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The UK and EU owe Gordon Brown a huge debt

The outcome of the referendum on Scottish independence has saved the UK and EU years of constitutional wrangling, writes chief political correspondent Tim McNamara.

It has also been a blow to the rising tide of separatism across Europe. For Gordon Brown it might be viewed as his greatest political triumph but can also be interpreted as exposing the flaws that undermined his premiership and alienated many during his political career.

The mere fact that part of the UK will not now separate will be a major comfort to the UK political establishment. It will also save the EU from a series of unprecedented complex negotiations as it tried to cope with the disentangling of a major nation state and how to arrive at a new political settlement over EU membership that would have got the agreement of all 28 (+1?) member states.

The outcome will also be a source of great comfort to the powers-that-be in Madrid.  A yes vote in Scotland would have delivered an extremely powerful impulse to the campaigners for  independence for Catalonia. It may also have served to invigorate the campaign for Flemish separatism in Belgium. Who knows where the demands for independence elsewhere would have taken us?

Additionally, It is also very doubtful that the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, would have been able to survive the political backlash a ‘Yes’ vote would have engendered in the UK Parliament. Cameron had (naively?) not only given the Scots a referendum, but allowed the Scottish National party (SNP) leader, Alex Salmond to not only choose the date of the referendum but also the wording of the referendum question.

From a 20-point gap behind the No campaign, the pro-independence campaign whittled the lead down until they were the majority barely two weeks before the vote. Many voters remarked that it was the negativity of the ‘No’ campaign that was a turn-off, and its lacklustre leadership contributed to that.

Alex Salmond’s Scottish National party used a powerful mixture of zeal and alacrity as they tried to overhaul the unionist cause. Although the “No to independence” camp had nearly always been in the lead, the passion and positivity had, until the last few days of the campaign, always been with the ‘Yes’ camp. In fact a series of polls gave the ‘Yes’ side a lead of 52%-48% ten days out from the vote.

Yet Gordon Brown’s (former UK Prime Minister), intervention was crucial both in its timing and in his performance. Sounding more like a hellfire-raising preacher at a revivalist rally, in the latter days of the campaign, he completely energised the ‘No camp’ and gave the ditherers the courage to vote No.

The 55%-45% result can be seen as a direct result of Brown’s intervention. Until he spoke out with such passion and purpose, most informed commentators and analysts expected a very narrow victory for the ‘No’ side. A result that would not have put the issue to bed for a large number of years. The outcome can now be seen as settling the question of Scottish independence whilst also boosting the case for the devolution of powers in England.

Yet, for Brown, this must have been partially a bittersweet intervention. Throughout his career he has been known as a micro-managing control freak, often unable to make a decisive move as he considered and reconsidered the pros and cons of arguments. Often persuaded by minor contemporary changes to reappraise a recent decision or more often using small changes to defer a decision.

What Brown’s pivotal intervention has brought will almost certainly be the greatest devolution of political power the UK has ever seen. Not only for Scotland, but also for the English regions. The dead hand of the Treasury (the UK’s finance ministry) will no longer be the pre-eminent power in UK civil administration.

Brown’s spell as Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister), was the high point of centralism in the UK.  Despite Blair’s government delivering on Scottish and Welsh devolution, Brown’s Treasury became a black hole of administrative power as far as the vast majority of the UK‘s population was concerned.  Every decision of any political and/or financial significance had to be approved by the factotums of the Treasury. By his lack of enthusiasm for the English regions to be given more power, Brown had even undermined a Labour party commitment to follow such a course.

The referendum campaign liberated Brown from his natural caution. Faced with the simple binary choice of Yes and No, Brown could finally allow his undoubted monumental political skills to be unleashed without any inhibitions.

With no need to focus on policy formulation, no micro-management of policy implementation, no plotting to achieve the highest of political offices, no conspiratorial cabals needed to boost his ego and protect him from rivals, Brown became the politician he could have become many years earlier.

Jean-Claude Juncker and especially David Cameron owe Gordon Brown a huge political debt.

Tim McNamara is head of the Peercourt consultancy firm. He was previously political editor at the European Commission.

  1. I was astonished- but perhaps I should not have been.I was reminded of Martin Luther King, no less- and that’s not so far- fetched: had Brown followed the family tradition he would have been a hell fire preacher. Above all it was all positive- all to do with patriotism being as vital to the ‘No’s’ as to the Yes’s and the real advantages of the union: there was only a little about the pound and lost jobs towards the end. This was all the more remarkable coming from a long term chancellor of the exchequer. It could be said that Brown achieved more in those 13 minutes than in 13 years of Westminister government.

    Comment by Ralph Cook on September 24, 2014 at 2:13 pm
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