Can Brown save the Union with a timetable?


  By Lesley Riddoch
Can Gordon Brown’s new timetable for more devolution coax wavering voters back to the No camp before next Thursday?
It’s certainly true that Devo Max would have won the referendum hands down two years ago.  But Devo Max isn’t what Gordon Brown is offering now and two years has proved to be a small eternity in Scottish politics.

  By Lesley Riddoch
Can Gordon Brown’s new timetable for more devolution coax wavering voters back to the No camp before next Thursday?
It’s certainly true that Devo Max would have won the referendum hands down two years ago.  But Devo Max isn’t what Gordon Brown is offering now and two years has proved to be a small eternity in Scottish politics.

Since the Edinburgh Agreement kicked off the independence debate, the majority of Scots have become empowered and politically aware.  As someone who championed the case for three options on the ballot paper then, it’s clear to me now that Scotland is another country.
Then a cynical, half-hearted, last minute sop delivered from on high by unpopular, discredited UK politicians might have seemed appealing to hesitant Scottish voters.

Now the unscrutinised, top-down nature of Brown’s intervention visibly encapsulates everything that’s wrong with Westminster rule.  Perhaps that’s the why the weekend YouGov poll found that if there was a three option referendum next week, 42% would still back independence compared to just 31% back in March.  Something has definitely changed.

But not the approach from the No campaign or its last ditch leader Gordon Brown.  His latest move is cynical, desperate and dishonest.  But then that’s become par for the course.

It was Gordon Brown who vetoed substantial new powers in Labour’s Devolution Commission, leaving Johann Lamont the impossible and embarrassing task of selling the weakest devolution offer amongst the Unionist parties to an underwhelmed Scottish public.

It was Gordon Brown who advised Ed Miliband to let David Cameron take the Devo Max option off the ballot paper.  And it’s Gordon Brown who keeps banging on about the “unanswered” questions of independence, while refusing to give any detail about his vague proposal or submit to a face to face TV interview that might help the electorate come to a decision in nine short days.

Somehow the standards of proof and even common courtesy required of the Yes campaign are suspended for the former Prime Minister.  Clearly, voters are also meant to suspend our collective memory and see no parallel between this latest desperate scramble and those final days at Number Ten when the man who had presided over the worst economic collapse in a century tried to cling onto power even though the electorate had voted him out.

Gordon Brown has form in last minute wheeling and dealing.  And Labour has form in blaming the Tories for its own inability to propose more ambitious powers for Scotland.

Last week, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson surprised many by suggesting David Cameron might find re-election difficult — a move clearly designed to persuade Scottish voters that Labour is still in with a chance of winning in 2015.  Ed Miliband picked up on this “revelation” — as it was clearly agreed he would – but ran too hard and fast with the Tories “admission” of defeat, prompting an intervention by Alistair Darling and fury from senior Tories.

Clearly the Unionist strategy in these final days is to let Labour blame the Tories for absolutely everything – the party is already so unpopular in Scotland it will make very little difference to their fortunes.  So now Gordon Brown has hinted that the Tories are to blame for the last minute nature of this devolution offer.
Amongst alert voters that won’t wash.  But what about the rest?

Very few newspapers backed Gordon Brown to remain as Prime Minister in 2010, but still fewer back Scottish independence today.  Drama sells papers and big names make news.  So parts of the popular press will seize the opportunity to hype this late, cobbled-together intervention – even if recasting the “clunking fist” as Superman Saviour of the Union is tough.

Meanwhile the BBC continues to give undue, even fawning respect to ex-leaders, however unpopular and currently irrelevant – it’s part of the reason Aunty has misfired throughout this long referendum campaign.

So the voting public and Yes campaigners can’t rely on the official news media to treat this latest scramble with the scrutiny and contempt it currently deserves.  Nothing new there.  

Perhaps though a few things will become apparent to even the most partisan observer over the days ahead.
Firstly, since the UK Government has apparently got no Plan B and has conducted planning only for a No vote, there is no worked through or costed template for ‘Devo A Bit More’.  Thus, politicians who have criticised every line of the Scottish Government’s White Paper, are set to offer an alternative which may not have any costings, timescales or critical analysis – and, like Gordon Brown’s other recent “offers” may not even be written down.

Will Gordon Brown submit himself to a Bernard Ponsonby grilling on Scotland Tonight or cross examination in a BBC debate as Alex Salmond has done?  Will he heck.

The wooden ex PM will stick to situations he can control and questions that probe no deeper than Labour’s superficial enthusiasm for giving Scots control over our own resources.

Secondly, some of the proposals appear to be unworkable.  Housing Benefit is about to be subsumed into the single Universal Credit so it’s hard to see how it could be easily extricated for devolved use in Scotland without causing more of the chaos familiar to claimants and low paid workers depending on food banks to see them through.
Unworkability will be one factor making Gordon Brown’s promise of a seven month delivery impossible to realise.  No other country has produced such massively asymmetrical federalism.

Denmark is often quoted – the Faroes and Greenland have devolved tax-raising parliaments.  But every Danish municipality currently has more borrowing and tax raising powers than the Scottish Government, and Denmark has a population of just 5.6 million.

Gordon Brown’s proposals would do nothing to tackle the biggest problem in the United Kingdom, the stubborn refusal of British politicians to change the governance arrangements of sixty million English people who are currently governed by one legislature – the most centralised system in Europe.  Without change to this, English resentment will inevitably grow towards the greater powers given to Scots and maybe Welsh and Northern Irish people.  Is that healthy?

And is there any chance that a more thorough federal proposal including the regions of England could be produced and agreed within seven months?  There is not a cat’s chance in hell.

The Lib Dems have espoused federalism for decades.  But not even they have dusted down that proposal for immediate application in England.  There is simply no real demand. 

As the Union crumbles, Scots are looking to push away Westminster control and create a new more equal, modern and progressive state north of the border.  English voters appear content to push away Europe and back parties that want a return to the days of Splendid Isolation and Empire.

We are living in a country with two very different political cultures – as any examination of voting patterns over the last 80 years will demonstrate.   Now those two divergent political cultures are well nigh irreconcilable.
Thirdly, Devo Anything leaves economic policy, tax raising, Trident and North Sea Oil revenue in Westminster’s hands.  That might have seemed acceptable two years ago – now opinion polls show that most Scots think the UK Government is hiding the true extent of recent oil finds from Scottish voters and some even believe the secret service is involved.

Rarely have Scots been more suspicious of UK Government motives towards Scottish energy resources.  And rarely has the Trident “deterrent” been found more wanting.

With conflicts around the world demanding a totally new approach to peace-keeping, negotiation and security through trade and the advancement of genuine democracy, Trident lies revealed as an unlovely, expensive, illegal and redundant bit of military hardware — more of an obstacle to peace than a defender of it.
Fourthly, since the Edinburgh Agreement precludes any new offer at this late stage from either Government, it will come instead from political parties.  They may mean what they say – they may not. 

The one certainty is that UK parties are involved in a Westminster election centred on the need to fend off Ukip.  How will more powers for “subsidy-junkie” Scots play to Nigel Farage and his growing legion of southern supporters?  How surprising would it be if any half-hearted commitment to more powers from election-obsessed Westminster parties simply slipped?  Permanently.

Finally, it’s not at all clear Gordon Brown has a mesmeric effect on Scots voters any more.  The weekend YouGov 51% poll also looked at trust ratings.

Despite the combined efforts of the press to turn Alex Salmond into a cross between Shrek and Voldemort, the First Minister has a 42% trust rating, exceeded only by Nicola Sturgeon on 44%.  Gordon Brown has a 31% rating – better than David Cameron’s miserable 23% but lower than the 33% ranking of now vanquished Better Together leader Alastair Darling.

Is that enough to sway savvy Scots by next Thursday?

As the landlady in my Helmsdale Bed and Breakfast put it this morning, Gordon Brown didn’t get where he is today (out of office) by setting the heather alight.  She’s probably right.