Brown in Motion

by Ken Gibb

As part of my day job at Policy Scotland we have been hosting and co-badging a series of events about the independence referendum. We are neutral in this endeavour and the objective simply is to put evidence into the debate. We have to that end hosted events by both sides and a series of ‘what if’ scenario debates. We had a lecture by John Swinney, a session by Douglas Alexander, a debate on the currency options were there to be a yes vote, and last night we had Gordon Brown.

The Chancellor of the University, Sir Kenneth Calman, introduced the event and said some nice things about Policy Scotland. Gordon Brown spoke for 45 minutes before taking questions for about a further 25 minutes.

I have seen him speak before. In 1997, as part of the devolution referendum, a series of Labour ministers flush from the landslide election victory came to Hamilton to talk up voting yes for a Scottish Parliament. I remember him being impressive, quite academic and almost scholarly in his speech. But perhaps he also benefited from following a less impressive John Prescott?

Last night he was speaking in the University Charles Wilson lecture theatre – a remodelled church with a steep banking of seating but a place I always like going to for these kinds of events. His name and reputation brought a big crowd, media and a buzz of anticipation for a rare sighting of the former PM. The large audience were generally very warm and supportive. The only heckler of note actually wanted to turn the unionist clock back to the position before 1999.

I thought I might use this post to talk about the rhetorical style he deployed rather than the substantive details, most of which had been widely trailed in the media before and after the talk. He remains an impressive speaker, building his argument and working the crowd hard.

He started in the classical style with three or four jokes. This included quite a good line about Universities and their stressing of integrity and rationality. All the virtues, he noted, that were left behind when he went into a career in politics. He made the usual jokes in favour of the host city he was speaking in at the expense of other cities and Universities.  The lines were well-delivered and often quite funny. He can be a bit ‘clunky’ but somehow it still all works as a package.

I was also very struck by two distinctive features of the presentation. First he had, no teleprompter, notes or aide memoire but rather performed something of a feat of memory including plenty of statistics, stories and historical evidence. Second, rather than stand at a lecturn, he spoke by prowling from one side of the stage to another with a large banner behind him that stated ‘strength, stability, security’. Throughout the evening he was in perpetual motion and this rhythm seemed to be a key to working his way through the structure of his speech.

A further key to the speech was that familiar rhetorical trick of repeating the same phrase again and again till it was independently bouncing around inside your head. How many times did he say ‘pooling and sharing’ fundamental social and economic rights? I think this is a standard part of his speaking style but it was particularly striking.

Like 1997 he drew a lot on the historical record, such as the key role of Tom Johnston during the war promoting the case for a nationalised NHS against the majority of the war coalition cabinet. During the Q&A he argued that there was not anything uniquely or more radical about the Scottish political position relative to others in the UK – but that there is a myth of a Scottish progressive tradition that can be built on.

And those jokes? Some were old but they were still generally effective. Two examples:

A new Chancellor of the Exchequer receives four sealed envelopes from his chief advisor on the grounds that they are only to be opened in consecutive order in times of real crisis. Things eventually do go badly wrong – the first says ‘blame your predecessor’, the second says ‘blame the statistics’, the third says ‘blame the EU’, the fourth says ‘write four letters for your successor’.

Richard Nixon travels to Ghana for its independence celebrations when vice president in 1959. He goes into the crowd and asks everyone he meets how it feels to be free. The third person he asks says ‘how should I know, I come from Alabama’.

In the end, those committed to the opposing sides of the debate will make up their own mind on the merits of the arguments Gordon Brown deployed and I was not surprised to see a wide range of reviews from the media present at the lecture. I am sure people will consider the significance of his intervention and the apparently wider role he appears to be taking in the referendum campaign. However, even if you disagree entirely with his position, we were given the rare opportunity to witness the effective rhetoric of an old-fashioned political speech made by a senior politician who can still unquestionably ‘do the business’.