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3 February 2021

Can Gordon Brown save the Union?

The 2014 independence referendum showed that when the former Labour prime minister spoke, Scotland listened. Will it do so again?

By Ben Walker

On the final day of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum campaign, the former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown spoke to pro-Union figures and activists at a hall in Glasgow. Placards and banners proclaimed “Love Scotland, Vote No”, and Brown delivered a speech considered by pundits – both friend and foe – to have clinched the win for the Union.

To what degree Brown really did “save the Union” is for debate; but it is undeniable that he had an impact, despite very rarely commanding centre stage in the No campaign before that point.

Fast-forward to 2021, and Scotland is on the cusp of electing a majority SNP administration at Holyrood, which in turn will make a second referendum on independence all but inevitable.

Might Brown return for round two? He is already advising Labour on devolution, and in January the Sunday Times revealed that allies of the Keir Starmer were talking to the former prime minister about fronting whatever pro-Union campaign were to rise in the months and years to come. Claims abounded that he was “the party’s last hope north of the border”.

Whether Brown is agreeable to these suggestions is yet to be seen, but so far but supposing he is, does he still have the necessary cut-through to front it? Is he as relevant to Scottish voters as he is to pundits and press offices? Could he really save the Union again? Could anyone?

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Before answering those questions, it’s worth assessing the situation that stands before us. Since 2010, the Scottish Labour and Conservative parties have had nine elected leaders between them. Of those, only one has gained notable reach and approval among a divided Scottish public: Ruth Davidson.

Scotland: No pro-Union party leader has performed as well as Ruth Davidson
Poll high-point for each party leader

The table above illustrates each of the leader’s best polling scores among the Scottish electorate according to Ipsos Mori. Davidson’s best score was 55 per cent, and not one other leader comes close in comparison. In fact, not one pro-Union Scot barring Davidson has in recent times attained majority approval among Scottish voters.

Davidson’s successors have proven pale imitations since she stepped down in 2019. Support for the Scottish Conservatives is higher than it was in 2011, but it is markedly down on Davidson’s watermark score in 2016, and recent opinion polls suggest that figure is trending down, not up.

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Compare this to the governing party. Over the 14 years in which the SNP has been in power in Scotland, the SNP has had just two elected leaders, and from the polls alone it looks as if the current incumbent, Nicola Sturgeon, can do no wrong.

Since the onset of the first lockdown and the divergence of the devolved governments in their coronavirus responses, the First Minister’s approval ratings – already relatively high for a British politician – have surged. And so too has support for Scotland leaving the United Kingdom.

Tracking support in Scotland for Scottish independence
Weighted poll tracker of the latest voting intentions – Britain Elects

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To what extent these gains can be attributed to Sturgeon’s effective communication skills rather than to key issues such as Brexit  is a question for another time. But that the trend exists matters. According to the latest Opinium survey, more Brits across the UK regard Sturgeon with favourability than they do Starmer. 

Many voters get their information about politics through social media or partisan news sites, which often give a simplistic summary. Leaders therefore have better cut-through when they are regularly in the public eye and can demonstrate at least the appearance of competence.

This might explain why the cause of Scottish unionism despite winning in the 2014 referendum has almost always felt like a band of the defeated. For the past 11 years, it has had no concrete figureheads with significant reach except Davidson. It has lacked, and continues to lack, the stability of a recurrent leader. Pro-Union forces need a recognisable face and a recognisable vision, which is why there has been so much jostling to re-recruit Brown.

In Joe Pike’s Project Fear, we learned that for most of the last Scottish referendum campaign Brown was not considered a potential frontman by the Labour and Conservative leaders in Westminster. He was “in hiding”, so to speak; nor was he keen to be closely involved in an operation cooked up by David Cameron and George Osborne. Perhaps reflecting an English dislike of the former Scottish prime minister, Cameron did not approach Brown as an important voice for the pro-union side until the spring of 2014, with only months left and the race tightening.

Today, it seems figures from both red and blue camps have wised up to Brown’s potential value. The data we have suggests they have good reason: he was, arguably, the most effective pro-Union politician of the last referendum. Though he rarely dominated the landscape of the campaign (the job of debating Alex Salmond went to Alistair Darling), in the eyes of Scottish voters Brown ranked well. In a post-vote YouGov poll of all the key figures, Brown came top among pro-Union leaders.

Gordon Brown was regarded by Scots after the referendum to have been the most trustworthy of all pro-Union politicians
YouGov post-referendum survey

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More than one in ten of those who voted Yes on the day in 2014 said they could trust Brown’s claims and statements higher, again, than any other unionist politician.

Internal polling, according to Pike’s Project Fear, suggested Brown would have been the best at appealing to low-income, working-class Scots in 2014 – a key group increasingly enamoured with the idea of independence. His well-timed warnings about the cost-of-living risks to voting Yes, culminating in his speech on the eve of polling day, were found by a YouGov analysis to have “stalled” the pro-independence bandwagon.

Of course, 2014 is not 2021. The debate has since become more emotional than economic, with rising anger at the Conservatives in Westminster and optimism about an independent Scotland’s place in the world driving support for the Yes cause. This shift could lessen the impact of the “clunking fist” of an economically focused Brownite intervention.

But no other candidate embodies the idea of a strong Scotland inside a United Kingdom more than the man who might, in the end, have been the last Scottish occupant of No 10. The appeal and vision of Gordon Brown is emotional as well as economic, two approaches that most pro-Union and pro-EU campaigners have struggled to unite over the course of the past seven years. For too many, it’s either one or the other.

The last referendum proved that when Brown spoke, Scotland listened. Would that happen again, and would it even be enough? Current voting intentions suggest the union between Scotland the rest of the UK is more likely than not to come to an end. But Brown at the helm of a No campaign might prove the Union’s best hope, and even a little hope is better than none at all.

[Hear more: Gordon Brown interviewed on the New Statesman podcast]