The SNP’s remarkable rise is often attributed to the lack of first-rate Labour politicians to take the nationalists on. After devolution in 1999, Scottish Labour’s big beasts – Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, Douglas Alexander, John Reid, Robin Cook, Jim Murphy – chose to remain at Westminster, rather than standing for election to the new parliament.
The result was that the SNP was able to establish itself as the natural party of government in Scotland, becoming the largest party in 2007 and, remarkably, achieving a majority in 2011 (an outcome that the proportional electoral system was designed to make impossible). It was that astonishing victory (which received far too little attention in Westminster at the time, although the NS covered it extensively) that led to the independence referendum that will be held a week today.
But could the biggest beast of all be about to enter Holyrood? During his speech this morning in Kilmarnock, Gordon Brown vowed to stand for election to the Scottish parliament, and return to “frontline politics”, if Alex Salmond continued to “peddle” lies about the NHS. He said:
I say to you this, if Alex Salmond wants to continue to tell you that he is powerless to do anything about the National Health Service while he is First Minister of Scotland, under the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament, if he continues to peddle that lie, let him make way for the Labour Party and we will run the health service properly.
And I say this to Mr Salmond himself, until today I am outside frontline politics. If he continues to peddle this deception that the Scottish Parliament under his leadership, and he cannot do anything to improve the health service until he has a separate state, then I will want to join Johann Lamont in fighting him and securing the return of a Labour government.
The prospect of Brown grappling with Salmond on a daily basis is a thrilling one (it often feels as if the planet is too small for them to co-exist). The assumption among Labour figures has long been that Brown will stand down from parliament at the next general election, and this is the clearest indication yet that the former PM is looking to life beyond Wesminster.
Brown’s words are also a sign of the greater prestige that Holyrood will acquire through further devolution. No longer will Westminster be regarded as the only route to national prominence. Indeed, it is striking that not one of the three figures doing so much to remake British politics – Salmond, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson – sits as an MP.
As for Labour, while Brown says that he would “join Johann Lamont”, the party’s current Scottish leader, in fighting Alex Salmond, it is Jim Murphy who is increasingly being spoken of among sources as a challenger for the job.