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18 May 2021

From the NS archive: Gordon Brown interview

19 April 1999: The chancellor talks Scotland, Europe and purse strings.

By Steve Richards

Gordon Brown has emerged as the most eloquent senior politician to put the counter-argument to Scottish independence. His opposition goes a long way back. In this interview from 1999, two years after Scotland was granted its own parliament and when Brown was chancellor of the exchequer in the first Tony Blair government, he was already making the unionist case. Talking to Steve Richards, he expressed his view that “Britain was forged out of external threats and to some extent imperial ambitions. The 21st century will be forged out of our ability to reconcile enterprise and our enduring sense of fairness and tolerance.” While he saw the case for greater regional power he remained convinced that Westminster should remain the key. Asked if he felt European, Brown said: “Yes, as part of Europe, but I feel a strong sense of being British and of being born in Scotland. I find it possible to accommodate all of these.”


Gordon Brown is the most political chancellor since the war. Not only has he got a greater say over policy-making across Whitehall than any of his recent predecessors, he is leading Labour’s increasingly effective charge in Scotland and never lets up on his scrutiny of political opponents. “Have you read the latest speech from Alan Duncan, the Tories’ junior health spokesman?” he asks. “I am surprised the newspapers haven’t picked up on it.” Imagine Howe, Lawson or even Clarke diverting their lofty attention from the economy to focus on a speech from a political opponent not even in the shadow cabinet. To some extent Brown is able to range more widely because he has the time to do so. He does not have to fret about interest rates. Public spending has been set for years to come, thereby avoiding the draining autumn spending rounds. A decision on Britain’s entry into the euro has been kicked into the long grass.

But even if Brown had been immersed in those time-consuming policy areas he would still have kept his gaze on a wider political horizon. He cannot help it. At the end of a long day recently he was “relaxing” in his Downing Street flat, watching Newsnight with some friends. The programme included a profile of the SNP leader, Alex Salmond. The Chancellor got increasingly restless. “Someone should phone the programme and tell them about tomorrow’s poll in the Herald. It gives us a big lead over Salmond. They could mention it in the newspaper review at the end.” He sat frustrated in front of the screen, as his friends restrained him from making the call himself. Since then he and some of his closest allies have been far more directly involved in the Scottish campaign.

It was in this context that he raised Duncan’s speech. “He called for a large part of the NHS to be privatised,” Brown said. (Not quite true: Duncan, like his boss Ann Widdecombe, is raising the prospect of greater involvement of the private sector as part of an enhanced NHS.) For Brown, the NHS stands as his favoured symbol of Britishness, a subject to which he has been giving much thought. When we talked, he was preparing a speech for a New Statesman conference on the subject.

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“In the 1980s a very narrow view of Britishness was popularised by Margaret Thatcher, a Britain built on self-interested individualism, mistrust of foreigners and an unchanging constitution. I believe this was based on a misreading of our past. Our history shows Britain to be outward-looking and open. It is not true that British history is defined by a mistrust of foreigners. The past shows Britain to have been internationalist and engaged.”

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This is not an arid, academic debate. If Brown can convince those who are flirting with Scottish nationalism that being British now means something new, the momentum towards independence, already stuttering in the current election campaign, could come to an abrupt halt. “People in Scotland reacted very strongly against the Thatcher view of Britishness, but more widely the old Britain of unreformed structures was ill-suited to deal either with new nationalities, that is people who have come into this country, as well as the old nationalities. That is why the constitutional changes are critical. The cause of the growth of nationalism was the unreformed state.”

For Brown, being British means reconciling a sense of fairness with support for creativity and enterprise, underpinned by constitutional reform. New Labour has hijacked the Union Jack ideologically just as it did, literally, during the 1997 election campaign. “New Labour,” says Brown, “reflects the enduring traditions of Britain and the need to modernise our institutions.”

He says he feels Scottish and British. But where does England fit in with this vision? It has no separate parliament. Some senior Conservatives tell me they hear increasingly loudly “the drumbeat of English nationalism” arising paradoxically from Brown’s view of a modern Britain. Brown insists that, “English people can see themselves exactly as they want to see themselves. There are Yorkshire men and women, Cornish men and women, who are also British.”

But this is where policy detail gets in the way of the broader vision. At least for the first term of this government England will not even be granted elected regional assemblies, a cause dear to the heart of John Prescott, but not an enthusiasm shared by Brown in the past. I detect no enthusiasm now, either. “Tony Blair has said that we are creating regional agencies and are responding to requests and desires for regional institutions. Britain can be stronger with centres of regional initiative around the country.” Make what you will of the term “regional initiative”. It doesn’t sound like a democratic assembly.

There is another, practical question. The Treasury has always been wary of anything below Whitehall level having too much freedom to spend cash. And Brown likes to keep a firm control on the country’s purse strings, deciding not only on the amount being allocated to different policy areas, but how the money should be spent. How does the commanding Chancellor from Whitehall reconcile his dominance with his celebration of devolution? “There is merit in the pooling of services and making ‘British’ decisions about the use of resources. Meeting the requirements of the NHS is one example. But equally there are decisions that are best made locally and regionally either through regional agencies or the government offices in the regions, or in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.”

But it is in his choice of institutions to represent Britishness that Brown is most revealing. I wonder, for example, how the monarch is perceived in Scotland. “The Queen is very popular in Scotland. People understand the royal family is going through a period of change. But in terms of the values and institutions that make up the British identity, Britain was forged out of external threats and to some extent imperial ambitions. The 21st century will be forged out of our ability to reconcile enterprise and our enduring sense of fairness and tolerance. The institutions that will reflect this best are the decision-making ones such as a reformed House of Lords, the devolved bodies and other local centres of initiative.”

As well as the NHS, “a distinctive British institution·”, he mentions a reformed welfare state as contributing to a new sense of national identity. “The changes we are making on welfare reflect enduring British values of rights and responsibilities.”

By juxtaposing his view of Britain with the Thatcherite stereotype of the 1980s, Brown makes it sound fresh and distinct. But the Tory party is redefining itself fast, accepting finally the case for devolution, supporting a London mayor and preparing to come up with proposals for the House of Lords that will be more radical than the minimalist reform favoured by the government. Further, while new Labour ministers still view local councils with suspicious wariness, the Tories are proposing fresh powers for them. William Hague, whose “British way” was the theme of his last party conference speech, would also claim to be as tolerant of ethnic minorities as the current government.

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So what is new about Brown’s British way? This is where Europe plays its part in his view of Britishness, although he expresses it with a cautious negative. “Why are the Conservatives so anti-European and mistrustful of what happens outside our boundaries? I see Britain as outward-looking, not insular. My view is also less based on narrow individualism. The noblesse oblige of the past, which so fascinates Conservatives, can’t carry much resonance for millions of people who see themselves as part of a community looking ahead to the future.”

Does he regard himself as a European? There is a slight pause before he enters this political minefield. “Yes, as part of Europe, but I feel a strong sense of being British and of being born in Scotland. I find it possible to accommodate all of these.”

Do English people see themselves as European? “That’s a stronger sentiment for younger people who have travelled more in Europe. These things will take time. But for now what I say is that my sense of Britishness does not require that you define yourself as anti-European.”

I ask whether a single currency would help in accommodating the European dimension into Britishness, but I could see him heading for the formula about the need for the Treasury criteria to be met. The single currency plays no part in his thinking on Britishness. I have missed the point, he says, and proceeds to his conclusion.

“I see Britain as being the first country in the world that can be a multicultural, multi-ethnic and multinational state. America, at its best, is a multicultural and multi-ethnic society, but America does not have nationalities within identifiable political units in the way that Britain does. We have a chance to forge a unique pluralist democracy where diversity becomes a source of strength.”

Brown is far more expansive on this than on the other overriding issue of the moment. On the conflict in the Balkans he is brief and blunt. Chancellors tend not to welcome wars as they cost money. I do not get the impression this one is rubbing his hands with enthusiasm at Britain’s second expensive military campaign in months. I ask him whether the Balkan conflict helped to redefine a new sense of Britishness, as there appeared to be much less jingoism than in past wars. “In the Balkans, people recognise gross injustices had been done to a beleaguered minority and that is wrong.” What about the cost? “Obviously a military endeavour like this involves costs and we will continue to look at these. Our prudence over the past few years enables us to make whatever difficult decisions are necessary.” But will the defence budget have to rise? “We will look at these matters every week and every month.”

The Chancellor is not involved in the war as closely as some of his cabinet colleagues, an unusual situation for him. Running the economy and the campaign in Scotland, keeping an eye on other departmental policy-making and redefining Britishness is probably enough to be getting on with for the time being.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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