KIRKCALDY, Scotland — Dour. Grim. Downright uninspiring. When Gordon Brown ended a disappointing three years as British prime minister in 2010, few would have credited him as the man most likely to swing a popular vote ever again.
- In Scotland, as in Ukraine, the smell of nationalism jolts Jews
- Scottish voters reject independence from the U.K.
- The night the United Kingdom was saved
Yet the former Labour Party leader and 63-year-old Scot has emerged as the oratorical star of Scotland’s Better Together campaign, the man most responsible for persuading wavering voters to stick with Great Britain by emphasizing why they should be proud to be British.
The issue at stake — the defense of his homeland within the United Kingdom — brought back the passion that his years of government struggle in London had seemed to sap.
His speech to the final anti-independence rally on the eve of Thursday’s referendum set social media ablaze with comments that Brown was the man who should have led the pro-union case all along.
Brown “galvanized the campaign. He spoke with authority. He spoke from the heart,” said Victoria Honeyman, a politics lecturer at University of Leeds in England.
Ellen Baron, 62, a life-long Labour voter from the Scottish town of Renfrew near Glasgow, said she was certain that Brown had turned the tables on Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party leader and first minister of the Scottish Parliament, who resigned Friday.
“Brown is more than a match for Alex Salmond,” she said, wishing aloud that Better Together had enlisted him to argue the pro-union side in two television debates last month against Salmond. In his first comments since the vote, Brown promised in a speech yesterday that British leaders would not break their promise to deliver more powers to Scotland.
“There is a time to fight but there is a time to unite and this is the time for Scotland to unite and see if it can find common purpose and move from the battle ground to the common ground,” he said.
Brown said a timetable on more devolution would be followed, vowing that the new “Scotland Act” would be ready by January. He also promised to lead a House of Commons debate on the proposals in October.
He said the eyes of the world were on British leaders to make sure they delivered, and that the proposals could be supported by both the “Yes” and “No” camps in the independence battle.
Political analysts said Brown’s bigger role in delivering defeat of the Scottish nationalists was to realize, months before others, that the pro-independence side could win unless Better Together emphasized positive pride in Britain, not fear of how an independent Scotland might stumble.
And they said his strategic masterstroke was to compel Britain’s big three parties — Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, and his own opposition Labour, now led by Ed Miliband — to offer Scots greater powers of self-rule if they voted no.
“There’s a delicious irony in all of this,” said John Curtice, politics professor at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. “Brown may have just saved the political skin of David Cameron.”
Throughout the summer as the pro-independence side made steady gains in the polls, many in the anti-independence camp openly wondered why the big gun of Scottish Labour politics, Brown, was playing so small a role. But political analysts think that reflected Brown’s own choice, one he changed only reluctantly.
In his speech Wednesday, Brown cast the nationalists as selfish, the union as a band of brothers.
“What kind of message does Scotland send to the world if, tomorrow, we said we are going to give up on sharing, we are going to smash our partnership, we are going to abandon cooperation and we are going to throw the idea of solidarity into the dust? This is not the Scotland I know and recognize,” he thundered during the 13-minute speech without notes, which had been honed during a week of town hall rallies from the Highlands to Scottish Borders.
Since Friday’s anti-independence triumph and Salmond’s resignation hours later, speculation has mounted that Brown could seek to enter the Scotland Parliament and take on Salmond’s yet-to-be-named successor. He still holds his seat in the House of Commons in London representing Kirkcaldy, a seaside town at the mouth of the River Forth where he spent his childhood. It is the biggest town in the parliamentary district he’s represented since 1983.
Here, few expressed surprise that Brown proved such a performer. They’ve seen his charisma and determination up close, going back to his high school days in Kirkcaldy, where his father was the local Presbyterian minister.