Dear Gordon Brown, surely you now realise the UK isn’t reformable

by | 5 Dec 2022

A letter to Gordon Brown, a man sincere in his desire to reform the UK but unable to be honest that it isn't possible in a country that is more collapsed empire than modern nation state

Dear Gordon Brown,

I’ve been critical of you in the past, not least over your performance during the decade running up to the financial crisis of 2007 in which you were supposed to be responsible for banking regulation and transparency. The dreadful enduring legacy of PFI which you ensured is another, as is the skyrocketing of personal debt which you intentioanlly enabled for the purpose of boosting the market.

But I also recognise that you have done good things too. I recognise that the better things done in the New Labour years were largely down to you, particularly Tax Credits. I recognise that you do try to do serious thinking and have tackled big issues in that thinking.

And perhaps the thing that sticks with me just now is that, unlike so many of your fellow former Prime Ministers, you have not cashed in on your post-politics life and have instead pursued projects which focus on the public good. I think that speaks well of you.

But above all, I really do believe that you are sincere in your commitment to the ideal of Britain and your desire to reform it. I have been waiting with interest to see your latest proposal for achieving this, not because I expected it to change my views on Scottish independence but because I’m aware that this could be an initiative that creates problems for independence if it is weighty and meaningful.

So now that it is published, and for all of the reasons above, you must know it’s not very good. It has, again and again, pulled back from the really serious reforms that might make a difference and has put, in their place, proposals which kind of look like those reforms but which are a rather weak echo of them.

This is most obvious in relation to reform of voting for the UK parliament and reform of the House of Lords. In both you have been pre-empted by your leader Keir Starmer who has already ruled out voting reform to make the UK parliament one which is elected in proportion to the votes that are cast and cast strong doubts on reform of the House of Lords (and seems to have ruled out replacing it).

This isn’t a plan for a modernised government for the 21st century. The only other European country which uses First Past the Post to elect all of its legislature is Belarus (Poland elects one of the chambers which make up its legislature that way). The big majority of the other countries who use this system are former British colonies. This is entirely backwards-looking.

And I know you would like to abolish the House of Lords which I know you believe to be a ridiculous anachronism. But I also know you know you’re not going to be allowed to abolish it and so have fudged the question. I’ll come back to that point.

It has, again and again, pulled back from the really serious reforms that might make a difference and has put, in their place, proposals which kind of look like those reforms but which are a rather weak echo of them

There is plenty else which is backwards-looking such as offering no written constitution and no new structures for decentralising England other than the tokenism of adding mayors on top of the democratic systems which already exist. This is just 19th century thinking which you have either not had the courage to address or have been prevented from addressing properly.

But it is when it comes to Scotland that you seem to have the most problems envisaging the future. You propose no new powers, or powers so slight or so much in the give-and-take of Westminster that they aren’t really powers at all. To have failed to address the issue of Scotland’s ludicrously limited borrowing powers other than to imply that these may flex upwards or downwards according to Westminster’s view of things is not taking Scottish devolution seriously.

So what is Scotland to get from this which is going to help to ‘reform the UK’? Here you are basically just in the same position as Boris Johnstone – a little bit of going round the back of the Scottish Parliament to interfere directly in local politics and a little bit of tying the hands of the Scottish Government to keep it in line. That is backwards, not forwards.

I’ve been consulting others on why you propose changing ‘with the consent of’ to ‘with the agreement of’ Westminster in introducing new taxes. The best we can come up with is that consent is a take-it-or-leave it at the Westminster end while ‘agreement’ implies that Westminster can interfere with the detail of the proposal and not just accept it or reject it.

If that is correct, this is yet another backwards step, allowing London to shape Scottish legislation. This is weakening the Scottish Parliament, not strengthening it.

And that is where this whole plan points to. It talks about decentralisation and shows that the UK is terribly over-centralised. And then it centralises further. Or perhaps more accurately, it intentionally confusing the concept of decentralisation with the concept of better articulation.

I know you know what I mean by this, but let me spell it out. If something is decentralised, the parts at the outside can make decisions in their own right. You can tell something is being decentralised because everything outside the centre becomes more powerful at the expense of that centre. Taking power away from the body below you and handing it to the body below it is not decentralisation of the UK.

By contrast, if something is better articulated, things move across it more smoothly – i.e. it behaves more like a single thing and less like separate things. That is really what this plan is about. It is about making all the parts of the UK converge towards a single policy agenda, and that agenda is Westminster’s agenda.

You must realise this is silly. Conor Matchett in the Scotsman hits it on the head – your vision of Britain only works so long as Labour is in control of every part and devolution is seen as a process of more effectively implementing Westminster’s agenda across the whole of the UK. It assumes that difference is bad.

I write that you must realise this is silly because if you stopped and thought about it for two minutes you couldn’t possibly have justified this. In this version of the UK the 1980s would have looked completely different. Thatcher would still have been in complete control of Westminster and Labour in control of Scotland – but this time Scottish Labour would be compelled to sign a ‘solidarity clause’ with Thatcher.

That then would have required Scottish Labour to cooperate with the Thatcher agenda, helping to implement the deindustrialisaiton of Scotland, the attacks on trade union rights, the Poll Tax. Are you seriously arguing that the future of Britain is to compel administrations across the nation state to stand on manifestos and then ignore them in favour of implementing the policies of whoever is in power in London?

Britain isn’t a 21st century nation state, it is a collapsed empire – and, no matter what we do, we are trapped under the rubble

That’s madness. You must be able to see that that is madness, surely? I mean, what would have happened after Brexit if Scottish Labour had been in power at Holyrood at the time of Brexit? Would the Westminster official opposition (i.e. Labour) have been free to oppose Brexit but the Scottish Government (Labour) would have been expected to help implement the policy?

And let’s skip over the fact that you refuse to consider putting in place any democratic route for the people of Scotland to determine the form of government best suited to their needs. That is in direct contradiction to the Claim of Right, a pledge which you signed. There wasn’t an additional ‘and which I happen to agree with’ clause.

So, I don’t doubt the sincerity of your intentions to reform the UK, but that leaves me with one of only two conclusions. Either that sincerity isn’t big enough to displace your factional loyalty not to the UK but to a single one of its political parties, or you wanted to go further and you couldn’t.

The first of these would do you no credit at all. If you are opposing a proportional voting system because it would almost certainly lead to a major split in Labour as a result of Starmer’s factional assault on the Labour left, then your interest don’t lie with Britain but with Labour.

I will therefore choose to believe that you wanted to go a lot further than this but have been negotiated downwards and downwards – not least by your conservative leader – until what you have produced is devoid of any real merit.

In which case you must surely by now realise one thing for certain; the UK is unreformable. If you are half-serious about reform, you will fail, quickly pulled down by the hidden powers which really run Britain. And if you are genuinely serious about reform you will be prevented long before you get the chance – Jeremy Corbyn was serious about reform.

I hope your report isn’t a cynical trick to try to fool Scotland into believing that you are proposing something which stands up with independence as a serious option to consider for Scotland’s future. It most certainly isn’t that.

But if you are sincere about reform, surely you must now see that you can’t do it. You can talk about it, cogitate over it, discus it, write about it – but you can’t do it. Not in the UK. But you could do it in an independent Scotland. That is a realistic option. It is why most Scottish democratic reformers like me support independence.

Britain isn’t a 21st century nation state, it is a collapsed empire – and, no matter what we do, we are trapped under the rubble. That a small group of elite boarding schools and a tiny group of elite universities still dominate almost every institution which represents power in Britain is a pretty big tell-tale sign that we aren’t leaving Empire behind at any great speed.

I guess it is silly of me to imagine that the reality of the state of the UK and how difficult it is to do anything about it is ever likely to change your opinion on the constitutional question. On the other hand, it would be silly of you not to recognise that if this is as good as you can do, you’re not going to be winning over many independence supporters.

So here we are, stuck again between two choices – the UK much as it is but with greater UK interference in Scotland, or Scottish independence. I have been willing to criticise my own side of the constitutional divide when it is offering solutions to the nation which simply don’t stand up.

I do hope that one day you may be willing to be honest about what you have learned about trying to change Britain and that the solutions that you are offering the nation… well, they simply don’t stand up.

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