The ‘F’ Word’s Back?: Gordon Brown’s Far From Final Federalist Fantasy

Just over a year ago, I was working in Peterborough at a heritage site. I became very good friends with the events officer there, Laura, and one night while talking, I mentioned in passing the Scottish independence referendum. She looked quite blank, so I expanded a little, and she said ‘well, given that I did not have a say in whether or not it happened…’. I was kind of dumbstruck – and made sure not to raise any similar topics of conversation again while I worked with her.

Which brings me to Gordon Brown. A nation dejectedly sighs today upon hearing the news that he will be making yet another ‘shock’ intervention tomorrow – a warning has been issued that he may well be mentioning his pet ‘F’ word.

That’s right – his fantasy. A federalist UK. A hoary old chestnut with no apparent expiry date. The benefit of deploying the idea of federalism, is that it never goes out of date, in that special, special way of ‘an idea whose time will never come’ has. That is not to say that it is not an idea whose time COULD have come. But we are kind of late for it now.

The problem that Federalism has – as much as it is an attractive idea – is that there will never be a political will to support it coming into play. The time to do it, would have been at the time of Union, when the English Parliament was supposed to be dissolved along with the Scottish, and a new parliament formed. In effect, this did not happen – a series of Scottish seats were added to the English parliament, vastly outnumbered, so that there was no chance of a ‘Scottish voting bloc’ ever being more than a protest group gesture against the settled will of the English members of parliament. The UK as it stands is very used to this arrangement, and anything that would alter the mass hegemony of the English parliament would not be taken seriously.

Why would any Westminster political party vote for such a thing? The Conservatives – who are about to gain unitary control of the state for some years – have no interest in giving more weight to the other countries in the UK, and neither does Labour. Gordon Brown was a back-bench Labour MP (the designation of ‘former Prime Minister’ is utterly irrelevant) when he first started spouting federalism anew: ‘home rule’ was Keir Hardie’s founding objective for the Labour Party, he would remind us…while neatly avoiding the point that it is further away as a possibility now than it was a century ago. So – good job on fasttracking that one, Labour Party. The LibDems who favoured federalism made some serious headway over many years to become the third party – and then promptly blew their credibility and electorate the first chance they got as a coalition. In short, it may be a very long time to hold one’s breath before any of the three Unionist parties make any serious (and unopposed) moves to introduce federalism.

Therefore, it is always worth ignoring entirely anyone who comes out with lines such as “We’re going to be, within a year or two, as close to a federal state as you can be in a country where one nation is 85% of the population.” (Gordon Brown, 15/8/2014). Which brings me back to Laura: remember that – unlike independence – devolution or federalism or home rule all have to be agreed with the rest of the UK. This is why the UK could vote unilaterally to leave the European Union – but would require the agreement of all member states to change its relationship within the EU. In the UK, any change of relationship has to be approved by the rest of the UK – in other words, the English Parliament still has the final say…and with polls indicating that English voters regard the loss of the Union with Scotland as a price worth paying to secure BrExit, it seems unlikely that there will be much interest in ‘reforming’ the UK relationship in order to retain Scotland.

Almost 3 years on from Gordon’s confident assertion that he was about to deliver Keir Hardie’s dream (and how quickly that began to unravel), and after the conclusion of the roadblock that the Smith Commission became, it seems clear that ‘as close as you can be’ means ‘not very close at all’. What is surprising is that there really appears to be no further room for movement – after the referendum was the time to ‘win the peace’, and yet heels were dug in (particularly by Labour – Gordon’s party) to refuse some of the most meagre of further devolved powers. That would have been the time to move in that direction, to heal the dissatisfaction, and have at least some political support from the public of the UK to do so. Instead, that became The Path Not Chosenso it is clear that if Scotland wants anything further (as some of us were saying 3 years ago – but undeniably so now) then it is independence: there is nothing else that will be put on the table…and even that option will not be willingly allowed on the table as an option, as witnessed by Theresa May’s impression of General De Gaulle’s 1967 “Non” to Britain entering the Common Market ( ) with her strong and stable repetition of “Now is not the time”.

Any ‘new deal’ can only be independence – the British state has gone as far as it is willing to go. For the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the Labour Party may well regret (fide Eric Joyce) their rejection of the enhanced devolution option from the ballot paper – the consequent of swing of some 20% behind independence has made people warm to the idea in a way that they would mostly not have if the greater devolution option had been there to choose, as it was the most popular option in pre-referendum polling. Now that so many have warmed to the idea of independence, it has now made it impossible to put that genie back in the bottle: the enhanced devolution option (‘sometimes discussed as ‘DevoMax’ – the devolution of all powers save defence and immigration) could be introduced to a ballot paper now, but noone would be fooled that it meant anything. We are in the heart of a centralising UK that looks likely to strip away more powers from all the devolved governments in the state – not redistributing more powers outwards. The DevoMax ship has sailed.

Of course, tomorrow Gordon may shock the assembled BBC fan club by not advocating a federalist UK option now – but he most certainly will do so (mortality permitting) during the run-up to the next Scottish independence referendum in 2018/2019. It is all he has got left to say to Scotland.

Just remember that there is no political will in England for it – so it will never ever happen.


“Essentially [in Westminster] you’ve got a government of England, governing the UK – and there is no hope of that changing.” (Eric Joyce, former Labour MP, 8/3/2017)

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