Gordon Brown’s speech to the Labour faithful has unsurprisingly attracted a lot of blog comment. Clearly, the sheer number of references to Britain and British was inevitably going to attract attention in its own right, even if I'm not as sad as those who sat down and counted them. Some Welsh bloggers have been quick to jump to the conclusion that this is a response to Welsh and Scottish Nationalism. Perhaps, but probably only in part. Gordon the Brit-Nat is far too easy a response. I think he has another target in mind as well as well, as Normal Mouth has already identified.
Let’s look at Scotland first. On the face of it, the ‘Union’ would appear to be in much more imminent danger in Scotland than in Wales, with all the talk of a referendum. But this is really just that – all talk. There is no majority in the Scottish Parliament for holding a referendum, and I’m convinced that there will be no referendum in the immediate future - certainly not in the next four years. Alex Salmond knows that as well as anyone - his game is twofold. Firstly, by starting the debate and having the actual vote blocked by the 'London parties' he can and will claim that Scotland's legitimate right to a say on the matter is being blocked. Secondly, and far more importantly, by making it clear that Independence is a matter which will be decided by a referendum, not by an election, he removes one of the fears that some Scots may have about voting for the SNP. It becomes a safer option.
Electorally, Brown knows that he faces losing a few Scottish seats to the SNP, and a few more to the Tories, but he also knows that this is not where the election will be decided. Playing the ‘British’ card will be unlikely to win back the support of any who are deserting to the SNP; and I doubt that anything he does can make Labour seem more British than the Tories in Scotland. There is also a real danger that polarising things around identity politics in Scotland ends up working against the Labour Party there, and he, as a Scot, will know that as well as any.
In Wales, support for Independence remains more or less static at around 12 – 15%, as it has done for many years. There is a broad consensus developing for further powers for the Assembly, but Brown is probably supportive of that anyway. The ‘Union’ is not in immediate danger. Electorally, there is probably only one Labour seat in serious danger to a Plaid advance, and that is Ynys Môn. The danger to Labour at Westminster level comes much more from the Tories, who could win 3 or 4 seats on a good day. But again, this is not where the election will be won or lost.
So, there are a few seats (a handful) in Wales and Scotland under threat from Plaid and the SNP, and another handful under threat from the Tories. If more than a handful are lost to the Tories in Wales and Scotland, Labour will already have suffered something of a meltdown in England. The next general election will simply not be won or lost in Wales and Scotland - the main battleground is in England.
Against that context, one has to ask why on earth Brown would adopt a platform which, in the eyes of some commentators, puts the future of the ‘Union’ at its heart – an issue which is of primary relevance only to two areas of the UK which are not going to affect the outcome of the election? (I see no evidence of any serious debate about the ‘Union’ in England; certainly not in the same way as it is debated in Scotland).
Brown is not a stupid man; he knows as well as I do that his target audience has to be in England rather than in Wales or Scotland, and the question is not how his speech plays in Wales and Scotland, but how it plays in England.
The first possible interpretation is that he wants to show that, even though he is a Scot, he has England’s interests at heart. We need to bear in mind that, for most English people (and this is clearly different in Wales and Scotland), the terms English and British are pretty much interchangeable; the stress on Britishness will not grate in the same way with his target audience there as it will with some in Wales and Scotland. I think this is part of his aim, but only part.
The second issue has much more to do with the idea of social cohesiveness in England. I don’t think we should underestimate the level of shock and concern being felt at the top of government about the extent to which some in-migrants, and some of their descendants, are perceived to be failing to adopt ‘British’ values, and I suspect that this was also an important element in crafting the speech. In fairness to him, I suspect that he sees a real need to increase social cohesion, primarily in England. To do so by talking up Englishness would only fuel the fires in Scotland and Wales, and as a Scot, it would sound downright dishonest in any event, so he has little choice but to fall back on Britishness – but, as mentioned earlier, in England, the two will generally sound the same anyway.
On this issue, he’s walking a tightrope; the whole area is a subject which is difficult to talk about because of all the issues it raises about multiculturalism and religious freedom; but it becomes far easier to deliver the message if it seems to be aimed primarily at other ‘British’ people.
I find myself, again, in agreement with Normal Mouth, when he states that much of what we might regard as 'British' shared values are actually closer to being universal values (although I suspect that that is true only against a largely secular cultural background). And I can certainly see why, quite apart from electoral calculations, Brown would wish to ensure that those values are more universally understood and shared throughout these islands.
Will it work – at either level? At the deeper level, I genuinely don’t know. If my analysis is right, I'm prepared to give him a degree of credit for tackling a real issue, even if the stress on being British grates where it seems to run counter to a sense of Welshness. And electorally? I think he’s already won the next election, whenever he calls it. The more direct comparison people make between him and Cameron, the harder it becomes to see any significant advance by the Tories, just so long as he avoids the inevitable banana skins.