Lesley Riddoch: Blast from the past, welcome or not

BRUISER Brown is back in business. Labour’s heavyweight enters the ring.
Voters may see the former prime minister in a kinder light, or he may bring back too many bad memories. Picture: ReutersVoters may see the former prime minister in a kinder light, or he may bring back too many bad memories. Picture: Reuters
Voters may see the former prime minister in a kinder light, or he may bring back too many bad memories. Picture: Reuters

Clunking fist smashes independence – every tabloid headline and weary cliché about the former prime minister is ready to roll as Gordon Brown prepares to stride the boards in support of the Union and a Labour campaign distinct (best not say separate) from Better Together.

Journalists may already have written the story, but there’s no guarantee the Scottish public will smile upon the former Labour leader after three years of self-imposed near-silence. At long last the notoriously hesitant politician is taking a calculated risk. Will that count in his favour?

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Will Scots be reassured to recognise the fundamentally capable, moral man who once ran the United Kingdom? Will we think of the glory days when he stood beside Tony Blair forming a solid New Labour wall that Scots believed the Tories would never breach again? Will his time away from the limelight and hurly-burly have produced a more modest, reflective speaker? Will his smile finally look real?

Or as soon as he speaks, will we remember the former Chancellor’s proud boast about abolishing the cycle of boom and bust? Will Labour voters judge him harshly for the long silence over Iraq and recent revelations that he offered 30 marginal seats to the Lib Dems before the 2010 election in a desperate bid to stop the Tories?

In short, is Gordon Brown like Captain Kirk in the new Star Trek movie – a very welcome blast from the past? Or like David Miliband – a walking reminder of leadership failure and pride before a terrible fall? Until he takes to his feet later today, who can tell?

Yes supporters will be in no doubt – but swithering Labour supporters are the constituency that really matters. It’s been hard to gauge the impact of Alistair Darling at the helm of Better Together. On the one hand, Gordon Brown’s erstwhile colleague had a net approval rating of +1 in February compared to Nicola Sturgeon’s +17. On the other, Ipsos Mori last week recorded a three-point drop in Yes support over the same period.

No-one’s expecting more from ex-chancellor Darling than predictions of doom and gloom on any path that deviates from “steady as we go”.

Expectations of Gordon Brown are different – partly because of his new path since leaving No.10. Well-paid international speeches have netted £1.4 million for the office of Gordon and Sarah Brown to “support his involvement in public life” and a number of children’s charities.

Brown has become a UN ambassador for education and will share a London stage with Beyoncé in June as board member of her charity Chime For Change, which promotes women’s empowerment. Perhaps the spectacle of the reformed clunking fist turned feminist could appeal to women voters – currently twice as doubtful about Scottish independence.

Perhaps – but the slightest hint of insincerity or opportunism could be politically fatal, reminding voters that the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath spends a lot more time rubbing shoulders with the international jet set than MPs (his Commons attendance rate is just 13.6 per cent).

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Perhaps, though, we don’t care. Maybe we consider that taking care of constituents, supporting women’s causes and raising money for kids’ charities is a better use of time than sitting belittled with the rest of the cannon-fodder on Labour’s backbenches. Yet, isn’t that what MPs are paid to do – even former prime ministers?

Luckily for Gordon Brown, “Big Man” worship is back in vogue thanks to the surprise departure of Manchester United’s hairdrying, Labour-supporting boss, Sir Alex Ferguson, last week. Suddenly, the tough but fair, hard as nails archetype of the Scottish male is in favour again – even if Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch reruns involuntarily each time a tale of abuse at the “Master’s” hands is fondly recited.

But politics is about more than personality. And the constitutional debate is about more than bashing the other side. Does independence or the Union best serve Scotland’s national interests?

Sooner or later Gordon Brown will have to answer some really hard questions to win more than grudging, and potentially changeable, support.

Might the English public vote to leave the EU whilst the Scots do not? Does that prospect matter?

Does it matter that 1,000 people still own 60 per cent of Scotland or that council elections across Britain encourage only a third of the electorate to vote?

Will Scotland’s future constitutional status make any impact on the poverty, deprivation and appalling health record of Scotland’s poorest communities? If not, why not? Glasgow Centre for Population Health has found deprivation profiles of Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester are almost identical, but premature deaths in Glasgow between 2003-2007 were more than 30 per cent higher. This “excess” mortality runs across almost all ages, males and females and deprived and non-deprived neighbourhoods.

Leading health professionals are bravely looking well beyond their own areas of clinical expertise towards disempowerment, grief and lack of family security in the early years to find explanations.

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Can Gordon Brown explain why Scots should pin their hopes for a healthier, more equal society on the re-election of a Westminster Labour government when inequality increased under his watch last time around?

Of course the SNP must tackle the same questions. But today is Gordon Brown’s day and Labour’s opportunity to re-energise an electorate behind an alternative vision for Scotland and Britain. Scots might care greatly about the next Westminster election if Gordon Brown grasps the thistle, abandons tit-for-tat debate and unashamedly espouses the social democratic values which once prompted Peter Shore to say of John Smith: “He was too Nordic to understand southern greed.”

Gordon Brown can be the change he wants to see today by using this “local” speech about Scottish independence to launch a new political vision for the whole UK. Or he can let the SNP grab Keir Hardie’s mantle just as they successfully grabbed cultural Scottishness in the wake of devolution.

Dramatist Kevin Toolis recently observed that Blair sold hope and leadership far better than Gordon Brown – but then Blair was “selling” to a largely English electorate. Can Gordon Brown surprise the home crowd with an unapologetically Scottish rebirth as a progressive feminist socialist?

On past performance, I’m not holding my breath. But despite it all, I am still waiting.