Dour ex-leader Gordon Brown returns to stage with a bang, rouses Scots against independence

Dour. Grim. Downright uninspiring. When Gordon Brown ended a disappointing three years as British prime minister in 2010, few would have credited him as the man most likely to swing a popular vote ever again.

Yet, the former Labour Party leader and 63-year-old Scot has emerged as the oratorical star of Scotland's Better Together campaign, the man most responsible for persuading wavering voters to stick with Great Britain by emphasizing why they should be proud to be British.

The issue at stake — the defense of his homeland within the United Kingdom — brought back the passion that his years of government struggle in London had seemed to sap.

His speech to the final anti-independence rally on the eve of Thursday's referendum set social media ablaze with comments that Brown was the man who should have led the pro-union case all along.

Brown "galvanized the campaign. He spoke with authority. He spoke from the heart," said Victoria Honeyman, a politics lecturer at University of Leeds in England.

Ellen Baron, 62, a life-long Labour voter from the Scottish town of Renfrew near Glasgow, said she was certain that Brown had turned the tables on Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party leader and first minister of the Scottish Parliament, who resigned Friday.

"Brown is more than a match for Alex Salmond," she said, wishing aloud that Better Together had enlisted him to argue the pro-union side in two television debates last month against Salmond. "I'm glad he got involved because it added a lot of extra weight to the 'no' side when it looked as though the nationalists were getting somewhere."

Political analysts said Brown's bigger role in delivering defeat of the Scottish nationalists was to realize, months before others, that the pro-independence side could win unless Better Together emphasized positive pride in Britain, not fear of how an independent Scotland might stumble.

And they said his strategic masterstroke was to compel Britain's big three parties — Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats, and his own opposition Labour, now led by Ed Miliband — to offer Scots greater powers of self-rule if they voted no. Had those three parties not jointly agreed to accept Brown's call and make the offer at the 11th hour, analysts said, Scotland might have won its independence and Cameron, not Salmond, might have been obliged to resign.

"There's a delicious irony in all of this," said John Curtice, politics professor at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. "Brown may have just saved the political skin of David Cameron."

Throughout the summer as the pro-independence side made steady gains in the polls, many in the anti-independence camp openly wondered why the big gun of Scottish Labour politics, Brown, was playing so small a role. But political analysts think that reflected Brown's own choice, one he changed only reluctantly.

"Brown gradually got more and more involved in the Better Together campaign, because he must have been more and more frustrated at the way others were making a mess of it," Curtice said. "He got involved because he could see it going wrong."

Since Friday's anti-independence triumph and Salmond's resignation hours later, speculation has mounted that Brown could seek to enter the Scotland Parliament and take on Salmond's yet-to-be-named successor. For now he holds a seat in the House of Commons in London representing Kirkcaldy, a seaside town at the mouth of the River Forth.

But analysts doubt that Brown will be tempted to return to a smaller political stage, having reached Downing Street only to be deemed a failure and tossed out of office relatively quickly.

"When you have been prime minister, being first minister of Scotland isn't a sideways job," Honeyman said. "I wouldn't say absolutely it'll never happen, because politics can be a funny old game, but I can't see it."

Curtice said he, too, doubted that the idea of being Scotland's first minister would appeal to Brown, given his failures as British prime minister. He also doubted that Brown would ever take a prominent spot in a national campaign again — "or at least not until another big constitutional crisis comes along. That seems to get his blood flowing."


Associated Press writers Jill Lawless in Edinburgh and Paul Kelbie in Glasgow contributed to this report.