Jack McConnell: Time to put principles before personalities
Ahead of the first memorial lecture in his honour, Jack McConnell revisits the inspiring legacy left by the late Bob McLean
When Trevor Phillips addresses the first McLean Memorial Lecture in Edinburgh next Friday, he will have some stories to tell. Trevor was the first black President of the National Union of Students, and he stayed with Bob McLean at his family home in Bonnyrigg on his visits to Edinburgh. It was an education for both, and he was the first choice to remember Bob’s legacy following his emotional funeral in Edinburgh last July.
Bob McLean never really left his native Scotland, but he always saw the bigger picture, and developed his values and his vision for Scotland from both understanding history, and the world as it is today. No wonder he loved Robert Burns.
To many who knew and admired him, his passions were history and politics, in particular the cause of Scottish Home Rule: a commitment based on principle not expediency, developed in the hard politics of the Seventies and refreshed, as was mine, by Labour defeat in the 1979 general election.
But his role in transforming Edinburgh’s leisure tourism, his remarkable American and Chinese stamp collections, and his knowledge of popular music, meant just as much to him privately. He was never one-dimensional, always creative.
Without the presence of “Big Bob” McLean, I doubt the Campaign for a Scottish Parliament (CSP) would have been as successful and I doubt Labour would have been as willing to lose it’s tribal instincts for the cause. His communications through Radical Scotland in the 1980’s and the CSP newsletters of the 1990’s kept us connected, breathed energy into the campaign when we were running out of puff, and convinced every generation in even greater numbers than before that Home Rule was right, and was coming yet “for a’ that”.
Trevor Phillips will discuss identity, culture and politics. Like Bob he has his loyalties, but like Bob, Trevor has never been afraid to challenge conventional thinking, to put ideas and issues ahead of party, and to make the links between who we are and how we are governed. Bob was an optimist, a fighter for his cause; he believed in change. But Bob was a worrier too.
It was one of the qualities that made him so special. He worried about his friends. He worried about his opponents. He worried about Scotland and the world around him. And he would have been worried right now.
With 18 months to go, the debate on the referendum to decide our future shows every sign of becoming the most divisive and antagonistic in our history. It could make the Monklands by-election of 1994 look like a constructive exchange about faith and politics.
Bob would never have denied, and I certainly don’t, the right of those in both camps to make their case a forcefully as possible. He would have wanted two strong campaigns to fight it out, well resourced, in every community across our land.
But he would already have been dismayed at the potential to turn Scot (however we define that in 2013) against Scot. He would be worried about the aftermath. For him the conduct of the campaign was as important as the content and the count, because it formed the roots of the post-campaign landscape, the future.
Despite the histories of some of the individuals involved, Scottish politics today is no longer rooted in the struggles of the 1980’s when politicians of all parties stood together for what we saw as more important than our tribes: our communities, our industries and our values. Even when we disagreed, we got to know each other well, and the generation who debated and campaigned through those years populated the first Scottish Parliament in 1999.
We never wanted a parliament that copied the club-like atmosphere of Westminster, and in the early days of Holyrood we did sometimes stand together again. Today, there seems to be a disconnect between members of all parties that breeds distrust, that turns day to day exchanges into personal bitterness and anger, that leaves Holyrood on too many evenings a dry, quiet and soulless place.
The vote next year is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Yes or no, Scotland will decide. It will either end our place in the UK, or end for the foreseeable future the debate on leaving which has drained so much time and energy from other issues. I hope the decision is clear, but I also hope we can collectively rise to the occasion and conduct ourselves as Bob would have wanted.
First, we need alternative visions. Not just “independence, why not?” from the Yes campaign, and not just “why not independence!” from the No’s.
How will the UK look if Scotland stays? What kind of Union do our leaders want to build for the 21st Century? And how will Scotland become more dynamic, sustainable, equal and prosperous within that shared state?
How will Scotland be different if we go it alone? What relationships across the world would replace Britain’s role? Can companies and public services flourish – will the freedoms of self-rule outweigh losing the benefits of shared sovereignty? Next we need a grown-up pact between the parties and the campaigns: to cross-examine forensically when needed, but also to be positive and respectful too. To disassociate from the personal abuse, and to stand by rules that are fair and transparent.
All the parties, political and civic leaders, have a responsibility for what comes next. We must not divide the nation so badly it takes years to recover. We can do this in a better way.
And finally, we need a media committed to explaining and dissecting the arguments for and against. To genuinely and knowledgeably reporting international comparisons, facts and debates.
When Bob McLean first came to me in the mid-1980’s to explore the idea of a Constitutional Convention he was excited, but nervous. He felt the lessons of history showed all-party dialogue and a united plan could deliver Home Rule. But he wondered: “Is this possible? Are our civic and political leaders strong enough to meet the challenge?”
Well I ask the same questions again. Are our current leaders capable of treating each other with respect, and winning respect? Can we have a debate that leaves us stronger, able to move on and succeed?
Bob McLean’s untimely death left a hole in the lives of those who knew him. He was respected across party divides.
Maybe the first McLean Memorial lecture – on the anniversary of that miserable day in March 1979, when the first referendum on creating a Scottish assembly was held – can breathe new life into our politics for the better. I hope so.
• The Rt Hon Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale was First Minister of Scotland from 2001 to 2007 and was a founding member of Scottish Labour Action along with Bob McLean.He will chair the McLean Lecture, which is supported by the Scotsman http://www.mcleanlecture.co.uk
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Monday 20 May 2013
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