As the authors of devolution, we must now become devolution’s defenders
I travelled down from Scotland to be here so you’ll appreciate why I say with real feeling that it’s a great privilege and a pleasure to be here in the capital city of a Labour nation.
A capital city that next May can, and with all of your efforts will, once again, be a Labour city.
So let me begin by congratulating the 30 Labour Assembly Members, Labour’s Cabinet team, and Labour’s First Minister, Carwyn Jones.
Let me also congratulate my friend and colleague Peter Hain and the whole team in Welsh Labour for Labour’s magnificent resurgence here in Wales.
And let me pay tribute to the Welsh Labour councillors and council candidates – the very bedrock of that resurgence – fighting for its next stage – by winning seats and councils across Wales in May.
Now over the last year, as Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, I’ve had the responsibility of leading Labour’s response to the momentous events in the Middle East and the continuing challenges facing Europe.
But today I want to speak to you of events closer to home.
Of what they tell us about our Party and our politics.
Of what we must do to win back power in Westminster, in Holyrood – and to secure our victory here in Wales.
I want to talk to you today not just as a fellow Labour Party member but also as a proud and patriotic Scot.
It is with humility but also with determination that I address this conference today.
Because last May, as Welsh Labour enjoyed a historic victory, in Scotland we suffered to a historic defeat.
We now have a new leader, Johann Lamont, who is working hard to bring Labour back, and a new Shadow Scottish Secretary Margaret Curran who is taking the fight to the Tories in Westminster.
But for Labour in Scotland, this has been a difficult and serious time: a time of lost hope, lost opportunity, and lost power.
So first I want to share with you a sense as to why that defeat happened and then discuss with you the consequences of the defeat for all of us.
For us, the result in May last year was bad. Very bad.
Labour – the Party which on the day the new Scottish Parliament was first elected in 1999 could claim without contradiction to be the only true National Party of Scotland, within twelve years found itself supported by only one in eight Scottish voters.
And the harsh truth 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.
Crucially it also reflected that those who voted for them had judged them competent in their stewardship of Government over the previous four years.
Last May’s result was about many things but I do not believe that, at root, Scotland was voting for independence.
I believe Scots were saying that they want Scotland to be a better nation. They feel pride in Scotland and want new possibilities for its people.
And the brutal truth for our Party – is that they didn’t feel last May that Labour was offering that better way forward.
And to be honest, when I reflect on your recent victory, and when I now see you campaigning here on the pledge of ‘Standing Up For Wales’ I wonder whether in Wales you have better understood the changed dynamics created by devolution, that ironically, as Scottish Labour, we helped create.
While I recognise that the dynamics and history of nationalism in Wales and Scotland are different in many ways – I am struck by how Welsh Labour has learnt so much from the rise of Plaid in the early years of the Assembly, and the shock of its defeat in Labour heartlands across Wales – particularly in the South Wales Valleys.
Welsh Labour has reformed its methods of organisation, campaigning, and communication. Not just at the Assembly level but also in local government.
All across Wales you have learnt how to fight again. To adapt to the reality that we cannot simply expect the Labour votes to pile up on the counting tables – year in year out.
Whether in the re-taking of those crucial South Wales valleys seats, in the ousting of Plaid from Ynys Mon at Westminster, or the recapture of Llanelli last May – Welsh Labour has shown an ability to get back to hard graft of community based campaigning that needs to be the hallmark of a reinvigorated Labour Party across Britain.
And the benefits have been far keenly felt than in the fight against Plaid – just look at the outstanding organisational achievements against the Tories in Cardiff North and against the Liberals in Cardiff Central last May.
Equally as crucial, you in Welsh Labour developed a distinctively Welsh social democratic offer – preventing Plaid from moving onto your territory even when you had to share the Cabinet table.
And by making sure that the people of Wales knew that it was Labour’s driving hand under Rhodri Morgan that was delivering the progress that they could see – in their transport, their schools, and their hospitals.
Under Carwyn and his team you are continuing a distinctive, and visionary approach that makes clear to the people of Wales that you are on their side – investing in jobs and PCSOs when faced by Tory/Liberal cuts – while at the same time setting out a vision of hope for the future – by using your new powers to put sustainable development at the heart of all that you do, or to develop new models of cooperative housing.
So we have much to learn from that experience and example because the roots of our defeat in May in part reflected our failure to fully adapt to the changed environment of the devolution we helped to create.
Last May, in Scotland, Labour 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.
Let me be honest. Scottish Labour never felt it needed to be New Labour in message or organisation – 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.
Seen through this light, the SNP’s victory in May – historic though it was – came despite their desire for independence not because of it.
People felt they could vote for the SNP to run the devolved government, comfortable in the knowledge that ‘the independence question’ would be dealt with later, if at all, in a separate referendum.
However, the SNP’s historic victory, Scotland now faces that momentous choice in the years ahead – A choice with consequences not just for Scotland, but also for Wales, Northern Ireland and England.
And in this 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, with 68% of Scotland’s exports going to the rest of the UK and with large UK owned companies employing more people in Scotland than large companies based in Scotland, profound economic questions will be asked and must be answered.
But this debate will, and must, involve more than accountancy.
It will involve deep and profound issues about who we are on these islands and what we believe.
Because like millions of my fellow Scots, and all of us here today, I have never believed that to stand up for Scotland and Wales means we need to break up Britain.
And I remain of the view that this United Kingdom, this oldest political union, embodies a quintessentially modern idea – that our 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 .
To now reject the sharing of risks, rewards and resources among the 60 million people of the United Kingdom and instead spend the coming years erecting new barriers between the nations of these islands would, for me, represent a fundamental separation from a progressive tradition that the SNP now falsely claim to represent.
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.
Now in the years ahead, the issue of Scotland’s future will be decided, rightly, by the people of Scotland.
But our future will affect your future.
The consequences of the choice Scotland makes in the referendum will be felt in Wales, England and Northern Ireland.
So, today, in a spirit of shared solidarity, I ask for your support in the coming contest.
In Wales, your example and your voice can make a powerful contribution to the debate about the future of the United Kingdom which is now underway.
My first ask is for you to keep doing what you’re doing: winning and delivering for the people of Wales. Showing very practically how Labour in a devolved context can deliver for people.
The Power of Progressive Example is not to be underestimated in this debate.
The SNP have recently taken to claiming to metropolitan audiences that Scotland, with the SNP in charge, is a “beacon of progressive politics”. So lets just take a moment to examine how does the rhetoric match the reality?
Let’s remember that until the last General Election the SNP walked through the division lobbies with the Tories on two out of three votes.
Lets also remember the SNP Leadership claim Scots “didn’t mind” Thatcher’s economics policy, and now advocate huge cuts in the corporate taxes for the banks……A kind of Reganomics with a kilt on.
And let’s examine their record in office.
Capital investment has been cut more quickly by the Scottish Government than even the UK Government.
Public sector jobs have been cut faster by the Scottish Government than even by the UK Government.
And on the key issue of child poverty let us not forget:
Every year under a Labour Government at Holyrood child poverty went down.
Under an SNP Government in Holyrood, child poverty has gone up.
But despite the facts – the reality is that before last May Scottish Labour lost too much of the debate – ground we must rapidly reclaim under our new leader Johann Lamont.
You too know the reality of Plaid’s failures in local government here in Wales – today propping up the Liberals in Cardiff or running Caerphilly into the ground.
So here in Wales, in tough times it falls to Labour to deliver, and be seen to deliver, an agenda for fairness: with leadership determined to show what devolution can do, not what it can’t do.
So your policy choices matter. But so too do your political voices. And today I would urge you to make Wales’ voice heard on the debate about the future of Britain.
With quiet determination, for forty years – since the advent of modern nationalism – Scottish people have rejected the idea that commitment to Scotland means a determination to cut our connection to the rest of Britain.
The SNP know this.
But that knowledge that they do not speak for Scotland on separation is also why they are determined to try to reduce this momentous choice to a contest between the First Minister and the Prime Minister.
They know the Tories remain deeply unpopular in Scotland and so hope to frame the contest as a battle between Scotland and the Tories. Between William Wallace and the Bogeyman.
That’s why they claim constantly that any scrutiny of their plans is scaremongering or anti-Scottish. But they wont be able to evade legitimate questions about Scotland’s future by simply wrapping themselves in the Saltire.
They’ve got no monopoly on patriotism, no matter how often they claim to have.
They now suggest that any voices heard from beyond Scotland are trying to “bully Scotland”.
This nationalist narrative – that seeks to amplify a sense of grievance in Scotland is deeply uncomfortable with, and indeed has no place for, Welsh voices or Welsh perspectives.
In truth, it suits the Scottish nationalists to see the rest of the United Kingdom as simply greater Westminster. To imply, somehow, that Wales is just the Home Counties with hills.
Passionate, patriotic, Welsh Labour voices just don’t fit in to their narrow nationalist script.
Now, at this time of year, Scotland and Wales may be rivals on the rugby pitch, sadly another example of where Wales has recently taken the lead – but by geography we are near neighbours. By history – we’re allies. By economics – we’re partners. And by fate, and fortune we are comrades, friends, and family.
So in the coming months and years I hope Carwyn, you will speak for Wales and make the case that Wales wants Scotland and the other parts of the UK to continue to work together and that we would all be diminished by the breakup of Britain.
I know the SNP will complain. They always do. But their attempt to shout down voices that don’t stick to their script is a sign of their weakness, not their strength.
And here is the final ask I would make from this platform today: continue to show by your words and your deeds the difference between Patriotism and Nationalism.
Each time you stand up for Wales, and for Labour values, while rejecting the politics of narrow nationalism, you make that distinction.
Nationalists call forth a fate for our islands, divided into separate national states taught to cherish their separateness.
But when I look at this audience I don’t see foreigners – I see friends and comrades.
So let us together speak up for our progressive, modern vision of Scotland and Wales’ future within Britain. Not one forced together by the imposition of a narrow and crude uniformity, but one that celebrates unity from diversity, a multinational Britain in which we gain strength from the interaction of different cultures, the loss of which would diminish us.
That is our shared heritage.
Keir Hardie may have been born in Lanarkshire but he represented the people of Merthyr Tydfil.
Welsh coal fired the ships of the Clyde but carried goods from every part of these islands to every corner of the globe.
The National Health Service was created by Aneurin Bevan, but it serves the whole of Britain.
Together our movement has achieved unique and great things on these islands.
Not just the NHS and our welfare state but the extension of the vote, rights for women, the raising of the school leaving age, and in our time, the National Minimum Wage, the equal rights bill, devolution to Wales and Scotland, peaceful resolution in Northern Island.
Our Party has a proud history as the advocates of devolution. The Labour Party conference as far back as 1918 supported legislative assemblies Scotland and Wales.
As the authors of devolution, we must now become devolution’s defenders.
As Labour we can be equal to that challenge. The challenge of spending the coming years pulling our whole society together, and rejecting politics that would pull our shared home apart.
Let us together now vanquish a politics of manufactured grudge and grievance.
Let us uphold a politics of working together. Of solidarity and cooperation. Of achieving together what we are unable to achieve alone.
That is our challenge. That is our commitment. And working together, that will be our achievement.
Douglas Alexander is the Shadow Foreign Secretary and served in the last Labour government as Secretary of State for Scotland, Transport and International Development. Follow Douglas on Twitter at @DAlexanderMP.