Review: Douglas Alexander Lecture, Edinburgh University Playfair Library, March 1st 2013

Last night, Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander MP delivered his lecture for Scotland’s Constitutional Future. Speaking of interdependence, connectedness and solidarity, he pragmatically made the case for the Union and a No vote in 2014.

Alexander began by criticising an SNP strategy which, he argued, is focusing on national identity and the ‘inevitability’, before moving onto a critique of the ‘social justice’ case for independence. Recalling nationwide excitement and celebrations during and after Britain’s Olympic successes, Alexander contrasted a “pluralistic” UK with an “inward-looking” SNP. “Why would we want to lose this?” was the question posed to the audience. According to Alexander, the “national identity” argument is not working for the SNP, and their tactics have changed as a result.

‘Vote independence to keep the Tories out’ is a popular argument for independence. Alexander challenged this, pointing to Labour’s current lead over the Conservatives in the polls. To paraphrase; ‘Westminster Governments can change, but independence cannot be revoked’. Any claim of Scotland being subjected to endless, ‘unelected’ Tory Governments is – according to Alexander – discredited in the current political climate.

Alexander then went on to attack Nicola Sturgeon and what he perceived to be the SNP’s new stance. He quoted Sturgeon’s motive for independence as being; “what kind of country you want Scotland to be and how you want to be governed”. This, he claimed, is challenged by the ‘willingness to change’ Westminster has expressed in recent decades, referring to EU membership, devolution and the Calman Commission. Sturgeon’s ‘utilitarian nationalism,’ which sees independence as a necessary means to create a fairer society, was countered with references to the UK-wide development of the NHS and the welfare state. The implication, he claimed, of Scotland pursuing social justice by voting Yes was that the rest of the UK was not.

Alexander then declared his vision for the future. His future Scotland is “inclusive”, will “meet neighbour’s needs” and “build up communities”. He promised that Labour will offer a “reasonable and plausible future” that will “prioritise social care…fiscal responsibility… [and] devolution within Scotland”.

Defending the cross party Better Together campaign, Alexander spoke of Labour’s partners’ plans for Scotland. The Liberal Democrats, apparently, are in favour of a federal UK. The Conservatives are ‘open to looking at devolution’. The inference throughout was towards the people’s preferred current option of ‘devo-max’ but the term was never mentioned.

The only headline came during the closing minutes of the lecture. 2015, 25 years after the Claim of Right for Scotland, will see a ‘National Convention’. This will involve the coming together of civic Scotland to decide Scotland’s constitutional future within the UK. Alexander clearly sees the need for change, but what kind of change was never made clear. In an answer to questions from the floor, Alexander claimed that to address issues of social inequality, control over distribution and production is required. Whether he supports ‘devo-max’ is yet to be seen.

My analysis of his lecture would be that it was surprisingly positive, but unsurprisingly vague. ‘Vote No and we’ll see what we can do’ was the message. ‘We know that certain powers are needed, but we don’t know if Scotland will get them’. Of course, any outcome of the promised ‘National Convention’ would depend on whoever is elected to Westminster. So are we any clearer as to what will happen if Scotland votes No in 2014? Not really. The Unionists are ‘open to discussion’ but the outcome appears to be highly contentious. Should we be satisfied with civic Scotland deciding our political future without getting a vote on the issue? Surely if the current polls are showing a majority support for ‘devo-max’ or ‘full fiscal autonomy’, that’s what any Unionist should want to provide for the people. Apparently there still needs to be a discussion.

Euan Campbell
National Collective 

Photograph by Duc Nguyen.


There are 3 comments

  1. richardgibbons

    Utter rubbish of course from wee Dougie. He had the chance to put forward a strong positive case for Scotland staying in the Union, instead he chose to attack the SNP again and remain utterly vague. ‘Building a better Britain’ … so we are to forget Labour’s 13 years in power which led to wars, economic ruin, mass unemployment and shocking child poverty rates; ‘changing Westminster, a Federal UK?’ … I really don’t know whether to laugh or cry at that one, Lords Reform anyone?; ‘Jubilympics’ … great if you’re a Londoner or a tourist; ‘more devolution or FFA’ … impossible to deliver because of ever-growing English right-wing resentment, and never will be delivered unless of course rules over air rifle laws constitute as much-needed more devolution. I wish people would stop banging on about Devo-Max, it’s a red-herring, jam tomorrow that can’t be delivered. Fantasising about Devo-Max will only ensure a NO vote which will mandate Westminster in stripping powers from Holyrood, not adding them!

  2. Al Mackie

    Seems to be the Labour way at the moment. Big on rhetoric but utterly vacuous on any kind of hard detail. It is strange that on the one hand the anti-Independence brigade belittle any kind of national pride on the one hand (as I do btw), but then eulogise about the ‘olympic fever’ that was generated last year. They are still failing to make any case for the union, but then, maybe they won’t have to. Turn the question on its head – if we were independent right now, would Scots vote to join England – ripping up the NHS, WMD, attacking the welfare state, virulence toward the EU, rising inequality, rising worklessness and an age of self-imposed austerity. I think most people would say, ‘nah’.

  3. Lindsey C

    I simply don’t believe many of the claims Alexander has to make. In the same way that the SNP would bring forth an independence referendum, I am now doubtful as to whether Alexander can actually deliver any promises on further devolution. The cries about avoiding Tory government are only relevant if you believe the Westminster Labour party are a favourable alternative at this moment, and many people don’t. He evokes the Welfare State and the NHS, the former being gradually transformed into a neo-liberal parody of it’s former self, and the latter already diverging hugely from throughout the UK as a result of devolution and transformational reforms in England over the past 14 years. For me, action in both at a Westminster level has been veering in a direction I don’t favour for almost 20 years now. The creation of both are indeed a huge credit to a Labour government, but a Labour government of 1945 that resemble little of what they represent today.

    With so much reference to today’s political climate, the argument of a “pluralistic UK versus an inward-looking Scotland” just doesn’t hold. It isn’t the Scottish Government clambering over itself to promise a vote on leaving the European Union. An independent Scotland could formulate healthy relationships with Europe and the rest of the UK without the taint of a UKIP-driven international hostility.

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