by Henry Hill
Tuesday, 28
June 2022
Analysis
11:42

Gordon Brown is wrecking the Union

Why does he want a second referendum?
by Henry Hill
Gordon Brown. Credit: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

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.


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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. 

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Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
5 months ago

Perhaps Brown just thinks that the best way to defend the union is to now let Sturgeon have her referendum and let her drive her car at full speed against the wall of reality. Anyone with even a passing interest in Scotland’s independence ambitions will understand that there is (currently) no economic case for it, and no convincing solutions are forthcoming from the Nats. They seem to have made a dog’s dinner of all kinds of other policy areas during their time in office – why on earth would you believe that they have the capacity a) to achieve independence practically (not just to win a referendum) and b) make independence a success long term?
It’s a risk but if you are for keeping the Union, then give Sturgeon a full rein to go ahead. There’s a good chance she’ll end up demolishing herself and her party…for a good long time. Lose the referendum and they’re out of steam and left with no arguments about Brexit justifiying another referendum. Win it and there’s every chance they’ll be forced in the course of negotiations to the conclusion that going it alone just not practically possible.

Jeff Staines
Jeff Staines
5 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

There does seem to be a rule of thumb that a second referendum repeating a “no” kills the respective “yes” movement, regardless of how close the second result runs: cf. the double referendums on Quebec independence and Norway’s EU membership.
It is extremely risky, though.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
5 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Staines

It is, but sometimes taking a risk and a roll of the dice is the right thing.

Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
5 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

That sort of recklessness as practised by David Cameron ended up with the stupidity of GB leaving the EU!

Peter B
Peter B
5 months ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

Which part of letting people decide their own future do you not agree with ?

john bowes
john bowes
5 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

you will only confuse him

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
5 months ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

any stupidity is with the minority believing they know best for the majority.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
5 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

There’s a risk that they’ll keep demanding referendums until we just vote Yes to Make it Stop Please. The Neverendum as they call it here.
I wonder if Independence wouldn’t have been better than Devolution, which has given the SNP power without accountability, since UK keeps handing over the cash while they gerrymander the system with list MSPs and lowered voting age.

Robert Davidson
Robert Davidson
5 months ago

Let’s learn from the Brexit experience. No referendum on a principle. Only on a clear understanding of the terms on which a separation will take place. What are the legal, financial and trading arrangements to be. How will citizenship and residence rights be determined,. How are the joint assets and debts to be shared, what currency to be used in Scotland, dispute resolution procedures etc. A referendum only makes sense if the consequences are clear and have been negotiated in advance.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
5 months ago

I don’t disgree but Sturgeon will never agree to this. Negotiating all of the things you mentioned as well as the hundred thousand other issues that would accompany independence would take years – and Nicola is in too much of a hurry.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
5 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

True – but a middle ground of some sort would be a vast improvement.

john bowes
john bowes
5 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Is she, i doubt it, screaming about it keeps her voter base of the great unwashed happy, and deflects from her poor performance elsewhere. Its a game, and SNP voters, are too thick to realise that.

Peter B
Peter B
5 months ago

Nonsense. The critical question with the EU was whether we as a country really believed that this was a) a viable economic and political project and b) one in which we wanted to participate.
These are fundamental questions – of principle if you like – which had never been addressed on entry and needed to be (not least because of the endless “mission creep” of the EU in expanding its remit).
The consequences of leaving could never have been totally “clear” in advance of a referendum. The EU obstruction and game playing (amply demonstrated since 2016) would never have allowed this.
Going back to my original points, I suggest that the answers from the British people as a whole are:
a) it is neither economically nor politically viable (EU debt crisis, Euro crucifying southern Europe, inability to delay with stuff like Russia, energy security, illegal immigration, …)
b) therefore we should not be in it
How we extract ourselves from the mess – not yet fully achieved – is detail.
I sense yet more of this “ordinary people can’t be trusted with big decisions – so we’ll fob them off with small ones” attitude.
If I saw any sign that our leaders were competent at taking the big decisions, I might have a smidgen of sympathy. But it would still be wrong not to trust and consult the people and get their approval.

Peter B
Peter B
5 months ago

One senses that this is a deflection activity by both Sturgeon and Brown. She desperately needs to draw attention away from the utter incompetence of her third rate crew. Brown still deludes himself that he’s got the answers – or indeed is an electoral asset.
The SNP have had the “once in a generation” referendum they agreed to (Salmond and Sturgeon both committed to this). Stop wasting time and public money. It’s not like they don’t have real problems to solve in Scotland … many of their own making.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
5 months ago

Is it simply a matter of Scotland alone asserting its right to stage a referendum to leave (and therefore break up) the ‘United’ Kingdom? Surely, the other countries in the UK have an equal interest in whether or not Scotland should break away? They too should have the right to a referendum as to whether or not Scotland should leave. The Scots might be pleasantly surprised by the outcome of such a wider application of democratic ‘rights’!

john bowes
john bowes
5 months ago
Reply to  Julian Pellatt

hopefully England would ask them to leave quickly and romantically