Gordon Brown has a plan to save the Union and we should probably pay attention because some people credit him with saving the Union once already in 2014 when he made a series of foot-stomping, fist-clenching speeches when the No campaign looked wobbly. Six years on, it looks more like a disaster movie. So can he pull off the same trick again?

He certainly knows what the problem is, but then don’t we all? In an article for The New Statesman, the former prime minister said the virus, the recession, and the splits over local lockdowns had exposed a UK government that doesn’t listen and outlying areas that do not feel they’re being properly consulted. He also made the fair point that it’s not just Nicola Sturgeon who thinks that – mayors like Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are feeling the same way. In other words, this isn’t just a Scottish problem, it’s a UK problem.

Mr Brown’s article outlined just how serious the issue is – the UK could follow the British Empire into the history books within 10 years, he said. But he also said there were four pillars on which a stronger UK could be built. First, a fairer distribution of the UK’s resources to the poorest. Second, better joint working between the UK governments. Third, a new federal structure. And fourth – and, in Mr Brown’s view, the most important – a new constitutional document outlining Britain’s values.

Mr Brown admits all four pillars are a big ask, and that there isn’t much time to act, but the problem with his plan is that at least three of the pillars look shaky already. The strongest of them, no question, is the concept of a federal UK – the centre and the left of unionist politics has already coalesced round the idea and it’s gathering support on the right as well, most recently from the former Tory minister Malcolm Rifkind in the Herald on Sunday this weekend. Our current political structure is a patch-up job rather than the result of intelligent design and it needs fixed.

But, at the risk of sounding negative or defeatist, the cracks in the other pillars of Mr Brown’s plan are pretty serious, mostly because of the nationalist mindset which Mr Brown himself identifies in his article. Nationalists hold the “other” guilty for anything that’s wrong, he says, and divide us into us-and-them silos. “We have to demonstrate,” he wrote, “that our future lies in empathy across nations and not enmity between them.”

But let’s look at how that could actually apply to the pillars of Mr Brown’s plan. First, the one about the fairer distribution of the UK’s resources. Half the population of the UK, says Mr Brown, live in areas where the quality of life is no better than one of the US’s poorest states, Alabama. To deliver first-class citizenship, he adds, we have to ensure the country’s resources are more evenly shared.

In principle, this is a logical way to tackle nationalism, mainly because we know that it feeds most greedily on poverty. The poorer the area, the more likely a nationalist vote – something we saw clearly in the 2014 referendum and we saw it again in the US elections (who did Alabama vote for? Trump of course). And so the argument goes that if you share wealth more evenly and people are better-off, they will be less likely to support nationalism.

But Scotland demonstrates a few of the problems with that argument. First, there’s a certain mindset among some SNP supporters that is simply immune to the economic arguments – they just want to “get independence done” whether people are richer or poorer. Second, public spending in Scotland is already 17 per cent higher than the UK average (in other words, more than its “fair” share) and yet support for independence is growing. And finally, even if a greater share of the UK’s resources was distributed to Scots and they noticed it, the UK still wouldn’t get the credit. It beggars belief, but some recent focus groups have shown many voters in Scotland think furlough was a Scottish Government scheme.

The other pillars in Mr Brown’s plan are just as problematic. On the idea of better co-operation between the governments for example, in principle no one’s arguing against it. Indeed, the Scottish Affairs Committee proposed a number of reforms last year, but the report also pointed to the problem that will always undermine any reforms: a deficit of trust in the relationship (which the SNP has an interest in perpetuating). Mr Brown also suggests that the “man in Whitehall” has to start thinking differently and develop a “devolution mindset”. But the man in Whitehall has never been less powerful in Scotland and yet support for nationalism grows.

Which brings us to the last of the pillars in the plan, which Mr Brown says is the most important. What the UK must do, he says, is offer people hope of a shared future by agreeing on shared values: “The only Union that will survive is one that … reflects the values, the aspirations and the experiences we share in common.” Mr Brown also said he regretted not creating a “mission statement” along these lines when he was PM.

But I’m afraid the cracks in this final pillar are obvious. Just as no one really knows what Nicola Sturgeon is banging on about when she talks about “Scottish values”, the concept of “British values” is also impossibly vague. If it’s about a decent level of social protection, as Mr Brown appears to suggest, then isn’t that a universal value rather than a British one? The other problem is that as soon as you start adding any kind of detail to the idea of British values, you start to alienate some Scots.

Mr Brown is insistent though: he says a constitutional document along these lines would persuade Scotland to stay in the Union. But would it help right now when so many Scots say they have no shared values with the current UK Government? Better, surely, to focus on building a system that incorporates different values and allows UK governments to implement their priorities while ceding sovereignty on shared interests. Federalism could deliver that. It is one of Mr Brown’s pillars and it’s the one we should focus on for a simple reason: it’s the pillar that has the greatest chance of withstanding the chipping and hammering of the nationalists.

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