Is it too late for Gordon Brown to save the Union again?

The former PM and the new Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross are changing the terms of a stale independence debate.

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Gordon Brown doesn’t make mistakes, and he doesn’t do apologies. Unlike Tony Blair, who in No 10 would regularly deploy a bashfully regretful mea culpa to shimmy out of a tight spot, Brown’s impenetrable fortress of certitude has permitted no such weakness.

What are we to make, then, of his essay in this week’s New Statesman, in which Brown practically falls over himself to confess his sins? He first admits that “those of us who were in government” at the time of devolution’s creation “should hold up our hands” at the failure to build mechanisms to manage relations between Westminster and the regions and nations.

He rues that “decisions that affect the whole of the UK are still made without any real consideration of the impact on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the regions of England, too.” It was, he accepts, “naive to think we could create strong Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and regional decision-making bodies and automatically expect people to feel more British as a result. Equally, it was naive not to anticipate that devolution could create a megaphone for intensifying resentment.”

Having opened the floodgates, it seems Brown just can’t stop. “I failed when after becoming prime minister in 2007 I tried to start a debate about what it means to be British and the importance we, as a country, attach to the values of liberty, fairness and social responsibility.”

[See also: Gordon Brown: How to save the United Kingdom]

The key to this unprecedentedly self-critical take – which almost makes one want to check Brown hasn’t been replaced with a near-replica – lies in one final, mournful regret that “my own nation, Scotland, already has one foot out the door of its 300-year-old Union with England.” Brown concedes that “in ten years’ time the United Kingdom [could] follow the British empire into the history books as an anachronism whose time has passed.”

It’s hard to think of any living person who more completely embodies that fading, positive version of Scotland within the UK. Brown was the most recent, and very possibly last, Scottish MP to be both chancellor and prime minister. He was a dominant figure in the Labour movement that was hegemonic in Scotland for decades and then, for 13 years, governed the UK. Alongside Blair he was the architect of a New Labour philosophy that sought to redefine Britishness as a modern, progressive construct. As a lifelong devolutionist, he was the main driver behind the delivery of Holyrood – and Stormont and Cardiff Bay – in an attempt to ease the Union into the 21st century.

How long ago it all seems. Brown must look at the condition of Britain today and shudder. The Union is hanging by a thread, and he is right to say that Scotland “already has one foot out the door.” We are now waiting for the other shoe to drop, which may be a matter of when rather than if. Brown’s extraordinary recitation of personal failures seems driven by intellectual pessimism, a degree of desperation, and the growing realisation that, very possibly, the game’s a bogey.

It’s something that I find among many of the most ardent Unionists – they simply cannot figure out what’s happening in Scotland (and as a result some of them are writing and thinking worthless and even dangerous rubbish). For Brown, the motives of the Scottish electorate, its priorities and preferences, the free pass it gives the SNP despite that party’s own substantial weaknesses, must appear almost a personal insult. This battle-worn social justice warrior, this bulwark of solidarity and redistribution, whose Scottish origins animated a life of building common purpose across the whole of the UK, can no longer find purchase or reason. It has all fallen apart so very quickly.

The question is, does Brown – so recently a giant of global import – still matter? Can he any longer make a difference? Is anyone listening? Nationalists have responded to his prescription for saving the Union – the four pillars outlined in his essay – with both public and private derision. It is all too little, too late, they say. Brown is yesterday’s man, out of touch and out of time. 

They may well be right. Most of his proposed measures, from formal joint-working arrangements between Westminster and the devolved administrations to replacing the House of Lords with a Senate of the Nations and Regions, are good ones. But they are not new, and their delivery is not in his hands. 

The idea that Boris Johnson, who only this week described devolution as “a disaster north of the border” and “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake”, has the scope or skill to deliver such a vast, revolutionary project, or even the interest or will to give it a bash, is at best debatable. The awkward squad formed by the new city mayors over the past few months will hardly have recommended to him greater devolution of power from the centre. Johnson was anyway elected on a populist agenda that flirted uncomfortably with the malign corners of English nationalism. With Covid-19 and Brexit blotting the horizon, it’s not hard to see why a wholesale reworking of the constitution, driven by the demands of the UK’s grumpy, unappeasable northern statelet, will seem something less than a priority.

[See also: Scotland has never been closer to independence – and Boris Johnson is to blame]

But it is undeniable that Johnson is aware of the heinous impact Scottish independence would have on his legacy. And something is stirring. Nationalists are dismissive of Brown but also of Douglas Ross, the new Scottish Tory leader, whose early months have been characterised by bracing disagreements with Johnson and a refreshing autonomy of thought and action. 

The separatists too are in danger of missing the point. What we see from Brown and Ross – and their smarter allies – is a willingness, even a compulsion, to change their arguments and their terms. This has the potential to be disruptive in what has long been a stale debate of fixed positions. The closer Keir Starmer gets to No 10 the greater is the possibility of a refreshed, social democratic Britain with some appeal to floating Scots. In the meantime, Unionist parties must prevent the election of a pro-independence majority to the Scottish parliament in May, or buy themselves time by delaying indyref2 for as long as they can get away with. Difficult, but not impossible.

Be in no doubt: the Union has entered its endgame. It is not yet certain what the denouement will be, but things can only go one of two ways. Either the SNP’s Sonic the Hedgehog charge towards independence continues on its current accelerated course, and at some point in the next decade the UK loses the top third of its landmass and a population that has been central to the successes and failures of the past 313 years, or the separatists are defeated on one of the fronts available and we all stop for breath. Victory for the Union will still require its fundamental rewiring.

It may be that Gordon Brown no longer matters. It may be that Douglas Ross doesn’t matter either. It may all be far, far too late. But one wonders when the SNP’s prolonged political success will spill over into a sense of entitlement, invincibility and arrogance, and when the journey from hubris to nemesis might begin. They might ask Brown about that.

Something is building in these unpromising circumstances that at least has the potential to be more than the sum of its parts. The pieces are not yet aligned and it may be too much to hope that they ever will be. But Unionists will cling to the fact that where there’s life, there’s hope.

[See also: The twilight of the Union]

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Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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