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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. 

Irn-Broon: Gordon Brown at a Labour pro-Union event in Glasgow, 10 March. Photo: Getty
Irn-Broon: Gordon Brown at a Labour pro-Union event in Glasgow, 10 March. Photo: Getty

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