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A New Britain – Or Polishing The Old One?

Craig Dalzell – 9th December 2022

After quite literally years of wrangling and waiting, Labour have published their latest advance into the devolution debate with A New Britain: Renewing Our Democracy and Rebuilding Our Economy. They are seeking to find a niche in Scottish constitutional politics that offers a “third way” between outright independence and the new breed of Conservative hyper-centralised, hyper-nationalist authoritarianism, as well as trying to win back the “Red Wall” of the North of England by offering some kind of devolution there too.
However, the actual proposals have turned out to be weak, critically and systemically flawed and in some cases even a climb-down from previous offers.

The report – as these reports often do – starts by laying out the case for change in Britain. Section 1 does a good job of admitting the flaws that have been allowed to build up in the country, in particular the over-centralisation both of politics and of economy which has resulted in Britain essentially being based on ensuring that London grows and just enough is handed out to “not-London” to avoid causing too many people to suffer so badly that they vote against the party in power at the time. (They’re allowed to become so disillusioned that they don’t vote at all…but that’s a story for another time). Economically, however, the report is entirely the product of several decades ago, being based on growth-based capitalism that simply cannot continue within the context of the climate emergency. I’ve been critical of the Scottish Government’s approach to Wellbeing Economics but this report mentions the word “wellbeing” precisely once, and only within the context of supporting city mayors deliver more culture and sport.

Another theme presented is one of “cooperation rather than competition”. It posits that much of the political strife in the UK at the moment comes because the various levels of politics – state, national, and local – spend too much time bickering with and against each other rather than working together in common cause.

Section 2 is where we come to the actual recommendations for action. Starting first with reform of England. I actually support this approach. Too many attempts to reform democracy in Britain in the past few years have been framed by their opposition to Scottish independence and designed almost entirely to “defeat” it. This isn’t to say that this report isn’t designed to do the same but we’ve been clear in our own thoughts on the matter that while reforms can be presented as an alternative to independence, they cannot be an aegis against it. That is, the reforms cannot be designed to make independence harder or impossible (we’d oppose an outright “no secession” clause in a written UK Constitution, for example) and they must also stand up on their own merits even if, after enacting them, Scotland or another nation decides that it still wants independence regardless of them. In that respect, reform of Britain must include and deeply involve England.

Unfortunately, that last aspect is where the report stumbles at the first step. The report explicitly rules out the creation of new democratic structures or “drawing new borders” and thus rules out the creation of anything like official regional Assemblies for England or more local government at a municipal level. Instead, it focusses on investing new powers in city mayors. This betrays a critical underlying mission in this report where Labour obviously feel that they can win more Andy Burnhams than they can parish councils. I wonder how many places around England there are where Labour would be the largest single party in an election but would not have an outright majority. In a proportionally representative vote that would mean Labour has to rule in coalition or may even be locked out of power by a coalition of opposition parties but in a First Past the Post vote for a single mayor, they’d win all of the power.

In terms of the actual powers, they end up being fairly substantive as English devolution goes. Powers over housing and transport could make a real difference and powers to enact geographically limited legislation certainly *looks* a bit like devolution if you squint hard at it – even if the powers are not invested in a democratically accountable Assembly.
When we come to the devolved nations, the plan really does start to show how threadbare it is. Almost all of the new powers offered to England are already within the remit of devolution. In fact, some of the powers that the report does offer Scotland – better local government reform and reform of Parliamentary Privilege within Holyrood – are already entirely devolved matters even if the Scottish Government has chosen to not enact them (See Aileen McHarg’s excellent review of these proposals here for more on that). To have a UK Labour Government do so instead would represent a rolling back of devolution rather than its expansion and I say that as someone who would broadly support such reforms. Other offers, such as “spreading the civil service out of London” suggest that up to 50,000 jobs could be moved. No numbers are given for Scotland but even if it is ten per cent – 5,000 jobs – then that comes in the context of several thousand UK civil servant jobs having been lost from Scotland in recent years and leaves open the possibility that structural issues could remain such as the jobs being moved out being largely near-minimum wage clerk roles while the high paid managerial roles remain in London. There will be no permanent expansion of borrowing powers for Scotland – only the possibility of borrowing limits being flexed according to “changing economic circumstances” and only within the context of UK Labour’s policy of continued Austerity until the budget can be balanced. Similarly, there will be no new tax devolution but the clause limiting Holyrood from launching new Scotland-wide taxes will be changed so that instead of requiring the consent of Westminster it shall only require the cooperation of Westminster…I have no idea what difference that makes either.

The other substantial “power” being offered to Scotland is further strengthening of the Sewel Convention which was made a statutory lever in 2017 and which states that Westminster would “not normally” override the Scottish Parliament when either making legislation in devolved areas or choosing to not respect the Parliament withholding permission for them to do so. Labour would remove the “not normally” clause and make consent mandatory. However, this immediately throws up substantial contradictions both in the report and in Labour’s policy platform. Had the “not normally” clause not been invoked in 2019, the Brexit Withdrawal Bill would not have passed and Labour’s stated policy of protecting the supremacy of the House of Commons in all of these reforms would break down.

A similar issue arises with the “solidarity clause” that the devolved governments would be made to sign – binding them to “cooperate” with Westminster in all things. My guess is that they are hoping that Westminster would no longer override Holyrood but Holyrood would instead be bound to cooperate with Westminster and not resist their plans – it certainly can’t be the other way around for that would mean a provincial government tail could wag the Westminster dog – again, going against the sovereignty of the Commons.

The only way that I (and other commentators) can square any of this is by looking at the same reason as the push for English mayors rather than Assemblies – if Labour is in power in Westminster, Holyrood and in Scottish Local Authorities, then cooperation can be expected and there’s no problem. The report outright says this when it mentions that “We know that we can rely on the Welsh Labour Government to publish its Plan for Wales that employs to the full the powers of the Senedd and, at the same time, maximises the benefits from co-operation across the United Kingdom”. But what if Labour is not in power everywhere. Can Scottish Labour voters endorse this plan knowing that it may result in a Scottish Labour Government in Holyrood being forced to “cooperate” with a Conservative Austerity agenda coming from Westminster? Is forcing others to do your bidding only acceptable when the power dynamic is that way around and you happen to agree with the bidding being forced? Is power for a party more important than democracy? It is rather telling that despite the report “relying on” Wales to support this cooperation agenda, FM Mark Drakeford hasn’t featured in any of the reporting on the publication and nor has he, as far as I can find, made any public statement on it.

The final set of proposals look at the UK as a whole. There will be no changes to the House of Commons beyond some extra standards for MPs; there will certainly be no talk of proportional representation or anything radically democratic like that. There will be no formal, written constitution. Such a thing is explicitly ruled out as it would bind the hands of the Commons to legislate and therefore interferes with its supremacy in Britain. Instead, there shall be codified statutes that shall offer “many of the benefits of a written constitution”…except, of course, the most important one which is that there probably should be limits on Governments and principles that a Government of the day cannot simply legislate away the moment it finds them inconvenient. There is no prescribed path to independence at all so there is no clarity on what will happen if Scotland votes for this plan but either doesn’t like it and still desires independence or votes for it in solidarity with the people of England who deserve their autonomy too before we go then it doesn’t solve the political impasse of the past eight years at all – thus failing a key problem that the report was supposed to solve.

Despite reports of last minute opposition to the idea from Keir Starmer, the report does call for the abolition of the House of Lords (thus repeating Labour policy since the 19th century) and replacing it with some kind of “democratically legitimate” body. The precise form of this body is being pushed out to consultation. In my 2018 paper examining the barriers that reports such as this one must overcome in order to be successful, I posited that if the decentralisation of Britain was not going to result in England being split into formal regions (as A New Britain explicitly rules out) then this kind of upper chamber must be built on a principle by which England cannot simply override the other three nations by weight of numbers. I suggested two models – one where the smaller nations hold a veto over certain decisions or one where the proportions of the Parliament are set such that the combined votes of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland outweigh the votes of England. A New Britain does not offer any prescription of this nature and so we land back at the possibility that for all of the proposed “reform”, it seems more like a vehicle to enhance the supremacy of the Commons in general and the UK Labour Party in particular rather than a plan to actually decentralise power and decision-making around the UK.

In short, we have a proposal that offers England a few sweets that fall well short of the kind of devolution that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland enjoy and offers those three nations almost nothing in terms of additional power and substantially less than they currently have in terms of autonomy from Westminster. So much of the plan is built on an assumption that Labour will be in power everywhere and forever that they’ve forgotten that a key principle of democracy means that they almost certainly won’t be. I understand that parties tend to fail to think beyond themselves and that this tendency is worse in the “winner-takes-all” environment of a Parliament where anything less is deemed a failure. The talk of “cooperation” lands with the same note as every single politician in any political movement anywhere who said that “we need unity” and meant, as almost all of them do, that “this means that you must shut up and follow me without question”.

I’m not putting too much stock in the current spike in pro-indy sentiment in polling for another few weeks at least – I’ve seen spikes driven by “news events” fade as quickly as they came – though I do note that the prospect of using the next General Election as a plebiscite on independence has, and this surprised me, only strengthened rather than weakened that spike. If Labour do indeed pitch the next General Election to Scotland as a choice between independence and their plan then they have some way to go to make it one that can stand up to even a modicum of the scrutiny we have all come to expect to fall on any pro-independence prospectus. Right now, it looks like they’re offering a choice between unchallengeable Labour Hegemony or Labour administration of Tory Austerity. Given those two options, perhaps it should be no surprise at all if the third option of independence continues to rise.

1 thought on “A New Britain – Or Polishing The Old One?”

  1. Gordon Andrew West

    To suggest that Labour’s proposals offer anything new to Scotland – as us of the phrase ‘Third Way’ implies – completely exaggerates the importance of what has been suggested. Yes, it does suggest changes that will impact on England, with some minor tinkering as far as Scotland is concerned, but nothing that suggests a serious attempt to provide an alternative to Scottish independence that could attract supporters of Yes and No to lend their support.

    If Labour had been serious at attempting to fashion a new offer for Scotland within the UK, an obvious offer would have been to devolve power over Corporation Tax as this is already devolved to Northern Ireland. It could have easily extended legislation power over drugs policy to Scotland to enable us to tackle the problems our country faces in this are…but again, no. The conclusion is clear – Labour remains British Nationalist/Unionist in outlook and has approached the issue from that standpoint rather than from an assessment of what Scotland needs.

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