After the Covid crisis abates, UK must take federalism seriously – Christine Jardine MP

There was a moment this past week in politics when the face-palming emoji seemed like the only appropriate response.

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has outlined a coherent argument for an alternative constitutional future to independence or the status quo (Picture: Duncan McGlynn/Getty Images)

The current Prime Minister, who has been responsible for more than his fair share of astonishing incidents, did it again with his inexplicable outburst about devolution.

The spin doctors in the Tory party were quick to argue that what the PM meant was that the SNP’s 13 years in power were the disaster. You will get little argument about that from me.

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But for many of us, what the comment actually betrayed was a misunderstanding not just of Scotland, but of the economic and constitutional crossroads at which the UK has been standing for some time now.

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Contrast that with the thoughts of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown who, in an article in the New Statesman, outlined not just a more incisive analysis, but a coherent argument for an alternative constitutional future.

It is, to be fair, not an entirely new vision. The Liberal Democrats have argued the benefits of a more federal UK for a century now.

For too long, too much of the argument has seemed to be about independence or the status quo.

Every issue at Westminster these days, regardless of the topic seems to come to the SNP saying well it would be better if we had independence and the Tories saying no it wouldn’t.

Even a debate this week about employment rights and Covid-19, in which an SNP member had joked with me that he wouldn’t be mentioning independence ended, of course, with him saying independence would be the answer.

So to read the former Labour leader’s clear and precisely formulated proposals for neither the status quo nor independence came as a welcome intervention.

Suddenly the debate has new life.

To be clear, I do not think that the proposals from his think tank, “Our Scottish Future”, will prove to be the final word, but I do think that they have potential to take us in a new and positive direction.

It seems like the first time since the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party put their joint commitments behind the Calman Commission that we have a real and coherent argument.

And not just for Scotland.

What his proposals take into account is a phenomenon that some of us have recognised as it developed through the Covid-19 crisis.

There is a growing feeling across the regions of England that they too want to benefit from de-centralisation and devolution, a sentiment which was most clearly demonstrated in the confrontation between Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnam and Downing Street over lockdown support.

It is possible too that the resistance of some Tories in the former so-called Red Wall seats in the North of England to Boris’ Covid strategy is because they feel the same gap between their experience and their leadership’s as their Scottish counterparts did under Margaret Thatcher.

And it is clear, as Gordon Brown sets out, that the one-size-fits-all approach which the current government seems to favour is not going to work.

Instead what he suggests is a ‘Four Pillar’ strategy.

That would include citizens assemblies which have proved so effective in other countries and a Senate of the Nations and the Regions like the ones in the USA, Australia and Germany.

There would be no place in this future constitutional framework for the House of Lords and significantly it would aim to tackle institutional inequality, to give the voiceless a way to speak and to make our democracy valuable again.

Most importantly for me, it proposes a Constitutional Convention for the United Kingdom which would work to draw up a written constitution to reframe the relationships between us.

Because, regardless of what separatists might think, it is that desire to work and exist as closely as possible with those with whom we have a common past, economic interests and democratic values that will, I believe, in the end prevail.

It is not a constitutional argument over self-rule, home rule, or federalism which is your motivation when you’re trying to keep food on the table and the house warm.

Neither is it an argument which will drive you to campaign in the streets if the beating heart of your political motivation is to tackle inequality.

Ironically the SNP themselves recognise that in their mistaken claim that an independent Scotland could re-join the EU.

We have shared values, history and common interests that reach into all corners of this country.

The evidence is there in opinion polls, quoted in the former PM’s article that, when asked, 60 per cent of the British people agreed that we still have more in common than what divides us.

And that is what those of us who believe that the best future for this astonishing diverse group of nations and communities lies in working together, must build on.

Devolution has not been perfect but it is far from the disaster which it was so mistakenly labelled by the Prime Minister.

Neither is it an end in itself, but a process.

What we have seen during Covid-19 is that the challenges of a crisis on this scale demand more flexibility, more nimbleness of decision-making and a more immediate relationship with communities than the current constitutional framework offers some parts of the country.

That is what we will have to address once, and only once, we have the economic and public health challenge behind us.

For the time being, we have more immediate problems to solve.

Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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