that pan-UK approach, and have the Chamber, in his words, "representing the nations and regions of the UK in a very explicit way." (p.145)
That is, he is going to change something which is nominally, modestly, quietly unionist – in the sense of representing all of the UK without making a thing about it – and he is going to change that to something which is explicitly nationalistic. He is going to change it to something which is explicitly divided into Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and English Regions.
How on earth will that help keep the UK together? That's just risks descending into a separatist squabbling shop.
The "Assembly of the Nations and Regions" risks becoming a constitutional calamity, a vocal and angry "Separatist Senate" where politicians are going to see political gain in standing up and shouting for their particular nations and regions, against each other, and especially against the House of Commons, and the Government of the day. How will that help Labour?
Other Problems with the idea of an "Assembly of the Nations and Regions"
2- Abolition of the House of Lords is not answering a strong demand.
The House of Lords may or may not need reform, but there is no big political demographic whose priority is to abolish the House of Lords. It's an obscure policy which is unlikely to come up "on the doorstep".
3- Where is the political demand for entrenching constitutional matters like the Sewel Convention?
The number of people who vote SNP but could be persuaded to return to Labour if they thought that there were some kind of "constitutional" safeguard against Holyrood laws being overturned, must be very small.
4- Very few people in Scotland are genuinely worried about devolution being overturned.
It's addressing a concern that is only heard from SNP politicians (and The National newspaper). Indeed, the Gender Recognition Reform Bill – which was prevented from passing by the UK Government – showed that many people in Scotland, including SNP supporters, were very happy when Westminster stepped in and prevented it happening.
5- Indeed, there are people in Scotland who want Holyrood decisions overturned more often than they are.
The idea of entrenching the power of Holyrood in the British Parliament in order to prevent Westminster being able to stop certain bills being presented at Holyrood, or to stop certain laws being passed, or to take back powers when necessary, is not something we want to support. There will be no gain in votes for Labour because of this. The number of pro-UK people put off by Labour's idea might possibly be the same as those who will switch from the SNP to Labour because of it.
6- The plan to entrench the Sewel Convention is tying the Union Parliament down unnecessarily, making a rod for the UK government's back, including a Labour government's back!
What happens if a Labour government wants to prevent an SNP bill, or overturn an SNP law, and tries to do so? It will be virtually impossible. It will be hung by its own petard. It will be beaten by the very system it set up!
7- An "Assembly of the Nations and Regions" gives the SNP another platform.
At present, there are no SNP Lords. That is, Scottish separatism does not have a voice in the Second Chamber. The SNP has chosen to absent itself. That is, at least, one good thing from a unionist perspective. Yet Brown proposes to change this in order that a second chamber "should represent the nations and regions of the UK in a very explicit way." (p145) This will, of course, lead to the entrance into the Second Chamber of a substantial number of people who are opposed to the UK's very existence. It will give them a platform which they do not currently possess.
8- An "Assembly of the Nations and Regions" will only grandstand controversial issues related to devolution. This will manufacture controversy where none need exist. It will create fights which could have been avoided. This will be to the detriment of the Union, and ultimately of the United Kingdom.
9- All of this will help rejuvenate the SNP, just as it begins to fail.
Just as Gordon Brown's "Vow" and the politics which followed from that, helped the SNP to bounce back after they lost the 2014 referendum, so his Assembly idea looks like it could give the SNP a new lease of life, just as it is struggling for relevance!
10- The SNP will not thank you.
They will continue to misrepresent the reality of the British Constitution to their supporters, as they always do.
APPENDIX 3: "SHARED GOVERNMENT" is NOT necessarily a UNITARY IDEA
It is important to note that the term "shared government" – which is used throughout the Report – doesn't necessarily mean unitary government – which is to say, government of a Unitary State.
A Unitary State is "a state governed as a single entity in which the central government is the supreme authority." (Wikipedia).
"Shared government" doesn't necessarily mean what some of us might presume to be "unionist" or "union government". Brown shouldn't be allowed to sneak that phrase under the radar!
For example, when we were in the EU we had a "shared government" with 27 other nations, but we were not in a unitary state, with a unitary parliament and government, as in the UK.
Be that as it may, the Scottish nationalists will still oppose the idea of "shared government" anyway! They will still see the term "shared government" as a unionist term which must be opposed.
The bottom line is that all proposals for "self-government" for the "nations and regions" need to take into account the extent to which such proposals might enable and strengthen those who want to break up the UK. All proposals need to be thought through from that angle.
After all, there is a very real danger that too much "self-government" will only dissolve the "shared" bonds entirely.
Brown's Report does not show any understanding of that political reality, or the likely consequences of what he proposes.
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