No party is more adept at exploiting the gap between practice and rhetoric in Scottish society than Labour, and no Scottish politician is more authentically Labour than Gordon Brown.
After a series of relatively underwhelming, policy-focused speeches, the former prime minister has landed back in the independence debate with a thud.
Over the last few days, Brown has had his new book My Scotland, Our Britain, serialised in The Daily Record, he has mobilised Labour’s grassroots against independence, and he has published an essay in The Guardian casting the referendum as a chance to “demonstrate how distinct nations, proud of their cultural identities, can also transcend them.”
Brown’s heightened presence in the campaign is designed to stop the flow of low-income voters away from the Union and towards independence. So far, it seems to be working. Ipsos MORI’s latest poll shows support for independence among the poorest fifth of Scots down 4 per cent and among Labour voters down 10 per cent. The Yes camp knows that it can’t afford to lose these (or any) supporters, so last weekend Alex Salmond announced plans to “reindustrialise” Scotland after a Yes vote. (Though how he might achieve that using a currency – the pound – which has systematically undermined Scottish manufacturing exports for three decades, I’m not sure.)
Traditionally, Brown has struggled with the national question. In his introduction to The Red Paper on Scotland, published in 1975, he described the “oil-fired” rise of the SNP as “less an assertion of Scotland’s permanence as a nation” than “a response to Scotland’s uneven development.” But by the time he had become Chancellor in 1997, his analysis had reversed. In a pamphlet, New Scotland, New Britain, written ahead of the first Scottish parliamentary elections, he dismissed “the cause of separation” as a “misguided retreat from … modern forces of change.”
During his 13 years in office Brown made various attempts to redefine Britishness as a progressive, 21st-century identity, but often ended up sounding like a cut-price Enoch Powell. On a trip to Tanzania in 2005, he told reporters that Britain should “celebrate” its colonial past.
With the referendum now only three months away, Brown seems again to have re-evaluated his view of Scottish nationalism. In his Guardian article, he identifies the “insecurity many Scots feel at the economic and social dislocation wrought by de-industrialisation” as a central component in the SNP’s recent success. “Of course, the quarrel Scots have is not with England,” he adds, “but alongside England, with globalisation.”
Here, however, Brown’s position simply collapses.
Under his leadership, the Labour party didn’t “quarrel” with globalisation, it facilitated it. Between 1997 and 2010, the number of manufacturing jobs in Scotland fell from 300,000 to under 190,000, while manufacturing output shrank by two per cent as a proportion of GDP. Compare that to the 57 per cent growth in Scottish business services and finance over the same period.
Having presided over the creation of a fiscally toothless Scottish Parliament, Labour then encouraged an ever greater concentration of economic activity in London. Today, the capital accounts for a larger share of UK output than the English north-west, Yorkshire and Humber and the north-east combined. The imbalances in the British economy grew more, not less, severe during the Blair and Brown-era.
Then there is Brown’s record on pay and workers’ rights. Labour may have introduced the minimum wage, but it did so at a disgracefully low level, ensuring Britain remains, in 2014, one of the lowest pay economies in the OECD. Indeed, the number of zero-hours contracts in Britain rose during the last years of the Labour government – a consequence, in no small part, of Labour’s refusal to repeal Thatcher-era anti-trade union laws.
So it is difficult to take Brown seriously when he talks approvingly of “the social market” or attempts to lump the SNP in with “anti-EU, anti-immigrant parties.” It wasn’t that long ago that Brown himself, appropriating the rhetoric of the National Front, argued that “British jobs” should be reserved for “British workers.”
Brown obviously still believes that Britain can be reclaimed for the left, for the welfare state, or for some amorphous “progressive vision.” He has had plenty of time, including more than a decade in power, to give us a glimpse of what that Britain might look like. We are still waiting.