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.