There is a threat to the Union, Gordon, and it’s you
As he comes close to achieving, at least until the next election, his long-term ambition to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown has woken up to the possibility that the UK might break up. So he has issued a ringing call to support the Union. Sadly he does not realise that he is himself a major part of the problem.
To paraphrase a comment which a fellow-unionist once made about Ian Paisley, Gordon Brown has been and remains a bigger threat to the union than the SNP, Welsh nats, and the European Union rolled into one.
This is not because he is a Scot representing a Scottish seat. Labour, Liberal and Conservative prime ministers in the past have represented Scottish seats without generating a desire for independence on the part of either Scotland or England. It is because he is a control freak, and because he continues to attack any measure which might move us to a proper federal system.
All of Britain benefited greatly in the past from the Union. As someone who is part English and part Scot, with an Irish wife and a Welsh uncle, my own family embodies what the different parts of the British isles have in common, and I was sorry not to see more celebration this week of the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union between England and Scotland. But the country needs to move forward rather than back and recognise the reality of the world as it is today. English, Scots, Welsh and many Irish have in common that they will support retaining the United Kingdom if it benefits them and is seen to give a fair share of attention to their concerns. But if the union is seen to be operated on unfair terms, people will turn against it.
In the 90’s many Scots turned against the union when they perceived that the Poll Tax had been imposed on them against their wishes before it was implemented in England. Now many English people are turning against the Blair version of devolution because of outrageous injustices such as the imposition of top-up fees for students. In both cases the problem was a perceived lack of accountability, where policies were imposed on part of the UK by representatives elected by another part of Britain who were not accountable in an even-handed way to those affected by their decisions.
At a risk of labouring the point, it is unacceptable that Labour’s system can produce outcomes like the vote on top-up fees for English students. All major parties had indicated at the previous election that they would not support them. Charges for students in Scotland are the responsibility of Scottish devolved bodies, and those bodies decided not to add any equivalent of top-up fees to the Graduate Levy which is the Scottish equivalent of student tuition fees. Yet those fees were imposed on English students, by five votes, thanks to the vast majority of Labour MPs representing seats in Scotland. If all Labour MPs from Scotland had abstained the measure would have fallen by 36 votes.
Regardless of the merits of top-up-fees, in no part of the UK was there either an electoral mandate for them, or a majority of members of the relevant parliament who were prepared to vote to impose top-up fees on their own voters. They were imposed on English students only because of Scots MPs for whose constituents the devolved assembly had made other arrangements.
If student financial support had been treated as a UK wide issue, and if the Scots MPs who supported it had voted the same way when their own constituents were affected, the top-up fees would have been imposed on everyone. I don’t believe that would have been the right decision, but it would at least have been fair. If it had been treated as a decision for constituent countries within the UK, top-up fees would have been voted down in Scotland by the devolved bodies, and in England by representatives elected by England. That would have been both right and fair.
What did happen is that top-up fees were imposed on the majority of Britain by Labour MPs representing the minority. I blame the Labour party, not the Scots, for this but it is quite intolerable.
This was not the only similar instance. Scots Labour MPs also voted through foundation hospitals for England despite the fact that the Scottish Executive had rejected them for Scotland. But it was the top-up fees issue which has created deep and abiding anger with the present constitutional settlement among many English people who previously were strong supporters of the union. It has guaranteed that the present constitution will not long survive the present government. The question is whether we establish a fair, workable and modern system to replace it, or hide from the issue and wait for the UK to collapse.
I don’t believe the genie of devolution can be put back in the bottle. We have to work out a fair and even-handed system of devolved government based on equal citizenship. Regional assemblies in England are not the answer for two reasons: the first is that most English people don’t want them, the second is that they would only redress the balance if you gave them the same powers as the Scots Parliament and nobody is proposing to do that.
This point must not be made in an anti-Scottish way. Many Scots are embarrassed by what their MPs did to English students. But what we need is a system in which some issues, an obvious example being Defence, are designated UK-wide issues and dealt with by MPs elected by the entire UK, while other issues such as local government should be designated as issues for the constituent countries and dealt with in each part of the UK by representatives elected by and accountable to those countries.
Until Gordon Brown recognises this and joins a meaningful debate on how to move forward, he will remain part of the problem for the Union, not part of the solution.