John Smith at the Labour conference in 1992. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Douglas Alexander's speech on the lessons of John Smith's life: full text

"Let us embrace John’s better and bigger vision – a people united, Scottish and British, and a powerhouse parliament able to separate Scotland from poverty."

Thank you very much, Michaella, for that kind introduction.

 

Before moving on to my main address I want to begin by paying tribute to Ken for his work in strengthening devolution.

 

The Calman Commission brought about the most significant transfer of power to the Scottish Parliament since devolution began back in 1999. 

Your personal leadership of the Commission displayed a deft touch in bringing together people of different political views united by the common goal of seeking a stronger Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom. 

It also established, not in arcane theory but in practical achievement, that devolution was not an event, it was and is a process. We are not even yet at the end of that process but thank you Ken for the work you’ve done and the difference that your work will make to the people of Scotland. 

Today we mark two anniversaries: a happy one, fifteen years past, with the convening of Scotland’s first ever democratic Parliament and a tragic one, twenty years past, with the death of Labour’s lost leader, John Smith. 

And we do so in Edinburgh, a city so central to both events. 

Since that first session fifteen years ago the Scottish Parliament has achieved much: a Climate Change Act that is world leading in ambition for carbon reduction; a commitment to zero tolerance on domestic violence; the commitment to remove homelessness by 2016; Land Reform, the massive and radical Glasgow housing stock transfer, the smoking ban and so very much more. 

And, of course, one of those people whose efforts were essential to establishing the Scottish Parliament was the late John Smith. 

Twenty years ago I was a law student in this city when I received, in shock and sadness a telephone call from Gordon Brown telling me of John’s passing. 

In common with so many of my generation of Labour activists I felt a great personal loss but I was also aware almost immediately that this was a loss that would be felt well beyond the ranks of the Labour and Trade Union movement. Well beyond Scotland as well. 

And when the huge crowd gathered in Cluny Parish Church for his funeral, here was visible proof of that. Political opponents certainly, from across the Parties but politicians of every stripe who shared both a personal loss at John’s passing and at the same time a sense of loss to our wider democracy. 

It is essential to that democracy that we have robust differences of view but it is also important to recognize, not just in such tragic circumstance, that democratic politicians, of left and right, have a common interest in the health of that democracy itself. 

And, at the time of John’s death, here in Scotland, there was something not quite right with that democracy. 

In 1707, Scotland and England entered into a Union. A union, not a merger. 

So when the negotiations took place in advance of that Union, Scotland’s negotiators were anxious to ensure that what was distinctive about Scotland was preserved. And, in the political climate of the early eighteenth century, the single most important distinction was in religious denomination. 

It is often said that what survived the Union was our Church, our law and our education system. But in reality both of the latter two examples were secondary to the first. 

And what had ensured that, in 1994, nearly three hundred years,on Scotland remained, while a free and prospering participant in the greatest common enterprise the world had ever seen, nonetheless a distinctive nation of its own, had been precisely that different religious tradition. 

But, in the aftermath of the greatest ever achievement of the common enterprise across this island, the defeat of Nazism, that distinctiveness was threatened by two unrelated developments. 

The first was the development of the Welfare State. The feeling that the relief of poverty or sudden adverse circumstance was not simply the responsibility of private charity but of government itself. 

In a Scottish context, “National” Insurance, even the “National” Health Service, raised intriguing questions about which Nation exactly we were talking about here. 

We were no more convinced, in the 1960s, that the man in Whitehall always knew best than many had earlier been convinced, in the 1660s, that the Kirk might benefit from the introduction of bishops. 

And the second was the acknowledgement that the “confessional” state was not modern Scotland’s choice. That to be a “true Scot” did not require you to be an adherent of our national church. You could just as easily be a Catholic, a Jew, later perhaps, a Muslim. Or indeed, perhaps most commonly, that you could have no particular religious conviction at all. 

It was these two parallel developments that lead to the growing sense that if Scotland’s distinctive sense of self was to be preserved then Scotland needed a new, secular, democratic assembly. 

This history helps explain why in the years before his death, John – who himself was a product of Scotland’s church, education and legal system - spoke frequently of devolution as the “settled will” of the Scottish people. 

Indeed, his work, advocacy and campaigning was central to the Parliament’s achievement. 

Because John’s commitment to devolution was constant and so too was his commitment to Labour’s politics. 

Because for John, a devolved parliament was not just an icon of Scottish identity but also a workshop for social justice. 

It was not an end in itself but a means to end poverty, injustice and inequality. 

He would have been proud of the work of his great friend Donald Dewar – Scotland’s first First Minister – to advance a fairer Scotland. 

Now that does not mean that the current settlement is perfect. The Parliament requires greater abilities to raise its own resources and be accountable to the electorate for doing so. And in that spirit, just a few weeks ago the Scottish Labour Party unanimously agreed a new series of “powers for a purpose” that we want for Scotland’s Parliament. 

This new package of powers will mean more decisions taken here in Scotland, by the people of Scotland, backed up by the strength, stability and security of the United Kingdom. 

It will give us, as Scots, the best of both world’s – and it’s what most Scots want – not division and separation but community and collaboration. 

The diverse Scotland John helped shape has been built on bringing together difference for the common good, not creating difference for a smaller purpose. 

John in his time fought the unfair tax system of the Government of the day. To forge a more progressive tax system, we intend to devolve new tax powers to the Scottish Parliament. 

John campaigned constantly against the waste of joblessness and poverty. To better tackle the scandal of youth and long term unemployment, we want to devolve vital new powers to Scotland’s parliament to move people from welfare to work. 

John was outraged by the evil of homelessness. To better tackle the need for affordable social housing, we want to devolve new housing benefit powers to the Scottish Parliament. These are powers for a purpose and through them Scotland  can get the best of both worlds. 

And alongside Scottish Labour’s enhanced devolution proposals, the Scottish Liberal Democrats have already published their Campbell Commission proposals. The Scottish Conservatives will publish their devolution proposals later this month. 

We disagree profoundly with many of the policies of these parties, but we share a commitment to more powers for the Scottish Parliament and we all recognize that Scotland’s best future is as a powerful nation within the UK family. 

So the choice is to stay connected, change is still coming to Scotland, change that is the sound of footsteps of the journey that is devolution. 

The choice before our nation is whether to retain the British connection or sever all political ties with the rest of the United Kingdom. 

On September 18 the legacy of John Smith will be on the ballot paper. 

This referendum will be between devolution and separation. A choice between working together to strengthen Scotland and its still new parliament or walking away from friends, families and neighbours across the UK. 

A son of Ardrishaig. A pupil of Dunoon. A Glasgow student. An Edinburgh lawyer. A Lanarkshire MP. A man who, but for his tragic early death would surely have been our Prime Minister. 

Scotland made John Smith. And as a result he loved Scotland...extravagantly. 

Like so many of us he was a patriot – but he was never a narrow nationalist. 

All his life he battled against both Conservatism and Nationalism. 

John hated poverty in Accrington, in Abergavenny, in Antrim just as much as he hated it in Airdrie. 

He understood that sharing risks, rewards and resources across this island makes us all stronger. 

That generation of Scottish Labour leaders, of which John was part – Smith, Cook, Brown and Dewar - united Scotland in support of devolution and gave Scotland hope that better days lay ahead. 

Today, I want to suggest that John Smith's life and work holds powerful lessons for today's politicians about how we can bring Scotland together and cradle Scotland’s hopes. 

Today, twenty years after John Smith’s death I believe we must again be a voice of hope in the coming months. 

Why as a Scottish Labour politician do I make this claim? 

Because we understand and share the hunger for political change, not just here in Scotland but across the United Kingdom. 

Because we feel pride in the achievements of Scotland's parliament and share the ambition for more decisions to be taken here in Scotland. 

 

Because we resist and reject the severing of the British connection with our family, friends and neighbours across these islands as a solution to anything.

 

Because we understand the importance of pooling and sharing our risks and resources across the UK to fund our health care, to guarantee our pensions and to uphold equal social and economic rights in every part of the UK. 

 

And because we know that this referendum is not a choice between defending Scotland or defending Britain, but instead is a choice between two Scottish visions of Scotland's future. 

 

We understand independence is a big idea, but a future for Scotland in which we share risks and resources across four nations is an even bigger idea, a more compelling, progressive and relevant vision for the integrated and interdependent world of the twenty-first century than separation.

 

And we know there is nothing progressive in walking away from the idea of solidarity in practice.

 

Rooted in these insights - that today reflects the settled will of the people of Scotland - I believe we can be that voice of hope in the coming days. 

 

And today as a Scottish Labour politician I want to suggest we must do more than be a voice of hope in the coming months. We must also be a voice for – and partner in - reconciliation in the years that follow. 

 

As a nation we are nearing a time of decision.

 

But the debate so far has too often been marked by rancour and bad temper, a tetchiness that is not the basis for building a nation.

 

Time and again Scotland’s most valuable resource, its people, complain that the politicians have been shouting at each other above their heads. Their future at times is being debated in damaging and often uninformative terms which threaten to leave a lasting and bitter legacy.

 

Here, I believe the life of John Smith should offer us inspiration in how he treated those he disagreed with; with respect and understanding.

 

He was an individual I was privileged to know, as a family friend and a party colleague.

 

He had a personality that maintained in attractive equilibrium a sense of fun and enjoyment of life – as Donald said, he could start a ceilidh in an empty room – and a constant deep anger at poverty and injustice wherever he encountered it; wrapped up in a sense of the deeper purpose of life being found beyond the material and the physical.

 

All these aspects of John’s personality were central to who he was.

 

Perhaps that is one of the reasons he had so few enemies and so many friends right across Scottish and British parties.

 

So today I want to suggest in the months between now and September 18 we need a national discourse that certainly allows for scrutiny, critique and judgement by the people of Scotland. 

 

But drawing from John’s example we also need a politics of opponents. Not enemies. 

 

We need a respectful discourse of political difference, not a politics that descends into personal destruction. 

 

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

 

And we need to find ways to disagree without being disagreeable, not just leading up to the vote, but beyond it as well. Our fellow Scots deserve a different quality of imagination in this time of choosing, and a debate worthy of a momentous choice. 

 

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: "no red states, no blue states, just the United States". 

 

Can we, in the time between now and September 18th, 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?

 

Of course the Edinburgh Agreement states that the referendum will be “legal and fair producing a decisive and respected outcome”.

 

But the result of the referendum on September 18 will also leave Scotland divided, with a significant minority of the population feeling disappointed with deeply personal feelings and hopes about themselves and their nation being dashed by the result. 

 

So the obligation and the challenge will be to ensure that Scotland – whatever the outcome - comes together and does not divide more deeply in the aftermath of this historic choice.

 

When, as I firmly believe in September Scotland chooses to stay together with our neighbours across the UK, that rejection of the defining mission of the present Scottish Government and indeed of the Scottish National Party.

 

Indeed they will face an existential issue if their Raison d’etre is rejected by the sovereign will of the Scottish people.

 

But – in every crisis there is an opportunity – and a choice not defined by difference or grievance, but by possibility, potential and hope.

 

If Scotland votes to stay with its neighbours, I would urge those who voted Yes to then choose to join us to work together in the task of making devolution work, not proving devolution wrong. 

 

Indeed I believe that the choice to stay together will create an opportunity for politicians to lay the ground for a way of doing politics differently.

 

Elsewhere, I have argued that the establishment of a National Convention could be one way to chart a new course for an old nation.

 

Others will have different ideas, but the tasks of bringing a divided nation together will be real, urgent, and important.

 

The choices we make after September 18th about how we share our common life with those who voted differently to us will shape the new Scotland almost as much as the vote itself will.

 

It will not be easy work, but it will be work vital to our nation’s future.

 

And as so often there are people who are ahead of the politicians.

 

Here I am reminded of the work and words of Kayrn McCluskey and the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit who has delivered extraordinary results in tackling one of the hardest problems in the West of Scotland - gang violence in Glasgow. 

 

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."

 

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’s true for those who find themselves on the opposite side of the ballot box. It is our connectedness that makes us who we can be. 

 

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. 

 

Neighbourliness - not walking away - has shaped my sense of who as Scots we are.

 

Working together, not walking away is I believe the progressive response to the challenges facing Scotland today.

 

I am convinced that we can and will achieve so much more together across these islands, with our friends, neighbours, and family, working in solidarity, united in our commitment to each other.

 

Twenty years on, a powerhouse parliament remains Scotland’s settled will. On September 18th, Scotland leading the UK, not Scotland leaving the UK, remains the best way to tackle poverty, unemployment and homelessness.

 

A race to the bottom on these islands is not the answer.

 

So let us reject – as John did – the Nationalists’ plea to separate Scotland from the United Kingdom.

 

Let us work to achieve a Scotland comfortable living together in dignity and healed from division.

 

And let us embrace John’s better and bigger vision – a people united, Scottish and British, and a powerhouse parliament able to separate Scotland from poverty.

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The fall of Milo Yiannopoulos: Only the mainstream right has the power to stop the populist right

The lessons of the provocateur's sudden fall from grace.

Alas, poor Milo Yiannopoulos, we hardly knew ye. Well, actually, that's not true. I first encountered Yiannopolous in 2012, when he tried to slut-shame a friend of mine, sex blogger Zoe Margolis, after she criticised his tech site, the Kernel.  "We write about how tech is changing the world around us," he tweeted. "You write about how many cocks you've sucked this week. Back off."

It was a typical Milo performance. Flashy, provocative - and steeped in misogyny. 

Fast-forward five years and he had managed to parlay those qualities into a gig with Breitbart, a public speaking tour, and until yesterday, a $250,000 book deal with Simon & Schuster. But last night, that was cancelled, "after careful consideration". Yiannopolous's invitation to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference had been cancelled hours before. Over the years, CPAC has hosted Ronald Reagan, George W Bush and all the Hall of Fame right-wing blowhards: Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity. 

What changed CPAC's mind? On 18 February, the organisation had tweeted that "free speech includes hearing Milo's important perspective".

Milo's important perspective on what was left unanswered, because it is unanswerable. Does anyone, really, think that Milo Yiannopoulos has deep and rigorously researched convictions? That his statements on feminism, on transgender people, or his criticisms of Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones, spring from some deep well of evidence and sincerity?

Do me a favour.

Yiannopoulos was invited to CPAC to do what he does: be outrageous. To give the attendees a frisson of excitement at being in the presence of someone so notorious, someone willing to "say the unsayable". To outrage the left, and remind those watching of the gulf between them and the people waving placards outside.

Except the provocateur is finding out that some things really are unsayable. Some things - all his previous things, in fact - are extremely sayable, as long as you have the protection of the mainstream right and a media industry which craves - and monetises - attention. But a few are not.

So what did Milo Yiannopoulos actually say to prompt this outbreak of condemnation, and the withdrawal of lucrative marketing opportunities? The first thing to note is that the comments which kicked off the latest row are not new. After he appeared on Bill Maher's show improbably dressed as Like A Virgin Era Madonna (in an appearance up there with Jimmy Fallon rustling Trump's tawny locks on the Vom-O-Meter), old YouTube videos surfaced which, in the BBC's words, "showed him discussing the merits of gay relationships between adults and boys as young as 13". He said that the age of consent was "not this black and white thing" and relationships "between younger boys and older men … can be hugely positive experiences". 

He has since denied endorsing paedophilia, said that he is a survivor of child abuse himself, and added that the videos were edited to give a misleading impression.

In the tweet announcing that he had been dropped, CPAC accused him of "condoning paedophilia". But he argues that elsewhere in the video he said that the US age of consent was in the correct place.

For those on the left, the overwhelming reaction to all this has been: why now? Why these comments, not the ones about "preening poofs", or lesbians faking hate crimes, or the danger of Muslims, or the harassment campaign against Leslie Jones which got him permanently banned from Twitter? (Do you know how consistently and publicly awful you have to be to get banned from Twitter???)

There's only one answer to that, really: yesterday marked the moment when Milo Yiannopoulos ceased being an asset to the mainstream right, and became a liability.

***

On 8 February, Jan-Werner Muller wrote a fascinating piece for the FT in which he argued that the populist right was not, as the narrative would have it, an unstoppable grassroots movement sweeping the world. Instead it should be seen as an outgrowth of the mainstream right, which fed it and gave it succour. 

These colourful images are deeply misleading. Mr Farage did not bring about the Brexit vote all by himself. He needed two mainstream Conservative politicians, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. More important still, the Leave vote was not just the result of spontaneous anti-establishment feelings by the downtrodden; Euroscepticism, once a fringe position among Conservatives, had been nourished for decades by tabloid newspapers and rebel MPs.

President Trump did not win as an outside candidate of a third-party populist movement either. Where Mr Farage had Messrs Johnson and Gove, Mr Trump could rely on the blessing of establishment Republicans such as Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani."  

This is unarguably true in the case of Milo Yiannopoulos: he started his career at the Telegraph, once the newspaper of choice for retired colonels eating marmalade in the shires. Iain Martin, a colleague of his there, yesterday jokingly acknowledged that he was "partly to blame".

A quick look at Nigel Farage's experience during the EU referendum is also instructive. The Vote Leave campaign worked hard to shut him out of the public discussion in the weeks before 23 June - reasoning that his overt anti-immigration broadsides would turn off swing voters. They even accused broadcasters of "joining the IN campaign" by inviting Farage to debate David Cameron. To understand Farage's bewilderment at this treatment, read his speeches from the time, or his grumpy appearance on TV the morning after the victory, where he said the £350m NHS claim was a mistake. The guy felt betrayed.

And it's not surprising. A significant number of Tory Eurosceptics in parliament had, until Cameron announced the referendum would happen, found Farage's existence extremely useful. There he was - a living, breathing, chainsmoking reminder that MPs (and voters) could move to Ukip if Britain didn't get a say on membership of the European Union. But once the campaign began, they found him an embarrassment. The "Breaking Point" poster was repellent. He was turning off moderate voters. And so he was frozen out. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove suddenly discovered that - hey, this guy says some pretty outrageous things!

A similar dynamic happened with Donald Trump. We now know he performed on 8 November about as well as a generic Republican after eight years of a Democratic president. Certainly no better - had he run as an independent, that small core of Trump-lovers would be a speck within a wider population, instead of being held up as the vanguard of a new kind of politics. Throughout the campaign, GOP grandees like Paul Ryan struggled to condemn him, reasoning that a Republican president - any Republican president, even one who didn't seem to believe in most of the alleged values of the Republican party - was better than a Democrat. Trump was boosted and bolstered by significant portions of the mainstream right, and even the centre: CNN employed his former campaign manager as a pundit. Fox, a mainstream news channel owned by a huge corporation, gave him waves of adoring coverage. 

***

What's in all this for the mainstream right? Two things. The first is that the populist right are useful generators of heat. They say outrageous things - black people are lazy! Muslims are terrorists! - putting their opponents in a bind. Do you let such assertions go, on the basis that those voicing them are a tiny fringe? Or do you wearily condemn every single instance of bigotry, making yourself look like a dull Pez dispenser of condemnation? Either way is debilitating, either for public discourse broadly, or for the left's appeal to disengaged people. 

Secondly, the populist right are useful outriders. Sheltered by the mainstream right - would anyone read Katie Hopkins if she had a blog, or Piers Morgan? nope - these "provocateurs" can push extreme versions of narratives that many on the mainstream right feel to be true, or at least to contain a kernel of truth worth discussing. If Breitbart says "black crime" is a distinct phenomenon, then it's much more acceptable for Trump to threaten to "send in the Feds" to Chicago, or to describe inner cities as wastelands in need of a strong hand. If Katie Hopkins writes about migrants drowning in the Mediterranean as "cockroaches", she dehumanises them - turning them from fathers, mothers, children into a faceless mass, not like us, and therefore not deserving of our pity. That makes it much easier for the government to stop taking child refugees. After all, didn't I read somewhere that they're all 45 and just pretending to be children, anyway?

The populist right are extremely good generators of memes - those little bits of information which move virally through society. Take the grooming gang in Rochdale. It gets invoked every time feminists try to have a conversation about male violence. Um, did you condemn Rochdale? By the time you reply, wearily, that yes you did, it's too late. The conversation has been derailed for good. What about FGM? Well, yes, of course I'm agains-- oh, too late. We've moved on. 

***

The "alt right" - the online version of the populist right - loves to talk about left-wingers being "triggered" or "snowflakes". This is clearly a rhetorical tactic to delegitimise any criticism of them. I don't write about misogyny because I'm upset by it; I write about it because it's wrong. But it's a playbook that works: look into examples of "political correctness gone mad" and you'll often find a story that has been exaggerated, twisted or straight-up invented in order to paint the left as dolorous monks intent on killing fun. But anyone with any strong beliefs, anyone who holds anything sacred, will react when some shows disrespect to something they care about. The right has just as many shibboleths it is unwilling to see violated. (If you don't believe me, try burning a poppy or the American flag.)

The strangest part of yesterday was seeing Milo Yiannopoulous's increasingly sincere Facebook posts, as the awful realisation dawned on him - as it dawned on Nigel Farage during the referendum - that the sweet shelter of the mainstream right was being withdrawn from him. When he had attacked his female peers in the London tech scene, when he attacked transgender people for being "mentally ill", when he attacked an actor for the temerity to be black, female and funny in a jumpsuit, he was given licence. He was provocative, starting a debate, exercising his free speech. But yesterday he found out that there is always a line. For the right, it's child abuse - because children, uniquely among people who might be sexually abused, are deemed to be innocent. No one is going to buy that a 13-year-old shouldn't have been out that late, or wearing that, or brought it on himself. 

I would not be surprised if this isn't the end of Milo Yiannopoulos's career, and I will watch with keen interest what strategies he will use for his rehabilitation. He's still got his outlaw cachet, and there are still plenty of outlets where the very fact that people are objecting to a speaker is assumed to mean they have something that's worth hearing. And there are plenty more ideas that some on the right would be happy to see pushed a little further into the mainstream - with plausible deniability, of course. If that's the extreme, then the mainstream shifts imperceptibly with every new provocation. Because he's not one of us, oh no. They're not, either. But you see, they must be heard. And provocateurs are useful, until they're not. But it's not the left who decides when that is. Only the mainstream right can stop the extremists on their flanks.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.