IS that it?

Those three words constituted my instinctive reaction to the proposals for a new Britain, written by the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and released by the presumed next Prime Minister, Sir Keir Starmer.

The document was everything that many observers feared it may be: long, detailed, thoughtful, but ultimately manufactured through the lens of Labour Party tactics rather than unionist future-proofing.

It is only reasonable to acknowledge that the paper has some highlights. The reform of the House of Lords, if it ever happens that is, could be a genuinely radical moment, and some of the constitutional tidy-ups surrounding how the administrations of Britain work together are decent.

But in the main, and certainly in respect of the section relating to Scotland, this is continuity unionism. The Calman Commission was created as a reaction to the SNP entering government in Scotland in 2007, and offered up a modest, incremental change to Scotland’s weak devolved settlement.

The Smith Commission was created as a reaction to the Yes campaign almost winning the independence referendum in 2014, and offered up a little more power to Holyrood in the hope that it would be just enough, and no more, to win favour amongst wavering, or wavered, soft unionists.

And here, under Gordon Brown, we have the third of those modest sets of changes. No more radical than Calman or Smith, and arguably less so. Its intention is, clearly, to ensure that, if First Minister Nicola Sturgeon chooses to execute her proxy referendum strategy at either the 2024 Westminster election or the 2026 Holyrood election, she will fail to win more than 50 per cent of the vote, thereby effectively killing the independence campaign.

She may not, but if she does not it will have almost nothing to do with Mr Brown’s vision for a new Britain. Indeed, it strikes me that the biggest threat to the success of the independence movement now, given its need to persuade those centrist, non-naitonalist, economically-invested voters who voted No in 2014 to vote Yes this time, is the presence of the openly anti-growth Green Party in government.

The unionist movement – Tories, in particular, but also Labour and, for all their historic talk about federalism, the Liberal Democrats – is filled with astonishingly slow learners. On Wednesday, STV and Ipsos MORI released their latest round of polling on voting intention both for the next Westminster election and for a theoretical second independence referendum.

The findings, driven by the decision made by the Supreme Court that the Scottish Parliament does not have the authority to hold an independence referendum, will inevitably have a degree of knee-jerkism to them, and will probably settle.

Nonetheless, in that snapshot of opinion, the SNP along with other nationalist parties would comfortably exceed 50 per cent of the votes in an election fought on the basis of it being a proxy referendum, and the Yes campaign would comfortably win that referendum.

Unionists, I can only presume, understand and accept that the polling is driven by the court’s ruling, but in my 20-plus years of involvement in, and analysis of, Scottish politics, I have never had a feeling that they understand why.

The "why" is that there is a very large body of Scots who are instinctively pro-UK, but who put Scotland first, and who dislike the concept and practice of London telling Scotland "no", in whatever guise that may take. Some of these people already crossed to the Yes and SNP side in the last decade, and many more will do so if they feel they have to.

They are people who, in summary, don’t always love the UK, but don’t necessarily want to leave it either. They are people who can accept and live with some tension between the centre and the rest of the country. This sort of tension is not unhealthy; indeed we see it all over the world, from the Texans who roll their eyes at Washington DC, to the Western Australians who don’t know what they’re up to in Canberra, to the Albertans who tut in disgust at the going-on in Ottawa. Tensions are there, but they are wrapped in the flag.

Unionists, not just in London but here in Scotland too, have never really understood this concept and instead, at a highly emotional level, see this as a binary choice between Scottish nationalism and British nationalism. Crucially, they see devolution as defeat, and it is this which prevents them from creating a genuinely radical vision of a new United Kingdom which would not only last for many decades to come, but which might actually genuinely enthuse people.

This came through most strongly in the dismal response to Mr Brown’s paper by the Scottish Tories. They publicly re-drew their line in the sand, placing themselves as the party of the status quo, which really rather few people in Scotland want. In so doing, they have strapped themselves into a vehicle accelerating towards electoral oblivion. That they cannot see the eerie ghost of the 1990s sitting beside them in the passenger seat is an indication of just how much the emotion of this constitutional turmoil has clouded their judgment.

There is a vision of the UK which can work for the vast majority of people. It is a looser federation, in which the nations are voluntarily giving Westminster the power to act in areas defined by the nations, rather than being given by Westminster the power to act in areas defined by Wesminster. It is a union in which the nations have almost complete power over, and responsibility for, their own finances, for rules on immigration, and to at least some degree for their involvement in international organisations.

It may not be the vision of the UK which today’s crop of unionists like, but it is the only one which, in the long-term, will hold their country together, because it is the only one which is reflective of the 21st century reality that people want power exercised more closely to them.

Labour’s proposals are a little like re-heating last night’s curry. When there’s nothing in the fridge, it’s not entirely without merit. But it could very well come back to haunt you.

Andy Maciver is Founding Director of Message Matters and Zero Matters

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