Gordon Brown: Trust has broken down in way UK is run

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The public's trust in the way the UK is run is breaking down, former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown has warned.

He said Covid-19 had exposed "tensions" between Whitehall and the nations and regions, who were often treated by the centre as if they were "invisible".

Mr Brown is urging Boris Johnson to set up a commission to review how the country is governed and powers shared.

But the PM said his focus was on the pandemic, stressing the benefits of the union could be "seen everywhere".

Mr Brown's intervention comes amid a looming clash between Mr Johnson and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who has demanded the UK agree to another Scottish independence referendum if the SNP wins a majority in May's Holyrood elections.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mr Brown - who advocates a federal system with more power for nations and regions - says the pandemic has "brought to the surface tensions and grievances that have been simmering for years" between Downing Street and the various parts of the UK.

Media caption,
The Conservatives election win was not 'a signal that the country is at ease' warns Brown

He points to "bitter disputes" over issues such as lockdown restrictions and furlough and said unless underlying tensions were resolved, the UK risked becoming a "failed state".

In an interview with BBC Radio 4's Today, he said at a time "when all should be pulling together and intensifying co-operation across the UK" there was division and claims by the leaders of Scotland and Wales and the English regions that they were not being properly consulted.

Last year there were rows between the government and local authorities over coronavirus tiers, with the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, objecting to plans to put the region into the strictest level of restrictions.

'Fed up'

Mr Brown told Today that while he was "confident" that Scotland would still be part of the UK in ten years time, the way the UK was governed had to change.

"I think the public are fed up. I think in many ways, they feel they are being treated as second class citizens, particularly in the outlying areas, that they are invisible and forgotten."

"Something has broken down in trust and has to be repaired."

Mr Brown is advising the Labour Party on its devolution strategy - but has also held talks with government ministers including Michael Gove in recent weeks.

Government sources say they are focused on taking tangible steps to demonstrate the value of the UK.

The idea of a fundamental review of the UK's power structures has been suggested as one possible way to counter support for Scottish independence ahead of May's Holyrood election.

But a series of polls now suggest support for independence is higher than support for the union - and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will demand another referendum if, as seems likely, her party - the SNP - wins in May.

He is calling on Boris Johnson to immediately set up a commission on democracy to review how the UK is governed, something the Conservatives promised in their manifesto before the last general election.

In his Telegraph article, he suggests it would find that the UK needs a Forum of the Nations and Regions, citizens' assemblies, and a greater focus on the benefits of cooperation in areas such as the NHS and the armed forces.

The current Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer also supports devolving more powers from Westminster but opposes another Scottish independence referendum.

The SNP said last week that there would be a "legal referendum" after the pandemic if May's Holyrood election returned a pro-independence majority.

'Democratic right'

Asked if he would stand in the way of this, Mr Johnson said what the British public wanted was for its political leaders to focus on beating coronavirus, adding that the advantages of the UK's four nations working together "spoke for themselves".

"I think people can see everywhere in the UK the visible benefits of our wonderful union," he said.

"A vaccine programme that is being rolled out by a National Health Service, a vaccine that was developed in labs in Oxford and is being administered by the British Army."

But the SNP said the Scottish people, not Westminster-based politicians, should decide the country's future.

"No amount of constitutional tinkering from Labour would protect Scotland from Brexit or the Tory power grab - only independence can do that," said Kirsten Oswald, the party's deputy Westminster leader.

"The Scottish people will see right through this attempt to deny their democratic right."

Northern Ireland and Wales

A poll commissioned by the Sunday Times in Northern Ireland found 51% of people wanted a referendum on Irish unity in the next five years.

DUP leader and Northern Irish First Minister Arlene Foster said such a vote would be "absolutely reckless".

Numbers supporting Wales breaking away from the UK also appear to be rising. The pro-independence campaign group Yes Cymru has said membership swelled from 2,000 at the start of 2020 to more than 17,000.

Responding to Mr Brown's intervention, the party's Westminster leader Liz Saville Roberts said: "It's been clear for many years that the UK doesn't work for Wales - I'm glad that the Labour Party are starting to see that."