Edinburgh Book Festival: Gordon Brown, "A Conversation About Scotland"

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Gordon Brown with Alistair Moffat in the Chair
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Alistair Moffat stood alone on the stage to introduce Gordon Brown who received a tremendous welcome from a packed audience to hear his thoughts on 'A Conversation About Scotland'. His opening words were to thank the audience for coming as he said that he shared the amazement of his old friend Robin Cook, who had expressed incredulity that, when appearing at a party meeting it was hard to get an audience, however, when speaking at a book festival, when people had to pay for tickets there was a sell-out audience.

Speaking about his own family he said that he could trace his ancestors back a long way, but decided to get his DNA checked and then found that originally the family had come over from Sweden in the ninth and tenth centuries. His forbears had come through England and up through the Border Reiver country before settling in Fife. On the way they had to change their family name under threat of death.

On Scottish independence he felt that the Union was a crisis point. He spoke very strongly about the need for 'sharing' and this was to be a strong theme throughout his speech. He took the example of Quebec where there had been some 49% in favour of independence from Canada, but as people began to understand the advantages of 'sharing' this had dwindled to about 20%.

He then claimed that since the referendum the Conservative Party had followed policies which had given greater encouragement to English nationalism - whether this was to appease the right wing of the Tory Party or UKIP was not clear. However, while the SNP constantly pressed the Scottish national case, rather than British unity, the Conservatives were encouraging English nationalism. Brown saw this policy as extremely dangerous for the Union side. If things continued he foresaw that the Union would be endangered by what took place in England. Both the European referendum and the move to allow English MPs only to vote on English laws - EVEL - were divisive in his view.

He went on to claim that there was no other law making body in the world that has two classes of members with different areas for which they are responsible. He stressed the importance of the Smith Commission's recommendations being delivered, otherwise Scotland would be aggrieved and would feel short-changed by this process. He was particularly strong on the importance of the need for the Scottish Parliament to be given the power to top-up benefits because of the 'savage welfare cuts' coming. This he saw as giving the Scottish Parliament the chance to offset the effects of these Conservative austerity policies which overall, in his view, were most damaging for the Union. He said that Britain and Scotland had to decide whether it wished to go with the traditional version of absolute democracy, or move towards the 21st Century version where there was cooperation and balance with "as much autonomy as we want, but with as much sharing as we need".

Gordon Brown likened our present situation to that of South Africa where Nelson Mandela struggled to keep the nation together in spite of differences of tribe, colour and race. He succeeded during his own lifetime but Brown thought that this would be an ongoing struggle.
Speaking about global migration and he pointed out that only 5% of those who were on the move were actually coming to Europe, so the problem was absolutely huge and we were seeing but the tip of the iceberg.

When asked about the Scottish economy now that the oil price had dropped dramatically he stressed that an economy could not simply be based on one commodity - oil. He stressed the need to see the wider picture where Scotland gets some £500 per person more because of the assessed greater needs of the country. However, he did again stress the importance of devolving welfare payments and so giving the Scottish Parliament the authority to top-up payments which it considered essential.

On federalism he felt that it was unlikely to work with one country being so large - England has 85% of the population with Scotland only 7%. He would recommend going as close to a federation as possible but avoiding independence at all costs!

Asked about independence and the place that Scotland might attain in the world economy, he said that if we were on our own the country would not be a member of the G7, so for instance when the banks collapsed, the country would have been unable to do anything on its own. This was because of the complexities of the global economy which was so integrated that unless a government was prepared to work with others it would be simply in the position of a bystander. He also suggested that the cancellation of debt to some of the world's poorest countries could not have been influenced by Scotland as a small independent country.

Going back to the possibility of there being a second referendum on independence, Gordon Brown said that if there had been two questions on the ballot paper, one asking about independence and the other whether Scotland should have more devolution, he thought that there would have been an overwhelming majority asking for more devolution and not independence.