Gordon Brown’s arguments for Union “fatally flawed”

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By a Newsnet reporter

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown delivered the first Campbell Christie lecture at Holyrood’s Festival of Politics on Friday night, giving a speech which had been trailed in advance as a further development of Mr Brown’s ideas on more powers for the Scottish Parliament. 

However his speech was immediately criticised by the SNP as “fatally flawed” and amounting to “little more than a defence of the status quo”.

Mr Brown repeated many of the arguments he aired last week when giving a speech to the Edinburgh Book Festival.  The Kirkaldy MP asserted that allowing Scotland full control over its own finances within the United Kingdom, often termed ‘Devo-Max’, would result in deep cuts to public spending and higher taxes.

In Friday’s speech to the Scottish Parliament, Mr Brown renewed his appeal to Scottish voters to reject independence and urged Scotland to remain within the UK.  The former PM claimed that this was the only way to protect “common standards on social justice, welfare rights and the minimum wage”. 

Mr Brown asserted that Scottish independence would create a “race to the bottom” which would “undermine” social equality as Scotland and England would compete to undercut one another in international labour markets.  According to the former Labour Prime Minister, only the Union of Parliaments offers Scotland an “insurance policy” to protect ordinary families from a decline in living standards.

Mr Brown also attacked the Scottish Government’s policy of free university tuition, arguing that it was unfair that students from elsewhere in the UK had to pay tuition fees to study at Scottish universities while Scottish students and students from other EU countries study for free.  Tuition fees for university students were first introduced in the UK in 1998 when Gordon Brown was Chancellor.  Fees in Scotland were abolished by the first SNP Government in 2007.

The former chancellor who presided over the introduction of student fees argued that the topic was a “hard truth” that Scotland would have to face up to, saying:

“There are hard truths we in Scotland have got to face up to.  I don’t believe it’s right, personally, that we believe in social justice, and yet we have tuition fees free to Scotland to Scottish students, free to anyone from the west of the European Union, and we charge someone who comes from England.

“I think that will increasingly become a difficulty, because tuition fees have gone up a lot.”

He added:

“I’m not saying there’s an easy solution to it, but there should be a negotiation about it.  It seems to me not in tune with the principles I support, of social justice.”

The Scottish Government has expressed repeated concerns about the anomaly in European law which means that students from other EU countries cannot be charged tuition fees, however resolving disputes between member nations and the EU is reserved to the Westminster Parliament.

Mr Brown’s remarks were immediately rebuffed by Scottish National Party MSP for Kirkcaldy David Torrance, who noted that during Mr Brown’s tenure in office, inequality within the UK increased significantly and on current trends the UK is set to become the most unequal country in the developed world within the next few years.  The Kirkaldy MSP dismissed Mr Brown’s arguments on student fees as “bizarre”.

Mr Torrance said:  

“The fatal flaw in Gordon Brown’s argument is that inequality actually increased in the United Kingdom during the period when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister – so on Mr Brown’s own terms the Union failed Scotland under Labour.

“The UK is the fourth most unequal country in the developed world, and the trend is intensifying under a Tory-led government, which has delivered a double-dip recession and taken grossly unfair decisions such as removing Disability Living allowance from some of our most vulnerable citizens.”

He added:

“In his lecture, Gordon Brown failed to explain why he prefers Tory-rule from Westminster, rather than home rule with independence.

“The question that Labour need to answer is why they want the key powers over jobs, the economy and welfare to be held by a Tory-led government at Westminster which is delivering inequality – rather than by the Scottish Parliament which is 100 per cent accountable to the people of Scotland and committed to fairness.”

Addressing himself to Mr Brown’s comments on student fees, Mr Torrance said:

“Thanks to having effective independence over universities policy in the Scottish Parliament, the SNP have delivered a policy based on ability to learn, not ability to pay – and our student numbers are going up in Scotland, while they are plunging in England due to Tory cuts.  Yet it sounds a though Mr Brown wants our universities to be controlled by Westminster, instead of being a Holyrood responsibility.”

However there was a rare note of unanimity between the former Labour leader and the Scottish Government when Mr Brown used part of his speech to condemn St Andrew’s Royal and Ancient Golf Club over its refusal to allow women to join.  

Commenting on Mr Brown’s remarks, the MSP for North East Fife Roderick Campbell said:

“Where the SNP agree with Gordon Brown is his remarks about how of course women should be able to join the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, and indeed all golf clubs in Scotland – a position long supported by the First Minister, and reiterated by the Sports Minister Shona Robison this very week.

“It is just a pity that Mr Brown didn’t say anything about this issue in the thirteen years when he was Chancellor and then Prime Minister.

“… The SNP are committed to promoting equality of opportunity for all people living in Scotland, and all golf clubs should of course be open to men and to women.”

Earlier this week Mr Brown sparked controversy when the Daily Telegraph newspaper revealed that the former PM had claimed £19,237 in travel expenses between London and his Fife constituency, despite rarely making an appearance in the House of Commons.  Since the last General Election in 2010, Mr Brown has spoken in the House of Commons on just three occasions totalling just over 20 minutes and has participated in only 27 Parliamentary votes.   

Mr Brown’s hour long speech at Holyrood on Friday prompted one wag on Twitter to note that the former Prime Minister has now spoken over three times longer in the Scottish Parliament than he has in the Parliament he was actually elected to.

The lecture at Holyrood will be held annually to commemorate former Scottish Trades Union Congress general secretary Campbell Christie, who died in October last year.

 

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