Why does he want a second referendum?
It is often said that Boris Johnson, being woefully unpopular in Scotland, is the separatists’ favourite unionist. But I submit that a better contender might be Gordon Brown.
After all, there must be a reason that Nationalist strategists are urging their opponents to take his advice on the question of a second independence referendum.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
The former Prime Minister argued in March that unionists should not try to avoid a second referendum, and instead focus on winning it.
Superficially, this looks confident and combative. Pending the courts, another referendum may take place as soon as October 2023. Nicola Sturgeon and her outriders are certainly keen to paint those determined to avoid a rerun of 2014 as lacking confidence in the case for the United Kingdom.
In fact, they are now trying to use these arguments to spook unionists into participating in in the SNP’s plan B: an unofficial referendum conducted without the sanction of Westminster.
The case for doing so is utterly specious, and in fairness to Brown he has not (yet) endorsed it — although what he might do in the event Sturgeon proceeded with one is an open question.
But the argument for granting the First Minister a legal one, which he has explicitly endorsed, would also be a monumental act of self-harm.
At a stroke, the Nationalist movement would be united and re-energised, the avalanche of scandals and woeful governance which is finally starting to drag on the SNP would be relegated to the back pages for another year or more.
Worse, the pro-Union side would be teeing themselves up for fighting a defensive campaign for the status quo at a time when a cost-of-living crisis will be biting, grift to the mill of Nationalist populism and promises of a better tomorrow.
Yes, the economic case for independence doesn’t come close to adding up and the hollowness of those promises would be shown up in time. But that will be cold comfort if it got independence over the line.
They would also be campaigning before they’ve had time to do any of the sort of long-term state-building we need to put the Union on a more stable footing.
So why Brown’s keenness for a second vote? Perhaps it is exactly the same reason Sturgeon, a canny politician, is nonetheless launching a referendum push her movement isn’t ready for: they’re both in a hurry.
If the next great campaign for independence doesn’t happen soon, the First Minister will not get a starring role in it. The same is true for Brown. The battle for Scotland is his chance, after a disappointing premiership, to file a second draft of his political obituary. But only if it happens soon.
Likewise, calling a referendum at a moment of weakness makes it more likely pro-UK politicians will panic and revert to trying to bribe the voters off with even more constitutional concessions of exactly the sort Brown advocates for. It’s his chance to be architect of the constitution and saviour of the kingdom.
‘Muscular unionism’ threatens all this. It not only seeks a long-overdue critical reckoning with his devolution legacy but also to postpone the glorious battle, perhaps forever but certainly beyond his window to fight it. Thus the man who dreams of leading the cavalry charge that saves the Union would be our General Custer instead.