They sent film crews from London and political journalists queued for a glimpse. Such was the reception for a hitherto unspotted big beast at the independence debate watering hole.
Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister, still MP for Kirkcaldy, has had little to say about anything much since his return to the back benches in 2010. But he is held in high regard – as a policy intellectual and as a thoughtful politician who put ideas into action. So his lecture at the Edinburgh Book Festival might have been worth listening to then?
Only if you readily accept political and historical revisionism. Only if you believe in yesterday.
I have only seen the section of Gordon Brown’s speaking notes which cover independence: he had more to say about internationalism and interdependence apparently and that in itself, would have been interesting to hear/see.
But the bit on independence – or rather, the Union – is fascinating for everything it is not. For every journalist who spent a day getting to Edinburgh to hear the “great man speak”, sadly it was a bit of a wasted journey.
Brown is correct in stating that this debate “must start from first principles” but what he laid out as fact in terms of what motivated and led to the “British Union” was actually a highly politicised and personal take on how we got to where we are today. Ask any two politicians, historians or commentators what drove the Union and inevitably, you get very different answers. And Brown’s first principles are derived from his essentially UK experience of politics, rather than from a primarily Scottish perspective: another inevitability, given that he has spent almost his entire political life there rather than here.
He aimed to construct a modern case for the Union based on his assertion that it is unique, and that its uniqueness has made it successful and therefore, worth keeping. Attempts to replicate the Union elsewhere, specifically in Europe and USA, have not been as successful. What makes our union unique? The fact that “Scottish ideas of justice and community” combined with “traditional English ideas of ordered liberty and individualism” to create not only “common political rights” but also “common social and economic rights” – the much reported “pooling and sharing of resources“.
In one sweeping generalisation, Gordon Brown writes out of history a strong liberal tradition in Scotland, ignores – astonishingly – that one of the greatest exponents of individualism was a Fifer and erstwhile of his constituency and disappears the Chartists, the suffragettes, the home rulers, the anti-slavery campaigners, the social reformers and the trade unionists, many of which movements began in England and Wales.
To compound matters, he suggests that this uniqueness means Britain is a more progressive union when contrasted with the European Union or the USA:
“In other multinational states like the European Union, these common social and economic rights – and this pooling and sharing of resources – does not exist to the same degree. So, as the tables show, inequalities between nations in Europe are so deep that the typical citizen of the richest state Luxembourg has six times the income of the poorest, Bulgaria. And the reason for the difference with Britain is that we have created a social market while Europe still has little more than a single market. And then in Asia, as the tables also show, the gulf between nations on the same continent is so glaring that the richest country has income levels per citizen more than thirty eight times that of the poorest.
Even in the USA, as the enclosed table shows, a federal statewhich is made up of regions not nations, inequalities are greater with the typical citizen of the richest state earning more than twice the income of their neighbour in the poorest.
I mention all these federal and multinational states to show the uniqueness of what has been achieved in Britain. Inequalities between Scotland and England have narrowed to the point that the typical Scottish citizen has an income of over 20,000 a year just like the English citizen and Scottish GDP per head is 96 per cent of English GDP per head.
And even when we look at states which border each other like Mexico and the USA, Singapore and Malaysia, and Spain and Morocco there is no natural tendency to converge.
Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland stand out as countries that have done more than anyone to minimise the differences in average income per head. We have a long way to go if we are to reduce inequalities within each nation but we have gone a long way in minimising inequalities between each nation within the British Union. We have done so in a progressive way by establishing minimum legal rights of citizenship; then common and equal social rights of citizenship; then common and equal economic rights of citizenship; and from the pooling and sharing of risks and resources.“
There are grains of truth here – and of interesting argument – but as we all do, Gordon Brown selects facts carefully to prove his case. He also appears oblivious to the very real contribution that the European Union has made and is making to social and economic rights in the UK, a contribution often made possible by the efforts of his own MEP colleagues.
His argument glosses over the inconvenient truth that the UK had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, with attempts to kibosh its legally binding status made by the Labour Government in which he was a pivotal figure. Indeed, the negotiation of a protocol to ensure the Charter did not extend the powers of the European Court of Justice over UK law succeeded – diminishing the potential impact of the Charter to protect our legal, social and economic rights of citizenship – while he was Prime Minister.
Moreover, the EU budget works hard to try and address the economic inequalities he refers to. Thus, poorer nations and regions receive a bigger pot of funding. He should know this, given that he top-sliced the UK’s Objective 3 strand repeatedly in order to fund the New Deal.
But his amnesia is greatest when addressing the issue of inequality. Yes, there may be less financial and economic inequality across borders, but only if you focus on the averages. And it is not good enough to blithely acknowledge that there is more to be done to address inequality within nations and regions, when you spent thirteen of the last fifteen years in a pivotal and privileged political position to do something about it. Under a Labour Government, in which he was either Chancellor or Prime Minister, inequality on these islands grew. Not just between those at the top and the bottom, but across the social classes and throughout the nation states and regions. In case, he had forgotten.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies conducts an annual analysis of poverty and inequality and its statistics show that despite Gordon Brown’s and others’ efforts through the use of levers like benefits and tax credits, income inequality grew under 13 years of Labour, with the gap yawning between those at the very top and those at the very bottom.
Indeed, the most recent analysis suggests that in its first year, the Coalition Government produced the sharpest fall in income inequality since 1962 “reversing the increase…under the previous Labour government“. The reason is not an improvement in living standards – 2010-11 saw sharp falls in household income – nor the impact of redistributive policies, but the consequence of recession, depressing earnings and incomes. These are falling in all groups but are falling fastest in the top earning brackets.
There is no denying that over the last thirty years – until now – our living standards have improved and that some aspects of inequality were addressed. Poverty was reduced, particularly for children and pensioners, under Gordon Brown’s watch. These are significant achievements.
But is the harmonisation of inequality really a benchmark of success? The poor of Glasgow might well be as poor as people living in Swansea or Birmingham. The rich of Edinburgh might be as well off as people in the same circumstances and similar post codes in London and Belfast. But the poor of Glasgow are still substantially worse off than the rich of Edinburgh, with there still being a huge concentration of wealth in a tiny pocket of the whole of the UK, in and around London. Levelling the playing field has done little to close the gaps.
Moreover, these kind of achievements could have been made without the Union: our success in economic and social terms is actually only loosely dependent on the existence of a political Union. Indeed, it is arguable that many steps in this direction have been made in spite of, rather than because of the Union, coming largely from measures taken at European level.
Had Scotland been independent, we would still have had a working time directive, improvements in workers’ conditions, as well as the ability to move freely around Europe, claim benefits and seek health services. For every argument which bolsters the Union’s case as a driver and deliverer of economic and social rights on these islands, there is another to deconstruct it.
And any such success has proven fragile – much less robust than other countries in Europe and around the world which are riding out the financial crisis with less economic and social damage. If anything this current economic crisis has demonstrated that we are not necessarily better together, better able to withstand buffeting by external economic forces, in particular.
This is no modern case for Britain: as the small print warns, previous performance does not guarantee future success. Who is to say that Scotland, as a member of the European Union or the successor alliance which emerges after the Eurocrisis, might not be better placed to deliver economic and social rights for our people in the future, which tackle all the inequalities in our society and communities, with the rest of the UK doing likewise? Those agin say that independence would erect unhelpful barriers with our biggest trading partner, the rest of the UK. But ongoing EU membership – for both – would ensure this would not happen. Our economic interdependence would ensure that political independence worked.
Like so many in the No camp, it is the politics, rather than the economic or social arguments, which bind Gordon Brown to the Union. The politics comes first and arguments are woven to fit. So much of their time and energy is spent looking back, making the case for the future on a revised working of the past.
And while the pro-Unionists spend the early days of this campaign longing for yesterday, we can’t stop thinking about tomorrow. It’ll soon be here – and it’ll be better than before.