Against a background of spiralling inflation, an energy crisis, the NHS in meltdown, falling educational standards, soaring drug deaths and a lack of affordable housing, your average voter in Scotland may have thought last Monday was an inappropriate time for Sir Keir Starmer to launch a major new paper on sweeping constitutional reform. Arguing that a massive transfer of power away from Westminster to the rest of the UK would release hundreds of millions of pounds annually and transform the economy, the Labour leader claimed that if he wins the next general election he will build ‘A New Britain.’ Joined by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has spent the past two years working on the bulky 155-page report commissioned by the Labour Party, Keir Starmer pledged that he would “clean up politics”, devolve more powers to the Scottish Parliament and abolish the House of Lords. Notwithstanding his barn-storming speech at the launch of the document, the Labour leader admitted that the issues were all out to consultation to decide which policies, if any, would appear in a future Labour manifesto.

Like the curate’s egg, the Labour document is good in parts. The idea of electing provosts in Scotland’s 32 local authorities, would drag local government into the 21st century, creating a powerbase at the heart of communities, providing councils with a strong voice. But this concept, given that local government is a devolved subject in Scotland, would require the consent of the Scottish government. Unless Labour can somehow drag itself back into a pre-eminent electoral position in Scotland at the next general election, then the idea is likely to get short shrift from the SNP/Green coalition, who want to keep all the power to themselves.

Similarly, abolishing the House of Lords, an institution which Starmer describes as “indefensible”, is an idea that has been floated by Labour for decades. Pulling the plug on the ever-swelling ranks of ermine-clad party hacks, wealthy donors, dodgy entrepreneurs and trade union barons, would chime with some members of the public. But the creation of jobs and growth and clawing our way back to economic stability after two years of Covid lockdowns, burgeoning strikes and Putin’s war in Ukraine, may be higher on people’s agenda than scrapping the Lords. A small, elected upper chamber, as recommended by Gordon Brown, may sound appealing until you examine the political paralysis such a system has created in America. Surely setting an upper limit to the overall number of lords, dumping the hereditary peers and the archbishops and bishops, who have no relevance in our modern, diverse and multi-cultural society, would suffice?

Acutely aware of the need to bolster Labour’s Scottish representation at Westminster if he is ever to form a Labour government, Keir Starmer has clearly asked Gordon Brown to prioritise plans for Scotland in his report. So, proposals to provide the Scottish government with extra foreign affairs powers and the right to sign up to international agreements such as the EU’s Erasmus student exchange scheme, sound interesting. However, giving extra borrowing powers to Holyrood is simply pandering to Nicola Sturgeon’s constant whine that she doesn’t have enough influence over key financial levers. The SNP/Green coalition government already has massive control over the main domestic institutions and it would be a grave mistake to salami-slice further powers away from London, as suggested by Gordon Brown. To do so simply weakens the union further, making us more vulnerable to the nationalists. 

Providing a “solidarity clause” that will require each of the UK’s governments to work together, is a no-brainer. It is not a new idea, however. Michael Gove, in his role as Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, previously suggested the creation of a permanent Union Commission, tasked with sustaining the union, with four key sections covering the single market, fiscal benefits, control of key local institutions and joint UK international actions. He has always argued that direct links should be established between the UK government and key Scottish institutions. Likewise, Sir Keir’s idea to transfer 50,000 civil service jobs and more government agencies out of London, is far from revolutionary. Indeed, a pledge to move 22,000 civil service jobs out of London by 2030 appeared in the last Conservative manifesto.

The central theme in Gordon Brown’s proposals for ‘A New Britain’ is to promote change within Britain - rather than breaking up the UK. This, he says, will provide an alternative to people in Scotland who favour independence. He may be right. But throwing sops to the separatists is a dangerous strategy of appeasement. Churchill famously said that “An appeaser is someone who feeds the crocodile hoping that it will eat him last. But eat him it will.” The SNP/Green crocodile will gobble up every new power devolved to them from Westminster. But it will never be enough. They want devolution to fail. Independence and the breakup of the UK is their sole objective. It is naïve to think otherwise. Scotland already has one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world. The SNP have been in power for 15 years and yet Nicola Sturgeon has published a document suggesting that Scotland could be ‘Happier, Healthier and Fairer’ if it became independent. Why, after fifteen years of SNP rule is Scotland not a happier, healthier and fairer country? The SNP need to be honest with Scottish voters over what independence would really mean. They must stop the pretence that independence would come without any discernible hardship. Secession would mean a loss to Scotland of billions annually. It would mean a trade barrier with the rest of our key UK market and monetary dislocation on a huge scale. Scotland would suffer austerity and economic hardship for a decade or more. To pretend otherwise is dishonest. 

Instead of major constitutional upheavals, the UK government should highlight the positive advantages of the union. It is hard to imagine a political union with another country that could be more advantageous, with our nationhood retained, political control over domestic essentials retained, sovereignty shared and international influence enhanced. We must re-emphasize the importance of access to the UK single market where we do 63% of our trade, more than we do with the rest of the world combined. Feeding the nationalist crocodile will never stop it from eating us.