If we vote to stay in the UK, post-referendum Scots will need big ideas to pursue over the next decade, says Douglas Alexander
“History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme”
Those words of Seamus Heaney are some of my favourite lines of poetry. Tragically, earlier this year, the world lost this Irish Nationalist, Nobel Prize winning writer.
But his words endure. Words that speak of the powerful tensions between now and yesterday, today and tomorrow. What we know and what we want to be, what we think we have learned from our past, and how we believe we will shape our future.
Now is a time for a story to be told as a window on our past and a doorway to our future. A story of what we believed in about ourselves and about our neighbours. A story about what we did with our belief.
For the telling of this moment in Scotland’s story, we need more than white papers, political promises, opinions and sound bites. They are but thin descriptions of deeper things. They do not make a nation. They merely say how the nation might be organised, for a while.
So what do I, someone who believes that much must change but that the United Kingdom should remain, bring to this chapter of our nation’s journey?
I bring three things that are at the heart of who I am and why I live my life as I do, as a father, a husband, a friend and neighbour and yes, as a politician. They are not mine alone, but I am part of them.
Struggle, solidarity and social justice – three things that mean for me, we as Scots do better together as part of the family of nations within the UK than we do alone.
Struggle is part of the human condition. Yet for so many people, the struggle is much more than that. It is a daily struggle against grinding poverty, dashed hopes and shattered dreams. And it was awakening to that struggling and suffering that brought me into politics.
That was in Renfrewshire, back in 1982, because of my revulsion at the waste and humiliation of mass unemployment. I had seen my classmates’ parents lose their livelihoods as car manufacturing plant Linwood closed. I took a youthful leap of faith, believing that politics could be a force for good.
As the International Development Secretary in the Labour government – as I witnessed the life-saving work of UK Aid amidst the devastation of post-tsunami Aceh in Indonesia and the refugee camps of Darfur in Sudan – I was affirmed in that original animating belief.
So my questioning of government policy is always: what will this mean for those whose voices are never heard, those for whom austerity is not a phase but a lifelong struggle?
I believe deeply that change is needed on both sides of the Border – and beyond our borders. Right across the UK, Tory economic policy and welfare cuts make many fearful and force choices between heating and eating for still more.
And here, the Nationalists’ Council Tax freeze is taking money from the poorest communities while forcing cuts to the public services they need most.
When the Nationalists suggest their sole motivation is fairness they ignore whole parts of their record and whole parts of the UK. Wales, Northern Ireland and great cities like Liverpool, Newcastle and Manchester find no place amidst a cultural conceit that holds that everyone south of the Tweed is an austerity-loving Tory.
Instead, they rely on rekindling an outdated sense of victimhood with the claim that Scotland, as part of the UK, never gets the government we vote for.
This coalition government will have less than eight months of its mandate left to run on referendum day. The polls indicate that the prospect of a change of UK government is real.
And on that referendum day a 16-year-old voting for the first time will have had a UK Labour government for three-quarters of their life.
As Scots, we understand the difference between anger with a transient Tory government and supporting the permanent break-up of Britain.
The Nationalists say ‘walk away and all will be well’. Yet while the clear majority of Scots, myself included, want change, we do not judge independence as the route to achieve those changes.
Our belief, my belief, is that when we see injustice we stand and fight to change it. For at a deeper moral level, walking away is not and never can be an act of, or the basis for, solidarity.
Solidarity is my response to struggle. It is what we have with the neighbour and the stranger. For me, struggle and solidarity are the bloodstream and the heartbeat of change. Nelson Mandela’s transformation of his country was won by struggle and solidarity long before a parliament had anything to do with it.
So too with progressive change here. The living wage campaign grew from small groups changing lives community by community. Its impact is now resonating in each of the parliaments across the UK but it did not need them to lead the change it began.
The ideal and the practice of solidarity is what most challenges the Nationalist notion that somehow Scotland needs independence because Scots are better at being fairer than the English, or at least, would be without the English around.
Tell that to William Wilberforce who led the fight to outlaw slavery.
Tell that to Emily Davison and the Pankhurst sisters who fought for women’s rights and equality.
Tell that to William Beveridge and Clement Attlee who created the welfare state.
Tell that to Citizens UK which set up and sustain the living wage campaign today. All of them stood in solidarity with others to bring the change they knew was needed, not just for themselves but for their neighbour and the stranger.
Heaney’s poem at its heart is about our connectedness. And it is in nurturing our connectedness with others that we are best able to be who we want to be.
The United Kingdom today, as a political union, as well as a family of nations, brings Scotland the opportunity of connectedness. Connectedness in the form of deep economic integration – through free trade in goods, services, people and capital – providing wider opportunities for Scottish individuals and companies in a market ten times the size of our population.
That in turn helps explain why today 450,000 people living in Scotland were born elsewhere in the UK and 830,000 Scots live south of the Border.
As Jim Gallagher argued recently it is also a smart economic strategy for a small nation in a globalising economy competing with countries the size of continents.
It also allows us to manage risks – like the threat to Grangemouth – and shocks – like the collapse of RBS and HBoS – within a larger, resilient economy.
Our economic union means we share a currency, and can pool our taxes and spending in fiscal union. As the Euro revealed, a currency union without a political and fiscal union brings very real risks.
Our fiscal integration in turn demands and sustains a sense of social solidarity through the sharing of risks, rewards and resources on the basis of need rather than nationality.
It makes sense to spread the risks and the burdens over a larger population with pensions, health and social security able to be supported by general taxation levied across all the nations of the UK.
That social solidarity reflects a moral choice as well as a sense of belonging. We do not walk away from the poor because they happen to be poor in Preston rather than Paisley.
Those three dimensions of union – political, economic and social – are interconnected and you cannot simply cut away the political union and hope to keep the others.
The UK is how we, as Scots, over 300 years, have lived in real solidarity with our neighbours without ever losing sight of who we are or being less able to be what we want to be. We never did become north Britons.
The theologian Professor Donald MacLeod wrote recently: “The burden of proof lies on the apostles of negativity, who have consistently disparaged the last 300 years of Scottish history, as if the union had prevented all progress and sapped us of all self-respect.
“Listening to them, you would never believe that during these years we have successfully negotiated the industrial revolution, produced such world-class writers as Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, nurtured leading scientists like Alexander Fleming, John Logie Baird and Sir John Clerk Maxwell and reared outstanding athletes such as Kenny Dalglish and Sir Chris Hoy.”
So when people ask what would happen the day after Scotland rejects separation, I say this, we can begin the urgent work to build a better nation. We can be a small nation that does big things.
Just over half a century ago, America resolved to put a man on the moon. Nasa didn’t exist. The science wasn’t there yet. But a decade later Neil Armstrong took that giant leap.
It’s perhaps the best example of a nation setting what the writer Jim Collins calls a “Bhag” – a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal”.
So having rejected a future involving years of negotiating the putting up of new barriers, and then presumably trying to take some of them down, we could and should turn our collective energies to a more constructive Bhag.
I see a Scottish National Convention beginning in 2015 as a mechanism to discuss not only powers but the purpose of those powers – to chart Scotland’s Bhag for our next decade.
Last year, Scottish Labour Leader Johann Lamont spoke of her hopes that Scotland could again lead the world in education. For me, today, education – not separation – remains the best lodestar for our nation’s progress.
Protestant reformer John Knox’s vision of “a school in every parish” was so that young people “could be the citizens we want them to be”. Yet last week’s report by the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) shows Scottish school pupils performance in maths, reading and science has stalled. A recent study revealed that just 2 per cent from the poorest fifth of kids get the Highers to go to the top universities in our nation.
In contrast, notwithstanding Asia’s spectacular rise, Finland – where everyone attends comprehensives – still features around the top of international league tables for educational attainment.
Having rejected separation, Scotland could commit to a Bhag involving a decade dedicated to matching Finland’s world-leading school results. That would be a “giant leap” worth pursing over the next decade.
The time to start this conversation about our decade-long goals for post-referendum Scotland is now.
For when my grandchildren ask what I did in the referendum, I want to be able to say that I worked and campaigned to make hope and history rhyme here in Scotland.
So I will cast a positive vote for a deep economic union that makes real sense in a globalising economy.
A positive vote for a principled and pragmatic solidarity that shares risks, rewards and resources across these islands.
A positive vote to sustain the deep connections between our political, economic and social unions.
A positive vote for Scotland remaining within a United Kingdom that has changed, is changing and will change again.
A positive vote for a strengthened Scottish Parliament that can deliver Big Hairy Audacious Goals supported by the strength and stability of the UK.
That’s a positive vote for “the best of both worlds”. «
Douglas Alexander, MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, is shadow foreign secretary