Interview: SNP depute leader Keith Brown on election prep and policy debate

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 9 October 2018 in Inside Politics

Keith Brown is simultaneously preparing the SNP for a second independence referendum, a general election, a Scottish Parliament election and another vote on the EU

SNP depute leader Keith Brown - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood

Even if commentators were surprised at the news Keith Brown was being sent from the cabinet to the backbenches in the last reshuffle, he was not.

Brown, the MSP for Clackmannanshire and Dunblane, had been a long-serving member of the government.

Most recently the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work, Brown had served as either minister or cabinet secretary for a decade.

Yet when the reshuffle was announced, less than a month after Brown had won the contest to become the SNP’s depute leader, it brought with it the news that the economy brief would be dismantled, with the different parts handed over to other cabinet secretaries.

Derek Mackay, the finance secretary, remained in cabinet, with an enlarged portfolio, while Brown, fresh from his triumph, was rewarded by being sent to the backbenches.

Even parts of the party seemed caught off guard. Would it have happened had he not won the depute leadership contest?

According to Brown, the move was not a surprise.

He told Holyrood: “The decision as to how the economy brief was taken forward was obviously one for the First Minister, but the decision for me to come out of the government and to take on the role I have was a discussion we had jointly.

“That was our discussion. But how she [the FM] then arranged the different portfolios in government was her decision.

“It is, to some extent, liberating. There’s not the daily box, there’s not the weekly cabinet meetings, though the vacuum is very quickly filled by the timetable.

“I am really enjoying it. It is a different kind of, if not pressure, then certainly workload.

“Yesterday I was over at the by-election in Coatbridge, and it was quite hard to find time for that when you are in cabinet. So, no, I am enjoying it.”

But is there a sense of disappointment as well?

“Well, ten years in government, there are people you build up a relationship with, stakeholders and others, and you cherish those relationships, but I am always keen for a new challenge and I’ve enjoyed it.”

Yet Brown maintains the decision was made alongside Nicola Sturgeon. “Yes, we had a number of discussions about it in the run-up to the reshuffle.”

The move has given Brown responsibility for organising the party’s campaign structures, with the depute leader travelling all around the country to speak with members and facilitate discussion on the future of SNP policy.

And his organisational skills will certainly be in demand.

As well as preparing for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, and with the prospect of a second independence referendum, and the possibility of a second vote on the UK’s membership of the EU, there is also a reasonably high chance of another general election at any given moment.

That’s quite enough to focus on at once, without considering that the party’s stance on one issue may affect another.

Could pushing too hard for a second independence referendum hurt the party in 2021, for example?

Could its stance on a second EU referendum come back to bite it if Scotland voted Yes to independence?

Or could a snap general election change the UK’s approach to Brexit, and change everything else with it?

Meanwhile, there’s another issue hanging over SNP conference: Alex Salmond.

With an investigation on allegations made against the former FM continuing, there’s clearly a limit to how much senior figures in the party will comment.

But given the former FM launched a crowdfunder to finance his legal case, drawing in a huge amount of funding in a matter of days, his confrontation with the Scottish Government will surely lurk in the corners of SNP conference, even if it goes unmentioned and unspoken on stage.

Brown refuses to say much on the matter. “Two things I will say. I’ve been invited to comment on it by lots of media, and I haven’t commented because it’s an ongoing case.

“But one other thing I would say is that, having just gone through three national assemblies, not a single person has raised it with me.”

He added: “I’ve seen what the First Minister has put out in relation to that [the investigation] and I absolutely support the process.”

For now, Brown has been focusing on the Sustainable Growth Commission’s report, a 354-page prospectus on the possible economic case for an independent Scottish state, based around an assumed annual budget deficit of just under six per cent.

Under the plan, the deficit would then be slowly reduced, falling to under three per cent of GDP per year after a decade.

An independent Scotland would keep the pound for an unspecified transition period, before moving to a new currency when conditions allow.

And it certainly sparked debate. For some, it was a more cautious, realistic assessment than the 2014 white paper, while for others, it was a bland document, lacking in ambition and imposing conditions on Scots which would be almost indistinguishable from austerity.

Brown has just finished a tour of meetings with SNP members, including three national assembly meetings set up specifically to debate the report, and he’s upbeat about the discussions.

“The bottom line for me was to say, I wasn’t a member of the Growth Commission, I’m not a member of the government, so my job as depute leader is to facilitate policy discussion.

“And I wanted everyone who attended those national assemblies, and there were hundreds at each one, to go out thinking they had had the chance to contribute, and if they did contribute, that they were listened to.

“I think on that level they’ve been extremely successful.”

The process has not yet moved onto deciding actual policy, and five months after the report’s publication, it remains slightly unclear what status it actually has within the party.

But from speaking to the membership, Brown says two issues have arisen most frequently.

One is how to take a 350-page report – the truncated version is still 55 pages – and turn it into something that can be digested on doorstops, and the other is currency.

Brown mentions he wasn’t part of the group which drew up the report. How has that affected his role?

In some ways, it could perhaps make his job easier, at least in the sense he’s not personally attached to it.

He said: “I think it’s been helpful that the person who is deputy leader has responsibility for making sure the party is able to have a proper policy formulation process that isn’t directly related to that particular policy which is being discussed.

“That’s not to say we don’t want a role for those that were on the commission.

“At every national assembly we had someone from the Growth Commission there, just doing ten or 15 minutes, tops, to explain some of the aspects.

“It was Roger Mullin at two of them, Kate Forbes at one, but Jim Mather was also there.

“Really, their role was if someone wanted to ask a question – ‘what did you mean by this?’.”

Clearly no one will agree with everything in the report, so to an extent, Brown must find himself facilitating a debate where he does not agree with the ideas being discussed.

That must present a challenge.

He said: “I am quite relaxed about people having different points of view.

“For example, some people have said they want a Scottish currency, and others have asked, ‘Where are you going to get £25 billion or whatever it would take to defend that currency if it comes under attack?’ That’s a legitimate question as well.

“It’s a healthy debate but what’s coming out of it, for me, is that people are thinking positively about the prospects for an independent Scotland, and there are going to be different views about what the best prospects are.

“I’m not looking back and criticising the white paper. I think it was a remarkable achievement to have done it in the time it was done, and it was a very comprehensive document.

“Of course, you want to move on from that, that’s inevitable, but let the different ideas that people have come forward – that’s part of the vibrancy of the Yes movement.”

Vibrant or not, and despite Brown’s positivity, it seems like a pretty stressful job.

Over 100,000 members means over 100,000 opinions, and Brown is apparently trying to reconcile them, tie them all together, and then put forward one policy offering. It sounds hellish.

To what extent does he think it is possible to reconcile diverging views?

“I think the movement is brought together by the democratic principle of independence as self-determination, and beyond that, it is the case that we will fight the first general election in an independent Scotland only once we have an independent Scotland.

“But the idea that people could hold different propositions for what an independent Scotland could achieve is, I think, a good thing.”

But while the party obviously needs to prepare its plan for independence ahead of a possible second referendum, the Scottish Tories seemed to gain considerable traction in the run-up to the 2016 election through continually raising the prospect of one.

‘No to indyref2’ was a simple message, but it seemed to work.

So how does the SNP set about countering that message? Has Brown been working on a plan for responding, in 2021, or whenever another election comes along?

“We are putting in place plans for a snap Westminster general election,” he said.

“We are in the nonsensical situation of apparently being in a fixed-term parliament, where we might have a second parliament within a term that wasn’t scheduled. So we have to be ready for that.

“That was one of the roles when I had that discussion with Nicola – making sure we are ready for a Westminster election and gearing up the independence campaign as well.

“So we are putting plans in place, and of course, we have to look at our messaging around that, we’d always do that in anticipation of an election.

“But I think Ruth is doing a good job for us, actually.

“I mean, her position changes so regularly, it’s quite hard to follow from week to week, but previously, she was very adamant that if the Scottish Parliament, through a combination of the SNP and the Greens, voted for a referendum, that would be sufficient.

“She has now gone back on that. She was previously in support of Remain, she is now an ardent Brexiteer, apparently.

“You’re right that they had a very clear message in that campaign, although it’s worth remembering that it was the SNP that won the vast majority of seats in Scotland.

“But Richard Leonard tried to get in the week before with this idea they would deny the democratic rights of the people of Scotland, and actually, the Lib Dems were there first, when Jo Swinson put in a plea to Theresa May not to allow the democratic will of the Scottish Parliament to be realised if it voted for a referendum.

“It’s a pattern, with them all fighting over that ground, and I am content to let them do that. It’s up to them.”

But it’s really only the Scottish Conservative Party capitalising on it.

“But it’s also true to say that each election is different. Which one of the unionists happens to get pre-eminence at a given election, it’s up in the air.

“You just assume that because the Tories were the biggest unionist party at the last election that they will be next time.

“I am not arguing against that, when you look at the way the Lib Dems are and Labour are, I can see that rationale, but that’s up to them.

“The consistency we have displayed, and that Nicola Sturgeon has displayed over a long period of time, that’s what used to be called strong and stable government, I think.

“A consistent message, and not varying it for your audience, in the way Ruth Davidson does.

“I think the SNP’s success since 2007 is as much reliant on the fact that whatever else we are, we are perceived by people in Scotland as the party that will always stand up for Scotland’s interests.

“Now you can have a different view of what those interests are but I think people believe we do that, and when it comes to Scotland’s right to decide our future, we are consistent.

“Consistency pays off over time and I’m not sure Ruth Davidson chopping and changing from week to week is going to help her.”

But at what point does the SNP go into an election saying it’s pushing for an independence referendum as hard as it can?

That wasn’t the message in the 2015 election, in which Sturgeon was clear that a vote for the SNP wasn’t a vote for another referendum.

Then 2016 was different, there was a clear commitment to a second vote.

So how does the party juggle pushing for independence without alienating those who have voted SNP because of its record in government, but still support the union?

For Brown, the changing nature of UK politics means any such calculation will depend on circumstance, with Brexit and the chaos consuming the UK parties holding the potential to change perceptions over the balance of risk associated with independence.

“Of course, there are the grand issues of Brexit, the massive uncertainty,” he said.

“But underlying it, especially when you see the appointment of a minister for food supplies, is the perception of a government in complete disarray and fighting among itself.

“People seem to have forgotten something – if you go back to Clinton, ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, if you go back to 2011 in Scotland it’s ‘team, record, vision’.

“It’s the idea of competence in government and I think that is as dangerous for the Tories as their completely different views within cabinet on Brexit.

“People don’t like to hear about food rationing, or medical supplies not being provided, or Jaguar Land Rover or Toyota talking about three-day weeks – that makes them question the perception of judgement.

“Government requires a vision and I do not believe they have that vision, but what’s very dangerous for them is not looking after people’s basic need for a job, for an income, and also continued austerity.”

A recent British Social Attitudes Survey provides a source of hope for SNP strategists, finding 41 per cent of Scots now believe the economy would be improved by leaving the UK, compared with 26 per cent in 2014. 

That probably stems from concern over Brexit, but while many people would agree that the UK Government is in a state of chaos, the research also found that the result of the EU referendum has not boosted support for independence.

Isn’t there an argument that uncertainty just makes people fear more uncertainty?

They have seen Brexit turning into a shambles, and now they imagine independence could be just as hard?

Brown is pretty blunt, though he seems to accept the party will need to bide its time to see any bounce on the back of Brexit.

“Nobody has any idea what is going to happen next month in relation to this, or whether it’s going to be the same government that’s there.

“Is it a ‘no deal’? Is it a Chequers deal? Is it Canada plus? No one knows what the opposition are going to do.

“I can’t remember a time as uncertain as this, so it’s no surprise that people are waiting to see how that turns out, and that, I think, vindicates Nicola Sturgeon saying that people have to have an idea of how Brexit is going to go, what the deal looks like first.”

Meanwhile, research from the National Centre for Social Research suggests that around a third of SNP supporters voted to leave the EU.

What’s the party offering them? And is there a danger of losing them?

“I am able to do much more than I was previously, in terms of getting around the country, and you get all different shades of opinion.

“I have formed the impression, not least in my own constituency, that some people who voted for independence did so because they didn’t believe the system was delivering for them.

“I know in my area there were people who haven’t voted in a number of elections who came out for the independence referendum, and I think there was an element in the Brexit referendum of people saying ‘the system is not delivering for me’, so they voted against the system.

“There may have been a cross-over between those two different groups as well.

“But I’ve not met anyone who voted Leave that was an SNP supporter who is not going to support the SNP at the next election or independence [referendum].

“What I can’t say, and what no one can say, is what the proposition is going to be.

“We won’t know what stage Brexit is going to be at, or if we will extend Article 50, or if we are in a transition period, so that is a difficult thing to try and square, but I am not sensing people not supporting independence because of their views on the EU.”

But has the SNP’s stance on a second independence referendum complicated its approach to a second EU referendum?

The party successfully sought a parliamentary mandate for a second independence referendum, but by that logic, should the Remain campaign, or so-called ‘People’s Vote’ campaign, not seek a parliamentary majority for holding a second vote on the EU?

“No, I don’t think it does. Neither Mike Russell nor Nicola has set their face against [backing a second EU vote], but you have to explain to people in Scotland, if they are asked to go out and vote again, and they vote the same way, and there is the same outcome, how their views are going to be taken into account.

“They come out and vote, and let’s say, again, they vote Remain – and polls show it would be an even higher vote for Remain this time, but the polls also show it could be a Leave vote across England and possibly Wales – but if that, again, supersedes the view of Scotland, how do they account for that?

“What really strikes me as odd is the People’s Vote concentrating on Scotland to try and get traction for their case, when it’s not Scotland they’ve got to convince.

“What they have to convince Scotland about is how their view is going to be taken into account.”

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