Comment: The Brown report completes Labour's 'unfinished business' of reform
The constitutional initiative has now passed to Labour. After more than a decade when the SNP called the shots, Labour has pulled out its trump card.
As the SNP enters a period of decline and internal divisions, the Commission under Gordon Brown has produced a critique of the UK more critical than anything from the SNP, as well as a coherent programme of reform. It also differs in important respects from Labour’s last reform programme.
The last Labour Government introduced a series of reforms described by two leading scholars in 1999 as “wider than that of any political party taking office this century”. The list was impressive: Scottish and Welsh devolution, the Good Friday Agreement, London Assembly and elected Mayor, provision for elected mayors across much of England, introduction of new electoral systems for devolved bodies and European Parliament, incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, freedom of information, regulation of political parties and referendums (including the establishment of the Electoral Commission), the abolition of the ancient office of Lord Chancellor, removal of Law Lords, and the creation of a Supreme Court.
Its intention to reform the Lords was the one constitutional element that Labour failed to deliver in full having only managed to remove most of the hereditary peers. It was an impressive achievement and disproved the claim that the UK cannot be reformed. But further reforms are needed.
But what Labour enacted was a series of reforms, each important but lacking overall coherence beyond the over-used umbrella notion of ‘modernisation’. Over two decades on and it is time to reflect on the experience of these reforms. Despite these achievements, we can see weaknesses in what was achieved.
Legitimate grievances felt in Scotland, Wales and across the rest of the state are not so different, but that does not require the same or even similar institutions in each component nation
First, the constitutional reforms were largely detached from Labour’s socio-economic programme. This latter programme of reforms was also impressive and included the introduction of a minimum wage, unprecedented growth in spending on key services including health and education, 26 per cent increase in child benefit but far more important were the outcomes – a massive reduction in child poverty, low inflation levels, crime levels down, introduction of paternity leave… The notion that a competent government cannot engage in constitutional politics and address the challenges of everyday demands of its citizens is disproved by the last Labour Government.
But when last in office, Labour’s reforms were achieved in constitutional silos and unrelated to its wider socio-economic policies. Minimum standards in social rights are proposed, which should not be confused with uniform standards, in response to fears that decentralisation might lead to a race to the bottom.
What stands out in the Brown Report is that constitutional reform is now seen as a coherent and integral part of wider change. It is embedded in a critique of the UK’s poor economic performance. This critique pulls no punches and confronts the UK’s social and economic weaknesses head on. The UK is a “hyper-centralised system of government” that is the “root of so many of our political and economic problems”.
Brown calls for a “redistribution of power” as well as “radical reform at the centre of government in both Westminster and Whitehall”. Linking redistribution of power and wealth, instead of seeing these as two separate spheres of governmental activity, is key to what amounts to a genuine programme of reform rather than the more silo-based unintegrated reforms of the last Labour Government. It does not fall into the trap of offering institutional symmetry with a classic federal system but shows sensitivity to English regional diversity while creating opportunities allowing for continued diversity allied with the prospect of reforms.
Debate in Scotland has long focused on the need for more powers or independence in reaction to UK central government failures. Devolution itself was built on the need to address the failures of UK central government but what we have found – and will continue to find even if Scotland becomes independent – is that we continue to be affected by decisions made in London. There is now ample evidence that legitimate grievances felt in Scotland, Wales and across the rest of the state are not so different, but that does not require the same or even similar institutions in each component nation.
The SNP is in danger of coming across as preferring to keep the current UK constitution in order to highlight its weaknesses
The source of the problem is a hyper-centralised state in which the winner-takes-all system allied with an over-powerful central executive – too often in the person of the Prime Minister and inner core – dominates to the exclusion of all others. No amount of devolution will address this on its own.
A system of government in which losing an election leaves large tracks of the country and millions of people without an authoritative voice other than an occasional ability to win minor concessions on the margins is a constitutional recipe for poor government and poorer outcomes for its peoples. If the main source of the problem is at the centre, then the centre must change.
A key issue that Brown has grappled with is the age-old problem that no parliament can bind its successor. What happens if a future Government decided to reverse or undermine these reforms? The answer here is a form of political entrenchment that both addresses that problem and replaces individually packaged reforms into an inter-connected whole.
Scholars and politicians outside the UK who observed the last Labour Government’s constitutional reforms were often surprised that there was no attempt to link reform of the second chamber at Westminster with devolution. The German Bundesrat is an institutional expression of what could and needs to be done – a chamber that is the voice of territorial interests and a safeguard against constitutional backsliding. The Lords, shorn of the absurd antiquated basis of its membership, with a new role as protector of the territorial constitution would not mean – nor should it – that the Scottish voice would become the loudest or only one to be heard but could, with skilled leadership, form alliances with others and ensure that the Scottish voice was not cut out of decision-making when there was a Commons majority different from a majority of Scottish MPs.
SNP activists see these reforms as a threat but seem reluctant to criticise the actual proposals. Instead they claim that Labour will not embark on these reforms noting previous limited reform of the Lords. This ignores the fact that Labour delivered almost all of its promises in 1997 and getting into an argument on how many promises or manifesto commitments have been delivered is not one SNP supporters should really want to get into.
Members of the Lords, including many though far from all Labour peers, will not like these reforms – but unless they discard the Salisbury-Addison Convention that a commitment explicitly made in a manifesto should be accepted by the Lords, then we would face a Peers vs The People battle in which there could be only one winner. Many people would relish such a constitutional High Noon, and there can be no doubt that Labour would be the big winner in such a contest just as the Liberals were over a century ago, but it seems very unlikely to come to pass. The SNP is in danger of coming across as preferring to keep the current UK constitution in order to highlight its weaknesses.
Supporters of independence need to start thinking seriously about post-independence relations with the rest of the UK. If Scotland became independent tomorrow, then it would need to engage in very lengthy, very difficult negotiations with a government in London that under current arrangements would have little reason other than to play very hard ball.
The SNP used to insist that independence would mean Scotland would be transformed from a surly lodger into a good neighbour. The last few years ought to have taught us all that even if Scotland might wish to become a good neighbour it cannot assume its neighbour would not be surly.
John Smith, late leader of the Labour Party and devolution minister in the late 1970s, referred to devolution as the “unfinished business” of a Labour government. This report can be read as addressing the unfinished business of the last Labour government. Enactment of all, or even most of, these proposals will go a long way towards rebalancing the UK constitutionally, economically and socially.