A CONFESSION: I’ve not always been such a swell guy. It’s taken years to get here. Among the terrible things I’ve done down the years is torment politicians at press conferences, sometimes for little more than cheap yucks and my own sadistic pleasure. I know, I know. It’s shameful.
Almost 16 years ago, Douglas Alexander was Labour’s candidate in the Paisley South by-election. He was heavily protected, flanked at his infrequent briefings by then Scottish Labour general secretary Jack McConnell and whichever Scottish Office minister – Donald Dewar, Sam Galbraith, Henry McLeish – was in town.
The campaign was running frustratingly short on news stories and so, in a Paisley pub, a childish wheeze was born. The next day the assembled political hacks would ignore the tired subjects being spun by each party. Instead, we’d ambush the candidates with irritating questions of local trivia. What fun we had.
The next day’s papers reported how Alexander had failed to name the manager of his local football team, St Mirren. Whenever I’ve seen the MP since then, he’s looked at me with something I’ve always read as a deep, abiding, and perfectly justifiable, loathing. But it’s time to move on. I’m not quite the swine I was in 1997, and nor is Alexander the awkward, rather detached young man he once seemed.
In fact, this weekend he made what appears to be the single most thoughtful intervention in the independence referendum debate so far. In his Playfair Library Lecture “A voice of hope in the Scottish conversation”, delivered at Edinburgh University on Friday night, Alexander dared do something his Labour colleagues – in fact all serious unionist politicians – have shied away from. He spoke compellingly about change in Scotland should the Yes campaign fail to win independence. He began to talk to the majority of Scots who – as polls tell us time and again – favour neither independence nor business as usual for Scotland in the UK.
While his former Cabinet colleague turned Better Together campaign leader Alistair Darling maintains his position that “you don’t discuss changing the rules of the club until you decide whether you’re a member”, and Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont focuses on the 2016 Holyrood election, Alexander talked about the referendum in the sort of language that has seemed, to date, to be the sole property of the SNP. He spoke of a genuine desire among Scots for a different kind of country. He spoke about Scottish identity, about the nation we want to see, about our values. It was a long, but endlessly quotable speech, in which Alexander deftly took back the language that First Minister Alex Salmond has used in his nation-building exercise that began after the SNP’s 2007 Holyrood victory.
To Alexander – briefly Scottish Secretary under Tony Blair – the Nationalists, with their all-or-nothing approach, were those saying “No” to what Scots really want. Conversely, Unionist politicians could say “Yes”, by taking seriously public desire for change in Scotland.
He spoke about shared experience across Britain, at the same time challenging the SNP narrative that Scots are peculiarly just and generous among the inhabitants of these isles. “I reject,” he said, “a cultural conceit that relies upon a single stereotype of voters in the rest of the UK.”
Alexander’s answer to a need for change – which he identified among a majority of Scots, including himself – is a National Convention. Politicians across the spectrum, Scots from every walk of life, would participate in “Scotland 2025”, a project “to chart a new vision for an old nation for the next decade”.
Alexander’s proposed convention would be free of constitutional discussion (that matter would be settled by the time discussions began), yet it might still satisfy voters drawn to the idea of more powers for Holyrood – devo-max/devo-more/indy-lite, depending on your taste. His is the first suggestion from a serious politician that No can still mean real change.
This is a long overdue message from those in favour of the UK. Alexander’s lecture should be a blueprint for others who oppose the SNP’s independence wish.
For Labour – and let’s not be naive, at its heart Alexander’s lecture was a guide for his party to winning the 2016 Holyrood election – the problem may be in the entrenched positions of both Darling and Lamont. Alexander’s National Convention might not be about the constitution, but it’s surely not possible that it could ignore debate on greater use of Holyrood’s existing powers? That may be a tricky area for those in the frontline of the Better Together campaign, with their strategy of fighting for a simple rejection of the SNP proposal, to get into. That’s a problem for Labour to address, but if Alexander’s idea is to gain traction and have any electoral impact in 2016, then the majority of Scots who, polls tell us, would have preferred a devo-max option on the referendum ballot paper will have to be convinced that the convention will actually start work next year, should the Nationalists lose.
Alexander’s lecture was a fine piece of writing, with solid ideas and recognition from a Unionist that change matters to Scots but, if the likes of Darling and Lamont don’t invest in its proposals, I struggle to see how this builds momentum. If Labour – and other Unionist parties – get behind Alexander, however, there are difficulties here for the SNP. Nationalist strategy has been to talk about a Yes vote as the only route to change. Their narrative depends on the idea that No to independence means stagnation. Alexander’s ideas challenge that. They give the unionists what may be a compelling enough argument to wreck that Nationalist line.
Privately, Nationalists are taking Alexander’s lecture seriously. I can see why. He’s brought something to the debate which has to the potential to secure the vote for Better Together. And he’s done it while using the language of change and progress on which the SNP have depended so far. I’m not laughing at Douglas Alexander now and nor, I imagine, is Alex Salmond. «