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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser