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Saving Gordon Brown (February 2007)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Might Lib-Labbery be Gordon's way out? Suppose he retreated to his constitutional speculations of the early 1990s and did a deal?

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Sometime in the 1820s an opponent of Talleyrand dropped dead in the French parliament. "Now, what was his purpose in doing that?" wondered the Great Survivor, to whom everything was political. Such a degree of aptitude seems necessary at the court of Gordon Brown, whose climb to the top of the greasy pole looks like ending in frustration, if not humiliation.

To get the same opinion poll results against the Tories as dear old Michael Foot in 1983 looks disastrous for Labour. Or worse: Foot could always count on Scots and Welsh loyalty, Brown can't. With the national elections looming on May 3, Scots and Welsh voters seem minded to give Labour a kicking.

Tony Blair has positioned himself to make a gallant exit fighting for the Union, and the backlash against Brown - the Scot who can't manage Scotland - might end any prospect of his coronation.

Yet there have been some intriguing straws in the wind. Relations between Scottish Labour and its LibDem coalition partners have been rough for years, but recently the Liberals have been going for the Nationalists, their only alternative partners, like knives. So, have Brown and his constituency neighbour, Ming Campbell, been plotting on the Heathrow-Edinburgh shuttle?

Might Lib-Labbery be Gordon's way out? Suppose he retreated to his constitutional speculations of the early 1990s and did a deal? Suppose he gained LibDem support and partnership in a UK coalition government for the price of proportional representation and the end of the two-party system in Britain? Or has Brown, through his anti-Europeanism, his pro-nuclear, pro-Trident declarations, burned too many of his boats?

But desperate problems require desperate remedies. Think of that other Kirkcaldy minister's son, John Buchan, and his 'Pavia' strategy in The Thirty-Nine Steps: a Renaissance battle in which a totally unexpected manoeuvre destroyed the enemy.

And think of one road not taken. What would have happened in 1997 if Brown had, instead of stopping Robin Cook becoming Scottish First Minister, gone for the job himself? He had the health that was denied Donald Dewar, the intellect denied Henry McLeish, and a political imagination alien to Jack McConnell. Had he built Scotland into a model provincial regime, with a lively and competitive mixed economy, this prototype could have been sold to the English regions, and almost certainly been used to inspire Northern Ireland.

Later, drawing on his Scottish political strength, he could have shifted to head up UK politics, just as in Germany Willy Brandt and later Helmut Kohl went from being Länderfürsten to federal leadership. This sort of politics was forecast in his quondam ally the late Dr Henry Drucker's Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party back in 1978, as part of the business of recasting Labour in a pluralist, federative society.

Had Brown chosen to rise via Scotland, he would have had a challenge because of Holyrood's semi-proportional electoral system, but he could have coerced the LibDems to lay the foundations of such a compromise on the British level. There might have been the risk of an SNP runaway, but even McConnell had earlier got on top of this. But Brown went for the embrace of the City of London and in the interval the certainties of British politics have almost completely broken up.

Beyond any prospect of repair? The key question is a boring one for the Westminster establishment, even if it can destroy it for good. It is: what happens to Scotland if Brown flops and Cameron and the Conservatives win? The Tories in the north are struggling to reach a third of their English polling level, and are only in contention because of their list members in the Scottish parliament.

So what happens if an SNP-led Scottish Executive faces, say in 2009, a Conservative ministry with no Scottish MPs? Scottish Labour, out of power in Holyrood and Westminster, with persistent nationalist elements and derived of the oxygen of patronage, would split. In the referendum promised by first minister Salmond an independence victory would be assured, and the Union would be at an end.

But the Salmond promise of a referendum becomes difficult if the LibDems won't coalesce with the SNP, or if they did coalesce but Holyrood remained confronted with a Labour-led government in London. This would be a "Quebec situation" in which the Scots, with their Labour traditions, might never nerve themselves to make the break.

In a coalition minuet, Campbell has everything to play for, and Brown has everything to lose. Such are the stakes that are now implicitly emerging. "Swallowing a toad", as the Germans put it, might be Brown's only way forward.

"Dismiss the impossible and what remains, however improbable, will be true." Thank you, Sherlock Holmes. So next time, look who's sitting with whom on the Turnhouse shuttle.

 
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