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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Of course we could do more to stop terrorism – if we’re willing to live in a police state

 The only way to stop this sort of human monster completely is to become like them.

What are we prepared to sacrifice to keep children safe? On Monday night at Manchester arena, 22 people were senselessly slaughtered. Many of them were young girls, pouring out of a pop concert, giddy with excitement. Hours before the killer was identified or Islamic State had claimed responsibility for the attack, the political conversation had already turned to vengeance, and respected public thinkers were calling, in the name of those dead children, for further crackdowns on immigrants and perceived outsiders, for troops on the streets, for "internment camps'" with straight faces and the sincere implication that anyone who disagrees is weak-willed and possibly a terrorist sympathiser. A lot of little girls have been killed. What good are tolerance and human rights today?

Nobody can be expected to be instantly rational when dozens of kids have just been maimed and murdered. There are, however, individuals who seem more than prepared to exploit the occasion to further their own agendas. Yet again, we are told that the state is failing in its duty to protect "our" children, that pansy liberals won't let us raise the "obvious solutions" to this problem. Nobody can quite bring themselves to articulate exactly what those "obvious solutions" might be, hedging the issue instead with grave looks, raised eyebrows and stern allusions to the consequences of political correctness. The consensus is that we are living in a nation so paralysed by hand-flapping progressive talk-talkery that ordinary, right-thinking folks aren’t allowed to say what’s really on their minds. 

The truth is that nobody’s stopping anyone from saying what they think about any of this, and if you don’t believe me, take a brisk scroll through Twitter this afternoon, and keep some eyeball bleach on hand. In fact, the reason a lot of people are stopping short of saying what they think ought to be done is that they know full well that what they think ought to be done is unacceptable and shameful in any sane society. So shameful, indeed, that it takes a professional shit-stirrer to speak it aloud. 

Enter Katie Hopkins. It’s not just pro-trolls like her who have called for a "final solution" following the Manchester Arena bombing. Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson declared that we should start putting "thousands" of people in "internment camps" in the name of protecting children. Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill echoed the tone, blaming "multiculturalism" for mass murder, and implying that anyone advocating calm and tolerance in the face of terrorism does not feel sufficiently angry about the murder of 22 of their fellow citizens. “It is becoming clear,” insists O'Neill, “that the top-down promotion of a hollow ‘togetherness’ in response to terrorism is about cultivating passivity.”

In fact, Britain is far from passive in the face of extremist violence. Britain already has one of the most robust counter-terrorism programs on the planet. We are among the most surveilled societies in the Western world. We have a counter-extremism program, Prevent, that places a duty in schools, universities and other public bodies to report any suspected radical or "extremist" activity, and is so exacting that it has been condemned by experts and educators across the board as an infringement of the right to free speech and thought. The authorities responsible for heading off and hunting down these psychopaths and all who sail with them are hardly slacking on the job. The problem is that there's really no way to up the game from here without going full police state. The pundits condemning the relevant institutions as shirkers today know this full well, which is why a police state is exactly what they’re asking for, with the inference that anyone who disagrees is awfully relaxed about the violent death of young girls and their parents.

So let’s not mince words. Let's be absolutely clear what’s at stake here. Let us acknowledge that yes, we could do more to stop this, if we wanted. And then let's think about whether that's really, actually, what we want.

Yes, we could do more. We could allow the state to round up and lock away anyone even remotely suspected of violent, extremist tendencies; anyone who has ever accessed a suspicious website or attended a dubious lecture. We'd have to lock those people up for a very long time, of course, because if there's one thing that nudges people from a passing interest in anti-state violence into full on fanaticism, it's active state oppression. We could ban anyone who's ever been in any way associated with extremist ideology from entering the country, including those who are fleeing violence themselves. We could institute total surveillance of everyone’s online activity. We could build those internment camps. They’d be expensive, so it’s only fair that potential degenerates and their associates be obliged to work for their keep. Of course, you wouldn't want those internment camps spread out - you'd want the inmates concentrated in one place. What could we call such camps? I’m sure we’ll think of a name.

If we did all that, and more, then yes, there's a chance that we could stop atrocities like this from happening again. Even then, there's no guarantee. The most exacting neo-stasi infrastructure can’t always stop the rogue loner with a breadknife and a brain boiling with arcane violence. It would, however, significantly lower the odds.

The question is not whether it can be done. Of course it can be done. Paranoid, bloodless, hyper-vigilant police states have been instituted in European nations before, and if any country on earth has the infrastructure to make it work right now, it's Britain, a small island with an extensive surveillance architecture, a mostly urban population, a conservative government currently seeking re-election on a tough-love platform, and no pesky constitutional rights to free speech. We can do it if we want to. Sure we can. The question is whether we should. The question is whether it's worth it. Is it worth it, to prevent the loss of one more young life, the devastation of one more family?

Don’t answer that right now. Give it a few days, at least, because right now it makes a great deal of emotional sense to say yes, yes, it’s worth it. Anything to stop something like this happening again. To save one child. To keep hundreds more from being traumatised for life just because they went to a pop concert with their friends. I suspect that today, tucked away in the collective psyche of a great many otherwise tolerant and decent people, is a furious, frightened voice yelling - sure, let’s do it. Let’s shut the borders and build the camps. It might not be nice, it might not even be right, but these evil dickheads are killing kids, so frankly, fuck the Geneva convention.

That furious, frightened instinct needs to be named so we can deal with it like adults. The anger and the fear here are real and legitimate, even though a great many bad actors are exploiting them to further racist, xenophobic agendas. It’s alright to be frightened and furious. It’s not alright to let those emotions dictate public policy. Today, with the faces of murdered little girls all over the news, is not a day to ask anyone what they’re prepared to sacrifice to make sure this never happens again.

Because the truth is that the only way to stop this sort of human monster is to become like them. The only way to be sure that no swivel-eyed extremist who hates life, and liberty and raw youthful joy so much that he's prepared to blow up a pop concert full of teenagers can never do that again is to acquiesce to the sort of state apparatus that is anathema to joy and liberty and life, the sort of state apparatus that no child should grow up with.

This is why platitudes about 'unity', about 'not letting hate win', about keeping it together and trying not to let our worst instincts take over, are not, in fact, platitudes at all. They are not banal. They are not hollow. It takes enormous strength of character, at a time like this,  not to give in to fear and rage and the rationale of revenge. The people of Manchester are showing that strength in the wake of one of the most horrific mass murders this tense and divided nation has ever seen. We owe it to them, to the victims of this attack, and to their families not to sully their memories by surrendering to the logic of intolerance.

It is at moments like this when a community proves its character.  It is at times like this that it is more, not less essential to refuse racist and fascist ideas. Tolerance is not passivity. Kindness is not weakness. It is not cowardly to stay with our anger and our grief and refuse to let those emotions sway our commitment to human dignity, or to look dreadful vengeance in the face and refuse it. It is strength. It is strength more profound and more human than fundamentalists of any faction can comprehend, and if we hang on to that strength, they will never, ever win. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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