12/405 The general election campaign proper doesn’t begin until tomorrow, but already we know who’s won: Gordon Brown. Britain is electing not one prime minister but two. Blair is the first party leader to go into an election promising not to serve a full term, and the first PM to come with a spare.
Suddenly these supposedly bitter rivals have become inseparable. Blair and Brown go everywhere together. They are appearing tomorrow night in their own political version of Love Story, a soft-focus election broadcast by Anthony Minghella of “The English Patient” fame. It’s all becoming just a little, well, emotional.
By according Gordon Brown equal status in this election campaign Blair is signalling that the Chancellor is the man who will succeed him, barring a scandal or a Labour defeat. Labour is now explicitly presenting itself as a party with a joint leadership. The object seems to be to ensure that the Chancellor receives some sort of joint mandate from the people at this election which will help legitimise him as PM when handover comes. So much for all those newspaper stories that the Chancellor was to be dumped.
But it will fuel the paranoia of those, like the BBC presenter Jeremy Paxman, who have been complaining of a Scottish ‘Raj’ running England. To English nationalists it must look as if there has been a palace coup by the Jocks. Look! They have the Prime Minister held captive and are making him bend to their will. A Scotsman is to enter 10 Downing St. by the backdoor. The swine!
In fact, actively promoting Brown as Blair’s successor is only a recognition of reality. There is simply no one else around who could conceivably challenge the Chancellor in any leadership race. David Blunkett has resigned; Alan Milburn, has made a mess of the election; Charles Clarke, the home secretary made a horlicks of ehe house arrest bill; and, er, that’s it.
Labour is now preparing an orderly succession, which may be sooner rather than later, if the polls are to be believed and Labour’s majority is slashed come May. However, the very imminence of the Brown take-over means that this general election could begin to focus, not on Labour’s manifesto, but on its future leadership. The critics are even now beginning to sharpen their pens - not about Gordon Brown’s politics or his competence but his nationality.
Boris Johnson, editor of the Spectator, came close to racism in his attack on the prospect of Brown in Number Ten. “That would be utterly outrageous”, said the former Tory culture spokesman,” not just because he is a gloomadon-popping, interfering, high-taxing complicator of life, but mainly because he is a Scot and government by a Scot is not conceivable in the present constitutional context”. Just replace every “Scot” in that context and with ”Jew” and see how it reads.
Of course, Johnson and his kind insist that it is not Brown’s Scottishness, but devolution that makes him unfit for office in Number Ten. Because the future Prime Minister sits for a Scottish constituency, it is argued, he should not have the right to dictate to England on matters like health, education and crime that are devolved to the Scottish parliament. It is a variant of the old West Lothian Question.
The obvious answer to it is that Gordon Brown has been dictating to England on all manner of devolved matters already. He has taken a very close interest in the creation of foundation hospitals south of the Border for example. The Chancellor has been laying down the law to England for eight years across the entire range of departments through the long arms of the Treasury. No one has yet said that he is constitutionally or racially unfit to be the Second Lord of the Treasury so why should it make any difference if he is to become the First?
There may be questions about Scottish MPs voting on purely English bills in the Commons, when English MPs have no reciprocal rights to vote in the Scottish Parliament on devolved issues. But there is no reason at all why the head of the government should not be Scottish. All members of parliament are equal under the constitution. The Prime Minister governs in the name of all members of the House of Commons. Brown could be a double dutchman or a spear-carrying Zulu - if he has a seat in parliament, and can command the support of a majority in the House, then he can and must be Prime Minister.
It is indeed curious that supposed unionists like Johnson raise this issue at all since the unitary Commons is supposed to be what binds the United Kingdom together. Tell some of its members that they are second class citizens and cannot run for high office, and you will assuredly help Great Britain disintegrate.
However, Johnson’s attack has been echoed by some of the anti-Brown tendency in the Labour PLP. There is a lingering resentment among Labour MPs at the influence of the Scots in the Labour Party. Many of the northern members harbour a grudge because they think Scotland does better than the North of England out of the Barnett formula for public spending.
Metropolitan MPs have a rather different grudge. Blairite ministers think that Brown has been blocking the modernisation of public services. Ex ministers like Peter Mandelson, Alan Milburn, and Stephen Byers think Brown is a control-freak and would roll back the whole New Labour project.
They think his Scottish connections have left him sentimentally attached to old Labour and monolithic state provision. This is odd because Gordon Brown was one of the architects of New Labour and is no nationaliser. As he reminded journalists at last week’s double press conference, Brown was responsible for the private finance initiative and the privatisation of London Underground.
None of this has mattered much before, while Tony Bliar was leader. But it could become a problem soon. The animosity could turn particularly nasty if Labour’s majority is cut to fifty or so on May 5th - an outcome which must now be a distinct possibility given Labour’s free-falling in the opinion polls.
If the balance of power in Westminster is held by Scottish MPs, then the English MPs in the House of Commons would kick up a monumental fuss. Michael Howard has already demanded that Scots MPs withdraw from debates purely English legislation on the grounds that English MPs have no say on devolved matters like health and education in Scotland.
However, Scots have already been exerting a disproportionate influence over English legislation. The bill to introduce top up fees in England (but not Scotland) would not have become law had it not been for the support of Scottish Labour MPs, who backed the government against English Labour rebels. Even Tam Dalyell voted on the fees bill, though formally it applied only in England.
It is in practice very difficult to identify purely English bills. Many of the clauses of the fees bill had direct relevance to Scotland. And the knock-on effect of top up fees on Scottish universities, who stood to lose staff and students to better-financed institutions in England, made the bill of great interest to Scotland.
Now, it may be that on certain uniquely English Bills Scottish MPs should withdraw if it can be established beyond reasonable doubt that the legislation would have no impact in Scotland. 00000 But Scottish MPs should certainly not be deprived of voting rights in a unitary parliament. That way lies constitutional secession. In which case Scotsman Gordon Brown might become the last truly British prime minister