15 January 2021

Gordon Brown has one more task in politics – to lead Scottish Labour out of the doldrums

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Yesterday Richard Leonard, the man who had led Scottish Labour since November 2017, announced his resignation, effective immediately. He’s had a miserable time, as a once dominant party slipped into third place behind the all-conquering nationalists and the once near-invisible Conservatives. A former trade union official, a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and a decent person by all accounts, he could not make a mark on a terrain dominated by the Scottish National Party, which the Queen of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, is pleased to call her own.

The  ambitious 37-year old Anas Sarwar, who stood against Leonard in 2017, is among those who may try to step into Leonard’s shoes. again. Scottish Labour’s deputy leaer, Jackie Baillie, 56, who is taking over as interim leader, may seek permanent office too – insofar as the office of leader of the Scottish Labour Party can be said to be permanent. For there have been a great many occupants in that post since 1999: Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell, Wendy Alexander, Iain Gray, Johann Lamont, Jim Murphy, Kezia Dugdale, Alex Rowley and, until yesterday, Richard Leonard.

There was bad luck in that. Dewar, widely respected, died in office; McLeish, who with Dewar had taken the Scotland Act through the Westminster parliament, resigned after a minor scandal, Wendy Alexander, perhaps the brightest, resigned over an even more minor scandal. But successful parties make their own luck, or ride with only small bumps over the scandals. Scottish Labour floundered – both before the secessionist steamrollers of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, and the quite rapid decline of the trade unions, the factories and shipyards  and the council house estates which had underpinned the party’s long dominance (though never, in fact, achieving a majority share of the overall vote.)

What of the current contenders? Baillie is said to be competent, Sarwar personable: but though problems loom for Sturgeon – not least with the feud Salmond seems determined to pursue against her – she  has developed a thick skin, a solid base composed of many who think she can do no wrong and a fluent, assured public performance style, which invites disparaging comparisons with the Boris Johnson’s more dishevelled approach. If the SNP are to be stopped, and their attempts to break up the Union thwarted, a large personality and political intelligence is required.

Gordon Brown, who is apparently as active and polymathic as ever, is also short-tempered, given to angry outbursts towards officials and colleagues, and pursued a grudge against Tony Blair for denying him prime ministerial succession until he wore him down.

But he is by far the best hope Scots Labour – and by extension the UK – has got . He has spent much of the last decade speaking and publishing on the need to retain the Union. His contest with Sturgeon would be a political joust to watch, but he could overpower her intellectually, in broad experience and even in presentation. Regardless of your political sympathies, anyone who has seen him speak ex tempore for up to an hour will recognise the quality of his public performance.

He would speak to Scotland and to the tens of thousands who slipped from Labour to the SNP, because they thought the nationalists knew where they were going and Labour did not. But he would also speak for the Union, to the UK audience. He was not very popular among the English when in Downing Street: but he would be speaking from Scotland for the retention of a Union which polls show most English would prefer to have, even if they believe they cannot stand in the way of the will of the Scots.

In doing so Brown would return the spine to a party which has hardly shown the energy required from an opposition, and in doing so rejuvenate Scottish democracy, which has lacked the force to hold to account a party far more concerned with leaving the UK than properly governing Scotland.

The intellectual heft he would bring to Holyrood would raise the game for all parties. The centralisation of the UK has meant that ambitious politicians from the three small nations, above all the Scots, have sought places at Westminster and scorned the sub-national legislatures. Brown’s leadership of Scottish Labour could change that.  Politicians in other democracies, such as Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the US, move between regional and national politics with relative ease, and no obvious loss of face. He would enliven the necessary debate on the UK constitution, putting Michael Gove on his mettle and improving the consideration of the issue thereby.

Sir Keir Starmer, himself a new party leader and untested in government, might see Brown as a threat, and certainly the news media would be alert to any sign of disharmony. But Starmer could, with Brown in Edinburgh, have a large responsibility taken off his desk – and could display (assuming Brown’s good behaviour) a self-confidence in working with him which would add lustre to an as yet little known politician.

As a moderate sceptic on the European Union, impatient with the long meetings he was forced to attend in Brussels and resolutely against joining the Euro, he would counter the naïve idealism of the nationalists and point up the true costs of independence. This would be, in exchanging a fiscal union with a thousand economic, political, personal and emotional links over centuries to one where a small new entrant would be quickly made aware that it must sign up, with as short a period of adjustment as possible, to an unwanted currency, a loss of the annual subsidy from the Treasury, a commitment to further integration with a loss of national control  and – as long as its GDP remains at the levels it presently enjoys   a demand for a contribution to the EU budget.

Brown has done much in the four decades he gave to public service for his country – the United Kingdom. Leading Scottish Labour back into the arena which nationalists have made their own would be among the most combative. It is presently the most necessary.

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John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor to the Financial Times, ex-editor of The New Statesman and a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.