Gordon Brown addresses activists at St Josephs on March 10, 2014 in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The trouble with Gordon Brown

The former PM has had plenty of time to give us a glimpse of what his "progressive" Britain might look like. We’re still waiting.

No party is more adept at exploiting the gap between practice and rhetoric in Scottish society than Labour, and no Scottish politician is more authentically Labour than Gordon Brown. After a series of relatively underwhelming, policy-focused speeches, the former Prime Minister has arrived back in the independence debate with a thud.

Over the last few days alone, he’s had his new book, My Scotland, Our Britain, serialised in the Daily Record, he’s mobilised Labour’s grassroots against separation and he’s published an essay in the Guardian casting the referendum as a chance to "demonstrate how distinct nations, proud of their cultural identities, can also transcend them."

Brown’s heightened presence in the campaign is designed to stop the flow of low-income voters away from the Union and towards independence. So far, it seems to be working. Ipsos MORI’s latest poll shows support for independence among the poorest fifth of Scots down 4 per cent and among Labour voters down 10 per cent. The Yes camp knows it can’t afford to lose these (or any) people, so last weekend Alex Salmond announced plans to "reindustrialise" Scotland after a Yes vote. (Though how you do that using a currency – the pound – which has systematically undermined Scottish manufacturing exports for three decades, I don’t know).

Traditionally, Brown has struggled with “the national question”. In his introduction to The Red Paper on Scotland, published in 1975, he described the "oil-fired" rise of the SNP as "less an assertion of Scotland’s permanence as a nation" than "a response to Scotland’s uneven development". But by the time he had become Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1997, his analysis had reversed. In a pamphlet, New Scotland, New Britain, written ahead of the first Scottish parliamentary elections, he dismissed "the cause of separation" as a "misguided retreat from … modern forces of change".

During his 13 years in office Brown made various attempts to redefine "Britishness" as a progressive, 21st-century identity, but often ended up sounding like Enoch Powell. On a trip to Tanzania in 2005, he even told reporters that Britain shouldn’t be afraid to "celebrate" its colonial past.

With the referendum only three months away, Brown seems (again) to have re-evaluated his view of Scottish nationalism. In the Guardian, he identifies the "insecurity many Scots feel at the economic and social dislocation wrought by de-industrialisation" as a central component of the SNP’s recent success. "Of course, the quarrel Scots have is not with England", he adds, "but alongside England, with globalisation".

Here, however, Brown’s position simply collapses.Under his leadership, Labour didn’t "quarrel" with globalisation, it actively facilitated it. Between 1997 and 2010, the number of manufacturing jobs in Scotland fell from around 300,000 t0 under 190,000, while manufacturing output shrank by two per cent as a proportion of GDP. Compare that to the 57 per cent growth in Scottish business services and  finance over the same period.  

Having presided over the creation of a fiscally toothless Scottish parliament, Labour then encouraged an ever greater concentration of economic activity in London. Today, the capital accounts for a larger share of UK output than the English north-west, Yorkshire and Humber and the north-east combined. The imbalances in the British economy grew more severe during the Blair and Brown era, not less.

Then there’s Brown’s record on pay and workers’ rights. Labour may have introduced the minimum wage, but it did so at a disgracefully low level, ensuring Britain remains, in 2014, one of the lowest pay economies in the OECD. Indeed, the number of zero-hours contracts in Britain rose by tens of thousands during the last years of Labour government. This was in no small part due to the long-term decline of trade union representation among British workers, a problem aggravated by Labour’s refusal to repeal Thatcher-era anti-trade union laws.

So I find it difficult to take Brown seriously when he talks approvingly of "the social market" or tries to lump the SNP in with "anti-EU, anti-immigrant parties". The financial crisis wasn’t that long ago. I, for one, haven’t forgotten about Brown’s attempts to protect "British jobs for British workers".

As Brown himself seems to concede, it’s the structural issues that matter in this debate. We aren’t being asked to choose between competing identities. Brown obviously still believes Britain can be reclaimed for the left, for the welfare state, or for some amorphous "progressive vision". He has had plenty of time, including more than a decade in power, to give us a glimpse of what that Britain might look like. We’re still waiting.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.