Interview: Keith Brown on being elected SNP depute leader
Keith Brown at SNP spring conference 2018 - Image credit: PA Images
Keith Brown still remembers being called over to the SNP head office to help handle membership enquiries.
It was 2014 and the Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work had been sitting in the Scottish Parliament chamber for decision time when he got the message from party HQ. Overwhelmed by applications to join the SNP in the aftermath of the No vote, the party had been forced to call in all the help it could get, with MSPs summoned to answer phones and members of the cabinet apparently tasked with processing applications.
Four years on, Brown sits down with Holyrood at the SNP conference, hours after being named as the party’s new depute leader, for an interview punctuated by a series of supporters stopping by to offer congratulations and advice. Looking back on the days following the independence referendum, he describes the surge in membership as a kind of blur. “It was non-stop. All hands to the pump. It was extraordinary,” he explains.
Brown won the depute leadership with 55 per cent of the vote, having been informed of his appointment shortly before taking to the stage alongside the other two candidates – grassroots organiser Julie Hepburn and Inverclyde councillor Christopher McEleny.
Accepting the role of depute leader, Brown outlined his plans to chair three SNP national assemblies to discuss the Sustainable Growth Commission report’s findings, as well as pledging to write up a report for the party’s National Executive Committee on the feedback he received during the campaign, and the feeling he got on strengths and weaknesses of the party machine from speaking to different groups around Scotland.
Brown says he is keen for the other two candidates to feed into that process, with the new depute highlighting Julie Hepburn’s campaign in particular as an example of how to build support, with the SNP veteran pushing Brown very close in the race.
Brown says he had felt confident about winning, though he was obviously still relieved to make it over the line. Still, in Scottish political terms, 55-45 represents a good result. “Well, it is when you’re the 55 per cent, yeah,” he laughs.
“But no, I don’t think we have fully adapted [to the membership surge], that’s why we have these resolutions in internal sessions to adapt the party structure to better reflect that. That’s also why I am so pleased about the announcement of the three national assemblies, because a lot of people in the party that joined at that time  have got incredible expertise and backgrounds that we could really benefit from, and we haven’t really tapped into that as well as we could, so I am keen to set up expert groups within the party.”
Key to the role of depute will be to provide a link with members to policy, Brown says.
“First and foremost, we have the policy engagement and policy formulation part of the party, which can seem dry to people not involved in politics, but it’s really important, if you’ve got a mass party like ours, that those that want to get involved in policy have that opportunity, and, as it happens, we’ve just had the Growth Commission. That’s fantastic material for people to either get behind or get their teeth into, either way. So to now be chairing three national assemblies which will discuss that is really exciting – we’ve not had national assemblies for a while in the SNP.”
The build-up to conference was certainly dominated by the publication of the Sustainable Growth Commission report, with corporate lobbyist Andrew Wilson releasing a 354-page prospectus suggesting an independent Scottish state would cost around £450m to set up, with an 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.
For some, the report offered a more realistic and convincing economic case upon which to build a new independent state. For others, on the left of the independence campaign, it was a let-down, with plans for tight spending controls and extended use of the pound representing a swerve to the right.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Fiscal Commission recently downgraded its forecast for Scotland’s income tax take by around £200m for 2018-19. For supporters of independence, economic weaknesses are proof Scotland is being held back by the Union. For opponents, they are clear evidence of how the country would suffer from going it alone. How does that affect the argument for independence?
“It’s perfectly possible for that [the revised forecast] to be seen as something that is illustrative of the fact we are in the Union. We have been there for a long time. If we are as bad or uniquely badly placed as our opponents say, then that has got to be a commentary on the effects of the Union. What the Growth Commission seeks to do is say there’s a more positive future out there for us. It quite rightly takes comparisons from comparable countries, that shows you what can be done.
“For example, we have been subject to a report from parliament, from the local government committee on city deals, which says the difference between the UK Government and Scottish Government is that we support inclusive economic growth, and the UK Government is not explicit in supporting that. It supports growth as growth. So one good example would be if we were able to legislate for the living wage – the real living wage, not the UK’s national living wage. That is fairer, which is part of my job, but it is also beneficial to the economy, because people that get paid the real living wage, by definition, spend that on living. They spend it in the economy, they spend it on goods and services, rather than putting it in overseas bank accounts.
“You saw in the British Social Attitudes Survey, a massive increase in confidence that an independent Scotland could look after its economic affairs better than it does in the UK. I think that’s illustrative of a new-found confidence, and perhaps an acknowledgement of some of the things which the government has done to try to achieve that.”
But while Brown is obviously keen to talk up the perceived benefits of independence, comments from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) – raising questions over plans in the report to close the deficit in an independent Scotland – seemed to puncture some of the optimism from those claiming a Yes vote could bring a fairer country.
As David Phillips, IFS associate director, told the Telegraph: “It’s a continuation of austerity. If public spending growth is one per cent less than GDP growth, that’s austerity.
“Half a per cent growth in public spending will feel like the continuation of austerity for quite a few services.”
So how big a blow is that verdict to the argument?
“That’s not my reading of the Growth Commission report. I didn’t sit on the Growth Commission but obviously I’ve seen their report, and they are talking about increased public spending and they reject the idea that austerity will get you where you need to be. It contracts the economy, that’s fairly self-evident. It’s true to say the UK has put itself in a terrible position, both the last Labour government and the current Conservative one. The current one has doubled the national debt, getting on for £2 trillion.
“But I don’t think it is in any way the case that the Growth Commission seeks to support austerity or factor it into plans. It says exactly the opposite – to increase public spending, year on year. That is how you grow the economy.”
But the point the IFS was making was that if the proportion of the state shrinks as part of the overall economy, then that will feel like austerity. As Phillips put it: “On their definition, we’re not currently in austerity in the UK, but we clearly are, as the state is substantially falling as a share of the economy.”
In 2014, the Yes campaign presented itself as a positive vision for a new independent state, with politicians from the SNP to the Greens to those in the Radical Independence Campaign all claiming the vote would offer a chance to reduce inequality and protect the most vulnerable.
This report, though, has been treated as a more cautious, and perhaps more realistic model. In fact, some accused the SNP of adopting the language of neoliberal economics in order to soothe big business. But, in seeking to allay some of those economic concerns, and given reactions from the left, is it short on hope?
Brown is adamant. “What the Growth Commission is saying is that we’re going to have increased public spending, year on year. I am not sure how that, in anyone’s language, can equate to austerity. It does say there are constraints, especially to pull ourselves from the situation we are currently in. We’ve had austerity now for eight years and we have to move away from that. I don’t agree with that assessment of the Growth Commission. But of course, that is to be subject to debate from all the different parts of the party, the three national assemblies will take place.”
Probably the most significant break from the 2014 white paper came on currency, with the Growth Commission recommending Scotland continues to use the pound – without control over monetary policy – during a transition period, before eventually aiming to establish its own currency when market conditions allow. It offered a pretty clear break from the plan last time around, so what’s changed since 2014?
“The currency issue does animate a lot of people, though I am not so sure it’s the basis on which many people will make a decision on independence,” Brown responds. “There’s not any evidence for that in previous movements that have moved towards independence. But the importance of it is recognised by the fact the Growth Commission spent a lot of time on it, it’s going to be subject to discussions at national assembly, so that’s both within the SNP and the wider Yes movement, and there are choices to be made.
“I think the point the Growth Commission was making was that, first of all, if you establish your own currency very quickly then you also have to establish the funds and the wherewithal to defend that currency. That could take, whatever figure individuals want to come up with, £10 billion or £15 billion, whatever it is, which would then take away from frontline services – unless you borrow it, of course. So the contrary argument is that you could use that for health or education in the meantime, and I think that’s a useful place to have that debate. The currency issue, well, there is no question there is interest in it, but let’s have a debate about it.”
No doubt the debate will continue – in fact, some started debating the report before they had even read it – yet it’s hard to escape the feeling that UK politics is far busier and more chaotic than it was when the white paper was launched to such fanfare.
But how can the SNP push forward its campaign for independence, or plans for a second vote, when there is so much uncertainty surrounding the future of the UK? Doesn’t the current chaos make the argument for independence harder?
“I think it absolutely justifies the First Minister’s argument that you have to wait until there is some clarity around Brexit. It’s incredible to think we are only a few short months from the deadline they have, which is October, yet we still have no clarity. We have less clarity than we started off with. You won’t know necessarily every detail of what the Brexit deal is, but you’ll have a very good idea once it’s presented and agreed by the European Commission, the European Union and the UK. You will have an idea of how bad it’s going to be at that stage, and I think that’s a good starting point to say, let’s look at things then. People deserve more clarity before moving forward.”
But predicting the effect of Brexit on support for Scottish independence is tricky. Or at least, widespread assumptions that a Remain vote in Scotland, combined with an overall vote to Leave across the whole of the UK, would lead to a boost for Yes were misplaced. In fact, support for independence has sat at around the same level for the last four years, despite, or perhaps because of, heightened instability at a UK level. Was Brown surprised there was no boost for independence after the EU referendum?
“People still don’t know what the impact of Brexit is going to be. It is becoming more and more evident when you hear business and other commentators saying what the economic impact is going to be, and that has been said some time ago – the Fraser of Allander Institute recently outlined how billions could be lost every year to Scotland. But when it starts to affect people’s lives, I think you will see that realisation happen, although it is already the case that we have lost investment, we have lost jobs, universities are telling us they lost potential students and staff. When it does have a real impact on people, they will react against that.
“Whether there is evidence in the polls or not, to my mind, there is a palpable sense that people felt this was the way they would guarantee continued membership of the EU. Remember, they were very explicit [during the 2014 referendum] and people will feel betrayed by that. The status of the pound, the triple-A credit rating, all these things have gone by the board now. So I think that is in people’s minds, though they haven’t been confronted with a question right now, in terms of a decision to make.”
When will the question be?
“I don’t think it will be before October, for the reasons I mentioned, and I think beyond that, I am happy and content that the First Minster will be taking a view on that, at that time. I was asked this question a number of times at hustings [during the depute leader contest], and I have said the role of deputy leader, in my view, is that we have to do the preparations now, so whether it is the Growth Commission in terms of policy on finance and the economy, you’ve got to do the work. That is also true for preparedness in terms of organisation for the campaign, you’ve got to do the work so you are ready for the test when it comes. The test might be an independence referendum, or it might be a Westminster general election – fixed-term parliaments count for nothing these days, apparently – so the important point is making those preparations.”
Where does that decision come from? Directly from Nicola Sturgeon?
“Well, Nicola Sturgeon will not make that decision in a vacuum. She obviously consults a lot of people – the cabinet, she will take soundings, as she always does, and she is an inclusive leader in that way.”
With the task of coordinating discussion over the Growth Commission report, and relaying feeling from the membership to the party machine, Brown obviously has a lot to be getting on with, even without considering the day-to-day responsibilities brought by his ministerial position. Clearly he will be busy for the foreseeable future. But, once the dust clears, could he see himself as leader of the SNP one day?
Brown laughs. “I have only just come to terms with the idea of being deputy leader for a few hours and I am perfectly content to try and get to grips with that.”