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Tom Devine

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”.

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European Writers' Parliament logo

European Writers' Parliament logo

As we queued for the morning’s baklavas at the European Writers’ Conference in Istanbul, I nodded at my distinguished colleague’s remarks. “Much of what is going on here is very international-literary-conference, PEN-protest standard. Statements are being made that could have been composed even before they turned up”. Then he scuttled off for a bitter coffee.

But I wasn’t going to join in his lofty disdain. I was happy to be the ingenue here, in this intriguing crowd, trying to be on “receive” much more than “transmit”. What I was beginning to sense was the sheer cultural heterogeneity of this place we call “Europe”. But also the common predicaments – from political to economic to stylistic – that beset the European writer.

In our commission on “Literature in the Digital Age”, what emerged was a picture of European writers as affected by the “digital divide” as any group in society – and perhaps more so, because of the explicit traditionalism on one side of the gulf. It was jaw-dropping to hear a minority of writers doggedly defend their right to love vellum paper, fountain pens, brutal old typewriters.

They praised how these ancient means of literary production compelled them to make important decisions about their prose: being unable to digitally cut-and-paste made their writing more urgent, raised the stakes. They demanded their right to solitude and concentration, to preserve the moment of witness, to be diligent crafters of language.

This was a transnational appeal, from Icelandics, Belgian-Lebanese, Germans, Muslim Turks. (The Macedonian poet mentioned tremulously in the last post actually delivered a lovely, subtle meditation on poetry as a “network of meaning”). But I couldn’t get too exasperated with those who wanted to shut out the buzz and twitter of the interactive world in order to wrestle soulfully with their prose.

Though his science is debatable, the US tech critic Nick Carr has sounded a useful warning about how deep reading might be under neurological threat from the permanent flicker and twitter of social media. And in terms of deep writing, I was reminded of James Kelman’s words that, compared to many other more collaborative and mediated art forms, “in prose fiction the freedom to ‘work honestly’ exists, although you may have to fight for it”.

It’s a good question: How can digital networks support the writer’s “freedom to work honestly”?

Perhaps one way would be to help the writer to work with no name at all. A charismatic young Turkish activist (who I won’t name) talked about French radical newspapers during WWII, like JP Sartre and Albert Camus’s Combat, publishing material anonymously in order to evade the reach of Nazi authorities. In his view, modern Turkish society needed a lot more of this “resistance writing”. He noted the Turkish state’s tendency (as exemplified by Penal Code 301) to “surround the Prime Minister and his party with a legal wall in order to protect him… You cannot write ‘Prime Minister’ and ‘traitor’ in the same sentence – it’s illegal.”

In order to evade the regulators and establishment, he continued, Turkish writers should give up the idea of “copyright” altogether on the web – “a text with no names speaking for all names, for all of those whose speech is being censored or suppressed”. Yet, as the very sharp William Wall from Ireland reminded us, we should suspect our cyber-idealism: the internet could all too easily become the ultimate means of social control, as much as it could be a platform for resistance writing. Not much engineering is required for every click, scroll, copy and paste – particularly in the age of cloud computing – to be centrally observed by the wrong forces.

The rest of us in the room (including myself) could be classed as digital-literary “reformists”, rather than either “luddites” or “resisters”. How do writers defend the democratic power of the open web, while also finding a way to get a revenue by exerting some kind of property ownership over their works? For musicians, this is decade-long argument – begun with Napster and Bit-Torrent and currently continuing with iTunes, Spotify and YouTube – which we’re only beginning to draw to some kind of conclusion.

The message I tried to convey from my own sector was that it might be possible, with some combination of collective licensing, good software and usable hardware, to rebuild some kind of money-stream through new distribution channels like the Kindle, iPad or future tablets. But the lesson of the music business is that the price of a digital book has to be sensibly cheap, given the experience of a web generation used to downloading and streaming to their heart’s content.

The e-book shouldn’t try to rip-off the consumer in the same way as the CD did to the cassette-and-vinyl buyer of the past. We know that the immaterial nature of the object means that prices should fall – and so they will.
But the even more urgent lesson is that authors need to become as conscious of their power as digital “rights-holders” as musicians now are – and support digital platforms (similar to Tunecore and Bandcamp for musicians) which will enable them to trade their works directly with readers, rather than have a whole army of intermediaries and middle-men take their cut. Perhaps, I also tentatively suggested, authors should also find a more dynamic way to relate to their readers, using web-community tools to amplify the connections they make at readings, in-stores and festivals.

In a brilliant presentation (here’s an earlier version), the Swedish writer Ola Larsmo proposed the “x plus 1″ theory: “new media does exactly what the old did – plus one thing more … And if we apply the formula of x+1 to the book, we see that whatever wants to replace it must be able to do everything a book can, including standing around for a long while and remaining readable. Whatever wants to replace the book must, by necessity, look very much like – a book.”

And with that, a few of us skulked off to plan a “United Writers” (in the spirit of United Artists), to help connect the author’s voice to those “engineers and coders” – featured in Hari Kunzru’s opening speech – who will shape the “space of literature”. Watch this space, indeed.

Our final “Declaration of Istanbul” had a slightly rocky passage to completion – it was perhaps too faithful to the bloviating and theorising that you’d get from rooms full of national intellectuals. But once the objections had been raised and noted, the committee produced a reasonable statement that asserted a few crucial points.

Primarily, it opposed “the use of penal codes and laws to harass and intimidate writers, such as has happened in Turkey and elsewhere” (not as explicitly stated in the first draft). The importance of funding translation schemes came with a brand-new (and supremely ugly) chunk of jargon: “biblio-diversity”. The declaration was endorsed almost unanimously – with only one Muslim writer complaining testily that he didn’t regret in the slightest “making it difficult for Naipaul to come”.

Two themes were on my mind as the parliament wound down. One arose from my many conversations with writers from post-Communist states, all of whom exhibited a remarkable depth of cynicism and even despair about the public culture and political structures of their country. Bulgarians satirising their diplomats as venal idiots; Slovaks writing best-sellers on the human face of their mafia gangs; Latvians watching their language wither on the vine for lack of cultural investment; Hungarians terrified at the extreme right-wing elements in their polity…

Other than the perpetually optimistic Nordics, these writers were describing a Europe in a state of exhaustion and even nihilism – not a good mood for Europeans to be in. I found myself counting my blessings for the consistent temper of the Scottish national mood – no doubt benefitted by the relative development of our economic and public services, and the access to rich markets of our English-speaking cultural producers. By comparison with these countries, our minuet-like steps towards effective self-government, and the pettifogging squabbles about the relevant tactics in Holyrood, seem even more like the squandering of an easy and obvious opportunity.

And as for nationhood, I’m only beginning what feels like a long investigative journey into the nature of national identity in Turkey. Perry Anderson’s powerful LRB essays on the history and legacy of Kemalism have two main points. Firstly, Turkey cannot become the geopolitical fulcrum between Europe and the Arab world that it craves to be, without fully reckoning with its darker history: the genocide against the Armenians, its many other ethnic and regional pogroms and exclusions, and its current deafness to the self-governing demands of Kurds within its borders (and Cypriots beyond).

Do Scots, as Tom Devine constantly reminds us, have to face up to the human costs of our eager facilitation of British colonial horror? Or Australians their treatment of aboriginals? Of course we, and they, do: any healthy national identity does, particularly those that once operated as Anderson’s “party of order”. Going by the voices of the Turkish writers at this gathering, there is a similar reckoning coming for the sons of Kemal.

Anderson’s second, well-argued point is that Turkish secular nationalism was always much more coldly pragmatic about the use of religion to maintain social harmony (particularly via Sunni Islam) than its current advocates claim. Any morning read of Istanbul’s two excellent English-language papers, Daily News & Economic Review and Zaman, is like staring into a clouded pool of coded messages and religious-political strategies it could take years to understand fully.

And yet, and yet. We closed our visit with a tour round two thrillingly beautiful mosques, the Haghia Sophia and the Sultanahmet (or Blue Mosque) – the latter in particular a mind-blowing orgy of geometric form, pattern and colour, its impact on the caverns of your head and heart undeniable.

The Istanbul skyline on that final evening looked unreal: a teeming social fabric cast upon its seven hills, the mosques surmounting this tumult like 50’s sci-fi structures. Alongside my urbane companions, it felt like one of the few places on earth where some new discussions might occur – about how to reconcile progress and piety, modernity and tradition, the contingent and the eternal. I hope I’ll be back, and in the meantime I’ll certainly be listening and watching.

- For more pictures and vids on Pat Kane’s ideas visit his blog Thoughtland.

kiltr websiteTwo daughters of the Scottish diaspora came home the other day, under very different clouds. Shining out of Wednesday’s papers were the features of Shirley Manson, the Edinburgh born-and-forged lead singer of US indie titans Garbage, giving solid advice to music students in Paisley: “there’s two things you have to accept in this industry – poverty, and a huge element of failure”.

Elsewhere, a different measure of poverty and failure, but also a tear-inducing celebration of a life nobly lived: the Lewis funeral of the 36-year old aid worker Linda Norgrove, killed in the course of a raid in her kidnappers in Afghanistan. The moment was a beautifully mixter-maxter of elements – a humanist service, with the coffin passed along hundreds of mourners in best Hebridean tradition, under lowering grey skies.

Two emotionally-contrasting scenes of confident, globally-minded Scotswomen – one sparking the fires of creative aspiration to the very heights, the other kindling a flame of compassion and service in the most demanding of circumstances. The Scottish nationalist matriarch Winnie Ewing once coined the snappiest of slogans about the desire for nation-state independence: Stop the world – we want to get on.

True, I agree: I’ll vote for that. But stories like these make you realise that we’re already on the whirl, at least: the Scottish diaspora as a vast scattering of capable humans across the entrepots, trade routes and trouble-spots of this planet – a scattering that has been going on for many centuries, containing a multitude of dramas right across the human spectrum.

I’ve been thinking about the relations between homeland and global adventure as a result of a consulting gig I’ve just undertaken – an advisor with a new social network aimed at serving the Scottish diaspora in all its manifestations, called Kiltr.

Yes, the joke is double-edged: as well as being a Jockular version of what Facebook and LinkedIn are already doing, it’s also a tool for balancing the various info-streams of contemporary living. But the question of what the diaspora actually means for Scotland, what kind of a resource it is for the nation, is a fascinating one, no matter the medium that services it.

In September the Scottish government outlined its Diaspora Engagement Plan, a robust document that delivered effective statistics (“20% of the Scottish-born population live outside of Scotland, and estimates put Scotland’s international Diaspora population at around 40 million”) and many useful categories (there are, apparently, six types of diaspora Scots: Reverse, Returning, New, Lived, Ancestral and Affinity).

There is a battery of networking initiatives already in place – some capitalising on the impact of the Homecoming and the prospect of the Commonwealth Games, some more business- and research-oriented. And there are also some hearth-warming ambitions for diaspora policy. They’re aiming to return flows of capital – whether financial, intellectual or culture – from successful Scots around the world. But they also want to create a “community of mind”, using the expected digital and convivial means, whereby an “idea” of the country can engage Scots-lovers (as well as Scots-born or -descended) in the fate of the nation going forward – what the document calls “reverse” and “affinity” Scots.

All very Panglossian, and with the orotund uplift of messrs Russell, Salmond and the rest of the SNP expertocracy resounding through it (which is not necessarily a bad thing). But in a search for more context, I asked the Holyrood office to send me a DVD of the Scottish Diaspora Forum held at the Parliament building in July 2009.

By far the most interesting contribution was historian Tom Devine’s keynote on the history of disapora – and particularly on the “intellectual honesty”, rather than “myth and Romanticism” (as he put it), that should inform any such “community of the mind”.

On the upside, the 800 year constancy of the Scottish disapora – a continuous outflow of capable chancers, fetching up everywhere in Europe but particularly in Poland – gives an explanation for the Scottish Enlightenment which doesn’t just rely on the benefits of Union. Our long-standing trade in European ideas – indicated by the great medieval University of Paris having 19 Scots rectors since its founding – shows a deeper grounding.

On the downside, our most notable historic feature of diaspora has been what Devine called “men of violence” – the mercenaries much in demand during Europe’s bloody 17th century wars, or the “ethnic garrison” of Presybterian Scots imported to Ulster in succeeding centuries.

And as he rightly pointed out, we have to reckon with the “very-difficult-to-imagine hegemony” of Glasgow over the Maryland and Virginia tobacco plantations, or of Scots throughout the Caribbean colonies and other outposts of empire and exploitation: a “darker impact” of diaspora that should not be mitigated. All those Scots names in the Jamaican phonebook, and not there by choice either.

Yet we can make a return to our two inspiring diaspora Scotswomen at the top by considering Devine’s central point: his “paradox of Scottish emigration”. Why does the record show that even when Scotland was the very height of modernity – the second richest nation on earth at the peak of Empire – our flows of emigration were as constant and enormous as they ever were?

The historian’s answer lies in the sheer extremes of Scottish development. A lingering Reformation commitment to mass education and skilled trades, combined with the bitter economic hardship of many at the sharp end of industrial and agricultural revolutions, meant that many took flight to new lands – but armed with the confidence that their skills and talents could flourish.

Devine closed by suggesting that this weight of history might to some degree overdetermine the current global image of Scotland, obscuring the recent transformations of Scottish society: “the Scotland of 1950 is much closer to 1850 than it is to today… We need to demonstrate to the diaspora that, if many left the country because of negative forces, there’s been a vast improvement”.

Though Shirley Manson’s training ground was more Miss Selfridge and punk clubs than Linda Norgrove’s degree in environmental studies from Aberdeen University, both would seem to be driven by the “positive forces” fuelling Scottish disapora. They have used their modern upbringing in this developed, sophisticated country as a springboard for personal ambition – enabling a very familiar kind of Scottish wandering across the globe, but still with evident connections to the homeland (however happily or tragically expressed).

Part of a plan of to engage our diaspora would have to be the creation of platforms that curate such stories – sexy and cool, tragic and noble, and every other kind. These platforms would bring the grand ambitions of Scottish global progress down to the level of the everyday, the idealistic and the quixotic. And let’s not forget, as Devine would remind us, that our military diaspora is still kicking its boots in the dusts of foreign lands. At the very least, these “global Scots” (and the question of their deployment, under what sovereign power) should not be excluded from the conversation.

If we steer our discussion about the diaspora by the lights of “intellectual honesty”, it won’t just be a cosy place, filled with the cultural consolations of clan and tartanry, or of indie and pop culture (the delightful musings gathered by the emigre website Dear Scotland). Amidst the joys of pleasant connection and mutual support that the modern world of communication affords, sparks will and should fly. To stay “on-kilter” implies a necessary dynamism in the first place.

– For more on Scottish affairs, read Pat Kane at the Thoughtland ideas-blog.

Romulus and Remus: another famous brotherly act

Romulus and Remus: another famous brotherly act

I’ve been watching the Milibandery of the Labour Party leadership battle with more than ideological interest. The dynamics of working with your brother is something I’m very much aware of, having done so with my own brother Gregory over the last quarter of a century, as one half of Hue And Cry.

But apart from the rollercoaster psychology of it all, there’s something about how the Miliband brothers have conducted themselves that has wider implications for how we think about how politics is done, and should be done.

The C4 documentary Miliband of Brothers showed that the boys lived and breathed politics from the breakfast table onwards, under the gentle patriarchy of their Marxist father, Ralph Miliband.

There’s a poignant moment when the father pokes his head round one of their bedroom doors and expresses pained despair at them joining “New… Labour!”

That neither of these comfortably raised Islington sociocrats would echo their father’s exile-driven ultra-leftism (as Tom Devine told me the other week, Ralph’s real first name was “Adolph”) is no surprise. But due to the necessary differentiations that siblings have to make among themselves, we should also expect that two political brothers would make distinct variations on their common theme.

The intriguing question is: after the younger triumphing over the older for a mutually coveted prize, how will they both handle the new power balance between them?

From my own experience of creative partnership with a sibling – which seems to have been a lot more stormy than the Milibands – you have to eventually realise that you each have your own domain of expertise. The main job of the partnership is to support the other in mastering that expertise, all aimed at serving the commonly-agreed goal. For too much of our early period in Hue And Cry, Greg and I were involved in a power-struggle for dominance: who was the real music leader here?

It got a lot easier for me when I realised that, while we write the songs together, Greg’s production and arrangement talent reigns supreme. I should focus on being the best singer I can be, and take a holistic view near the end of a recording process, than try to micro-manage decisions that I’m frankly not expert enough to do.

Let’s push this analogy tentatively (and as much for fun as anything else). What may be the problem for the Milibands is that both are equally qualified – both can be, as it were, lead singer and keyboard player combined. Both practised their political riffs at an early stage by taking a Politics, Philosophy and Economics degree at the same Oxford college. Both set out on separate but conventional paths of political advice and policy development within New Labour, (the elder allied to Blair, the younger to Brown). Both ended up with significant Minstries (whether diplomacy or environment).

So yes, the Milibands were always in the same group. The leadership contest for them was more like a duo that’s temporarily “taking a rest” – the problem being that each had their own own solo album out, and both of them were contending for the same top music prize. (Maybe Ed’s record is more scratchy-indie, and David’s is more orchestras and session-players). The question is, now that the younger one has won the Mercurys, with all the evident status and power that confers, will the older one want to join the old outfit again? Or will he prefer to follow his own creative path?

Risible analogies aside, there’s one strong reason to want them to resolve their own psycho-drama (no matter that David M refutes that there is one: believe me, there’s always psycho-drama when brothers work together). During their campaigns, they both cast up visions of a gentler kind of male leadership that has real consequences for policy.

The elder proposed that at least one Cabinet post could be a parental job-share – clearly aimed at Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper who have a young family, but intended to set an example to work-life balancing throughout the organisations of these islands.

David M’s “Movement for Change”, embracing faith and community groups like London Citizens, brought a noticeably different, less aggressive tone to Labour activism – something his brother has praised in the last few days (along with The Caledonian Mercury!).

And Ed Miliband’s appeal to the “squeezed middle” of British families – for whom the cycle of mortgage-overwork-overdebtedness-consumerism is clearly undermining their quality of life – should be able to open up a solid critique of the Coalition’s cuts as increasing their insecurity even more.

But changing the vocabulary and metaphors in which a social-democratic politics can be voiced is a crucial task for the Labour Party (and something their now-triumphant Compass grouping will be pushing for).

In Scotland, the SNP have always been able to cushion their centre-leftism in the language of Scottish patriotism and nationhood. This has its own automatic and worthwhile emotional appeal (the Scottish variant is certainly more robust than Gordon Brown’s weird Ukanianism), as long as it’s handled with dignity and care.

From within the political village – where loathsome creatures like Andrew Neil get to orchestrate the media debate – it’s easy to sneer and recoil at the protestations of brotherly love that the Milibands are making (and will make) to each other, no matter their own eventual political arrangements. But we should realise just how powerful this language of love and connection might actually be. The early Cameron, and his Saatchi-trained marketing advisors, knew this well – and tellingly, in yesterday’s speech, Ed M also brought the L-word into his vision of the “good” (as opposed to the “big”) society.

If tied to a left politics that genuinely addresses our anxieties about the state of our relationships – personal, familial, communal, maybe even global – and what structures can help sustain and improve them, the “new generation” of Labour might use their time in opposition well.

If anything’s required in the midst of general chaos – the music business and the politics business at least share that – it’s strong, mutually supportive and ultimately unconditional relationships. It’ll be a shame if the Milibands can’t work it out. I can personally testify that it’s a great background for common endeavour when it does.

For more on Scottish affairs from Pat Kane, visit his Thoughtland blog.