Here’s a Big Idea for Gordon Brown
Our prime minister-elect needs to shake up politics by coming into office with a Big Idea: one that's new and original, not already under contract to David Cameron or the Lib Dems (still less espoused by Tony Blair), ideally one that will remove the albatross of the West Lothian Question from his Scottish shoulders and give his government a distinctive, controversial and exciting flagship policy from the start.
Here it is.
Today's Independent publishes a letter from me which offers Gordon Brown just what he needs:
Brown's chance for a historic reform
Sir: Our prime minister-elect half-promises a written constitution, but without revealing what might be in it, apart from reducing the powers of our over-centralised government, and giving local people and their institutions more control over their lives. As a Scottish MP, Mr Brown must also be anxious to find an answer to the West Lothian question and to avoid the calamity of Scottish secession from the UK. And he must be casting around for ways to rekindle popular involvement in politics.
He could achieve all these aims, and secure an honoured place in history, by leading the country into acceptance of a fully federal constitution which provided for self-government for our four constituent nations, with the Westminster parliament dealing only with foreign affairs and defence, plus a few constitutional matters affecting the whole of Britain.
This would involve a written constitution and a parliament and executive for England, not as the chief purpose of the great reform (and not for narrow nationalistic reasons) but as a major consequence of it. We are already halfway there with limited (and still reversible) devolution to three of the four nations, but to escape from the West Lothian and Scottish separatist dilemmas, we need eventually to go the whole hog. Has this cautious son of the manse the imagination and courage to take the first steps in such a radical reform?
Such a sweeping reform would take many years to complete: it would require a great national debate, an all-UK Constitutional Convention and another for England, at least one Royal Commission or its equivalent, eventual approval in principle by parliament, and one or more referendums. All would be hard fought. Before a federal system could be installed, a parliament and government for England would need to be established, in itself a huge and controversial undertaking that could not be completed in just a year or two. Reaching agreement on the respective powers of the national parliaments and their governments on the one hand, and the federal parliament and government at Westminster (or wherever it might be decided to situate it) on the other would be a Herculean task in itself. Even to secure sufficient support for the launch of the whole enterprise would require inspired and far-sighted leadership, something Mr Brown might well be able to provide.
But just think of the prizes! By proposing a constitutional settlement that would remove the power of the Westminster parliament to legislate for England's internal affairs (education, health, crime, the environment, transport, culture, sport, and much more), Mr Brown will free himself at a stroke from the suspicion of being a centralist control-freak, congenitally unable to give up power. He will have the complete answer to those who quote the West Lothian Question to challenge the legitimacy of a Scottish MP in No. 10 laying down the law for England on matters which he can't impose on his own constituents because they have been devolved to Scotland. He will be championing a settlement which should satisfy those of his Scottish countrymen tempted by the idea of Scottish independence by completing the transfer of all internal powers to Scotland's own parliament and government, thus undermining the case for Scottish secession from the UK. He will remove the growing discontent among English people of all political persuasions who resent being the biggest of the UK's nations yet also the only one without its own parliament and government. He will carve out his own political space, owing nothing to Tony Blair. He will be able — indeed compelled — to seek support for his proposals from across the political spectrum, rising above trivial yah-boo party politics and presenting himself as a national leader. Above all he will be the author of a new and durable constitutional settlement for the nations of the United Kingdom that will secure his place in British — and Scottish — history.
But what if he rejects such a radical plan as too difficult, too far-reaching, too open to nit-picking objections and frustrating delays? What if he is daunted by the thought of a Tory government in England at loggerheads with a Labour federal government at Westminster — a situation with which all existing and successful federations are familiar and relaxed?
The danger is that the written constitution for which Gordon Brown has begun to argue will set in concrete all the most anomalous and unsatisfactory features of our present half-devolved and half-baked constitutional arrangements, thus greatly complicating the eventual task of converting it into a fully-fledged federation with full control of all internal affairs by the four constituent nations — as we shall eventually be forced to do. A written constitution will inevitably entrench its main provisions, including existing devolution, so that they will be amendable only by special procedures (such as approval by a two-thirds majority of both houses of parliament, and perhaps also the approval of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parliaments). It's hard to imagine a more effective obstacle to further necessary change. If we are to have a written constitution, it's obviously essential to get it right first time. There may not be another opportunity for a generation or more.
Tailpiece: FAQs: Those who are unfamiliar with the arguments for and against a federal United Kingdom may care to glance at the more detailed case, including answers to the objections most commonly raised, at http://www.barder.com/ephems/666, http://www.barder.com/ephems/649 (with some answers to common objections), http://www.barder.com/ephems/647 (another batch of answers to questions) and http://www.barder.com/ephems/644 including 20 comments by others.