Opinion: Glasgow East is about more than just Gordon Brown
It’s a sad indictment of the modern media that Labour’s upcoming doomsday in Glasgow East is only really viewed through the prism of Gordon Brown’s premiership.
We’re all used to it of course, and this website – and myself – are as guilty of it as anyone. The media treated the Blair-Brown war of attrition as a jovial way to introduce EastEnders fans to political journalism, relishing the opportunity to personalise what’s usually a dry collection of policy proposals.
Now we’ve constructed a tale of Brown the tragic non-leader, the man who craved power for so long he forgot why he wanted it in the first place. The man who rode the waves of national popularity until his dithering manipulation of a possible general election crushed his reputation for good.
None of this is false. Actually, it’s pretty spot on, but the by-election in Glasgow East reflects much more than the terminal decline of the prime minister, or even the Labour party itself. It reflects the abject failure of Labour to deal with a level of poverty and disadvantage that puts this country to shame.
And the repercussions of the vote are about more than Mr Brown as well. They could eventually form part of the springboard that tears apart the United Kingdom.
That sounds melodramatic, but the significance of what Glaswegian voters do on the 24th should not be understated. The SNP have pursued a sensible and highly effective programme since coming to power north of the border. By sticking to solid, hard to resist left-centre policies like refusing tuition fees and introducing free prescriptions, they have cemented two important ideas in the minds of the Scottish electorate.
Firstly, that Scotland is separate from England and Wales. Not culturally, or historically, or even romantically separate – but politically separate. Separate on the ground. Separate in the delivery of services. Separate in actual fact.
Secondly, they have the left the impression that, frankly, it’s better to be in Scotland. What kind of low or middle income family could come to any other conclusion? Would you like to spend thousands on sending your child to university or would you rather not? It’s a no-brainer, to borrow that torrid and ugly American phrase. Just ask the people of Berwick-upon-Tweed, a small town on the border of England and Scotland which recently professed a desire to come under Hollyrood’s jurisdiction.
That record, combined with Gordon Brown’s utter inadequacy in government and the half a century of empty Labour promises in the constituency, could precipitate the most important SNP victory in its history. Yes, even more important than when they actually took power, because a win here will give Mr Salmond the kind of momentum with which he can ultimately make the case for an independent Scotland.
I have been watching Alex Salmond for some time now, although I must confess to only taking a serious interest in him after an extremely eloquent speech against the Iraq war. There is very little he says or does which I find disagreeable. He adopts sensible, practical left-of-centre policies rather than abstract dogma and he gives every impression of caring intensely about his country.
It’s only when he talks about his main political objective – the separation of Scotland from the union, that my head and – yes – my heart, recoil in horror.
What has brought us to this situation, where an MP quitting his seat grants the independence movement so much impetus? Commentators will tell you it is the weakness of Gordon Brown, the endless drama of his fall from grace. But that’s not really it. Mr Brown is not half as unpopular in Scotland as he is in England. Yes, the government is disliked, but if Glasgow East votes against Labour on Thursday week – and that is still far from inevitable – it will be because of the party have failed them over and over again. A bad prime minister in a constituency well-cared for by his party, would still pull through.
In the Calton ward of Glasgow East, male life expectancy stands at 53.9 years. I won’t insult your intelligence by pretending you don’t understand the ramifications of that number, but to put it in perspective, Iraqi life expectancy is 69 years.
This level of poverty and lack of opportunity is a scandal in the world’s fourth richest nation. But it is also a stain on the face of the Labour party, who have ruled the constituency for 50 years. If they lose now, the media will talk about Mr Brown and leadership bids and the dying days of a failing government. I will talk about that as well. But don’t forget what an SNP vote means for Britain. And don’t forget the neglect that got us into this position in the first place.