In the last-ditch fight against separation, John McTernan argues that the former PM should lead the charge for Scottish Labour
History is rarely about the actions of a single person, but sometimes it is. Few believe that there would have ever been an independence referendum without Alex Salmond’s leadership of the SNP. But to every irresistible force there comes an immovable object. In the referendum debate that is Gordon Brown – Labour’s, Scotland’s and the UK’s greatest champion and greatest hope.
Those who have followed Mr Brown’s career know that he is the finest exponent of “old-style religion” in Scottish politics. This was always shown to best effect at party conference where the moral cadences of the manse combined with a sweeping rhetorical style to create the closest to an evangelical moment Labour has experienced outside the visit of President Clinton. It helped immensely that Douglas Alexander, himself a son of the manse, is one of the most gifted speech-writers of the modern era. In office as prime minister, Mr Brown initially found a different, unbuttoned voice – a sort of Gordon Brown Unplugged – which he used so well in response to the floods and to the terrorist attacks in London and at Glasgow airport. This eloquence was reflected in a bounce in the polls but in the end it was drowned and ground out first by the Great Recession and then by the general election campaign and subsequent defeat. Then he fell silent.
Colleagues abroad praised Mr Brown’s work on fulfilling the promise of free, universal primary education in sub-Saharan Africa but wondered why he was so silent in British politics. I would explain that it was because of the appallingly adolescent behaviour of David Cameron and George Osborne who have refused to support Mr Brown’s nomination to any international post. And I would argue that his was a studied, not a cowed, silence. I was wrong; more precisely, I underestimated Mr Brown – it was a strategic silence which he has now broken to campaign for the Labour campaign against separation.
And the effect has been electric. His presence in the debate has cut through. Already he is being mentioned in the focus groups as a hugely trusted political voice. What gives him this power? For a start it’s not any kind of sympathy vote. It’s a reflection of his stature as a former prime minister. No-one gets to the top of British politics by accident. Politics is a brutal profession and only the very best make it to the very top – and the public know that.
But it’s more than that. It’s as if Mr Brown was made for this moment. He has always believed in the power of words and the importance of arguments. He is one of life’s natural pamphleteers. For him the best way to defeat an opponent is to take apart their argument and their ideology and then answer it with a speech, a pamphlet, a book. So it has been with the question of separatism – he has thought deeply and written and published his book My Scotland, Our Britain – passionate and profound progressive case for the Union – before speaking in public. This has given his speeches intellectual ballast.
There’s more, though. There is a real authority in his speeches now. He ranges from the global to the local with ease. One minute talking about new powers for the Scottish Parliament, the next emphasising that devolution has to come all the way to local communities too – giving, for example, people in the East End of Glasgow far more of a say over local services. This is a long way from the caricature of Mr Brown as a centralising chancellor who wanted complete control over every dot and comma of policy design and execution. Is it the return of the younger swash-buckling Gordon Brown, author of the Red Paper on Scotland? Partly, but there is a maturity and wisdom that is hard earned but lightly worn.
Mr Brown himself is fond of reflecting on how long he has been in active politics. After 20 years in Parliament he held a party in his North Queensferry house, and told the assembled guests that he had looked back at the leaflet for his first election and it said: “What Dunfermline needs is an MP with youth and vigour.” He then checked his most recent leaflet which stated: ‘“What Dunfermline needs is an MP with age and maturity.”
In a way, this is an obvious joke, but it contains the seeds of something the Labour Party would do well to ponder. The current opposition front-bench is made up of bright, young things – which is as it should be. But there are some constituencies they can’t always reach. Wouldn’t Alan Johnson, for example, make a superb “shadow minister for Ukip”, a roving role in which he could urge working-class voters to stay loyal to Labour and not be tempted away by Nigel Farage’s false promises – just as Lord Prescott would have done in his heyday. There is a point when senior, experienced politicians are at ease with themselves and their politics – and perfectly positioned to do one final task for the party they love. This is where Mr Brown is right now.
Scottish Labour is renowned for its enjoyment of vigorous internal debate – something it never fails to share with the press and the broader public. But the current generation of leaders, MPs, MSPs, councillors and activists can all agree with one thing – class will out, and Mr Brown is world-class. Everyone agrees that the target vote in the final weeks of the campaign is a Labour vote. They need the best arguments from the best message-carrier. There is no argument about who that is – Gordon Brown.
Better Together should field as many different Labour (and Tory and Lib Dem) voices as it can. Scottish Labour should stick to just one. Every radio package, TV interview, rally, speech or debate – it all needs to be Gordon Brown.
Anyone who quibbles with that needs to understand that this is not a job audition – it is the culmination of Mr Brown’s political career. His task is to create the possibility of a rich future for his party and his country. He can save the soul of Scottish Labour because, after all, he is our Soul Brother No.1 – Mr G Brown.