A Look Back at How Gordon Brown Saved Scotland From Itself.
1. Best of Both Worlds promise
Far from enjoying, “the best of both worlds” Scotland is now burdened with, “the worst of all worlds” where a cabal of “on message” Tories and civil servants, (including the civil service in Scotland) controlled and directed by Cabinet Secretary and top civil servant, Sir Jeremy Heywood decide upon the fate of Scotland behind the securely closed doors of No 10 Downing Street. Exit in great haste, Gordon Brown, whose lack of influence over the unfolding disaster he generated is evident, even to the least politically minded of Scots.
2. Shambolic and divided: how Better Together nearly fell apart
a. Personality clashes, poor organisation, inter-party disputes threatened to derail the no campaign – until Alistair Darling called in the cavalry. Gordon Brown was the hero of the crucial eve-of-poll hour. The crowd erupted; he was the hero of the crucial eve-of-poll hour, but Gordon Brown, sweating profusely from exertion, buffeted by the attentions of grateful supporters at the end of a speech that, perhaps more than any had helped save the union, wanted the ear of his former chancellor – and former friend. “You deserve a lot of credit for this,” Brown mumbled to Alistair Darling, as the raucous cheers finally receded in Glasgow’s Maryhill Community Central Hall.
b. The response from Darling, leader of the cross-party Better Together campaign, whose 2011 memoirs told so candidly of being a victim of Brown’s “brutal” Downing Street regime, was lost to the noise. But for old-time Labour campaigners the speech meant a great deal. “It was like finishing a jigsaw which prompted a memory explaining why you had done so many things,” said one. “We thought, ‘So that’s why we followed that man Brown, why we made those decisions’.” Typically, perhaps even endearingly, after offering his olive branch to Darling, the former prime minister – still irascible, still a brooding presence – illustrated his continued personal and political insecurities, by turning to his aides. “Did it hit the mark? Did it hit the mark?” he asked insistently.
c. Brown had hit the mark. He had beseeched Scotland not to give up on solidarity, and prophesied, during his angry and passionate performance on Wednesday evening, that “the silent majority will be silent no more”. The next day Scotland voted by 55% to 45% to stay in the union, a comfortable victory given that Alex Salmond’s campaign had nudged ahead in the polls less than two weeks earlier.
d. The result was as pollster Andrew Cooper, David Cameron’s former director of strategy, had privately predicted to Darling. Hired by Better Together in May, Cooper forecast that “the polls are going to narrow two weeks out and that you might even see a couple where you are behind”, said a source from the campaign. Cooper told Darling that the gap would then widen again, leaving the final result a couple of points off the last poll and in favour of no. The hearts of the undecideds said yes and the heads said no, Cooper reasoned. The poll movements would result from those who went with their heart deciding earlier than the people who went with their head. Cooper’s prediction was one of the few things that did go smoothly in the battle to save the union.
e. The Better Together and, to a lesser extent, the wider no campaign was shambolic, divided and, at times, plain incompetent; riven by personality clashes (not only, but largely, confined to within the Labour fold) and inter-party political disputes. It was, paradoxically, often a display of British politics at its worst. The state of the Better Together base camp, from which a reluctant Darling led the fight (he had to be persuaded by Ed Miliband and Tories alike to take on its leadership) set the tone. The air in its fourth-floor offices in Glasgow’s down-at-heel Savoy shopping centre was thick with the smell of chip fat. The building’s shutters only opened at 8.30am and closed at 5.30pm apart from on Friday and Saturday nights when “40-year-old divorcees who had poured themselves into 17-year-olds’ clothes turned up for the Savoy disco,” said one insider. “It could not have been a worse base. You can imagine the fun and games there was on a daily basis just trying to get in and out,” another added. More significantly, for months, if not years, far too little appeared to happen inside this HQ and its forerunner in the grander Blythswood Square nearby.
f. “No one really blamed Alistair,” said a source within the campaign. “But he was pulling levers and nothing was going on.” Darling’s speeches were left unwritten until the last moment; a grid wasn’t set up to organise media activity; and there seemed little appetite to hone the messages sent out to an electorate soaked with the yes campaign’s propaganda. The case for the union seemed to be reduced to a series of dire and sometimes implausible warnings. It was felt by some that the Liberal Democrats weren’t pulling their weight by getting their people on television, and even a contact database of journalists wasn’t put in place for the press office. With six weeks to go one of Better Together’s press team asked Catherine MacLeod, Darling’s long-time aide, for a mobile number for BBC Scotland’s political editor. “How could they possibly not have had that number?” said one infuriated campaigner.
g. The battle within social media only went to further highlight Better Together’s deficiencies. The yes campaign was three times more socially active, in terms of positive tweets and Facebook likes. The yes Twitter feed was engaged with one million times, for example, compared with just short of 300,000 for Better Together. And, inevitably, this lack of activity, and a lackadaisical approach to canvassing, started to eat into the polls.
h. A year before the referendum, “no” had been ahead by 20 percentage points. But by the last month, despite the main three political parties ruling out a currency union, that lead was all but gone. “This summer Darling called in help. It was an important moment,” said a source. Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander was sought for his expertise as was Torsten Bell, one of Ed Miliband’s closest aides and former economic adviser to Darling. Paul Sinclair, a former media adviser to Brown, now working with Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, also provided desperately needed energy. “Torsten made things happen and Douglas worked on advertising, messaging and scripts for interviews. He devised the Love Scotland, Vote No mantra. Paul was writing speeches and getting things moving. Things started to get a bit better.”
i. Meanwhile, a parallel Labour effort to get the vote out, largely led by Brown, started in May. Brown proved throughout the campaign to be every bit the same “clunking fist” (as Tony Blair once put it) that he ever was; bullying and bulldozing his way through, intolerant of failure and incompetence. “Still mad as cheese,” admitted one Labour figure. Brown adamantly refused to have anything to do with the cross-party campaign because he feared it would provide a platform for a Tory resurgence in Scotland. But he at least offered a figure to rally around, someone who could deliver a message to the core Labour vote.
j. In matters of organisation, Gordon Banks, Labour MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, who played a key role in batting off the threat from the SNP to Glasgow city council in the 2012 local elections, became a major player. “With four months to go, we were now getting on people’s doorsteps and having a conversation,” Banks told the Observer. “We were accused of being negative but the message was, ‘If you want to keep the pound, vote no’. That’s not negative. And it was a matter of trust. The nationalists have had 80 years to think this through yet they have no answers on pensions, currency and the rest. ‘Do you trust Salmond?’ we asked.”
k. As the Labour machine hit its top speed, 20,000 homes a day were being canvassed. Not that the gears of that machine moved altogether smoothly either. Jim Murphy, the shadow international secretary, who was embarking on a 100-speech tour, has a hate-hate relationship with Douglas Alexander, who was, for all intents and purposes directing events; Darling and Brown met only a handful of times during the entire campaign (“There was a peace pact, but Gordon doesn’t really do peace,” said a source); and Labour strategists were struggling to find anyone even willing to share a platform with their combative and prickly former defence secretary John Reid.
l. But things weren’t falling apart. Labour sources admitted that they believed David Cameron had “played a blinder” in his measured interventions. The three main parties, after endless negotiations, agreed, with a couple of weeks to go, to announce a timetable to further devolution in the final full week of campaigning. It was late in the day, but if presented well it could, the organisers reasoned, look statesmanlike.
3. And then the wobble came.
a. On the evening of 6 September, the Sunday Times released details of its next day’s splash: a YouGov poll had given yes its first lead. While some of those privy to Cooper’s polling predictions were calm, others were far less so. “It was 48 hours of chaos,” admitted a senior Liberal Democrat adviser. George Osborne, appearing on Sunday morning’s Andrew Marr show, managed to give the impression that a package of powers was soon to be announced, rather than a mere timetable; Scottish secretary Alistair Carmichael, speaking at lunchtime on the BBC, chuckled and looked evasive when asked what was coming down the line, “with a wire coming out of his head that gave him a Mickey Mouse ear”, said one Labour source.
b. That day, Miliband sent up more staff to take a grip of Better Together in the final stages and the next day he spoke with Cameron in his Commons office where they agreed to cancel prime minister’s questions to travel to Scotland. And then Brown struck. “He completely jumped the gun,” said a Downing Street source. Brown took it upon himself to announce on Monday that there would be home rule for Scotland. Indeed he not only promised a timetable, but sketched one out. “It looked very much like an attempt to steal the glory,” said a Downing Street aide.
c. Whether that was the former prime minister’s intention, or not, Cameron, Miliband and Nick Clegg could only endorse it, while no doubt grimacing at the emotive and potentially problematic issue of what home rule means for Scotland – and the rest of the UK. Brown had certainly “hit the mark”, as he did again in his barnstorming speech on Wednesday; he may even have saved the union at its darkest hour. But, as the dust settles on a campaign that won almost despite itself, the British public may now be moved to ask: at what cost? http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/sep/21/how-better-together-nearly-fell-apart-alistair-darling-gordon-brown-scottish-independence