Home Tags Posts tagged with "Iraq"


By Bill Wilson

On 22 February 2011, I received a somewhat bizarre letter from Liam Fox, the then minister for defence, in response to a letter I had sent him regarding the use of depleted uranium (DU) weapons.

In his letter, Dr Fox assured me that “None of the inquiries to date, including those quoted in your letter, has documented long-term health or environmental effects attributable to DU munitions”. In the same letter he stated: “on the basis of reports by the Royal Society and others, the MoD does not consider DU is safe”. And a little further on: “The UN General Assembly draft resolution you refer to […] The UK does not support resolutions that presuppose DU is harmful.”

Thus in a fairly short letter I was reassured that DU did not cause long-term damage to health or the environment, then that DU was not safe, and finally that the UK government rejected claims from the United Nations that DU was not safe.

This was a not atypical response when one raised the issue of DU. The evidence that it causes serious long-term damage both to the environment and human health is overwhelming – but try getting anybody to actually listen. As an MSP, I ran a series of press releases trying to raise the profile of this issue. The only news sources that paid any attention whatsoever were The Caledonian Mercury and the Scottish Left Review. No other UK newspaper, magazine, television or radio station would touch the story.

My experience of attempting to draw attention to this issue was by no means unique. Doctors in Falluja have advised women (yes, an entire city of women) not to become pregnant. This drew little attention in the UK, but then the tragedy of Iraq generally attracts little attention in the UK. It has, however, attracted the attention of a number of courageous academics who, in spite of the personal attacks and smears to which they have been subjected, attempted to both study and highlight this issue. Recently, a significant new paper was published providing yet more evidence of the damage to health by uranium weapons. Sadly, the authors of this paper were unable to gain any media interest in the findings.

Now DU has hit the headlines. In the final section of Liam Fox’s letter, he stated: “The Government’s policy remains that DU can be used within weapons; it is not prohibited under current or likely future international agreements. UK armed forces use DU munitions in accordance with international humanitarian law. It would be quite wrong to deny our serving personnel a legitimate capability”.

On 14 November, the Guardian stated that the present minister for defence, Nick Harvey, had given a similar assurance to Katy Clark MP. DU was legal to use and that the government had reviewed the legal situation: “the conclusions of the original legal weapons review on Charm3 are extant” and “DU can be used within weapons”. However, when Ms Clark asked to see the review, the story changed – Oops, it appears we have not carried out a review after all. Never mind, the government now says that it will carry out a review.

A legal review of the situation is a step forward. But how about a review of the effects on the health of those living in areas where the weapons were used? How about some simple steps to reduce the risk of contamination? Nicholas Wood has been asking – for many years now – for tanks destroyed by DU weapons to be fenced off so that children cannot play in them. Mr Wood, and the children of Iraq, are still waiting for such basic actions to be taken.

Dr Bill Wilson is a former MSP.

Donate to us: support independent, intelligent, in-depth Scottish journalism from just 3p a day

War memorial, Carsphairn <em>Picture: Walter Baxter</em>

War memorial, Carsphairn Picture: Walter Baxter

By John Knox

As I get older, Remembrance Sunday becomes sadder and more and more moving. I see soldiers falling to the ground like autumn leaves from the cherry tree outside my kitchen window. The gold and red and yellow and khaki of their uniforms lie in patterns on the dark green grass. Why do we do this thing called “war”? And why is it always a mess?

We do it because, in the end, we have to. Because there is more to life than flesh and blood. And there is more to the spirit of Man than mere existence. There are certain standards below which we will not fall, whatever the cost may be.

We fought against Hitler because he was an evil man in charge of an evil empire which was murdering six million Jews. Could we have stopped him in any other way? Possibly, but we left it too late. I am always puzzled by these two thoughts: Why did the German people put up with Hitler and his Nazi regime? Why didn’t we send in the SAS to assassinate him?

My parents’ generation were magnificent in the way they endured the second world war, but why did they allow it to happen in the first place?

What is even more puzzling is why my grandparents’ generation allowed the first world war to happen. Was it a war over mere territory or was it – as the Americans believed – a war to end the unacceptable practice of aristocracy? A war to end wars?

The answer to these questions are the lessons for this season of remembrance. They are bitter questions, when you consider the sheer scale of the killing. In the first world war, the Allies lost five million soldiers, the Germans 3.5 million. Over 21 million were wounded.

In the second world war, Britain lost 264,000 soldiers and 92,000 civilians. Germany lost 3.5 million soldiers, 780,000 civilians. The Soviet Union lost 11 million soldiers and seven million civilians. Japan lost 1.3 million soldiers and 672,000 civilians. The USA lost 292,000 soldiers and 6,000 civilians. And these awful numbers are translated into human form when you see the names written on local war memorials in towns and cities across the country.

Not that wars are over. There have been over 130 wars since 1945. Britain has participated in 21 of them, not counting the war against terror in Northern Ireland. We are still losing soldiers in Afghanistan, 385 so far. “Their families have been told” is the all too obvious, but telling, phrase used in the newscasts almost every other day. This huge sacrifice, made by the dead and by the wounded who survive, deserves to be remembered. And honoured.

They are doing it for us. We sent them to Afghanistan to do the fighting on our behalf. We are not brave enough or strong or skilled enough to do it ourselves. And our weakness often turns to hypocrisy when we do not support the mission we have sent them on.

In the last vote in the House of Commons, in September 2010, MPs voted by a majority of 296 to stay on in Afghanistan. But many people outside the Commons have questioned our involvement there. The questions which should be asked of the doubters are: What would you do to stop the Taliban getting back into power in Afghanistan? Are you prepared to see a regime of terror back in charge in Kabul and watch the country fall back into medieval brutality?

Pacifists would say we should march unarmed against the guns, as Gandhi did against the police horses in South Africa or the students did in Tiananmen Square. Neither protest succeeded in toppling an evil regime. And, in any case, most of us do not have such courage. Some among the Arab Spring protesters did have such courage. But in Libya, at least, the revolution needed an armed uprising and the aid of NATO air forces to succeed in bringing down the Gaddafi regime.

Releasing the dogs of war should never be done lightly, of course, as we found out in Iraq. And there are supposed to be safeguards, lessons learned over the centuries. Is the war justified? Is it proportional to the evil you are trying to get rid of? Is the war “legal”, ie does it have international sanction? Does it have a good chance of success? Those safeguards have so far persuaded us out of wars against other evil regimes in Syria, Iran and North Korea.

In the case of Iraq, 78 per cent of Labour MPs thought those “just war” conditions had been met; 90 per cent of Conservatives thought so, too. Only the SNP and the Liberal Democrats voted against.

The difficulty those in the minority against a war find themselves in is that they have to honour the bravery of the soldiers while disapproving of their mission. This is not easy for those holding those opinions or for those in uniform. As I say, it can lead to doublespeak. It is one of the thorns of war. I suppose all we can do is be honest about it and act on the judgement of the majority.

One thing we can all do is to ensure that our 191,000 armed services personnel are properly treated, with good equipment and a good home for their families, despite the planned 8 per cent cut in the defence budget. Let us hope that the 1,800 troops being drawn back from Germany will be given decent accommodation in their new bases back home and that the air support engineers’ regiment will be well housed at Kinloss.

In the words of the first world war poet John McCrae: “If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields.”

Armistice Day, this year on the eleventh of the eleventh of the eleventh, says a lot about the spirit of Man. While we wrestle with the intellectual questions of whether war is justified or not, we know deep down we are dealing with something dearly human, the balance between our personal lives and the life of our species.

Donate to us: support independent, intelligent, in-depth Scottish journalism from just 3p a day

Fallujah, 2004 <em>Picture: publik15</em>

Fallujah, 2004 Picture: publik15

By Bill Wilson

● The Ministry of Defence (MoD) refuses to clean up radioactive pollution in Fife.

● MoD claims with regard to the safety of depleted uranium (DU) are based on an extraordinarily small sample size.

● Further evidence from Iraq on the link between uranium weapons and birth defects in Fallujah.

● Have the UK and the USA developed new uranium-based weapons?

Some months ago, I wrote to Liam Fox – until recently the minister in the MoD – regarding the dangers of DU weapons. Dr Fox assured me that DU was both safe and unsafe. Yes, you read that correctly, he did give both assurances within the same letter. An interesting conundrum, until you realise the simple truth: DU is perfectly safe as long as you are not an active soldier based, or a civilian living, within the contaminated area.

On 16 October, writing in the Herald, Rob Edwards revealed that the MoD’s ability to adopt these most extraordinary double standards is not restricted to radioactivity abroad. Edwards noted – in regard to Dalgety Bay – that “The MoD has been resisting demands to pay for a clean-up of the pollution from old military planes for the last 20 years. It has persistently played down the possible health effects for members of the public.” The same article also noted that “MoD scientists have refused to analyse radioactive contamination from Dalgety Bay in Fife because of the risk it could give them cancer, official minutes of a meeting have revealed.”

The whole scenario is so bizarre that one wonders if it has something to do with sand. Dalgety Bay is sandy; Iraq has lots of sand. In the Alice in Wonderland world of the MoD and radioactivity maybe that is the connection – sand results in radioactive pollution behaving rather like Schrödinger’s cat: it is safe as long as you do not look at it.

Loud and long have been the calls for the scientific evidence on the dangers of DU to be reviewed. Loud and long have been the calls to end all use of DU weapons. The most recent concerns were expressed at a meeting of the European parliament’s security and defence committee (SEDE).

The European Commission’s scientific committee on health and environmental risks (SCHER) had concluded that DU weapons did not present a significant threat to civilian health. However, that view came under attack at the SEDE committee meeting. Dr Keith Baverstock (formerly of the World Health Organisation) made several telling points. The representative of SCHER, Professor Wolfgang Dekant, made reference to a Kosovo study by Oeh et al that claimed to have used hundreds of subjects and which indicated that there was no risk to civilians.

In response, Reinhard Bütikofer MEP pointed out that in fact only 25 civilian subjects had been included in the study and no indication was given as to how these individuals were selected. Questions – such as did they live near areas in which DU weapons were used? – remained unanswered.

Dr Baverstock drew attention to SCHER’s use of a series of US studies on veterans with embedded DU fragments as further evidence of no risk. The study had just 80 participants and its shortcomings have been identified by a Congressional report. Dr Baverstock noted that such studies would normally have up to 1,000 times more participants. To add to these concerns, he also noted that exposure studies have not been done in areas such as Iraq, where the re-suspension of uranium particles would be more common.

(For a more detailed discussion of this meeting, refer to the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons.)

Meanwhile, further evidence of the damage done to the civilians of Iraq by the US/UK use of DU weapons has recently emerged. A paper entitled “Uranium and other contaminants in hair from the parents of children with congenital anomalies in Fallujah, Iraq” examined hair samples from 25 fathers and mothers of children diagnosed with congenital anomalies. The paper found that, with the exception of one area in Finland, the level of contamination was higher in Fallujah than other control sites. Furthermore, that the intake of uranium in Fallujah (nano-particle ceramic oxides) is different from all control sites.

The paper confirmed that the uranium intake by the individuals followed the military assault on Fallujah in 2004. It also confirmed that the uranium was man-made – but, interestingly, was enriched uranium, not depleted uranium. It is known that the UK/USA used DU weapons in the first Gulf War, but claim they did not do so in the second.

Have the UK and USA developed new uranium-based weapons, replacing DU with enriched uranium, allowing them to deny the use of DU while keeping the weapons? (Evidence of enriched uranium weapons also comes from sites in the Lebanon bombed by Israel.)

Whatever the story on the weapons, the paper concludes that the congenital anomalies in Fallujah – a city where doctors have advised women not to become pregnant due to the high risk of birth defects – is as a result of the weapons used during the coalition assault on Fallujah in 2004.

Those who have followed the campaign against DU weapons will not be surprised by any of these latest developments. If there is one thing that is absolutely clear, it is that the UK and US militaries place military effectiveness above all else. Damage to the environment, the health of their own soldiers and the health of civilians is neither here nor there.

Whether it is denying radioactive pollution in Fife, or the effects of uranium weapons in Iraq, it is all one. The lesson from Iraq and Fife is clear: do not imagine that because the weapons are used abroad that you can feel safe at home. Once you allow an organisation to show contempt for the lives of others, then it will grow to learn contempt for all life. That includes yours.

Dr Bill Wilson is a former MSP.

Donate to us: support independent, intelligent, in-depth Scottish journalism from just 3p a day

Muammar Gaddafi. <em>Picture: Antonio Milena</em>

Muammar Gaddafi. Picture: Antonio Milena

What is it with mad dictators and holes in the ground?

Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was discovered in an “underground shelter” by American special forces. Now Libya’s Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi has turned up in a similar subterranean scrape.

Saddam famously announced to his discoverers that he was the president of Iraq and “willing to negotiate”. Gaddafi’s words upon discovery – “Don’t shoot!” – seem to have been even less effective as he has ended up dead. (As Saddam found, being a “friend of the West” while ruling an oil-rich nation is not often different from being an “enemy of the West”.)

It’s all very confused, but reports suggest he may have died at the hands of the man who found him and was later photographed waving around Gaddafi’s gold-plated pistol. (A golden gun – Mo was certainly working that Bond villain rep hard.) Other reports suggest he was part of a convoy that was hit by NATO airstrikes.

A spokesman for the National Transitional Council (which despite its name has nothing to do with the digital broadcasting switchover) said the colonel had “been killed at the hands of the revolution”. That’s a lot of hands. Perhaps they used a “take a number” system.

It’s tempting to indulge in tabloid rejoicing that “mad dog” Gaddafi has gone the same way as Osama Bed Linen and Saddam Insein. But the sad fact is that the former Libyan ruler will not now be available to answer the many difficult questions surrounding his regime, especially those pertaining to the Lockerbie bombing, the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, his involvement in terrorism and, oh yes, that famous friendship with the West.

Donate to us: support independent, intelligent, in-depth Scottish journalism from just 3p a day

Nicola Sturgeon MSP <em>Picture: Mark Sutherland/Scottish Parliament</em>

Nicola Sturgeon MSP Picture: Mark Sutherland/Scottish Parliament

The following is an article by Scottish deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon, first published in yesterday’s Sunday Times.

Scotland has moved on decisively and irrevocably as a nation. Perhaps that is the fundamental truth that Labour’s prolonged post mortem into their comprehensive election defeat to the SNP in May fails to grasp.

Because, for all of Douglas Alexander’s deliberations in the last few days as to why his party were “well and truly gubbed” at the polls – his choice of phrase – the fact is that most people in Scotland are far more ambitious for their country than Labour or any of the Unionist parties acknowledge or allow for.

The SNP’s majority in Holyrood is unprecedented and unexpected, but it is also symptomatic of a profound change in mood among the people of Scotland as a whole.

The SNP government was re-elected convincingly on the back of our campaign message of record, team and vision, and perhaps the most important of those three components is vision, because without a positive vision for the future, no political party can hope to enthuse and persuade voters to support them.

This weekend the Scottish government published the latest Scottish social attitudes survey. And the results of this snapshot of national opinion are deeply revealing.

It shows that almost three-quarters of Scots, 74 per cent, thought that the Scottish government should have the most influence over how Scotland is run. That compares to just 16 per cent who thought that the UK government should have the most influence in their everyday lives.

Similarly, 61 per cent of people said they trusted the Scottish government to act in Scotland’s best interests – a figure that has remained consistent from the last annual survey.

But this is almost three times as many people who said the trust Westminster to act in Scotland’s best interests. Just 22 per cent said they believed the UK government could be trusted to properly look after the nation’s affairs – down 3 per cent on the previous survey.

What do these findings tell us? They signify a profound desire on the part of the people of Scotland to take charge of their own destiny – and only the SNP matches those aspirations.

Opinion poll after opinion poll shows a clear and decisive majority of people in favour of radical constitutional change and progress for Scotland of the kind that the social attitude survey findings point to.

While not all of those people share the SNP government’s vision of an independent Scotland – although very many do – all of them want a country that has far more control over its own affairs and responsibility for its own resources than the status quo allows.

The Scotland Bill which is currently going through Westminster goes nowhere near satisfying those aspirations. Indeed, it is merely a reaction to the SNP’s last election win, in 2007, rather than a reflection of where public opinion is now in 2011 in the wake of our landslide success of five months ago.

The Unionist parties risk behind left behind totally by the people and their ambitions for Scotland – the SNP government recognises those ambitions and will give the people the chance to choose independence in the referendum we have promised.

That independent future will still be able to rely on vast oil wealth from the North Sea, as this week’s multi-billion pound investment by BP testifies – with even David Cameron conceding that Scotland’s oil will be around for “many, many years” to come. That is in addition to the vast renewable energy reserves we enjoy and the most important resource of all – the ingenuity, creativity and industry of our people.

This can be the independence generation because – as the social attitudes survey shows – Scots are increasingly resistant to the idea of Westminster control, whether that is over the economy or decisions of war and peace.

Devolution meant we could no longer have something as unpopular as the poll tax foisted on Scotland. Independence will mean we no longer face having our troops sent to fight in an illegal war like Iraq.

The SNP goes into our annual conference this week in Inverness in great heart, but conscious of the great responsibility we have been handed. And the re-elected

SNP government has hit the ground running, as our record since May shows. Our jobs market continues to outperform the UK as whole, as we have pushed ahead with major infrastructure projects while in health we have continued to meet targets, with 99.9 per cent of patients now waiting 12 weeks or less for their first outpatient appointment, and in education we are upholding our election promise of no tuition fees for Scots-based students.

The SNP has set itself a goal of doubling membership by the start of the referendum campaign. That is an ambitious goal, but one we have already proved we can meet after already doubling our numbers since 2003.

Many of the new members coming our way in the weeks, months and years ahead will be those who have had enough of Westminster control of Scottish affairs and who have decided that they want to be part of the independence generation.

Donate to us: support independent, intelligent, in-depth Scottish journalism from just 3p a day

The Rt Hon Douglas Alexander MP <em>Picture: World Economic Forum</em>

The Rt Hon Douglas Alexander MP Picture: World Economic Forum

The following is the text of the Andrew John Williamson Memorial Lecture for 2011, given at Stirling University earlier this evening by the Rt Hon Douglas Alexander MP. The lecture is entitled “A Better Nation? – A Personal Reflection on Scotland’s Future”.

Good evening. It is a genuine privilege to be here to deliver the Andrew John Williamson Memorial Lecture and I am delighted that Andrew’s mother Joyce is here with us this evening. And can I also say what a pleasure it is to be here at Stirling University.

As I ruminated upon a title for this evening’s lecture my first thought – given that Dunsinane lies only a few miles up the road in Perthshire – was to ask “Stands Scotland where it did?”

Yet a moment’s reflection was sufficient to answer the question posed by Shakespeare.

And there could be few better settings in which to discuss the recent developments and future course of Scottish politics than Stirling – the seat where in 1997 Michael Forsyth played the role of General Custer in the Scottish Conservatives’ last stand, but which then passed from Labour control at the 2007 Holyrood elections – not back to the Tories, but rather into the hands of the SNP, narrowly then but earlier this year with a majority of nearly 6,000 and almost 50 per cent of the total votes cast. Nowhere illustrates more starkly the changes in Scottish politics that have taken place over recent years.

Last May we witnessed the election of a majority government for the first time in the twelve year history of Scottish devolution. And if we take them at their word, the historic victory of the Scottish National Party will ensure that the issue of a referendum on independence has now come to the fore.

And, accordingly, it is to the issue of Scotland’s political future and Scottish Labour’s place therein that I want to direct my remarks this evening.

Tonight I want to explore some of the issues that I believe will inform the necessary public discourse and debate that will precede the choice Scotland makes in such a referendum.

But let me say just a word in passing specifically on the referendum. As someone who knows how to run a campaign, one of my real concerns is that the referendum debate may become simply a fight between William Wallace and the bogey man.

Because in a time of choosing, our duty is greater, and our responsibility is heavier.

This debate demands a different quality of imagination.

“Obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans” must yield to a debate not just about our identity, but about our ideals. About what kind of nation we are, and what kind of nation we want to become.

Our fellow citizens deserve a debate worthy of a momentous choice that will help write the history of this generation.

And before the heat generated by that forthcoming battle obscures the light, I want to take the opportunity afforded by tonight’s lecture to offer some personal reflections on those forces, far from the headlines, that will shape our choice.

Let me say, first, what this lecture is not. It is not an exercise in accounting. It is not an attempt to weigh the costs and expense involved in establishing the apparatus of a separate Scottish state and disentangling ourselves from the partnership that is the United Kingdom.

There will be time enough, and no doubt plenty of opportunities, for such evidence to be set before the people of Scotland in the months and years ahead.

As someone who was centrally involved in devising Labour’s “Divorce is a Expensive Business” campaign for the first elections to Holyrood in 1999, I am not unaware of the importance of such evidence, nor do I resile from the fears I still have about the damage that Scotland’s exit from the United Kingdom would do, most of all, to Scotland.

But I said after the 1999 election that it was the last time I thought we could run such a campaign, and yet it is surely now clear that in the decade that followed, too little was done by my party to tell a different story of possibility about Scotland.

In 1999 we identified what would have been the wrong path for Scotland, but thereafter we didn’t do enough to describe the right path by which to achieve a better nation.

We all know Labour needed to show humility after our election defeats. But we also have an obligation to think – and to re-engage. My work observing and participating in democratic politics both at home and abroad over the last decade has taught me many things.

And one of them is that, in policy, statistics matter, but in politics, stories matter too.

Because stories help shape what is hidden in plain sight all around us – what we judge has meaning, and what we judge doesn’t. And it is through stories that we provoke the feelings of hope that are at the heart of participating in a progressive society – the care, concern, and compassion that has always underpinned the will to act.

Why do I make that claim? Because our emotions are the very foundation of reason – because they tell each of us what to value. Despite Plato’s description of reason and emotion as two horses pulling in the opposite direction, the truth is that how we feel about what we know is the deepest way in which we add meaning and significance to whatever information we have at our disposal – it is how what we know becomes real and rooted in who we are.

This should have come as no surprise to a graduate of the University of Edinburgh such as myself.

Because the writings of David Hume remind us that reason is often weak and sentiments are strong.

Perhaps I should just have listened more intently to my father’s sermons. For the Church, not just here in Scotland but around the globe, has understood for 2,000 years that we live our lives by parables.

It was the Church that recognised 450 years ago that education was the basis of each of us fulfilling our potential or writing our own story and so set out to put a school in every parish – an act of public service that shaped our nations identity and led to an Enlightenment period that was to spill out over Europe and beyond that challenged the very way we see the world.

So it is perhaps appropriate that I begin my exploration of these issues this evening by quoting the words of the Austrian philosopher, priest and social critic, Ivan Illich.

In an interview about one of his works, he stated: “Neither revolution not reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step forward. If you want to change society, then you have to tell an alternative story.”

Ponder those words: “You have to tell an alternative story.”

Of course the stories we tell about ourselves, our communities and our nation are thankfully not the exclusive domain of politicians: writers, musicians, poets and artists help shape our sense of self and also our sense of our nation’s story.

The case I want to make tonight is that we need and deserve a better story about Scotland and its possibilities: one which does more justice to our sense of potential than either of the narratives that have come to dominate our political discourse in recent times.

And I want to suggest this evening that we need a broader, more inclusive, more generous story if we are to be a better nation, and that to be a better nation does not demand that we become a separate nation.

At the moment, we risk years of debate defined by polarising positions not shared by most of us in Scotland. On one hand there is a story about Scotland’s future distorted by the continued need to assert our differentness to the point of denying what we hold in common in these islands.

On the other hand is a story that draws too much from our past which has allowed the misconception to develop that any acknowledgement of Britishness somehow seeks to diminish the pride we feel in the distinctiveness of Scotland.

Neither account, it seems to me, is adequate for who we are as Scots, what we believe, or what we have it in ourselves to become in the years ahead.

And I would argue there is a real urgency in developing that better story, so that in the years ahead we don’t squander our energies on proving our difference, rather than improving our nation.

Let me draw on my personal experience to explain what I mean.

In the Scotland in which I grew up, in the 70s, 80s and 90s, our national story was widely shared. The distinction between patriotism and nationalism was widely understood and accepted. Those of us who shouted proudly – if often forlornly – for Scotland in Hampden or Murrayfield felt no compulsion to embrace political nationalism.

The villain of the narrative was the insensitive, arrogant and selfish politics embodied by Margaret Thatcher, the legacy of which still condemns the Conservative party in the eyes of most Scots, more than 20 years since she stood down as prime minister.

The narrative was reflective of Scotland undergoing the forced removal and restructuring of the industries and communities, from Upper Clyde Shipbuilders to Ravenscraig, from Linwood to Methil and the coalfields that had shaped Scotland’s sense of itself for decades.

So as a student when I joined my compatriots in protest against Thatcherism outside New College when she came to deliver her infamous “Sermon on the Mound” in 1988, or in support of the Scottish parliament in George Square, and the Meadows in 1992, we were reflecting what John Smith described so well as “the settled will of the Scottish people”.

At that time if felt like a struggle for Scotland’s soul. As William Mcllvanney described it in his 1987 lecture at the SNP conference: “We have never, until now, had a government so determined to unpick the very fabric of Scottish life and make it over into something quite different. We have never had a government so glibly convinced of its own rightness that it demands that one of the oldest nations in Europe should give itself a shake and change utterly its sense of self.

“If we allow her [Mrs Thatcher] to continue she will remove from the word Scottish any meaning other than geographical.

“We are now so threatened by a government implacably hostile to the ideas that have nourished Scotland’s deepest sense of itself that we must have to protect ourselves. We will either defend our identity or lose it – there is no other choice.”

And the heroes of this story, for me, and many other Scots, were the generation of Labour politicians who gave voice not only to our concerns but also to our hopes: Dewar, Smith, Brown and Cook.

They held out the possibility of a better Scottish nation – by their commitment to constitutional change certainly, but even more by their shared commitment to social and economic change and solidarity with the poor, even when that was not an easy path.

As Democratic Socialists, they never saw a contradiction in working for a better Scotland and a better Britain.

And they were a generation true to their word. For despite the taunts that the Labour Party “couldn’t deliver a pizza, never mind a parliament” in fact, we did deliver Scotland’s parliament.

While the Nationalists stood aside from the Constitutional Convention – something they now seek to airbrush out of their history – I am forever proud that one of the first acts of the incoming Labour government was to set out what became the Scotland Act giving birth to Scotland’s first democratic parliament.

But Labour in government delivered not just a Scottish parliament but also the Human Rights Act; a reformed House of Lords; civil partnerships; new maternity and paternity rights; new rights to join a trade union. But not just that: a minimum wage, record levels of investment in our schools and hospitals, record levels of employment, a decade of economic growth; the Minimum Income Guarantee and the Working Families’ Tax Credit.

Now of course, I am proud of the many good things achieved by the Labour government in which I was honoured to serve. And I am also proud of much that the Scottish Labour Party achieved in government at Holyrood from 1999 to 2007 – not just establishing Smart, Successful Scotland, or the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency, but in my own community building the new schools that have literally transformed the learning environment for our local children.

But these achievements, important thought they are, were not sufficient to mask an underlying difficulty with the story Scottish Labour was telling about itself and about Scotland. We rewrote the statute book but we did not, alas, rewrite the story.

And that familiar, unchanged story we told came under sustained pressure in recent years for a variety of reasons.

First, the familiar villain of Thatcherism, in time, moved into history. I still remember 22 November 1990 – the day Margaret Thatcher resigned. It was the week before the by-election of my predecessor as MP for Paisley and I was campaigning around the town with Donald Dewar.

And when the momentous news of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation was announced by Donald through a megaphone to the children of St Fergus’ Primary School, who were out on their playtime, the whole playground started jumping for joy.

That’s the measure of the grip Thatcher held on our collective imagination by the early 90s. But there is an additional point: the post-war industrial Scotland Thatcher did so much to dismantle also began to move into history.

As Scottish Labour we were, at times, slow to identify ourselves with the underlying but profound changes in the Scottish economy. Labour’s politics, formed in the 70s and 80s, were those of struggle against decline.

Too late in the years before 2007 did we recognise that our policies in government, while not fully eradicating poverty, had created a more diverse and modern economy – reliant on banks, yes, but strong in bioscience, leading Europe in energy, from oil and gas to renewables, and with modern manufacturing and computer games software thriving.

The SNP saw that economic strength and sought to annex the sense of confidence it generated to their definition of Scotland and its destiny.

But these changes also meant that some of the old Labour “hymns” were increasingly unfamiliar to an audience increasingly without personal knowledge of the tunes.

The attachment to and insistence upon these old hymns reflected the fact that the Scottish Party, largely by reason of the unique national element in our politics, never really felt it needed to be “New” Labour.

Indeed it is arguable that the process of “modernisation” might not, in fact, have been required to defeat the Tories in Scotland, but this comfort in old orthodoxies contributed to the party’s disorientation and vulnerability when we came under attack from a different direction, and from a more nimble opponent.

More broadly, the resurgent Scottish pride and confidence, in part resulting from a decade of economic growth from 1997 to 2007, at times left Scottish Labour looking uneasy.

Why? In part the coincidence of traditional symbols of and repositories for working class identity – such as trade union membership and large scale industrial workplaces – were declining, while simultaneously there remained a strength of national pride, reaffirmed in everything from the music of the Proclaimers’ 500 Miles, sung on the terraces at Hampden, to Eddi Reader’s musical reinterpretation of Burns’ poetry and song.

The repository of emotion for many Scots moved from class-based institutions to national institutions. And while the love and respect for the BBC, the NHS, the armed forces and the royal family have stayed strong, other distinctively Scottish institutions grew in the Scottish people’s affections.

Finally, unpopular aspects of both old and New Labour combined to reduce our support. Old Labour was still associated with a sense that “Labour runs everything” from Westminster to the local council, and regrettably that stewardship was not always viewed as moving with the times.

New Labour, on the other hand, despite all its achievements, came to be associated with the conflict in Iraq in 2003, the revulsion at the MP’s expenses scandal, and the wearinesss of ideas born of successive periods of government in Westminster and Holyrood.

The combined impact of these perceived weaknesses caused many to turn away from our party.

So, by 2011, how has that story played out? It played out in Scottish Labour warning of the risks of Thatcherism decades after she had left office, and in a campaign that suggested knife crime, important though tackling it is, was the key concern of an electorate that, in truth, had many other concerns.

This was a story that sought to draw what little emotional power it could muster not from Scotland’s future, but from Scotland’s past.

And in a decisive rejection at the ballot box, in the language of the terraces, we were well and truly “gubbed”. The party which, on the day the Scottish parliament was first elected, could claim without contradiction to be the only true National Party of Scotland, within 12 years found itself supported by only one in eight Scottish voters.

And what of the winners of that election?

The harsh truth for Labour is that the Nationalist’s victory in May did not derive exclusively from their approach to national identity. It reflected differences in personnel, resources and campaigning approaches. It also reflected that those who voted for them had judged them fairly competent and broadly aligned with their values, in their stewardship of government over the previous four years.

Just as importantly, Labour, in opposition was seen as too often concerned only with opposition for its own sake. Too many Scots judged us to have complained in unspecified ways about the SNP’s failure to deliver, without articulating a clear enough alternative story and account of Scotland’s possibilities.

That weakness – for which we share a collective responsibility – allowed the SNP to deflect criticism of their record over the preceding four years in two ways: first to attribute the failures of the Scottish government to the existence and impact of the British government; and, second, to attribute their failures to their status as a minority government.

There is however, one positive I do take from last May’s result, which you might think a strange thing for a Labour politician to say.

I do not believe that, at root, Scotland was voting for independence. In that I believe I am joined by Alex Salmond who surely wouldn’t be putting off a referendum if he thought that was the case.

But what I believe Scots were saying is that they want Scotland to be a better nation. They feel pride in Scotland and want new possibilities for its people. And they didn’t feel last May that Labour was offering that better way forward.

But this analysis of our defeat sits alongside the fact that the SNP have always had a different national narrative based on the desirability and indeed inevitability of separation from the rest of Britain. And the SNP’s victory in May means that this narrative will now be central to the debate about Scottish politics for the immediate years to come.

Of course, over time, that narrative has changed, and evolved but always with the same destination – independence – and always the same villain: Britain.

So in the 1960s, with the advent of the modern SNP, the case for separation was made on the basis of our relative economic deprivation. Then in the 1970s the case for separation was made on the basis that “It’s Scotland’s oil”. Most recently, or at least prior to the banking crisis of 2008, the case has been advanced on the ability of Scotland to join “the Arc of Prosperity” of Ireland, Iceland and Norway.

In fact, this narrative always struggled to capture more than a minority of Scottish support.

That is not to dispute the scale of their victory last May: Labour lost big and consequently the Nationalists won big. It is to suggest that by 2007, the Nationalists were the beneficiaries of the weakening in support for Labour, and the diminishing of the emotive power of the key events and individuals that had previously sustained Labour’s story and indeed support.

Over recent years, Nationalists have sought to construct a new and less narrowly drawn narrative suggesting that they alone truly have the interests of Scotland at heart and that they alone are powered by a desire for a better nation.

That is why, with what I would describe as “Mandelsonian” discipline, they parrot the line about “London Labour”. It is spin designed to disqualify and delegitimise a broad swathe of Scottish opinion that does not share their agenda.

The strength of that less narrowly drawn narrative advanced in recent years has been its ability to tap into the strong sense of Scottish patriotism. Buoyed by years of economic growth, and the establishment of a Scottish parliament, the SNP have worked hard to try and capture the sense of possibility that in a previous generation was held by the Labour Party. The SNP saw the economic strength and sought to annex the sense of confidence to their definition of Scotland and its destiny.

In parallel, this new Nationalist narrative has sought to suggest a sense of inevitability about separation. Perhaps the most eloquent expression of this was in James Robertson’s book And the Land Lay Still, the winner of the 2010 Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year – and, incidentally, reportedly Alex Salmond’s favourite book of last year. Yet while an enjoyable read and impressive work, it offers a partial rather than a convincing account of Scotland’s political struggles over recent decades.

As Ian Smart, a former president of the Law Society of Scotland put it recently in a trenchant critique: “Mr Robertson’s book purports to be a history of Scotland since the 1950s albeit through the mechanism of fiction. It portrays a country ill at ease with itself; denied its proper place in the world through the devices of the English and unable to recognise its true destiny until these issues are resolved…

“For me the political history of Scotland, during the period of which he writes, was about so much more than Scotland. The central character of the book goes to Edinburgh University in 1972 yet the only mention of Vietnam is to compare its struggle to that of Scotland (truly!);

“Allende’s overthrow is worthy of a single (and background) pub exchange; the struggle against apartheid which, while I was contemporaneously at university, albeit in Glasgow, united students of any sort of progressive opinion doesn’t rate a single mention.

“To read this book, insofar as it purports to be a fictional political history of Scotland, you’d have thought that all that was going on consisted of people sitting about bemoaning the constitution. It most certainly was not.”

Yet the other part of the Nationalists’ narrative is its exclusivity: according to this narrative at its most unattractive, only nationalists are true Scots, or its softer version – all true Scottish patriots are inevitably Scottish nationalists.

For decades, mainstream Scottish opinion has accepted and reflected the truth that you can be a patriot without being a nationalist. It is the nationalists who have struggled with this sense that Scotland’s story does not exclude but includes the shared and interwoven stories of these islands.

Why else would Alex Salmond have once said that he wanted Scotland to be good neighbours to England rather than surly lodgers?

What he fails to understand is that the United Kingdom is the house that Scotland built with our neighbours – and you can’t be a lodger in your own house.

The Scottish people have always had the power to determine our own destiny. And there has always been more than one way to use that power.

In fact, the notion of Scottish patriotism has changed significantly over time. At the 19th century height of Empire, an Empire in which – as Tom Devine reminds us – the Scots were not impotent anti-imperialists but instead, for good or ill, active participants, you could have thought that only unionists were true patriots.

This was an analysis challenged, not by the emergence of Scottish national sentiment but rather by the rise of the Labour movement and the radical claim for equality; equality first for working people but then, in time, for women and for people of all races. This was the beginning of the challenge to the old unionism based only on the deferential attitude to ancient institutions: monarchy, army, parliament. An old unionism that proved inadequate to meet the challenges of modernity.

For myself, I remain of the view that the United Kingdom, this oldest of political unions, embodies a quintessentially modern idea – and one I like and believe in: that diversity can be a strength and not a weakness.

I like the idea that on these small rainy islands of the North Atlantic we share risks and rewards in a multicultural, multiethnic and multinational union. A shared space of ideas, identities and industries.

And I also continue to believe that across Britain we gain from common services and would be diminished without them; that we achieve more working together than working apart; that unity, out of diversity, gives us strength; that solidarity, the shared endeavour of working and cooperating together, not separation is the idea of the future and the idealism worth celebrating .

So, in truth, I am uncomfortable with and unattracted to a politics that draws a substantial part of its emotional power from a constant assertion of “difference”. And I bridle at the suggestion of separateness as the essential attribute of our national story.

It takes only a few moments to read the hate filled outpourings of the so called “Cyber-Nats” on the threads of the Scotsman and other websites to appreciate this point: With their claims of treason, attacks on “London Labour” and general intolerance to everybody and anybody who does not share their outlook. To my mind, these nationalists challenge the very suggestion of a more pluralist, open, discursive politics if ever their party were to prevail in its primary purpose.

Instead, they remind me of Alasdair Gray’s evocative description in his greatest novel, Lanark, of “our own wee hard men [who] hammer Scotland down to the same dull level as themselves.”

But I do recognise that the power and the weakness of this Nationalist narrative comes from its duality: on one hand caressing an unhealthy sense of victimhood through its constant assertion that Britain is what is holding Scotland back, and on the other hand asserting pride and possibility for Scotland.

Why do I find such a narrative unsatisfying even while I have to acknowledge its appeal to some sections of the electorate?

I don’t believe that rightly asserting our own distinct identity – indeed identities – is an alternative to finding points of shared values and interdependence.

But it is also that this determination to assert difference doesn’t accord with some of my own deepest convictions – and not simply that many years ago in Edinburgh I happened to meet and fall in love with an English woman who is now my wife. I would never want my children to choose whether they were citizens of Scotland or England.

It’s not the choice of futures I’d wish to put before them. It is not the choice that so many Scots or so many English people, would want their children; their nephews and nieces, even their sisters or brothers in law to have to make.

And it’s not that I hark back to some lost British patriotism of the 1950s. I am too young to remember those days and in temperament, and in personal politics, I am more interested in the future than harking back to a past whose values and prejudices few of us would share today.

There are other and deeper reasons than my admiration of Britain and what it represents that has always made me distrustful of nationalism.

As a democratic socialist, ideals have shaped my sense of politics more than identity. I am, and always have been, much more interested in abolishing poverty than abolishing Britain. A fundamental belief in human equality is the core of my politics, more than a fundamental belief in national difference.

My work around the world as international development secretary and now shadow foreign secretary has taught me something else – that one of the most fundamental struggles of modernity is between, on the one hand, those who believe our differences are more important than what unites us and, on the other, those of us who’s preference and moral lodestar is our common humanity.

That is the fundamental tenet of my politics, and helps explain why I am distrustful of a politics that draws its energy from gleeful assertions of difference rather than expressions of cooperation.

My theme this evening is that our story matters – as individuals, as families, as communities and as nations. So let me share with you part of my own family’s story.

My parents married in Glasgow in 1959. Four days later they flew from Prestwick to New York, where my father had gained a scholarship for postgraduate study at Union Theological Seminary.

The following Easter, in 1960, they joined a group of fellow students in travelling from New York to Raleigh, North Carolina, to attend a conference.

There they queued to hear a young Baptist preacher – and were spat at by white passers-by for their trouble.

The conference was the inaugural conference of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The young Baptist preacher was Martin Luther King.

After this encounter, the theology of Martin Luther King had a huge impact on my parents and, in time, on the values they sought to pass on to their children – and that I seek to pass on to mine.

Now the reason I share this story is that what King described as our “inter-connectedness” still shapes how I see the world.

Let his own, far more eloquent, words speak for themselves: ‎”As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live thirty years I can never be totally healthy even if I just got a good check-up at the Mayo Clinic. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand our boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.”

In that concern with our common humanity I don’t simply draw inspiration from religious teaching but also from modern science. In recent years some of the most talented scientists on earth have achieved the mapping of the human genome.

Of course this has opened new possibilities for both science and medicine. But it has also revealed something I think is vital to our understanding of politics. The sequencing of the human genome has confirmed that all human beings are genetically more than 99.9 per cent the same.

As Bill Clinton put it, “while our differences matter, our common humanity matters more.”

Yet here in Scotland, our political discourse is increasingly defined by difference: Each and every day the SNP government and its spokespeople seek to challenge and undermine the cultural and political claim of those of us who do not share their determination to divide Britain, asserting that our differences matter more than that which we hold in common. Paradoxically, this process is promoted as entirely positive about Scotland’s future – but any disagreement is roundly condemned as “negative”.

The SNP have now pledged a referendum within this parliament to let Scotland decide. I do not fear the people’s verdict, but in the meantime my party has a great deal of work to do in the coming months and years. That work must begin by recognising that in the years ahead, Scottish Labour’s political purpose has to be built around the future possibilities for Scotland, not the past wrongs done to Scotland.

So what would that politics of possibility, that story of a better nation sound like?

It would start, to my mind, with a determination to uphold our common humanity, the common weal – and give expression to the feelings of care, concern and commitment which we seek in others and seek to uphold in ourselves – rather than assert and reinforce our difference.

For a democratic socialist like me it would begin from a belief in equality – and it would uphold the timeless truth that we achieve more together than we can achieve alone.

It would be a story that starts with the condition of Scotland: a nation of great strengths but also very real problems.

It would be a story that set at its heart the idea of building One Scotland. A nation in which greater equality was not just our aim, and our metric, but was, in fact, our achievement.

And surely today one of the clearest tests of our commitment to Scotland’s future is what we do for our children.

In 2011, the terrible truth remains: one in five of Scotland’s children live in poverty.

According to Children First, a quarter of Scotland’s children are missing out on basics such as proper winter clothing, after school activities and good, nutritious food – the basics we take for granted for our own children.

Worklessness is a problem but so are low wages – with around 25,000 children in Scotland being in severe poverty despite at least one adult in the home going out to work.

Of course this is not a problem confined to Scotland – a report by UNICEF in 2007 examined the effects of many decades of growing child poverty across the UK, and painted a stark picture of the deprivation, poor relationships with parents, and vulnerability to the risks from alcohol, drugs and unsafe sex suffered by too many children growing up today.

Labour in office did make a difference – using tax credits to lift millions of children out of poverty, and legislating for new rights like longer maternity leave and flexible working.

Some of that work is being undone by a Tory-led Coalition government in London, but it has also been left to wither on the vine by the SNP government in Edinburgh.

Perhaps the deepest and most abiding inequality that scars Scotland is the most basic – the stark differences in life expectancy. A boy born in parts of Paisley today will, on average, live five fewer years than a boy born here in Stirling. Closing that gap is one of the hardest, but most essential tasks we face.

Half of this difference in mortality is simply from the effects of smoking. Labour’s smoking ban was the start, but we could learn from other countries. Learning how to use what we know from neuroscience about how habits and addictions are made and broken.

But it’s not just smoking. Drink plays a major part too. I sense that Labour’s past rejection of the SNP’s proposals, however well justified in terms of the weakness of the specific policy, was judged by some voters as reflecting an unwillingness to tackle heavy drinking and rise to the challenge of making a better Scotland.

In itself, minimum alcohol pricing is no simple solution to a complex and deeply culturally rooted problem. Anyone observing the agile responses of supermarkets and wine emporia knows that. But while we can challenge the policy, or better improve the policy, as an MP for a constituency where each week I see some of the consequences of the abuse of alcohol, I understand the urging of the public health clinicians that government act to tackle these problems.

Because despite the fact that many Scots today live long, full and prosperous lives, not least in some part because of the achievements of previous Labour governments, too many still do not.

In a nation still afflicted by substandard housing, stubborn worklessness, and a relative decline in education standards, building “One Scotland” is no easy task. And it is made harder by the economic circumstances now confronting us.

The present stalling of economic growth in Britain, the Eurozone crisis, the debt ceiling debacle in the Unites States, each reflect a deeper and generational shift in productive and economic power from West to East that has only been accelerated by the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

So the challenge facing social democratic politicians in the years ahead, not just here in Scotland, or across the UK, but in countless countries, is how to advance social justice when there is not much money around.

That endeavour demands a new statecraft for this new decade – reimagining policies in relation to economic growth, the welfare state and our public services.

To acknowledge this is not to try to write a manifesto. It is to acknowledge the urgency of a new approach. It is an analysis that identifies a more empowered people and a more equal society as defining missions of a better nation notwithstanding – indeed in part because of – the tough times ahead.

This is what I suggest deserves to be at the centre of Scottish Labour’s renewed story. A radical claim on the future. One that says the test is not how much more power a parliament has, or how much more autonomy can be achieved. Instead, what counts – in employment, in housing, in health and in education – is are our combined actions tackling the barriers and inequality that still hold back too many of our people. The barriers and inequality that still stand in the way of being the kind of Scotland we could be. Are we, by our will and by our work, creating One Scotland?

For all of our present weakness I believe the political party best able to tell this story is Scottish Labour.

I make this claim for the following reason. Our core as a party has been and remains defined by our commitment to two central beliefs: a belief in social justice, and a commitment to home rule within the United Kingdom.

So the task of rebuilding Scottish Labour is not an invitation to reject our longest-held beliefs, but to reaffirm them.

Of course that reaffirmation of political purpose, however important, is not enough. Scottish Labour also needs to embrace radical proposals to throw open its doors, and draw our future candidates from Labour “people” and not just Labour members, by which I mean people from all walks of life who share our values and who are willing us to be better, so that they can once again be proud to support us.

But, as I have sought to suggest this evening, we will only attract these people if we are clearer about the contribution we can make to the next chapter of Scotland’s story.

It is a challenge to which, I believe, we can rise. Just as years ago, New Labour had to dispel the myth that if you were ambitious, had done well, and had got on in life, you inevitably supported the Conservative Party, so now and in the years ahead Scottish Labour must dispel the myth that if you feel proudly and patriotically Scottish, and are ambitious for Scotland and its potential, you inevitably support the SNP.

Scottish Labour’s political purpose has to be about the future possibilities for Scotland, not the past wrongs, real and imagined, done to Scotland.

With this approach, I believe the history of Scotland, written by this generation, can and will be remembered not by the “The End of an Auld Sang” but positively and vibrantly by “The beginning of a New Story”.

Donate to us: support independent, intelligent, in-depth Scottish journalism from just 3p a day

Rupert Murdoch. <em>Picture: David Shankbone</em>

Rupert Murdoch. Picture: David Shankbone

Phew, thank goodness that’s all settled.

We can now draw a line under all the phone-hacking unpleasantess.

The News of the World has been shut down. And Andy Coulson has been arrested. We should just be thankful that they caught the one bad apple who caused all the trouble.

Never mind that 200 odd journalists have lost their jobs despite not being involved in the phone hacking more than six years ago.

Never mind that the then editor of the News of the World is still chief executive of News International.

Never mind that plans were already being laid for a seven-day Sun before this scandal broke: clearly the problem is the name on the masthead of the Sunday newspaper, not the company that runs it.

Never mind that phone hacking is rife in journalism.

Just you hush now, look at these pictures of Cheryl Cole’s burqini and be quiet while David Cameron’s government lets Rupert Murdoch get his claws further into BSkyB.

It all be sorted out by David Cameron’s judge-led inquiry.

Never mind how badly served we were by official inquiries into the Iraq war.

Never mind that David Cameron employed Andy Coulson.

Never mind that David Cameron is matey with the chief exec of News International.

Never mind that David Cameron pays frequent homage to Ruper Murdoch – as do nearly all our political leaders.

If you want a definitive account of how much this all stinks – and how cosy it is – I heartily recommend Peter Oborne’s excellent and courageous coverage in the Spectator.

Some thoughts to ponder:

  • This is a News International problem, not a News of the World one.
  • All the other newspaper groups should be subjected to severe scrutiny.
  • There should be serious jail time for those who have broken the law.
  • We should revisit whether Rupert Murdoch is a “fit and proper person” to control so much of Britain’s media.
  • Similar questions should be asked about the owners of any other media companies found to have practised phone hacking.
  • Hiding behind “deniability” does not make you innocent.
  • We don’t need further regulation: our civil rights are eroded enough as it is. What we do need is for the PCC to do its job and for the law to be properly applied.

    Tony Blair <em>Picture: Remy Steinegger</em>

    Tony Blair Picture: Remy Steinegger

    Tony Blair – how can we get rid of the man? – is on the warpath again. Plugging his book (which has been around but which I won’t name) in a BBC interview, he outlined “our” plans for the Middle East, explaining how “we” must ensure that the Arab Spring blossoms into Western-style democracy and religious freedom across the region.

    Singling out Egypt as a potential blueprint, the born-again former PM acknowledged that this will be no easy task, given that most Arab countries have little experience of democracy or religious tolerance and are plagued by tribalism. So far so good, and fair enough.

    But how do “we” shape the Middle East into the kind of region “we” want it to be? “We” didn’t manage very well when “we” invaded Iraq, where violence persists more than eight years on, though that reality has long faded from newspaper headlines.

    That wouldn’t stop Blair, though, would it? He seems to be enjoying the daily bombardment of Libya, confident that regime change will be effected there in due course. What happens after that? He didn’t say. He obviously doesn’t know, though he is the EU Middle East envoy – a very big job indeed, as the BBC points out, without wondering why he has the job in the first place.

    I suppose Blair wants us to read his book, but life is too short for that, surely. I wonder what it has to say about David Kelly? Blair had nothing to say today.

    Closer to home, yet even closer to Heaven than Blair, the Archbishop of Canterbury drew embarrassed, defensive comments from the Tories and Lib Dems after he excoriated them in the New Statesman for ploughing ahead with an agenda no one voted for. He is right, of course, but with the coalition government all over the place on health and justice and the bankers and just about everything else, Sky News thought it pertinent to remind viewers that the New Statesman virtually speaks for the Labour party (what, as the Spectator speaks for the Tories? Tell us something we don’t know).

    Boris Johnson, spluttering away as usual on Sky, suggested the Arch Bish (I kid you not) potter along to a community garden somewhere in London to take a look for himself how the Big Society is actually working. I couldn’t help imagining Boris as a vicar himself, dog collar and all, wandering around a church fête. sampling the cakes and sipping tea – surely a job more suited to him than his current one.

    Imagine him at the pulpit: he’d certainly get the congregation up, he’d have them in stitches, but as a politician he’s a twit. They seem to know how to produce them at Eton.

    Donate to us: support independent, intelligent, in-depth Scottish journalism from just 3p a day

    <em>Picture: Fiona Shields</em>

    Picture: Fiona Shields

    Regardless of when the independence referendum is held, the Yes campaign is underway right now. It’s underway on the telly, online and in print. And crucially it’s underway whenever you speak to your friends and neighbours. Here are a few quick thoughts on how to win the argument.

    Make the message clear
    The great problem that independence has had historically is a vagueness about what it actually means. What will it look like? Will an independent Scotland be like Denmark? Or Ireland? Or Greenland? Or North Korea?

    Well, an independent Scotland will look exactly like Scotland does now – but with a far greater ability to come up with local solutions to Scotland’s specific problems.

    Here is the core message about independence that the Unionists fear: it’s not that big a deal. It is a tweaking of Holyrood, an evolution from devolution, an efficient relocation of key decisions from an unfocused, one-size-fits-all institution 350 miles south of the Border.

    There is no divorce, secession or separation involved in the move to full nationhood. In fact, as was discussed by Hamish Macdonell in these pages, Scotland and England may share supra-national functions – the kind of cooperation common in Europe. This is being characterised as independence-lite, but that’s a misnomer as Scotland will behave in these relationships as a sovereign nation.

    That last point means we can opt out of expensive follies like Trident and choose not to send Scottish soldiers off on reckless foreign adventures such as Iraq.

    But we need to be specific about how these relationships will affect people’s lives: the days of “blah, blah, blah, something about oil” are long passed. The Yes campaign needs to lay out in concrete detail what independence will mean for the Scot in the street from day one.

    Vagueness will kill us.

    Not talking ‘bout a revolution
    Let us not be distracted by the various red, white and blue herrings that will be cast in the path of independence. The head of state will remain Queen Elizabeth II. The EU will not kick out millions of citizens. You will still be able to watch Corrie. Scotland will not join the Warsaw Pact. There will be no razorwire lining the Tweed and Sark.

    The only issue up for grabs at the moment is this: “Are we capable of running our own affairs, at our own expense?” Everything else is a distraction.

    No third option
    The Grand Unionist Alliance, which was so successful that all three of its leaders have now quit, had a chance to include a Calman-plus option in the independence referendum. They didn’t want it then. They shouldn’t get it now.

    If there are more than two questions, we’ll get embroiled in some complex PR farrago because independence will have to be backed by more than 50 per cent of voters. Everyone knows what’s at stake. The choice will boil down to Yes or No. Keep it simple.

    The question should be: “Do you think the powers of the Scottish parliament should be increased to cover all policy areas?”. Answer Yes or No.

    Keep it joyful
    You can’t get more positive than saying Yes.

    Barack Obama and Bob the Builder cornered the market on “Yes, we can”. The rallying call for Scottish independence should be subtly different, more personal.

    Yes, I can.

    Yes, I can manage my own affairs.

    Yes, I can pay my way.

    Yes, I can solve my own problems.

    That also means that those who oppose independence have to say “No, I can’t” – a difficult position to defend.

    You don’t have to be a Nationalist to say Yes
    Sorry, Braveheart fans, but banging on about “fereedem” will get us beat. This is not about patriotism. It’s about a sensible, efficient and rational reordering of the administration of the United Kingdom. You see? I put the case there without mentioning nationalism, independence or even Scotland.

    Target the message
    Preaching to the choir is pointless. Those in favour of independence will be very motivated to get out and vote come the day. Trying to convert those who are implacably opposed to independence is also pointless.

    As with all advertising strategies, a win will come only from swaying the undecided. All messages and campaigning resources need to be targeted at them. They need to be reassured that what is being proposed is rational and straightforward.

    The people who ran the SNP election campaign were “brain the size of a planet” clever. Let’s make sure they’re involved in the Yes campaign too.

    Thanks to their incredibly integrated marketing, the SNP will have access to a vast amount of data about voting patterns. It’s harder to predict from demographics where someone stands on a single issue than on party choice, but that intelligence gives a great platform on which to build a sophisticated Yes campaign.

    And the messages those voters will respond to have to be calm and sensible.

    Independence is not about party politics
    To win, the Yes campaign needs the backing of Labour, Lib Dem and Tory voters as well as Nats, Greens and whatever the far Left are calling themselves this week.

    The Lib Dems’ desire for federalism sits well with a modern view of independence. Scottish Labour voters will be uneasy with the privatised hellhole being created by Westminster. And there are strong Conservative reasons for supporting independence: if you like small government then surely you welcome (a) the removal of two weighty tiers of it in the Houses of Commons and Lords and (b) the fiscal responsibility inherent in independence.

    The Yes campaign will be backed heavily by the SNP, but to succeed it must reach to people of all political persuasions.

    Deploy Margo
    She’s a national treasure, use her. As the cliché runs: Alex Salmond is the biggest beast in the Scottish political jungle. But Margo MacDonald is the most loved.

    Silence of the bams
    The No campaign will take every opportunity to brand Indepentistas as boggle-eyed, paranoid racists obsessed with mediaeval power struggles.

    And, online, some nationalists will play right into their hands. If I were a No campaign strategist, I’d crawl over every utterance of every cybernat on every bulletin board to build a picture of slavering demonic eBrownshirts waiting to usher the unpatriotic into re-education camps.

    Not every pro-independence person online is a cybernat. Not every cybernat is a nutter. But every time a nutter goes off on one then we lose one, five, ten votes. So if you see someone ranting about Bannockburn, the fiery cross or John McTernan, have a word. (I like John. He’s the Neil Lennon of the Scottish political commentariat: gobby, sharp as a tack and a genius at winding up his opponents.)

    On a similar note, the No campaign needs to say a quiet “No thank you” to any donations from Brian Souter. Mr Souter’s funding of a “referendum” to keep the homophobic clause 2A (aka section 28) means he is anathema to many progressives. Some 5 per cent of the Scottish population are LGBT. The Yes campaign cannot afford to alienate that many voters for the sake of a few bucks. There are many other people worldwide who will be happy to donate money to the cause of independence, just as there are many south of the Border who will fund the No campaign.

    So, ca’ canny, stay calm and responsible. Treat opponents and their arguments with respect or you personally might be the Yes campaign’s “Sheffield moment”:

    Want to discuss other issues? Join the debate on our new Scottish Voices forum

    Raúl Alfonsín Foulkes in 1983 <em>Picture: Revista Semanario</em>

    Raúl Alfonsín Foulkes in 1983 Picture: Revista Semanario

    Those who know me know that I am not from these parts. Like many, however, I have been in a kind of swoon since the SNP’s electoral triumph, the like of which I had not experienced since … well, an election far away and long ago.*

    It was October 1983, and Argentines were throwing off the shackles of military power in the wake of the Falklands War. The military regime’s impending exit was not, as Margaret Thatcher and her Tories (wet and dry) claimed, directly a result of defeat by the British Task Force the previous year.

    In fact, Argentines had been rioting in the streets, Arab Spring-style (sans Facebook and Twitter, but with stones), for days before the occupation of Port Stanley on 2 April 1982. I know this because I was tear-gassed in the streets and was there when heads were battered.

    The military regime, though in even more obvious rigor mortis after their humiliating defeat, stayed true to the Argentine armed forces’ traditional commitment to preserving the nation state, and suddenly, there I was, months after the war, summoned to help man an electoral desk at the Schule Alemán (German school) in the Buenos Aires suburb of Lomas de Zamora.

    Want to discuss other issues? Join the debate on our new Scottish Voices forum

    This was not a paid position. As I recall, the instructions received through the post explained that the appointment was a great honour, but if I didn’t appreciate the honour and failed to turn up on election day, I could spend up to two years in jail. So this was both a civic right and a duty: it was democracy, force-fed, and it was great.

    I remember every instance of that day: the paraplegics who came to vote for the first time; the very elderly who still remembered what democracy was about; the young people and middle-aged, also voting for the first time; the parents explaining to their children what they were doing before entering the cuarto oscuro (dark room), as it was known.

    After 10pm we had to count the votes there and then, but someone had left the window open, the piles of ballots were scattered across the classroom in a gust of wind, and we had to start counting all over again. Did we care? No, this was democracy, and we hadn’t had much of it in our lives.

    When it was over, I found a cousin waiting for me outside, three sheets to the wind, shouting “He’s done it! He’s done it! We’ve won!”

    Who had done it? Against all the odds (for even the US embassy had been sure a Peronist victory was on the cards – hence the Americans’ endless receptions for and sucking up to Peronist figures before the polls), it was Raúl Alfonsín Foulkes of the Radical Party, who was to become Argentina’s first president of Scots descent, deeply despised by the US as a “socialist”.

    Alfonsín was a prominent human rights lawyer at a time of vicious human rights violations by the military and atrocities by left- and right-wing urban guerrillas with whom they were locked in a terrible “dirty war”. My grandmother seemed unaware of the significance of Alfonsín’s victory. She remembered Raúl only as a “little boy running around the yard” in her, and his, hometown, Chascomús, on the Pampas.

    Yet her grandfather had donated the land on the Pampas on which the first “Rancho Kirk” – a thatched-roof, white-washed adobe building – had been built in Argentina. A Scots church stands to this day on that site – and Alfonsín was a product of that Scots community, his mother a member of that kirk.

    Alfonsín’s legacy is one any Scot would be proud of. He opposed Argentina’s occupation of the Falkland Islands; on taking office he pledged “100 years of democracy” for Argentina; he vowed that the demands of the International Monetary Fund would not be considered over the right of the people not to starve; he faced down the last military revolt by the Carapintadas (Painted Faces); he jailed former junta leaders for human rights violations; and he tried to introduce social welfare reforms, only to be voted down by a belligerent Peronist Congress, intent on preserving trade union control over health and benefit schemes introduced by Perón and Evita in the 1950s.

    What I remember most vividly, however, is the wind of freedom that suddenly blew through the streets of Buenos Aires: the blossoming of buskers and street artists, and the right of people to say whatever they wanted to say.

    And now, in Scotland, I find the same rush of the democratic pulse of a nation at ease with itself: it has found a way, for now at least, out of the wasteland that Britain became after Thatcher’s cold shoulder, John Major’s anachronistic appeal for a decidedly English “return to basics”, with gin and tonics and cricket on the common – and Tony Blair’s savage, pointless war in Iraq, the stigma of which will plague Labour forever.

    In Argentina’s time of peril, a Scot came to its rescue. Before his death in 2009, Alfonsín was honoured by the unveiling of a bust in his image at Government House in Buenos Aires, by President Cristina Kirchner, a Peronist. Who would have thought?

    Today, to my mind, Alex Salmond strikes the same chord among Scots as Alfonsín did among Argentines all those years ago. Alfonsín knew what Argentines were about, even if they didn’t – but, most of all, he knew which way they should be heading. He was eventually undone by hyperinflation, the scourge of his time, and by a disloyal opposition – but he was an honest man who by then had made his mark and had laid the foundations for a lasting democracy, a fact for which all Argentines are becoming increasingly aware and grateful.

    Alex Salmond and the SNP face a not dissimilar challenge here. Of course, there is no military regime, no repression, no desaparecidos, but Scotland seemed to have lost its way – until now. Even leaving aside the question of independence, the task of building a new nation, or rebuilding one on ancient foundations, should not be beyond the reach of the SNP. Not with its majority, not if it senses, as I do, something in the air – as Raúl Alfonsín Foulkes did all those years ago in Argentina.

    * Far Away and Long Ago, by William Henry Hudson, is a masterpiece of life on the Pampas in the 1840s. “One cannot tell how this fellow gets his effects; he writes as the grass grows…” – Joseph Conrad.

    Want to discuss other issues? Join the debate on our new Scottish Voices forum