Gordon Brown, in spite of his flaws, is worthy of more respect than any other Scottish politician. His moral integrity has remained intact throughout his career, though he has been unable to realise the changes to work, wages and welfare he knows we need. It was debris of a crumbling parliamentary institution that made him stumble.
Though he never walked the walk at Westminster, he can talk with a spirit that’s rare for Labour leaders. Gordon Brown has always been good at asking questions, putting his finger on the pulse of people’s political spirit – and sometimes sounding a socialist chord that surprises those who hear him. This was the reason for his success at his last Citizens UK speech before the 2010 election, and explains the impact of his United with Labour speech. When you let Brown be Brown, the Labour Party is at its best.
He sets a level of debate that the pro-independence left should aspire to meet in argument and tone. At his speech in Govan today he will appeal to myself and fellow party members to remember our history and the kinds of demands our movement has made and must continue to make. These, he will argue, should shape the priorities we bear in mind as we take a side and argue a case for independence or for the Union over the coming year. My own reflections on his speech will follow, but in the meantime, I have highlighted some parts of his own introduction to the Red Paper for Scotland, which demonstrate a train of thought that is useful for socialists in Scotland of all constitutional persuasions.
On the question that faced us
The irresistible march of recent events places Scotland today at a turning point – not of our own choosing but where a choice must sooner or later be made. A resurgent nationalism which forces onto the agenda the most significant constitutional decisions since the Act of Union is one aspect of what even the ‘Financial Times’ has described as “a revolt of rising expectations”.
With this judgement Gordon Brown opened his introduction to The Red Paper for Scotland, a book of contributions on the future of socialism in Scotland, on the eve of the defeated 1979 referendum on devolution.
There is a “gap now growing between people’s conditions of living and their legitimate aspirations” – as there is now. Yet the “great debate on Scotland’s future” has “tended to ignore Scotland’s real problems – our unstable economy and unacceptable level of unemployment, chronic inequalities of wealth and power and inadequate social services.”
Back in the seventies the imperative questions were those that remain today: “who shall exercise power and control the lives of our people? How can we harness our material resources and social energies to meet the needs of five million people and more? What social structure can guarantee to people the maximum control and self management over the decisions which affect their lives, allowing the planned coordination of the use and distribution of resources, in a cooperative community of equals?”
The answers need to come from socialist ideas “emerging from a far reaching analysis of economy and social” which “begins from people’s potentials, is sensitive to cultural needs, and is humane, democratic and revolutionary.”
On the social condition of Scotland
“23% of Scottish people are living at or just above the poverty line… one and a quarter million people concentrated in four large groups, old people, low paid workers, and their families, the unemployed and single parent families.”
“The inequalities which distort Scottish life are generated from the workplace outwards: low pay, placing at least 100,000 male workers and their families on the poverty line, insufficient provision for retirement and for families deprived of their breadwinner, and the threat and actuality of redundancy.”
“Although public expenditure in Scotland is 17% higher per person than in Britain as a whole, existing social service provision tends to mirror rather than redress existing inequalities.”
“Today’s poor remain stigmatised by poverty not simply because social service provision is inadequate but because there is no dominant concept of reciprocity in our social services.”
“The proportion of the sons and daughters of working class parents among students in Scottish universities – again a most sensitive index of inequality – has been declining rather than increasing.”
On the aims and arguments of the Red Paper
His Red Paper aims to “transcend that false and sterile antithesis which has been manufactured between the nationalism of the SNP and the anti-nationalism of the Unionist parties, by concentrating on the fundamental realities of inequality and irresponsible social control, of private power and an inadequate democracy.”
His key theme was that “the social and economic problems confronting Scotland arise not from national suppression nor from London mismanagement” but “the uneven and uncontrolled development of capitalism”. The “rise of modern Scottish nationalism is “a response to uneven development – in particular to the gap between people’s experiences as part of an increasingly demoralised Great Britain and their expectations at a Scottish level.” It is about the failure of Scottish and British socialists to meet rising expectation – and about the failure of their political structures to be the place for socialist victories.
The resolution of this obstacle to working class power is not to be reached “merely by recovering a lost independence or through inserting another tier of government”, but through “planned control of our economy and a transformation of democracy at all levels”.
And as for his class analysis: he said “the long standing paradox of Scottish politics has been the surging forward of working class industrial and political pressure (and in particular the loyal support given to Labour) and its containment through the accumulative failures of successive Labour Governments.”
On bringing powers to Scotland
“If the prospects for the least fortunate are to be as great as they can be, then they must have the final say – and that requires a massive and irreversible shift of power to working people, a framework of free universal welfare services controlled by the people who use them.”
“There is nothing inherently anti-socialist about economic devolution as long as Scottish Labour insists on genuine economic control in devolved areas nor is there anything remiss about taxation powers in relation to democratically decided levels of public service provision.”
His rhetoric then had striking resemblances some of the left hopes for independence today: “the real resources of Scotland are not the reserves of oil beneath the sea… but the collective energies and potential of our people whose abilities and capacities have been stultified by a social system” – seen in “working people’s frustration with and refusal to accept powerlessness and lack of control over blind social forces which determine their lives.” We need to draw on the “untapped potential for cooperative action”.
On the SNP, Labour, and our role
“[The SNP’s] programme for a redistributive ‘Scottish social justice’ – which includes an inadequate £25 minimum wage, 4% mortgages, a rates holiday, and strengthened occupational and pensions schemes – not only wrongly assumes that economic growth within a mixed economy will satisfy the divergent claims of all classes for a share in that growth but, as one study pointed out, will not substantially extend social services provision.”
“The challenge is how at one and the same time the Scottish Labour Movement can reach to the roots of people’s experiences and aspirations and lead the demand for change.”
“Labour has two choices: to deflect the present discontent, resisting the pressure for change until It becomes inevitable, at the risk of the success of an SNP which presumes the familiar priorities of wealth and power set over people, or to harness the wide ranging dissatisfaction in a socialist strategy which not only forces the pace of the advance towards socialism in Britain as a whole but seeks to revitalise the grass roots of Scottish society.”
“Scottish socialists can not support a strategy for independence which postpones the question of meeting urgent and social needs until the day after independence – but nor can they give unconditional support to maintaining the integrity of the United Kingdom – and all that that entails – without any guarantee of radical social change; the question is not one of structures nor of territorial influence, but of democracy – how working people in Scotland can increase the control they have over the decisions which shape their lives and the wealth they alone produce – and in doing so aid the struggle for a shift of power to working people elsewhere.”