Gordon Brown addresses Scottish Labour activists at St Josephs on March 10, 2014 in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Gordon Brown is a potent weapon for the Scottish No campaign

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

More significant than the content of Gordon Brown's speech at a Better Together event today is the mere fact of it at all. At the outset of the Scottish independence battle, Brown refused to join the unionist umbrella group in favour of working with the single-party United with Labour. This reflected both his unremitting anti-Toryism and his reluctance to join forces with Alistair Darling, the chancellor with whom he clashed so often in the final years of his premiership. But with less than five months to go until the referendum, the former PM has cast aside hostilities and agreed to speak on a Better Together platform at Glasgow University at 5pm today. 

The appearance has been planned for some time but that it coincides with the No campaign's smallest poll lead to data (just three points separate the two sides in the latest ICM survey) means it will be written up as a desperate roll of the dice by the unionists. There is, however, no doubt that Brown represents a considerable threat to Scottish independence, as even Alex Salmond has been known to acknowledge. 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 who have been defecting to the Yes side in recent weeks. 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. 

The SNP has responded by denouncing Brown for joining "the Tory No campaign" but it is precisely his involvement that will make it harder to portray Better Together as a Conservative front. Brown will largely focus on the issue of pensions today, reflecting the pivotal status of elderly voters in the contest. He will reveal new leaked DWP figures he has been given and cite three ways in which Scotland will benefit from the preservation of a cross-UK pensions system. 

First, as Scottish pensioners numbers rise from one million to 1.3 million (a proportionately larger increase than in the rest of the UK), the country will increasingly benefit from a system under which it pays 8 per cent of national insurance contributions but receives 8.8 per cent of the benefits.

Second, the UK will underwrite what is "estimated confidentially" as a £100bn Scottish public sector pensions bill. While Scotland accounts for 10 per cent of government pensions liabilities, it accounts for 8 per cent of the UK population. 

Third, the maintenance of the Union would remove the £1bn bill that a new independent Scottish government would incur to administer the first years of a separate pensions system (once IT costs are included). In addition to £720m running costs, there would be £300-400m in computer bills due to "unnecessary duplication."

He will say in his speech: 

For too long the referendum debate has been presented as one side representing Scotland and the other side representing Britain.

In fact the real debate is between two Scottish visions of Scotland’s future – the nationalist one based on the breaking of all political links with the UK and our vision based on a strong Scottish Parliament backed up by a system of pooling and sharing risks and resources across the UK.

The whole point of sharing risks and resources across the UK is that it is right and proper that the British welfare state bears the rising cost of Scottish pensions as the number of old people will rise from 1 million to 1.3 million.  As the internal DWP document makes clear, it is fairer and better for everyone that Britain’s faster rising working-age population rather than Scotland’s slow rising working-age population covers the cost of the rising numbers of elderly in Scotland, because we have contributed in UK National Insurance all our lives to spread the risks of poverty in retirement.

If the SNP deny there is a problem they have to explain why they have set up a working party on ‘the affordability’ of future pensions.

Scottish public sector pension liabilities of £100 billion, while also higher, are also rightly covered as part of the system of pooling and sharing resources across the UK.

It makes no sense either to break up the British system of pension payments or to set up a wholly new administrative system which the DWP costs at £1billion in the first years.

In Glasgow I will show how in areas such as pensions it makes good sense to combine having a Scottish Parliament with being part of Britain.

The SNP government has said the case for independence should be judged on whether Scotland would benefit financially or not.

It is clear that pensioners are better protected when the risks are spread across the UK and it is also clear that in the year the SNP want independence the Scots pension bill alone is three times the income from oil revenues.  

Indeed the best deal for poorer pensioners is the redistribution of resources we have negotiated within the UK which allowed pensioner poverty in Scotland to fall under Labour, from 33 per cent in 1997 to 11 per cent when we left office.

It is the kind of forensic analysis for which Brown was celebrated in his Treasury days. Salmond may present himself as an accomplished economist, often referring to his time at RBS in the 1980s, but on this territory, he is no match for the former chancellor. 

But if Brown is to revive the fortunes of a No campaign that has badly lost momentum, he will need to inject passion and emotion into the debate, rather than merely statistics (something of which Better Together has no shortage). With a self-authored book soon to be published on his relationship with Scotland and the Union, Brown should seize the opportunity to make a personal case for a social democratic UK. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war