Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Brown delivers the speech of his life

Tony Blair is Scottish. He was born in Edinburgh, the grandson of an Orangeman and butcher, and went to school  at the prestigious Fettes College in the Scottish capital. This former prime minister hasn’t stayed silent on the independence debate referendum, saying just on Saturday that a Yes vote would ‘not be sensible, politically, economically or even emotionally’. It is not the sort of comment which is likely to endear him to any Scots and unlikely to sway any wavering voters. Which is why he hasn’t been allowed to be anywhere near the Better Together campaign, he is probably only second to Margaret Thatcher in the Most-Disliked-Politician-in-Scotland table.

All of this is in stark contrast to Gordon Brown. The conventional wisdom has written the former prime minister off portraying him as a dour, glowering figure, sulking in Kirkcaldy and rarely venturing into the House of Commons despite still being an MP. But the political biographies will have to be rewritten, especially, as seems increasingly likely, the No vote finally comes on top. It is probably too strong to say that a No win would be down to Gordon Brown’s impact, but it is undoubtedly true that the introduction of this true political heavyweight into the debate has shifted the balance.

Up and down the country, Brown has been speaking without notes, fluently and powerfully addressing rallies, galvanising the No campaign. Yes, it has basically been the same speech over and over again, with the same jokes about football failures, the same invocations of historical Scottish figures, the same warnings of the risks of voting for independence. But, regardless of the politics, it is a good, well-crafted speech. And the more Brown has given it, the better it has got, culminating with his appearance at Mayhill Community Central Hall, in Glasgow this morning (Wednesday, September 17). Prowling like a caged lion, his arms enthusiastically enacting the sentences as he spoke, the Kirkcaldy MP delivered one of the finest oratorical performances of our lifetime.  Oddly, though the contents of the speech are of course, important, the sheer style, and panache of the performance, means that one could disagree with every word and still come to the same conclusion.

Of course, Blair knew how to deliver a good speech. He could be fluent, funny, self-deprecating, confrontational and passionate; but ultimately, with Blair, one never knew if he, himself, actually believed what he was saying. With Brown today, though, there is no doubt that it came from the heart, the words almost erupting from within like an unstoppable force. Barack Obama, on his day possibly the English language’s finest orator, often gets compared to a preacher and Brown too, delivered his speech like an archetypal Scottish minister –he is the son of one, of course –  and it was after almighty crescendo that he bellowed the biblical line ‘what we have built together, let no nationalism put asunder’. (In the actual printed version of the speech, attached below, Brown apparently says 'Nationalist' at this point; 'Nationalism', which he said, works better).

It is something when grizzled hacks from the Daily Mail and The Sun can do no more than acknowledge the mastery of Gordon Brown’s oratorical skill. Brown has always been a powerful speaker, though his message was frequently dulled by power and his tactic of repeating the mantra of the day over and over again. In the context of a tightly fought referendum, this was the best speech of Brown's career.

There is no doubt Gordon Brown has shaken the No campaign from its complacency, appearing just as panic was setting in after an opinion poll gave Yes a narrow lead. He has injected it with energy and provided it with what it has desperately needed, a positive message in favour of the union, simultaneously celebrating Scottish identity and British identity – much of this can also be found in his book My Scotland, Our Britain. 

But, despite its undeniable power, will Brown’s contribution sway any votes? He left Downing Street after a tumultuous few years, the country reeling from an economic storm, his reputation severely damaged. But, still, possibly. In such a tight election, for the No campaign to win, it only needs a few votes to swing from one side to another and it could well help make the mind up of wavering voters. With this grand oratorical flourish, Gordon Brown could yet confound the political rule book and show that all political careers do not necessarily have to end in failure.

*The full text of the speech can be found here.

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