If it’s Friday night, it must be politics night.
Tonight, there is not one, but two political lectures taking place. One, in the memory of the late, great Bob McLean will be delivered by Trevor Phillips at the Royal Society of Edinburgh on George Street.
The second is by Douglas Alexander MP and Shadow Foreign Secretary, who is delivering a lecture to mark the 50th Anniversary of Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. The whole text will be available later today over at Labour Hame and it will definitely be worth a look. Hearing it delivered will be well worth it too, as it is a mighty fine speech, even if I disagree with a fair bit of the argument.
Douglas is right to try and analyse what has been going on in the last 12 months and in particular, why support for independence has not grown to match the increase in support generally for the SNP. “How do we explain the fact that in the wake of the SNP’s greatest ever election victory, after securing the referendum they had willed and worked towards all their political existence, while commanding a comfortable majority in the Scotland Parliament and while controlling the full apparatus of the Scottish Government, the support for independence is at best becalmed and, in reality, quite possibly diminished?”
Importantly, he reminds us that while “the referendum is new, the debate is not“, rightly pointing out that the constitutional debate about Scotland’s future and that the failure of the yes camp to move the debate on is fuelled by two distinct deep “drivers”. The first was encapsulated by the Olympics and people’s attitude to their success and in particular, the success of Scottish athletes within the British squad. This, Douglas suggests, is that the Olympics “exposed something deeper about the very real and confident connections, the personal relationships that have helped build the United Kingdom over the past 300 years.” His contention that the SNP – or the Nationalists as he somewhat annoyingly refers to the Yes camp generally – tried to use the Olympics to construct a different narrative – that the rest of the UK has become so foreign a place with such different values, a foreign place so lacking in points of deep connectedness, and with so little sense of being neighbours, that we should split apart – is essentially right. It wasn’t even subtle, and he is also right to suggest that it failed.
Where he is wrong is to try to afford deeper meaning and significance to the Olympics as a test of our inter-connectedness on these islands. The argument around his second driver is more persuasive, which is that the potential prospect of a return to power by Labour at the 2015 UK General Election – as evidenced by current poll ratings, if not by the Eastleigh by-election result – will do for the narrative that only independence can save Scotland from perpetual Tory rule. Douglas considers this as “an opportunistic political strategy designed to make antipathy to the Tories synonymous with support for independence. But like the response to the Olympics, it reveals a deep misunderstanding of the Scottish sense of identity, and of our relationship with our friends and family, and neighbours.”
Instead, he considers that if this is a debate, a national conversation about identity, then it needs to factor in the whole of our relationship with the rest of the UK, which is “as cultural, indeed as personal, as it is political”. And he asserts that because the Nationalists are losing the argument on identity, they have shifted tack to frame the choice in the referendum as an ideological one, pointing to recent speeches made by the Depute First Minister in particular, which outline the rationale for choosing independence.
In trying to explain what he sees as wrong with this approach, Douglas quotes Tom Nairn: “the state has entered a historical cul-de-sac from which no exit is visible”. This narrative, Douglas suggests, conveniently ignores the gradual expansion of the devolution settlement and our increasing international inter-dependence, achieved as part of the UK. He acknowledges a desire for change but:
“The change we want is different from the change they promise. And as Scots, we understand the difference between anger with a transient Tory Government and supporting the permanent break up of Britain…that one is political, the other is also personal and that our identity is deeper, richer and more diverse than the philosophy of any one political party.”
If there is anything resembling a central tenet, a philosophy ahent many Scottish Labour folk’s resistance to independence, this is it.
In order to dismiss the SNP’s “ideological case for independence” founded on principles of “democracy and social justice“, Alexander revisits the past, citing great social policy achievements, most of them delivered by a Labour Government at some point in the last 70 years. He suggests that this marks the central fault line between the SNP and Labour: the SNP want independence to deliver social justice solely for Scotland, while in looking back, “the bearers of that Scottish tradition of social justice, with which the SNP now tries to associate itself, understood that social justice was not just for Scotland, but was a universal ideal: a statement of solidarity and connectedness with neighbours and the strangers.”
And he suggests that not only does the SNP “misunderstand the past, it misunderstands the present”….“But the Nationalists claim relies on the implicit but spurious assertion not only that we as Scots are committed to social justice, but that our friends, family and colleagues across the rest of the UK are not. That explains my difficulty with the recent rhetoric of Scotland as ‘a progressive beacon’. It is not simply that the rhetoric is belied by the inequality and poverty still sadly present in Scotland today. It is something deeper. I reject a cultural conceit that relies upon a single stereotype of voters in the rest of the UK.”
This final section of the speech sets out Alexander’s most stinging critique of the SNP’s position, while at the same time, urging Labour to acknowledge and embrace the fact that Scotland does want change.
“It must be a disorienting, indeed painful, reckoning for the Scottish nationalists to be confronted daily with the accumulating evidence that the change Scotland wants is different from the change they promise. The inconvenient truth for the nationalists is that their disagreement is not with their political opponent – it is with the overwhelming opinion of people in Scotland. This is not a party political fight. It is a conflict between the sovereign will of the Scottish people and the settled will of the SNP. The sophisticated view of the Scottish electorate can be seen through opinion polls – polls in which the electorate is carefully picking horses for courses. These polls challenge Scottish Labour to renew ourselves to regain the public’s trust and their votes. That is the vital work that our leader Johann Lamont is now taking forward. Yet even more unequivocally, these polls confirm that the SNP’s independence plan is viewed as an analogue offering in a digital world. But, as Scottish Labour, we should be in no doubt that Scotland does want change.”
The focus then is on setting out a vision for Scotland which is curiously old Labour – for one who cut his political teeth on Blairite New Labour politics – in its core composition. This section is highly personal and full of stirring rhetoric – as a vision of a future Scotland, it hits all the right buttons for a leftie like me. And within it, we can see hints of how UK Labour will present its case at the 2015 General Election. In outlining our current travails, both economic and social, Douglas suggests that it all comes down to this: “are we up to the challenge of building and sustaining a good society in austere times?” This neatly encapsulates the challenge for Labour, both in the UK and within the national conversation in Scotland – the need to persuade the voters that Labour is up to the challenge of leading this shift.
He finishes his speech by focusing on this task, of the need for those who want to stay in the UK to make the case for change before the referendum and then, after it, in the run up to 2016. Crucially, Douglas sets out his stall for more devolution and makes a plea for a different discourse:
“Too much of our political life has been dominated by debates about constitutional change to the exclusion of social, political, cultural and economic change. And those debates have been further diminished by a recurring “I’m right, you’re wrong”, “He said, she said” conflictual discourse that satisfies no-one. Least of all those it is supposedly there to persuade. It has led to a shallowing, not a deepening, of our debates about the kind of nation we should be. So having decided Scotland’s constitutional future, we should be debating instead the different Scotland we want to build.”
He calls for the establishment of a Scottish Convention in 2015 “to chart a new vision for an old nation in the next decade”.
There is a whole separate blogpost to be written analysing this proposal but what is most interesting about this speech is its thoughtfulness. Yes supporters might scoff but this is a leadership speech, not in terms of a pitch for position, but as an attempt to lead the debate and thinking around the kind of contribution Scottish Labour should be making in the National Conversation.
Many of us might disagree with his deconstruction of the SNP’s narrative and positioning in this National Conversation but the arguments are deftly put. The fact that someone in Labour has done so – and can do so, so eloquently – is interesting in itself.
More exciting – for the body politic in general – is that here is someone who straddles Scottish and UK Labour, who is making the connections between how Labour has to contest the referendum with its pitch for power in the 2015 General Election. And then, also sets out how Labour, if in power, should take forward the devolution settlement. Labour, Douglas Alexander contends, should be a voice for hope in the national conversation.
There is plenty to disagree with in his arguments but the very fact that he is setting out a positive course for his party to take in this debate is a symbol of hope all in itself.