Scottish independence: SNP crowding out key issues

Douglas Alexander is expected to make his speech tonight. Picture: Robert Perry
Douglas Alexander is expected to make his speech tonight. Picture: Robert Perry
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THE “relentless” focus on Scotland’s constitutional arrangements has “crowded out” the debate on other vital issues facing the country, Douglas Alexander will declare in a major speech today.

In a blunt attack on the Holyrood “political elite” under the SNP government, the shadow foreign secretary will say that the constant focus on independence and the division of political powers has led to a “shallowing” of the political debate in Scotland.

Key issues on the economy and social justice which concern ordinary families, he says, have been ignored or over-shadowed. “For all that we may comfort ourselves that ‘We’re all Jock Tamson’s Bairns’ for too long in Scotland too many voices have simply not been heard,” he will say.

Mr Alexander will repeat his backing for a fresh examination of the division of powers between Holyrood and Westminster, saying further details will be revealed by Scottish Labour soon.

But he insists that his party must focus on “not just democratic renewal but also social and economic renewal”.

If people vote No to independence next year, Scottish parties, including the pro-independence side, should lead a “national convention” designed to set priorities for the country for the next two decades, leaving constitutional issues to one side.

The speech comes after Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont warned last year that she would not get involved in a “bidding war” on powers for Holyrood with the SNP.

Labour is understood to be preparing to back some further tax powers being devolved to Edinburgh, but will stop well short of a “devo-max” model.

But the SNP argues that Scots have to vote for independence if they want to ensure a more “progressive” future for the country.

The speech is the latest given by Mr Alexander on Scottish politics in the wake of the SNP’s historic landslide victory in 2011.

If independence is rejected next year, he declares: “One of the opportunities that choosing to stay together in 2014 would afford Scotland would be to move beyond a public debate and political agenda defined so narrowly around constitutional change.”

Voices outside the “political elite”, he says, have “not been heard” in Scotland, drowned out by the row over the constitution, he will say.

“The relentless focus on issues of constitutional change of recent years has crowded out many other issues of vital debate,” he adds.

“Too much of our political life has been dominated by debates about constitutional change to the exclusion of social, political, cultural and economic change.

“It has led to a shallowing, not a deepening, of our debates about the kind of nation we should be. So having decided Scotland’s constitutional future, we should be debating instead the different Scotland we want to build.”

Issues that politicians should instead focus on, he says, could include the need to boost the country’s economic productivity, the needs of Scotland’s rural and island communications, the potential of the country’s creative industries and on ways to boost childcare and early years education.

He proposes that, if Scotland opts against independence next year, political parties and civic groups could begin work on a national convention called “Scotland 2025” to “chart a new vision for an old nation”.

Mr Alexander also criticises a speech by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon which argued the case for independence on the grounds it would mean the Conservatives were not in power and would boost social justice.

He will say: “But the Nationalists’ claim relies on the implicit but spurious assertion not only that we as Scots are committed to social justice, but that our friends, family and colleagues across the rest of the UK are not.

“I reject a cultural conceit that relies upon a single stereotype of voters in the rest of the UK.”

He adds: “The inconvenient truth for the Nationalists is that their disagreement is not with their political opponent – it is with the overwhelming opinion of people in Scotland. This is not a party political fight. It is a conflict between the sovereign will of the Scottish people and the settled will of the SNP.”

However, an SNP spokesperson said: “It is ironic Douglas Alexander has chosen to make these comments on the anniversary of the 1979 devolution referendum, when a failure to achieve devolution delivered absolutely nothing for Scotland apart from 18 years of a Tory government that we didn’t vote for.

“In reality, only a Yes vote in next year’s independence referendum will put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands, giving civic Scotland, the political parties and above all the people the opportunity to build a solid, progressive constitutional platform for an independent Scotland.”