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Moving On (January 2007)

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

How many of the Red Paper on Scotland's contributors, besides its editor Gordon Brown, are still in the Labour Party?

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The Red Paper on Scotland came out 31 years ago, but how many of its contributors - those still alive, that is - besides its editor Gordon Brown are still in the Labour Party? Could you count them on one hand?

On the cover of his later and more logical, book Where There is Greed (1989) Mrs Thatcher glares, handbagged for the kill, out of an industrial wasteland. But in 2007, in Galerie Brown, there she is, incoronata, where Gramsci once was. No wonder the comrades have fled.

The Westminster Blair-and-Brown docusoap gets the enigma of the Chancellor wrong: not Tom Bower's Iago, but casting back to Robert Louis Stevenson's bleak Master of Ballantrae (1887). At its centre, Henry Durie, dull and dutiful, minds the estate house for his charming and corrupt Jacobite brother James, until - deformed by his hatred - he destroys him is and is himself destroyed.

First: Brown was doing Chancellor for £ 150,000 a year, a sum that wouldn't get a Goldman Sachs banker out of bed. (Hank Paulsen, his American counterpart as Treasury Secretary, had indeed come from Goldman Sachs, where his 2005 income was $ 37 million or £ 20 million, over a hundred times Brown's) Second, he was Scottish and he used the relative freedom that Scots MPs enjoy - Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) are there to suck up constituency business - to build a power posse at Westminster. Third: he was of the Scot's Free Kirk tradition, like John Buchan, John Reith and Rupert Murdoch. The "disruption" - the split in the Presbyterian Church in 1843, over its relations with government - was a bigger trauma than the Union of 1707. The Free Kirk mind was fascinated with power yet detached from a sinful - aristocratic and by implication English - world. Brown's attempts to invoke Britishness have been shallow, but there was something here - the Henry Durie quality - different from Blair's "I'm a regular guy"/"It's a fair cop, guv" alternations: more honourable and more misguided.

Until 2006 the Chancellor escaped the Blair effect. "Gordon will see us right" kept probably a majority of Labour's (fast-declining) membership loyal. But why was there a pervasive gloom in public discourse, quite different from the confidence which radiated from the Treasury?

I first met Gordon in 1978 when I was researching No Gods and Precious Few Heroes (1981), a history of twentieth-century Scotland, and was (like him) an Open University teacher. We met more or less daily, trying to run the Lothian Labour Yes Campaign during the 1979 Referendum, which produced Brown and Harvie's The Scottish Assembly and why you should vote for it. Lothian was neither shaken nor stirred.

Gordon was humorous, self-deprecating, organisationally chaotic - a combination of dynamism and poor sight left a trail of jumbled papers, hieroglyphic scrawls and wrecked typewriters. He filled the vacuum left by the main driving force of 1968 in Edinburgh and originator of the Red Papers, Colin Lindsay. He was honest and reliable: an important link-man in a crumbling party. He kept the campaign going, bailed it out, and we only just succeeded, as Robin Cook, shamelessly opportunistic and anti-devolution - "Some people call Robin machiavellian, but at least you knew where you were with Machiavelli." - tried to force a recount to ensure a "No" victory in the region. Such dissidence was idiotic - hadn't Denis Healey said that whoever won in 1979 would be kept in by North Sea oil for a generation? - and an SNP motion put Callaghan out by a single vote. Gordon fought South Edinburgh in the General Election in May. It snowed. We lost. Thatcher went to work and I left for Germany.

My own political views changed as I completed No Gods. In 1986, when the BBC asked me to do a documentary on Scottish politics in its Scotland 2000 series, I was moving towards nationalism and I left Labour for the SNP in 1989.

Gordon's doctoral thesis on Scottish Labour 1906-24 (1976) may have had something to do with his evolution. It was good but less innovatory than Iain McLean's The Legend of Red Clydeside (1982) and also deeply pessimistic about the Labour movement's resilience in circumstances of economic depression, a line that continued in his study of the ILP's hero James Maxton, decent and passionate but also lazy and disorganised. His policy writings - the introduction to The Red Paper; Scotland: The Real Divide (1982), co-edited with Cook, as well as Where there is Greed, were thoughtful, soft left, arguments for redistribution, welfare extension and industrial modernisation. They offered no guide to his record in office.

Behind this may lie the fact that Gordon wasn't a debater. The Edinburgh Union didn't do big clunking fists, being eccentric, competitive and quite collegiate. Cook had friends on the Tory side - "they aren't after your job" - but Gordon's slightly later generation marched dourly through the institutions. In the early 1980s he and the repentant Cook were depressed by the "five nights a week activists" though by 1992 they were marshalled behind John Smith, a refreshingly undogmatic sort. In 1994-5 I may even have contributed a bit to Labour's short flirtation with the "Rhenish" social market economy and the "stakeholder" ideal, through studies of North Sea oil in Fool's Gold (1994) and The Rise of Regional Europe (1993).

On Smith's death in 1994 the Granita pact guaranteed Gordon oversight of economic, regional, training, transport and trade policy. An extraordinary accession to the power of the Treasury, this effectively rigged cabinet government, like Mrs Thatcher's clever appointment of her "wets" to the spending ministries, where they would claw lumps out of each other and keep her "dries" in control. Granita was a new constitutional convention which went well beyond personal melodramas. Blair and Brown weren't ideologically at odds. They needed each other too much: as Peter Hennessy put it: "Tony survives by consoling the people Gordon upsets."

But it had two consequences. First, it aggravated New Labour's abandonment of broad-based campaigning in favour of analysing focus groups and picking off swing seats; a narrowed vision when devolution and Europe required a practical federalism, political and economic. Along with this went a reliance on the muscle of a right-wing press, which managed to be, like New Labour, obsessively centralist and, unlike it, effectively domiciled in tax havens. Second, the abandonment of industry in favour of financial services stressed effective regulation, but this turned out 1) "light-touch", meaning ineffectual; 2) divided between "Tony's and Gordon's things"; and 3) subject to half-a-dozen competing power-centres, unending makeovers, and all the disjunction, demoralisation, and "running-in" troubles they bring.

Leave aside the wars and rightward lurches which have brought New Labour under attack from the left by David Cameron's Conservatives, a culture of debt has been incubated, and weak-to-disorganised supervision of the geld encouraged to slosh into London. This has come from "inward investment", aka "flogging the family silver: part two", Asiatic turbo-capitalism, dodgy dealing in the Middle East, Russian oligarchs, and "Sarbanes-Oxley refugees". Prate as he might about Adam Smith, the latter's "conspiracy of merchants" is happening on Brown's doorstep and because of his failure to regulate.

In Scotland the strings are false: new jobs turn out to be part-time, unemployment doesn't count sick days, the public sector is swollen and inefficient, and poverty is double the German level. In Germany, contemned by Brown and his clique, I observe real training, real medium-size industry, real infrastructure and real jobs. I want this for Scotland and for Adam Smith's lang toun of Kirkcaldy, and Brown gets in the way. Which is why, 300 years on, I want out of the union.

 
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