Home Rule espoused by Clydeside hero has nothing in common with powers offered by London Labour, writes George Kerevan
He’s back. Gordon Brown’s new book on the referendum debate is incisive and passionate, suggesting he has recovered a lot since those final, dark days of his premiership. Unlike the current Labour leadership at Holyrood, Gordon’s book possesses a coherent vision for Scotland – though not one I agree with. While I have my doubts about his economic record, I admire him as one of the few British politicians who is comfortable with the label “intellectual”.
Yet is Gordon Brown saying anything new? Not really. That’s not the point, though. What he does is make the traditional case that Scots can prosper inside the Union, and sound as if he means it. That’s not a trick Alistair Darling has managed to pull off.
Unfortunately, the traditional manner in which ordinary Scots have prospered under the Union is by heading south to London, or abroad to the Empire. Gordon gives the game away when he writes: “The inventions that make [Scots] most proud worked best in co-operation … Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in London … John Logie Baird developed TV not from his home in Helensburgh, but from Hastings in Sussex.”
In other words, we Scots have to take the High Road south because power and wealth are concentrated there. Like Gordon himself, who – having fought for Scottish devolution – stayed resolutely with his bottom on the green benches at Westminster. Mass outward migration, caused by lack of opportunity at home, has scarred Scotland in the past 100 years. Immigration has been trivial by comparison. Between 1921 and 1951, there was a net loss of 610,000 Scots – a staggering 10 per cent of the population. Another 600,000 working-class Scottish families were forced abroad between 1951 and 1971.
The second important thing Gordon does in his book is to attempt to reanimate devolution as a popular project. He does this in a very clever way by invoking the shade of his hero, the great Clydeside socialist MP Jimmy Maxton. The polls show that working-class Scottish voters want more local control over taxes and welfare spending. Unfortunately, self-interested Labour back-benchers at Westminster have vetoed the idea. Which is why we now have the risible spectre of the Scottish Tories offering more devolution than the Scottish Labour leadership.
Because nothing is really on the constitutional table from Labour, Brown resorts to doing the vision thing, quoting Maxton and promising a Socialist nirvana. The Daily Record, as well as serialising Gordon’s book, has been pushing the Maxton theme hard for months (doubtless to put clear red water between it and the Sun, which is rumoured to be flirting with the SNP).
According to our friends at the Record: “The Home Rule agenda… kindled by Maxton, did not include the idea of complete independence – the break-up of Britain as proposed by the SNP.” Instead, we are told Maxton’s position was really “much the same as current opinion polls show the majority of Scots”; ie supporting devolution. How cosy.
Whatever one thinks of James Maxton (1885-1946), he was not a cosy politician. For instance, he resolutely opposed involvement in the First World War and spent time in jail for it. Yet when Joan McAlpine, the Nationalist MSP, dared to make some very anodyne criticisms of the First World War, she was denounced for her lack of patriotism by … er, the Labour Party.
In his biography of the great socialist, Gordon Brown implies Maxton’s opposition to the war was youthful ultra-leftism. Far from it: Maxton was charged not with a student prank but with inciting munitions workers to strike and stop sending weapons to the Western Front. Had James Maxton been alive in 2003, when Gordon Brown supported the British-American invasion of Iraq, he would not just have been demonstrating on Glasgow Green, he would have been urging the civilian workers at Coulport to sabotage the war effort.
Here is the authentic James Maxton speaking at a rally in Glasgow in support of the 1924 Scottish Home Rule Bill. Maxton declared that he asked “for no greater task in life than to make the English-ridden, capitalist-ridden, landowner-ridden Scotland into a free Scottish Socialist Commonwealth”. He went on to say that “with Scottish brains and courage … we could do more in five years in a Scottish parliament than would be produced by 25 or 30 years heartbreaking working in the British House of Commons”.
Just try referring to “English-ridden” Scotland today and you will be rightly ticked off. But James Maxton was an angry man. He had seen tens of thousands of men thrown on to the scrap heap of unemployment, or chased abroad in search of work. He had seen undernourished children living in overcrowded, unsanitary tenements. He had seen that the London political establishment did not care. His anger was understandable to everyone in Glasgow. It expressed not an anti-Englishness, but a hatred of a class system run from London.
The Home Rule espoused by Maxton has nothing in common with the drip-feed of powers by London Labour. Modern Labour is a centralist party that dislikes devolution on principle – which is why it buried Home Rule for half a century after Maxton’s death. For Labour’s Scottish back-benchers, devolution is merely a holding operation to fend off the SNP. The Red Clydesiders, on the other hand, wanted Home Rule in the sense of the full, de facto autonomy already enjoyed by Australia and New Zealand. They wanted this power specifically to transform Scottish society for the better by abolishing capitalism. Which may explain why they were never granted it.
Certainly the pre-war Home Rulers saw Scotland as continuing to be part of the British family of nations. But you could argue this same vision is implicit in the SNP’s advocacy of a social union and a common currency.
Here’s my challenge to Gordon Brown: quit Westminster and stand for Holyrood. As Jimmy Maxton promised those long years ago, you will do more in five years in a Scottish Parliament than in 25 years heartbreaking working in the British House of Commons.