Dave Watson is a semi-retired former Scottish trade union policy wonk, now working on a range of projects. “All views are my own, not any of the organisations I work with. You can also follow me on Twitter. Or on Mastodon @unisondave. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.” The original post of 5th December is found at http://unisondave.blogspot.com/
Big picture reform may not be on everyone’s list of priorities, but governments should be able to tackle big long-term projects while also addressing the immediate issues. Unfortunately, the short-termism of so many politicians has undermined the UK for far too long. In this context, we now have the long-awaited report of Gordon Brown’s Commission on the UK’s Future.
The report starts with a persuasive case for change. The country was in crisis long before the pandemic and the economic consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There are always excuses for not tackling the big issues, and successive governments have ducked them. Yes, we have an incompetent and ideologically driven government that has failed to deliver acceptable levels of investment, economic success and good-paying jobs. But, as the report says, the way our country is run is preventing us from making the changes we need for a better future.
Few could argue with the analysis in the paper of the challenges. These include the scourge of inequality, loss of trust in politics, and centralisation. Britain hasn’t taken back control as promised with Brexit – Westminster and Whitehall have. The same is true in Scotland by the Scottish Government. While there have been global factors, the UK has handled them less well, as this chart shows:
And while economic growth is not all we should be concerned about, at least on current definitions, our relative position has crashed.
This is particularly the case for workers. Pay and living standards for most people in Britain have not improved, and taxes have risen to pay for worse public services, making this a lost decade for British families.
There are some broad solutions proposed to address these issues. Unsurprisingly, there is an emphasis on shared UK purpose and values while recognising that people in the nations of the UK feel morally and politically abandoned by the present UK government. So, the report argues that powers must be decentralised to the right place – in the nations, regions and communities. While there is more detail about local government in England, because this is devolved, many of the reforms proposed would also be welcomed in Scotland as an antidote to SNP centralisation. They reflect the arguments I made in a Reid Foundation paper a few years ago. My only exception is the obsession with directly elected Mayors. There is nothing democratic about centralising power in the hands of one person.
There are reforms proposed for Westminster, cleaning up the corruption that undermines trust in politics and Britain’s voice in the world. A long overdue plan to replace the House of Lords with a new second chamber of Parliament: an Assembly of the Nations and Regions. We should ignore the Lords who oppose this on spurious grounds, acting like turkeys who don’t want to vote for Christmas.
On Scottish devolution, the focus is on embedding the constitutional settlement, strengthening the Sewel Convention and introducing mechanisms to improve cooperation across the UK. While devolving powers is not the only way to enhance devolution, the principle of subsidiarity demands that powers be devolved to the lowest practical level. It is here that the report is weakest. Gordon’s Treasury orthodoxy screams out of the pages, with the resistance to prudential borrowing powers that apply to local authorities but not the devolved administrations. New taxes can only be introduced by agreement with the UK government, which jars with the principles the paper claims to espouse. A recent STUC paper is much better on public finance issues.
On specific powers, devolving job centres is fine, but employment law is only to be shared. And what about drug policy and immigration? The Red Paper Collective has set out the case for devolving these powers clearly. Of course, all these should be exercised in cooperation when they can have implications for the rest of the UK. But the starting point is to recognise that not all parts of the UK have similar problems or require the same solutions.
This report does offer a new approach that should appeal to the 40% of those living in Scotland who are not entrenched in either side of the national obsession. However, it could have been bolder in key areas, which also fall some way short of Scottish Labour’s policy positions on further devolution. Electoral reform is another issue that has been ducked, despite the recent UK Labour conference decision.
Overall, we should thank Gordon Brown for embarking on this process because it takes someone of his stature to ensure this debate gets a hearing. While the report has weaknesses, the proposals would at least help rebalance the UK politically and economically.
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