Gordon Brown shows Lib Dems must go further on federalism

I went to see a speech by Gordon Brown on the future of Scotland on Thursday evening. Given the current state of Scottish politics I might well have expected an impassioned attack on the SNP and a confident denunciation of independence.

Instead he was remarkably conciliatory on nationalism, given the past positions of the Labour party. He came out as a third-questioner – the never-offered option that has consistently found majority support. He called for a constitutional convention to address what he sees as the big issue in British politics – the ability of England to dominate politics due to its sheer size. He set out the case for special protections for the smaller nations, like in almost every other devolved country. He believed that Scots want something “as close as possible to federalism”.

He made no attacks on the SNP and even gave them some backhanded praise – surely their support for keeping the pound means they realise that the UK is a natural economic grouping? Instead he attacked the Tories – for cutting welfare and playing politics with EVEL – what other country gives special protection to the majority over the minority? The ìVowî was at risk of being broken he warned; Westminster may yet maintain a veto over key welfare powers.

This was a speech with a broad reach – emphasising the economic advantages of the United Kingdom yet acknowledging the very real desires for further powers in Scotland. It made clear that constitutional reform and devolution still have a way to go. This was a speech that could reach out to Yes and No voters alike – a combination of local powers with national and international solidarity that would appeal to all but the most hardened nationalist and the most fervent unionist. Itís the best post-referendum speech Iíve heard from a senior politician on the unionist side.

But why did it fall to a former Labour Prime Minister to make a passionate case for a Scotland with more powers? From the level of support for the SNP it is clear that the Smith powers are not satisfying enough Scots; there is a desire, a need, to go further and faster. Yet we as a party of Home Rule, of federalism seem to have decided the Smith Commission marks a final end point for Scottish devolution – why is our leader not championing further power for Scotland that can deliver liberal outcomes?

We cannot allow Labour alone to reach out to those who voted for independence. There are hundreds of thousands of liberally-minded Yes voters in Scotland; millions for whom Home Rule / Devo Max / Federalism is their natural first choice. We spend our time attacking the SNP, hoping that one blow out twenty will land a hit. We try and out-union the Conservative and Unionist Party. Instead we must engage with the majority of Scots who want more power for Scotland; we need to talk passionately, openly and consistently about how our plans for greater powers can deliver a better, more liberal Scotland. If we donít, our remaining political territory may be lost for good.

* Robbie Simpson is a PhD student based in Glasgow and was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill in May 2015

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8 Comments

  • Graham Evans 11th Oct '15 - 9:37am

    I think it was the right wing Tory MP Edward Leigh who said during the debate on the Scottish Bill that Westminster should devolve the maximum amount of fiscal autonomy, and particularly tax raising powers to Edinburgh, because anything less will still give the SNP the opportunity to claim that all Scotland’s problems are the fault of Westminster. The SNP will never be satisfied with anything less than full independence, but the unionists parties, including the LDs, should in effect adopt the federalist model and restrict UK taxation, in so far as it affects Scotland, to those issues, such as defence, which are genuinely UK wide. Labour will find it hard to accept that a sort of post code lottery is an inevitable consequence of Scottish devolution. LDs should however not be afraid to accept that some parts of the UK have different priorities in terms of government spending than others.

  • The Lib Dems simply need an *actual policy* on federalism. That’s what all this boils down to. Instead, we leave it up to Gordon Brown or others to present a vision of a future UK. We call for a Constitutional Convention but we haven’t actually developed any form of concrete proposals to *put to* that Convention or to the electorate at a Genernal Election. No policies, just hot air. We have talked the talk about federalism but have done nothing about.it. We haven’t got a firm policy on English regions vs an English Parliament (although I hope it’s obvious that we prefer the former). None of the parties had an answer to the Scottish Referendum and were left scrabbling for last-minute vows, which made us all look stupid.

    Liberal Democrats should have had a model constitution for the UK – or at least the bare bones of one – as a pre-emptive answer so that when the fallout from the Referendum began we could shout from the rooftops waving our policies. But no….

    We need a federal policy not just for the English but also one that inspires, reaches out to and satisfies Scots of all persuasion. This is the sort of policy that we should have known we would need after September 2014.

  • Richard Underhill 11th Oct '15 - 11:15am

    The SNP leader said on the Andrew Marr Show on 12/10/2015 that she does want to start to use the powers, such as to vary income tax, when the economic conditions are right, so presumably not in the year before the Holyrood elections.
    The far-sighted Charles Kennedy addressed a fringe meeting at Glasgow conference in 2013, jointly with the S of S, and made the case for full federalism. He blamed Tony Blair personally for giving the the task to John Prescott, who failed.

  • Shaun Cunningham 11th Oct '15 - 12:32pm

    Why the stampede to give the SNP more power? One needs to put the brakes on. The SNP keeps reminding us they are in charge of Scotland yet the Scottish economy is not actually in the fast lane is it?

    We should wait until the SNP demonstrates they can run an economy with some fiscal credibility without blaming others for their financial Ills.

    The Scottish people should recognise, and many do, they voted to stay within the United Kingdom. We should stop encouraging them in believing their problems is all down to us lot South of the border. The SNP may not like the Treaty (or Act) of Union, 1707 but it has served them well.

  • @Richard Underhill

    “The SNP leader said on the Andrew Marr Show on 12/10/2015 that she does want to start to use the powers, such as to vary income tax, when the economic conditions are right, so presumably not in the year before the Holyrood elections.”

    The new powers will not come into effect before the Holyrood elections. The current tax varying powers only allow the SG to vary the the basic rate.

  • @Shaun Cunningham

    Scotland is the third most prosperous part of the UK measured by GVA per capita (excluding NS oil) after London and SE England. So it looks like your conditions for giving more powers to Scotland have been met.

  • Allan Heron 12th Oct '15 - 9:00am

    Michael is correct – we need to develop a fuller federal proposal, including the written constitution which is a fundamental part of it.

    So many people talk about federalism without mentioning a written constitution. If this is not present then it is not federalism, however much any institutions look similar.

    This also needs to be part of a solution for the United Kingdom. It can’t just be something to deal with Scotland (or Wales or Northern Ireland for that matter.

    These things are not, as some people seem to think, somehow inevitable. We’re not going to stumble onto a written constitution through the almost random process of governance reform that we have in this country.

    The Liberal Democrats need to decide if their commitment is real enough to put flesh on the bones of a real federal structure. It really is time, to use an old Richard Nixon phrase, to piss or get off the pot.

  • Never mind Federalism if the vow is not delivered in full or there is a Brexit of the EU then I can see Gordon Brown coming around to supporting Scotland’s Independence and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he might even become the Ceremonial Head of State for an Indpendent Scotland and Nicola Sturgeon would be the First Minister of an Independent Scotland.

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