There's a delicious irony in all of this. Brown may have just saved the political skin of David Cameron. —John Curtice, University of Strathclyde
KIRKCALDY, Scotland — 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."
In his first comments since the vote, Brown promised in a speech Saturday morning that British leaders would not break their promise to deliver more powers to Scotland. He called for unity and conciliation after the sometimes bitter fight.
"There is a time to fight but there is a time to unite and this is the time for Scotland to unite and see if it can find common purpose and move from the battle ground to the common ground," he said.
Brown said a timetable on more devolution would be followed, vowing that the new "Scotland Act" would be ready by January. He also promised to lead a House of Commons debate on the proposals in October.
He said the eyes of the world are on British leaders to make sure they deliver, and that the proposals could be supported by both the "Yes" and "No" camps in the independence battle.
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."
In his speech Wednesday, Brown cast the nationalists as selfish, the union as a band of brothers.
"What kind of message does Scotland send to the world if, tomorrow, we said we are going to give up on sharing, we are going to smash our partnership, we are going to abandon cooperation and we are going to throw the idea of solidarity into the dust? This is not the Scotland I know and recognize," he thundered during the 13-minute speech without notes, which had been honed during a week of town hall rallies from the Highlands to Scottish Borders.
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. He still holds his seat in the House of Commons in London representing Kirkcaldy, a seaside town at the mouth of the River Forth where he spent his childhood. It is the biggest town in the parliamentary district he's represented since 1983.
Here, few expressed surprise that Brown proved such a performer. They've seen his charisma and determination up close, going back to his high school days in Kirkcaldy, where his father was the local Presbyterian minister. It was here that Brown, at 16, was blinded in the left eye when kicked in a rugby match and came close to losing sight in his right as well. He rebounded from that setback to become rector at the University of Edinburgh before turning to teaching political science and then entering politics.
"It takes our Gordon a while to get stuck into something, but once he does, you'd better look out. He lives for politics, and he doesn't like to lose," said Alasdair Campbell, 52, who was having a smoke and a pint of ale at one of the town's seaside pubs, the Penny Farthing.
He and friends joked that they were having beer for breakfast - "a verrrrrrrrrrrry late breakfast!" - because, like much of Scotland, they had stayed up all night until after the referendum result was called around 7 a.m.
"The thing about Gordon is, he was always a tremendous speaker when he cared passionately about something. People in England forget that. They just remember his bad years as prime minister, when he looked like he just didn't want to be there most of the time," Campbell said. "We're all expecting him to take over Scotland now that he's got a taste of success again. He'd be a fine first minister."
Political experts have their doubts. They argue that Brown won't be tempted by a smaller political stage, having reached Downing Street only to be deemed a failure and tossed from office in ignominy.
"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 also doubted that Brown would ever take a prominent spot in a national campaign again, "not at least until another big constitutional crisis comes along. That seems to get his blood flowing."
Online: Brown's Sept. 17 speech, http://bit.ly/1o30oYf
Associated Press writers Jill Lawless in Edinburgh and Paul Kelbie in Glasgow contributed to this report.