Former Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The dangers of devolution

It could lead to Britain being dismembered

In September 1997, Gordon Brown and Sean Connery took a ferry together across the Forth. Pictured with a Scottish saltire fluttering behind them, Brown and Connery were both campaigning for a devolved parliament in Edinburgh. Perhaps somewhat awkwardly for Brown, Connery was a Scottish Nationalist who told the press that he supported devolution as “the first step to independence”. Brown merely scoffed, “Devolution is about stability, not separation.

Now with twenty-five years of hindsight, it should be obvious that Connery was correct. It has provided as clear a blueprint for an independent state as any nationalist could dream. Many voices in the Labour Party had warned for years about the existential risks of devolution. The Scottish Labour MP Tam Dalyell once described devolution as a “motorway to Scottish independence with no exit routes”

Britain is more unequal and divided than ever before

At the time that devolution was introduced, New Labour campaigners promised that devolution would fix the problems of the United Kingdom. Giving devolved assemblies to Scotland and Wales would result in a country that was more united and less unequal.

We now have had over two decades of experience of extending devolution, and Britain is more unequal and divided than ever before. Devolution has not delivered any of the promises from its proponents in the 1990s. It has not brought the country closer together. It has not done an obviously good job in raising living standards in the devolved areas. 

Yet, Brown’s response to this mediocre record is to double down and perpetuate the same failed process. Reading the Labour constitutional reform proposals, I couldn’t help thinking of Frederick the Great’s description of the Archduchess Maria Theresa after the partition of Poland in 1772: “She cried, when she took; the more she cried, the more she took.”

Indeed, devolution has gone from a contingent political choice — which was only very narrowly accepted in Wales at all, and passed with a substantial minority of opposition within Scotland — to one which is seen as a “bedrock” principle of the British constitution. The much longer-standing principles about the sovereign power of Parliament, and the primacy of the House of Commons within it, seem to matter little to Gordon Brown.

The ability of a Commons majority to deliver radical, transformative change across the entire country was a bedrock constitutional objective of working-class reformers for decades. The British constitution offers the opportunity, rarely matched anywhere in the world, for a democratic socialist party to govern as a majority and use that power to transform society with few legal impediments. Should a government wish to nationalise industry, the banks or hospitals, a simple majority in the lower chamber should suffice.

Keir Starmer, evidently, does not see the advantages of this system. Brown’s constitutional reform package, which he endorsed, would (1) hand more power to judges, (2) threaten the primacy of the House of Commons, (3) make it harder to redistribute and plan the economy and (4) give foreign policy powers to separatists.

The Brown plan is constitutionally disastrous and internally incoherent

It isn’t clear why the UK Labour Party has become such a passionate cheerleader for the fragmentation of the welfare state. Undoubtedly, devolution creates space for policy experimentation. Decentralised tiers of government in theory could be “laboratories of democracy”, as the US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said. To the extent that they are, it is inevitably at the expense of universalism. This is evident in nearly federal systems. As the political scientist Aaron Wildavsky once proclaimed, “federalism means inequality”. It obviously does, as there would be very little point to a federal arrangement otherwise. 

Jamila Michener, a professor at Cornell University who specialises in federalism and inequality, has shown the shocking variation in healthcare provision for poor Americans thanks to the fragmentation of Medicaid policy between different state governments. A “geography of opportunity” is created, where Americans lucky enough to be born in a state with a more generous welfare regime will have longer and more prosperous lives than those whose births happened to fall on the wrong side of a state border. 

What is Labour’s response if, as a result of further devolution, regional governments start to charge residents for using NHS services? What happens when “local people” refuse to implement national housing, obey infrastructure targets, or accept immigrants and asylum seekers into their areas? What happens when devolution means that wealth gets to stay in wealthy areas, whilst poverty stays in poorer areas? These are all very serious risks of Brown’s proposals.

Labour could very easily make the argument that it believes, as a core principle, that the UK needs a strong central state to redistribute wealth and opportunity across the country, including through national economic planning and industrial strategy. Labour should be the party for ensuring a common standard of public services, not advocating for a nightmarish postcode lottery where a person in Britain might be entitled to free prescriptions in one area but pay to see a GP in another.

The Brown plan is not only constitutionally disastrous but also internally incoherent. It at once speaks in a universalist language whilst at the same time committing to structural positions which would make universalism impossible. Neil Kinnock once recognised this. In 1977, he warned that “devolution introduces demarcations and will provoke divisions which will fracture the solidarity necessary for [a strong welfare state]”.

Welsh Labour MP Leo Abse helped lead the campaign against devolution in Wales in the 1970s. Abse later reflected that the defeat of devolution was a “victory over the dangers of extreme xenophobic nationalism”. Had devolution succeeded, he believed, “Britain, constitutionally, would have been dismembered and the kingdom no longer united”. Abse predicted devolution in Wales “would fall prey to ugly chauvinist and divisive nationalist prejudices … such an exclusive patriotism was not part of the Labour movement in Wales”. He wasn’t wrong.

There is a strong left-wing case for a more “muscular” British state against the fragmenting forces of decentralisation and devolution. Yet, few in Labour seem willing to put this case across. Instead, we have the stultifying, confused constitutional orthodoxy of Gordon Brown. It dresses itself as radical but its consequences could be very reactionary indeed.

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