Then What? The 2014 Donaldson Lecture by Andrew Wilson

In this short lecture I would like to make a few propositions for us all to reflect on today and hopefully beyond:

  1. We will soon have clarity on the definition of the starting point for our independent journey as a country which will create the highest common denominator for progress. Independence is a changing, elusive and tantalising objective but an imperative for creating the economy and society we seek.
  2. That what happens next is the most important thing. The referendum is not D-Day but Day 1 and in an era of transformation and reform around the world, this party has to be confident in leading reform in this country whatever the result next September. The vision of what we will do with independence when we have it matters enormously.
  3. That the next transformation for the SNP is from nationalist to National Party as the unifying leaders of the country as we go about creating the society we seek. There is no existential threat to Scotland and Scottish identity any more and we must define ourselves by much more than that. No party is better placed to lead the country on our next step in the journey and we must bring others with us as we seek to deliver on our exciting vision of a vibrant economy underpinning a much fairer society.
  4. And finally that as individuals, as a party and as a country we must embody the change we seek and continue to truly transform the culture of politics in Scotland for the better.


The inspiration for the title of this lecture is this lovely poster from the 2003 Holyrood election.


On the sage advices of Jim Mather I believe in embracing our sceptics and their emblems and holding them close. And taking an emblem like this and understanding its undoubted power is important.

The now ancient Mr Mather is guilty of many things but chiefly of reframing the economics of the independence argument from an arid fiscal policy bun-fight about the starting point to a meaningful vision about the possibilities of what happens next.

For too long we have allowed the advocates of the way things are now to describe the starting point they have created as the very thing that thwarts our ability to progress. Where else but in Scotland would an unsustainable financial deficit be used by those who ran it up to argue both that things should stay the same and they should stay in charge?

The underlying message of this lecture is that it is in the creation of the future that our success will lie as a party and a country.

Not just in the abstract of policy but in the creation of confidence in the idea, in our ability to lead and in the culture of our conduct that will ultimately determine what it feels like to live in the Scotland we seek.

This poster worked because it played to two things:

First a ludicrous sense of disruption – we are talking actual seismic activity here, possibly the only point not yet raised in  the self styled Project Fear. Amusingly in this poster we get a chunk of the Lake District and possibly even Center Parcs which would be a winning argument for my 3 kids, ignore the economics. And

Second: the sense of unknown for what happens then. At a time when we – lest we forget – had “conquered boom and bust”.

It was easy to see why disruption from the stability of now followed by an uncertain future was too much for too many. How times have changed.

When I last gave a lecture at SNP conference, it was, 1999 and an astonishing 14 years ago. Dear God where has the time gone?

My theme that day was quite controversial in its time but much less so now. It was that we would find a faster route to independence if we recognised the reality of British identity in many of us and separated that from the British political and governance system. In other words we should be intensely relaxed about the reality that a sense of Britishness and the many shared British institutions that could, should and would survive post-independence.

This was not my idea or a new idea but the emphasis was and stirred a debate, I believe positively.

The party now embraces the sense of this which is a good thing although I am not sure we have yet articulated it well and often enough for it to have resonated. This matters because it helps people not engaged in the day to day of how government and politics works – i.e. nearly everyone – to visualise what changes and what stays the same.

To win we must create the highest common denominator that unifies the majority for Yes!

In doing so we must also work very hard to ensure that the large number of people living in Scotland who could – if selected – play for England (I am one) feel as part of the future we seek as anyone else. Because the reality is we will.

Too much we still allow this to be portrayed as about our attitude to them rather than our own private battle with ourselves. As we know in our hearts this question is about “us” not “them”.

We need to do more to help the rest of the islands understand this and our motivations to take the edge out of the emotional response this debate wrongly elicits in some.

And that is also about our discipline and culture in the way we put our arguments and tackle our opponents. In my estimation so much of the more emotional, negative and puerile arguments come from the No Campaign at all levels. But all of us must recognise the responsibility we bear for the conduct of the national discourse at all times.

Because we are the stewards of the argument for progress and reform, we have to be better than that and better than everyone else.

Keeping things as they are is always easier because people are naturally conservative and find change difficult. Even when they sit, like frogs in a pot as the water simmers feeling comfortable in the inevitability of their demise.

It is important in our positivism however that we don’t forget to point out the negative realities of the status quo and we should be careful how we do that.

There are many arguments of course but the single most convincing reason for change is in this hideously ugly chart:


This demonstrates one major point; that in terms of the gap between the richest and poorest local areas the UK is, by a country mile, the most unequal economy and society in the EU. It is remarkable.

The centralised economic and political model is producing a lousy outcome that is unsustainable and must reform whatever happens next September. The theme of inequality is one that will remain in our politics and grate at the established position until it reforms. We must do something about it!

But describing the problem is a necessary but not sufficient case for reform.

Politics now passes so many people by that how we prosecute it needs to change to keep up. Parties have to continually develop or they will ossify.

Choices Choices

This choice we face in under a year is both collective and individual and the psychology of that interests me:

As the renowned philosopher, Professor Albus Dumbledore once noted to his young acolyte Harry Potter: “it is our choices, Harry, that define us, far more than our abilities”.

Choice does define us and the choice we make next September will play a large part in defining our course as a nation.

And the point of that wonderful quote, spoken as it was to a precocious young talent, is the deeper truth we surely all recognise that in the words of the American songwriter Si Kahn, “it is not what you’ve been given it’s what you do with what you’ve got”.

Too often I suggest, in making the argument for independence we regale ourselves with the former when we should be focussed on the later.

So, of course, we have resources and powers and industries and assets. But for me the argument that, because of oil, we can somehow do the same or less work and get more wealth, is the opposite of a true independence argument.

There is no pot of gold, black or otherwise, at the end of the independence rainbow, but there is a toolbox. And that is the most important point.

And as a wise person I cannot source once said, “the most important thing is to make the most important thing, the most important thing”.

As a country, yes we need to convince ourselves of our abilities and of “what we we’ve been given” as our starting point. But the most important thing is what we choose to do with our assets, abilities and potential when we have the power to do something about it.

And of course we may choose to give that power away again or share it when we have it but the difference with that is that we will always have the power to choose for ourselves what we share and what we keep a hold of.

Defining the elusive idea of independence

The party has come so far in the last ten years. It is wonderful.

However it is clear that the imperative of the referendum vote has helped sharpen our minds on what exactly it is we mean when we argue for the independence that will create the highest common denominator for “YES”.

In reality independence for a country means different things at different times in history and for different countries at any one point in history.

We have more independent countries than ever before but we also have greater interdependence globally than ever before. The two are not mutually exclusive as some would have us believe, quite the reverse.

Too much time is spent debating with ourselves our preferred version of independence. It can be elusive depending on the choices countries make to share their sovereignty and also in the face of global changes that make the power of states much less clear than we might imagine. These are simple realities.

We know that much will remain shared after a successful independence vote, the crucial difference is that the immediate control over what to share and how, will always be here in the hands of the people who live in Scotland rather than elsewhere.

Too little time is spent imagining the type of future we want for the country, the culture of our politics and democracy and the way we will do business. Solving this is an opportunity.

Too much demand is placed on politicians across cultures to act like managers or administrators rather than leaders.

If politics gets stuck in managerialism it will never lead the way it is required to. Leaders should lead and administrators and managers should administrate and manage.

I often feel that some of the oddest questions faced by our arguments now would be like listening to Nye Bevan outline the case for the NHS, healthcare for all free at the point of need regardless of means, would have been challenged by the politics of now with questions like:

“That’s all very well Mr Bevan but how many bedpans will you need in Wishaw and who is going to pay for them”?

Now more than ever we need leaders to lead and to offer a vision, direction and goal for our collective ambitions as a society whatever we choose in a year’s time.

Epic Times, Era of Great Reform and Transformation

In the daily noise of news and debate it is easy to miss the deep underlying trends and changes in tide as they occur. One such observation for me is that as the era of unending growth ended and boom and bust were un-conquered again, much else changed.

Partly because of globalisation and the information revolution and partly because of the cultural change in attitudes for the millennial generation it is clear we are in a remarkable epic era of reform and transformation that could continue for a decade and more.

Every major institution in life is going through the same process or is about to: the media, the churches, parliament, sport, banks, energy providers, big business, markets, global institutions, government, politics, the monarchy, the family – shaken to their foundations by the relentless scrutiny of the public gaze exposing every frailty in real time.

The way things are and have been is changing now and forever and the sooner we face up to that reality the better.

Reform is needed almost everywhere we look, and how institutions and leaders deal with that process is one of the great tests of our time. And even the way leaders lead is changing.

But an age of reform we are undoubtedly in.

There is deep wisdom in many old stories that can help us. We remember the labours of Hercules in Greek mythology.

The colossal herds of King Augeas had created a huge festering mess in the stables, which had never been cleaned. Agreeing to clean it in a day, Hercules didn’t just shovel the muck in front of him in a never-ending task. His genius was to divert two rivers which washed away decades of neglect and cleansed it all.

That lateral thought is precisely what the leaders of all institutions in life today need to have in mind as they face into an era where change and reform is being asked of all. All the stables must be cleansed, and shovelling the daily load is not enough.

But my challenge to society would be that this is not a spectator sport.

Citizenship carries responsibility also, and that, I believe, is a burden increasing on all of us now.

But by the same token the festering neglect of the establishments that led many institutions is now exposed and happily will stand no more.

So together this is a huge opportunity to create a new age with new institutions and a better order. The referendum sits very neatly in a context of this global reform. It is our opportunity.

Continuous transformation as a party – National not Nationalist Party

So what of the Scottish National Party in the midst of all this reform? Where next for this remarkable organisation?

It has gone through many transformations in its existence from pressure group to movement to governing party. And so impressively in my observation in recent years as it has lived its own cultural change and assumed the mantle of leadership and positivism with remarkable ease.

We should never be complacent or risk becoming another establishment institution that will ultimately wither. We need to retain the voice of the outsider to ensure all are served.

Especially as we move through this referendum we need to think carefully about how we retain our unity, discipline and sense of purpose whatever the result.

It is crystal clear to me that the only threat to the SNP winning the subsequent election is the SNP itself.

Especially in victory, but also in the event of a result we do not seek, it is critical we prepare for our next transformation.

There is, in my view, no existential threat to Scotland and Scottish identity anymore. How people view their identity is about much more than our politics and government and as we recognise this in Britishness and we must in Scottishness too.

We must nurture it with confidence of course but the time is approaching if not already here when it needn’t dominate our politics anymore.

As Professor James Mitchell rehearsed in his lecture 2 years ago, too much of the distinctiveness of Scottish politics in the past was about opposition to what we are not. The next era must be solely and exclusively about the country and society we seek.

And in leading the country through this next transformation we must have the confidence to emphasise the “National” in our name rather than the “Scottish”, and we must consider what it means to be a “National” rather than “nationalist” party.

For me this means the ability for us to unify the wonderful rich diversity of our country behind the progress and reform we desperately require. We must let other parties continue to define themselves by us and be confident and clear in our purpose, direction and goals beyond independence.

Because the referendum is not D-Day it is Day 1.

Day 1 in the process of renewing our society and economy to be fit for purpose in the 21st century and beyond.

And that must mean much more than changing flags or replicating Westminster and Whitehall in Edinburgh.

Many hard choices face all countries everywhere. As a relatively small country we are blessed with the opportunity to unify society behind the path we must take to succeed.

Of course other parties can lead in an independent Scotland as well. But we must prepare to assume the mantle of unifying leadership and continuous reform as the progressive National Party.

How we handle the result

And how victors behave in victory matters hugely. It helps define our character as leaders.

When President Bill Clinton came to Scotland in June he said:

“You will come out of this better, regardless, if you go about it in the right way.” …..

“And then people that believe they are now, and might be on different sides, actually sit down and talk to each other about it.”

This makes sense to me and we must lead that.

During World War II, when Tom Johnston accepted the post of Scottish Secretary he did so on the basis that he could set up a Council of State for Scotland, composed of all the living ex-Secretaries of State for Scotland, of all parties, to advise on Scottish policy.

This is an interesting example. Because when we win all of the current opponents of independence will cease to be opponents of independence and should be given a clear stake in shaping the outcome to embed its legitimacy.

Maybe our two former First Ministers and one former Labour, Tory and Lib Dem Secretary of State for Scotland could be included in the team negotiating the terms of independence and Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK?

They are hardly going to argue against their country’s interest – although you could be forgiven for mistaking that in some of the more intemperate rhetoric of the moment.

And the moment we set our course with Yes the rhetoric from London will change for the better.

No “beggar thy neighbour” policy worked anywhere and we have been through too much together for too long to believe that anything other than a hugely positive relationship of co-operation between Scotland and the Rest of the UK will be the outcome.

We will have a new constitution to draft that must never be locked in aspic but must have the ability to endure through the decades and that will take substantial people from different perspectives working together.

And in all circumstances that follow the vote next September the SNP must be positive, engaged and leading.

And underlying all of this must be a determination to reform and transform the culture of our politics for the better.

Scottish Political Culture Transformation

Too much of post war Scottish politics has rested easy in a culture of life being someone else’s problem to solve or opportunity to bring. Over many decades our institutions and leaders became world class at lobbying power for resource.

Given the lack of real power in Scotland our politics is historically framed around spending money to dry the tears that flow too often, rather than strengthening the sinews of the country itself.

Addressing symptoms not causes and paying the long term price.

The election of an SNP Government altered that and the referendum changes it fundamentally.

I do think there is a broad and growing consensus that the majority will is for Scotland to aim to strike for a Nordic society’s model of success where high economic performance rests alongside remarkable social cohesion and equality.

That is the outcome many of us seek where the middle class is enormous, engaged and contributing to the commonweal.

However, we must remember that we start this journey from a position we want to change.  We cannot pretend to ourselves that it is a short walk with a free lunch along the way.

There would be an irony if the party of national transformation only wanted to stand still in terms of the way we governed.

And there is no point in replacing the scapegoating of the poor we find repulsive with an equally destructive scapegoating of the better off.

The old politics of one side backing economic strength while the other promotes equality cannot stand for the new Scotland.

A strong competitive economy and a just and fair society are two pillars on which success will be built.

Too often we are told that the only way to balance a budget is to cut spending or raise tax. The most sustainable way is to grow the economy, attract business and investment and strengthen the tax base. That is the sustainable way to create the society we seek.

And whisper it, maybe the SNP and the Labour Party will be able to recognise that there is so much more that we agree about than disagree and find a way to work together more to create the progressive, unified and successful Scotland we all want?

Be the Change we want to see

So in conclusion I want to end on the thoughts of one of the most successful nationalists of the 20th century and one of the most impressive people of the 20th century.

His story is remarkable for many reasons, not least that he held no position or office but transformed his country with remarkable generosity of spirit to his opponents.


We all of us will recognise the power of this quote:

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

and feel, that perhaps we can recognise our own journey on it, hopefully to the last point.

But I think there is much, much more power in this quote:

Be the change you want to see in the world.”

and it is the thought I want to leave you on.

When all of us come to cast our own vote it will be a collective outcome of many individual choices.

And the power for all of us as people is in recognising the power in this statement.

For too many for too long, life chances have been something that other people determined. That our problems are the fault of our boss, our teachers, our families, our partners, the council, the government whoever.

In that thought lies the “get out of jail free card” of irresponsibility. What we must all realise is that we own our own response to whatever life throws our way.

Whether it is the immediate of our daily lives or the major global challenges we face our response must begin with ourselves and our own attitude, behaviour and actions.

As the generation charged with the stewardship of this country’s next step we must as individuals, as a party and as a country, live and breathe the change we want to see in the world.

In our conduct as advocates of this cause we must personify the Scotland we want to achieve and learn to lead with vision, good grace and unifying hope.

Because as this man’s story demonstrates in much more difficult circumstances than the ones we enjoy; all things are possible if we determine on our purpose and believe in it.

“Then what”? we are asked.

A country we can be happy to live in and proud to pass on!

(With sincere thanks to Andrew for allowing his lecture to be published here in full).


3 thoughts on “Then What? The 2014 Donaldson Lecture by Andrew Wilson

  1. So what have Gordon Wilson and Steph Covey got in common.
    It wouldn’t happen to be a hang up about same sex marriage.
    Oh well, each to their own i suppose.

  2. Pingback: Then What? The 2014 Donaldson Lecture by Andre...

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