Whatever other quality Gordon Brown may be said to lack it is not consistency. His announcement yesterday of a new think tank to help sustain the UK union is the latest initiative from one of the most vocal supporters of a NO vote in 2014. At regular intervals he pops up to extol the virtues of being and staying British.
It’s a clarion call to support the continuation of the four nation state which has found echoes in Boris Johnson’s pledge to be a minister for the union as well as a Prime Minister, and Rory Stewart’s earnest plea that a post be created to oversee the business of all the devolved administrations. These very disparate political operators are united in their belief that the UK union is under serious threat from the double whammy of Brexit and nationalism.
Mr Brown’s new wheeze is Scottish Future, headed up by Professor Jim Gallagher, an erstwhile civil servant and long time Brown ally who serves on the board of Scotland in Union, and was one of the go to NO pundits during the last independence referendum in 2014. Its first outing, next month, will be devoted to scrutinising the various proposals for a Scottish currency should Scotland become a separate state. It is Mr Brown’s contention that the full cost of independence has not been addressed.
It would be idle to pretend that supporters of Scottish independence speak with one voice on fiscal issues, arguably a decisive factor in the 2014 referendum. The Growth Commission set up by the Scottish Government set out a softly, softly approach to new currency arrangements involving a series of tests which had to be met before sterling could be replaced by a Scottish pound. That plan failed to enthuse delegates to last year’s Scottish National Party conference with whom the Scottish Government’s safety first, ultra cautious approach is wearing thin. They voted for a move to a Scottish pound “as soon as was practicable.”
But the point is that the most fervent debate in Scottish political circles is no longer about independence versus the status quo. Gordon Brown’s latest plea for Britain First may well be accompanied by the loud sound of stable doors shutting long after the horses have sought fresh pastures. His own Labour Party in Scotland is on life support under the less than charismatic leadership of Richard Leonard. Ruth Davidson’s 13 Tory MP’s – 3 more let it be remembered than the DUP can muster- were split over supporting or opposing a Johnson premiership. (Some set up “operation arse” to try to stop Bojo. That went well.)
Meanwhile, among independence supporting voters in and out of the SNP, the debate is raging over whether the Scottish Government should continue to bide its time hoping that a new post Brexit administration will offer the Section 30 order necessary for another legal referendum, or whether it should go for broke and declare the next Scottish election effectively a vote on independence.
The problems for those trying to stem these tides are many and varied. Scotland, all of whose 32 regions voted Remain, wants to stay in Europe and its government has been accelerating contacts with the Commission.
Mr Johnson, the likely new Prime Minister, has achieved the remarkable feat of being less popular in Scotland than Nigel Farage. One poll last month found that his premiership would result in an increase in the pro independence vote to 53%, 8 points higher than achieved in 2014.
There has also been a failure to involve the devolved administrations in the Brexit process, and a palpable disdain for the Joint Ministerial Council representing Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland interests.
But there has too been widespread disgust at the proposal to take back powers from Brussels directly to Westminster post Brexit – even those which had previously been devolved. Not so much more devolution but entrenched centralisation.
The hapless Secretary of State for Scotland, surely the most redundant of jobs in the modern political era, has just been celebrating getting the keys of a new government hub in Edinburgh containing space for 3000 civil servants, and a cabinet room.
His problem is that there is a pre-existing political hub in the Scottish capital. It is called the Holyrood parliament and it has just celebrated its 20th birthday. Admittedly, the UK cabinet is unlikely to be invited to sit there.
Published in The Guardian 19.7.19