Gordon Brown gives a speech during a United Labour event at the Pearce Institute on September 2, 2013 in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why Gordon Brown is a threat to Alex Salmond

The former PM retains a strong connection with the working class Scots who could determine the referendum result.

Despite his status as a former prime minister and chancellor, and his devotion to the Union, Gordon Brown has been largely absent from the Scottish independence battle to date. But with now only six months to go until the referendum, that is beginning to change. In Glasgow today, he will make his most high-profile speech on the subject yet, calling for further devolution to Scotland and new “power-sharing partnerships” between Westminster and Holyrood. With a consistent majority of Scots in favour of greater powers, Brown views a promise to meet this desire as crucial to saving the Union (his propoals have been submitted to Scottish Labour's devolution commission). 

But more significant than the details of his plan is the fact that he has now unambiguously entered the fray (today's speech will be followed by further interventions). Brown is one of the few Unionist politicians that Alex Salmond concedes poses a threat to the nationalists. The former PM is significantly more popular in Scotland than he is south of the border and has a strong connection with the working class swing voters that the SNP hopes will break for the Yes side in September (hence his decision to make his speech in the east end of Glasgow). At the 2010 general election, while Labour's vote fell by 6.2 per cent across the UK, it rose by 2.5 per cent in Scotland and the party held onto all 41 of its seats. This was thanks in no small part to Brown, whose own constituency vote rose by 6.4 per cent. 

Salmond has recently attempted to discredit Labour figures by portraying them as the lackies of the Tories (who hold just one seat in Scotland). He remarked of the joint attack on a currency union: "The sight of a Labour shadow chancellor reading from a script prepared by George Osborne was too much to bear for many Labour supporters in Scotland. For Alistair Darling’s former election agent, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back and made him declare for a Yes vote. I predict that moment will prove to be one of Westminster Labour’s biggest misjudgements. Siding with the man who’s intent on dismantling the post-war welfare state and imposing permanent austerity will haunt the two Eds. Mr Osborne’s speech and the reaction of the Labour party at Westminster will have reignited the independence debate in many, many people’s eyes."

But Brown's decision not to join the cross-party Better Together campaign, in favour of working with the United with Labour group, makes it imposssible for Salmond to dismiss him as a Tory proxy. This leaves the SNP to attack his record as prime minister but as I've noted, voters in Scotland look more favourably upon Brown's time in office than their English counterparts. One of the few commentators to have recognised this is the Telegraph's Benedict Brogan, who wrote last month: 

The other actor who has so far only made a fleeting appearance on the stage is the Labour politician who played arguably the key role in turning Scotland against the Tories a generation ago. Since his defeat in 2010, Gordon Brown has excused himself from the political fray – an absence that can too easily be interpreted as a form of political cowardice.

In his homeland, his reputation is not as tarnished as it is in England. Indeed, his record as a tribal champion of Scotland and an enemy of the Tories gives him a unique position to speak positively of the Union. Last month he broke his silence to praise the financial dividends it brings to Scotland, but he must do more. As a voice that once helped to deepen the divide with England, Mr Brown will reach parts of Scotland that the Unionist case currently doesn’t.

While some will portray his involvement as a sign that the Unionist campaign is doomed, be in no doubt: Gordon Brown’s is one of the greatest assets it has. 

Here's the six-point plan for a new settlement between Westminstr and Scotland that Brown will outline in his speech: 

- A new UK constitutional law to set out the purpose of the UK as pooling and sharing resources for the defence, security and well-being of the citizens of all four nations

- A constitutional guarantee of the permanence of the Scottish Parliament

- A new division of powers between Scotland and Westminster that gives Holyrood more powers in employment, health, transport and economic regeneration

- A new tax sharing agreement that balances the commitment of the UK to pool and share its resources with the need for accountability to the electors in all the places where money is spent

- New power-sharing partnerships to address shared problems on poverty, unemployment, housing need and the environment

- A "radical" transfer of powers downwards from Westminster and Edinburgh to local communities

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.