Just as the momentum behind the Scottish independence campaign well and truly faltered and we all started to rest easier in our expectation that the Kingdom will remain United after the people of Scotland hold their referendum later this year, Gordon Brown felt the need to re-emerge from the shadows and weigh into the debate.
I’m sure that in his mind, a person of his “stature” breaking their self-imposed political silence to speak in favour of Scotland’s continued participation in the Union would only ever be a good thing, a final coup de grâce drawing a line under the debate. Unfortunately, Brown could not resist digressing from his original point and sharing his thoughts on the purpose and ideal future structure of our United Kingdom, and in so doing he managed, in his own inimitable way, to muddy the waters and raise more questions than he resolved.
The Telegraph reports:
The Scottish Parliament should be made more powerful, Gordon Brown will say on Saturday as he urges people not to break up the Union.
In his most significant policy intervention since leaving Downing Street, the former prime minister will call for major constitutional changes which he believes could keep Scotland in the Union.
The confusion begins right away. According to the most recent polling, two thirds of Scottish people want Scotland to remain a part of the UK as we currently stand under the terms of the referendum questions. When the unionist side is already making such a convincing case and steadily holding a majority of public opinion, why come out proposing “major constitutional changes” as a deal-sweetener? Not only does it reek of panic and desperation, it is a cast-iron certainty that the constitutional changes being proposed will be of a narrow, specific and non-universal nature, designed to bribe voters but carrying with them the unintended consequence of making the architecture of the UK’s political governance even more complex and inequitable than it is today. But more on that later.
Brown rightly criticises some of the wishful thinking underpinning the SNP’s economic forecasts and predictions for a hypothetical independent Scotland:
He will say: “First, they calculate oil and gas revenues as at least £6.8 billion in 2016-2017 when all formal and independent forecasts suggest the correct figure is likely to be around £3.5 billion, leaving a £3.3 billion shortfall. To make this up requires a rise in income tax of 10p.
“Second, they have failed to calculate the cost of European Union membership without the British rebate, which Scotland would not benefit from. In consequence, Scotland’s net membership costs could be as high as £500 million that the SNP have not budgeted for.
However, it is in The Guardian’s reporting where Brown’s higher aspirations for the future of the UK are fully revealed:
Brown said Scotland would be strengthened by his proposed constitutional changes while remaining within the union. The Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath MP wants the Scottish parliament to be made irreversible, with “maximum devolution of powers in training, transport, health, the Crown Estates Commission and the running of elections”.
This is all well and good. As an instinctive conservative with a strong libertarian and small government streak, I strongly support devolving power to the lowest and most sensible level possible. To my mind, having Scotland make its own policy in terms of education, transport (to the degree which it can reasonably differ from the rest of the UK), healthcare and other matters is perfectly sensible. Some will doubtless bleat about the iniquities of the overly-discussed “postcode lottery”, but to me such an approach is the only right thing to do.
The problem is that Gordon Brown proposes this devolution of power only for Scotland, and only as a means of persuading reluctant Scots to swing their support behind continued membership of the UK. One gets the strong feeling that in an ideal world, Gordon Brown would like nothing more to centralise each and every one of these areas of policy and governance, and run them all from Whitehall, and that it is only through urgent necessity and the pursuit of an even more important objective (maintaining the Union) that he is willing to permit these giveaways.
But what of the other nations of the United Kingdom? Why should Scotland be free to attune her education and transport policy more closely to the needs of her citizens, but not Wales, Northern Ireland or England?
I cannot repeat often enough my firm belief that this piecemeal devolving of powers on an on-demand basis whenever one of the home nations becomes a bit restless or we have a referendum to win is damaging to the integrity of the UK, and ensures that as a country we limp on, united still (just about) but burdened ever more heavily by arcane and inexplicable rules determining which decisions get made at what level in each constituent part of the country.
I call once again for a proper constitutional convention in the UK, to decide once and for all the powers and functions that we the people should rightly and properly give to Westminster, and those which should be devolved to the four individual home nations to be exercised equally by each.
Such a convention would also allow us to determine what should be the “shared purpose of our union”, which apparently if left unaddressed, will be defined by Gordon Brown along the specious and redistributionist lines of “social justice”. The Guardian makes explicit Brown’s view of our common purpose:
He has proposed UK legislation to state the shared purpose of the union, “namely the pooling and sharing of resources for social justice”.
I’m all for having a debate about the purpose of the country, but I would much rather frame it around providing liberty and freedom for the United Kingdom’s citizens than Gordon Brown’s vision of us coming together to to pool and share our national resources. Human beings are inclined to do this anyway of their own accord, and don’t need prompting from government to get them started. And now, for some reason, I cannot purge from my mind the image of Gordon Brown sitting at a desk in front of a huge warehouse, assigning barrels of North Sea oil to each man, woman and child in the UK – every barrel filled equally to the last drop, of course.
It is kind of Gordon Brown to re-emerge from semi-retirement and deign to give a speech on the future of our country. But his long-awaited contribution is not, unfortunately, of great use to anyone. The last thing that the United Kingdom needs is more piecemeal constitutional reform while the bigger picture goes unaddressed. And I am certainly not about to sign up to a national mission statement based on all of us coming together to enact his distinctly New Labour vision of a “just” society.
Until next time, Gordon.