Douglas Alexander: “A Voice of Hope in the National Conversation”

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.

18 thoughts on “Douglas Alexander: “A Voice of Hope in the National Conversation”

  1. Pingback: Challenging assumptions – Scottish Roundup

  2. The script of a career politician hedging his bets. The Olympics “effect” to please the unionists, the “solidarity” pitch to please Milliband, the “not so much anti-independence but anti-SNP stuff” just in case Scotland votes yes and I need a new job within (fictional) “Scottish Labour”. Will his target audience go for it – the trade unions mainly in the public sector (professional and oh so indispensable as they are). Will they hide behind the myth of a Scottish Labour movement with easy conscience or will they see it as yet another labour/ unionist lie?

  3. Douglas Alexander is bound by the “collective responsibility” that binds the shadow cabinet as much as the cabinet. When he speaks of the “kind of contribution Scottish Labour should be making in the National Conversation” he is really presenting the view of the shadow cabinet, and not the somewhat illusory, Scottish Labour”.

  4. By their deeds shall ye know them?

    Douglas Alexander:

    Voted strongly for introducing ID cards.
    Voted moderately for replacing Trident.
    Voted very strongly for introducing foundation hospitals.
    Voted very strongly for the Iraq war.
    Voted very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war.


    Not much social solidarity, let alone socialism, there.

    I agree that we should try and unpick speeches like this to see if there is anything which speaks to a change in the ‘Unionist first, Scotland’s people second’ mindset typical of Alexander/Lamont/Curran but there’s little more here than the usual snide
    attacks on the hated Nats.

    To suggest, as he does in his speech, that to believe in Scottish Independence is selfishly to wish ill on our English neighbours – which includes in my case, as with so many other pro-Indy Scots, their friends and family – is as insulting as it is risible.

    Labour For Independence represent the party’s long lost internationalist values of solidarity and social justice, jettisoned so casually by the likes of Alexander on their climb up the greasy Westminster pole.

    Hopefully YES can persuade Labour voters in 2014 to follow social conscience rather than fading tribal instincts. Perhaps the likes of Henry McLeish (and Malcolm Chisholm?) may yet help them do that.

    I fear it may be some time before Douglas Alexander sees the light.

  5. Agree with other commenters – mystified as to what’s new about this speech. Sounds like the same old flannel pretending that there’ll be serious new devolution discussions if we vote NO, when we all know there won’t. No idea why the Burd has fallen for it. Maybe it’s his icy cool eyes.

  6. I don’t think most voters will vote on the basis of who has constructed the best narrative or on issues of identity etc. They will vote on the basis of what they think will be best for them. That doesn’t mean narrow self-interest or selfishness, it means what is best for them, their family, their communities.

    What option is most likely to provide older people with the security of knowing they will be cared for in their last years and have a decent quality of life? What option is most likely to provide the young with better opportunities and life chances and the hope of decent, stable, well paid employment and access to decent housing when they are ready to fly the nest? And for everyone in the middle, what option will help stabilise an economy that seems to have gone crazy, what option will help people feel a bit more secure and a bit less afraid of unemployment and poverty and might even provide better services like more affordable childcare and cheaper energy?

    If the Yes campaign can persuade people that independence will improve things then Scotland will vote yes. If we can’t, then they won’t. I think when we talk about social democracy etc this is what it boils down to in many ways – it’s not about a political theory so much about as having confidence that if you get sick you will be cared for, when you get old you won’t just be left to lie in your own pish all day but there will be people there to help you. It’s about knowing that if you have the misfortune to have a disabled child society will give a toss and help you instead of looking the other way and saying sorry the money has run out.

    In that sense it is not an argument purely about values so much as a divergence in the way people live – because we have diverged and in many ways our values come from how we live as much as our values deciding how we live. And because Scots are quite conservative – with a small c – we have not changed the way we live as much as people have elsewhere on these islands. And people don’t really want to change fundamentally either. So as we go on I suspect the arguments for Yes will become more and more about protecting what we have as much as about changing the constitution. Scaremongering can cut both ways. Vote Yes to save the NHS – that’s a perfectly valid argument to make in my view and will resonate with many. Vote No because of the Olympics won’t cos it’s the Olympics, it’s not real life.

    I don’t want to make this about the English and Tory values etc but you know just look at what is going on down there – look at the NHS being taken to bits, look at the way poor people are being systematically driven out of rich areas in the south east, look at the way politicians compete for who can be toughest on scroungers and immigrants. This is a different politics, sorry but it just is. It does not mean that everyone in England is a Tory – of course not – nor does it mean that everyone in Scotland is an anti-racist lefty liberal type. That would be stereotyping on a grand scale and would be nonsense. This is not about bad English and good Scots. But our politics is different, that’s just a fact and Douglas Alexander surely knows that as well as anyone.

  7. Oh the irony!

    The referendum was held on 1 March 1979. The electorate were asked to vote yes or no: “Parliament has decided to consult the electorate in Scotland on the question whether the Scotland Act 1978 should be put into effect. Do you want the provisions of the Scotland Act 1978 to be put into effect?”

  8. 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.

    It reads more like mouldy jam containing horse meat so that it spreads further.

  9. You may have convinced yourself that this is something new and positive but unless there is something magical in the parts we’re not seeing I think you’ve been conned.

  10. I think you’ve been sold a pup Kate.

  11. Gaz has quite a decent point to make, there. It’s incredibly hard for a party like Labour to pitch the whole “One Nation” idea when the priorities across the nation seem increasingly divergent. I’d say that the rise of UKIP is something quite alien to voters in Scotland, and the fact that they were able to gather such a support from the voters of Eastleigh is a glaring indication that we aren’t really one nation united behind shared tenets of belief.

    I concur with others here that Alexander has expressed himself more thoughtfully than we’re used to from his side of the camp, but as with every Scottish Westminster politician. every speech is tinged with a desperation to save their own career. Independence, whilst probably not condemning such figures to a no man’s land of irrelevance, would cost Alexander his current job. It seems all too obvious that this lies at the forefront of this career politician’s mind.

  12. I have to say, Peter A Bell, took the words out of my mouth when he wrote, ” Quite why Kate Higgins is so impressed by this pap is hard to say. ” I have always enjoyed reading Burdzeye, but sat with my head in my hands when I read her take on AWFUL wee Duggie.

    As said above, he IS a career Politician and NOTHING more, Scotland means as much to him as that by-election that he & his Cronies just GAVE up on…

    I would LOVE to see a REAL labour party come forth, but it won’t be under any leadership from ANY of the 1997 ONWARDS set, LFI is the only ones that stand out for me that DO have Scotland’s interests at heart, Neither Duggie, or Lamont could lace Grogan’s boots right now, & I am an SNP member…

    But I happen to think a really good opposition is also needed in OUR parliament, not the NUMPTIES of the Lamont & Davidson brigade.

    The 1997 school of labourites are for me FINISHED. Labour needs to reform under NEW people as well as name & look to it’s roots once more.

  13. We have the whole range of British Nationalist sentiment in this article. Firstly, the idea of solidarity. I just don’t believe that Douglas Alexander is interested in socialism, he is a career Scottish Labour politician, who rose through the ranks by way of the patronage of Gordon Brown. In other words he was well connected, and nothing Alexander has ever said leads me to believe he has had, or has, an original political thought in his head. Alexander is mostly noted for loathing the SNP with a passion, a feeling he shares with other Scottish Labour luminaries, such as Lamont, Curran, Murphy, Davidson and Sarwar. Alexander tries to conceal his British Nationalism, but it is there to see for those can see through the phony solidarity he regularly espouses. It is clear that Alexander was more than happy to see the British Labour Party go in an increasingly right-wing direction under Blair and Brown. He will endorse whatever Milliband says about going further to the right to counter UKIP and the Tories in England. Alexander is without shame in his pronouncements on socialism and social democracy.

    Another ridiculous assertion by Alexander is that this Tory government is somehow fleeting or transitory. We have been governed by clearly right-wing governments at Westminster since 1979, including New Labour. He talks about having a “National Convention in 2015”. What has he been doing since 2007, when the SNP became the leading party at Holyrood? We had the completely inadequate Calman Commission, and now more Jam Tomorrow promises. Alexander has never been engaged in the debate at all before this point. He refused to take part in the National Conversation. Why should we believe him this time when his past behaviour speaks of someone who is only interested in having a career in London? Also, Alexander laments the time he seems to feel has been wasted on the constitutional debate. He thinks this has been at the cost of social, political and economic change. The irony should not be lost in this remark…That is what independence is about! I honestly can’t see how this speech is positive Kate, no specific details are unsurprisingly given on what new powers he thinks Scotland should have. This is just the usual tedious, vacuous British Nationalism that Alexander regularly comes out with.

  14. Theres nothing better Dougie likes than to come back up the road every now and again to deliver “an important speech” to awe-inspired natives and the dying Scots media. In the kingdom of the one-eyed cack-handed SLAB hierarchy, Dougie does still likes to lord it over the 3rd-rate Holyrood tier and rub their noses in just how intellectually backward they are. A bit like the smartest boy in the class wanting to show off, whilst the rest of them have never even heard of a punctuation mark or long division.

    There’s nothing there he hasn’t said before. Empty words, big pictures, grand gestures, jam tomorrow. Its all there. Alexander is more or less the same age as me…same generation…I’ve voted in 8 UK elections since 1979 and Tory Prime Ministers have been returned in 5 of them. The reason why Scottish Labour are comfortable with that is because increasingly there is so little difference between them. Thatcher dragged UK Labour rightwards and to this day they continue to have endless panic-attacks over whether middle-England is sufficiently pacified and bought-off enough to vote for them. Better Together exemplifies the reactionary beast that is Scottish Labour. Rather than standing cosily beside the Tories at street stalls, they should be ripping their political throats out. The reason they don’t is because politically, economically and morally they share so much common ground now.

    Back to Alexander. Its a toilet paper piece of work, regardless of the faux “importance” that will be attached to it by fawning journalists, and the unfathomable respect that Alexander retains only relative to the primeval intellectual swamp of Holyrood Labour.

  15. Pingback: Douglas Alexander: "A Voice of Hope in the National Conversation" | Referendum 2014 |

  16. This is just the same tired old arguments from Alexander. A blend of delusion, misrepresentation and analysis so shallow it doesn’t so much as scratch the surface of the issues supposedly being addressed. Alexander looks at the world – and Scotland’s independence movement in particular – through the prism of his British nationalist prejudice and then passes what he sees through the filter of party and personal interest before presenting only those conclusions that chime precisely with the preconceptions he brought to the exercise.

    Alexander may be more eloquent than Alistair Darling and, let’s face it, it’s hardly possible for him to be less charismatic. But he has nothing to say that is any more persuasive or pertinent than the dire, dour, dismal, despairing stuff that drips from the pursed lips of the leader of Bitter Together.

    Quite why Kate Higgins is so impressed by this pap is hard to say. Maybe she could have devoted some of the article to explaining exactly what she sees in Wee Dougie. Maybe she could have spelled out for us where, among all the petty sniping at the SNP; jam tomorrow promises; and self-serving faux socialist unity, we might find the positivity that she claims to have perceived.

  17. Concur with Gaz,and cant add any more.

  18. How unfortunate for Dougie that his speech comes the day after a by-election where the parties of the most right-wing government in living memory take 60% of the vote between them and UKIP, even further to the right, take another 20-odd%.

    Shared values? Really?

    Better get an argument Together.

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