Gordon Brown's calls for British governance "reform" come as the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) outlines a route map for a second independence referendum - with or without Prime Minister Boris Johnson's approval – after its projected win in next May’s Scottish Parliament elections. Independence sentiment also appears to be on the rise in Northern Ireland, where 51% were in favour of holding a referendum on a united Ireland within the next five years, while in Wales 31% backed an independence plebiscite, according to a Sunday Times poll. On the top of it, all four UK nations believe that Scotland may break away in the next decade.
Brown's Proposals Too Little, Too Late
"Brown demonstrated over the years that he is a passionate unionist and he played a major role in defeating the Scottish independence referendum in 2014," says Dr. Donnacha O'Beachain, associate professor at the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. "As a Scottish prime minister of the UK, his words carried significant weight in the campaign to keep Scotland in the Union. The fact that Brown now maintains that the disintegration of the UK is a real risk demonstrates how widespread and deeply rooted dissatisfaction is with the status quo."
Among other measures aimed at restoring trust in UK political institutions, Brown is calling for replacing the House of Lords with a "senate" which would represent the country's regions and minorities. He argues that "no country can have national integration without political inclusion". The politician also urges Boris Johnson to deliver on the latter's promise to set up a commission on democracy to review the way the UK is governed, forecasting that the commission "will discover that the UK urgently needs a Forum of Nations and Regions that brings them and Boris Johnson together on a regular basis".
Some of the proposals that Gordon Brown is suggesting are relatively sensible and rational ones but they are too little and too late, according to Laura McAllister, professor of public policy at the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University. She suggests that "any kind of drive towards federalism" currently recommended by Brown and Labour in general, seems to be "a case of slamming the stable door once the horse has bolted" given the Scottish nationalists apparent win in May and growing support for independence within the region following Brexit. In 2016, the people of Scotland voted to remain within the European Union.
"Were these proposals to have been on the agenda, maybe before the Scottish independence referendum or even earlier, and once it was clear that devolution was operating in a rather flawed manner, then there would have been potential for discussing federalism," she says.
The devolution system – a statutory granting of a greater level of self-government to the region's parliaments – probably isn't strong enough to keep the union together, according to the academic. She notes that being "asymmetrical" it has always been "a bit of a sticking plaster system": the powers of the Welsh Senate differ from the powers of the Scottish Parliament or the Northern Irish Assembly. McAllister does not believe that further devolution, or "devolution max" also known as a “full fiscal autonomy” model can save the day for the UK. According to her, a lot depends on how Scotland's independence bid will play out as it may trigger a domino effect across the country.
The fabric of the UK's society is bursting at the seams with the people increasingly self-identifying as English, Scottish, Welsh or (Northern) Irish instead of "British", agrees O'Beachain. "For many, being 'British' is no longer an authentic 'imagined community'", he says. "If there is no 'British people' the logic of a British state dissolves".
Are Flaws in the UK Political System to Blame for the Surge in Independence Sentiment?
Still, O'Beachain does not think that the independence movements in Scotland and Northern Ireland "can be attributed to flaws in the institutional design of the Westminster model". Actually, the problem is stemming from "competing nation-state building projects within the UK" which are now "colliding with unprecedented force".
"When Tony Blair facilitated devolution two decades ago, he believed he was suppressing secessionism rather than stimulating it," the academic presumes. "The same misguided optimism motivated David Cameron’s permission for an independence referendum in 2014. Brexit was among other things an expression of English nationalism and it re-invigorated debates about Scottish independence and Irish unity."
Laura McAllister holds a different stance, suggesting that the flaws of the UK's political system have indeed contributed to the growth of independence movements across the UK. She notes that "there is a real dive in public trust in political institutions" in the country, adding that Brexit and COVID have had a substantial impact on the Union.
"Brexit has altered the balance of relationships between the four nations of the United Kingdom - some would say irrevocably, or fatally, depending on your perspective", the academic notes, suggesting that membership of the EU "was the glue or the adhesive that kept the nations together in many respects".
On the other hand, Britain's fight against the coronavirus pandemic has become "a real uplift in people's understanding of devolution" with different regions handling the outbreak in a different way because decisions on lockdowns, on businesses, on public health, on school closures were are all devolved issues, according to her. As a result, polls showed that the public approval of regional governments' actions remained high while Boris Johnson's indicators plummeted, the professor notes.
Will the Royal Commission on Democracy Help Fix the Problem?
Meanwhile, Scottish newspaper The Herald reported on 22 January that Johnson is apparently considering "setting up a Royal Commission on the UK constitution, which could look, among other things, at Scotland’s place within the Union", citing senior Tory insiders.
"The commission would seem to be an attempt to buy time for the UK Government," believes O'Beachain. "It’s standard practice when seeking to avoid discussion on thorny issues to say that one cannot discuss the matter right now as one doesn’t wish to interfere with, or prejudge the outcome of, a government-sponsored commission."
For her part, McAllister struggles to see how the commission idea would work because there are so many competing problems and competing solutions and differences of opinion: "I think it's a valid and respected approach, but I fail to see how it would function in practice," she says.
As the annual Edelman UK Trust barometer has reported a dramatic overall collapse in public trust in both British political leaders and Britain’s institutions, McAllister believes that the trend is not something unique for the UK and is separate in some regards to the devolution and independence issues.
"There's no doubt that our governance requires fundamental reform," she says. "[But] if you look across Europe, there's been a plunge in support for political leaders and institutions, including the US, for that matter. And I think that's partly to do with COVID, and partly to do with general populism and easy solutions when we know that politics is not as easy as that to deal with. So let's not exceptionalise the UK in that respect."
O'Beachain agrees that erosion of trust is a broader European phenomenon that took place over time. According to him, globalisation "has eroded the guarantees and expectations of what the state can provide and produced a large cohort of economically vulnerable citizens susceptible to those offering easy solutions".