Gordon Brown: Divided UK needs a new constitutional settlement

Greater devolution could mitigate Brexit anger, he argued


The government has ‘lost control of the argument’ in recent years, Gordon Brown told a meeting of the Fabian Society in London this morning.

Pointing to massive inequalities in employment, income, output and investment between the southeast and the rest of Britain, Brown argued that the disparity between the core and periphery ‘is greater now than at any point in our history as an industrial nation.’ Additionally, he argued that ‘the constitution no longer serves the needs and aspirations of the people.’

His call for constitutional reform and decentralisation of power was supported by Labour MPs Alison McGovern and John Trickett, who also spoke.

Brown said:

“We need wholesale reform because today the United Kingdom appears united in name only.

Politically, the strains of Brexit are already showing, as different nations, regions, sectors and companies desperately seek their own opt-outs from a hard Brexit and call for their own à la carte version of Brexit. 

Economically, the vote on June 23 revealed that Britain is becoming two nations divided – a highly-prosperous South East and a permanently struggling North – with London effectively decoupling from the economy of the rest of the UK.” 

Brown called for a new constitutional convention in the aftermath of Brexit, paving the way for a more federalised UK. He believes it should ‘consider the repatriation of powers from Brussels not to Whitehall or Westminster but to the regions and nations of the United Kingdom.’

This could entail greater devolution of power over policy, fisheries, agriculture and social funds, but would also present an opportunity for regions and nations to determine their own social justice priorities, for example by preserving the Human Rights Act in the nations.

“We should consider the case for devolving further powers from the UK to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in light of the Brexit vote.  For instance, as the UK will no longer be part of the EU Social Chapter – and the Tories threaten to abandon workers’ rights – employment law could come within the ambit of the Scottish Parliament.”

He also proposed giving the nations and regions the power to negotiate directly with the EU on the status of their relationship with Brussels.

On Scotland, he argued that the SNP’s current position is ‘even more extreme’ than it was in 2014, since prioritising the European Single Market over the UK Single Market would entail ‘breaking the economic as well as the political union.’

He argued that many of those who voted ‘Yes’ in the independence referendum did not want ‘independence for its own sake’ but rather independence as a pathway to a more socially just Scotland. The challenge for pro-union voices, he suggested, is to explore ‘how these ideals and objectives can be reflected in a fresh post-Brexit constitutional settlement.’  

While acknowledging the severe divisions that currently characterise Scottish politics, he argued that ‘the Scottish people can find common purpose in shaping a structure of government that advances social justice.’

Finally, the former prime minister suggested that a key component of the convention would be rediscovering progressive British values, building an outward-looking, liberal, open Britain.

Following the speech, Sadiq Khan, Kezia Dugdale, Carwyn Jones and Andy Burnham released a joint statement in support of Brown’s proposals:

“This is an important intervention by Gordon Brown – and one we whole-heartedly support as Labour leaders and candidates across the UK. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union will change our country and Labour must respond to this challenge.

The social, economic and constitutional inequalities between the constituent parts of Britain are driving a wedge between people and politics – allowing for the rise of populist, nationalist and simplistic solutions that run counter to Labour party values.

The devolution of power and finance is an agenda that Labour must now make its own, just as it has in the past through delivering the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland and the London Mayoralty.

Labour priorities can never be fulfilled whilst power and finance is centralised – and starting today, we intend to work together with other Labour colleagues across the country to develop a people’s Constitutional Convention to start the process of rebalancing our institutions and our economy. Only by achieving a new, fair settlement for all nations and regions can we be sure of saving the UK from further fracture, resisting arguments for Scottish independence and another divisive referendum and tackling rising inequality.”

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.

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