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Can Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and Labour save the union?

The intervention of Gordon Brown into the independence debate raises important questions for the Labour party.

Gerry Hassan
2 May 2014
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Gordon Brown, wikimedia

In the past week two Scottish prominent public figures with significant stature, both of whom have had major domestic and international profile, and proved ultimately that they couldn’t cut it at the top, covered the airwaves.

One was David Moyes, the short-lived manager of Manchester United, the other, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The similarities don’t end there. Moyes’ reign at Manchester United was defined by the shadow of Alex Ferguson’s domestic league and European Champions League triumphs over two decades of success. Brown became Prime Minister after a decade of Blair New Labour election successes: a legacy he could neither emulate or escape.

Both were anointed by their predecessors. Brown, because Blair had no other choice, and Moyes, because Ferguson saw in him the same mixture of Glasgow grit and tenacity. Neither worked out in the way any of the main protagonists had imagined.

Brown’s most recent intervention is the latest in a series in the independence debate, but with the novelty that this was the first time he had spoken from the cross-party ‘Better Together’ platform. Brown, had, on numerous readings of this, decided to make up with Alistair Darling, and was even prepared to associate with a campaign which contained Tories.

Brown’s speech identified five positives of the UK for Scotland: ‘With our partnership for pensions, NHS funding, more jobs, lower interest rates and strong cultural links like the BBC, all the evidence is that we are Better Together’.

This is to be blunt a bit threadbare. It evokes New Labour’s mini-pledge cards of 1997 but for the union. But it is trying to sell something already in existence, not a campaigning programme of government by an opposition party.

The list of five Brown positives is also spectacularly mis-chosen versus the inconvenience of facts and Brown’s record in office. To take pensions as one example, the UK single state pension is £113.10 a week: a pathetic, parsimonious level compared to most of Western Europe. This from the man who took up to £100 billion out of pension funds in a raid which many claim destabilised the system, and then had the sensitivity later to offer pensioners a 75 pence a week rise.

NHS funding on Brown’s own figures amount to a mere £180 per head gain per annum. This ignores that the English NHS is being dismantled by the Cameron-led government and handed over to private providers, building on reforms begun by the Blair-Brown government. Have we ever once heard Labour Westminster or Scottish Parliament politicians explain or apologise for this move? Not once nor for the precedent and opening that it offered to Cameron and the Tories.

A wider truth is that Brown has offered no real explanation for the record of New Labour in office. Leaving aside the sleaze, decline in public standards, endemic corruption around the Blair clan, and wars, there is the wider record in office. Brown presents this in the same way that the case for the UK is made – talking of an idealised fantasyland which only exists in his head.

His speech tried to take back the idea of distinctiveness from the SNP, stating that nationalists ‘want the issue to be ‘do you want to have our own distinctive institutions?’ But we already have and cherish our own Scottish national institutions and we don’t need a vote to confirm this’. That’s not a bad exposition of the autonomy Scotland has in the union and the choice on offer.

Brown though goes further claiming that:

The choice is between two Scottish visions of Scotland’s future – the nationalist vision of a Scottish Parliament that breaks all political links with Britain; and the patriotic vision I share of a Scottish Parliament that is part of a system of pooling and sharing risks and resources across the UK.

This is a powerful summary of a political opponent’s position but it is a distortion of the SNP’s independence offer. Whatever one thinks of it and its limitations, what it clearly isn’t about is ‘breaking all political links with Britain’ – witness the Crown, Treasury and Bank of England. You can claim the SNP prospectus is disingenuous and even, as many in ‘Better Together’ claim, undeliverable but that’s a very different argument. Far better, Labour seem to think, to inflate the ‘separatist’ bogeyman and the distant prospect of being a Caledonian Albania whom no one internationally will speak to!

If Donald Dewar has been presented as ‘Father of the Nation’ in some accounts, Gordon Brown comes over as ‘Godfather of Scottish Labour’ – someone who has fallen into seeing politics as about exercising power for its own sake, personal fiefdoms and a courtier approach to government and decision-making.

Brown may present himself now and in the past as a man of mission and purpose but his trajectory has not been a simple one, or at least not in the way he portrays it. If Brown followed the retreat of Labour over his political life from socialism to social democracy to a mushy, ill-defined progressivism, one area he was always consistent was his support for Scottish devolution.

Yet, even here he has zig-zagged: in 1980 supporting, as an answer to the West Lothian Question, the idea of ‘English votes for English laws’ and a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs. His defence of the above was that that they appeared in a book, ‘The Politics of Nationalism and Devolution’, as the opinions of his co-author, the late Henry Drucker, but Brown did put his name to such views and has never adequately explained why he did.

Gordon Brown matters in Scotland and in the independence referendum. Maybe he matters less than many think, and he certainly thinks, but in the context of the place and influence of Scottish Labour and its 41 out of 59 Westminster seats, he matters.

Ed Miliband has declared that ‘It is Labour that’s got to win this referendum’ which is from a Labour point of view a statement of the obvious. But this gets us into the terrain of how and for what does Labour want to win this referendum? If it is just to diss the Nationalist project and Alex Salmond, or to support the constitutional status quo, then frankly that is going to be seen as inadequate.

Miliband is against the SNP’s independence he declared last week, because this would produce a northern neighbour engaged in tax cutting and tax competition, and in particular, the cutting of corporation tax by three pence in the pound. Can this be from the same party which under Gordon Brown as Chancellor cut the main rate of corporation tax by five pence?

Labour consistently give the impression that there is one rule for how we should judge them, and in particular their thirteen years of New Labour rule (i.e.: all about ‘economic efficiency and social justice’ until the crash and then the ‘we saved the world’ period). Then another for those pesky, mischevious Nats, even on the same subject and actions such as cutting corporation tax.

This is symptomatic of a loss of sureness and direction in British and Scottish Labour generally. The Miliband leadership has until now delegated the independence campaign to its Scottish operation: Alistair Darling, Margaret Curran and Anas Sarwar, but has now felt it has to come up to lend weight to a more thoroughly Labour message on the union.

The trouble with this is that the Labour stand on independence isn’t as straightforward as first appears, shot through with Labour paranoia and near-hatred of the Nats, concerns over tax policies, and worries about what happens if the rUK is left without Scotland. Above all this, there is a deep confusion where tactical considerations have become strategic positions; an example being the recent Labour Devolution Commission which committed the party to new tax powers which forbade the idea of tax reductions, only allowing for tax rises, not because the party wants the latter, but to shoot the fox of the Nationalists on the former. That is a terrible logic for policy-making and not real smart politics either!

The independence referendum comes at a time when Scottish Labour is in a generational, cultural and institutional set of shifts. It has caught Scottish Labour’s Westminster old guard out, stuck as they are in a world of 1980s assumptions and party battles. Yet, Scottish Parliament Labour has never found its footing after the instability of the Dewar and McLeish years, and then suffered the forced exodus of 2011.

Gordon Brown cannot be the answer to all of the above even in the short term. He is the personification of a party which has lost its direction. Scottish Labour has to find a way to express its moral and political sentiment about the state of the nation beyond the independence question.

It feels it cannot do this while battle rages about the constitution, but in fact lots of Scots would like to hear Labour talk for the first time in a generation (since the invention of New Labour) about the economic and social injustices which disfigure Scotland and diminish so many lives. That, rather than banging on about the threat of ‘separatism’ isn’t just the way to win the referendum, but even more, could make Labour relevant again. Some of us feel we may have to wait quite a while.

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