Labour’s Commission on the Future of the UK could be a game changer for Scottish politics. Instead of a zero sum, yes/no constitutional argument, an alternative choice of entrenched self-government and better shared government in a radically changed Britain.
The changes to Britain begin from an unsparing analysis of the weaknesses of Britain’s economy and political system. We have fallen from near the top to near the bottom of the growth league of major economies. We’ve dealt bay with recent crises. The people have noticed. A majority think we’re doing worse than other countries. They are right.
UK central government and Parliament are among the least trusted in the world. Two thirds of people, all across England, Scotland and Wales, feel invisible to politicians.
Loss of trust is worsened by MPs’ behaviour. Boris Johnson gave us plenty, and it must be dealt with. But deeper roots lie behind half of the UK population voting for Brexit, and half of Scots wanting independence.
The first is Britain’s unbalanced economy. We are the most geographically unequal country in the developed world. With huge differences between the South East and the rest. The poorer regions of Britain – which do not include Scotland by the way – fall behind the former communist countries of Eastern Europe. Where you live determine – not just how successful you are, but how long you live. Deeply unjust, and economically foolish too: the whole country cannot succeed if half is left behind.
The second is that: Britain is the most centralised large country. Outside of the devolved nations, Whitehall and Westminster take virtually every decision, and there is a missing link in the governance of England, at the city-regional level at which economic growth is best encouraged. This is why UK governments consistently work so badly with devolution: they think they run everything.
But people in England want almost exactly what Scots want. A decent NHS, action over poverty and, crucially, political decisions taken closer to them. England is as dissatisfied with London government as Scotland is.
So Brown has radical ideas for devolution in England, starting with powers over economic development based on clusters of ‘new economy’ industries, and innovative new legal methods for them also to take the initiative in drawing down powers from the centre.
But the centre of government is to be radically changed too, with a clear statement of what central government and Parliament must do. And under a new principle of subsidiarity, what they must stop doing: all other responsibilities are to be devolved or decentralised, and the different levels of government then obliged to work together in new, Councils of the Nations and Regions, replacing the failing joint ministerial committees.
Most radical of all is entrenching the constitutional allocation of power through the second chamber of Parliament. At the root of too many of our constitutional problems is the idea that whoever controls a majority of the House of Commons can do pretty much anything they want. Boris Johnson tested this idea to destruction, and no future government should be able to act without constitutional constraint as his did.
So a new second chamber will have powers to protect the constitution, including devolution, from a government which seeks to break it. Parliament will keep its sovereignty, and the House of Commons its primacy, but for a defined list of constitutional issues, the new second chamber will have a safeguarding power. This will entrench devolution for Scotland, and is designed to ensure that power, once devolved from and constrained at the centre, cannot simply be taken back by an ‘elective dictatorship’.
This report also includes new economic and international powers for the Scottish government, but is also about deeper shift than that that. Even Scottish yes voters want cooperation with the rest of Britain and to keep sharing things like pensions, welfare and the currency, even if Scotland were formally independent. So this report argues for an enhanced position for Scotland as a whole in Britain. Stronger, entrenched, self-government, but better shared government too, is the theme. In short, said Brown yesterday, it is about making Britain work for Scotland. So it is an offer to those who support independence as a route to change as well as those who say no to its uncertainties. The terms of Scottish political debate have just changed, for the better.