Gordon Brown wants the next Labour government to win power – and then give it away. That might explain why Sir Keir Starmer has praised Mr Brown, but not yet committed to his commission’s recommendations. Yet the former Labour prime minister has produced a serious – and sweeping – set of proposals that would change the face of the country, largely for the better.
The 40 recommendations go far beyond the very welcome suggestion that there should be democratic reform of the House of Lords on a federal basis. This proposal would see the self-government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland become part of the shared government of the UK. There are also encouraging plans to devolve economic powers to communities. Mr Brown is right to ask why, if second jobs can be banned in the US Congress, this could not apply to the UK parliament.
Devolution should be given paramount importance in economic development. The UK is being held back by its form of government, centred on Whitehall and Westminster. These control around 95% of the UK’s tax revenue and 75% of the UK’s public spending – a far higher concentration of fiscal power than in any comparable country. The result of this has meant economic growth and prosperity concentrated in London and the south-east of England. Mr Brown is right that the UK has become “the most centralised country in Europe. Too many decisions affecting too many people are made by too few.”
Regional inequality is a blight. Mr Brown’s report points out that the Midlands and the north of England are seen to offer a lower quality of life than Alabama – one of the poorest US states. Considering GDP per capita, half the UK population lives in areas no wealthier than the poorer parts of the former East Germany. It is hardly surprising that trust in MPs and central government declines the further away communities are from Westminster and Whitehall.
The dilemma for Mr Brown’s agenda is how to deal with elected regional politicians who are ideologically opposed to his instincts. His proposed solution is that a new constitution should guarantee new social rights such as access to healthcare on the basis of need, not profit across the UK. The threat is real. NHS treatment is provided free, but there is nothing to hinder ministers in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast promoting legislation to change that. In return for UK-wide safeguards, Mr Brown would constitutionally protect Scottish and Welsh devolution, which at the moment can be reversed by a parliamentary majority.
The state plays an instrumental role in shaping the economy. Covid-19 helped explode the argument against devolution that central government is more competent than its local version. English councils’ test-and-trace schemes in the pandemic were much better value for money than the failed central scheme. Mr Brown’s case for rebuilding trust after Boris Johnson’s transgressions against established political conventions is well made. Brexit has not led to voters taking back control but rather permitted a power grab by the executive.
Sir Keir has welcomed the last Labour prime minister’s report, but its appeal may wane if he wins power. That would be a mistake. There is a consensus, Mr Brown notes, that Britain is heading in the wrong direction, and radical change is needed in how money and power works here. Passing up on the opportunity to right the country would be a historic mistake.