AFTER Jack McConnell stepped down from the post of general secretary of the Scottish Labour Party in 1998 in order to contest the following year’s inaugural Holyrood election, the selection of his successor gave us an insight into the lack of trust that existed between prime minister Tony Blair and his chancellor, Gordon Brown.
What should have been a straightforward enough procedure – in those days, Labour was awash with the sort of bright young talent that now prefers to hang out with the SNP – turned into a power struggle between Blair and Brown.
The chancellor’s preferred candidate was Alex Rowley – now a Labour MSP – and, because Brown wanted Rowley, Blair wanted someone else.
Pat McFadden – then a Downing Street advisor, now a Labour MP – was sent to Scotland to encourage Andy Kerr, who had been selected to stand for the party in East Kilbride in 1999, to apply for the post. This was the prime minister’s wish. Kerr was in no mood to deny the leader and so he applied for the post.
As the day of the interviews for the job approached, Brown’s camp let Blair’s believe he would have his way. There was no need to send anyone up from London for the interviews. They knew the PM’s preference.
And then Alex Rowley was appointed. In order to strengthen his dominance of the party north of the Border, Brown had simply defied the prime minister.
In those days, Brown ruled the Scottish Labour Party with the consent of a great many members. To those who felt uneasy about Blair’s positioning of the party on the centre ground, he was the authentic voice of tradition. Brown’s rhetoric caressed their nostalgia.
But Brown was flawed. This is hardly news, I’m sure, but to recap: he was prone to anger, he was grudgeful, and his judgment could be spectacularly wonky (remember the abolition of the 10p tax rate in his final budget before he became prime minister in 2007? What was he thinking?)
As Brown prepared to take office, there were some doubting voices in Scottish Labour. Those of the Blairite persuasion predicted – accurately – that the former chancellor would fail in the highest office. At least one senior SNP politician felt similarly, telling me at the time that Labour was making a huge mistake.
Brown’s premiership began with the tantalising promise of a snap election. But a good old fashioned loss of bottle soon put an end to that.
Brown’s decision enabled the then struggling Tories to regain the political initiative. That wonky judgment struck again.
Since Labour’s defeat in the 2010 general election, Brown has maintained – for the most part – a low profile; while seeing out his time as a backbench MP, he devoted time to writing and charity work.
But during the independence referendum, Brown was wheeled out of the shadows to deliver some tub-thumping speeches (which were very good and delivered with passion) on behalf of the Better Together campaign.
But Brown did not always stay on message. For the duration of the referendum campaign, the SNP had demanded that the Prime Minister debate with the First Minister.
For fairly obvious reasons, the Better Together campaign didn’t see much value in a debate which would have been characterised by the SNP as Scotland versus an evil bastard. Asked whether he would debate, Cameron responded that this was a matter for the Scottish people.
And then, Brown entered the fray. Yes, he said, Cameron should debate with Salmond. This pronouncement was met with anguish within the No campaign headquarters. What the hell, staff wanted to know, was Brown playing at?
The former prime minister this week said that Cameron risked a “double betrayal” of Scotland if the Conservatives didn’t make urgent changes to the Scotland Bill.
Having set himself up as protector of the Vow – that promise by unionist politicians on the front page of the Daily Record of more powers for Holyrood – Brown warned that it would not be honoured unless MSPs were given unconditional authority to top up welfare payments.
Just as was his call for a Cameron-Salmond debate, Brown’s warning over the Vow was the sort of thing members of the SNP enjoy hearing very much.
In Labour ranks, of course, the reception to this latest Brown intervention was a little cooler. Behind the scenes, Scottish Labour officials were livid.
Brown is a fascinating man, complex and often brilliant. His leadership during the banking crisis was crucial in preventing an even greater catastrophe. But he is curiously – weirdly, even – self defeating.
Critics within his party are brutal in their assessment: Brown’s ego demands attention and he doesn’t care about the succour his remarks might give the SNP. Others are less damning. This they say, is just Gordon failing to see the implications of his actions. There’s no malice, just a lack of judgment.
What does unite the senior members of the Scottish Labour Party is the understanding that there’s not a thing any of them can do to keep Brown in line. The former prime minister will not be told to button it. Nobody would dare suggest it and he wouldn’t comply even if a volunteer could be found.
Members of all pro-UK parties have no choice but to hope that Brown’s interventions, infrequent though they are, cause as little damage as possible.
When Brown got involved in the Better Together campaign last year, he seemed energised. His speeches are credited with having shored up the No vote at difficult moments during the campaign.
And his decision to appoint himself as a broker between parties when it came to the offer of more powers for Holyrood in the event of a No vote put Brown in a position to be seen as the man who brought Scotland back together.
Things haven’t panned out that way. Scotland seems as divided as it was a year ago.
And Gordon Brown sounds less like the defender of the Union and more like a nationalist dream come true. «