For a politician whose career reached its apex during the era of New Labour hyper-professionalism, Gordon Brown never developed the knack of it himself.
Whilst he can be a stand-out performer in a set-piece setting, he struggles with his critics. Like a writer who can’t resist wading in below the line to pick fights in the comments, he is wont to get drawn in to firefights which are seldom in his interest.
A recent conference in Newcastle organised by These Islands, a pro-UK group, offered me an unexpected opportunity to witness this first-hand when, slightly to my surprise, the person exchanging fire with him ended up being me.
Brown was opening the conference, and whatever his faults he is remains a powerful public speaker. This won’t surprise anyone familiar with his stand-out address at the climax of the 2014 referendum campaign, but it was nonetheless impressive to see him set out a multi-faceted, statistic-heavy argument, over at least 40 minutes, without notes.
Beneath this surface polish, however, there was a gaping void at the heart of the speech. Like it or not, the former Chancellor and Prime Minister is one of the principal architects of our current constitutional arrangements. Given the apparently parlous state of the Union, he must at least have a case to answer.
Yet there was little evidence of any such self-criticism, and what there was fell firmly into what one writer described (perhaps aptly, in this case?) as the ‘More Stalin’ school. As Scott Alexander puts it:
“If you “criticise” society by telling it to keep doing exactly what it’s doing only much much more so, society recognizes you as an ally and rewards you for being a “bold iconoclast” or “having brave and revolutionary new ideas” or whatever. It’s only when you tell them something they actually don’t want to hear that you get in trouble.”
There can be few paragraphs which so perfectly sum up the state of the debate on devolution, but it was especially true here. Where Brown admitted fault, it was in not grasping back then how right he had truly been, and now strong a dose of his preferred medicine the nation really needed. His every proposal, however radical-seeming, was rooted in the same intellectual soil. Even where he didn’t wish to give the devolved institutions more powers, he still called for them to be given more power relative to the British Government.
Critical scrutiny of what has already been done was confined to claims that it had not been done enough. In the rare instance that he dwelt on shortcomings of one of his preferred approaches – such as the implications for the stand-off between the British and Scottish governments over the COP26 summit for models based on an ‘inter-governmental’ approach to UK-wide policymaking – he then declined to draw the obvious conclusion, instead simply saying that we simply must make such arrangements work.
Perhaps in an effort to mask this void, Brown attempted a little illusion in which he held up Michael Forsyth’s vain efforts to salvage Tory unionism in the 1990s as a counter-example to his own ideas. After painting an entertaining (and for Conservatives, at least, painfully vivid) portrait of the then-Scottish Secretary’s stunt with the Stone of Destiny, Brown drove the point home by emphasising that the plan ended with the Tories losing all their Scottish MPs and the SNP being stronger than ever.
It was on this point that we quarrelled.
Beyond being a gratuitous piece of partisan score-settling with an administration which has been out of office for almost a quarter-century, this passage struck me as both misleading and unfair. Misleading because it invited the audience to believe that if Forsyth’s strategy was wrong, Brown’s must be right. Unfair because assessed with the benefit of hindsight, it is at all clear that Brown’s strategy was not, in fact, the bigger failure.
After all, Forsyth became Scottish Secretary only in 1995. His party’s position in Scotland had deteriorated and he had scant time or resources with which to try and compensate for Thatcherism’s lack of a unionist strategy. His position was so bad that one commentator vividly remembers him as “standing like a pirate captain at the helm of a satanically unpopular party”.
By contrast, Brown, as half of New Labour’s dysfunctional diarchy, was able to push forward his constitutional vision in full during a 13-year period in office, and with the full support of a hegemonic Scottish Labour Party.
If both strategies ended with their respective parties wiped out, and their former position ceded to the SNP, Labour’s was by some distance the more catastrophic failure – precisely because of how strong their former position had been.
My question to Brown in the Q&A after this speech was twofold.
First, did he recognise that, considered over a twenty-year stretch from when they took office, New Labour’s constitutional strategy had delivered precisely the outcome he had so mocked Forsyth for?
Second, and in light of this, did he not think that those who advocated devolution ought to have a proper intellectual reckoning with the failure of their programme to deliver a stronger, more stable UK before they presumed to know how to achieve one now, especially if their advice amounted to a fresh prescription of the same medicine?
Another politician might have brushed this off, or affected an easy pivot to more comfortable ground. But despite having reached the height of his powers in the era of New Labour spin, Brown can’t or won’t do that. Instead, clearly riled, he decided that the best form of defence was attack. At one point he even started firing questions back at me from the stage, putting paid to the moderators’ hopes of continuing the Q&A.
One of those questions, though, was the closest he got to answering mine: when he asked me if I accepted that ‘devo-max’ would have got 80 per cent or more had it been on the ballot paper during the 2014 referendum.
This, which due to the circumstances I wasn’t able to answer on the day, is a telling insight into the shortcomings of Brown’s constitutional thinking. Setting aside the fact that you cannot unilaterally decide the terms of a multi-lateral arrangement such as the Union, so having ‘devo-max’ as a question to be decided by Scots alone was always nonsense, it betrays a fundamental failure to recognise that it is possible to win battles in a manner which loses wars.
A larger margin of victory in a referendum has some value, but it must be weighed against the danger posed by winning with promises to restructure the UK in a way that will fundamentally weakening it. Buying off the separatists with such concessions is, in terms a former Chancellor should understand, the constitutional equivalent of selling assets to cover costs. That way lies bankruptcy.
When someone betrays so clear a fear of looking backwards as Brown evinced that Friday morning, one must wonder what horrors they think lurk in their wake. As the Government prepares to launch its constitutional review and take the fight to the SNP, it must not be led astray by those whose first priority appears to be safeguarding their reputations.