Walking with others, not walking away from them

In the Judith Hart Memorial Lecture to be delivered tonight, DOUGLAS ALEXANDER argued that those who see differences within the UK as a cause for separation rather than celebration are missing the point of what Scottishness means


May I begin by saying what a pleasure it is to be here in Rosebank in the Clyde Valley, and what an honour it is to be asked to deliver the Judith Hart Memorial Lecture. Thank you.

Judith Hart was an extraordinary woman, and it is fitting that she is commemorated in a way that both befits her memory and celebrates her life and vision – a vision that often challenged received wisdom and cultural conventions.

A graduate of the London School of Economics and the University of London, and a lecturer at a teacher training college, she served as the Labour MP for Lanark and subsequently Clydesdale from 1959 until 1987. One of just 25 women MPs elected in 1959, she served in a range of Ministerial Offices, and in so doing became only the 5th woman ever to serve in a British Cabinet.

But tonight I want to draw, in particular, on how what underpinned her life and work – over many years – as Minister of Overseas Development, helps to guide us, especially as we head towards the momentous decision facing Scotland next year. And I do so with some humility, as one of her successors in leading the British Government’s efforts to tackle global poverty.

Over recent years, Britain’s Department for International Development has rightly come to be seen as a global leader on aid effectiveness and I am proud that this year the UK will achieve the target set and worked for by Labour to meet the UN goal of committing 0.7% of our GNI on international development.  The road we have travelled is nowhere better exemplified than in our Tory Prime Minister, forced by public opinion, to meet and match Labour’s aid  commitment.

As Development Secretary I saw personally the impact of those much needed resources in babies receiving vaccinations, children gaining a teacher, families receiving bed-nets and the hungry receiving food. It is life changing, world changing work, to which Judith made a huge contribution.

One of her lasting legacies is to be found nearer to home. It is thanks to Judith Hart that East Kilbride became the location of the joint headquarters of the UK Department for International Development. It is a unique arrangement in Whitehall reflecting the imagination and vision of a unique woman. Not for her the idea that all things Westminster had to be in London.

It was, and remains for me, also a Labour MP from the West of Scotland, a matter of huge pride that each day, each week, hundreds of our fellow Scots get up and go to work in East Kilbride and on our behalf spend their day helping tackle disease, hunger and need – extending our help and assistance to some of the most afflicted places on Earth.

Tonight, reflecting on her strong sense of solidarity, I want to make the case that the prospect of next year’s referendum on independence – if we are willing and wise – affords us the opportunity to move beyond the argument that Scotland would be better walking away from our neighbours that has been a part of Scottish politics for decades, and instead embrace a different vision for our nation.

The case I want to make is that far from now having to walk away from our neighbours to somehow be the Scots we want to be, there is a better and more hopeful road on which we can journey from 2014. Walking away from others has never been our way – walking with others has been our heritage and to my mind should be our future.

In 1882 the French historian Ernst Renan posed the question: “What is a nation?” Dismissing the familiar arguments around geography, race, language and religion, he argued that:

Now, the essence of a nation is that all its people have a great deal in common, and also that they have forgotten a great deal.

He suggested that nationhood involved both the past and present:

One is the possession of a rich legacy of memories; the other is the present day consent, the desire to live together, the will to value the undivided heritage one had received.

Much scholarly interest has focused on Renan’s assertion that a nation must have forgotten as well as remembered together.

But in my remarks this evening, I want to focus not on forgetting but on remembering: by sharing with you two stories… one from personal memory, about my grandmother. and one from our history, about the Scottish Enlightenment.

What binds these different stories together is what they tell me about what it is to be Scottish, defined, I believe, by what and who we are to others, not who we are not.

I make no claim that this interpretation is universal. It is not simply our landscape, to recollect McDiarmid’s poem, that is “infinite”. Our nation is in fact a constant conversation, made up of a multitude of stories that are constantly adapting, interacting and changing. As the poet Douglas Dunn would have it, our Scottishness should be understood as a ‘Kaleidoscope’.

Tonight I have already acknowledged our great debt to Judith Hart, the remarkable woman this lecture honours. But I want to begin an exploration of my own Scottishness by talking more personally about another remarkable woman – my maternal grandmother – and in so doing share with you part of my own family’s story.

Isobel Garven, my grandmother, was born in Glasgow in 1901. Her mother, my great grandmother, died when she was just a child, and so she was brought up by her father.

He was a General Practitioner in the St George’s Cross area of the city, and as what today we would call a single parent, he would take her on his visits to treat his patients. I remember her telling me that in these years long before Aneurin Bevan established our National Health Service, he would never take a payment if the children in the home had no shoes. There were a lot of children without shoes around St George’s Cross.

No doubt these house calls with her father had an effect on my grandmother as, remarkably for her time, she decided herself to become a doctor. And that is exactly what she did… graduating as one of the earliest female graduates of medicine from Glasgow University in 1925. Just as Judith Hart broke conventions so she could better serve others, so did my grandmother.

After graduating, she met and married my grandfather who was also a recent medical graduate of Glasgow University. Both had been involved in the Student Christian Movement and together they decided to go to China as Medical Missionaries of the Church of Scotland.

In Manchuria, she and my grandfather immersed themselves in the local culture – learning to write and speak fluent Chinese, living the adventure of difference, bringing up their son and three daughters amidst some very hazardous periods of conflict, and over many years building the academic status and medical services of the Moukden Medical College.

As if these challenges were not sufficient, during these years my grandmother also helped my grandfather to write and publish, in Chinese, books on both the ornithology and the flora of North China.

They lived a deeply different life. They were shaped by many new and at times challenging things.  Yet they never stopped being Scottish. They brought that self understanding to this new place; shared it and received what this new place brought to them.

Last week I travelled to China. I left the Scottish Labour Conference in Inverness on the Saturday evening, had two days of meetings with Chinese Government officials in Shanghai, and was back in the House of Commons by the Wednesday evening.

In this era of air travel and instant electronic communication – of Skype and email – it is hard now to comprehend the isolation, the sheer sense of distance and “apartness” from Scotland – that my grandmother accepted as the price of her endeavours to train Chinese doctors.

She told me years ago of her fear on arriving in so foreign a land and went on to explain to me that urgent family news – such as bereavement – took seven weeks to reach Manchuria from Scotland. The e-mails I sent from Shanghai were being read here in Scotland in less than seven breaths.

Yet I believe my grandparents had something much more important than communication. They had communion. I do not mean this in the religious sense, despite them being committed Christians. I mean it in the sense that they were deeply and meaningfully engaged in relationships: with their family, with their students, and with the environment and culture around them. In drinking deep of the lives of their very different neighbours they were better able to fully be who they could be; international scots, celebrating diversity, serving others.

Decades on that truth endures: we become fully ourselves only through the deepening of our relationships, especially with those who are not who we are. Making a contribution through establishing deeper and more complete connections makes each of us who we are.

Of course we can still develop in isolation, but I suggest it is through connection and contribution with and to others that allows us to fully become ourselves.

We become who we are in conjunction with those around us becoming who they are. I believe that. And so too, I sense, did my grandmother and my grandfather.

Writing in an article for the Scotsman on what would have been the Jubilee year of the Moukden Medical College in 1962, my grandfather – by then back in Scotland – began the piece by quoting a Chinese proverb which in English goes: “If you are planting for ten years, plant trees. If you are planting for a hundred years, plant men.”

He understood that it is by becoming entangled in the web of human relationships – with neighbours, friends, and family – that we experience the essence of human flourishing.

And why do I share that family story this evening.

Because it has indelibly shaped my sense of who I am, and who, as Scots, we are. It reminds me that it is our connectedness, in our relationships – our interdependence – with our neighbours close by and with distant strangers who are the neighbours we have yet to meet, that we can both make a contribution and best discover who we are, and what we can be.

Here in Scotland and further afield I have spent a lifetime grappling to engage with the adventure of difference, so I am distrustful of a politics that draws its energy from a default belief that the assertion of difference in all circumstances is a universal panacea to all ills – including, often, where there are none.

Indeed, for me, basing your politics around a starting point of difference all too easily becomes a denigration of others.

That is why I reject a cultural conceit that implies not only that as Scots we are committed to social justice, but that our friends, family and colleagues across the UK somehow are not.

This was not Judith Hart’s view. Nor indeed was it the view of that other Lanarkshire Labour representative and great internationalist, James Keir Hardie. It has not been my experience and that helps explain why it is not my politics.

Ahead of next year’s referendum, there are those who think that Scotland needs to walk away from our neighbours to fully become who we are.

They see difference requiring not celebration but separation.

But this approach, to my mind, misses the very point of who we are.

For me, for Scotland to be that better nation does not demand that we become a separate nation. Scotland is not diminished by being part of the family of nations within the United Kingdom, just as we are not diminished as individuals by our relationships…indeed it is through our relationships that we discover who we really are.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, so let me try to illustrate my point about what, for me, explains my sense of Scottishness, by moving our discussion on from two women who in the last century, in their own way, were remarkable, to a meeting of two truly extraordinary Scottish men from an earlier era.

If you have the chance to visit Abbotsford House near Melrose you can see a painting by Charles Martin Hardie, which shows the only documented meeting of Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott.

These two men, perhaps more than any others, have shaped the popular but often contradictory senses of what is meant by Scottishness; romantic and radical, populist and political, sophisticated and sentimental, burdened and beautiful, egalitarian and exclusive.

This only known meeting between surely the two greatest figures of Scottish literature took place when Scott was just 15 at Sciennes in Edinburgh in the winter of 1786-7.

This was centuries before the Curriculum for Excellence was introduced to our schools, but aged just 15 Walter Scott was already studying Classics at the University of Edinburgh….surely the only person in Scottish history to make our own Gordon Brown – who lets remember went to Edinburgh University aged 16 – look like a late developer in education.

Sciennes House – the site of the meeting – was the home of Professor Adam Ferguson.

Sadly, but typically of the time, no women seem to have been present at this meeting. But what does make the meeting remarkable – as the picture reveals – was that in attendance at the meeting was not just Ferguson but Dugald Stuart, the philosopher and mathematician, Joseph Black, a professor of medicine, the geologist James Hutton, Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, and the author John Home famous for his Novel “Douglas!”

John F Kennedy once famously observed about a gathering honouring Nobel Prize Winners in 1962 “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone”.

Hardie’s painting also reveals an extraordinary collection of talent: Scots that reflected the most astonishing  flourishing of intellect and human knowledge in our nation’s history… the Scottish Enlightenment.

And that historic meeting years ago is relevant to Scotland’s historic decision next year for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it surely needs to be recognised that the extraordinary Scots represented in this painting were not diminished by the constitutional structures in place at the time and they certainly were not made any less Scottish by it.

They were Scots who by their intellect and their industry showed that not only could Scots travel around the globe, but so too could Scottish ideas and inventions, shaping and being shaped by the world view of others but never losing that sense of being Scottish.

Their intellectual descendants would include the likes of John Witherspoon, Mary Slessor, Andrew Carnegie, Lord Kelvin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Elsie Ingles, David Livingstone, John Logie Baird and many, many more including household names today like Peter Higgs or J.K. Rowling, global Scots who never ceased to be just that, Scottish, in their eyes and the eyes of others no matter the constitutional construct of their home nation, whose stage was the world and whose influence was global.

And here is another reason that this historic meeting is relevant to our historic decision next year.

Those gathered in that room were distinguished by their ideas and ideals, things they saw were gifts to be shared in debate and discussion, thriving on the intellectual demands of disagreement without ever suggesting that the objective was to win at all costs or that to lose an argument was to devalue a viewpoint.

Yet as Scotland faces her choice next year, too much of our public debate and discourse is dominated not by ideas and ideals, but by what could be more accurately described as a battle for standing.

The Harvard Professor and former Leader of the Canadian Liberal Party, Michael Ignatieff, has said:

In a Court of Law, standing determines whether you are allowed to participate in a Legal Action.

In politics, standing also determines your right to be heard and accepted as a legitimate voice in the debate.

Thankfully, standing is not conferred by wealth. Nor, as Ignatieff’s own experience in politics attests, is it conferred by academic brilliance or professional accomplishment.

As he argues, in a time of eroding political allegiances when politics has less authority, legitimacy and respect than ever, modern political debate all too often descends into simply a battle for standing: The essence of standing being whether the politician is accepted as “one of us” as opposed to “one of them”.

All too often in modern politics this battle for standing leads inexorably and inevitably to a vilification of opponents, as the distinction between ‘opponent’ and ‘enemy’ becomes blurred, with the result that the goal becomes not to defeat the opponent but to destroy the enemy.

As I listened to Ignatieff’s lecture, and then later had the opportunity to discuss it with him, it became clear to me how powerful a lens this notion of ‘standing’ provides to observe and understand contemporary political discourse.

It is true, as I have had the chance to observe, globally – and it is true here in Scotland. In particular it is true in relation to the referendum.

And I believe there is another reason why we should pay heed to Ignatieff’s warnings here in Scotland.

A decade ago I read Carol Craig’s “The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence”. It was certainly a controversial work, but it left a lasting impression on me, not least for some of the insights it offered on our national culture.

Craig suggests that what is often articulated as what is meant by being Scottish comes with a fairly narrow set of attitudes about how a “true Scot” would behave and what he or she should think, and that this ‘self-policing’ quality to aspects of Scottish culture has had a significant and enduring detrimental impact on our national culture and personal conduct.

Indeed, she confesses that as she wrote some of the more contentious passages she could hear the phrase “Who does she think she is?” ringing in her ears.

So, I would suggest, that planting seeds of doubt about whether an opponent is really “one of us” or is in fact “one of them” can all too readily find fertile ground in our Scottish discourse – it is familiar – comfortable for some, but ultimately damaging, and we need to step outside it and quickly or we will not make the best of what this referendum offers us.

Recognising the importance of ‘standing’ and its pursuit as a political substitute for reasoned engagement helps explain the repeated use by the Nationalists over many years of the term “London Labour” – an attempt to deny ‘standing’, to both disqualify and delegitimize, their principal Scottish opponents.

It helps explain Alex Salmond’s repeated refusal to debate Alastair Darling and his demand to debate David Cameron – a transparent attempt to be seen in Scotland as “one of us” not “one of them”.

It helps explain why on Wednesday when the Foreign Affairs Select Committee released their report into Scottish independence and expressed their concerns about the lack of basic detail and costings for an independent Scottish foreign policy, the nationalist response was as swift as it was predictable.

The Deputy First Minister ignored the fact that the report was compiled after hours of evidence from eminent and knowledgeable figures, choosing instead to dismiss it as coming from those who ‘opposed independence’. Rather than engage with the issues in the report, the nationalists chose instead to denounce it by denying ‘standing’ to the authors.

Ignatieff’s insight throws a shaft of light on some of the darker corners of political discourse – and it’s time for our public debate here in Scotland to leave behind this battle for standing and embrace a more rigorous and inclusive debate.

In fact, the referendum debate we have already seen a number of issues of policy and substantive matters of factual challenge raised. Raised and yet by and large not answered.

On currency, on NATO, on pensions and EU membership, even on who gets a passport. Of course these and other related questions matter profoundly and must be answered in the months ahead.

But my argument is not, on this occasion, about the weakness of those who wish us to walk away from our neighbours.  It is more fundamental than that.

It is about the need to ensure that, on this most profound of questions for any people, we do not allow a partisan, withering and ultimately barren assertion of who is allowed or not allowed to have a legitimate view to be a substitute for healthy, plural debate on the core issues.

As all sides must agree – before you can even begin to take up the position of either better together or ‘walking away’ – the starting point has to be the legitimacy of all Scots to participate. Put simply, that we are all entitled to speak and be heard.

And at its most elemental level this debate is one which needs to take place with the people of Scotland – not above their heads between politicians and political organisations.

The real task for those who wish to walk away is not to engage with the Better Together campaign, but engage with the people of Scotland.

Understandably since it’s launch, the ‘Yes’ campaign has attempted to position itself as more than a Potemkin village for the SNP.

It seeks to position itself as a pluralist, pragmatic and patriotic campaign. Fair enough – though they do not hold ownership of those terms.

Yet therein lies some of the roots of its present difficulties. Because for many nationalists, their belief in independence is not a pragmatic instrumental judgement, but remains, an existential and absolutist cause.

Let me be clear, it is not that the Nationalist ranks don’t include capable people. It was, in part, this capability that helps explain their historic victories in 2007 and 2011.

But the nationalists’ a priori commitment to independence leads to a politics where the facts are fluid but the cause is constant.

If the economy is doing well… that’s an argument for independence.

If the economy is doing badly… that’s an argument for independence.

If our banks are doing well… that’s an argument for independence.

If our banks are in crisis… that’s an argument for independence.

If unemployment is low… that’s an argument for independence.

If unemployment is high… that’s an argument for independence.

With such a world view, faith trumps facts.

That’s what actually lies behind much of their recent difficulties on EU membership, NATO membership, pension arrangements or indeed the currency or citizenship.

For many Nationalists the evidence on these vital issues is, and will always be, secondary to the primary goal of independence.

Most of us here in Scotland start the debate from a difference place, and so inevitably, end up in a different place from the Nationalists.

It is not that we do not want change. We do. Yet the nationalists are struggling because the change they offer is not the change we seek.

The uncomfortable truth for the Yes campaign is that their problem is not that they need to “sharpen up” their efforts as Dennis Canavan argued last week, or just “be bolder” as Margo MacDonald suggested at the weekend.

Their difficulty is far deeper than that.

The Nationalists’ difficulty is that their settled will – an unwavering belief in independence – remains at odds with the sovereign will of the Scottish people.

The Scottish people understand the difference between incredible claims and credible answers.

And that explains why the response of the people of Scotland to the Nationalists efforts has not been characterised so much by “Yes we can!” as “Aye, that’ll be right.”

An approach by the Nationalists – be it tactical, political or organisational – that continues to fail to offer a complete and open prospectus, will not only ill serve their cause but also ill serve the debate.

To dismiss any question of their belief about “what’s best for Scotland” as “sabre-rattling” or “scaremongering” is to dismiss the legitimate rights of Scottish people to answers worthy of this historic choice.

So in the months ahead, we need a national discourse that allows for scrutiny, critique and judgement by the people of Scotland.

We need a politics of opponents. Not enemies.

We need a discourse of political difference, not a politics that descends in to personal destruction.

We need a debate that values our human relationships with those who we disagree beyond the desire to win at all costs.

And we need to find ways to disagree without being disagreeable. Our fellow Scots deserve a different quality of imagination in this time of choosing, and a debate worthy of a momentous choice.

What we need in the coming months is a different kind of debate not just about our identity but about our ideas and ideals. About what kind of nation we want to become. And that should be a debate defined by ideas and ideals; not a battle for ‘standing’.

Bill Clinton said in his speech accepting the Democratic Party nomination in 1992 “there is no them and us, there is only us”.

Barack Obama echoed these sentiments in Grant Park as it became clear he had won the presidency in 2008: “no red states, no blue states, just the United States.”

Can we, in the time between now and September 2014, have a conversation about who we are and where we are going as a nation that models that generous and patriotic way of seeing the world?

In the past we have achieved such a discourse, and I believe we can again. Within my own tradition, in the Church of Scotland, the centre piece of the worship is the preaching of the word. John Knox helped develop a religion emphasising understanding of the word.

It was that belief that inspired the Church here in Scotland to lead the world in helping to establish a school in every parish.

And it was that belief that, in the words of Campbell MacLean “produced the most knowledgeable and articulate lay theologians in the history of the Christian church”.

So we are a nation and a culture that revered scholarship and ideas…..long before even the flowering of the Scottish Enlightenment which in itself was a product of that theological vision of the need for all to know what we believed so we could be the citizens we would hope to be.

Much more recently, during the long struggle for home rule, Scotland produced landmark writing that shaped the intellectual landscape and the contours of our consciousness. Whether it was Tom Nairn’s “The Break-up of Britain”, Gordon Brown’s “Red Paper on Scotland”, the reflective journalism of Neal Ascherson, or the urgent warnings of William MacIllvaney’s “Surviving the Shipwreck” these were major works from major thinkers.

Yet with just over a year to go until the referendum, the prospect of independence has not produced a single major theoretical work of note. Instead, despite the handsome and historic victory of the SNP in 2011, too often the advocates of independence seem to have satisfied themselves with decrying their opponents.

Just this week, we saw the SNP’s Angus Robertson attempt to belittle the campaign against independence, by branding people who opposed separation as having the view that “people in Scotland are uniquely poor, stupid and incapable of governing themselves”.

As a supporter of the Better Together campaign, I find this characterisation not just inaccurate, but crass and offensive. More importantly, however, it patronises the Scottish people who are quite capable of making an informed choice between different viewpoints without one side denigrating the other

Yet what should concern us even more is that systematic denigration of fellow Scots is now directed at even those far beyond party politics.

Just this week the comedian Susan Calman told of her experience after daring to joke about the referendum on the BBC Radio 4 News Quiz.

She spoke of receiving death threats and being accused of “betraying” her country, being racist towards her own people, “talking down” Scotland, and of “self loathing”.

This truly appalling episode is just the latest example of the hate filled outpouring of the so-called “cyber-nats”, whose characteristic is general intolerance to everybody and anybody who does not share their outlook.

How has Scotland – rightly proud of our openness and tolerance – arrived at a place where a comedian is smeared, bullied and even threatened for speaking out and making light of the pretensions of politicians?

This incident comes, let us remember, just weeks after the Scotsman’s offices – just a few yards from the debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament – have had the word ‘traitors’ painted on its walls.

All of us here in Scotland – whatever our party affiliations and whatever our views on the referendum – should condemn unequivocally statements and actions that poison the well of public debate and demand a different and better conversation ahead of Scotland’s choice.

It seems to me the real debate we need is not who we are, but how we are. Not a divisive and bitter battle for standing, but a respectful offering of differing visions for the future of our nation: We need vision, not viciousness, as we make our choice.

If we are to discuss a new vision for an old nation, then to my mind, it is the essence of that vision and what has to be done together to achieve it that must be to the fore in such discussion.

And in trying to answer this question I want to suggest we need to apply both rationality and emotion.

Rationality, in the sense of discerning carefully what are the challenges we together need to address as a nation. And emotion in the sense that we need to offer a vision compelling enough to enlist the support and participation of the public in its achievement.

As that great enlightenment scholar David Hume put it “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

This is a debate about how we feel about our story, our belief, our sense of self, and it is what we do with the energy created by those emotional responses that will make the difference

That surely was the greatest gift of the Scottish Enlightenment. It involved shining a light in dark places. The great Scottish scholars of the time – across a range of disciplines – wanted to root out irrationality, superstition, and religious fundamentalism, what they saw as the evils of their day, asking emotionally charged questions and offering rationally developed responses to help guide the next steps of the human journey.

Recent weeks have afforded me the chance to reflect on a deeper question of what are the principle ‘evils’ of today that diminish our lives here in Scotland. We are a nation of great strengths but also very real problems.

Of course at this point I could offer a familiar litany of the great and pressing problems facing Scotland – from rising child poverty, stubbornly high levels of unemployment or indeed our dysfunctional relationship with alcohol with all the consequential harms that often result – from ill health to domestic violence.

But this evening I want to try and make a deeper point, reflecting on what allows individuals and communities to thrive and acknowledging the centrality to our well being of how we relate to each other and contribute to addressing these shared challenges.

All of the problems I have mentioned – from child poverty to alcoholism – are underpinned by this truth: Too often as politicians we seem to assume that people are rationalistic, detached individuals responding to policy initiatives.

Yet, as David Brooks has illuminated in his book “The Social Animal” it is in fact “scientists, philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists who in recent years have been developing real insight into human nature and what allows humans to thrive: acknowledging the importance of emotion and recognising that we’re not individuals – we’re deeply connected.”

I was reminded of this recently when sitting in the same pew in St Paul’s Cathedral as Scotland’s First Minister and the Scottish Parliament’s First Presiding Officer at the Funeral of Margaret Thatcher.

When I heard the news of her death, I did not rejoice, but I did, to an extent that surprised me, reflect. Of course, to people of my age, Margaret Thatcher was a huge dominating figure who obliged you to define your politics… in my case against what she stood for.

And while much of the coverage reminded us again of the undoubted material hardship many suffered in those years, what surprised me about my reaction was the powerful recollection of the division and brokenness of relationships that her period in office witnessed in our national life.

My feelings focused not simply on the material impoverishment – but the overwhelming sense of disempowerment so many of us felt.

The sense that, as those who disagreed with her, we were not ‘opponents’ but ‘the enemy within’.

The sense that we were strangers in our own land.

The sense of alienation from the prevailing public story of the time.

It was the lack of neighbourliness – of empathy, respect, recognition, of relationship – that decades on I recoiled from.

Back in 1983 Margaret Thatcher told an interviewer that “Economics is the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”

Anyone who remembers the broken lives and broken communities caused by mass unemployment doesn’t need to be convinced that policy choices can affect our souls as well as our economy.

It was a time when – to my mind – government walked away from the empathy, support, and reciprocity that binds us together.

Why does that matter? Because, at root, democratic politics is the way we should act together to protect and uphold our humanity, in all of its genius and all of its vulnerability.

Back in 1988 I sat with my father in the gallery of the Assembly Hall listening to Margaret Thatcher give her “Sermon on the Mound”. That day she argued that the good Samaritan was only able to help because he had money – a theological interpretation so poor as to be laughable if it wasn’t so serious– for the story has nothing to do with money and everything to do with my theme – that in transcending difference (the Samaritans and Jews were mortal enemies) we find out who we really are.

The story is not just about the altruism of the Samaritan helping his enemy but the moment of truth when the Jewish man, suffering from his mugging, opens his eyes and see his enemy is his neighbour.

How is the present Nationalist discourse of “we’d do better as Scots by walking away from our neighbour” leading us to a place like that moment of deep humanity on the road to Jericho?

Now the reason I share my reactions and recollections with you this evening is that I believe our pressing task today is not to walk away from our neighbours, but instead to come together with our neighbours here in Scotland and with our neighbours beyond Scotland, seeing them as us and our common future being how we face our problems, together.

What were all too often destroyed in the eighties were not just workplaces, but communities – places and spaces where mutual understanding, support, and care were upheld. What, in fact, we recognise as society.

And decades on, I would argue that we should recommit ourselves as a nation to trying to nurture and grow what the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has called “ecologies of hope” in communities across our nation where too often today we find despair, cynicism, and loneliness.

That’s why earlier this year I asked: if at the referendum Scotland chooses to stay together as part of the United Kingdom, could we as Scots gather together as a National Convention?

Just last month Johann Lamont launched the interim report of Scottish Labour’s Devolution Commission, an important body of work that will inform Labour’s thinking on how devolution can be developed.

Looking beyond this constitutional focus, a National Convention in 2015 – “Scotland 2025” – could chart a new vision for an old nation for the next decade.

At a time where politicians no longer speak about ‘the people of Scotland’ but instead, too often, the people may speak but the politicians decide, a convention would allow all voices to be heard.

Of course, as a Labour politician, I would want to see that Convention address changes to the economic, political and social structures that perpetuate inequality and hold people back.

But the Labour movement has also long understood that values like equality or freedom are built in relationships, and in practices that strengthen our common life.

Indeed, for generations the Labour movement at its best has understood that ultimately the health, well being, strength and happiness of our society is not dictated by material well being alone. It always comes back to relationships.

Of course we should work to banish poverty and need, but building those ‘ecologies of hope’ – communities of trust, acceptance, and respect – is a worthy vision for our nation.

Of course, government has a vital role and enduring responsibility…a system of social security should be the rock beneath our feet, our justice system should be the shield that holds us safe, our education system should be the nourishment of our potential, our health system should be hand that catches us when we fall.

But on that solid rock of shared citizenship and mutual obligation we need to find new ways to empower and enfranchise people and communities.

I encounter that power in the work of the local foodbank I helped to establish with Renfrewshire Churches, one of the many new foodbanks sadly being opened across the nation our nation today.

You can see glimpses of it in “The New Road” by Alf Young and Ewan Young. The book tells the story of this father and his son’s week long journey around Scotland from Dunbar to Knoydart charting some of the employment, social, and environmental projects they encounter.

And you can sense that power in the conversations of the Poverty Truth Commission where the stillness of listening becomes the healing of hope.

This recognition of connection and contribution in tackling our problems is not an alternative to Government accepting its responsibility. It is a means of recognising it whilst acknowledging both the pressures people are under and the source of hope and energy that exist in everyday life and every community.

It is borne of a recognition that our greatest resource is not oil or wind, but each other.

And it allows people to come together to improve their lives rather than suggesting that there is a Government solution to every problem.

It’s not soft, and it’s not easy. Indeed if I was to identify one example of this approach it would be the work of Karyn McCluskey and the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit in tackling one of our hardest problems in the West of Scotland – gang violence in Glasgow.

It has achieved a 50% reduction in gang violence. Explaining the nature of the problem, McCluskey says:

You can ask any grandmother out of the estates and she’ll tell you exactly what the problem is”. She says “it’s the parents, she’ll tell you, it’s the families.

McCluskey is equally clear:

At the end of the day, it’s empathy. Empathy is what keeps us together. It’s all really about people getting on with other people.

Reflect on those words: “At the end of the day, it’s empathy. Empathy is what keeps us together.”

That is true for families. It is true for communities. And it is true for nations. It is our connectedness that makes us who we can be.

And, in essence, that is why, for all the talk of Scotland being a ‘Progressive Beacon’, and for all the talk of Scotland being ‘more Social Democratic’ – I have always seen Scottish Nationalism as fundamentally a negative rather than a positive vision for our nation.

It is premised more on “no” than “yes”.

It suggests that the people across the rest of the UK are so different from us that separation is not only inevitable but necessary. – necessary for what and for whom?

That lack of sympathy, the retreat from neighbourliness explains much of the prescriptions and policies offered by the Nationalists in contemporary political debate.

The suggestion that if Tory austerity is the cause of pain, the best response is to leave our neighbours to forever suffer it whilst we stand apart and enjoy some alchemical new wealth and new nirvana.

The belief that somehow, with US style taxes we can have Scandinavian welfare benefits whilst leaving our neighbours to suffer a Tory view which sees benefits not as the rock beneath our feet but a burden upon the rich

I want our debate to be as much about what is good for us and our neighbours collectively as well as for ourselves

I want our debate to live in our differences, as we search together for our common purpose not walk away from our neighbours because we think our history makes living together somehow incompatible

I want our decision to start with the question what will this mean for others, those who do not see themselves as Scots but who are our neighbours? In that answer I will find out who I am and what “being Scottish” really means

I want the conversation in the heads of each of us as we enter the voting booth to be about relationships and reciprocity not simply a ledger of accounts, to be about how we reach out not when do we walk away, to be a celebration of difference not a compounding of grievances

As this speech has reflected, the debate of the coming months will ask deep questions of all of us….not just who we are and who we want to be. Not just how we are together, but how together we want to live in the years ahead.

I believe that neighbourliness – not walking away – has shaped my sense of who as Scots we are. And that we do not need to walk away to be the Scots we want to be. Judith Hart did not walk away. Isobel Garven did not walk away. And I will not walk away.

And I believe that a decision to not walk away from our neighbours in 2014 will allow us to together chart a new vision for an old nation.

In the past I have called for Scottish Labour to be a “Voice of Hope in the Scottish Conversation”.

But our duty is not simply to talk, but to walk with people and communities, helping them organise, become enfranchised and empowered.

I believe that our calling is to nurture ‘ecologies of hope’ in communities across Scotland blighted today by isolation, despair, cynicism, and loneliness.

To create places and spaces that uphold and nurture our common life, to be a catalyst for a new politics that begins with who is my neighbour, and to shape new relationships as the basis for our Scottishness in the years ahead.

That seems to me a new vision worthy of our old nation in the months before September 2014 and in the years beyond it.

Douglas Alexander is the Shadow Foreign Secretary and MP for Paisley & Renfrewshire South. Follow Douglas on Twitter at @DAlexanderMP.

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5 thoughts on “Walking with others, not walking away from them

  1. I wholly concur with the sentiment that the debate must be more rational and civil. With this in mind (and accepting that I have not spent a working life in politics, so I may lack Douglas’s insight) I would like to put forward the following.

    The past memories of times spent together will not disappear, they will remain joint memories and the importance of prominent Scots and their actions will never be forgotten.

    However we are now at a point where over the last thirty years that joint relationship has changed to the detriment of what I believe in.

    Imagine a group of people trying to move a large cart with all of their baggage along a muddy track, each with a rope to pull upon. Some may pull to the front, others to the left or the right, but all moving forward. Sometimes the cart needs a bit of a heave to get it back on track. A push left or right to restore balance, let’s say.

    Imagine now that there are ten people pulling largely in one direction, whilst a sole individual is pulling in the other. The cart begins to leave the track. What does the individual do? Do they keep vainly pulling or do they unload their own bag and keep going the way they want to? Are their efforts in previously pulling the cart, forgotten by them and their erstwhile companions? I doubt it.

    I fully accept that some may see this as a ludicrous analogy, but if you do, perhaps the least it will have done is allow you to understand the opposite perspective and appreciate it for what it is, rather than dismissing it as mere stupidity.

  2. Excellent stuff Douglas and worthy of Judith Hart (I worked with Tony Hart at the GLC 1982-85, when he was Deputy Labour Whip.) Truly heavyweight arguments and a stiff rebuttal of the accusation that Better Together is a negative campaign.

  3. I don’t understand this line of argument which conflates independence with small mindedness or lack of interconnectedness -it’s an easy argument to make but not borne out by the modern reality of Scotland as an increasingly intercultural nation where most individuals are highly adapted to being Scots – independent Scots with a small “i” – and also holding an affinity to another place beyond Scotland. Many of us do it very well and will still be voting YES because looking outward at the world while voting YES for self-determination is not an incompatible option. None of us can measure affective qualities like Scottishness in each other – or all the other connotations of place and culture that go alongside it.

    By the way your family history sounds fascinating and makes for a compelling narrative of the Scottish/UK vision of working for others across the world. However aren’t you just projecting them -?

  4. So what you’re telling us is essentially there’s no such thing as a family of independent nations? As the would-be foreign secretary I would have thought you’d understand otherwise. You had the chance in this speech to make this fair but you’ve made it one-sided by suggesting that the only evil from cyber-space in this debate comes from supporters of independence. There are just as many unionists who are guilty of online abuse as supporters of independence. Please don’t ignore that.

    Douglas, I celebrate the fact that England and Scotland are two nations which is why I always treat the UK as four nations not one. I was born in England and consider myself English first and foremost though with some strong Scandinavian permutations. I have however lived in Scotland all my life and feel welcome here simply due to the good nature of the Scots as a people at welcoming other nationalities. I don’t feel I need to live in a shared nation with the Scots to feel at home in Scotland. And voting Yes next year as I will because I believe Scotland would be a far wealthier nation as a result is not the wish to walk away from family in the south of England. I would be worried if there was a physical border between England and Scotland but I cannot for the life of me see that happening. So I don’t see why I would have any less reason to travel down to Guildford to see my grandmother. Unless of course the infrastructure of England deteriorates so much that it takes several days to get there. But again what is the likelihood of that happening?

    However, if a nation is to be defined as a collection of people with a great deal in common, well Douglas, I call that nation Planet Earth!

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