It takes only one puff to bring down Brown’s straw man

dandelionI HAVE to admit, Gordon Brown makes a strong case against “total independence” for Scotland. Speaking at the University of Glasgow this week to plug his new book, he told an attentive audience that “we need to co-operate across borders, and across the world, in order to get the best deal for the country.” He condemned what he described as two camps on the extremes: those pushing for “all-out independence” and the Scottish Parliament’s Tories favouring the “all-out status quo”.

He didn’t make clear exactly what kind of half-in, half-out solution he preferred, so readers will have to hokey-cokey their way through the 512 pages of My Life, Our Times to find out. We know he favoured a third option for the 2014 referendum, , “one that offered a more powerful Scottish Parliament as a positive alternative to both independence and the status quo”, but this sounds suspiciously like his hot-air Vow from the last few weeks of the campaign. Would the magical third way of his preference have involved more specific guarantees? Perhaps free unicorn rides for all, or the new power to catapult wet sponges from Holyrood into the faces of fibbing MPs?

No-one is actually arguing for total independence

The big problem with Brown’s persuasive case against total independence is that no-one is actually arguing for total independence. To call this a straw-man argument is to give it far too much weight – a straw structure does at least take a few huffs and puffs to dismantle. This dishonest construction is more like a delicate sculpture made out of dandelion clocks by the fairies who live at the bottom of the garden.

There’s no such thing as total independence in our globalised world – it’s not just undesirable, it’s completely unachievable. Nations of all sizes must not only trade with others, but also co-operate to tackle everything from climate change and disaster relief to terrorism and the threat of nuclear war. Scotland cannot “go it alone” and turn in on itself … and no-one is suggesting it should.

Scotland cannot ‘go it alone’ and turn in on itself

When we speak of young people becoming independent, what we tend to mean is that they’re getting their own flats, and perhaps their own wheels, and making day-to-day decisions for themselves. We don’t mean the locks of the family home have been changed and they must now live on their wits. We don’t expect them to survive by growing their own vegetables and rummaging through bins. They remain part of the community – local, national and international – and as adults they have the opportunity to make their own choices rather than having to abide by arbitrary house rules set by their parents.

In the average family the balance of needs shifts gradually over time, with once-dependent offspring staring to assume caring responsibilities for their parents. Here, again, the question of independence arises. Faced with the choice of staying put or moving into a care home, most elderly people favour the former, even if it means relying on home helps or care assistants. “Full independence” is clearly not an option, but that doesn’t mean anyone infirm or disabled should simply accept that fundamental decisions about their lives – when they get out of bed, what they eat, how their money is spent – should be dictated to them.

Independence and isolation are two very different concepts, but it serves Brown’s interests to mischievously conflate the two

Independence and isolation are two very different concepts, but it serves Brown’s interests to mischievously conflate the two and turn a potential positive into a suicidal negative. When faced with the complication of Brexit, he suggests some kind of “game-changing” intervention is required to make the nation see the error of its ways. “You can’t go back to the electorate and just say: ‘You were wrong’,” he says. Well indeed. You’d need something more than that. A material change of circumstances, perhaps. A massive impending disaster, for example, that the current Labour leader did almost nothing to head off.

To hear Brown talk, one would imagine all of the calls for Scottish independence were coming from tartan Trumps, eager to build a wall between Marshall Meadows Bay and the Solway Firth and get the English to pay for it. Listening to him spout forth on Brexit, it would be easy to conclude that the majority of those who voted Yes also voted Leave, and and did so because of a “Scotland First” xenophobia rather than, say, concerns about the bloc’s commitment to neo-liberalism and its punitive treatment of struggling states like Greece. One would assume those seeking full fiscal autonomy were isolationists rather than internationalists, and that those seeking powers over immigration wanted to lock people out of the country rather than welcome them in.

Brown’s talk of cross-border co-operation sounds great, but in what sense is Scotland “co-operating” with the rest of the UK on so-called welfare reform, for example? Diverting cash to those hardest hit by punitive changes to the benefits system is not co-operation, it’s mitigation. We might as well say that Scotland is co-operating with the US on climate change by setting high emissions targets that it refuses to match, or that North Korea is co-operating with the rest of the world by not murdering us all.

If Brown is so keen on co-operation, and so concerned about the negative impact of a Brexit power grab on Scottish agriculture, then he should practise what he preaches and work with pro-independence politicians to help halt it. Perhaps they can write the next chapter in our political history together.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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