I have a confession to make. Despite a lifetime of dedication to the cause of Scottish Independence, I like Douglas Alexander. Hell, I even like his sister and regret that she has gone from the mainstream of Scottish politics. Let me be clear that I have no idea whether I like Douglas personally (still less whether he could thole a chat with me) and he has proved to be such a loyal Labour bag-carrier that I despair of even the best in that party dragging themselves out of their partisan rut for the sake of a decent democracy. But, unlike the bulk of his Scottish colleagues, at least he has shown both initiative and courage to raise the debate about our future.
His ‘Scotland 2025’ speech, delivered at the University of Edinburgh two months ago was as close to a game-changer from Labour in the debate over Scotland’s future as I have yet seen. As Douglas put it:
“I want to suggest that the nationalists’ approach creates an opportunity for those of us who believe our Scottishness is best expressed within the United Kingdom to counter that nationalist negativity with a different, and a more hopeful, story about Scotland’s future.”
This may be like swigging hemlock and vinegar to an old nationalist like me. But the man goes on to make his case—and a positive one, damn him—for why Scotland would be better off staying part of the UK. And he does it without denigrating anybody and certainly not the Scots themselves along the traditional “too poor/wee/stupid” lines so often deployed as an argument. Good for him. If us nats can’t win in 2014 by making the better argument and countering such decent articulation, we don’t deserve to have our own country back.
I was reminded of the pivotal relevance of this sipping my usual pre-Saturday-surgery latte and scanning the Opinon pages of the Hootsmon to find they had eschewed their usual venal partisanship and featured two very different pieces—one from Gerry Hassan and the other from Alf Young—that pose similar questions and bemoan that such articulate contributions as Douglas remain very much the exception, rather than the rule. As Gerry puts it:
How many times have we been told that the independence debate is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” or “a historic moment”? Funny that, because it doesn’t feel like that to many people outside the “bubble Scotland” that lives and breathes politics. There have been comedy wars, twitter spats, stupid interventions, and a politics shaped by “fans with typewriters” and worse. There hasn’t been much insight and light so far.
His article cites vicious little cyberwars that have gone on in overreaction to people like comedian Susan Calman or academic Gavin Bowd and highlights again what Douglas took pains to highlight: “Empathy is what keeps us together. It’s all really about people getting on with other people.”
And yet, trawl through media coverage of SNP commentary (there is precious little other than bumf emanating regularly from the Yes campaign so far) and it’s as if they are going out of their way to underscore Gerry’s point. Veteran eco-warrior Rob Gibson MSP trumpets a rebuff of the MoD acquiring more land around Cape Wrath; Kevin Stewart MSP bangs on in provincial narrow focus about the AWPR and the “notorious Haudagain roundabout traffic blackspot”; Eilidh Whiteford MP chirps that she has caught Harriet Harman out by revealing Labour’s plan to cut benefits to Scots; even the normally astute SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson sees the English local elections in terms of UKIP “pulling the Tories to the right” when such 19th-century class war concepts are usually associated with stuck-in-the-past Old Labour.
Such stuff may be the talk of the Garden Lobby and have been standard fuel for street and doorstep campaigning for decades, it is hardly edifying and comes nowhere near building the empathy that Alexander makes a case for and, more importantly, that the Yes campaign needs to be building to move outside of the static 31% faithful they have had in their camp since the 2011 election. Much though they clearly love being top dogs running the Holyrood bubble, the SNP are in danger of seeing things entirely through that prism.
While the SNP have indeed demonstrated a competence, not to say an audacity, in running the country that put the small-scale timidity of the pre-2007 administrations to shame, there is something verging on hubris in present programmes that risks alienating those they would seek to convince. MacAskill has not just the judiciary but a wheen of ordinary folk up in arms about the way he has gutted the Procurator Fiscal offices and decimated the local responsiveness of Sheriff Courts. Brown has alienated Green allies by pushing ahead with road building (Forth Crossing; A9; AWPR) while cutting back on EGIP. Mackay has brought out pitchforks and burning torches across the countryside by refusing to consider private wind turbines next to settlements as any more evil than substantial wind farms hidden up on the moors.
All this has left the man in the street—the Scottish variant of the one the urbane and plausible Nigel Farage was so astute at wooing in the recent English local elections—disconnected, if not disinterested, not to say sullenly hostile to what should be Scotland’s biggest debate since 1707. In his article, Alf Young blames the SNP for “playing the long game” and allowing the discussion to start out dominated by naysayers. Professor James Mitchell, now occupying a chair in public policy at Edinburgh University, has called the debate so far “arid and acrimonious”.
Alf complains that opposing websites contain little more informative than people jumping up and down with ‘Yes’ placards in many languages or the details of a fundraising ceilidh in Banchory. Certainly, if you’re looking for information on your future pension, the apportioning of the national debt or how we stop Russian Yankee-class submarines parking themselves off the Broch in an independent Scotland, you’ll be as disappointed as if you wanted details how our English bros will look after us or HS2 is going to transform all our lives—once the Union is safe. Alf”s main thesis, with which it is hard to take exception, is:
“(The SNP) opted to play this very long game, counting on their accumulating record in running a devolved Scottish government responsibly and well as a sure foundation from which to win the trust of a majority of Scots, when it came to taking the next big step. They did not know, nor did the rest of us, that that long march would be overshadowed by lengthening years of austerity, as much of the western world struggled to extricate itself from arguably the most profound economic crisis since the 1930s.”
When you dominate the ministerial floor of offices in Holyrood, surrounded by flunkies whose career depends on keeping you happy, the natural response is to worry about your place in the pecking order and less about events outside of that bubble. The Unionists have enough Michael Forsyths and Alastair Darlings kicking about to make a fair fist of a campaign while their party parliamentarians fret about questions no-one counts and speeches no-one listens to.
But, since Mr & Mrs Punter or the Scottish equivalent of Farage’s Dog & Duck barside debate are entirely disengaged, it is hard to see how the Yes campaign can build its momentum even if juicy morsels of policy will have been grilled to perfection by this autumn when there is less than a year to go to September 2014’s vote. After the best part of a year when debate has seldom risen above a four-year-old’s “does not!”…”does too!” level of debate, the largest vote cast is likely to be by those fed up with the childishness of it all: they will not deign to vote at all.
This could be a depressing echo of 1979 when even the dead were voting ‘No’. And, after any such ‘No victory’ we will have turned our back on change and all 60m Britons will be stuck in the same political kindergarten.