Gordon Brown apparently feels compelled to make yet another contribution to the constitutional debate this afternoon. These wearily familiar interventions always seem to coincide with existential threats to the union and or the Labour Party. We remember his orchestration of the now infamous eve of poll vow in 2014, and the subsequent exhortations of support for new, improved federalism or beefed up Holyrood powers. And we came to understand that promises made under political duress are promises destined never to be fulfilled. Certainly not by a party out of power for at least another five years.
In a scene setter in the Observer, Mr Brown packages what he calls the “competing nationalisms” of post Brexit England, Wales, Ireland, Ulster and Scotland saying that “while each considers itself unique” the populist rise is due to economic hardship coupled with cultural changes and untrammelled globalisation. Plus the unsustainable wealth gap between the South East of England and the rest. Nationalists, he says, are “leveraging” this situation and “exploiting” these injustices. He argues none of these grievances can be answered by “changing our borders or raising news flags.” His solution? A UK wide constitutional convention, citizens assemblies, and a forum of the nations and regions to mobilise their collective power, and pressurise Whitehall after which they would “carve out a new role and status.”
Thing is Gordon, Scotland doesn’t want to change its borders and it has a very serviceable flag. We have a role, and we have a new status firmly in our sights. You say that all nationalisms think themselves unique. Perhaps that’s because they are. You make no mention of Scotland’s long history as a nation or of a modern culture which may not be superior to anywhere else but is assuredly not interchangeable with it.
I was much taken by a tweet this week from the playwright Peter Arnott. He said this: “It may be difficult for Labour folk to accept, but a lot of SNP folk are kith and kin politically. Indeed a lot of us used to BE in the Labour party and/or support it. We didn’t catch some sort of virus. We are Nats now because we believe in a different route to the same things."
“Same things” is a telling phrase. The Labour Party professes to want a country where, as their late leader John Smith was wont to observe, social justice and economic prosperity are not mutually exclusive ambitions. I would hazard a guess that aspiration could be attached to pretty well any member of the current SNP government. I am not a member of the SNP, and was not a member of the Labour Party. But I recognise and echo Peter’s well made point. Scotland is not a naturally Tory country; it has not had a majority Tory vote for 65 years although there are sizable pockets of Conservative support in the North East and South of Scotland.
These days, left leaning voters are in the great majority. And many of us have journeyed in our own disparate ways to the conclusion that the socially just country we aspire to will never be possible under recent or current UK governments. An administration which sets its face against refugee children, which ditches any pretence of accepting European style human and workers’ rights, which punishes the sick, the disabled and the poor, working or not, does not create a “country” with which many of us feel solidarity. Neither do we feel much in the way of comradely love for those economically disadvantaged regions which are pro Brexit and anti immigration. Sympathy for their economic lot certainly; but not with their direction of ideological travel.
Labour was the only party which could have stopped this race to the bottom. Instead it lapsed instead into incoherence and internecine warfare over ideological purity. That put bread into precisely no mouths. And its shamefully ambivalent stance on immigration – remember those appalling party mugs with their “controls on immigration” slogan – is part of the reason our valued foreign born workforce feels such apprehension. In Scotland, there persists a vivid fault line between Labour and Nationalist supporters, some of whom can be depended upon to expend more vitriol on each other than on the common political enemy. And for some the hatred is positively visceral; what we might call the Brian Wilson school of political engagement.
Gordon Brown is a politician of some substance. The American inspired crash of 2008 would have turned to total catastrophe had the former chancellor not had the political and intellectual muscle to strong arm enough governments into desperate measures to steady the sinking ship. But what Gordon Brown and Ian Murray, the last Scottish Labour MP standing, both refuse to concede is that there is an obvious connection between Scottish Labour setting its face against independence and its losing shedloads of support. Murray, a contender for the deputy slot on the next Labour ticket, confirmed again last week that there would be no endorsement of another referendum.
That doesn’t just divide him from the SNP. The latest polling suggests only 16 per cent of the UK Labour Party are opposed to one, and a third support it. Gordon Brown’s post premiership lifestyle hardly echoes that of Tony Blair. Whilst the latter wastes few opportunities to augment his personal fortune, the Browns have a long standing commitment to global education and a not inconsiderable track record in trying to improve routes to it.
But there is another significant difference between these two Labour premiers, which pre-dates either of them rising to the highest office in the land. Tony Blair had an undeniable talent for doing politics, but he had no comparable Labour Party hinterland. His party roots were shallow and relatively lately acquired. Brown, in contrast, biographer of James Maxton, was steeped in the Labour Party and all its works from an early age. And it is perhaps that umbilical chord which makes it impossible for him to embrace the notion that socialism and civic nationalism can be descendants of the same philosophical instincts. For he is embedded Labour. Tribal Labour. My party right or wrong Labour. Maybe that makes him unable to contemplate the thought that so many of his tribe have deserted, not because of the messy shambles in London, but because they believe they can help forge a more worthwhile future for their children and grandchildren in an independent Scotland.
Published in The National 20.1.2020