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.
Writing in The Guardian on Monday, Owen Jones attacked the idea that English politics is split along north-south lines as a “myth” and a “distraction.” Given rates of poverty and inequality in the south of England are as high as they are in the north (higher, in some cases), “how much really divides the call centre worker in Hull from the supermarket shelf-stacker in Chelmsford?,” Jones asked.
It’s a legitimate point, and one familiar to anyone involved in the debate over Scottish independence. One of the clichés of Scottish unionism – particularly Scottish Labour unionism – is that a worker on minimum wage in Dundee has more in common with another minimum wage worker in Manchester than he or she does with a top-rate tax-payer in Edinburgh.
According to leading pollsters, Tricia O’Connor is a typical Yes voter.
The 33-year-old single mother from Larkfield, Greenock, earns just over £17,000 a year and lives in what she describes as a “working class area.”
The language of class has been pretty thoroughly scrubbed from Scotland’s political vocabulary.
Party leaders no longer talk about “working class interests.” They talk about “hard-pressed families” or – worse still – “the squeezed middle.”
Speaking in Glasgow recently, the Chancellor George Osborne said that a currency union between an independent Scotland and what remained of the UK would impose “significant constraints on [Scotland’s] economic sovereignty.”
Nationalists were quick to dismiss this warning in public, but privately they must have known that it was far from an empty threat: Osborne, armed with standard Tory prejudices about Scottish spending habits, will do what he can to limit public expenditure north of the border, whether Scotland stays part of the UK or not.
Alex Salmond’s belief that independence will be achieved on the back of a “rising tide of expectations” is drawn from recent Scottish political history. It’s no coincidence that support for the SNP boomed in the 1970s following the discovery of oil and gas in the North Sea and then slumped in the ‘80s as the UK economy entered a severe downturn.
The near doubling of Scottish rates of poverty and unemployment during the Thatcher era sapped Scotland’s economic confidence, reinforcing the defensive and conservative instincts of the Scottish electorate. No doubt last week’s news that British economic output has begun to recover after the worst recession in living memory was greeted with the same sense of relief in Bute House as it was at the Treasury.
For months after the SNP defied electoral arithmetic to secure majority status at Holyrood in 2011, its control of the Scottish political landscape seemed absolute. With his unionist opponents humiliated, Alex Salmond was effectively free to run things on his own terms.
Recently, however, a series of badly executed policy U-turns and poorly handled referendum controversies – over Nato membership, EU legal advice and Scotland’s currency options – has taken the wind out of the nationalists’ sails. Now another controversy is stirring as the party’s commitment to cut corporation tax comes under increasing scrutiny.