The death of Bruce Millan is a timely reminder of when politicians worked for the good of all, writes Brian Wilson
There is a political game in Scotland called Positives and Negatives. Anyone can play and the winners will be decided by referendum. The rules are that anything which one team espouses as Positive – an island without borders, shared institutions, economic inter-dependency and so on – is denounced by the other as Negative.
On the other hand, those who subscribe to any scenario, however dubious or contradictory, so long as it based on the premise of independence, are hailed as Positive. It is a very silly game when translated into the outlook and deeds of real people.
The only players are those who are determined to distort every issue and grievance into the strait-jacket of a constitutional debate, then declare everyone who is with them to be Positive and those opposed to be Negative. By definition, this category must include most of the people who attended the funeral this week of Bruce Millan, the former Labour secretary of state for Scotland. Indeed, there is nothing like a funeral to put such matters into perspective – and to consider the question: “Who are the people who have actually made a difference?”
Bruce was a quiet, determined man who eschewed self-promotion. In her tribute, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont noted that politics has “a habit of allowing the loudest voices to reinvent the past in order that they might shape the future”. It was a timely caution.
Progressive politics is an incremental process. Every advance is hard fought-for. But no sooner is it delivered than it is discounted as a given and claimed by those who have hitherto resisted or sneered at its inadequacy. The deliverers are too often remembered only in the obituaries.
Like all politicians who make a difference, as Bruce certainly did, he acted upon a set of Positive beliefs; in social justice, in decent housing, in regional policy and – as Professor Bronwen Hughes reminded us in Saturday’s Scotsman – passionately, in the rights of children. Causes without borders.
It is difficult to imagine a more constructive or humane agenda. Bruce was a very Scottish figure who, throughout his life, identified the Labour Party as the best, albeit imperfect vehicle to deliver his ethical and political priorities, specifically within Scotland but also for the rest of the United Kingdom.
And therein lies the false dichotomy of Positive and Negative as currently touted by those of a Nationalist disposition. It can only be sustained through the rewriting of history and it only makes sense to those who see life permanently through the prism of the constitution.
For the rest of us, political choices are not defined by borders. Progressive reforms and institutions, now taken for granted, were driven by those who had the opportunity, the wit and the political determination to use their transient powers for good ends, whether for Scotland, the UK or the wider world.
The focus on borders and constitutions avoids the need to engage in that hard graft of making a difference. The rhetoric of radicalism disguises the absence of the reality. Nobody ever lost votes by telling Scots that we are the biggest-hearted, most socially democratic wee nation in the world. Just don’t unfreeze the council tax or ask them to pay a penny for Scotland to prove it.
We are invited to assume that every piece of progress that has been delivered within the UK would exist anyway, while every negative can be laid at the door of that self-same Union. It isn’t true. And even if it was, it would ignore the fact that we have achieved that progress together, for the shared benefit of one country.
There is, of course, a school of thought within Scotland that what happens in the rest of the UK is none of our business. It is a perfectly respectable opinion to hold, even if I profoundly disagree with it.
Where absurdity intervenes is in the claim that applying one’s objectives to Scotland alone, as by-products of independence, is somehow Positive, while working to deliver them on a UK-wide scale is Negative. A debasement of both intellect and language are required to create that distinction, far less believe it.
The past few days have provided a very good example of why that is so. A young woman suffering from cystic fibrosis has written movingly and, one might think, with some authority on why the continued existence of a National Health Service covering the whole of the UK is necessary and desirable. Our NHS can accommodate variations, but the founding principles remain consistent throughout the UK.
Only a particularly arrogant brand of nationalist would claim that Sally Russell’s experience-based conclusion is “negative” about anything. On the contrary, it is hugely positive towards the great concept of a NHS, which, not least because of scale, can offer the most complex and expensive treatments free at the point of use, for everyone in Britain.
If we want to play a game of Positive and Negative, then I would maintain that it is pointlessly negative to break up an NHS which delivers that kind of cohesion. The obligation to justify the contrary position surely rests with those who advocate it. Instead, they simply deny the logic of their own ambitions. Every challenge is blustered aside without recourse to evidence.
Such empty assertions are now passed off by their purveyors as a “positive” approach to Scotland’s future. The more unsubstantiated the assurances, the more impressed we are supposed to be by their visionary qualities. To challenge them, we are told, is to “talk Scotland down”. It is the language of the chancer, not of the prophet.
Some of those who call for the campaign against the break-up of Britain to be more “positive” believe there is a duty to offer some enhanced constitutional alternative. As I have previously advocated, the recall of the Scottish Constitutional Convention to review and recommend in the light of the past decade’s experience might be no bad thing.
Much more important than that, however, is to mount a counter offensive on the meaning of words and ideas. To me, positive politics has always meant fighting for social justice and against unearned privilege; creating opportunities that benefit the many and not the few … the definition is long for there is so much to be positive about.
I am realistic enough to respect the fact that all of my positives represent some other people’s negatives, including my belief that we are better together, because their starting point is so completely different. The reciprocal courtesy would be appreciated, but I positively won’t be holding my breath.