Are the “big guns” of British politics starting to enter the Scottish independence debate? Until now, it sometimes felt as though this was a question only for the Scots – despite the occasional foray north of the border by people like Prime Minister, David Cameron. But like it or not, next year’s referendum has implications reaching far beyond Scotland boundaries.
Enter Douglas Alexander – the Shadow Foreign Secretary. He will deliver a speech in his constituency (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) in which he will accuse both sides of indulging in an “arid, acrimonious” argument which failed to address key social issues such as deep-rooted poverty and inequality. And he will urge the Labour Party in Scotland to consider looking at radical political reform, perhaps in coalition with the SNP, if Scotland chooses to vote no in the referendum.
Mr Alexander has already called for a “national convention” to look at what the post–referendum political landscape should look like. The tone of the speech suggests that he has become frustrated by his own party and its lack of progress towards developing a series of alternatives to independence. In it, he is expected to say that both the Tories and Liberal Democrats have expressed some interest in his thinking – but is also keen that any national convention should be all-inclusive, thus involving the SNP as well.
He will tell his constituents that such a convention would be “a very tangible answer to the question – what comes next if Scotland rejects separation in 2014? The deeper question as to what kind of Scotland we want will not be resolved by the answer given by the referendum,” he will say, adding that no-one appears to see this as a chance to take “the real opportunity to do something radically different” with the political structures of both Scotland and the UK.
His speech comes at an interesting time – just after the debate in the Scottish Parliament and just before the Labour Party conference. That debate had seen several references to critical comments made by a former senior adviser to Alex Salmond, Alex Bell, who resigned in July after spending two years working on the proposed White Paper on independence. In an interview for the BBC, Mr Bell explained that he had disagreed with Alex Salmond’s strategy of focusing on “simple messages” rather than any detailed analysis of key issues.
This was picked up in the Parliament by Labour leader Johann Lamont, who also drew attention to the fact that two leading international economists had also criticised his policies. As she said in the debate “if the first Minister cannot persuade those he hired to advise him of his case for independence, what chance does he have with the rest of us?” She went on to suggest that he should “really take things a little more seriously”, suggesting that the people across Scotland were finding him “increasingly deluded and unconvincing”.
While such comments can be taken are simply part of the hurly-burly of political life, they worry people like Douglas Alexander. In his speech he will warn that there is a growing danger that the debate will become bitter and divisive. He’s afraid that the aggression shown by both sides will last way beyond the referendum. As he put it, “in the last year alone, we seen a debate characterised all too often by shallowness, grievance and personal vitriol.
“There is a real risk that the vitriol, which at times has infected the debate, will simply not fade post-18 September 2014, and when people look beneath the surface of whatever numbers define the results, it will not be a pleasant view. Whatever the outcome of the vote, that cannot and would not be good for Scotland.”
In the Caledonian Mercury, we have said before that, whatever the outcome in 2014, the decision needs to be clear-cut and definite. The last thing we want is a year of negative and uninspiring sparring, not just between the two sides, but possibly even within the various camps. We can only hope that the arrival of this political heavyweight in the form of Douglas Alexander will start to raise the standard of debate and allow us to think about our future – whether within the United Kingdom or as newly independent state.