Gordon Brown is to take centre stage in the next election to the Scottish parliament if Alex Salmond continues with the "deception" that the NHS in Scotland will be at risk from privatisation if the pro-unionists win the referendum.
The former prime minister, who lambasted the first minister for wrongly dismissing concerns about independence raised by major Scottish financial institutions, said he would return to the frontline if Salmond refused to admit that the future of the NHS was entirely in the hands of the Scottish parliament. The row between the two men propelled the NHS to the forefront of the independence debate.
The remarks by Brown, at a Labour rally at Kilmarnock Football Club, prompted speculation that he would be prepared to stand for the Scottish parliament in 2016, when he would be 65. The ex-PM's furious intervention came as the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies said the Scottish government planned to cut NHS funding by 1.2% next year.
In England, it said, health spending will increase by 4.4% in 2015 – 16, despite an across-the-board cut of 13% for the public sector compared to spending in 2009 – 10. But partly thanks to that increase in English health spending, the cuts to Scotland's overall budget would be lower overall than the rest of the UK, at 8.4%.
One of Scotland's leading economists, Professor David Bell, told the Guardian that the Scottish government actually spends £670m less each year on the NHS than its pro rata share of Treasury funding.
While Scotland gets total funding from the UK government, which was £1,343 per person or 15.4% higher than for the UK average in 2011 – 12, actual spending by the Scottish government on the NHS that year was only 9.9% higher. That is "clearly" less than could have been spent, Bell said.
The IFS said it had published its new analysis because Scottish ministers had made cuts in NHS funding a major plank of its pro-independence campaign, accusing the Westminster government of threatening Scottish health services through its spending cuts and NHS privatisation policies.
Paul Johnson, director of the IFS, said in a blog that this pattern of spending was not new. In fact, Scotland's overhall health spending had lagged behind that in England. It has grown in real terms by 29% from 2002 to 2010 in Scotland, compared to a 43% increase in England, he claimed.
"So it seems that historically, at least, Scottish governments in Holyrood have placed less priority on funding the NHS in Scotland (and more on funding other services) than governments in Westminster have for England," Johnson's blog said. The IFS added that Scotland's overall Treasury budget would be cut if the UK government's austerity programme continued as planned, as Salmond has repeatedly warned.
The speech by Brown in the Labour heartlands of Scotland was a vintage performance in which he spoke, without notes, of the historic and familial ties between his native country and the rest of the UK. He revived memories of his days as one of the main architects of New Labour when he rained statistics down on the SNP to say that they could have increased the NHS budget by £1bn and warned of a £6bn fiscal gap after independence.
The former PM is trying to reinvigorate the no campaign by outlining accelerated plans for devolution earlier this week, and the main points included:
• Reworking a famous quote, often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, to attack Salmond for dismissing the warnings by the main Scottish banks that they would move their legal entities to England in the event of a yes vote. He said: "I say to Alex Salmond: you can try to dismiss some of the warnings some of the time but you cannot dismiss all of the warnings all of the time."
• Asking Scottish voters to think on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks if it would be wise to risk breaking with British security. "Of course there is no UK defence and no UK security [after independence]. Even on the anniversary of September 11 it is important to remember there are terrorist threats and most countries want to unite together to deal with it."
• Warning Scottish pensioners they could lose a £425m top-up for their pension pot if they vote for independence.
The main focus of Brown's speech was on the NHS. This prompted his declaration that he would be prepared to return to the race for Holyrood unless Salmond dropped his claims about the NHS.
Brown said: "I say to Mr Salmond himself: until today I am outside frontline politics. But if he continues to peddle this deception that the Scottish parliament – under his leadership – cannot do anything to improve the health service until he gets a separate state then I will want to join [Scottish Labour leader] Johann Lamont in fighting him and securing the return of a Labour government."
Brown's remarks were designed to challenge one of the main claims by the SNP in the final phase of the referendum campaign which has appealed to natural Labour voters.
Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, has strenuously denied SNP claims that the Tories plan to privatise the NHS in England. But the fightback against the SNP has not been helped by the fact that Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, is running a campaign saying that the Conservatives plan to do just that.
Brown described the SNP claim as a "nationalist deception" as he said the Scottish government was wholly responsible for running the NHS and for deciding its budget within the Scottish block grant provided by Westminster. He went further and said that, under the 1998 Scotland Act, the SNP could have raised tax by £1bn, which they could have used to raise the NHS budget from £12bn to £13bn.
Brown ended his speech with an impassioned plea to voters not to split with the UK. He said: "When the future of the world depends on more cooperation and more sharing, more solidarity – not less – do we really want to break every single link with the rest of the UK?
"The effect of it is no UK pensions, no UK funding of healthcare, no UK currency, no UK economic policy that will help us get jobs even when 1m jobs are linked to membership of the UK."
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