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.