Robin McAlpine: A new enlightened political debate?

Douglas Alexander. Picture: Getty
Douglas Alexander. Picture: Getty
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The possibility of independence is raising our horizons and improving the quality of political debate in Scotland, writes Robin McAlpine

Professor Ailsa McKay wrote a paper for the David Hume Institute – and recently wrote in these pages – on a citizen’s basic income. Set aside for a second whether you agree with such an idea or not and ask instead whether this is something you think would have happened three years ago. I suspect not.

Then think about shadow Scottish secretary Douglas Alexander’s speech last week on what he sees as the way forward for the intellectual heart of Labour in Scotland – and for Scotland itself. There was much to welcome in it.

His idea of a deep, wide and inclusive means of engaging a much wider chunk of Scotland in a debate about our collective future is to be supported. Likewise, his implication that politics is suffering from being too inwardly-focused, or being a pastime for a sort of political elite carries a lot of truth.

But I think there is one problem with the way that he has framed this argument, which is that he starts from a slightly mistaken premise. He argues that the constitutional debate is crowding out all other debates. I don’t think that is right. In fact, I think there is a strong case for suggesting that the opposite is true.

While politicians on both sides of the independence debate may indeed be caught in an unfortunate spiral of name-calling over the constitution, that is true mainly among the very political elite that Alexander identifies as part of the problem. Elsewhere, much more interesting things are happening.

Prof McKay’s arguments for a citizen’s basic income could not be further from abstract constitutional debate. They are proposals for a genuinely radical new approach to the relationship between state and individual, employer and employee. It has been stimulated by a debate about the constitutional future of Scotland.

Evidence of this is everywhere. Last week, the Unison union published a paper on further devolution, what and why it should be pursued. It is anything but a sterile bun-fight over arcane details of no interest to ordinary people.

Meanwhile, over the past year, the Scottish Greens have been developing a range of interesting policies, many clearly stimulated by thinking about the possibility of independence. Renewable energy strategies such as community ownership generating clean, cheap energy for towns and villages across Scotland becomes more viable if you can also talk about control of the national grid and having a proper national investment bank.

Before people read this as being purely an argument in favour of independence, it is important to make clear that many of the Greens’ proposals could be attempted under the existing devolution settlement. And many predate the realisation that there is going to be a referendum. But there is a renewed momentum, which should not be written off.

The Reid Foundation will publish five papers this year on what could be done with the powers of independence – to inform, not to advocate. Others too numerous to name-check are doing similar things.

Along with this are clear signs that it is also generating some greater policy maturity. Until recently, I seldom heard people in the Green movement in Scotland talking about issues such as monetary policy. That isn’t true any more. The same is true of a wide coalition of people (many not supporting independence) who through the “Just Banking” initiative are looking at what a banking system in Britain and in Scotland could look like. Not all of these are people you would traditionally have found debating issues of liquidity and fiscal rules.

That Scotland is talking about what a written constitution might look like is a debate that has raised its horizons well above the back-and-forth grind of day-to-day Holyrood politics. There are a lot of people with a lot to say about this.

Others are asking what Scotland could do in terms of international relations if it had the chance to act on its own behalf. The stale arguments of the “political elite” that smaller countries are insignificant make-weights on the world stage in the face of “great powers” is being challenged. If Norway can drive the international change in law on landmines, what else is possible?

And this is not coming only from the left. There has been a lot of debate about what a military might look like or how it might operate, which has come from a right perspective. This is a pleasant upgrade from the previous debate about the military in Scotland, which seldom stretched beyond “can we please keep our badges?”

Or look at the case MSP Murdo Fraser made on reform of the Scottish Conservatives, proposing a new right-of-centre party. I’m not suggesting it was only a response to the constitutional debate, but it is hard to see it outside of that context. Looking at it from my left vantage point, I can only conclude that the Scottish Tories made a very big mistake there in not pursuing his ideas.

And this rebirth in thinking is not just about the pro-independence parties. Which brings us neatly back round to Alexander. It is not in any way to detract from what he said to note that he is of course a member of the political elite he sees as part of the problem. It is not a criticism to note that he may well have missed much of the above, which is often taking place outside the traditional purview of party politics. But it should be put into a context. We should remember that it is less than three years since Alexander – when in the Labour government – could have done more than make a speech about the subject. He could have made this happen. Labour had eight years in power in Scotland and, other than the radical period under Henry McLeish, generally discouraged the kind of “big vision” that Alexander envisages.

There were some good reasons for that. It is equally fair to say that, in opposition at that time, the SNP wasn’t exactly producing sparkling nuggets of brilliant thinking. But it would be ironic if Alexander wasn’t at least aware that it was the constitutional debate that he derides that has led him to a valuable piece of thinking which in the ten preceding years of senior politics he did not advance.

This is all to be welcomed. It is sad that politics is a process of pretending that you gain and learn nothing from your opponents or the political climate they create. That isn’t true. Since the referendum campaign kicked off the Labour-linked Red Paper Collective has been producing high-quality thinking from inside the Labour movement. Scottish Labour is benefiting from a renewed intellectual climate that has resulted from the constitutional question. There is not a jot of shame in that.

I’d stop short of arguing that we’ve yet reached a golden age of political thinking in Scotland. But the signs of promise are there – simply look at the range of ideas that have been discussed in these pages in The Scotsman over the past year. In your head, filter out some of the cheap party-political point-scoring – and then tell me that debate is being closed down. It doesn’t look like it to me.

The possibility of independence is raising our horizons and it is improving the quality of debate in Scotland. My hope is that it doesn’t even matter if we end up independent or not. Rather, I put my faith in the words of 19th century writer Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”

• Robin McAlpine is director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation