Having just read the speech Gordon Brown gave on Monday, it’s now clear why Scottish Labour took a while to post it. Let’s just say it’s not one of his finest. And that’s being charitable.
Indeed, you wonder if the Scottish media which collectively wets its pants every time this big political beast shares his thoughts with us on the domestic political stage, wasn’t left feeling a little foolish once they heard it. Having touted and trailed the speech frenziedly, it rather disappeared from view on the news agenda and few have bothered to critique it.
While the historical revisionism visited upon the poor pupils of Govan High School was breathtaking, we won’t bother taking him to task in a line by line deconstruction of his assertions about what Labour MPs delivered and who and what is responsible for the growth of the British welfare state. A history degree has its uses but would only get in the way of this blogpost. But two points.
First, there is truth in the aspiration and ideals of those early pioneers of the Labour movement, and Gordon Brown rightly suggests that they are just as pertinent today as they were then. The bit he misses out is how Labour – and the New Labour experiment which he expounded, followed and belonged to – rather disrespected all that its forefathers stood for. If you want to rule in UK, OK that means appealing to white van man in a handful of marginal seats and he and his ilk are much more Thatcher’s children, who politically have little desire to pool and share in the way Brown extols elsewhere in the speech.
The second point is that Brown’s revisionism obliterates from view the role that Scotland played in setting the scene for the emergence of a welfare state, a role from which the Labour party was born. Scotland had a public, free education system before England did: it might have been rudimentary but the principle was there nonetheless. The poor law might have been inadequate but the idea of a common weal, of there being a need for institutions to take care of the most vulnerable members of our society was evident, even if it lost its principles somewhat in execution.
And while the postwar Labour government was pivotal in the creation of the National Health Service, the reasons for its ready adoption as an idea whose time had come was as influenced by pragmatism as by ideals: two successive large-scale wars had shown the pitiful state of men’s health in particular, and if we wanted a fitter and more robust fighting machine, something had to be done.
Moreover, the concept of a welfare state was not an exclusively Labour ideal, nor was it a particularly British one; it was informed by thinkers and reformers from a range of backgrounds and its elements had its origins in different parts of these islands and indeed, elsewhere.
What Brown espouses as a “positive, principled and forward-looking case for the union” is in fact mired in the past and constructed on myths. His political theory relies wholly on the last century for solutions; worse, it ignores the present day reality that the pooling and sharing of resources has not resulted in equality nor economic security for many Scots or indeed, English, Welsh or Irish either.
Somewhat ironically, it was also revealed this week that Glasgow – a city which until very recently has been red through and through, with Labour running the council, holding all the UK seats and most of the Scottish ones too – has more work-less households than any other city in the UK. It also has appalling health indicators – low life expectancy, higher than average hospitalisation due to alcohol-related conditions and rates of coronary heart disease. Over the last fifty years, Labour, more than any other political party, has held all of the cards which count and it has failed to find in them a flush which might fix the problem that is Glasgow.
Gordon Brown suggests that if we just hold fast to old thinking, we can find a better future. His speech offered nothing of value nor innovation. Worst of all, in the skip of a sentence, he suggests that the only way to counter the current Tory regime is by voting for Labour. This is rose-tinted and near-sighted politicking at its worst.
And there’s nothing hopeful about it: indeed, intrinsic to the concept of pooling and sharing resources is the belief that Scotland is too wee and too poor to achieve anything without the help of its neighbours. He quotes statistics: I could counter with my own. He refers selectively to current SNP policies and positions: I could volley back another set more in keeping with founding Labour principles than his party’s current incarnation espouses.
He said nothing – other than vote Labour – about how we might pool and share resources on these key social policy areas more effectively. He offered no new ideas. He provided little food for thought for his ostensible audience of young Scots on their futures. He missed an opportunity to offer something relevant to this debate.
For all the pooling and sharing that has gone on over the lifetime of the UK and especially in recent years, the impact on poverty in Scotland has been marginal and transitory, the gap in inequality has grown to a chasm, and the prospects for the next generation of pensioners are pitiful. All that pooling and sharing, and we’ve actually got very little to show for it.