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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.