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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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories