Irn-Broon: Gordon Brown at a Labour pro-Union event in Glasgow, 10 March. Photo: Getty
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Let’s stay together: Gordon Brown’s My Scotland, Our Britain

Brown is a difficult opponent for Alex Salmond’s nationalists to knock down. His continued popularity north of Hadrian’s Wall is a powerful threat to the Yes lobby. 

My Scotland, Our Britain
Gordon Brown
Simon & Schuster, 368pp, £20

Few Scots could have greater cause to dislike the English than Gordon Brown. The former Labour leader’s premiership was pockmarked by insults motivated by his nationality. Time after time, the legitimacy of his Downing Street tenancy was challenged because Irn-Broon is an MP for a constituency in a devolved country of the United Kingdom.

The Conservatives are increasingly an English nationalist party despite David Cameron’s defence of the Union; the present Prime Minister is anxious to avoid emulating Lord North by losing the colonies. Tories often muttered about Brown’s Scottishness to undermine him. Jeremy Clarkson, the Top Gear motormouth, didn’t bother to disguise his “one-eyed Scottish idiot” gibe with a mumble. The Sun dismissed him as a Scottish “squatter” during his last ten days in No 10. Yet Brown doesn’t dislike the English – or the Welsh or the Northern Irish. He has a barely disguised contempt for a certain type of Englishman, among whom Clarkson is likely to rank, but it is rooted in politics, not nationality. His tribalism is located in his Labour values.

Brown is a difficult opponent for Alex Salmond’s nationalists to knock down. His continued popularity north of Hadrian’s Wall is a powerful threat to the breakaway lobby. Cameron may avoid debating Salmond because he acknowledges that he would be presented as a Tory toff from Eton, the Buller and the Home Counties seeking to calm the restive natives. Cut Brown and he bleeds Labour red.

The second difficulty Brown poses to the Nats is that his Scottishness is beyond reproach. Two decades of living in Edinburgh didn’t save J K Rowling from sniping after she donated £1m to the pro-Union cause. The former PM traces back his family tree 300 years to farm labourers at Inchgall Mill in Lochore, when the Browns were poor in a Scotland where few were wealthy.

My Scotland, Our Britain states Brown’s personal case for Scotland within a multinational state shared with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The subtitle, A Future Worth Sharing, expresses his belief that – as it says on the tin of the main pro-Union campaign group – we’re better together. The battle, he asserts, should be framed as a fight not between Scotland and the rest of Britain but between two visions of the country’s future: Scotland prospering with a strong Edinburgh-based parliament inside the UK, or severing political links with the UK.

In his analysis, political nationalism in Scotland has filled a vacuum created by the trauma of deindustrialisation since the 1950s and the decline of the influence of religion. Old certainties vanished as long-established factories rapidly closed. Wave after wave of jobs disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s, with the end of Singer in Clydebank, Hillman at Linwood, Leyland at Bathgate, British Aluminium at Invergordon, and the entire coal industry. Mass meetings in factory yards and pithead gatherings, among the great foundations of Scottish collectivism, died off. So, too, did mass religious participation, a decline that has continued with the number of people identifying as Christian falling by half a million since 2001.

Yet Brown never regards a parting of the ways as inevitable to fulfil a Scottish destiny. He quotes evidence that higher proportions of his countrymen have considered themselves Scottish before British when nationalism was weaker. In 1974, the figure was 65 per cent; in 2000, during a flush of enthusiasm about the restoration of the Scottish Parliament, it was 80 per cent. In 2013, Brown writes, it fell to 66 per cent. He notes that the 700th-anniversary commemoration of Bannockburn this summer has failed to provoke the predicted outpouring of nationalist sentiment. A proposed gathering of Scottish clans was cancelled, not least because they didn’t fit a narrative pitting all of Scotland against England.

Brown’s recurring theme is that the Nats offer a false prospectus by wanting to stop the world and get off. When Scots and Scotland prosper, it is in partnership. The steam engine flourished from an alliance between James Watt in Scotland and Matthew Boulton in England. Penicillin was discovered by a Scot, Alexander Fleming, and mass-produced in England by Florey and Chain. Recent scientific advances have emphasised that the road runs north as well as south. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Peter Higgs is English-born and his breakthrough was at Edinburgh University. Ian Wilmut, the inventor of the cloned sheep Dolly, was born in Warwickshire and worked at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh.

Brown has written an optimistic account as he wrestles with Scottish and British iden­tities, which he regards as complementary. In the independence referendum, Scots will vote with their hearts and heads. Brown’s intention is to capture both.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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Owen Smith is naïve if he thinks misogynist abuse in Labour started with Jeremy Corbyn

“We didn’t have this sort of abuse before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Owen Smith, the MP challenging Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest, has told BBC News that the party’s nastier side is a result of its leader.

He said:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.

“It’s now become something that is being talked about on television, on radio, and in newspapers. And Angela is right, it has been effectively licenced within the last nine months.

“We’re the Labour party. We’ve got to be about fairness, and tolerance, and equality. It’s in our DNA. So for us to be reduced to this infighting is awful. Now, I understand why people feel passionately about the future of our party – I feel passionately about that. I feel we’re in danger of splitting and being destroyed.

“But we can’t tolerate it. And it isn’t good enough for Jeremy simply to say he has threats too. Well, I’ve had death threats, I’ve had threats too, but I’m telling him, it’s got to be stamped out. We’ve got to have zero tolerance of this in the Labour party.”

While Smith’s conclusion is correct, his analysis is worryingly wrong.

Whether it is out of incompetence or an unwillingness to see the extent of the situation, Corbyn has done very little to stamp out abuse in his party, which has thus been allowed to escalate. It is fair enough of Smith to criticise him for his failure to stem the flow and punish the perpetrators.

It is also reasonable to condemn Corbyn's inability to stop allies like Chancellor John McDonnell and Unite leader Len McCluskey using violent language (“lynch mob”, “fucking useless”, etc) about their opponents, which feeds into the aggressive atmosphere. Though, as I’ve written before, Labour politicians on all sides have a duty to watch their words.

But it’s when we see how Smith came to the point of urging Corbyn to take more responsibility that we should worry. Smith confidently argues that there wasn’t “this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism” in the party before Corbyn was voted in. (I assume when he says “this sort”, he means online, death threats, letters, and abuse at protests. The sort that has been high-profile recently).

This is naïve. Anyone involved in Labour politics – or anything close to it – for longer than Corbyn’s leadership could tell Smith that misogyny and antisemitism have been around for a pretty long time. Perhaps because Smith isn’t the prime target, he hasn’t been paying close enough attention. Sexism wasn’t just invented nine months ago, and we shouldn’t let the belief set in that it did – then it simply becomes a useful tool for Corbyn’s detractors to bash him with, rather than a longstanding, structural problem to solve.

Smith's lament that “it’s now become something that is being talked about” is also jarring. Isnt it a good thing that such abuse is now being called out so publicly, and closely scrutinised by the media?

In my eyes, this is a bit like the argument that Corbyn has lost Labour’s heartlands. No, he hasn’t. They have been slowly slipping away for years – and we all noticed when Labour took a beating in the last general election (way before Corbyn had anything to do with the Labour leadership). As with the abuse, Corbyn hasn’t done much to address this, and his inaction has therefore exacerbated it. But if we tell ourselves that it started with him, then we’re grasping for a very, very simple solution (remove Corbyn = automatic win in the North, and immediate erasure of misogyny and antisemitism) to a problem we have catastrophically failed to analyse.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.