More significant than the content of Gordon Brown’s speech at a Better Together event today is the mere fact of it at all. At the outset of the Scottish independence battle, Brown refused to join the unionist umbrella group in favour of working with the single-party United with Labour. This reflected both his unremitting anti-Toryism and his reluctance to join forces with Alistair Darling, the chancellor with whom he clashed so often in the final years of his premiership. But with less than five months to go until the referendum, the former PM has cast aside hostilities and agreed to speak on a Better Together platform at Glasgow University at 5pm today.
The appearance has been planned for some time but that it coincides with the No campaign’s smallest poll lead to data (just three points separate the two sides in the latest ICM survey) means it will be written up as a desperate roll of the dice by the unionists. There is, however, no doubt that Brown represents a considerable threat to Scottish independence, as even Alex Salmond has been known to acknowledge. The former PM is significantly more popular in Scotland than he is south of the border and has a strong connection with the working class swing voters who have been defecting to the Yes side in recent weeks. At the 2010 general election, while Labour’s vote fell by 6.2 per cent across the UK, it rose by 2.5 per cent in Scotland and the party held onto all 41 of its seats. This was thanks in no small part to Brown, whose own constituency vote rose by 6.4 per cent.
The SNP has responded by denouncing Brown for joining “the Tory No campaign” but it is precisely his involvement that will make it harder to portray Better Together as a Conservative front. Brown will largely focus on the issue of pensions today, reflecting the pivotal status of elderly voters in the contest. He will reveal new leaked DWP figures he has been given and cite three ways in which Scotland will benefit from the preservation of a cross-UK pensions system.
First, as Scottish pensioners numbers rise from one million to 1.3 million (a proportionately larger increase than in the rest of the UK), the country will increasingly benefit from a system under which it pays 8 per cent of national insurance contributions but receives 8.8 per cent of the benefits.
Second, the UK will underwrite what is “estimated confidentially” as a £100bn Scottish public sector pensions bill. While Scotland accounts for 10 per cent of government pensions liabilities, it accounts for 8 per cent of the UK population.
Third, the maintenance of the Union would remove the £1bn bill that a new independent Scottish government would incur to administer the first years of a separate pensions system (once IT costs are included). In addition to £720m running costs, there would be £300-400m in computer bills due to “unnecessary duplication.”
He will say in his speech:
For too long the referendum debate has been presented as one side representing Scotland and the other side representing Britain.
In fact the real debate is between two Scottish visions of Scotland’s future – the nationalist one based on the breaking of all political links with the UK and our vision based on a strong Scottish Parliament backed up by a system of pooling and sharing risks and resources across the UK.
The whole point of sharing risks and resources across the UK is that it is right and proper that the British welfare state bears the rising cost of Scottish pensions as the number of old people will rise from 1 million to 1.3 million. As the internal DWP document makes clear, it is fairer and better for everyone that Britain’s faster rising working-age population rather than Scotland’s slow rising working-age population covers the cost of the rising numbers of elderly in Scotland, because we have contributed in UK National Insurance all our lives to spread the risks of poverty in retirement.
If the SNP deny there is a problem they have to explain why they have set up a working party on ‘the affordability’ of future pensions.
Scottish public sector pension liabilities of £100 billion, while also higher, are also rightly covered as part of the system of pooling and sharing resources across the UK.
It makes no sense either to break up the British system of pension payments or to set up a wholly new administrative system which the DWP costs at £1billion in the first years.
In Glasgow I will show how in areas such as pensions it makes good sense to combine having a Scottish Parliament with being part of Britain.
The SNP government has said the case for independence should be judged on whether Scotland would benefit financially or not.
It is clear that pensioners are better protected when the risks are spread across the UK and it is also clear that in the year the SNP want independence the Scots pension bill alone is three times the income from oil revenues.
Indeed the best deal for poorer pensioners is the redistribution of resources we have negotiated within the UK which allowed pensioner poverty in Scotland to fall under Labour, from 33 per cent in 1997 to 11 per cent when we left office.
It is the kind of forensic analysis for which Brown was celebrated in his Treasury days. Salmond may present himself as an accomplished economist, often referring to his time at RBS in the 1980s, but on this territory, he is no match for the former chancellor.
But if Brown is to revive the fortunes of a No campaign that has badly lost momentum, he will need to inject passion and emotion into the debate, rather than merely statistics (something of which Better Together has no shortage). With a self-authored book soon to be published on his relationship with Scotland and the Union, Brown should seize the opportunity to make a personal case for a social democratic UK.