Gordon Brown should know better than to play politics with the Union

During his premiership, Gordon Brown found it more difficult than his immediate predecessor to form cross-party alliances or forge initiatives that enjoyed bipartisan support.

No doubt it was his upbringing in the Scottish labor movement that instilled in him a deep, tribal animosity towards every other political party, especially the Conservatives. Burdened by this weakness in government, he brought it with him into civilian life when he stepped out of politics altogether in 2015. It is not difficult to see in his many public expressions since then his lingering rage against the party that ousted Labor in government. But when it comes to defending the Union, such partisan jokes are not only useless – they are worryingly harmful.

Over the weekend, it was reported that former Prime Minister Boris Johnson was accused of being “afraid” of a second independence referendum in Scotland, boasting that he had no doubts the Unionist side would win again. Not for the first time in his life, Brown has delivered an analysis that is painfully inaccurate in every way.

First, the direct charge of cowardice against Johnson.

The Prime Minister is enraging Scottish nationalists, not because he is afraid to allow Holyrood to hold the second referendum in eight years, but because he carelessly engages in nationalist jokes and refuses to change course despite the continued dominance of the SNP in Scottish politics.

This is not how Unionism—especially Brown’s version of Unionism—shouldn’t work. Since the 1990s, the pattern has been that any SNP progress must be met with a Unionist concession, even if such concessions result in even greater progress through nationalism (as they always do). Even now Nicola Sturgeon struggles to understand Johnson, repeatedly resorting to the nationalist strategy of choice: to dismiss the Prime Minister as a “Tory”, in order to deny Scottish democracy.

How much happier would she be with a restored Brown government, when any SNP victory in Scottish or general elections would inevitably involve a transfer of more and more powers to Holyrood and thus to the SNP government. Such concessions in the past, whether by Labor or Conservative governments, have been motivated by the very same emotion Brown now accuses Johnson of: fear. It was fear of nationalism that campaigned Scottish Labor for a devolved parliament in Edinburgh, the fear of Alex Salmond that forced Brown to expand Holyrood’s powers just eight years after it was founded.

And it is the fear of nationalism and of independence that drives Brown’s work on behalf of Keir Starmer, a revision of the British Constitution which, if the reports are to be believed, will recommend a large-scale reinvention of the Union along federalist lines, leaving Westminster the has control only of defense and foreign affairs when it comes to Scotland. This is a solution that nobody, whether in Scotland or England, wants, and which will nevertheless be proposed by Brown, because major transfers of power to the north, even if they have not achieved the intended result of strengthening the Union in the past, certainly will work next time.

Devolution, you see, is like communism: a great idea, only it’s never really been tried.

More importantly, Brown’s attack on Johnson is politically inept. Most Unionists — and perhaps even some Nationalists — recognize that demands for a second referendum are illegal, that a generation must pass before even a second vote is considered. This is a logical and democratic position to take: nation-states cannot and should not jeopardize their territorial integrity every few years. But with his boastful attacks on Johnson, Brown risks legitimizing Sturgeon and her party’s demands for a second referendum.

Undoubtedly, he believes this is the right political approach, as it puts his party at the forefront. It could even be seen as no longer being on the defensive, as it has been for decades. This is pure Brown strategy: it’s all about the story and the perception.

Except it’s not: it’s about things far more important than public relations, campaigning, voting or even the future of a small Scottish political party. It’s about the future of the UK, something that far outweighs all those other concerns.

Johnson’s robust approach to the SNP is in stark contrast to that of his predecessors, including Brown. He insists that the result of the 2014 referendum be respected and honored and is unafraid of the outburst of Ian Blackford who comes every week to the Prime Minister’s questions, as the Westminster SNP leader repeatedly recites his claim that Johnson is the defies will of the Scottish people. He obviously doesn’t do anything like that.

What undermines Unionism and damages our morale is former prime ministers and their parties seeking to make party political capital out of a government’s refusal to give way to nationalism. Would a concerted approach by the government and Scottish – or even UK – Labor be too much to ask?

Recently, the deputy leader of Scottish Labor, the esteemed Jackie Baillie MSP, followed the Brown playbook by making another concession to nationalism, claiming that her party had been sidelined in working with the Conservatives on the Better Together campaign. We are used to Labor moving away from losing campaigns, but denying a victorious one is another step. The statement has been long overdue, pushed for leadership by the hard left and nationalist-leaning activists who hate conservatives far more than they despise the SNP.

The logic of this move, coupled with Brown’s determination to target Johnson for refusing a second referendum rather than Sturgeon for demanding one, is that if there were another vote, Labor, the third largest party of Scotland, and the Scottish Conservatives, are second largest, would not cooperate in a joint campaign. Good news indeed for the SNP. It’s a good thing most of Scotland realize that Sturgeon’s promise of a renewed referendum next year won’t be fulfilled as promised.

The SNP is deeply indebted to Labor for the power and influence they have. Even from the opposition, Labor seems determined to continue doing Nicola Sturgeon favours.

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