THE crucial difference between the SNP’s story and those told by many other nationalist movements, is that it’s primarily about ourselves rather than others.
Over the years, the Scottish nationalist narrative has evolved: where once it was a bitter tale illuminating all the bad things about our neighbours south of the Border, now it’s a joyous song celebrating the great things in every Scot.
First Minister Alex Salmond has elegantly spun this yarn about our “distinctive values” since coming to power in 2007, and Labour has conspicuously failed to come up with a compelling, competing version of modern Scotland.
That may be about to change now that Labour has found a new storyteller in former prime minister Gordon Brown. Tomorrow, he’ll join Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont and her deputy Anas Sarwar at the launch of their party’s campaign against independence and he’ll take on Salmond’s story of who we are; he’ll try to pick it apart while advancing his own story of “distinctive values”.
Brown will talk of the Labour movement’s birth in Scotland. He’ll claim his party encapsulates the positives which Salmond has claimed for the SNP. And he’ll turn the nationalists’ claim that Scotland should break free of Tory “control” into a call to arms to stay in the union. Why, he will argue, if we do not want a Tory government, would we abandon others who share that wish? He’ll describe the SNP’s version of “distinctive values” as insular and unambitious.
Labour’s failure to write a story of Scotland to compete with the SNP’s has bordered on the negligent. Brown’s opening chapter is long overdue for a party that, even if it leads a victorious No campaign next year, has work to do before becoming a serious challenger for 2016 Holyrood election victory.
But will Brown make a difference? Is a rejected Prime Minister really an asset? Let’s assume complacency from SNP foot-soldiers over his intervention. Won’t many make the comforting assumption that Brown is no more than a failed leader whose views carry little weight?
Smarter party figures will surely be a little more concerned. Brown may have lost the 2010 General Election but Labour’s share of the vote in Scotland was a healthy 42 per cent, compared with just 29 across the UK. In the very darkest final days of his premiership, Brown’s Labour retained the support of a substantial number of Scots (more than twice as many as supported Salmond’s SNP).
Yes, yes, I know. I’ve heard the contemporary analysis that people vote differently at different times for different reasons, but the idea that Brown’s doesn’t command some respect in Scotland is way off the mark. Salmond may, in the past, have described Brown variously as a “bully”, “a feartie from Fife,” and a “sub-prime minister”, but the First Minister takes the former Labour leader very seriously indeed. So he should.
Brown retains a great deal of authority, he is trusted (if their polling told them otherwise, Labour wouldn’t be putting him front and centre). Voters might quite reasonably blame governments for the global financial crisis, but Brown’s role in preventing the collapse of banks means he came through those frantic days with his reputation for competence intact. If Brown has a story to tell, he has an audience willing to give him a hearing.
The former prime minister’s appearance tomorrow won’t just represent the introduction of a new player in the referendum game, it also suggests some improvement in the health of the Scottish Labour Party. While the SNP has been a model of discipline these past nine years or so, Labour has lived through sporadic outbreaks of civil war, with MSPs and MPs briefing against each other and playing out the sort of destructive internal battles that keep parties in opposition. Brown’s emergence in the debate suggests that masochism may be over.
I agree with a senior Labour figure that the SNP has one of the finest leadership teams in the business. Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney, Angus Robertson, Peter Murrell and Kevin Pringle are a formidable group. Lamont may be building a team fit to take them on. Her appointment of former journalist Paul Sinclair as her chief adviser may well be behind this. Sinclair worked for Brown in Downing Street and has encouraged a relationship between his former and current bosses.
Another of Sinclair’s previous political masters, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, is also on board. Alexander has emerged as the party’s most significant thinker in Scotland and Lamont’s relationship with him will be crucial as she develops a manifesto for the 2016 election. Lamont may just be a reshuffle away from having a coherent answer to the upper echelon of the SNP.
When Brown speaks in Glasgow at the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome (nice touch, with its evocation of Team GB success and the wave of Britishness that burst over the Tweed and washed its way to John o’Groats last summer), it will be in the wake of a poll showing support for independence ebbing away, with just 30 per cent of Scots in favour.
Salmond and his team have been tested – and found wanting – not only on referendum issues, but on domestic matters. (Lamont ran rings round Salmond last week over the trebling of the number of patients waiting more than four hours for treatment at accident and emergency units).
So Brown joins the fray as the nationalists are under pressure as never before since coming to power. Alex Salmond’s story of modern Scotland is under attack. Can Gordon Brown enthrall – or even just reassure – enough Scots with his vision of Scotland within the UK to break the First Minister’s narrative arc? Are you sitting comfortably?