Outside of those groups which pang for a return to Blairism, Gordon Brown’s proposals for constitutional reform have, for the most part, been greeted by derision and ridicule. This is for a good reason: of all the people Sir Keir Starmer could have chosen to review the British constitution, he put his faith a man who was integral to implementing the misguided constitutional reforms of the late 1990s.
The worst of these reforms was devolution. Despite promises to “kill nationalism stone dead”, we have seen devolved legislatures become mere conduits through which nationalists can channel their grievances. As more and more power has been devolved, the British government have been unable to iron out the inconsistencies in devolution, leaving the British constitution as a quasi-federal arrangement with no clear division of powers between administrations or mechanism for secession.
Brown’s proposals double-down on this constitutional myopia. By codifying the Sewel Convention – which requires devolved ascent to measures from Westminster which impact devolved areas – Labour would further muddy the waters by creating ambiguity around the supremacy of the British government.
But this is not where the madness ends: Brown has also floated the idea of having representatives from devolved governments present in foreign engagements like trade negotiations. Not only would this represent a further usurpation of Westminster supremacy, but it would make Britain unique in the western world. The United States does not send an official emissary from Idaho to its trade summits, nor does Germany regularly send an ambassador from Baden-Württemberg to theirs. Even in the most federated western states like Switzerland or Bosnia-Herzegovina, the constitution is very clear that the federal government is the sole representative of the nation abroad.
What is the ultimate end of this unprecedented and radical plan? An Austro-Hungarian arrangement in which the nations and regions have different armies and issue different passports? Are we planning to wield our Security Council veto by committee? These reforms would not be a step towards a federal Britain, but one where English, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish administrations co-govern the nation, further solidifying divisions within the union and doubling-down on the constitutional chaos that devolution has wrought.
Unlike most critics of the Brown proposals, however, I am no constitutional conservative. Britain does need constitutional reform which decentralises power across the country. 90 per cent of Britain’s tax revenue is raised centrally, a greater percentage than even France, which is notorious for its centralised institutions.
Governments are more just and effective when policy decisions are made closer to the people affected. Decentralisation makes governments more accountable to their citizens and allows people to ‘vote with their feet’ by migrating between internal jurisdictions, which in turn, incentivises jurisdictions to compete with one another to attract the best talent. According to research by the Institute of Economic Affairs, increasing the amount of revenue raised locally to 20 per cent could increase GDP by six per cent.
Brown’s proposals do not, however, represent progress towards achieving those benefits. They would merely devolve more decision making and maintain the UK’s highly Westminster-centric system of revenue raising. To make matters worse, the report also leaves open the possibility of imposing more central government diktats on local administrations in the form of a ‘Minimum Infrastructure Guarantee’.
Constitutional conservatives may warn that further decentralisation only exacerbates the threat to the union. That might well be the case, but the nationalist cat is already out of the bag and ending devolution is not a realistic goal. By taking a consistent approach to decentralisation, we can at least end the constitutional ambiguity so often used by nationalists to raise grievances. By decentralising revenue raising, we can finally force devolved governments to accept full responsibility for their decisions and strike a blow to nationalists’ ability to blame Westminster for their failures.
A federal constitution also provides an opportunity to settle the question of how secession can be achieved. With the exception of Northern Ireland, our current system provides no clear framework in which nationalists can claim the right to hold a referendum or under what terms a referendum should take place. In Scotland, this has created a ‘neverendum’ situation, in which nationalists will seize on any opportunity to relitigate the arguments of the 2014 independence referendum. By setting strict requirements for holding a referendum (for example, that a party needs to win a majority of votes and seats in a devolved election to call a vote or that two plebiscites cannot take place within 25 years), we can create some stability, while maintaining the democratic right to leave the United Kingdom.
It is truly staggering that Gordon Brown was the man chosen to recommend constitutional reforms for Labour’s manifesto. Brown was an integral part of the constitutional reforms of the late 1990s, which have not only done irreparable damage to our constitutional fabric, but also hampered the case for radical reform in the future. On devolution, Brown’s recommendations merely double-down on the UK’s failed model of decentralisation and, if enacted, would set the stage for decades of constitutional chaos. The last thing the British constitution needs is more incremental devolution: it needs real federalism.