Adam Tomkins: Gordon Brown’s days as the Unionists’ great leader are over

ON Saturday morning I took part in a small event in central Glasgow organised by Gordon Brown’s think tank, Our Scottish Future. As we met, a rather larger crowd was gathering outside in George Square to demonstrate solidarity with Ukraine. I’m sure I was not the only person in the room thinking that, really, we should all have been outside.

Why drone on about how to win the argument against independence when war is lapping at Europe’s shores, even if, for the time being at least, it is only the seemingly faraway shores of the Black Sea and not those of the North Atlantic?

That Vladimir Putin has instructed Russia’s armed forces to invade a sovereign European nation certainly puts Scotland’s parochial little squabble about its constitutional future into perspective. But then, as if to remind us that all politics is local, even arguments about whether to take Russia Today off air have inevitably descended into another squalid row about the Alex Salmond Show – as if that is what matters – to say nothing of the puerile tweeting by one SNP MSP equating Ukraine’s urgent application for EU membership to Scotland’s plight.

READ MORE: Does Russia’s Ukraine attack sink world’s net-zero dream?

Back in the room, and a world away from all that, the conversation turned to that great perennial amongst the unionist chattering classes – how to defeat the nats. Incredibly, there were those who thought Putin was showing us the way. Stop being so feeble and simply close Holyrood down, or at least stop “them” calling themselves the Scottish Government, or at least take back control of the flag, or something.

Some folk never learn, but such folk are interested only in making themselves feel good in their righteous anger. The event’s organisers had their heads in their hands – they wanted us to think about how we might change our opponents’ hearts and minds, not about how many hardcore unionist memes we could retweet in 60 seconds of furious keyboarding.

At the other end of the spectrum, there were those who thought we should do nothing. We have won already – and there is going to be no second bite at the cherry. I have some sympathy for this view: I am one of those who think that there really is not going to be a second independence referendum any time soon. Absent Westminster’s consent, a second referendum can be lawfully held only if it is so devoid of meaning as to be reduced to the status of a straw-in-the-wind opinion poll (which can safely be boycotted and ignored by half the population). And everybody knows that Westminster’s consent certainly is going to be withheld, not just for now, but for the foreseeable future.

In between these two extreme options lie a number of alternatives, and it is on these that the most interesting conversation focused. First there is Gordon Brown’s own preferred route. He wants the debate about independence not to be presented as one between change and no change, but as one that opposes the change the nationalists want to the change he wants – a reformed Britain, a new federal settlement, and further powers for a supercharged Holyrood.

At this point it was my head in my hands. Gordon Brown is revered in unionist circles for giving the speech of the campaign in 2014, but he is fighting yesterday’s battles. For, if we do ever have to face a second indyref and if, at that point, the debate is framed as Mr Brown would prefer, we will lose.

A choice between the real change of independence and some lesser variety of ill-defined and non-deliverable change understood only in the capacious mind of the former Prime Minister – and nowhere else – will have only one outcome, and it won’t be one that produces that famous Gordon Brown grin.

Far better is to forget all about federalism (which is a non-starter) and more powers (which would achieve nothing but to hand ever more power to the nats), and to think instead about quietly improving the way the United Kingdom does its business. To show, rather than to shout loudly about, the ways in which the UK Government is making its presence felt in all four corners of the country.

Levelling-up, supporting the economy through lockdown, rolling out vaccinations so we can avoid further lockdowns altogether, investing in modern infrastructure, establishing the new Shared Prosperity Fund, agreeing common frameworks on a four-nations basis as we strengthen the UK’s internal market post-Brexit – this has been the bread and butter of how the UK Government has bolstered the Union since No 10’s woeful Union Unit was disbanded several months ago.

None of it is designed to show that independence is a bad idea: it’s designed to show that independence is an unnecessary idea – unnecessary because the Union is working for Scotland, just as it is working for every other part and nation of the United Kingdom. That’s the strategy, anyway.

Tied to this is a determination that, when we do have to talk about independence, we talk about it not as a loose idea or aspiration, but as a real thing with hard choices and tough consequences. Who will pay the state pension in an independent Scotland? How will the border operate, given that the SNP want to take Scotland out of the UK’s internal market and back into the EU’s single market? How will the currency work, given that a newly independent Scotland will have no means of fixing its own monetary policy if it uses the Pound? And borrowing – how will that work in such circumstances?

In the room on Saturday morning was a weariness borne of a strong sense of déjà vu – here we go again. Leaving the hardcore to one side, the sensible folk in the room would rather have been talking about schools or skills or jobs or hospitals – or, indeed about Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s brutality.

My sense was that, should the time ever come again, the unionists will be more than ready for the fight – but that Gordon Brown’s days as the general commanding his troops are long since over.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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