Douglas Alexander and Scottish independence

In May 2011, the SNP won a majority in the Scottish Parliament – a victory that was unprecedented for both party and Parliament.

Douglas Alexander, Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, believes (Independent, 22nd January) this victory came about partly because of a renewed Scottish nationalism but primarily because:

In contrast, Scottish Labour failed to recognise the changed environment that, ironically, it had help to create. [Pretty sure Doug means "had helped" not "had help", though it certainly did have help from SNP, Scottish LibDem, Scottish Greens, and the Scottish Socialist Party] The party was left singing the old hymns and warning of the risks of Thatcherism at a time when these songs were increasingly unfamiliar to a new audience with no personal knowledge of the tunes. In truth, Scottish Labour never felt it needed to be New Labour because arguably that process of modernisation was not needed to defeat the Tories in Scotland, but this complacency, in time, left us vulnerable to attack from a different direction from more nimble opponents.

There are much simpler answers why the Scots tended to vote SNP this time. Part of it may have been due to fed-upness with Labour (which I’ll deal with later), partly it may have been the Westminster brigade arriving in Scotland in April 2011 on a rescue mission, but mostly, I think, it was just that the Liberal Democrats had put a Tory UK government in. Voting for the LibDems was seen as voting Tory, and Scots don’t vote Tory. (Well, not many, and those that do, vote for the real Tory party.)

Voters who’d seen voting LibDem in past elections as a way of voting for a left-wing party without voting Labour (reasons why that would be in just a minute) were scunnered at the LibDem defection to the Tories. (In fairness, the Scottish Liberal Democrats are an independent party and had nothing directly to do with Nick Clegg’s embrace of David Cameron.) They still didn’t want to vote Labour, they would never vote Conservative, they now didn’t want to vote for the LibDems either, and the only option left on the constituency side of the ballot was SNP.

Why did the Scots start turning away from Labour?

The former leader of Scottish Labour, Iain Gray, cited Thatcher in his address to the Scottish Labour Party conference in March 2011, in the context of an attack on Alex Salmond. He said:

You know, when I heard that Alex Salmond had said “Scotland didn’t mind Thatcher’s economics, it was just her social policy we didn’t like”, I wondered where the hell he had been in the 80s. Because, as I recall, Scotland minded Thatcher’s economics very much indeed.

And then I remembered. He was a banker in the oil department of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Maybe there they didn’t mind Thatcher’s economics. But where I was we did. I was teaching in a secondary school in Edinburgh. Where Thatcher’s economics drained all of the hope, and all of the energy and all of the life out of the kids. Where they were told that their unemployment was a price worth paying. Where they were taught society had no place for them.

That they would never work. That they had no future.

It took a generation to turn that round. Eighteen years to get rid of the Tories. A new deal to eradicate youth unemployment. It took Labour to rebuild that school inside and out.

First we rebuilt the school itself, to show the students we believed in their potential. Then we rebuilt their prospects, to show them they really had the potential. And then we created the jobs they could do to unleash their potential.

If you really think Scotland didn’t mind Thatcher’s economics, just her social policy, you don’t understand Thatcher.

I don’t disagree with that. But I’d note that Iain Gray references “my niece training to be a nurse for our NHS” – and while the Tory attacks on the NHS were huge and appalling, it was New Labour who began the “market-driven” restructuring of the NHS, setting in place the structures which allowed the current coalition government in Westminster to push forward the appalling Lansley “reforms” in England. He mentions “My nephew going to university next year to study engineering” – but in 1999, Labour was the only party in the Scottish Parliament which supported the introduction of tuition fees.

Labour has become unpopular in Scotland not because it is too left-wing, but because it is associated with the drifting-to-the-right Labour government in Westminster. For me the sticking point has been, since 2003, the Westminster Labour government’s support for the invasion of Iraq.

Photo by John Goodall - Demonstration against the war in Iraq, Scottish Exhibition Centre, Glasgow, 15 February 2003

On 15th February 2003, the Saturday of the Scottish Labour conference, over a hundred thousand people gathered outside to protest the proposed invasion of Iraq. I was there. I remember that open opposition to the invasion of Iraq was banned from that Labour Party conference. Tony Blair did not wish to have TV cameras find inside the SECC the same messages of opposition to his war that they could see outside. Scottish Labour at Holyrood is not responsible for that war. But Douglas Alexander must surely be aware of the strength of feeling against it.

And in fairness to Salmond, Iain Gray slightly trimmed the actual 2008 quote (The Scotsman, 20 August 2008):

In remarks that will fuel criticism that the SNP has adopted a free-market, tax-cutting agenda more in tune with the Thatcher legacy, Mr Salmond said: “The SNP has a strong social conscience, which is very Scottish in itself. One of the reasons Scotland didn’t take to Lady Thatcher was because of that. We didn’t mind the economic side so much. But we didn’t like the social side at all.”

and of course wouldn’t have mentioned that Salmond also said:

Asked whether he could “do business” with Mr Cameron, Mr Salmond replied: “The Tories have been more constructive than other opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament but I don’t think you have to scratch very hard to see real anti-Scottish antagonism from many elements of the Conservative Party. I don’t think the leopard has changed its spots.”

He added that the “wrapping has changed somewhat” but “I think the leopard is still there”.

Rainbow coalition or Tory government?

In May 2010, Alex Salmond proposed a rainbow coalition of all the progressive parties at Westminster – this would have involved “the SNP, the Welsh Nationalists, some MPs from Northern Ireland and the sole Green MP, as well as Labour and the Lib Dems”. Whether such a huge and unwieldy coalition would have worked in practice is difficult to say – no such cross-party peacetime coalition has ever been put together in the Westminster Parliament. But it was a choice between that and Tory government, and Salmond, I think correctly, chose the least-bad option.

Douglas Alexander preferred a Tory government at Westminster (BBC, 11th May 2010):

“I can assure you I have had no contact with the SNP, nor has the chancellor, the Scottish secretary or the prime minister because there are fundamental differences between the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party. Personally, I can’t envisage circumstances in which we would enter into agreement with the Scottish National Party.”

Alex Salmond’s rejoinder:

“If the Labour Party want to stay in government they should get off their high horse and see the world from other people’s point of view.”

Douglas Alexander again:

“Yet Scotland now faces that momentous choice in the years ahead. And in that time of choosing, our duty is greater and our responsibility is heavier. It’s a debate that demands a different quality of imagination. Given the degree of economic integration between the Scottish and the British economies, profound economic questions will be asked. But this debate will, and must, involve more than accountancy. It will involve deep and profound issues about identity in the 21st century.”

In England and Wales, there’s strong concern about the Welfare Reform Bill, and at Westminster, it’s been successfully resisted only by the House of Lords. But in the Scottish Parliament, a vote on 22nd December 2011 rejected the legislation entirely – the Scottish Government will still need to implement these “welfare reforms” (welfare is a reserved issue) but will do so with legislation that will, as far as possible, mitigate their impact on the most vulnerable people of Scotland. On 12th January, on a nationally-broadcast TV programme, a Labour Shadow Minister was sitting beside the Deputy First Minister who had led the debate against the Tory “Welfare Reform” in Scotland: did he take the opportunity to attack the Conservatives by praising the SNP’s opposition to the legislation? He did not.

For Dr Eoin Clarke of The Green Benches blog the problem may only be one of strategy:

“Ed, you need to have an interactive relationship with the voters that on occasion tells them what they want to hear. Voters do not hand out browning points to the politicians that peeve them the most.”

But to me, and I think to many others, the problem is that Ed Miliband and his cohorts, including Douglas Alexander, just don’t perceive what gets the rest of us so angry about the Tories. The Labour leadership doesn’t express deep-felt outrage at what the Tories are doing to the rest of us, because they feel none.

Revealing outburst on Question Time

On that Question Time broadcast from London on 12th January, Alexander was profoundly uninterested in “deep and profound issues” – he just wanted to bully the woman sitting next to him, the Deputy First Minister of Scotland, into an apology for the comments made by another MSP, Joan McAlpine, a few days earlier:

The English audience liked Douglas Alexander’s bullying tactics, judging by the huge round of applause he got, but he can’t have supposed that this would play well to Scotland, not even to those of us who are not SNP voters.

Besides, what Joan McAlpine said needs no apology. She said:

“The Liberals, the Labour party and the Tories are anti-Scottish in coming together to defy the will of the Scottish people and the democratic mandate that they gave us to hold a referendum at a time of our choosing.”

She’s right. There can be a wide range of views on which way to vote, but there’s no doubt that the SNP stated clearly before the 2007 and 2011 Scottish elections that they’d hold a referendum after the second election, and before May 2011, that the referendum would be held in the second half of the Scottish Parliament. The SNP won, so they have the mandate to hold the referendum.

Douglas Alexander’s public attack on Nicola Sturgeon in London demonstrated two things: that he’s a nasty bully who doesn’t believe in letting women talk (kudos to Sturgeon for simply talking over him until Bullingdon Boy Dimbleby sided with Alexander) and that he thinks assertion of the Scottish Parliament’s democratic mandate is something to apologise for. So he has nothing useful to say to us on Scottish independence. The positive case for remaining in the Union must be made by Scottish people who value Scotland, and who respect the settled will of the Scottish people. Douglas Alexander isn’t fit for it.

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