Book review: My Scotland, Our Britain. A Future Worth Sharing. Gordon Brown

Published: 8 July 2014

The Better Together campaign have had a difficult time in recent months. They keep on telling themselves not to be so negative, but cannot help it. Threats about the dire consequences of independence annoy as many Scots as they convince. More fundamentally, they have seemed unable to articulate just what the Union is all about. The Yes side was able to seize and hold the issues that are common ground to nearly all Scots. The first is Scotland itself, where unionists used to have a tale to tell but have ended up somehow contrasting it to Britain or the United Kingdom. The second is union, where they have been outflanked by Alex Salmond’s tale of six unions, of which he wants to end only one, and undermined by the Little Englandism within the Conservative Party. The third is welfare, where pro-independence forces have constructed an opposition between caring Scotland and Tory England. The No campaign has been reduced to telling Scots that they are too poor to run their own public services or even pay their own pensions, but not to worry because England will look after them.

Unionism has now found its intellectual heavyweight in Gordon Brown, who understands the traditional unionist message that unionism is the highest form of Scottish patriotism. He defends the union as a Scot, starting from Scottish premises and within a Scottish context, presenting it as something built jointly by the Scots, the English and the Welsh, with each nation bringing its own contribution. Interestingly, he does not deny that there are Scottish values, but argues that these have blended with English ideas to create a greater whole ‘…it was Scottish ideas of solidarity that combined with English ideas of toleration and liberty to create a union that remains greater than the sum of its parts’ (p.37). This is backed up with a historical analysis that owes quite a lot to the work of Colin Kidd as well as to Brown’s own researches into the origins of the British welfare settlement.

The core of these Scottish values is traced back to the Reformation and Scotland’s Calvinist legacy and to the Enlightenment. While New Labour did not ‘do God’ and Brown is not proposing a new theocracy, the Protestant strand does run through the earlier part of the book in a way that it no longer does within Scottish nationalism. There is no mention of the contribution of Irish Catholics or later incomers to the making of Scotland or Scottish Labour in particular.

It is Britain, moreover, that must provide the frame for multiculturalism so that Brown claims that  ‘many people now say they are black-British or Muslim-British in a way I’ve not often heard someone say they are black-Scottish or Muslim-English’ (p.13). So what about Africans for an Independent Scotland, Asian Scots for Independence or Scots Asians for Yes? Surveys have suggested that both Britishness and Scottishness can by hyphenated with ethnic minority identities, but that Englishness is more difficult.

Gordon Brown’s time as Prime Minister was marked by his Britishness initiative, which he blames the Conservatives for not backing for partisan reasons. He takes a sideswipe at obvious but unnamed targets by deriding its Cool Britannia predecessor. The real problem with Britishness, however, was the attempt to define it as a single thing, below which local varieties could thrive. The secret of traditional unionism, by contrast, is that being British is itself a pluralistic idea, which meant different things in different parts of the polity. It was, in Wittgenstein’s sense, a family-resemblance rather than a unitary concept. It is Alex Salmond’s unionism that retains the flexibility, indeed the vagueness, that this provided in the face of multilevel identities that are too complex to be resolved by hyphenations.

The core of the book is that Linda Colley’s thesis about Britain being created by Protestantism and war with France was superseded in the twentieth century by a ‘sharing union’ based on welfare. Brown is at his best in tracing the growth of welfare and showing how it was Scots who were often in the lead in taking this up to the UK (or at least British) level. His own commitment to social justice and combatting poverty comes through powerfully but the argument is sometimes laboured and pushed beyond its limits. Welfare, in consequence, is left bearing the whole burden of union. The fact is that pensions and social assistance were indeed developed for Britain but the NHS, singled out as another quintessentially British institution, is more complicated. Brown argues that ‘it made sense for each nation to pool its resources across the whole country so that if there were a higher incidence of disease and greater health needs in one part of the country their risks could be shared across the whole country (p. 219).’ There is not, in fact, a single health budget for the UK and there was not one before devolution. Health expenditure is part of the block funding for the Scottish Parliament as for the Scottish Office before it. Indeed, the organization of the NHS in Scotland is now so different from that in England that to describe it as a single body is highly misleading.

The argument can be extended to public services in general. Despite recent Labour Party claims, the famous Barnett Formula is not a needs-based allocation of expenditure and never has been.  This is an issue that Labour, like the other parties, have continually dodged. This line has more or less held as long as Scotland’s spending advantage is more or less offset by the oil revenues but, in the event of a No vote, a revision of Barnett is likely.

Brown is on solid ground in arguing that Scotland is not an oppressed nation, an argument that SNP leaders (if not all nationalists) would accept. On the other hand, there is something Whiggish in his description of a UK that always gave Scots as much self-government as they wanted. Legislative devolution is presented as a smooth continuation of administrative devolution and there is no mention of the repeated fights within the Labour Party over the principle; this is unfortunate since Brown himself is a longstanding principled supporter of devolution, not one of those who was scared into it by the threat of the SNP.

The latter part of the book is more piecemeal and occasionally descends from the intellectual heights to scrap with the SNP. Brown argues against universalism in public services as benefiting the better off but it is not clear how this chimes with his welfare philosophy. If abolishing prescription charges is regressive, why not charge for GP visits, hospital stays or hospital drugs? These are issues about the difficult borderline between universalism and selectivity, not great matters of principle that could allow one party to depict the other as fundamentally wrong. Brown even attacks the SNP for not following England in introducing an Educational Maintenance Allowance. In fact the EMA has been abolished in England but retained in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The constitutional underpinning of Brown’s welfare union is to be a statement of British values, an idea from New Labour times. This would declare that ‘The Union exists to provide security and opportunity for all, ensuring equality between nations, by pooling and sharing our resources equitably for our defence, security and the social and economic welfare of every citizen’. Later he adds a commitment to the eradication of poverty and unemployment and to health care free at the point of use. Ironically, this is common ground with the SNP, which has also suggested social rights in a Scottish constitution. Putting them into a British law, however, seems to draw on the idea, promoted repeatedly by the London-centric IPPR, that devolution is somehow a threat to welfare and public services, if not curbed by the benign British state. Yet if welfare is under threat in the UK it is at the centre and not the periphery. There is not a race to the bottom but there is some racing to the top. Are we to believe that Westminster would tie itself down to a charter of social rights to protect itself from neoliberal austerity or designs to roll back the state; or that it would allow the Scots and Welsh to prevent it embarking on such a programme? Michael Gove’s British values would read very differently from Gordon Brown’s, while the latter are closer to the core beliefs of the SNP.

Brown advocates a cautious measure of further devolution to Scotland, with a constitutional entrenchment of the Scottish Parliament. Contrary to some press coverage, he does not advocate a federal UK since he is well aware of the difficulties of fitting England into such a scheme. The practical expression of sharing would be to keep pensions and benefits at the UK level and to invent a category of ‘covenanted expenditure’ for health and education, which would be financed from UK taxation on the grounds that they are part of the social union. Other services could be funded from Scottish taxation. I cannot see how this could work unless Westminster were to ring-fence health and education spending in Scotland, something that is incompatible with the block funding formula that has prevailed since 1999 and even before.

Welfare unionism is a powerful theme, which Brown links to a historical understanding of the British union but it is an incomplete account of both welfare and union. The field of welfare is being restructured, with an emphasis on linking passive welfare to active labour market policy, a matter in which Gordon Brown has taken an interest. It is also rescaling, so that it is not adequate to deal with solidarity only at the level of the (large) nation state. Social cohesion is something that needs to be built into policy systems at all levels, from the European (where it is badly lacking) to the local, taking in both the UK and Scottish levels. If Scottish Labour could get to grips with this, it would be more effective in taking on the SNP on its own ground and developing a Scottish social democracy. Gordon Brown’s book shows how it needs to reposition itself but there is a lot of policy work still to be done.

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