A new national convention for Scotland
In a major contribution to the constitutional debate this evening, DOUGLAS ALEXANDER suggests that now may be the time for a new initiative to help shape Scotland’s long term future within the Union
It is a great pleasure to be back here at the University of Edinburgh.
Whether as an undergraduate student, a postgraduate student, a tutor, or, indeed, as a Member of the University Court, I greatly enjoyed my years here.
It is an institution for which I feel both a deep sense of gratitude, and an abiding affection.
And it is also a great pleasure for me to be here in Edinburgh, our capital city, a city that from my personal perspective, perhaps as nowhere else, reflects the changing currents of the Scottish economy and Scottish constitutional politics over recent decades.
It was here in Edinburgh that in the 1980s I joined with many others to protest against Margaret Thatcher as she arrived to address the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
It was here through the 1990s that I and so many of us stood in the Meadows and marched on Calton Hill to demand a Scottish Parliament.
It was here in May 1997 I witnessed the election of a Labour Government committed to delivering our promise of home rule for Scotland.
It was here in September 1997 that I campaigned for and voted with the vast majority of people in Scotland in the referendum that established our Scottish Parliament.
And it was here in July 1999 that I was proud, very proud, to attend the opening of the Scottish Parliament, a Parliament that has helped achieve so much for the people of Scotland.
But of course, it was here in that Scottish Parliament in the first decade of this century that we saw first a minority and then a majority SNP led Government take power.
And it was also here in Edinburgh just last year that agreement was reached to hold a referendum on independence next year.
This City and this place have shaped much of my thinking, personal and political, about who I am, my identity, the identities of my fellow Scots and of course our future together.
I am grateful for the chance to share that thinking with you this evening.
This is a lecture in three parts bound by a common theme: The opportunity the coming months provides.
The opportunity that the debate before the referendum in Autumn 2014 offers for us, as Scots, to experience doing politics differently.
The opportunity to rediscover and retell our deeper stories as a nation. And to better understand the history that shaped our country, as we look seriously at the issues that will define our future.
The opportunity to remind ourselves that it is in our connectedness, in our relationships – our interdependence – with our neighbours and with strangers, that we best discover who we are, and what we can be.
I want to begin my remarks by exploring the opportunity offered to us by the central puzzle of Scottish politics during 2012. To dig under the narrative of the numbers and discover a deeper Scottish story.
That central puzzle of 2012 was that despite the successive victories of the SNP in the Scottish Parliament elections of 2007 and 2011 – and notwithstanding the deep and enduring unpopularity of the Coalition Government elected to Westminster in 2010 – the imminence of the referendum has not led to any significant shift in the polls towards independence. Far from it.
I want to suggest that a better understanding of the forces at work over the last year reveals them as more circumstantial than inevitable and that those of us – from all parties and none – who seek to secure Scotland’s future within the United Kingdom should be feeling confident, but certainly not complacent, as we look forward to the referendum next year.
Tonight, I want to suggest that the narrative that nationalists are using to respond to their current difficulties is much more one of “No” rather than “Yes”.
And I want to suggest that the nationalists’ approach creates an opportunity for those of us who believe our Scottishness is best expressed within the United Kingdom to counter that nationalist negativity with a different, and a more hopeful, story about Scotland’s future.
Finally, I want to share with you my belief that if we are both to win the referendum in the right way, and then go on to build a better future for our nation around community and connectedness, diversity and common cause with our neighbours, it demands that Scottish Labour be a voice of hope in the Scottish conversation in the months and years ahead.
Developments last year
So, to begin with, how do we make sense of the last year and the politics of the referendum as we look ahead to the next?
The single most striking feature of the numerous opinion polls published in Scotland is that nothing has changed.
The general trend over the last year shows support for independence remaining around 1/3 …roughly the same level of support it has achieved, with ebbs and flows, over the last 40 years – without any real signs of momentum or change still less enthusiasm.
How do we explain the fact that in the wake of the SNP’s greatest ever election victory, after securing the referendum they had willed and worked towards all their political existence, while commanding a comfortable majority in the Scotland Parliament and while controlling the full apparatus of the Scottish Government, the support for independence is at best becalmed and, in reality, quite possibly diminished?
One point that amidst the noise of the headlines should be remembered is that – despite the pretensions of the politicians involved – this is not a new debate.
And while the months ahead afford us new opportunities, the argument that Scotland would be better walking away from our neighbours has been a central defining feature of Scottish politics for decades.
As Scots, many of us have indeed thought about it, know where we stand, and have done for a long time.
The referendum is new, but the debate is not.
However, notwithstanding that truth, I would suggest that over the last year there have been two underlying drivers of the debate.
And acknowledging these deeper drivers allows us to see that the real priorities of the Scottish people lie in their sense of connectedness with their neighbours and not a desire to walk away from them.
Recognising these influences beneath the psephology of the last 12 months also reveals them as much more circumstantial than inevitable.
And their acknowledgement should warn those of us in favour of Scotland’s future within the UK against complacency and inspire us towards engagement in the debate in the months ahead.
The first of these underlying drivers was revealed by the Olympics.
Of course they were, by nature, a passing event, but they exposed something deeper about the very real and confident connections, the personal relationships that have helped build the United Kingdom over the past 300 years.
Let me explain. For many years the nationalists have worked hard to convince us, as Scots, that the rest of the UK has become so foreign a place with such different values, a foreign place so lacking in points of deep connectedness, and with so little sense of being neighbours, that we should split apart.
The Olympics inadvertently but powerfully crushed that narrative.
It was not simply the response – ahead of the Games – to the torch relay through this land, where the public in communities across Scotland embraced the event as their own.
Nor was it simply Danny Boyle’s extraordinary opening ceremony which in its celebration of everything from our NHS to Brit Pop captured authentically a modern Britishness that is, generous, warm, diverse, inclusive, self deprecating and funny.
Like many I was unsure what to expect and found myself, somewhat to my surprise, cheering along.
Indeed, the 2012 Games showcased the very best of our country and gave us the opportunity to celebrate what unites us: perhaps again to our surprise we found afresh that we in these islands are a pluralistic, and outward looking family of nations, confident and capable when working together towards a common endeavour.
The sentiments invoked by the Olympics were so contrary to the Nationalist narrative of “we scots are so different that the only option is walking away” that for the first time in a long while the populist party found themselves – unequivocally – on the wrong side of popular Scottish sentiment.
So why did a world sporting event prove such a difficulty for the Nationalists – how did they manage to misconstrue Scottish attitudes so badly?
The answer partly points to their failure to understand that as Scots we seek to celebrate and champion success.
So of course, as Scots, we cheered Andy Murray and Chris Hoy. But we also cheered Jessica Ennis and Mo Farrah. I was on the Isle of Mull that “Super Saturday” and still remember the moment a friend from Glasgow texted me to share the extraordinary and wonderful spectacle of a whole country on its feet cheering on THEIR mixed race woman and a lean, brilliant runner called Mohammed achieving what many thought impossible.
We, nearly all of us, celebrated the shared extraordinary success of Scots and non-Scots all competing together as Team GB
And it reminded us that as Scots we may feel, at times, that there’s nowhere better – but that we also know there’s something bigger.
Why on earth would we want to give up that part of who we are?
It was a feeling and a sense of pride that jarred with the Nationalists’ inward looking and out of touch remarks regarding ‘Scolympians’ – itself perhaps the worst soundbite in Scottish political history – which was followed by a none too dignified silence, as they struggled to accept that millions of us across Scotland were cheering on Team GB.
It was an important sign that the “walk away” campaign was walking alone, not nearly as in touch with Scottish opinion as their undoubted electoral success the previous year might have implied.
The second underlying driver of opinion over the last twelve months that I would identify may seem rather more prosaic but is nonetheless of continuing importance in understanding the polling on independence and what this reveals about Scottish opinion.
Over the last 12 months Labour has maintained a lead in most opinion polls regarding voting intentions at the next UK general election.
But why should this impact on the independence numbers?
The fact that the prospect of a change of Government at Westminster in the next two years has been a constant feature of the polls has denied to the Nationalist their favourite argument.
Consider the words of the Yes Campaign’s Chief Strategist: “Whatever the words on the ballot paper, it will be a choice between a ‘social contract’ Scotland or a welfare-obliterating Westminster.”
This is an extraordinary statement. According to their chief strategist, the argument the Nationalists most want to make is that the referendum is a choice between independence and inevitable, perpetual, infinite Tory governments.
It is an opportunistic political strategy designed to make antipathy to the Tories synonymous with support for independence.
But like the response to the Olympics, it reveals a deep misunderstanding of the Scottish sense of identity, and of our relationship with our friends and family, and neighbours.
Why? Because it fails to recognise that for most of us, our relationship with the rest of Britain is as cultural, indeed personal, as it is political; we see our neighbours – and I say again, our friends and family – as real people with whom we have much in common, not as all members of one political party or wedded to one political philosophy.
The nationalist attempt to express their argument for walking away from our neighbours as simply leaving behind a Tory led Government insults the intelligence of Scots who know that separating Scotland from the UK is not something that can be reversed at the next election – and carries a price way beyond the rejection of a particular political philosophy.
It would mean deciding we would be better off breaking the intertwined fabric of real and human relationships that not only matter to us – they are part of who we are.
And I just don’t believe that is the mood or the mind of the Scottish people.
So, of course, it might seem more politically advantageous for me to suggest that the referendum is now done and dusted, somehow already a done deal, and that inevitability lies on our side not the nationalists
But for those of us who believe Scotland’s future lies within the UK, the challenge now is to remake our case effectively in the coming 19 months and weave together our sense of the past, our understanding of the present, and our hope for the future.
In particular, we need to campaign in a way that grasps the opportunity we have to embrace a different type of politics, built on dialogue, citizenship and that most Scottish of values: the sovereignty of the people.
The Nationalists’ response
The central truth about the referendum over the last 12 months – that the polls have not shifted – of course provides food for thought and indeed challenges for all political parties as we look to next year.
So let me first offer you my thoughts on how the nationalists have and will respond to this puzzle of unchanging poll numbers.
I believe the Nationalists’ approach can best be understood in this way: they aimed to campaign around the ‘inevitability’ of independence, founded on identity.
But that campaign of identity has failed and they are now attempting to recover by offering, however unconvincingly, a campaign of ideology.
Let me start with their original failure: To convince us that after their historic victories independence was inevitable.
It seems to me that their original strategy was to try and build on their unexpected success in May 2007, followed by their even more unexpected (even by them!) majority in 2011 and use this momentum to create a sense of both inevitability and invincibility around the nationalist cause.
The aim, as always, was to equate nationalism with patriotism, the philosophy of self determination with one version of constitutional structures, and convince or co-opt the public into support for independence.
That is what lay behind the revealing if reprehensible comments of some of their number last year about opponents to separation being ‘un Scottish’.
There were echoes of that ‘inevitability’ strategy just last month when the Scottish Government published it’s ‘Independence Day’ proposals which ended up generating more incredulity than excitement.
In the face of this failure of the ‘inevitability’ campaign there has apparently been much soul searching amongst the Nationalist’s High Command as to how to respond.
The most audacious and revealing attempt to re-position the Nationalist argument was offered by the Deputy First Minister last December.
Apparently without any hint of irony, or indeed concern for the outlook of her party members, she declared:
“I ask you, as you make up your minds over these next two years, to base your decision not on how Scottish or British you feel, but on what kind of country you want Scotland to be and how best you think that can be achieved.”
After decades in which assertions of Scottishness have been the very mainstay and motivation of SNP members you can almost hear the ice cracking.
Because with less than two years to go the penny seems finally to be dropping that seeking to deny that part of our identity that is British …. expressed through people’s jobs and pensions, in shared institutions like the NHS and BBC and in countless family ties across the border, and in the human connectedness at the very core of who we are and want to be, is proving itself a losing and not a winning formula.
Yet having been forced by their unpopularity into making this historic concession, the nationalists immediately struggle to find an enduring rationale for independence, so they fall back on the statement: “But the UK’s ability to re-invent itself is spent.”
They offer no evidence for this assertion.
Membership of the European Union, the establishment of a Scottish Parliament, or indeed a Welsh Assembly or Northern Ireland Assembly is ignored.
The coming implementation of the Calman Commission recommendation – the biggest transfer of powers since the Act of Union – is also ignored.
Indeed, so too is the transformation of the UK over the last decade into the diverse and multi-cultural country we have become, as the number of people living and working within our borders but born outside the UK rose to over 7.5million. Indeed, we need look no further than here in Edinburgh, where no less than one in four of the population was born outside Scotland.
In this sense, this so called new narrative, far from being a radical break with past nationalist orthodoxy, merely rehearses the argument first articulated by Tom Nairn back in the 1970s that the British state is incapable of renewing itself.
Back then Nairn wrote “the state (meaning the UK) has entered into a historical cul-de-sac from which no exit is visible”.
Interesting though it was as a piece of Nationalist scholarship, the central difficulty with the thesis advanced in “The Break Up of Britain” was that, as the subsequent four decades revealed, it wasn’t true and it didn’t happen.
Instead, connections in the subsequent decades have created opportunities previously unimaginable – personally and politically, locally and globally – to deepen our togetherness and define modernity through interdependence not walking away.
So I would suggest that the answer to the central puzzle of the intransigent poll numbers over the last 12 months is this:
Undoubtedly the clear majority of Scots, myself included, want change, but we do not see independence as the route to achieve the changes we want to see.
The change we want is different from the change they promise.
And as Scots, we understand the difference between anger with a transient Tory Government and supporting the permanent break up of Britain…that one is political, the other is also personal and that our identity is deeper, richer and more diverse than the philosophy of any one political party.
And it is because of the weakness of the inevitability case, and the identity case, that the Nationalists, however unconvincingly, are now trying to make an ideological case for independence.
In her speech in December, the Deputy First Minister said this:
“My conviction that Scotland should be independent stems from the principles not of identity or nationalism but of democracy and social justice.”
And contained within that short statement is a chasm of error.
It misunderstands the past. And it misunderstands the present in its thinly veiled attempt to clothe the arguments of nationalism in the guise of those advancing social justice.
It misunderstands the past because the great advances that were struggled for and secured by working people across the UK – the Welfare State, trades union rights, our National Health Service, Equal Pay, a National Minimum Wage, even the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies – were secured by the votes of working people in Cardiff, Liverpool and Newcastle, just as surely as people in Dundee, Edinburgh or Glasgow and have benefited all of us, whatever our national heritage.
And as Brian Wilson reminded us recently in the Scotsman: “The forces of reaction existed in Scotland every bit as much as in other parts of the UK. It was the votes of Yorkshire miners and Lancashire mill workers which helped deliver a National Health Service and a Welfare State, not Edinburgh consultants and Fife colliery owners.”
And the bearers of that Scottish tradition of social justice, with which the SNP now tries to associate itself, understood that social justice was not just for Scotland, but was a universal ideal: a statement of solidarity and connectedness with neighbours and the strangers.
When we opposed the Thatcher policies in the 1980s, we didn’t just oppose them because they injured Scottish sentiment, we opposed them because we believed they offended basic values about how human beings should live together, basic values about how communities should support each other, basic values we thought had universal application.
We knew that her description of the Good Samaritan in the “Sermon on the Mound” as an argument for trickle down economics was fundamentally flawed, that it was instead a story about loving even your enemy, not walking away from your neighbour.
And the Scottish Trade Union movement saw its role over the past two centuries as not simply building better conditions in Scotland, but building better conditions in Britain and beyond, living out our solidarity and connectedness.
As Gordon Brown illuminated brilliantly in his Campbell Christie Memorial Lecture here in Edinburgh last year:
The organiser of the first trade union in the 1790s, the London Corresponding society, was a Scot who came down from Stirlingshire.
The organiser of the National Union of Mineworkers, when it was formed in England in the 1860s, was a Scot from Lanarkshire.
And, of course, the organiser of the British Labour Party, when it was formed in 1900 was a Scot, James Keir Hardie.
Yet the Nationalists contemporary claim to social justice not only misunderstands the past, it misunderstands the present.
And it does so deliberately and out of necessity, in the absence of an alternative argument.
Of course today we have a Conservative-led Government in the UK. It will have just six months of its mandate left to run at the time of the independence referendum.
But the Nationalists claim relies on the implicit but spurious assertion not only that we as Scots are committed to social justice, but that our friends, family and colleagues across the rest of the UK are not.
That explains my difficulty with the recent rhetoric of Scotland as ‘a progressive beacon’.
It is not simply that the rhetoric is belied by the inequality and poverty still sadly present in Scotland today.
It is something deeper.
I reject a cultural conceit that relies upon a single stereotype of voters in the rest of the UK.
The stereotype of voters south of Gretna as Conservative in character, somehow irredeemably different from Scottish voters.
I reject it because that is not my experience of friends, colleagues, and family members within the Labour movement and far beyond it.
The problem, as with any stereotype, is not just that it is untrue but that it is incomplete.
Their view ignores most voters in Tyneside or Merseyside, Wales and indeed London.
Indeed, to my mind the Nationalists’ characterisation of the rest of the UK today reflects what the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls “the danger of a single story”.
She points out that our lives and cultures are composed of many overlapping stories.
If we only hear a single story about another person – or nation – we risk a critical misunderstanding.
The Nationalists are determined to present one story of the UK and one story only, a narrative about ideology rather than identity that is both negative and far from the mood of Scottish people even amidst the present hardships.
For in that single story there is no possibility of us being truly similar in outlook to other people across the UK, and no possibility of feelings more complex than incomprehension.
It is to flatten our shared experiences and overlook the many other stories that make us who we are on this collection of small rainy islands.
It must be a disorienting, indeed painful, reckoning for the Scottish nationalists to be confronted daily with the accumulating evidence that the change Scotland wants is different from the change they promise.
The inconvenient truth for the nationalists is that their disagreement is not with their political opponent – it is with the overwhelming opinion of people in Scotland. This is not a party political fight. It is a conflict between the sovereign will of the Scottish people and the settled will of the SNP.
The sophisticated view of the Scottish electorate can be seen through opinion polls – polls in which the electorate is carefully picking horses for courses. These polls challenge Scottish Labour to renew ourselves to regain the public’s trust and their votes. That is the vital work that our leader Johann Lamont is now taking forward. Yet even more unequivocally, these polls confirm that the SNP’s independence plan is viewed as an analogue offering in a digital world.
But, as Scottish Labour, we should be in no doubt that Scotland does want change.
And whilst Better Together has the important task of telling the story of the United Kingdom and challenging the myths that pass for facts from others, it is the task of each of Scotland’s parties to tell their respective stories of Scotland within the United Kingdom for tomorrow.
And that means in the months ahead sharing our story, as Scottish Labour, about the nation Scotland could be…the different Scotland of our hopes and dreams.
As Scottish Labour, to be a voice of hope in the Scottish conversation means embracing a politics of inspiration as well as information.
It means making our case with emotion as well as evidence.
It means talking honestly about what kind of nation we are, and what kind of nation we want to become.
It means being open both on the identity that shapes us and the ideals that drive us.
So let me begin with my story and what it teaches me about our shared history, and what my individual experience teaches me about our shared identity.
But let me also say this. To try and make sense of my life primarily through a lens of national identity is to flatten my experience, and overlook the many other stories and experiences that make me who I am.
I feel proudly and passionately Scottish. But, parenthood, if I’m honest, matters much, much more to me than nationhood.
My mother’s side of our family come from Ayrshire. My father’s side comes from Ulster.
I have lived and studied in Canada and the United States.
My mother was born in China, the daughter of Scottish Medical Missionaries.
My father graduated from Glasgow University one week and the next week travelled to New York to work amidst the poverty of East Harlem.
I have lived and worked and studied in Erskine and Edinburgh, but also in Vancouver, Philadelphia and London.
All of these experiences help make me who I am. They all shape my story. I am, as we all are, a mix of accumulated identities, loyalties, and experiences.
Here in Scotland all of us in some sense are immigrants. Our Scottishness is rooted not in exclusivity but in the diversity of our heritage.
Immigration and emigration are the tides that by their ebb and flow have shaped who we are. Scots have wandered the world and the world has wandered to Scotland.
Robert Burns was two weeks away from becoming an economic migrant from Scotland and for hundreds of years we have welcomed economic migrants to our shores.
Glasgow’s Jamaica Street and St Vincent Street still bear witness to our shared Imperial past with all its glories and pain and we played our part in those glories just as we played our part in that pain.
Yet the Kirk Session records of South Leith Church here in Edinburgh, also note a free black family in the 17th century port.
There are schools here in Edinburgh today with over 40 first languages amongst the pupils. That diversity is our strength.
And in 2003 the One Scotland, Many Cultures campaign successfully celebrated our multi-culturalism as a sign of strength.
We have not lost who we are in that diversity – it has made Scotland what it is and Scots who we are – it is so much a part of our nation’s story.
So why now, do we need to walk away from our neighbours to somehow be the Scots we want to be?
Walking away from others have never been our way – walking with others has been our heritage and it should remain so.
In 2011 The Church of Scotland, in reflecting on our diversity, called for a “radical hospitality” arguing that our diversity is the place we learn most about ourselves, where we reach out to those who seem most different to us.
It represented a fundamentally different approach to the idea that because we are allegedly different to our neighbours we should walk away from our relationship with them.
Scotland for me – as for so many of us – is not just a series of places. It is also a series of ideals.
So let me tell you what kind of Scotland I want to see.
I want a Scotland where our identity is built on inclusivity not exclusivity – where we are known for our welcome not our insecurity.
I see a Scotland where people understand how our life together is rooted in what we share as much as in what we own.
I see a Scotland where in our natural obligation to meet our neighbours’ needs we find our own needs met as well.
A Scotland where our justice system is not simply about retribution but redemption.
A Scotland where we harness not just the renewable resources of wind and wave, but the greatest renewable resource of all, the skills and talents of our whole population.
A Scotland with a strong, competitive, and diverse economy, that can generate good jobs and pay high wages.
A Scotland where poverty is not destiny, where your past does not dictate your future.
A Scotland where the young can harness their potential and the old know honour and respect.
A Scotland where we walk with people when they are struggling but do not call them failures when they stumble.
A Scotland where we build communities so they can build up the citizens who make those communities stronger.
And where those communities can lead the change they decide they need.
Scottish Labour’s response
Now as a Renfrewshire MP who in recent months has had to help establish a food bank with local churches to meet the needs of those struggling in my constituency, I would be the last person to claim that these ideals are always reflected in our nation today.
Three decades ago I joined the Labour Party in Renfrewshire in large part because it was founded on the dignity and purpose of each human being and a belief that politics can play a part in making that real.
So, as Scottish Labour, we celebrate the genius of Scotland’s best engineers and scientists, the excellence of our Universities best teachers and researchers, and the imagination and creativity of Scotland’s artists but when over 200,000 Scots are unemployed we know our nation’s primary challenges are economic more than constitutional.
Over the last five years, the number of unemployed under-25s in Scotland has almost doubled to 90,000.
Youth unemployment is not just a disaster for the lives and prospects of young people here and now; it is an economic and social catastrophe for our nation which risks scarring an entire generation.
Even among those who do have a job, many can’t remember the last time they had a measurable pay rise or the chance of the extra hours they need to make ends meet. There is a quiet but real desperation I have not sensed since back in the 80s.
Almost one in five Scottish workers – 400,000 people – earns less than the Living Wage of £7.45 a hour. That’s around £14,000 a year for someone working full time.
These people are not the “feckless poor” of George Osborne’s speeches – they are the mothers and fathers who work hard all day and still cannot put a coat on their child’s back and for whom an unexpected bill is a disaster.
That’s partly to do with stagnant wages and under-employment – but it’s also compounded by cuts to tax credits which are weakening the safety net just when it’s most needed.
And – to make matters worse – at the same time as wages and incomes are being squeezed, prices just keep going up.
Tickets for the bus. Petrol for the car. Shoes for the kids.
In my experience the difference working families in Renfrewshire care about most is not the difference between Scotland and England but between pay and prices and the deep personal cost that brings to individuals across our communities.
The fundamental point is this: for Scottish Labour, it is the pressures which affect people in their everyday lives that define the purpose of our politics and the causes of our time.
That is what our sense of solidarity, and our sense of connectedness to our neighbour demands.
Financial pressures – as the money coming into households doesn’t keep up with the rising cost of essentials, never mind the luxuries – with the result that personal debt piles up.
Caring pressures – as parents try to juggle looking after their children and their elderly relatives, while protecting the space and time for childhood and family life.
Personal pressures – as people from all walks of life face the daily experience of loneliness and isolation, or struggle with depression, chronic conditions or addiction.
And social pressures – as neighbourhoods are damaged by disorder, incivility and the pace of local change, weakening the bonds of place and belonging and the possibilities for building a common life.
Some of these pressures are the result of the economic turmoil of recent years; others have deeper roots. Some are material; others moral. Some point to clear prescriptions; others defy simplification.
But they all come down to this: are we up to the challenge of building and sustaining a good society in austere times?
How do we help each other be the neighbours we would want to be rather than conclude that we should just walk away and leave our neighours to struggle on their own?
And if this is, as I believe, the defining challenge for our nation, how best should we as Scottish Labour respond?
It demands that we offer a plausible, compelling account of what reasonable hope looks like for our nation.
Let me explain why I, consciously, use the word ‘hope’.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains:
“Optimism and hope. They sound similar but in fact they are very different.
“Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better.
“Hope is the belief that if we work hard enough together we can make things better.
“It needs no courage, just a certain naivety, to be an optimist. It needs a great deal of courage to have hope… And hope is what transforms the human situation.”
Let me put it another way: Hope is where present reality and new possibilities meet.
And the first step to realising that hope and creating a different future is imagining it.
We have to be honest: that vision of the common good, and the cause of greater social justice is facing significant obstacles that cannot be ignored or easily dismissed.
In response, some argue that the priority is to batten down the hatches and focus on simply defeating further attacks on the institutions we’ve cherished – from the NHS to the welfare state.
Indeed historian Tony Judt crystalised this position in his argument for a ‘defensive’ social democracy, motivated by protecting and conserving the great gains of the 20th century.
I have to tell you that I can think of few strategies more likely to lead to failure.
In part this is because such an essentially defensive – indeed conservative – approach concedes far too much ground to those who want to unpick the progress of the past.
But more importantly this defensive approach reveals a profound – and mistaken – lack of confidence in our collective capacity to improve our lives and the world around us.
The citizens of the 20th century faced two world wars and the threat of nuclear Armageddon, but they still built a National Health Service, the welfare state and education and pensions for all – not to mention securing unprecendented advances in technology, science and medicine.
We face huge challenges, but are they really bigger than that?
I do not believe so.
Our strength to make hope real lies in our deepest sense of solidarity and connectedness with our neighbour.
And it is in that place that we can begin to build a new type of political engagement that can shape our politics and reshape our nation beyond the events of autumn 2014.
The time for Scottish Labour to draw up its next election manifesto is some time off, but let me set out five instincts that I believe should be central to Scottish Labour’s sense of hope.
First, caring for our neighbour by investing in people through prioritising full employment and higher wages.
This is essential for raising living standards and funding the public services we all rely upon.
It starts with returning the economy to growth, but it will also require deeper, structural reform to our economic model, so that productivity and wages can rise and the gains from this higher productivity be more evenly shared.
Second, in a related expression of neighbourliness, focusing public services on supporting employment and relationships.
This means prioritising resources on caring services that enable people to work, like childcare and social care, so that more people are able to work and care, more people are able to stay in work for longer, and more people are able to contribute towards the support of the services we need. And that means promoting reforms that bring people together and put them, not bureaucracy, in control.
Third, reflecting our respect for all who pay their taxes and the services that their taxes fund, upholding a commitment to fiscal responsibility.
Difficult choices about which services and areas of spending to prioritise are inevitable.
And so it will also be necessary to consider how best to utilise the widening tax powers available to Holyrood in ways consistent with our vision of Scotland, the needs of our economy and the demands of our society.
Fourth, answering the demand for a more ethical society through the reform of markets which rip people off.
Getting a better deal for consumers from, for example, energy, pensions, and housing markets is central to easing both cost of living pressures and burdens on the state.
Fifth, making the ideal of the people’s sovereignty real by the deliberate redistribution, devolution and sharing of power and responsibility within Scotland.
For Scotland, that means not replacing the past centralisation of power in Westminster with the present centralisation of power in Holyrood. We did not deliver home rule to see power reside in Edinburgh as easily as it did in London.
This is the approach by which we can mobilise the energies and resources that exist in the systems of everyday life, bringing people together, and recognising that each of us are usually best placed to solve our problems – with the helping hand of others.
Renewing our commitment to stay together in 2014 will afford Scotland an opportunity to look anew both at the challenges we face and the tools we have at our disposal to address them.
The Scottish Parliament already has extensive powers over our education system, healthcare, policing and transport.
As a result of the Calman Commission proposals the Scottish Parliament will also gain new powers over Scottish rates of income tax.
The Liberal Democrats have already brought forward their thinking on a Federal UK set out in their Home Rule Commission.
Last month, even the Scottish Conservatives embraced the idea that devolution could be looked at anew.
Next month Scottish Labour’s Devolution Commission will produce its interim findings.
In October 2011 when I suggested that Scottish Labour needed to be ‘open minded’ about how the architecture of devolution could be improved, some saw it as simply a response to a Nationalist tide that six months after their historic victory was still running strong.
For myself, it was never a tactical point, but a considered judgment that a strong Scottish parliament has for decades been part of Scottish Labour’s DNA and that as the authors of devolution we should also be its defenders and developers.
Now, from a position of greater strength, is the right time to consider the appropriate balance of powers and responsibilities that makes sense for the years ahead.
But Scottish Labour’s vision has, at its best, encompassed not just democratic renewal but also social and economic renewal for Scotland.
And I want to suggest that one of the opportunities that choosing to stay together in 2014 would afford Scotland would be to move beyond a public debate and political agenda defined so narrowly around constitutional change.
Why do I make this claim?
Because, in truth, the relentless focus on issues of constitutional change of recent years has crowded out many other issues of vital debate.
But my point here is not limited to differences between the approach of Scottish Labour and the Scottish National Party.
In his seminal work “Outline of a theory of practice”, Pierre Bourdieu, the French anthropologist describes the way an elite tends to stay in power in almost any society. It is not simply by controlling the means of production but by shaping the discourse, the myths, the metaphors and the stories that every society uses to describe the world around it.
And what matters most in relation to those myths, metaphors and stories is not just what is discussed in public, but what is not discussed – because those topics are considered inappropriate, irrelevant, boring, unthinkable or just taboo.
Or, as Bordieu wrote: “The most successful ideological effects are those which have no need of words, but ask no more than a complicitous silence.”
For all that we may comfort ourselves that “We’re all Jock Tamson’s Bairns” for too long in Scotland too many voices have simply not been heard.
Voices of those left behind, the marginalized, the poor, the young. Voices too of our entrepreneurs, our third sector, our diverse communities. The haves and the have nots. In other words, the mosaic of diverse experience in Scotland without access to the discourse of the political elite.
The kind of voices that I hear each week in my surgeries, but too rarely on my television or radio.
Too much of our political life has been dominated by debates about constitutional change to the exclusion of social, political, cultural and economic change.
And those debates have been further diminished by a recurring “I’m right, you’re wrong”, “He said, she said” conflictual discourse that satisfies no-one. Least of all those it is supposedly there to persuade.
It has led to a shallowing, not a deepening, of our debates about the kind of nation we should be.
So having decided Scotland’s constitutional future, we should be debating instead the different Scotland we want to build.
Last week I travelled to Denmark and Sweden where I saw for myself how a national mission defined around childcare and early years education has helped define their sense of who they are and how they see themselves over recent decades.
After 2014, in Scotland we will have much more space to decide anew what is our shared mission and purpose for the years ahead. But that thinking has to begin now. Our economy, our services and our people cannot be left on hold while the constitutional deckchairs are shifted around by political deckhands.
We need a vision by which to navigate our nation’s future.
Of course, politicians will have a central role to play in shaping that agenda.
But the discussion and debate cannot – and should not – be limited simply to politicians.
So today I suggest one way to throw open the doors of democracy a little wider.
Twenty five years before the 2014 vote, back in 1989, the Scottish Constitutional Convention came together to agree the ‘Claim of Right’.
Although the Nationalists and the Tories in tandem boycotted the Convention, it brought together churches, trade unions and representatives of civic Scotland alongside politicians from Labour and the Liberals.
It recognised and responded to the need for constitutional change.
Today our need as a nation is different.
Our Parliament is in place, and in 2014 our referendum will take place.
And if, in 2014, Scotland chooses to stay together with our neighbours across the UK, that choice will see the defeat of the defining mission of the present Scottish Government and indeed of the Scottish National Party.
But we will also have an opportunity to start a different journey – not one defined by difference or grievance but possibility, potential and hope.
The choice to stay together will create an opportunity for politicians to lay the ground for a way of doing politics differently.
A time where politicians no longer speak about ‘the people of Scotland’ but instead the people speak and the politicians listen, deliberate and decide.
So this evening I ask: Could we in 2015 gather together a National Convention – “Scotland 2025” – to chart a new vision for an old nation for the next decade?
Gathering 25 years on from the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, this National Convention would look beyond an agenda of constitutional change.
And in convening and directing this endeavour Scotland could, and should, look outwards and learn lessons from others more recent experience.
Five years ago in 2008 Australia’s then Labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd brought together more than 1000 leading Australians to the national parliament to debate and develop long term options for the nation across ten areas of policy.
For Scotland, a national convention could be a gathering that embedded itself into and enriched our civic life as a cornerstone of public debate and reflection, shaping the very framing of how we engage in dialogue and discussion.
From how to raise our economic productivity, to the needs of our rural and island communities, from the challenge of sustainability, to harnessing the full potential of Scotland’s creative industries, it could draw on the talents, ideas and energy of Scotland’s many communities.
And rather than pretending politicians have all the answers, it could engage the people of Scotland in deliberating together a new vision for an old nation.
As the social commentator, Stephen Toulmin, suggests we have a choice between two attitudes toward the future: a choice between imagination and nostalgia, between facing the future, and backing into it.
As a nation, the choice is ours: to be shaped by the future through hope and imagination, or to back into the future bound by the continuing patterns of what has been.
In settings like the Church of Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission, in some of the Committees of the Scottish Parliament, and further afield in post Crash Iceland and elsewhere, we have caught glimpses of what such a conversation could involve.
It could create a space for a new kind of politics.
It could help change the way power is distributed and shared.
It could change the way we made sense of the ideal of the people being sovereign.
And it could genuinely help put people in charge of writing the next chapter of Scotland’s story.
It could make sure that the debate that the next 19 months will bring is not lost.
It could exemplify the value that we are better when we share together what we have, and care about our neighbour.
And it could turn a referendum lost by those who want to walk away into an opportunity for us all to walk forward together, no matter where our cross went on the ballot paper.
Let me conclude my remarks with this observation: Tom Devine’s magnificent work ‘The Scottish Nation’ concludes with the following words:
“Thus, when the first Scottish Parliament since 1707 met in Edinburgh in July of 1999, the Scottish nation undeniably embarked on another exciting stage in is long history.”
I am determined that the next chapter of our history that we write together after 2014 is indeed an exciting one.
It can be a chapter where we change not who we are, but how we are.
Where we remember what makes us different, and use that to walk together.
And where we grasp an opportunity for a new way of deciding our future together, transcending what might divide us, and sharing what inspires us, to be the Scots we know we can be.
Douglas Alexander is the Shadow Foreign Secretary and MP for Paisley & Renfrewshire South. This is the full text of his Playfair Library Lecture, due to be delivered at Edinburgh University this evening. Follow Douglas on Twitter at @DAlexanderMP.