Brown takes up Labour call for Brexit to loosen the Union

A couple of weeks ago this column reported on the latest moves by Carwyn Jones, the First Minister of Wales, to steer Labour towards ‘federalism’ in the wake of Brexit.

Couched in pro-UK language, his proposals seem to harbour a horror of ‘British government’, seeking instead to replace it with quadrilateral councils of the Home Nations.

Now Kezia Dugdale, his Scottish counterpart and another enthusiast for federalism, and Gordon Brown have joined Jones in Cardiff to launch an official Labour enquiry into the subject.

Jones repeated his claim that a UK ‘internal single market’ will require lots of new structures to operate, when it could simply have the rules set at the national level by the British Government.

That common decision making in our united Parliament should be so anathema to politicians who insist they want to strengthen the bonds between the British is puzzling – especially in light of NatCen’s eye-opening discovery that a strong majority of Scots back a common UK approach to Brexit and share Theresa May’s priorities over those of Nicola Sturgeon.

Such a focus is particularly baffling since any new powers accrued by Westminster will come from Brussels – where all three Labour figures wish they could remain – rather than diminishing any of the actual powers the devolved governments already have.

Britain already has some of the most powerful sub-state legislatures on earth. Bringing the British back together means restoring confidence in British institutions – precisely what Jones, Brown, and Dugdale seem to be striving to avoid in their bid for “a more decentralised UK”.

It’s no surprise therefore to find Leanne Wood, the leader of the Welsh Nationalists, parroting Brown’s view that Brexit might leave Wales with a “puppet parliament”.

As I’ve explained before, ‘federalism’ is simply a new word for the same “more powers!” orthodoxy which has been failing the Union for some time. For Scottish Labour it’s a bid to find a split-the-difference panacea to their constitutional miseries; for Jones it’s about riding the nationalist tiger; and for Brown it’s the latest attempt to submit a second draft of his place in history.

If the Prime Minister really wants to strengthen the United Kingdom, then she must revive a waning Westminster. Brexit is her chance.

Brokenshire insists that restoring devolution to Ulster is still his focus

The Northern Irish Secretary has insisted that the British Government remains focused on restoring devolved government to the province as soon as possible, the News Letter reports.

James Brokenshire was speaking yesterday during day two of a ten-day window of extra time as the local parties try to find a deal that will prevent the restoration of ‘direct rule’.

Arlene Foster, the former First Minister, has reportedly described the first meetings of party leaders as ‘constructive’, but there’s no sign of a deal yet.

One stumbling block is likely Foster herself: having (just) clung on to pole position during last month’s calamitous snap election, the Democratic Unionists are guaranteed the First Ministry. But she is deeply embroiled in the ‘cash for ash’ scandal that collapsed the previous Executive.

Foster standing aside might make a deal easier to reach – but it would also make March’s electoral disaster entirely pointless, which would be a very bitter pill to swallow.

The original deadline has already passed. If Brokenshire really wants to save devolution in the long term he must not be over-generous with the extra time now. A credible threat of direct rule may inject some urgency into the negotiators, most of whom draw salaries from Stormont. Endlessly pushing that reckoning back will only hurt the Government’s credibility.

Is the Scottish Government looking for a way to defy May over indyref2?

According to the Daily Record the Scottish Government may be gearing up to try to have some sort of referendum without Westminster’s permission.

John Curtice argues that it may be possible for the SNP to find a form of words sufficiently convoluted that it might not breach the statutory limits on Holyrood’s authority. He provides an example:

“Should the Scottish Government be allowed to negotiate a settlement with the Government of the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent state?”

This bears a striking similarity to the Quebec nationalists’ second push in 1995, which was fought on an arcane and very procedural question 43 words long – in response to which the Parliament of Canada reasserted its authority with the Clarity Act.

Nicola Sturgeon has also gone on the record as saying that whilst Westminster does retain control over the constitution, what exactly “the constitution” means isn’t clear.

Whether or not such a referendum is politically advisable remains an entirely separate question. Unionists would very likely boycott a unilateral referendum, especially an illegal one, which some in the SNP recognise would fatally undermine its credibility.

Meanwhile, Dugdale has written an open letter to Sturgeon demanding that she “get back to governing”, as opposed to indulging her constitutional obsession. Perhaps the Scottish Labour leader might copy in her Welsh colleague.

Why not make Gibraltar actually British?

Twitter had a lot of fun this week with the idea that Michael Howard had somehow declared war on Spain – but Northern Irish unionists have been quick to speak out on Gibraltar’s behalf.

Foster has extended a ‘hand of friendship’ to Fabian Picardo, its bullish Chief Minister. Both unionist MEPs have also spoken up, with the DUP’s Diane Dodds insisting that “no amount of diplomacy will see Gibraltar’s sovereignty sold or shared. Gibraltar is British.”

Jim Nicholson, her Ulster Unionist counterpart, even compares Gibraltar’s position in his letter to “Northern Ireland’s place as an integral part of the United Kingdom”. Yet none of them make a seemingly obvious unionig point: if Gibraltar is British, why doesn’t it actually accede to the Union?

It would be easy enough to fit the Rock’s existing government into UK devolution, and Gibraltar would gain representation in the Westminster Parliament which does, after all, control some of its affairs. It would also become completely part of the British ‘internal market’, and thus part of any UK-EU trade deal without a Spanish veto.

This approach works for France, which gets a lot less grief for its ‘Overseas Departments’ than does Britain for the Overseas Territories even though the combined population of the former is, at over two million, between eight and nine times the British total.