The greatest experiment in political cooperation in history, the 307 year old Union between England and Scotland came within inches of its death last week. The end result of the Referendum was decisive against Scottish Independence, at 55% to 45%, but getting to that point was not easy. In the last few weeks of campaigning the YES campaign was in the ascendency: it had the passion, the power of vision and the momentum. In the last few days, things could have easily gone in a completely different direction. So what swayed the result?
The key battle ground in this referendum campaign was in fact over the hearts and minds of the thoughtful and considerate bulk of the Scottish population: the undecided and those that leaned only slightly in one direction or another. These were not the people who went specifically to the campaign-specific rallies and waved the flags and the banners. These were the voters who stayed in their communities and pondered with heavy hearts the enormity of the decision they were going to make.
The majority of them would have been progressives: people who support the free education and healthcare, the welfare state, peaceful international cooperation and so on. In other words, Old Labour core voters, torn between the cosmopolitan and cooperative values that urged them to vote for a better Union (which had been increasingly failed in them in the last couple of decades) and the SNP promise of a more progressive Independent Scotland. Yet these people were waiting not just for the most beautiful promises, but also the most compelling arguments.
As the Better Together campaign was failing to get its message across and effectively let YES Scotland run with the progressive stick virtually unchallenged, some opinion polls were giving Yes the edge in the two of weeks leading to the vote. And when it emerged that the Unionist cause was bleeding traditional Labour voters, the Westminster parties, and Labour in particular, were sent into disarray: as many as 40% of traditional Labour supporters said they would be willing to vote for independence.
The key to the referendum would be to convince the Labour defectors to come back.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man: Gordon Brown, the embattled former Prime Minister jumped into the fray with this remarkable speech, strong with focus on the values that are important to Scots, with a confident pro-Union Scottish identity, and with a clear and compelling vision for the future of Scotland inside the UK. In short, everything that the YES campaign had, and the NO campaign was lacking. Even the right wing press that has hounded Gordon Brown dogmatically throughout his career were swayed. The Daily Mail, who in the past has shown systematic contempt bordering on pathological hatred towards man, was moved to ask why he hadn't been in charge of the NO campaign from the beginning.
Gordon Brown is probably the most maligned political leader still alive in Britain today. As the Prime Minister during the Financial Crisis and Chancellor of the Exchequer during the boom years that lead up to the collapse, he will perhaps remain forever associated with that cataclysmic global failure in the minds of this generation. Six years on from the events of 2008, the popular and media consensus is still that he drove us into that mess.
But that consensus is wrong and unsustainable. His impassioned plea went a long way towards bringing so many of the disaffected Old Labour voters back into the Better Together camp. Though it is difficult to quantify just how much of an impact his intervention had on the end result, it cannot be doubted that he effectively cut off Alex Salmond's stride. He did reverse the momentum of the campaign, and may well have turned the result of the referendum.
But to me at least, this has not been in the least surprising. Gordon Brown has always been underrated as a politician. At the University of Chicago where I teach, a couple of economics professors who served in Obama's White House have told me that it was Gordon who literally saved the global financial system from meltdown during financial crisis. He led where the Americans had to follow. Though we refuse to acknowledge this in Britain, the rest of the world knows that he did in fact, in very real sense, "save the world" - much as that slip of the tongue was politically. Who else then was going to save Britain?