Earlier this year I wrote a piece for TNR's website suggesting that Gordon Brown's Scottishness might become a problem for him. Well, with Labour riding high in the polls and talk of an autumn election running rife you might think that this was overblown nonsense. Maybe so. But don't take my word for it, have a gander at the speech Brown gave to the Labour party conference yesterday.
For all the talk of change and renewal and driving the country forward, by far and away the most notable element of Brown's speech was the way he wrapped himself in the Union Flag. He mentioned "Britain", "British" or "the British people" no fewer than 75 times in his speech.
True, when he talked about the need for immigrants to learn English he was addressing reasonable fears over the nature an extent of muslim assimilation, but the thrust of his salute to the flag was, first, a response to Alex Salmond's success at the Scottish parliamentary elections in May and, secondly, designed to reassure English voters that Brown is not a dour, scowling, brooding, alien figure from north of the border who's unable to share or appreciate the concerns and aspirations of Middle England. To wit:
And as we saw again this summer there is no Scotland-only, no Wales-only, no England-only answer to the spread of disease or to terrorist attacks that can strike at any time, anywhere in any part of our country. And sharing this same small island, we will meet our environmental, economic and security challenges not by splitting apart but when we as Great Britain stand united together.
So my sense of talking to people in all parts of these islands is that instead of leaving us pessimistic, these three months make us more optimistic about what we the British people at our best can do.
Our response was calm and measured. We simply got on with the job.
Britain has been tested and not found wanting.
This is who we are.
And there is no weakness in Britain today that cannot be overcome by the strengths of the British people.
So don’t let anyone tell us Britain is not equal to every challenge.
We all know that in our society we do have real problems to solve, real needs to meet, but don’t let anyone tell us – the British people – that this country of ours, which has over centuries given so much to the world, has ever been broken by anyone or anything.
I am proud to be British.
I believe in British values.
Time will tell how successful this approach has been, but for now I think you could argue that Brown was over-compensating to defend a vulnerable flank. The significance here is not so much waht Brown says but that he feels the need to say it at all.