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  1. Politics
12 May 2014

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."

By New Statesman

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. 

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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. 


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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.