20th June 2016

Why Gordon Brown’s speeches are the most interesting in the EU debate


Polling day for the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union is in sight. In just a few days we will know the outcome and whether the UK is set to remain a member or begin negotiations to leave. Campaigning is stepping up in the final week, having seen street stalls, canvassing, demonstrations and even a bizarre face-off between Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof from flotillas on the Thames. Supplementing this, all sorts of high profile figures, past and present, from Tony Blair and John Major, to Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn, all making set-piece speeches, having their say on what destiny the UK should take.

One of the more interesting interventions in the debate has been from former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. The Labour heavyweight is currently on a UK tour, speaking to primarily Labour voters to encourage them to vote to remain. With Labour voters said to hold the key to whether the UK stays or leaves, his intervention could be hugely important and influential.

One thing Mr Brown has been able to cultivate since leaving office is widespread esteem. He has only made large, set piece speeches on rare occasions – when he has something genuine to contribute, rather than something to say. His speeches also look to take lessons from the past, and apply them in situations today – showing he is presenting a well-researched, structured argument rather than a personal warning or attack. Mr Brown’s activities since leaving office, becoming an unpaid Special Education Envoy for the United Nations, and donating all his external earnings to charity, also suggests a man who is not seeking limelight, attention, or a last payday.

Mr Brown also has form in affecting high profile elections. During the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, his barnstorming speeches (pretty much the only thing you ever see this adjective used to describe) encouraging Scotland to remain part of the UK are often cited as being a key influence during the victory for Better Together – whose campaign was said to be running flat before giving Mr Brown a more prominent role. Those speeches, a redacted version of his book My Scotland, Our Britain, recognised that the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK was positive, but could be improved, and suggested ways in which it could be. His words formed the basis for ‘The Vow’ which committed to greater levels of devolved powers to the Scottish Parliament on the event of Scotland remaining a part of the UK.

In the same vein is Gordon Brown’s latest book, Britain Leading, Not Leaving, which not only sets out a more patriotic case for remaining in the EU, but also recognises ways the EU can be improved. Brown argues that the UK’s chairing of the European Commission in 2017 offers an opportunity to deliver this reform.

Whether Brown’s arguments can be delivered is a different question; it is Brown’s approach that is most interesting. Unlike the Leave and Remain campaigns, which tend to either accept or reject the EU regardless if the consequences, Brown puts forward a positive case for the EU, while recognising it has flaws. This ‘halfway house’ approach has echoes of the political policymaking approach of triangulation.

Triangulation, in short, is taking a stance on an issue that is roughly equidistant between both of your opponents, and delivering the message in a way that makes both of your opponents appear extreme. While opponents to the process claim it allows your opponents to dictate your position for you, New Labour took advantage of this approach successfully during the late 90’s and early 00’s.

Putting this approach in action, Brown’s position clearly recognises that the EU is not perfect; however, instead of calling to leave the EU, he offers a roadmap to reform it. He also rejects the outright ‘land of milk and honey’ approach to the in campaign, placing his position between both the official in and out campaigns – a triangulated position.

Whether Brown’s approach will be successful in convincing key voters to vote remain is yet to be seen, but Mr Brown undoubtedly holds sway among the Labour Party and, in particular, its voters. The former Prime Minister’s position of recognising flaws but offering a route to reform could make some of the key Labour voters considering voting Leave to think again. Whether we see enough decide to Remain on June 23rd, or if the former Prime Minister’s speeches fail to replicate those on the Scottish Referendum, are yet to be seen. Fortunately, we will find out in just a few days.

By James Flynn, B2B Account Executive