What do we do about Gordon Brown’s take on Scotland and Britain?

Photo by World Economic Forum on flickr. CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Gordon Brown is a defining figure in the history of modern Scotland: a presence for many of us through our adult lives. He has always seemed to be there – first as a young force and idealist, then frontline politician and prime minister, and then as elder statesman.

At the weekend Brown gave an extensive interview to the Sunday Times where he surveyed the state of the world and found it rightly wanting, and was full of practical suggestions, reforms and initiatives.

This is a man still informed by a sense of moral mission and purpose. It is one filled with many noble intentions – enlightened, believing in the possibilities of human solidarity and co-operation, and wanting to right some of the great wrongs which afflict the planet. That is good to hear in these dark times.

Brown at the weekend began to do something that he has until now been reluctant to do. He showed some self-awareness, even a small element of contrition, on the record of New Labour in office. On the subject of how the party reacted to the 2008 financial crash and their soft-touch approach to bankers, he said: ‘We should have done more about the banks’ and that ‘there should have been prosecutions’. It is a small step but could be potentially significant.

I want to think the best of Brown when he is talking about the state of the world. Compare Brown’s record of public office and behavior since being prime minister to other leaders post-office such as Tony Blair and David Cameron, desperately on the make and trying to monetise their status, or Alex Salmond – whose descent is even steeper and more shocking.

Gordon Brown and nationalism

In the Sunday Times interview Brown’s attitude and tone changed from being idealistic and optimistic to being dark and filled with foreboding when on the subject of nationalism. This is a man who has read vociferously all his life, is curious about ideas and has consistently been interested in the challenges of the world.

Yet when it comes to nationalism these qualities desert him and have done for decades. Brown seems to have no awareness that there are many types of nationalism in the world, that there is a sociology and study of nationalisms, and instead paints a singular, essentialist, problematic nationalism. He references George Orwell on patriotism and nationalism and then says:

Patriotism is the love of your country. Nationalism is an us-versus-them ideology. You find enemies where they don’t exist, you build your case around resentments and there’s always the ‘other’. If you look at the world today, that’s where we are.

Brown’s latest book, Seven Ways to Change the World: How to fix the most pressing problems we face, positions nationalism entirely as a reactionary phenomenon, associated with appropriation by populists around the world such as Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. He sees nationalism as a throwback to an earlier age resolutely against modernity and progress and continually looking at ways to divide, stigmatise and build barriers – when we need to do the opposite.

This misreading might not matter too much if Brown were just talking about far-flung lands about which he knows little. But he brings it back home to Scotland and paints a brutally simple caricature stating: ‘It’s what I would call a 19th-century version of sovereignty … The very idea of sovereignty that Boris Johnson had for Brexit is the one the SNP want to apply to Scotland. The debate over the next ten years will raise questions that will break governments …’.

Such comments are not a one-off but part of a wider pattern of Brown associating the politics of Brexit and Scottish independence, portraying them in profoundly black and white terms which doesn’t really aid understanding, and is deeply inaccurate about Scotland and the ongoing debate on independence.

Brown used in the 1970s to try to understand the then-rising SNP and independence question, engaged open-mindedly with Tom Nairn and his thesis in The Break-Up of Britain, and recognised how far Labour in Scotland had fallen into ossified conservatism.

Neal Ascherson noted that Brown never used to peddle such simplicities, when writing in a retrospective essay in 2000 on Brown’s credo in his introduction of The Red Paper on Scotland:

Brown noted that nationalism was not a ‘mere bourgeois survival’, but an authentic response to uneven modernisation and socio-economic change. And he warned that it would be ‘fatal’ for socialists to regard nationalism as some sort of disease.

Brown wrote then in words Ascherson quotes back:

What this Red Paper seeks to do is transcend that false and sterile antithesis which has been manufactured between the nationalism of the SNP and anti-nationalism of the Unionist parties.

Commentator Joyce McMillan responded to Brown’s latest intervention on Scotland:

This is crushingly wrong. The recent SNP idea of sovereignty has been a nuanced internationalist one … Nothing like the crude Brexit nonsense offered by the Leave campaign.

Of all people, Gordon Brown should know that, and it’s shocking and saddening he can’t acknowledge it. It’s also beyond cruel to use the fact of Brexit itself to suggest we now face ‘a similar choice’. Whoever is to blame for that, it’s not the SNP.

I have read every single Gordon Brown book – 18 in total – as well as his PhD on the electoral rise of the Scottish Labour Party from 1918–29 and its relationship to its radicalism – which became more diluted the more popular the party became. This straightforward thesis took over 500 pages to lay out.

In his biography of James Maxton – the Labour MP for Glasgow Bridgeton, who became the leader of the Independent Labour Party when it broke away from Labour in 1932 – Brown again explored the balance between idealism and pragmatism to win office. He quoted at length a Maxton speech from May 1924 in Glasgow when he laid out the case for Scottish self-government, doing so passionately, fluently and persuasively, declaring:

Give us our Parliament in Scotland. Set it up next year. We will start with no traditions. We will start with ideals. We will start with purpose, with courage. We will start with the aim and object that there will be 134 men and women, pledged to 134 Scottish constituencies, to spend their whole energy, their whole brain power, their whole courage, and their whole soul, in making Scotland into a country in which we can take people from all nations of the earth and say: ‘This is our land, this is our Scotland, these are our people, these are our men, our works, our women and children: can you beat it?’

Brown acknowledges the power of this address for a ‘Scottish Socialist Commonwealth’ and even that it seemed to show Maxton ‘appeared to come out in favour of independence’. This shows the blurring of lines between a real self-government inspired by the labour movement and an independence which addresses issues of power and inequality. Brown used to understand this intimately, whereas now he professes that he does not.

Brown’s moral odyssey is related to the rise and fall of Scottish and British Labour as forces for radical change and the health of the social democracy they advocated. For all Brown’s skills with words he does seem through most of his years in public life to have followed trends rather than have shaped them intellectually. The past has always hung over Brown like a shadow and a warning – his understanding of the failure of previous Labour leaders and radicals and his burning desire to win office to affect change.

Today Brown feels a prisoner of the past – still defined by internal battles within New Labour, by his partnership and feud with Tony Blair, and the shortcomings of his brief premiership.

Neal Lawson wrote in the Guardian over the weekend about Blair and New Labour: ‘Blair thrived in an era that has gone … It’s not that Blair isn’t brilliant at politics, in the sense that he is a master at playing the game – he is. It’s that he has had his go, and it largely failed and helped leave us in the mess we are now in.’ Blair along with Brown once had an understanding of the future; that was a political generation and an epoch ago. We need to be able to move on from yesterday’s politics and men.

Brown believes that he grasps the challenges the world faces, particularly in the UK where the political system is broken and ridiculously over-centralised. To this end he heads Labour’s Constitutional Commission – which will come up with a set of proposals to address this discredited system – but of which no details are currently available.

There seems little chance of this commission being the body which breaks Labour’s continued conservatism and faith in the politics of the undemocratic British state. Brown’s inaccurate take on Scotland and the politics of nationalism help no one but the continuation of a timid politics across Britain – one deeply tribal, deliberately mislabeling and caricaturing opponents.

None of the above is meant as a blanket defence of nationalism in Scotland or anywhere else. But the minority nationalisms of the UK need to be understood, as do the dynamics which have created political cultures and spaces very different from Westminster and a homogeneous British politics which no longer exists anywhere. Scottish nationalism, for example, is a broadly benign, progressive, centre-left force with an inclusive, non-ethnic idea of Scottish identity and citizenship, but is still a nationalism – a politics which offers a limited roadmap to any future independent Scotland as is true everywhere in the world.

Brown, in posing only one variant of nationalism, is expressly precluding a debate which understands the many nationalisms and a nuanced exploration of their limits – and the relationship between them, post-nationalism and self-government – which are all live debates in the independence movement in Scotland.

In this Brown is sadly a problem figure for Labour and the centre-left in how the party and progressives come to terms with the increasingly fragmented union; Scottish and Welsh self-government; the Irish debate on reunification; the English dimension; and problems of the unreformed political centre – the Empire State at the heart of the UK – which Brown is nearly always silent on.

Labour has never needed an excuse not to talk about the above, about how the UK state is wired and its limited democracy. Brown’s continued presence aids that avoidance in the present, when it is absolutely pressing that Labour address these issues – namely the unravelling of the UK and what flows from that. Time is running out for Labour and the UK.

Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator, academic and Professor of Social Change at Glasgow Caledonian University. His books include ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’, ‘The People’s Flag and the Union Jack: An Alternative History of Britain and the Labour Party’ and the forthcoming ‘Scotland Rising: The Case for Independence’. His writing and research can be found at www.gerryhassan.com.

Compass is actively engaging with the national question – the future of the Union and of England. Find more of this thinking in SNP MP Tommy Sheppard’s recent appearance on It’s Bloody Complicated, Compass Director Neal Lawson’s writing in Prospect and a forthcoming report by John Denham on the future of the UK.

3 thoughts on “What do we do about Gordon Brown’s take on Scotland and Britain?

  1. I hear that Brown has recently made sympathetic noises re: PR. Well, following New Labour’s victory in 1997, the informal Lab-Lib pact that preceded it was effectively reneged-on. The issue of electoral reform was kicked into the long grass: there were observations made at the time that Blair didn’t really understand the issue, but the clincher was that Brown was dead against it, and worked behind the scenes to bury the issue. He compounded this in 2010 by rejecting all concessions proposed by Clegg including a further commitment to PR, which effectively drive NC into the arms of the (insincere, duplicitous) Cameron. I am not in any shape of or form a fan of NC who led the Libdems into a disastrous coalition and the worst electoral wipeout for the party in living memory. However, Brown bears significant responsibility for the failure to achieve electoral reform and the ascendancy of the Tories post 2010.
    I am a Compass member.

  2. Excellent and generous piece. Let’s hope that Gordon Brown gets to read it.

    On the question of Brown’s blinkered, binary view of nationalism: should we club together to buy a copy of Ernest Gellner’s mind-opening book Nations and Nationalism (1983) and send it off to the voracious (probably not ‘vociferous’) reader in Fife?

  3. I would recommend reading page 111-112 of a Long Walk To Freedom where Nelson Mandela deals with nationalism and how the paternalistic British colonialism dismisses all nationalisms as ‘narrow’, ‘barbarous’, ‘uncultured’ etc.
    I am sure Gordon Brown has read this book but probably this fundamental part as it did not resonate with own Labour roots.
    I don’t know why Brown is so one-eyed about Scottish independence- I can only assume it is being steeped in ‘Scottish’ Labour culture and having achieved high office in Westminster.

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