The art of political storytelling isn't lost on the Scots

The Yes camp has had the stronger story to recount: richer in history, deeper in feeling, grounded in a politics of progress rather than dread

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“That was a Gordon Brown you haven’t seen before,” someone said after the former prime minister had raised a storm of eloquence, zest and even wit in defence of the Union. In fact, just once, I had – but only at a private gathering.

At last weekend’s Borders Book Festival, with the embalmed heart of King Robert the Bruce resting across the way at Melrose Abbey, sunshine had broken through the public demeanour of a politician who in office looked so clouded and even – that favourite epithet – dreich.

There were even gags – one about Frank Haffey, the hapless Scotland goalkeeper who let in nine against England in 1961 (yes, such results could once happen) and mortified the 10-year-old Brown. Haffey emigrated to Australia where, many years later, his compatriot Denis Law paid a visit. “Is it safe to come back, Denis?” Haffey asked. “No.”

Four years after his eviction from Downing Street, Brown evidently reckons that it is both safe and necessary to return. Three months before the independence referendum, Brown now has a story he desperately wants to tell to both Scotland and Britain: a narrative about the “pooling and sharing” of the common resources of four entwined nations in a joint enterprise to safeguard their well-being.

In Melrose, he celebrated a cross-border welfare state “based on need not nationality” and insisted: “It was not imposed by the English. We decided for ourselves... This was not English colonialism. This was a Scottish creation. People in Scotland wanted to be part of a UK-wide system.”

In a bold act of historical reimagining (and in Melrose, you do stand in Walter Scott country), Brown recast the Union as a social-transfer treaty. Yards away from the Bruce’s buried heart, he sought to turn around the Robert Burns-led view of 1707: “We’re bought and sold for English Gold – Sic a parcel o’rogues in a nation.”

In his analysis, pursued in a new book, My Scotland, Our Britain, the marriage of parliaments was renegotiated in the mid-20th century as a pact for mutual aid by Scottish Labour leaders such as Tom Johnston. To Brown, the UK-wide safety net woven with this firm Scottish support created “a standard provision that doesn’t pit nation against nation and lead to a race to the bottom”. It is “unique in the world. Before we throw it away, we should think about what we have achieved…  We have shown the world that four nations can work together to do something that changes the welfare of mankind.”

 

More than 40 per cent of Scotland remains unpersuaded by Brown’s social union, according to the most recent polls. In the Borders, he spoke on friendly turf for unionists: 61 per cent in favour, 26 per cent for independence, with 13 per cent still to decide, the latest survey shows.

But what seems beyond dispute is that, until now, the separatist arguments of the Yes Scotland camp have had the stronger story to recount: richer in history, deeper in feeling, grounded in a politics of progress rather than dread. Smartly angled towards disaffected Labour voters, Brown’s case aims to restore egalitarian passion to the Union and inject hope into a downbeat No campaign often denigrated as “Project Fear”.

The past is always in flux. Brown lit up with his advocacy a festival that centres on the sumptuous gardens of Harmony in Melrose, a mansion erected in 1807 from the profits of a slave-worked pimento plantation in Jamaica. That, too, forms part of Scotland’s post-union history. On 18 September, we will find out if Brown’s tale of wealth pooled for the common good can trump the nationalist ballad of future freedom grasped and ancient sovereignty regained. Whatever the result, his intervention adds a new chapter to this war of rival stories.

Every two-bit (or even six-figure) spin doctor now proclaims that politicians need a narrative to break through the doubt and derision of the voters. Paradoxically, this can persuade the punters only if it strikes them as sincere, authentic and unspun.

Conviction, however, does not always equal credibility. Tony Blair told a fervent, even messianic, tale about his mission. It lingers long into his political afterlife, as in his nervous recent apologia for the Iraq war and its outcomes: “We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this. We haven’t.” Blair’s major problem remains not the want of a cogent storyline but the dearth of credulous listeners.

Ed Miliband, for his part, still fails to write an appealing script about who he is or what he wants. Endless punditry now censors him for drift and blur. But any attempt to colour in a backstory, as in his trip to visit relatives in Israel, thumps into the iron wall of media hostility.

Consider the Daily Mail’s pre-emptive strike against his late father Ralph as “the man who hated Britain”. Here we had a potential PM who could tell of a refugee family that narrowly escaped the gravest genocide in history and built new lives of public service in the land that sheltered them. In the US, such a trajectory might propel a candidate towards the White House. Here, it was swiftly neutralised by the rockets of the right.

Miliband and his paid storytellers face a further obstacle. Modern nationalism, wherever it starts to bubble, has the capacity to blend the emotions of left and right into a brew that inspires, invigorates and intoxicates.

Without that extra fuel, the 21st-century social democrat stays bogged down in the sands of tinkering technocracy. On Thursday, Miliband spoke at the launch of the IPPR think-tank’s Condition of Britain report, with its 28 planks in a platform for change. Such as? “All staff working with two-year-olds to hold at least a Level 3 child development qualification, and 30 per cent to hold an early years degree.”

Comrades, to the barricades! Thirty per cent or death! Competent, accessible childcare matters to millions. But reformers still hide the story in the stats.

From Churchill to Reagan and Thatcher, the forces of conservatism have made the politics of strong feeling, and of strong narrative, largely their own. In the developed world, the post-war right has commandeered the language and the imagery of stirring myth. Calls for new dawns and clean sweeps, of the sort that surfed New Labour into power, can for a spell disrupt this dominance.

Then the pattern recurs. And centrist conservatives who fail to conjure up attractive yarns will stand at risk of an outflanking movement on the right – a Ukip-style insurgency with much cruder narratives to flog.

With the redistributive upheavals of the past century now a receding memory, the politics of reform turns on reasonable propositions rather than passionate stories. In these post-ideological days, the idea of justice – unless partnered by some exclusionary cult of community, identity and belonging – seems to light a fire in very few bellies.

Left-leaning parties serve up a bland menu of rational measures. And the voters yawn. Yet it was that clan chief of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume, who wrote in his Treatise of Human Nature: “We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

Narratives of social passion do now attract attention from the becalmed liberal-left. Policy wonks pore over the cognitive linguistics of George Lakoff, the author of Moral Politics, with his notion of the state as a sort of giant family that triggers deep-seated but divisive emotions. As impresario of the 2012 London Olympics, Danny Boyle proved that a rooted tale of progress could engage heart as well as mind. Labour’s election machine lacks a Boyle.

The case for EU membership (to put it mildly) lacks a Hume. And, until last weekend, I would have said that the positive argument for the United Kingdom still had a gaping, story-shaped hole at its heart. Brown has tried to fill it with his conviction that “we can achieve things together that we could not achieve on our own”.

Down the road from Melrose lies Abbotsford, the neo-medieval folly beside the Tweed where Sir Walter Scott not only imagined the past of his Waverley novels but also reinvented his nation. He did so, of course, as a Tory Unionist. Scott fabricated traditions, knitted together a fanciful patchwork past, but tailored the rag-bag into a vision of Scotland-within-Britain that lasted late into the 20th century. At nearby Bowhill, home of the Dukes of Buccleuch, a room devoted to Scott – a kinsman of the family – has David Wilkie’s portrait of King George IV in tartans.

It was Scott who masterminded the king’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822: the event that kept the monarchy alive in Scotland. He cooked up a lavish pantomime of kitsch and pastiche. Choreographed by the supreme historical storyteller, that retro-fitted myth still worked.

Compelling yarns do. Who, in UK politics today, can tell a better one than the restitched tartan romance of the SNP – or Ukip’s lurid penny dreadful? The English, at least, know that they can never rely on their football team to write a happy ending.

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