Gordon Brown To The Rescue

He's back.
He’s back.

 

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.

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12 thoughts on “Gordon Brown To The Rescue

    • Semi-Partisan Sam January 22, 2014 / 1:44 PM

      Many thanks for your comment. Obviously we heartily disagree on the issue of the Tories and descent “into darkness by Tory madness” – while I see their performance in government as a letdown, I believe this to be because they have been insufficiently true to their small government principles. I have found any and all arguments for independence unconvincing thus far – though if the Scottish people do vote to secede from the UK we should certainly not stand in their way. However, I believe that we are all better off together, though I do advocate for a federal UK with maximum devolution as discussed elsewhere on my blog.

      Cheers.

      Like

      • The Politicoid January 22, 2014 / 1:50 PM

        I suspect you are a libertarian? If so, then I don’t necessarily have any qualms with your position, which (if I was correct in my assumption) would be fiscally conservative and socially liberal. The reason the tories have let you down is because they are avowedly corporatist, not libertarian.

        The question for me is not whether the government should be ‘small’ or ‘big’, but whether it is efficient. As for the independence question – if you had the chance to drag yourself away from a quagmire and rebuild things in an organic way that avoided messy revolution-type activity, wouldn’t you do it?

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        • Semi-Partisan Sam January 22, 2014 / 2:36 PM

          You got me – my instincts do tend towards the libertarian! And I quite agree that the Tories have been far too corporatist for far too long – indeed the only party that seem to come close to embracing unfettered capitalism and market libertarianism are UKIP, but of course they bring with them a load of baggage on the social front, and of course a lot of their supporters are just plain insane.

          I quite agree that small/big is far less important than efficient/inefficient. The conservative part of me is what makes me think it is better to honour existing institutions (such as our United Kingdom) and seek gradual change and refinement from within rather than having the four home nations spinning off independently. I also feel that a newly independent Scotland would not be the blank slate ripe for organic rebuilding that perhaps you imagine – inevitably, a lot would be inherited from the current setup within the UK, including many of the constitutional and policy quirks and issues under which we struggle at the moment.

          Throw in the fact that we share a small island together, the need to coordinate national defence, questions about foreign policy, differing relations with the EU which could ultimately cause issues with the Scotland/England land border, and I see a lot of issues to be worked through with little compelling benefit at the other side.

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          • The Politicoid January 22, 2014 / 2:43 PM

            You’ve hit on exactly the reason why, from our perspective, independence is exactly right for us – if you look at the way scots vote, we really differ on issues like foreign policy, defence, the EU and, ultimately, most things that matter. I understand that from a southern perspective it seems unnecesary. I went to boarding school in England ’til I was 16 and so identify strongly as ‘British’, and, as I state in my article, really couldn’t understand the whole independence shebang until I started to realise the oportunities available for change. Sure, it will present problems too, but I can’t see that as an argument for not trying – it’s the same reason I voted for AV – not perfect, but at least better, and the only chance we had to change the daft FPTP system we’re likely to have in our lifetimes.

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  1. thelyniezian January 12, 2014 / 11:11 PM

    For once sense. If power is to be devolved, fair enough, but let it be devolved to all parts of the UK not just Scotland (or Wales, or Northern Ireland). I think really this would have to include not just a single parliament for England but England to be split up into multiple regions, as it would be too large to govern thus- also, it removes the London-centric bias often inherent in politics which doesn’t bode well for us up here in the north-east.

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    • Semi-Partisan Sam January 12, 2014 / 11:50 PM

      Many thanks for reading and for your comment. I fear that those of us who support equal devolution are in the minority but hopefully support for this common sense, fairer constitutional settlement will start to pick up the more people advocate for it.

      The only area where I would disagree with you is on the idea of splitting England into regions for the purposes of administration. This has already effectively trialled in terms of the European Parliament elections, but no one really has a deep sense of belonging to a region in the same way as they do to England. We can also learn from the example of federal systems such as the USA, where small states such as Rhode Island or Wyoming are able to coexist together with the giants of California and Texas.

      Removing the London-centric bias is also something I would strongly support, and I think it would be great if a future English assembly could sit perhaps in Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool or Leeds for example, while the UK Parliament remains at Westminster. Having another seat of government would be great for the local economy of the host city, and continue the shift of some other “national institutions” such as the BBC away from London.

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      • thelyniezian January 13, 2014 / 12:34 AM

        When I mention splitting England into regions, it is really for practical purposes more than identification as such. I don’t really feel people identify as particularly “English” in the way the Scots or Welsh do to their own national identities- outside of sport, there isn’t much. I think there is quite a strong regional feeling in my own area at least, as distinct from other areas of the country. But that’s by the by- I’m talking practicality, and regional parliaments would be much better placed to cater to the needs of differing local areas than one covering the whole of England, where if nothing else there is definite disparity between North and South. (Either that, or make London, which sort of has its own assembly, distinct from England, which I personally already feel it is!)

        I wouldn’t set too much store by European elections here- as to be fair, most people probably don’t see them as that important or relevant.

        Also, in terms of the United States, the population of England (about 53 million people in the 2011 census) is much greater than any single US state- the largest, California, is estimated at somewhat over 38 million people. Whilst it might cover a much greater area, shorter distances probably matter more over here.

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