Gordon Brown gives a speech during a United Labour event at the Pearce Institute on September 2, 2013 in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.