Scottish Labour met last weekend, its motion on the Constitutional question welcomes the Brown Commission report entitled, “A New Britain: Renewing our Democracy and Rebuilding our Economy. Report of the Commission on the UK’s Future”, on the UK constitution and wealth, which I reviewed [or on Medium] last month. I wanted to write a preview of that debate but as I did my research, my views changed, it took time to come to a conclusion and what I thought I was going to say changed. This has come from rereading the Brown Commission together with the Scottish Parliament’s page on devolved and reserved powers, and the Wikipedia pages on the Calman and Smith commissions.

In my view the motion is confused, fails to define what more powers Scotland should have and its final call to arms, could equally be made in any of the other nations of the UK. Clearly there are some in Labour who believe that the Scotland could come to be satisfied with the status quo; friends of mine suggest this cannot win in Scotland. Those in Labour who disagree clearly think a quiet unionist approach is sufficient and that the anti-tory tide will turn votes towards Labour, even in Scotland.

From my recent reading, I have come to the conclusion that if one wants a single labour market, and single monetary & fiscal policies, there’s little more devolve. The Brown Commission came up with the job centres, skills and workers’ rights, the minimum wage and a suggestion that Scotland should adopt directly elected mayors.  It’s clear that the reason the Commission found difficulty in finding more powers to devolve as its authors are committed to that single labour market and monetary & fiscal policy. While they look at tax raising powers for the Scottish Parliament, they note that these, albeit requiring Treasury permission, have never been requested. If one is committed to these common policies, either on the grounds of a superior welfare economics solution or through political commitment, then there are few powers left to give Scotland with the final say.

If one studies the current settlement and recognises the current lack of further options, then Brown’s proposals for improving the joint consultation and monitoring processes may deliver some benefit, but only if Westminster’s self-entitled and de-jure pre-eminence is undermined.

On co-operation, Brown proposes,

A new Council of the Nations and Regions, replacing the present dysfunctional Joint Ministerial Committees, based in statute and with an independent supporting secretariat, to drive joint working.

So these co-operation/consultation mechanisms exist, but we can see by observing  Cameron’s announcement of English Votes for English Laws, May & Johnson’s Sewell Convention busting, failure to effectively consult with Scotland on Brexit and Sunak’s vetoing of the Scottish Parliament’s gender recognition reform that like all UK law, there is no long term certainty as Parliament may not bind itself or its successors. Any proposals on devolution or subsidiarity have to answer the question as to how one entrenches such guarantees within the UK, as parliament as constituted cannot be bound, and any promise given can be revoked.

Fortunately, Brown, makes proposals about removing this overreaching power. His commission proposes that the UK adopt a basic law, in which individual and community rights are established, with constraints on the Government and Commons and that the second chamber be revised to act as guardians of that law, with a right of veto of laws that adversely changed this basic law. It’s clever and needed, the question is whether Labour’s leadership north and south of the border will seek allies and pursue it. Composite 7 at SLP conference doesn’t seem to recognise the opportunity, and I wonder if this is laziness or a lack of commitment. Given what policies the Labour leadership is throwing overboard, I am surprised that Scottish unionism seems to be a red line for them.

What Brown says about Scotland

The rest of this article looks at the Brown Commission’s proposals.

I was concerned that the Brown Commission proposals on devolution in England were limited in ambition because of its failure to offer long term funding guarantees and its predisposition to devolve only to Mayor led authorities which have democratic legitimacy problems, particularly if as is the case today, they are elected on a simple plurality system.

In England, Brown proposes that the Job Centre network is devolved to [large] local authorities as part of a devolution of skills investment programmes, despite being silent on FE governance, much of which has been privatised, at least in England. He talks of devolving powers on trains and buses, housing with respect to planning, licensing landlords and funding retrofitting of insulation and a trivial engagement in cultural investment. In Scotland, much of these powers already belong in Scotland. So where can a DevoMAX proposal come from.

What more can be done?

The Brown Commission’s proposals on Scotland, start on page 100 and is summarised in proposals 16 – 21.  The section on Scotland briefly summarises the current settlement. It talks up the advantages of shared power, as a bulwark against independence; an argument I fully agree with when talking about co-operation within the EU. They seem to argue that the devolution proposed in England will diminish the centralism of the Westminster parliament and government and with the proposed reform of the second chamber’s powers and mandate this may be so.  

The first proposal (16) is to entrench the devolution settlements, including establishing a new basic law for which a reformed second chamber will act as guardians.

The second (17) is that the foreign affairs reservation should be amended to permit the Scottish government, with the agreement of the Scottish Parliament, to enter into international agreements and join international bodies in relation to devolved matters. This is potentially important and useful.

In proposal 19, called, Enhanced local control, they almost propose to enforce a form of subsidiarity, pushing power as close as possible to people in Scotland. But they add that consideration should be given to establishing new forms of local and regional leadership such as directly elected mayors. There are two contradictions here, local government is a devolved matter. How can reform of Scottish local government be made through enhancing/rewriting the devolution agreements involving Westminster? It would though seem that the SNP led Scottish Government have some questions to answer on local government autonomy. The second contradiction is that regional authorities maybe as incapable of representing small communities as is a national parliament and directly elected mayors have democratic legitimacy problems due to the size of the losing minorities. The EU in which the principle of subsidiarity is embedded in the treaties, has a problem in that subsidiarity is only established between the EU and its member states. We have the same here; no-one seems to be talking about subsidiarity below the regional level.

The report argues that the allocation of powers to Scotland must be based on the principle of subsidiarity. It also notes that economic cooperation between Scotland and the rest of the UK is essential and that this cooperation is another driver for the allocation of powers between Scotland and Westminster, although one in this case that inhibits devolution and subsidiarity.

The report thus, puts a brake on its own ambitions by stating that economic cooperation between Scotland and the rest of the UK is essential and that this cooperation is another driver for the allocation of powers between Scotland and Westminster, but in this case powers that require to be shared. (This argument would also apply to cooperation with the EU, and while they quote the volume of trade between Scotland and the UK and compare it to Scotland’s EU trade, the figures for the UK and the EU are not presented. If intra-UK cooperation is good, then it is obvious that pan-continental cooperation or even cooperation within the whole of the British Isles is both desirable and superior. Some may consider that it’s not the role of a UK constitutional review to consider Brexit, the fact is, it is, together with proportional representation another blank space within this report.)

In proposal 20, “Enhanced opportunities for co-operation to mutual benefit”, they bring enhanced powers and stronger co-operation together. This is argued to be based on evidence drawn from the failures of a number of programmes executing Westminster reserve powers. The report scopes itself as concerned with UK constitutional reform but only details some very limited additional powers for the Scottish Parliament although it notes the Calman and Smith commissions and that not all of their agreed recommendations have yet been fully implemented, although it seems to me that many have, but I don’t work in Scottish public administration.

It is proposal 20, that recommends the transfer of the Job Centre network to Scotland’s local authorities. I wonder when the last time was that any politician, certainly those that served on the Brown Commission actually went into a job centre to look for a job or sign on. Job Centres are frequently seen as an organisation that punishes the out of work rather than helps them find new jobs, but at least Scotland has responsibility for education and could, potentially, turn it into a skills agency. I wonder if they plan to transfer responsibility for Jobcentre+’s staff’s Ts&Cs to Scottish local authorities.  And maybe, we should be arguing for the nationalisation or municipalisation and regulation of the private sector employment agencies. The private sector works for those that pay the fees, usually the employer and then we need to consider the agency profits and staff expense accounts. Employment agencies compete amongst themselves to fill vacancies; to get the best job candidates should register with multiple agencies which the agencies prohibit. The last person to be considered is the candidate.

Proposal 20 also talks of strengthening the co-operation mechanisms between the Westminster and Scottish regimes. For instance, workers’ rights and employee protection in Scotland is an area of split responsibility between the governments and power sharing, presumably roles and responsibilities should be explicitly and built into the new arrangement for intergovernmental working. Unionists want a single labour market, which is one reason the EU legislated for the social chapter. But the report is not recommending the extension of devolved powers. They also propose that a Scottish skills register is established, and that the Scottish Parliament can and should be able to amend the employment protection laws.

So across the 20 pages, it’s job centres and workers’ rights, the minimum wage and foisted directly elected mayors.

Perhaps I should not be so cynical, when one examines the list of partitioned powers, it may be that streamlining the consultation or co-decision-making process would help give Scotland and its people more power but recent events have shown that unless Westminster’s powers are constrained much of this can always be withdrawn. This why Brown’s proposals on reforming the constitution and giving a second chamber the power and a mandate to protect it are important.

The report, while discussing the economy, further says,

A consultation should be held over updating Scottish capital borrowing ceilings to account for changing economic circumstances, ….

If Westminster controls the debt, it controls the expenditure, although the Scottish Parliament has the right to raise further taxes with permission and has never asked for it. It would seem moot, to offer more powers when the current limited powers remain unused. It all shows the lack of clarity within Scotland’s parties and possibly the Brown Commission.

Proposal 21 also talks about investment programs and while they will give the proposed national enterprise bank a Scottish badge, power is either shared or remains in Westminster. Although a funding model based on project proposals and evaluated by a regional committee may be a powerful instrument of devolution.

It’s the economy, stupid!

While writing and researching this, I came across Scottish Parliament’s web page on reserved and devolved powers. I note that the Scottish Parliament does not describe, benefits, energy, equalities, taxation, and transport as shared, they describe them in both categories and qualified as “some aspects”.

It’s clear that the Commission found difficulty in devolving more powers as its authors are committed to a single labour market and monetary policy.  If one is committed to a single labour market, a single monetary regime, a single currency, then there are few powers left to give Scotland with the final say for them. The single currency and single monetary policy are equally driven by a need to have a single public debt. Neither Westminster party seem ready yet to devolve that to any constituent region, nation or town, mainly because of the dead hand of quantitative monetary theory. The Brown Commission shows this in 20 pages, Scottish Labour shows this in its less than one page composite although I would argue that the SLP motion shows a lack of ambition and thought, possible based on a unionist ideology located in Labours leaderships in Scotland and Westminster.

I, of course have an answer, that the UK re-joins the EU and implements superior subsidiarity agreements and work to enhance the power and accountability of the EU’s Committee of Regions although as part of our re-entry negotiations, leftists and progressives need to argue for the democratisation of macro-economic policy; it is currently pickled in the aspic of the stability and growth treaty, itself floating on a gravy of quantitative monetary theory. If the UK was in the EU, the common labour market becomes moot, as do the other three freedoms, good, services and capital. I am unsure what would happen to the demand for independence, but making it happen would be a whole lot less disruptive.

Having written this as a review of Labour’s views and options, it’s important to recognise that Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the SNP has stood down and it seems that no matter who replaces her, how the Scots pursue their campaign for independence will change.

Labour and Devolution
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