Gordon Brown speaks in Glasgow on August 22, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Gordon Brown has bared the socialist soul he hid as Prime Minister

Fighting against Scottish independence, the former PM makes the case for social justice far better now than when he was in office. 

Labour's Scottish MPs have returned to Westminster from the referendum battle to take part in today's vote on the bedroom tax (one of the issues that the Yes campaign has best exploited). Their number includes Gordon Brown, who delivered a lengthy speech on Scotland in the Attlee Suite of Portcullis House this morning. In reference to his now fleeting appearances in parliament, he started by joking that "an official tour guide is showing me round later."

Better Together has often been accused of being too arid and technocratic, of failing to make a passionate and emotional case for the Union, but that is not a charge one can lay at Brown. With the oratorical force that allowed him to so ruthlessly dispatch his political foes (Tory and Labour), he argued that the unique achievement of the UK had been to create and maintain a state in which risks and resources were shared between four nations for the common good of their people. 

"Whereas the European Union is a single market, the United Kingdom is a social market," he observed. "And whereas the Americans share equal civil and political rights, Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland have gone further by sharing the same social and economic rights": a UK-guaranteed pension; assistance when unemployed, disabled, or sick; free healthcare at the point of need; and minimum standards of protection at work, including a UK-wide minimum wage. 

He called for a new "statement of national purpose" which stated explicitly that "The Union exists to provide security and opportunity for all by pooling and sharing our resources equitably for our defence, security and the social and economic welfare of every citizen", and urged Ed Miliband to include this proposal in the Labour manifesto. He added that he would "personally" also like to see a formal commitment to "the eradication of poverty and unemployment across the UK and to universal healthcare free at the point of need". 

Brown derided Alex Salmond's claim to the progressive mantle, noting that the SNP's "only" tax proposal was to reduce corporation tax to 3 per cent below the UK rate, and that, unlike Labour, the party did not support a 50p tax rate for earnings over £150,000, a bankers' bonus tax or a mansion tax. The biggest beneficiaries of the corporation tax cut, he noted, would be the privatised utilities. "So here you would have Ed Miliband in England, and Wales, and Northern Ireland freezing energy prices. The Scottish National Party in government, not freezing energy prices, because they refuse to do that, not making the energy companies pay the obligation for renewables, which Ed wants to do, but giving them, not a windfall tax, which we did in 1997 on their profits, but giving them a tax cut worth several scores of millions of pound."

Listening to Brown, what was most striking was how he made the case for social democracy with far greater clarity and passion than he ever did while Chancellor or Prime Minister. Then, permanently terrified of vacating the imagined centre ground, he redistibuted by stealth and only introduced a higher top rate of tax after the financial crisis, when it could be justifed as an act of fiscal necessity, rather than distributive justice.

Brown attacks Salmond for planning to cut corporation tax, but during his Chancellorship the main rate was cut from 33 per cent to 28 per cent, and he declared in his 2008 Budget: "I want to go further. We will reduce the tax again when we are able". He certainly never considered anything as radical as an energy price freeze, or a mansion tax (and spoke of but never delivered a "statement of national purpose"). But out of office, Brown has bared the socialist soul he previously disguised. Today he even quoted the old Marxist saw about each giving "according to their abilities" and receiving "according to their needs". 

Ed Miliband's great criticism of his mentor was always that he was scared of his own shadow, too preoccupied with winning over the Daily Mail and the Sun to fight for the social democratic Britain he believed in. It was his growing sense of frustration at the limits of Brown's approach that in part convinced him to run for the leadership in 2010. Red Gordon's performance today was another reminder of the gap between what was and what could have been.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.