May’s elections showed that the public want politicians to inspire them with possibilities for this country
LAST May we witnessed the election of a majority government for the first time in the 12-year history of Scottish devolution. And if we take them at their word, the historic victory of the Scottish National Party will ensure that the issue of a referendum on independence has come to the fore.
As someone who knows how to run a campaign, one of my real concerns is the referendum debate may become simply a fight between William Wallace and the bogeyman. Because in a time of choosing, our duty is greater, and our responsibility is heavier.
This debate demands a different quality of imagination. “Obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans” must yield to a debate not just about our identity, but about our ideals. About what kind of nation we are, and what kind of nation we want to become. Our citizens deserve a debate worthy of a momentous choice that will help write the history of this generation.
I was centrally involved in devising Labour’s “Divorce is an expensive business” campaign for the elections to Holyrood in 1999. I am not unaware of the importance of such evidence, nor do I resile from the fears I still have about the damage that Scotland’s exit from the United Kingdom would do, most of all, to Scotland.
But I said after the 1999 election that it was the last time I thought we could run such a campaign, and yet it is surely now clear that, in the decade that followed, too little was done by my party to tell a story of possibility about Scotland.
In 1999 we identified what would have been the wrong path for Scotland, but thereafter we didn’t do enough to describe the right path by which to achieve a better nation.
We all know Labour needed to show humility after our election defeats. But we also have an obligation to think – and to re-engage. My own observing and participating in democratic politics both at home and abroad has taught me many things. And one of them is that in policy, statistics matter; but in politics, stories matter too. Stories help shape what is hidden in plain sight all around us.
I suggest we need a broader, more inclusive, more generous story if we are to be a better nation, and that to be a better nation does not require that we become a separate nation.
At the moment we risk years of debate defined by polarising positions not shared by most of us in Scotland.
On one hand there is a story about Scotland’s future distorted by the continued need to assert our differentness, to the point of denying what we hold in common in these islands.
On the other hand is a story that draws too much from our past, which has allowed the misconception to develop that any acknowledgement of Britishness somehow seeks to diminish the pride we feel in the distinctiveness of Scotland.
Neither account, it seems to me, is adequate for who we are as Scots, what we believe or what we have in ourselves to become in years ahead.
Unpopular aspects of both Old and New Labour combined to reduce our support in the last election. Old Labour was still associated with a sense that “Labour runs everything” from Westminster to the local council, and regrettably that stewardship was not always viewed as moving with the times.
New Labour, on the other hand, despite all its achievements, came to be associated with the conflict in Iraq in 2003, the MPs’ expenses scandal and the weariness of ideas born of successive periods of government in Westminster and Holyrood.
By 2011, our story played out in Scottish Labour warning of the risks of Thatcherism decades after she had left office, and in a campaign that suggested knife crime, important though tackling it is, was the key concern of an electorate that, in truth, had many other concerns.
This was a story that sought to draw what little emotional power it could muster not from Scotland’s future, but from Scotland’s past.
The harsh truth for Labour is that the Nationalists’ victory in May did not derive exclusively from their approach to national identity. It also reflected that those who voted for them judged them fairly competent and broadly aligned with their values in their stewardship of government over the previous four years.
Just as importantly, Labour in opposition was seen as too often concerned only with opposition for its own sake. Too many Scots judged us to have complained in unspecified ways about the SNP’s failure to deliver, without articulating a clear enough alternative story and account of Scotland’s possibilities.
That weakness – for which we share a collective responsibility – allowed the SNP to deflect criticism of their record over the preceding four years in two ways: first, to attribute the failures of the Scottish Government to the existence and impact of the British government, and, second, to attribute their failures to their status as a minority government.
There is, however, one positive I take from last May’s result, which you might think a strange thing for a Labour politician to say.
I do not believe that, at root, Scotland was voting for independence. In that I believe I am joined by Alex Salmond, who surely wouldn’t be putting off a referendum if he thought that was the case.
What I believe Scots were saying is that they want Scotland to be a better nation. They didn’t feel that Labour was offering that better way forward.
So what would the story of that politics of possibility, that story of a better nation, sound like?
It would start, to my mind, with a determination to uphold our common humanity, the common weal, and give expression to the feelings of care, concern and commitment which we seek in others and seek to uphold in ourselves, rather than assert and reinforce our difference.
It would begin from a belief in equality, and it would uphold the timeless truth that we achieve more together than we can achieve alone.
It would be a story that starts with the condition of Scotland: a nation of great strengths but also very real problems.
It would be a story that set at its heart the idea of building One Scotland – a nation in which greater equality was not just our aim, and our metric, but was in fact our achievement.
l Douglas Alexander is Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South