The Labour Party’s Commission on the Future of the UK has published its report, ‘A New Britain: Renewing Our Democracy and Rebuilding our Economy'. In this guest blog, Jim Gallagher, adviser to Commission, sets out the transformative effect that it could have for the UK’s territorial constitution.
Labour's Commission on the Future of the UK, chaired by Gordon Brown, yesterday published an ambitious report recommending a transformation in the governance of the UK’s nations and regions. Focusing on economic and political change in the whole UK will, Labour hopes, changes the terms of the Scottish debate also.
The changes to Britain matter most, and they begin from an unsparing analysis of the weaknesses of Britain's economy and political system. After a decade of crisis and stagnation, the UK has fallen from near the top to near the bottom of the growth league of major economies. It has dealt worse with recent crises than most countries too. Only Trump's America has more excess covid deaths, and no other major economy has had higher inflation in the present crisis. The people have noticed. A majority think we're doing worse than other countries, and over 80% say we should be doing better.
It may be no surprise then that the population are further losing trust in the institutions of the British state. UK central government and Parliament are among the least trusted in the developed world. According to the Report’s findings, two thirds of people in the UK say they feel invisible to politicians. Most worrying of all, more than half think it doesn't matter whom you vote for, as nothing will change.
The first root of the problem is Britain's unbalanced economy, the north-south divide, the most geographically unequal in the developed world. Measured by GVA per head, London and the South East far outstrip the rest, and the poorer regions of Britain – which do not include Scotland - are now behind former communist countries of Eastern Europe. Polling shows people know that where you live determines your life chances - not just how successful you are, but even how long you live, and this geographical inequality is often front of mind. The report argues it is not simply unjust, but economically foolish too: the whole country cannot succeed if half of it is left out of growth.
The second root of the problem is closely connected: Britain isn't just the most unbalanced but the most centralised country. Outside of the devolved nations, Whitehall and Westminster take virtually every decision, and there is a missing link in the governance of England, at the very regional and city-regional level at which economic growth is best encouraged, as international evidence very clearly shows.
But the Commission found a remarkable degree of unity in public opinion about the UK’s problem and the solutions. People in England want almost exactly what Scots want. Top of each of their lists are a decent NHS, action over poverty and, crucially, political decisions taken closer to them. England is as dissatisfied with London government as Scotland is. Centralised power, the report argues, must be broken for England, and for the sake of the devolved nations too.
The Report therefore includes radical ideas for devolution in England, first with powers to drive a new model of economic development based on clusters of ‘new economy’ industries, with different locally led approaches in each place to support them, under local partnerships of mayors, local authorities and others. And an innovative new legal method for them also to take the initiative in drawing down powers from the centre.
The Commission envisages change at the centre of government too. This starts from clear statement of what central government and Parliament must do, including new obligations to promote regional economic equality, and new, constitutional, social rights, for example over health care and poverty. And under a new principle of subsidiarity, what they must stop doing: all other responsibilities are to be devolved or decentralised, and the different levels of government then obliged to work together in new, legally mandated, Councils of the Nations and Regions, recognising the failure of the previous joint ministerial committees.
Most radical of all is the idea of entrenching the constitutional allocation of power through the second chamber of Parliament. At the root of too many of our constitutional problems, especially overcentralisation in Whitehall, is the idea that whoever controls a majority of the House of Commons can do pretty much anything they want. If the law forbids something, they can change the law. Boris Johnson tested this idea to destruction, and no future government should be able to act without constitutional constraint as his did, whether overriding devolution or the powers of Parliament itself.
So - building on the long-standing but little-noticed function of the House of Lords to reject legislation extending the term of a Parliament – a new second chamber will under these plans have powers to protect the constitution, including devolution, from an over-mighty government which seeks to break it. It is proposed that Parliament would remain sovereign, and the House of Commons retain its primacy, but for a defined list of constitutional issues, the new second chamber will have a safeguarding power. This would entrench, among other things, the devolution settlement for Scotland, and is the reform designed to ensure that power, once devolved from and constrained at the centre, cannot simply be taken back by an ‘elective dictatorship’ solely on the basis of a Commons majority. This is the unfished business of devolution.
This report also includes new powers for the Scottish government, for example in the economic and international spheres, but is also about deeper shift than that that. It recognises that even Scottish yes voters want cooperation with the rest of Britain and to keep sharing things like pensions, welfare and the currency, even if Scotland were formally independent. So this report argues for an enhanced position for Scotland as a whole in Britain: new legal relationships, new machinery of cooperation, new obligations on UK institutions to work with Scotland, and a permanent voice in a new system of shared government. Stronger, entrenched, self-government, but better shared government too, is the theme. In short, said Brown yesterday, it is about making all of Britain work economically and politically, and making Britain work for Scotland too. It is presented by Labour as an offer to those who support independence as a route to change as well as those who say no to its uncertainties.
Jim Gallagher was adviser to the Labour Party’s Commission on the Future of the UK.