I met Gordon Brown this week for the first time since he was Prime Minister. He is in many ways Britain’s Richard Nixon. Both clever men with a passion for what politics can achieve. Each had a towering achievement. Nixon’s was the breakthrough between the United States and Red China. Brown’s was keeping our cash machines open in October 2008 and leading the world as it reeled from the collapse of Lehman Brothers. But both men’s periods in office ended disastrously partly because they saw enemies around every corner, enemies that had to be crushed.
For the last four years Brown has largely disappeared from front line politics. He has a role with the United Nations but is rarely seen at Westminster. Indeed in a speech this week to Commons correspondents he made a joke of it. He spoke of needing a tour guide and taking the new members induction course. Dangerous stuff, many think he should have left the Commons on ceasing to be Prime Minister as Tony Blair did.
But as one reporter observed, little has changed since Brown’s time in No 10. We still have senior Cabinet Ministers at each others throats and special advisers resigning.
Brown was anxious to point out that he wasn’t seeking to return to the limelight except to be “a foot soldier” in the campaign against Scottish independence.
There has been speculation as to why Brown has, so far, kept a low profile in the debate. Perhaps it was because the Better Together campaign is headed by Alistair Darling who faced the “forces of Hell” when as Brown’s Chancellor he accurately forecast the coming economic meltdown in the summer of 2008.
We will see whether Brown the foot soldier can keep from standing on people’s toes in the coming weeks. His suggestion that the Prime Minister should debate with Alex Salmond has not gone down well. The role of the Conservative Party in the “No” campaign is really tricky. Better Together fear that as the prospect of the Tories being the largest party after the 2015 General Election rises, so does support for independence. So David Cameron has the dilemma of wanting to put his Prime Ministerial authority behind keeping the UK united without helping Salmond to claim that Scotland keeps getting governments it doesn’t vote for.
Brown is clearly unimpressed with the Better Together campaign’s tactics so far. He says they need to avoid it becoming a British politicians v Scotland issue. Scottish identity is not at issue, nor is the existence of the Scottish Parliament with more devolution on the way. All that has been granted. What this is about is severing all links with the UK.
Despite the latest polls showing 58% support for “No” against 42% Yes, Brown fears that if we don’t wake up, Scottish independence could still happen.
Gordon Brown was always more sympathetic to Northern devolution than Tony Blair. That enthusiasm has not diminished. He warned this week that there could be more constitutional turmoil, even if Scotland rejects independence, unless English regions are given more power. He regretted that the Coalition had not taken the opportunity to address these issues as well as Scottish independence.
I wonder why that choice was made by David Cameron. It was because the Scots, and the Welsh, get their act together and demand devolution.
That’s what we need to do starting at Downtown’s Northern Revolution conference next month.