Peter Jones: Brown’s vision of a ‘new unionism’

The former prime minister makes a compelling case for a revamping of current political ideology, writes Peter Jones
Gordon Brown has lost none of his skills and is capable of rousing the No campaign to action. Picture: Getty ImagesGordon Brown has lost none of his skills and is capable of rousing the No campaign to action. Picture: Getty Images
Gordon Brown has lost none of his skills and is capable of rousing the No campaign to action. Picture: Getty Images

Quite a few political speakers can inspire, few of them can thrill. Gordon Brown is one of them. Attending Labour conferences in the New Labour period, you could sense his speeches generating an energy in the audience that wasn’t quite there when Tony Blair spoke. The same difference is observable between Jim Sillars and Alex Salmond at SNP conferences around the same time.

I always thought that the extra electricity that seemed to come from such speakers was generated by three factors: strong self-belief; equally strongly held core convictions; and an almost romantic view of life and history.

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Though defeat at the last election and the loss of the premiership hit Brown personally very hard, he still has much of those qualities. They shine out from the pages of his latest book, part a moving and revealing exploration of his ancestors’ struggles to live in Fife, and part an impassioned argument in praise of the Union.

Although romance isn’t a word automatically associated with the former prime minister, it emerges strongly from these pages and clearly infuses his interventions in the referendum debate. Brown wants to make the emotional argument for staying in the Union. The case he makes is buttressed less by economic calculations, of which there are plenty in the pages, than by a romantic interpretation of how the Union has worked for Scots and Scotland.

What worries him is that by concentrating on what Scotland might lose, or the rest of the UK might take away from Scotland – the pound, defence contracts, renewable electricity subsidies, etc – and what that might mean – higher borrowing costs, lost jobs, higher electricity bills, etc – Better Together risks the debate taking an unintended and (for unionists) disastrous turn.

He frets that instead of votes turning on individuals’ dry gain/loss summations, it might turn into a 
Yes equals a for-Scotland vote and a No becomes an against-Scotland vote. For committed nationalists, the vote has always been that; the risk is that it becomes a much more pervasive mood.

The family history he recounts establishes a pride, not just in being Scottish, but also in how his forebears struggled through the adversity of farm work and never gave up on the task of improving the lot of themselves and their children. The grimness of other lives he saw in his childhood Kirkcaldy of deep mines and linoleum factories, allied to the strong community solidarity he experienced, was more obviously the wellspring of his socialist beliefs. Put together, and an ideology emerges which sees collective organisation as a means of lifting up the disadvantaged at least to the point where they can grasp hold of the means of self-improvement otherwise denied to them by birth or poverty.

That also provides an answer to the main question which puzzles him. Why, when throughout history Scots have ignored the call of nationalism when it has been flourishing elsewhere, should Scots be so attracted to it now?

The answer lies in much of the history he examines. In the opportunity days of Empire and post-1945 reconstruction and expansion, and in the times of existential threats such as the First and Second World Wars, the advantages of Union were obvious. They hardly needed stating for Scots knew them in their bones.

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But in post-1960 times of the dismantling of much of Scottish industry and the relative economic acceleration of south-eastern England, they are not so apparent. Yet during this period, the parties described in the context of the referendum as unionist have not bothered to explain the Union’s benefits. So unionism as a political ideology has withered to a fossilised remnant. This same period has seen the rise of the SNP as a relentlessly campaigning party with a much louder voice than was strictly justified by its representative numbers. But its opponents, even after the SNP won Holyrood power in 2007, simply did not understand the potency of what it was saying because they were too accustomed to seeing it as more of a nuisance than as a serious and coherent force.

Brown’s book could well be the genesis of a new unionist ideology. It goes beyond the formulation he came to in office – that it is about sharing risks, which are greater if Scotland is independent, and resources, which are diminished by independence.

Now he also sees the Union as a means of lifting up Scots and Scotland to the point where they can grasp the opportunities of the world that would otherwise be denied because of doors that would be harder to open and fewer resources to lever them open.

Take an example from history. James Watt is undeniably the Scottish inventor of steam power. But his discovery only became meaningful when he teamed up with a Birmingham businessman – Matthew Boulton – to make steam engines to power the industrial revolution.

Borders matter. In modern times, Sir George Mathewson turned the small, regional (in world terms) Royal Bank of Scotland into a major international bank by taking over another British bank, NatWest. That worked extremely well, but hit the rocks when his successor, Fred Goodwin, made the cross-border takeover of Dutch/Belgian ABN Amro.

Yes, there was regulatory failure in London, but the odds are that there would have been the same failure in an independent Scotland (as there was in Ireland) and no-one has yet shown how Scotland could have bailed out RBS without itself having to be bailed out, which makes the point about shared resources. Thus Brown depicts the Union as an enabler and facilitator for Scots and Scotland, rejecting the image of a denier of, and brake on, Scottish ambition that years of largely unanswered SNP rhetoric has inculcated into many minds.

Of course, it will take more than one book, more than however many speeches Brown makes between now and 18 September, more than just defeating the independence proposition on that day, and more than just implementing the constitutional proposals his book makes, for such a new unionism to gain any traction.

The SNP has shown how to do it, by unending campaigning and recasting any event into a shape that fits your prime political purpose. Brown, with his energising speaking style and revived sense of the romance in politics, is well-placed to kick it off.

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• My Scotland, Our Britain. By Gordon Brown. Published by Simon & Schuster. £20