It is too early to say that Britain is breaking up, but we can say already that it is breaking down
– Gordon Brown (ex-Prime Minister)
The problem we, the ordinary people of this country, have is that our understanding of events is limited – and must be so given the nature and frequency of those events. What do we really know about the assassination of President Kennedy or the death of Princess Diana or of the alleged drug taking of President Trump? It does not stop us having set views on such matters though and, sometimes, we develop quite fixed and intransigent opinions even if we know little of the substance of the subject.
To an extent, great or otherwise, we rely on politicians to delve into matters and produce facts around which views can be formed. The worrying aspect of this is that politicians, even faced with facts and having carried out (one presumes!) research on events, within themselves cultivate so many opinions – ranging from the extreme right to the extreme left with all stops in-between.
Currently there are four major issues facing the people of the United Kingdom; we have COVID-19 and its effects on our society, we have the effects of leaving the European Union, we have the potential break-up of the United Kingdom and, finally and most importantly, we have the over-riding effects of global warming – an effect that links to the other three issues.
But let us take only one issue, that one of saving (or, otherwise) the United Kingdom. As my colleague Gerry Hassan suggested in his thoughtful piece a few weeks ago, the article that Gordon Brown wrote on the subject in the New Statesman
was fundamentally flawed. Like the New Statesman
itself, for example (and, yes, that is a value judgement).
Once upon a time, the New Statesman
was a socialist magazine. That, perhaps, requires another digression as to exactly what is meant by socialist. To a Mega Hat wearer, it is the epitome of everything evil; a freedom inhibiting, heavy taxing, over-centralised and over-bureaucratised system; to a leftie, it is the first step to heaven on earth. That is the problem with attaching labels; labels mean different things to different people. Even household goods can have that effect; you see an expensive foreign butter and you associate it with quality and good health; someone else sees the same butter and baulks at the price of an imported item when we produce good quality butter ourselves.
The New Statesman
now brings about the same response. When it was founded (in 1913) it was done so by the socialist supporting Fabian Society – notably, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and one George Bernard Shaw. The magazine was indisputably socialist and sought such things as universal health care and the taking into public ownership of much of the infrastructure of the country. It has since come to boast a long line of distinguished writers, including such as John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf and, more up-to-date, John Pilger: all whom were unmistakeably on the left of the political spectrum.
Today, the magazine belongs to the liberal, chattering classes; advertising has taken over as its main revenue source; only the excellent pieces by Doctor Phil Whitaker, although he only confines himself to health matters and the state of the NHS, connects to its socialist roots.
But, back to Gordon Brown (and, boy, does not the Scottish Labour Party need someone like him to lead them now?). I also have believed it would have been better for the country had he taken over immediately as Prime Minister before Tony Blair did – there was a possibility of that happening at the time: we may then have reversed some of the Thatcher era changes and not become involved in the Gulf War. However, to the points Brown makes concerning the United Kingdom to stay united:
He portrays his arguments as 'pillars'; a term, in itself, suggesting strength and durability – and there are four he puts forward. Any unionist, who would expect from this to find strong reasons in support of keeping the United Kingdom united will, however, be disappointed; rather, the points Brown makes are all matters that do need attended to within the present structure which, if carried out (and that is doubtful) would certainly enhance the UK but not necessarily remove the case for Scotland to go on its own.
Brown's writing style is a little convoluted and it is necessary to re-read his points (at least, I had to) in order to clarify exactly what he is suggesting. He wants:
1. A more devolved Britain with greater regional powers.
2. A council of the regions which would bring more locals into the decision-making process (similar, I assume, as to what they have in Norway).
3. The replacing of the House of Lords with a 'Senate of the Nations'. This body would allow smaller regions as well as the nations of the union to be heard.
4. A new UK constitution to be drawn-up.
I suspect that Brown's ideas, worthy as they may be, are too little, too late. They are also complicated, and grasping the full implications of each step would take quite a degree of understanding and, certainly, each step would be fought tooth and nail by the existing, conservative, establishment. Disappointingly, perhaps, Brown does not challenge some of the assumptions of the SNP as regards independence and the type of independence that party appears to be currently set upon. Nevertheless, there is nothing in Brown's suggestions that is basically inimical to the setting up of a federated United Kingdom except that there would be no overriding central government in such – admittedly quite a difference.
Or, is it? A federated system would allow each nation to decide their own form of democracy. It would keep the frontiers open and allow trade and people to freely pass between the nations – and to work and live wherever amongst those nations they would wish to; also, there would be co-operation on defence and financial matters between the countries. Some of Brown's ideas, particularly with respect to regional power, could be developed within Scotland where, I suspect, they would receive a warmer welcome than in the UK as a whole and Scotland need not be troubled by an obsolete House of Lords (although that would not preclude a second legislative chamber for Scotland).
Yes, it would also mean ruling out membership of the European Union for Scotland and that would have implications for our trade with that body; but we do £40 billion with the rest of the UK and 'only' £12 billion with the EU. The UK is far more important (we would not lose all that £12 billion though). Again, there would have to be some compromises with the other nations of the UK − but no country can be completely self-contained.
There are a lot of implications to digest in a federal arrangement but we would then be able to select the type of Scotland we wanted, socialist or other: and we would have only ourselves to blame if we messed up.
Bill Paterson is a writer based in Glasgow