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