THE Dark Knight returns! Once again, our former prime minister Gordon Brown has been in the news commentating on matters constitutional. This time he has been pontificating about Wales, following the election of Vaughan Gething as the new Welsh Labour leader and first minister.

What could our Gordon possibly have to say about Wales? The answer is not a lot. Gordon, you may or not remember, was tasked by Sir Keir Starmer to come up with fresh ideas on devolution and reforming the creaking British political system.

Gordon duly reported at the end of 2022, having spent the lockdown cogitating. He grabbed some cheap headlines calling for the abolition of the House of Lords – a proposal naturally binned by Sir Keir along with most of Gordon’s suggestions.

What did Gordon recommend for Wales? Answer: not a lot. In fact, he explicitly rejected transferring control over policing, prisons and the courts to Cardiff – powers already granted to Holyrood. This despite the fact that Welsh Labour under outgoing First Minister Mark Drakeford had called for just such powers to be devolved.

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Gordon contented himself with offering the Welsh a few constitutional crumbs such as devolving the probation service. Jings, crivens, help ma bob. Helpfully, Sir Keir announced that Gordon’s back-of-the-fag-packet doodling promised “the biggest-ever transfer of power from Westminster”. The Welsh, needless to say, were not impressed.

Support for Welsh independence has risen from around 22% at the end of 2022 (when Gordon’s report came out) to around 30% today. Drakeford countered Brown’s snub by appointing his own constitutional inquiry, co-chaired by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. This was reported in January. It called for the removal of Treasury constraints on Welsh borrowing, the devolution of broadcasting, the Crown Estate, energy, and railways – as well as of policing and justice.

What does our Gordon now have to say for himself now? A few vague platitudes about the need for more devolution, then a warning that there are matters to be resolved. Nary a word about Sir Keir binning most of his constitutional proposals. No mention of the troublesome Archbishop.

The National: Vaughan Gething, at Cardiff University, after being elected as the next Welsh Labour leader and First Minister of Wales, the first black leader of any European country. Welsh Labour members have chosen Mr Gething, 49, to be their next party leader,

Instead, Gordon took advantage of the election of the first black government leader in Europe – never mind the UK – to re-affirm his opposition to devolving justice matters to Cardiff. In an interview for radio, Brown praised Drakeford as “one of the greatest persons committed to social justice I know” – while defending his own position that Welsh justice is best controlled from London. Drakeford, of course, is a longtime supporter of outright federalism.

Will anything change for Wales when – not if – Starmer wins the coming election? We already know the answer. Labour’s shadow Welsh secretary Jo Stevens has already pronounced that the party at Westminster will be focusing at the election on “the things that matter”. So no plans for more devolution.

Note: the Starmer crew are, if anything, more contemptuous towards their Welsh branch office than to their Scottish one. Which explains why our Gordon has to be trotted out every so often as a diversion, to keep the Welsh and Scots mollified.

All through the post-war period, Labour have had to be dragged kicking and screaming through each stage of devolution. It was Labour backbenchers who sabotaged the Scottish Assembly legislation in the 1970s. It was Labour who in 1997 reduced the potential powers of the new Holyrood Parliament, compared to its original 1979 version, by removing borrowing powers.

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It was who Labour in 2016 promised “modern federalism” and then fought tooth and nail against devolving control of income tax to Holyrood. This is the same Labour who are always promising to abolish the House of Lords but never do. Why are Labour so afraid of constitutional change, even on their own terms? This is supposed to be the party of radical reform, after all. But deep down Labour grow increasingly conservative.

The Oxbridge-educated lawyers, advisers, and former civil servants who make up Labour’s front bench today shy clear of challenging the City’s casino economy, lest the hedge funds they rely on for financing get miffed.

As chancellor, Brown showered knighthoods and favours on City bankers such as Fred “the Shred” Goodwin, while watching British manufacturing disappear from lack of investment. Labour now represent the middle-class elite who benefit from the present system. That includes the 174 unelected Labour peers with their tax-free £342-per-day allowance.

The pity is that devolution is back on the agenda. As long as Scottish independence is stalled, we need to open up a second front by demanding more devolved powers for Holyrood and the other national parliaments. This will keep the constitutional question alive and put pressure on the incoming Starmer government.

The National: LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 11: Former British Prime Ministers John Major (L) and Gordon Brown speak at the Institute for Government on March 11, 2024 in London, England. The Rt Hon Sir John Major KG CH and The Rt Hon Gordon Brown speak on the urgent

Making common cause with Wales and Northern Ireland also maximises the chances of forcing concessions from Labour. And the stronger Scottish self-government grows, the easier it is to take the final step to outright independence.

But what issues to fight on? Foremost there is the need for more economic control. If Labour wants to talk about “things that matter” then let’s start with the economy. Scotland needs to re-industrialise, lead from the top.

And to embark on a massive social housing programme to boost economic growth quickly. The Scottish Government should have more industrial powers, including the ability to intervene in the closure of branch plants such as the Ineos refinery at Grangemouth and to block unwanted foreign takeovers. Control over both energy production and electricity supply should be directed from Holyrood. Ditto responsibility for broadcasting. Labour law should be devolved too.

We also need greater influence by the devolved administrations over banking and interest rates. As an MP, I tried (and failed!) to get the leading committees of the Bank of England to have mandatory representatives from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is still a vital goal, more so now as interest rates have risen.

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Holyrood should have greater powers over taxation and spending. In 2015, the SNP at Westminster introduced a motion calling for complete fiscal autonomy for Holyrood. All taxes, spending and borrowing for Scotland would be decided in Scotland by its own elected members. Scotland would then pay directly for UK “services”.

This proposal, of course, was voted down by both the Tory government and the Labour opposition (which was also supporting the Conservative welfare spending cap). It is perhaps time to revive the call for full fiscal freedom for Holyrood.

The central political issue in Scotland is how to establish control of Scottish resources – physical, financial, and cultural – in order to meet Scottish needs and priorities. Independence is merely the tool to achieve that control.

By shifting the debate (temporarily) on to those needs and priorities, we create a pathway back to re-energising the indy campaign itself. And we shift the debate by talking about – and campaigning for – new, concrete devolved powers.

Brown has done us a favour. By once again reminding Wales (and Scotland) about their political impotence, he might just have ignited a new front in the struggle for self-determination.