IN the first week of his premiership, in the summer of 2007, Gordon Brown published the most ambitious programme for constitutional reform a sitting British Prime Minister has ever produced.

His “Governance of Britain” green paper promised to curb the powers of government, to revitalise British democracy, to reform the House of Lords and to decentralise the powers of the state.

It was bold. It was radical. And three years later, when Mr Brown left office, precisely none of it had been enacted. It was all promise and no delivery, all froth and no beer.

Fifteen years later, today’s Labour party is threatening to do it all over again. Then it was the “Governance of Britain”. Now it is “A New Britain”, no less. The 155-page blueprint for British constitutional and political reform, written by a commission chaired by Gordon Brown and published this week by Sir Keir Starmer’s party, stands no chance of becoming the law of the land. It will fail, just like the last time, setting up the same narrative of bluster and betrayal, just like the last time.

Which is a pity because, despite its many incoherences, missed opportunities, dodgy priorities and basic schoolboy errors, Mr Brown’s 155 pages also contain some good ideas. So good, in fact, that he really should have had the courage of his convictions and – you know – enacted them when he had his hands on the levers of power as the occupant of No 10 Downing Street, all those years ago.

Why today’s Labour leadership considers Gordon Brown, of all people, to be a plausible authority when it comes to constitutional reform is anyone’s guess. Imagine the Tory equivalent – Jacob Rees-Mogg authoring a report on why Brexit was a bad idea from the get-go. There is just ever so slightly a credibility problem here, you know.

Still, let’s put that to one side for a moment and play the ball, not the man. The 40-point plan outlined in “A New Britain” covers a lot of ground, from social rights to the empowering of town councils and from renewing devolution to possibly thinking about one day maybe getting around to at least consulting on House of Lords reform perhaps.

Even so, there are major omissions. Labour has no plans to reform the House of Commons, it would appear – no plans to junk the broken first-past-the-post electoral system and replace it with a scheme of more proportional representation. Likewise, Labour believes, apparently, that one can imagine a credible “New Britain” without anywhere mentioning Europe. Relations with the EU are discussed nowhere and, on the ever-more troublesome European Convention on Human Rights, Labour again has nothing to say.

At UK level it will be the half-baked plans on House of Lords reform that consume the most bandwidth, but everybody knows Sir Keir Starmer is not keen to see his administration bogged down in that particular quagmire. He will find the longest of grass into which to kick it.

In Scotland it will be Mr Brown’s plans to “save the Union” on which most folk will focus, such is our tedious parochialism. On this theme the report’s recommendations are decidedly mixed. Some, such as the notion that MSPs’ privileges need strengthening, are banal and will make no practical difference to anybody.

Others, such as the idea that Scottish ministers should be given formal powers over international relations, are plain bonkers (Britain can have only one foreign policy and it is never going to be set in Holyrood). Many, such as the plans to enhance co-operation and to share economic resources across different levels of government, are already well under way and merely repeat policies which the Conservatives put into law years ago.

Amidst the muddle, however, there are two or three ideas which do merit further, serious reflection. The report is entirely right, for example, to note that the UK’s intergovernmental machinery (in which ministers and officials from the UK and from the various devolved administrations come together to work on joint solutions to common policy problems) has never been fit for purpose and should be redesigned from scratch. There has been far too much “devolve and forget” in Whitehall and far too little commitment to joint working.

The report is also right to recommend that our law should be amended to incorporate a formal “solidarity clause” in which every level of government is legally required to support and maintain co-operation across all the administrations of these islands. Such a clause can be found in EU law – where it binds member states – as well as in the constitutions of a number of federal states, and it should be a feature of our constitutional arrangements, too.

Finally, what the report has to say about the importance of rebooting local democracy is also much to be welcomed. Local government should be given “greater long-term financial certainty”, the report proclaims, as well as “more capacity to generate its own revenue”. Further, “local leaders should be able to take new powers from the centre”. There should, in short, be “double devolution that pushes power closer to the people”. Amen to all of that – it is much needed.

Except there is just one catch. These ambitious, clear-sighted and democratic proposals are for England only. Local government is dying in Scotland, crushed in the merciless vice of the Scottish ministers’ tightening grip. But too bad. Local democracy in Scotland is a devolved matter and, as such, is of no concern to the Labour Party. This is worse than devolve and forget. This is devolve and abandon.

It is also copied and pasted directly from what Mr Brown first promised way back in 2007. “Power remains too centralised and too concentrated” he wrote then. He was right, but in government he did absolutely nothing about it. Why should voters expect anything different this time around?

Adam Tomkins is the John Millar Professor of Public Law at the University of Glasgow School of Law. He was a Conservative MSP for the Glasgow region from 2016 to 2021

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