Listen to this article
Scotland these past few weeks has been watching a politician reborn. Gordon Brown had become Britain’s forgotten prime minister, lost since his 2010 general election defeat in self-imposed exile. That was until he took centre stage to energise the unionist campaign fighting Scottish separation.
David Cameron, his Conservative successor in Downing Street, messed up just about everything it was possible to mess up when he allowed Alex Salmond’s Scottish National party to dictate the terms and timing of this week’s independence referendum. But Labour too will have to shoulder a fair share of the blame in the event that Mr Salmond does succeed in forcing the break-up of Britain.
In a contest that has been swinging back towards the unionist side in recent days but is still too close to call, the swing votes are in Scotland’s old industrial heartlands – the Labour (and should-be unionist) voters who were left behind by prosperity even before the global financial crash ushered in an era of austerity.
Mr Salmond needs the votes of the low paid and no paid in the bleak urban landscapes of Scotland’s central belt in order to push the nationalist vote above 50 per cent. As populist politicians across Europe have learnt, these areas provide fertile ground for the divisive politics of identity and grievance.
Uncomfortable facts are easily elbowed aside by atavistic emotions and opponents shouted down. This is what seems to have been happening in parts of Scotland as voters have responded to Mr Salmond’s dog-whistle nationalism.
Angry, and too often ignored by a Labour party machine that has treated power as its birthright, many working-class Scots seem ready to believe that all their ills and more can be blamed on the English.
Mr Brown has stepped out to change that. Watching him on the campaign trail these past few days, the only question those who want to preserve the union can ask is: why has it taken so long? A campaign that has looked alternately complacent and overly negative has recovered its voice.
No one is quite sure why Mr Brown disappeared after 2010. Friends said he blamed himself for the defeat. Less kind colleagues suggest it has been a long sulk. No matter, his championship of the unionist cause have revealed a politician restored to confidence.
Mr Brown suddenly looks like a politician with a career ahead of rather than behind him. First minister of Scotland, perhaps? Even prime minister were the nationalists to succeed in tearing Scotland from the union.
In London, he struggled to find the right tone with the political and media classes. In town halls and community halls across Scotland, Mr Brown does not have to play the metropolitan sophisticate game. And, critically, he is as Scottish as they come. There is no one more steeped in the national culture, values and traditions.
The separatist campaign has rested on the unspoken but ever-present insinuation that to be in favour of the union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland is somehow to be less Scottish. Unless you play for what Mr Salmond calls his “team Scotland” then you are not a patriot. No campaigners are to be slandered as “traitors”.
It is not a charge that even the supremely self-assured Mr Salmond would dare level at Mr Brown. And it is indisputable Scottishness that has made the former prime minister so effective in campaigning for Britishness.
Sure, he has highlighted the dangers of separation; the seven deadly risks he likes to call them. But the kernel of his argument has been an unshakeably positive one: that the 307-year-old union is an expression of solidarity, of shared culture, traditions, values and interests. Are nationalists so insecure in their Scottish identity that they cannot wear it alongside their Britishness?
He is right, of course. The history, institutions and achievements of the UK belong not to England but to its four constituent nations. Scottishness, as Mr Brown put it in a rousing speech at the Better Together campaign’s closing rally, has never been the property of separatists. And Britishness belongs to us all.
Get alerts on UK politics & policy when a new story is published