Thanks to the generosity of Kenny Farquharson we have the notes that Gordon Brown spoke from when he gave his Donald Dewar lecture at the Edinburgh Book Festival. One thing struck me, though, when I saw the coverage of Brown jokingabout how he really shouldn’t comment on economics; as he laughed about his economic record I realised he hadn’t apologised.
He hasn’t apologised for his role in creating the current economic meltdown, for all the years in government when he prioritised the grasping self-interest of the one square mile of the City of London above the other 94,525 square miles of the UK. He hasn’t apologised for some of the strange and apparently imprudentdecisions he made as Chancellor. He hasn’t apologised for years of relaxing rules on borrowing in order to keep credit easy and ‘end boom and bust’; years of boasting about ‘the longest period of sustained growth in a generation’ – that debt that’s now hurting businesses and individuals all over the place. He hasn’t apologised for the movement of tax from direct to indirect or the creation of loopholes and maintenance of get-outs that have allowed enormous corporations to avoid UK taxation. He hasn’t apologised for dumping the stinking, parasitic corpse of PFI/PPP on the slender shoulders of our public services. He hasn’t apologised for the yawning gap between rich and poor that he created during his time in government. He has never apologised for the 75p increase he said was enough for pensioners; for the cuts to invalidity and incapacity benefits; or for the taxing of pension funds. He’s never apologised for clawing back cash from Scots who qualified for free personal care. He’s never apologised for using anti-terror legislation to freeze the assets of Icelandic banks while UK banks (including RBS) were being bailed out by other governments, especially the US Government. He’s never apologised for his incompetent stewardship of government funds which led to Liam Byrne leaving the infamous “there’s no money left” letter. Worse, he’s never admitted that he might not have been right, not on anything. The man who ‘saved the world’ has never shown humility; like Norman Lamont he prefers to channel Piaf. Instead of saying sorry he thought it suitable subject matter for a weak joke in an attempt at self-deprecation which was as convincing as the joker smiles some misguided aide persuaded him to adopt while in office.
Let’s be fair, though, let’s look at what else he had to say for himself (or, at least, the notes he has now shared) about the constitutional debate. I’m picking out the bits I find interesting:
“ if we are to do justice to the seriousness of the issues at stake, the debate:- must start from first principles;- be rooted in what really matters to us as Scots;- focus on the future not the past…- and ask whether in a more interdependent world where barriers are being dismantled everywhere, what new barriers, if any, make sense.”
Interestingly, immediately after saying that the debate should focus on the future and not the past, he launched into a long section on the past:
“Of course the British Union was forged and grew when Scotland and England had shared religious objectives, when they sought to share the benefits of empire, and when they had shared interests in European wars.”
Actually, it was formed as a result of losses incurred in the Darien project, poor harvests in Scotland, an English trade blockade on Scots interests overseas, the avarice of some Scots and the political ambitions of a select few. The religions in Scotland and England were not aligned and the Kirk remained separate from the C of E after union. The monarchy argument? Well, the English Act of Succession was matched in religious terms by the Scottish Act of Security. I would have thought that a son of the manse would know such things.
As to seeking to share the benefits of empire, Scots were perhaps seeking to avoid trade barriers but I’m sure that the English traders were quite happy to keep all of the benefits of empire they could. The shared interests in European wars were shared under the union of the crowns rather than the creation of the UK and European wars came to the UK mainland in the half century following union – brought by religious divisions as much as anything else.
“I want to suggest that what we brought to the Union - Scottish ideas of justice and community - when, side by side with traditional English ideas of ordered liberty and individualism, created a British political social and economic settlement which is unique to multinational arrangements anywhere in the world.”
The argument here, leaving aside the question of whether it is correct, would appear to be that unique is a suitable argument for eternal preservation. Brown offers no underpinning for such a claim nor any further elucidation of it. This isn’t an argument that the UK is a fully functioning and fit for purpose construct, just an observation that no-one else in the world thought it worth copying.
“Indeed irrespective of whether you are Scottish, Welsh or English or Northern Irish you will have the same basic insurance against unemployment disability and old age.”
Is that really true? Is it not the case that those who live in the areas most favoured by government spending have a greater insurance against unemployment? Similarly, is there a higher disability payment to those who live in rural areas and have commensurately higher costs? Does the pensioners’ heating allowance buy the same warmth in the far north of Scotland as it does in the Central Belt? There are disparities within the constituent nations of the UK, never mind across the whole area.
“Because we have established common economic rights as well as social rights, one part of the UK will in the event of an economic or social disaster have the right to help from the other parts and indeed when the Scottish banks failed the whole of Britain did not question the need to help.”
I’m tempted to say “don’t worry, we’ll still help England out” but let’s challenge the basis of the comment – it’s not true, there is no such right and areas have been left facing their economic or social disaster without central government help many times in the past. There’s a temptation to hark back to the destruction of communities in mining areas during the Thatcher government or to the closure of Ravenscraig but the same happened under Labour too. Steel mills in northern England closed under Labour and the ‘help’ offered was retraining for work in call centres. It’s only political imperative that has brought help from UK Governments since 1979 and when they thought they didn’t need the votes they didn’t provide the help.
The banks? The US Government ploughed more into Scottish banks than the UK Government – should we just become a US state?
“Pooling and sharing our resources - through a national insurance and taxation system - has made possible a National Health Service where, while we have distinctive forms of local management, the risks of expensive health care are pooled and shared across the UK.”
That’s simply not true – if I fell ill in England and got treated in England the Scottish NHS (Lothian) would be billed for my treatment just as if I fell ill in France (slightly different system in France but the principle of your home NHS being billed is the same).
“we can point to all our Scottish Olympic medals - where it is clear from the views of the athletes themselves that a British team (pooling and sharing resources and expertise) was the best platform upon which Scotland's (and every nation’s and region’s) success was built.”
No athlete expressed a view that being British was better than an experience in a Scottish team would be. Many, quite rightly, expressed their gratitude to the Team GB component organisations who worked so hard to bring them all to a physical peak at the right time but none of them said it was the only way to do it. How can Brown possibly say that this was the best platform upon which to build success? The other one won’t be tried until 2016 and his glib assertion ignores the fact that many of the athletes owe their success to training facilities and opportunities furth of these shores – Mo Farah with Alberto Salazer in the US, for example, or Andy Murray in Spain – and to their own damned hard work.
“ inequalities between nations in Europe are so deep that the typical citizen of the richest state Luxembourg has six times the income of the poorest, Bulgaria.”
Bit of a cheek considering he is responsible for widening the wealth gap inside the UK!
“I mention all these federal and multinational states to show the uniqueness of what has been achieved in Britain. Inequalities between Scotland and England have narrowed to the point that the typical Scottish citizen has an income of over 20,000 a year just like the English citizen and Scottish GDP per head is 96 per cent of English GDP per head.”
Three centuries and the achievement is such that we should gasp in awe at 96% of English GDP (ignoring all the skewing like profits being declared in London that were earned all over the UK – including the whisky industry – or, indeed, the fact that there are large inequalities in Scotland and in England between different communities). Nor does this strange argument indicate whether he thinks we’ve got adequate standards of living, adequate protection against child poverty, or why he thinks that income parity is an argument for continued union.
“I suggest that if through some version of independence we break this apart and set nationally or regionally varied minimum pay rates, nationally varied corporation tax rates and nationally varied social security rates we will start a race to the bottom under which the good provider in one area would be undercut by the bad and the bad would be undercut by the worst.”
Might I ask why? Without reason or rationale, this bland assertion was made as if it were a self-evident truth which cannot be challenged.
“Because the whole purpose of the break up would be to end the pooling and sharing of resources and legislate for different social and economic rights, the equal rights of citizenship we have built from values we hold in common would come to an end. If we mean by 'social union' shared social rights of citizenship, there could be no 'social union' after an economic break-up.”
How narrow a vision he has. If this is the case for the union made by one of Labour’s vaunted intellectuals the debate is going to be terribly one-sided in the next couple of years.