Essay: Douglas Alexander on a positive No vote

SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE: ON A good day such as it was this past weekend, you can see Ben Lomond from my garden. The sight of the southern-most Munro is a reminder of what this land means to me: that this small corner of the earth gives me both a sense of pride and a sense of belonging.

Douglas Alexander: Proud of being Scottish, but believes the nation is strengthened by standing with the UK. Picture: Robert Perry

Scotland is where I was born and where, one day, I expect to die. Simply put, for all the rain, for all the midges, and for all our present divisions and challenges, I love Scotland and it has shaped my sense of self. But this weekend – kicking a football or making hot cross buns (badly) with my children – affirmed that, for me, fatherhood will always matter more than nationhood.

A meaningful life is about much more than manifestos or flags. A sense of self defined by politics or patriotism alone would be a flattening, barren existence. Yet in just 147 days, Scotland will face a historic decision. One that is often talked of in terms of politics and patriotism, but it is in fact about so much more; it is a choice that challenges each of us to define who we are and what we believe about ourselves as well as our nation.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

The referendum asks deep questions about our identity and our ideals. Not just about how we are governed, but about who we are and who we want to be; our feelings about the present and our hopes for the future, for our family as well as our community and our nation. So, in the coming months, I think the debate needs to be about emotion as well as evidence; about pride and dignity as well as costs and benefits.

I love Scotland. I like the fact that it so often induces a positive reaction wherever I go in the world because of the lives and attitudes of my fellow Scots who travelled before me across the centuries to every corner of the globe. For all that time, Scots have been well respected global citizens; successful scots on the international stage are not a new phenomenon.

As present-day Scots, we are connected with a tradition of literature, culture, faith and philosophical thinking that has shaped not just our nation and our United Kingdom but has also contributed a great deal to what we now call liberal democracy across the globe.

And our Scottish identity, the recognition of our past contributions across the globe, and the warm reception with which Scots are treated will not be altered by the referendum result in September. Because the heart of our story lies as far back as the conundrum of the Scottish Enlightenment; that extraordinary struggle between two views of the human condition.

Francis Hutcheson’s argument that humanity finds its contentment in the contribution we each make to the well-being of our neighbour contrasting with Lord Kaimes’s view that our human condition is to crave what the other owns, and the structures, and so the peace, of society are built on the laws we create to protect what we possess.

I have always been closer to the Hutcheson view. My response to the claim that Scots, as 8 per cent of the UK population generate 10 per cent of our GDP, is that this is something to be grateful for and proud of – the idea that we share what we have.

And while some argue that what we share is not always well used, that critique does not stop it being, for me, a sign of something good and progressive in our partnership of nations; that wealth, risks, and rewards are better shared with our neighbours.

And, of course, sharing works both ways. It is sharing in solidarity that – for my parents’ generation – saw us collectively through two world wars. It is that spirit of solidarity that inspired the creation of the welfare state and built the NHS, that formed the trade union movement, that shaped the equal pay act, the disability discrimination act and the equal marriage act.

Solidarity is the foundation of the pillars of what we call Britain; that what we do and what we build together will always be stronger than what we do apart. It is the sense that humanity is better built on solidarity than separation that led me to my lifelong support for Labour.

As the membership card in my pocket puts it: the Labour Party … believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.

I know that, for many, past disappointments and present frustrations means that ideal has lost its appeal.

I know and share the sense that the Tory attacks on the NHS, education, the welfare state, the vulnerable and the excluded are the antithesis of solidarity.

Having had to set up one in Renfrewshire, I share the sense of outrage that a million people are now having to use food banks.

I know that, for many, the political structures of Westminster seem unresponsive and I know that some struggle to believe that even a change of government next year will guarantee a return to solidarity. But yet that surely is what solidarity is all about: choosing to keep going even when the going is difficult.

In Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and in the great cities of Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester, working people face the same challenges as working people in Paisley.

Our common experience and moral obligations do not stop at the banks of the Tweed. If the problem is Tory austerity, then why dump that on people who are not just our neighbours but also our brothers, sisters, cousins, friends and relatives?

If the argument is that continual Tory government is not inevitable, but Westminster is so broken that a different government won’t fix it, then why inflict that on our neighbours?

Solidarity, if it is anything, is about never giving in or simply giving up. There’s nothing positive or progressive about walking away from the ideal or the practice of solidarity.

I absolutely agree with those who say Westminster needs to change. That’s one of many reasons why I supported devolution; the biggest constitutional change the UK has ever undergone.

And I want to see more, not just for Scotland, but also for Wales, North Ireland and all parts of England, all of whom would face the consequences of a Yes vote in September, not just Westminster.

All the UK should benefit from the late great Donald Dewar’s vision of devolution; not as a destination but as a journey.

In Scotland that journey will continue with the 2012 Scotland Act that brings significant shifts in tax-raising powers to the Scottish Parliament, powers that would be even more enhanced by a Labour victory in 2015. Real powers for a purpose, devolved and developed for Scotland.

As a Scot, I am proud of what the Scottish Parliament has already achieved: a Climate Change Act that is world-leading in its ambition for carbon reduction (yes, I know that was an SNP government’s legislation – that doesn’t stop me being proud as a Scot to see it happen); a commitment to zero tolerance on domestic violence; the commitment to remove homelessness by 2016; the smoking ban and so very much more.

And yet I also know that there is so much more to do. A race to the bottom on these islands is not the answer.

A No vote can and must be a positive call to action for Scotland – having rejected separating Scotland from the UK, we must refocus political action around separating Scotland from poverty.

Working together, not walking away is the progressive response to the challenges facing Scotland today.

I am convinced that we can and will achieve so much more together across these islands, with our friends, neighbours, and family, working in solidarity, united in our commitment to each other.

And it is because I am Labour, not despite being Labour, that I will make the positive choice to vote No on 18 September.

• Douglas Alexander is Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South and Shadow Foreign Secretary. This essay is based on remarks that he will make today at Harvard University