Gordon Brown has been weaponised against independence but it’s a jammed shotgun that keeps misfiring. He’s being weaponised and used but he’s also trying to re-write his role in history and retrofit and resurrect his career. The Edinburgh Book Festival is a bastion of vanilla centrism and provides a regular gig for a slew of retired Labour politicians. The “world’s greatest platform for creative freedom” (really) this year hosted Gordon Brown (‘his unique perspective on our tumultuous times’), Alan Johnson (‘witty memoirs’) and Roy Hattersley (‘The Labour Party’s Future‘).
Most of these people are harmless, but Brown’s latest intervention is a calculated one supported by puff pieces in the Scotsman and the Telegraph and accompanying articles (like this by Jim Gallagher in The Times and this by Euan McColm.)
Gallagher combines smearing the independence movement with “Orban, Salvini and Trump” before arguing vaguely that:
“A model of federalism is emerging for the UK. It is as much a change of mindset as a change of powers, replacing the outworn notions of parliamentary sovereignty which are at the root of so much of the UK’s unnecessarily centralised governance with a real understanding of the UK as a voluntary union of different nations, a multinational state.”
Ostensibly all this activity is to support the launch of Gordon Brown’s new think-tank Our Scottish Future but its also clearly a sign that the British elite are rattled and anxious.
Brown — talking of “hardline separatism” — told his audience that the “push for Scottish independence would destroy empathy between Scotland and England”.
He “savaged” David Cameron over Brexit, accusing his successor of being too “lazy” to strike a deal with Europe that could have avoided it and then made a number of highly dubious claims and propositions about European opt-outs over immigration.
He said: “Look in Germany you can’t be an immigrant into Germany unless you’re registered for work”.
In doing so he inadvertently triggered one of the funniest ironies of the whole xenophobic Brexit narrative. Is it people coming over here to steal your jobs you’re are angry about, or is it lazy people coming over here to scrounge off the system? Because it can’t be both of these things.
But Gordon Brown has a track record on this.
As Jamie Maxwell wrote the last time Brown rolled-out his now familiar trope of constitutional cliche (The Rehabilitation of Gordon Brown): “Gordon Brown bears a sizeable share of responsibility not just for the 2008 crisis itself, but for the catastrophic mishandling of its aftermath and for the current atmosphere of nativist toxicity in British politics.”
Maxwell continues: “Brown did a lot of ideological grunt work for the right in terms of the economy and spending cuts. But he shamelessly bolstered its social and cultural narrative, too. In and out of power, Brown has repeatedly appealed to the worst atavistic tendencies of the UK electorate.
On a trip to Tanzania in 2005, he told reporters that the UK should “celebrate” its colonial past. In 2009, he argued that “British jobs” should be reserved for “British workers.” And as recently as June of this year, he was calling for a crackdown on immigration as part of a broader package of policies to help “address people’s anxieties” over Brexit.”
The Union Dividend
Courting Charlotte Squares well-heeled audience he brought out a few meaningless if populist Remainer one-liners before returning to his main political focus, which was to attack the notion of an independent Scotland and frame the SNP as extremists.
In a wonderful puff piece by the Telegraph’s Scottish Political Editor, Simon Johnson writes enthusiastically:
“Mr Brown’s intervention came after official figures published last week found Scotland ran up a £12.6 billion deficit, or seven per cent of GDP, far higher than the UK or any EU member state.
They also showed Scots benefit from a record “Union dividend” of almost £2,000 each as they receive £1,661 per head more public spending than the UK average while paying £307 less tax.
Mr Brown, who was also Chancellor for a decade, warned that Scotland was trapped between “two extremes” of Boris Johnson’s anti-European Conservatism and Ms Sturgeon’s “hard-line separatism.”
“The starting point of a modern Union is that promoting co-operation between Scotland and England within the UK will achieve far more than a seemingly endless confrontation between Scotland and England” without at any point articulating how this magical co-operation is to emerge from the traces of Brexit.
Johnson reports the GERS figures like a faithful scribe, not hesitating to address their widespread ridicule, nor to ask Brown how this new Federal future would work, who is delivering it and why no-one is interested in it. But that’s his job, not to ask these questions.
The entire framework of the Brown outlook is to assume that some parts of the Union are inherently economically bankrupt and require structural support from other wealthier parts. How or why this is so is never questioned or explained. This is just the natural order of things and that being so, the Union is therefore essential. There is a logic to it even if it is weirdly backward and self-defeating, completely lacking in ambition or vision and cloaked in a uniquely British cloth of cultural of self-hatred.
The entire purpose of Brown’s latest intervention and of the Our Scottish Future think-tank is to position independence alongside Brexit as moments of economic uncertainty and of political extremism. The irony is that he does this whilst peddling some of the worst myths of the Brexit narrative whilst also regurgitating the same Federalist ideas that have no party political or popular backing at all. While he will continue to be given a stage by the media, the public broadcaster and events like the Book Festival to tell comforting stories about Britain, he is in reality an isolated figure without power in British politics.