The first unionist reaction to Gordon Brown’s latest intervention in the referendum debate was that the former prime minister had given ammunition to the nationalists. He criticised the coalition government, making incidentally no mention of the Liberal Democrats and speaking as if it is a Tory administration, which it isn’t. Actually, while deploring the negative tone of its intervention in the debate, he admitted that warnings about defence jobs and the currency question were well founded – it was only the way in which they have been expressed that is wrong.
Then he said that David Cameron should indeed debate with Alex Salmond, and that the refusal to do so was allowing the SNP to present the choice for voters as Britain or Scotland. “The Prime Minister,” he said, “has got to be involved.” The implication is clear: if he was still prime minister himself, he would debate with Mr Salmond, face to face.
No doubt he would. But his situation would have been different from Mr Cameron’s. The gist of the Edinburgh Agreement was that independence is a matter for the Scottish electorate. This is why Scots living out of Scotland have no vote. Now Mr Brown is himself a member of parliament for a Scottish constituency, as is Alistair Darling, the leader of the Better Together campaign. This is why it would have been proper for prime minister Brown to debate with the First Minister of Scotland, why it is proper that Mr Darling should do so, and why it is proper that Prime Minister Cameron shouldn’t.
One senior but unnamed Labour figure has been quoted as saying that Mr Brown’s intervention was “bloody unhelpful” and disunity in the ranks of the No campaign was a gift to the SNP.
I am not so sure. In the first place, nobody should expect that the three unionist parties should agree on everything. Nobody would believe them if they pretended to do so. It’s enough that they agree that we are indeed Better Together.
Second, it is clear that the nationalists can win only if they persuade a great many habitual Labour voters to opt for independence. Most of what Mr Brown says is directed at such people. The United Kingdom, he tells them, provides certainties in the field of social policy – certainties about pensions and social security – whereas the promise of independence offers only uncertainties. “The system of pooling and sharing resources would be the first casualty of Scotland’s departure from the United Kingdom.” This is an important statement. It is important because it is true.
I have lifted that quotation from an essay Mr Brown has written which was published in a London newspaper yesterday. It is a very good essay because it makes the Labour case for the Union, and does so cogently. “The UK,” he points out, “transfers £500 million a year more to poor Scottish pensioners than funding based on population numbers would provide.” It transfers even more to the North-East and North-West of England, and to Wales, than it does to Scotland, and is right to do so. The United Kingdom is based on “shared values, British ideas of fairness, liberty and social responsibility, the themes of Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony”.
He goes further: “Scots have always been aggressively patriotic; pride in Scotland being common ground between the Yes and No camps.” This is something that needs to be said, clearly and repeatedly. Unionism is as much an expression of Scottishness and Scottish patriotism as is nationalism. This, incidentally, is why unionists resent the SNP’s appropriation of the Saltire. It is why Andy Murray was “embarrassed” when Alex Salmond unfurled it at the moment of his Wimbledon triumph. “The No campaign,” Mr Brown writes, “will win only by presenting a Scottish vision of Scotland’s future as a patriotic alternative to that of the SNP. Scotland’s destiny lies not in leaving Britain, but in leading it.”
That lead — the implication is evident — must take the form of charting a new version of the Union: decentralised and “as close to federalism as you can have in a nation where one part forms 85 per cent of the population”. But this is already happening. “Scotland has already changed Britain for ever. Westminster’s claim to undivided authority over the whole country? Dead and buried.”
This may not have been openly recognised in London, but it is undeniable.
We have no need to leave the Union to enjoy even more self-government than we already have. But that self-government will be strengthened and our security ensured by remaining part of a looser union that is based on the values we hold in common with the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
This is the gist of Mr Brown’s argument. I have not always agreed with him. But he is surely right here. Set aside his sniping at the Tories, and it remains the case that his vision for the future of Scotland within a reformed United Kingdom is splendidly positive.
Read his essay and you may find yourself persuaded that it is nationalism, not unionism, that is negative and defensive; that it is the SNP, not Labour, not the Tories, not the Liberal Democrats, that exhibits a lack of faith in Scotland and the Scottish people, nationalism which displays a laager mentality.
When Donald Dewar introduced his green paper, Scotland’s Future, in 1997, he dwelled on the opening sentence “There shall be a Scottish Parliament”, and said “I like that.” When Gordon Brown now tells us that “Scotland’s destiny lies not in leaving Britain but in leading it”, I like that. It is a positive statement which should set the tone for the unionist campaign.
The Union is good for us and good for the other peoples of the UK.