by Kevin Meagher
The only thing better than a five-point plan is, of course, a ten-point plan. However, on this occasion, Gordon Brown can be forgiven for only making it to six with his interesting ideas for modernising the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK.
In a bid to flesh out what a ‘devo max’ agenda might mean (or perhaps that should be ‘indy lite?’) the former Prime Minister recommends beefing-up the Scottish Parliament’s tax-raising powers, enshrining in law the settlement between Scotland and the UK and establishing a new division of powers that gives Holyrood more clout over employment, regeneration, health and transport.
But why stop at Scotland? So welcome are Brown’s suggestions that they should also be replicated between Westminster and Whitehall (‘WaW’) and the midlands and north of England. This is because the concentration of all major decision-making power in WaW entrenches the asymmetrical way power is exercised in Britain (particularly England) leading to the soaraway success of London and the less certain progress of pretty much everywhere else.
The reason we need to think much bigger about devolving power across the UK is that whoever makes decisions affects which choices are made and in who’s interest they are made. Add to this where decisions are taken and we have a settlement that consistently leaves London and the South East of England on top, courtesy of choices made by decision-makers who are based there.
So codifying in law which powers are retained by central government and which are passed to Scotland to administer is an idea that should be lifted and shifted to the English regions too. New powers over skills, transport and economic regeneration (another Brown suggestion for Scotland) are already coming through slowly to English cities, courtesy of the government’s city deals and through councils collaborating more closely together through the formation of combined authorities. Invariably, however, government cash doesn’t follow, with a two-thirds funding cut for regional economic development since 2010.
A mixture of strengthened local authorities, new regional structures and borrowing Brown’s intriguing suggestion for creating power-sharing partnerships between London and the regions to address areas of joint responsibility, could transform relationships between centre and province. Given many junior ministers are already woefully under-employed, they should be physically based outside of London to ensure these partnerships become a reality.
Finally, Brown calls for a “radical” transfer of power from WaW to devolved institutions then down to local communities, an idea first floated by David Miliband in his call for “double devolution.”
Labour’s instincts have always been resolutely centralising for a decent, if misguided reason. In order to eradicate postcode lotteries in service provision it is thought better to plan and control from the centre, using performance targets to drive improvements remotely. This simply makes the government machine passive, without any stake – or culpability – in actually deliver the goods. Local decisions should be made, well, locally.
Of course, if the Brown package proves influential in fending off full-scale independence later this year, it will leave the north of England playing piggy in the middle, dealing with even greater levels of political inequality between a still mighty London and a newly bolstered Scotland.
If the threat of Scottish independence is forcing political leaders to improve their basic offer to the Scots, when will the rest of the UK get a look in?
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut