Gordon Brown addresses activists at St Josephs on March 10, 2014 in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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.

DebateTech
Show Hide image

Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to back a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the department behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.