Gordon Brown is right, the work on a more sustainable settlement for the UK must begin the day after a prospective No vote – the status quo is morally and politically indefensible. As has been much noted, an overwhelming number of Scots are in favour of more powers for the Scottish Parliament. If the desire for autonomy under a common unionist structure is not accommodated, it will only push more Scots into the nationalist camp. We must not simply win this referendum battle; we must win the peace with a settlement that will provide constitutional stability.
Some of the more sophisticated proponents of a Yes vote have come to their conclusion because they are federalists, but don’t believe their vision of a genuinely federal UK can come to pass. They desire a pluralistic localism, often having very visceral disagreements with it Westminster’s opaque power structures, such as a lack of movement on House of Lords reform. Iain McWhirter argues that the Unionist parties’ proclamation that they will devolve more powers is an “agreement to disagree” – that there will not be any meaningful devo-max worthy of the name.
This is a profound misreading.
Whilst in many respects, a perfect federal settlement may well be beyond grasp for some time, a meaningful, functional federalism is possible. Gordon Brown is not entirely Yesterday’s Man. In 2010 he won a clear majority amongst Scots and is still wildly popular amongst the grassroots of Scottish Labour. The former boss of potentially the next prime minister could be very influential under a Miliband Government. And Gordon isn’t a lone voice, Carwyn Jones the Welsh First Minister has been a loud exponent of federalism.
The power of these voices in a future UK administration is only likely to be amplified further by a precarious grasp on a majority. Federalism is the explicit party policy of the Liberal Democrats, following the recommendation of Menzies Campbell’s Home Rule commission. The outcome of a minority Labour government or a Lib-Lab coalition would have strong voices within it to revisit devolution with an eye to federalism.
It is true that the Scottish parties have not agreed precisely on the powers to be devolved, but nor had they agreed precisely on what powers to devolve during the devolution debates of the ‘90s. Disagreement on the terms is no barrier towards having the debate and progressing towards a federal settlement most are happy with.
But what are the costs of “federalism within one nation”? It could well mean the election of a Tory government in England which has been promising to repeal the HRA and leave the EU and ECHR.
Concurrent with a necessary desire for localised autonomy are ever greater cross-border challenges that can best be tackled with a political apparatus set to co-operation and not competition; increased globalisation and the ability of companies to pop their HQs across a border for lower corporation taxes; climate change; the promotion of a Europe-wide Human Rights framework. All of these are better solved with Scottish votes in Westminster and is folly to believe independence can shield us from their consequences.
We should heed Brown’s call.