Gordon Brown should have known his ‘more powers’ vow would have wider repercussions, writes Bill Jamieson
From the Westminster woods has come the sound of an almighty crash, followed by a blood-curling roar: enter, or more accurately, blunder, Gordon Brown, a howling bear that’s just walked into a trap he should have seen a mile away.
It would have been obvious to any thinking person, and particularly to Gordon Brown, a Member of Parliament for 31 years, that “more powers” for Scots was bound to blow open the West Lothian Question, now going by the name of Evel – English Votes for English Laws.
But it is not just Gordon Brown who has felt the steel trap of consequence snap around his legs. We have collectively walked into a constitutional mess.
The drive for “more powers” cannot proceed, indeed, was never intended to proceed, on the basis of a profound inequity being left at Westminster – Scots MPs being able to participate and vote on matters affecting England and Wales, such as education and health, while such policy areas are devolved to Scotland.
Many Yes supporters acknowledge the injustice of such a consequence and have sympathy with Evel. Yet diminution of Scots MPs’ participation at Westminster could, as Gordon Brown has warned, create two classes of MPs at Westminster. And – of understandable concern to him and his party – it would in all likelihood deny a future Labour administration a Commons majority.
At present, there are 41 Labour MPs representing Scottish constituencies. Even if the election next May were to see this number cut to around 30, an Ed Miliband premiership would struggle to form an effective government under Evel. Equally, a substantially enhanced number of SNP MPs – an increase from six currently to more than 20 has been forecast – could frustrate a Conservative administration on non-devolved tax issues and matters of welfare reform, defence and security. The UK as we know it could well be ungovernable after 2015.
It should also have been obvious that legislation – and especially legislation involving constitutional reform – is seldom fast or straightforward at Westminster. After all, it has wrestled with House of Lords reform for decades and failed to resolve fundamental questions of purpose, function or equity. Even on matters as urgent as military deployment and internal security, parliament has learnt from experience the dangers of a rush to legislate.
All this has already given rise to accusations of foot-dragging and bad faith. But here’s a thing about parliaments: what looks like “foot-dragging” is a commitment to making sound, robust law in a democracy – legislation that is fair to all. Views have to be heard, propositions tested, compromises made and unintended consequence taken into account, as far as this is possible.
Let’s not deny Gordon Brown any lack of ambition, passion or fundamental good faith in intervening as he did in the final days of the referendum campaign. Politicians of half his experience have long succumbed to a world-weary resignation and cynicism. Not Gordon Brown. He fired up Labour’s dying embers and reconnected many with the shared values of fairness, compassion and equality across the UK. His physical and emotional energy was immense. And it was galvanising.
What undecided voters wanted was a credible assurance that a No vote did not mean status quo ante. This is what lay behind his “more powers” timetable: a white paper to be drawn up by the end of November and a draft new law to be published for a new Scotland Act in January.
But this was highly ambitious on its own terms without taking into account the knock-on consequentials: a change in the nature and scope of Scottish participation at Westminster. And as if this was not complicated enough, Mr Brown has railed against the consequences of devolving full income tax powers to Scotland, which would have the effect inter alia of taking Scots MPs out of large areas of fiscal policy, adding materially to his charge of a Commons with two classes of MP.
All this is unfolding against the backcloth of an increasingly febrile and fractured political mood ahead of a general election next May. Now, with the intervention of Ukip – in many respects the alter-ego of the SNP in England with its demands for a return of voter sovereignty – we look headed for gridlock and crisis.
Quick-fire progression from the “more powers” campaign slogan to legislation enacted by Westminster has thus been quickly ensnared, not only by the need to agree a cross-party check-list of specifics, but now Labour’s decision not to take part in a Cabinet committee chaired by Leader of the Commons William Hague to find ways forward for Commons reform.
Thus was the bear trap sprung for Brown: the perception that Labour is unwilling to consider a solution to the Evel problem could prove damaging to the party in English constituencies in the forthcoming election while Labour in Scotland is set to haemorrhage further support from voters impatient to see “more powers” results.
So what is the way forward through all of this? A temporary solution is available that could get Westminster through this – a voluntary “vow” (oh dear, another one) on Scots MPs not voting on English-only matters while “more powers” legislation is given priority in the parliamentary timetable. The principle that only English MPs should vote on English matters should be reflected in the procedures and standing orders of the House of Commons. This would avoid (for now) the nightmare of primary legislation that would, given the large numbers of lawyers at Westminster, invite challenge, litigation and judicial review.
But a lasting solution will require much more. It would almost certainly involve the creation of something much closer to a federal United Kingdom, with a reconstituted second chamber in which the nations and regions of the UK are represented. Some element of the valuable House of Lords’ work as a revising chamber could be reflected in the selection and appointment of lay, senior, informed and experienced members agreed at national and regional level, a device that could also mitigate the problem of representative asymmetry.
This is a major recasting of the UK constitution and will require something akin to Labour’s proposal of a constitutional convention to thrash out. And in due course this reform will need to be put before all UK voters in a referendum.
We can argue over all the ironies and contradictions thrown up by this constitutional merry-go-round: a political class struggling to avoid the break-up of the UK and needing also to respond to the evident disillusion among voters over a remote and disconnected parliament.
This is a pathway of many traps. Gordon Brown is not the only one to find himself ensnared by commitments easily made but extraordinarily complex to deliver. But whether we like it or not, constitutional politics is set for a long run.
If democratic government as we know it is not to descend into never-ending raucous and ill-tempered division we need to find, agree and enact a constitutional structure more responsive and better reflective of voter needs and diversity across the UK. We are a people of changing needs and concerns. And the constitution needs to change with them.