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Brown shows how to make enemies of so-called friends

IT is fair to say, I think, that the elephant in the room just went rogue.

If that sounds harsh, perhaps we could speculate that the biggest of Scottish Labour's beasts was misinformed. In any event, someone forgot to tell Gordon Brown that goring members of your own herd might count as counter-productive.

Or have we missed something about the meaning of the phrase Better Together? Perhaps we were misled by that tricky customer, the English language. Perhaps we should have ignored all the stuff about Labour, Tories and Liberal Democrats setting aside their differences for the sake of the Union. Then – but only then – the former Prime Minister's first big speech since leaving office might have made sense.

Far be it from me to tell the No campaign how to conduct itself. Standing shoulder to shoulder at daggers drawn is a tricky manoeuvre. But having heard so much about "the biggest decision in three centuries", and so forth, it was faintly surprising to read our report of Mr Brown devoting a part of his keynote address at the Glasgow launch of United with Labour to anti-Tory knockabout.

Not that I disagreed with his statements, as such. The Tories are indeed wandering where only Enoch Powell used to dare to tread in their dementia over immigration and Ukip. Within the limits of Labour's universe, Mr Brown's intervention was excellent stuff and more cogent, interestingly, than anything Ed Miliband has managed thus far.

But isn't there a risk that the message sent to Scottish voters, not necessarily a subliminal message, might be: "For the purposes of pacifying Scotland we in the Labour Party are in alliance with a contemptible bunch we otherwise despise. Stick with the Union for more of the same"?

That could be dismissed, no doubt, as a partisan point. The response would be fair if someone could explain why Mr Brown's intervention made sense in terms of the united front Better Together is supposed to present. Arguments over two referenda are becoming entangled, as they must. Europe and immigration are salient, let's say, to the decision over independence. Brown could not or would not make the connection.

He spent a good deal of his time, of course, in advertising the benefits of Union. He posed those benefits in terms liable to matter to Labour voters: solidarity, social justice and the welfare state. But that in itself was revealing. It explained why United for Labour has been created. Better Together is supposed to provide unity and all the answers. But United only exists because there are plenty of Labour people who won't be see dead campaigning with the Tories.

You can't blame a person for that. You can ask them, as you could ask Mr Brown, which comes first: party politics or the defence of the Union? Or is the entire anti-independence campaign just an attempt to make Scotland safe for political business as usual? Whatever the answer, it is of precious little help to Better Together. The slogan "We all hate one another, but we hate independence more" is not be found on its website.

This column is at the risk of going blue (with a nice Saltire effect) in the face over this issue. Independence, for or against, is not, or should not be, a party political matter. Nicola Sturgeon's attempt to win more women voters for the Yes campaign by advertising the SNP's welfare policies is a case in point. As the Deputy First Minister knows as well as anyone – in fact, as she said – such policies will be a matter for an independent government. The SNP might not form that government.

The parties, perhaps inevitably, are incapable of behaving as anything other than political parties. But if that's the case, they should stop pretending they are dealing with "the arguments" when all they are doing is arguing, as ever, over competing party programmes. The public appetite for something solid in the independence debate is now conspicuous because, quite simply, it is not being met.

In several reports of Mr Brown's speech, to take a typical example, it was said that the former Prime Minister "hinted that more power could be devolved to Scotland if voters reject independence". How does a hint help anyone to make a choice? And was it a hint simply because Scottish Labour MPs, MSPs and others cannot agree over something as fundamental as taxation?

One answer might be that these days, for well-known reasons, there is a limit to what Mr Brown can promise. It is also self-evident that despite the public's demand for "facts", there is a limit to what anyone can say with certainty. That has not hindered both sides from throwing "facts" around like custard pies.

Mr Brown said, presumably as a matter of fact, that the benefits of Union include, as shared resources, UK-wide pensions, national insurance contributions, the funding of health care and the minimum wage. Has he managed to bind the present Government to these? Will he be extracting a commitment to preserve such benefits from a Tory-Ukip coalition or, come to that, Ed Miliband? The facts of party politics are fragile things.

That being the case, what hindered Mr Brown from making a few arguments of his own? He has thought long and hard about Scotland's relationship with the UK. He was supposed to be defending a devolution settlement he helped to create. Instead, he managed a hint and a lot of the usual warnings about the benefits that could be lost if Scots decide to shape their own future. It hardly amounted to an argument.

I mentioned an appetite for "something solid", yet he argued that much, if not everything, would depend on the nature of a future Scottish government. That's contradictory, surely? How does it help the growing number of North Sea companies telling Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce that the referendum is now a factor in their planning? The first response to those firms is simple: it should be a factor. Secondly, if uncertainty over tax regimes and the like is the issue, ask yourself about George Osborne's behaviour towards North Sea industries, then ask how many promises for the future he is prepared to offer.

A third answer, with luck the most solid of all, depends precisely on what the No camp likes to call uncertainty. The other word for that is opportunity, whether for North Sea firms, or for Scots who are out of work. The hard fact is that an independence referendum offers a range of possible futures. Some of those, the better ones, will only becomes available with a Yes vote.

The parties own no copyrights on the future. The No campaign is deeply averse to that reality, but the SNP is not too keen either. Political parties are like that. It comes to this: the public will only get the kind of answers it craves when the parties stop telling people what will happen and begin to ask the voters what, as a matter of fact, they want.

Has anyone thought of attempting that exercise? How hard could it be? Gordon Brown's contribution to Better United Together (But Not With Them) was not a good start.

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