Keith Brown belongs to the estimable ranks of politicians to have served Queen and country in uniform.
The Second World War flooded Parliament with veterans and gave us Labour hawks like Denis Healey and the retired Tory colonels so beloved of parliamentary sketch-writers. Mr Brown hails from a later wave but one no less courageous.
When General Galtieri’s fascist forces invaded the Falklands in 1982, Mr Brown was among the Royal Marines sent to liberate the British territory from Argentinian occupation. Ten weeks later, the islanders were free and Keith Brown (RM), as he later told MSPs, ‘hitched a lift with the RAF’ back to Leuchars in Fife.
The Economy Secretary will need a little of that mettle in his new role as SNP deputy leader, the party’s fourth in five years. He takes over from Angus Robertson in troubled times for the party.
They have lost two referenda, one on independence and the other on Brexit. Agitating for a re-run of the former on the pretext of the latter cost them more than a third of their seats in General Election 2017. Public opinion is stubbornly agin another independence vote and after 11 years in power the SNP government’s record is under fierce scrutiny.
The grassroots, though, still want to talk secession and Mr Brown’s campaign hinted that they could get their second plebiscite as early as 12 months down the line. It’s a timescale he will come to be reminded of by friend and foe alike.
Mr Brown is best understood as a safe pair of hands. His rivals for what used to be known as Senior Vice Convenor of the SNP were Inverclyde councillor Chris McEleny, the diehards’ favourite, and Julie Hepburn, a promising backroom staffer who offered the chance to look to the party’s future. Nicola Sturgeon will instead get a disciplined No.2 who is unlikely to rock the boat. That might serve the First Minister’s interests but whether it is what’s best for the party remains to be seen.
Educated in Dundee and Canada, Mr Brown has a background in trade unions and local government, leading Clackmannanshire Council before being elected to Holyrood in 2007. He used his maiden speech to urge abolition of tolls on the Forth and Tay road bridges, revealing a conviction for refusing to pay the Skye bridge toll over a decade earlier. The new member added: ‘It would be nice if the Lord Advocate considered quashing my conviction… but I suppose she could just as easily come after me for the £50 fine that I have not paid in 12 years.’
Under Alex Salmond he served as Minister for Skills and became the longest-serving Transport Minister since devolution (1,441 days in the post every aspiring minister dreads). Nicola Sturgeon brought him into the Cabinet, putting him in charge first of infrastructure and later the economy. He previously stood for deputy leader in 2014 but lost to Stewart Hosie 55 to 45 per cent, an inauspicious set of numbers for the SNP that year.
His career has not been without controversy. During the 2010 General Election, he was criticised for heckling Gordon Brown as the Prime Minister left the home of a voter. Last year, after Highland Spring chief executive Les Montgomery voiced reservations about Indyref2, Mr Brown instructed officials to contact the bottled water firm to ask ‘if they’d like [to] discuss them further’. Highland Spring later issued an apology and said Mr Montgomery’s comments had been misunderstood.
There can be no misunderstanding SNP members. They want independence yesterday and it’s now Keith Brown’s job to keep promising them it’s coming tomorrow.
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