Some thoughts on the First Minister’s lecture

Left Strategy, Scottish Policy Jan 30, 2013 Add a comment

Last night First Minister Alex Salmond gave the inaugural Jimmy Reid Memorial Lecture on the theme ‘Addressing Alienation: the opportunity of independence’. These are a few thoughts on what he said.

We had over 400 people at last night’s inaugural Jimmy Reid Memorial Lecture. That’s a very respectable number of people turning up on a wet and windy Tuesday in Govan in January to pay £10 to hear a lecture by the First Minister. We will soon post a video of the lecture for those that missed it.

There was a lot of interest in the evening. But first I want to send my very sincere thanks to everyone at Govan Old Parish Church. From the ladies who volunteered to serve the coffee and the volunteers who gave guided tours of the Govan Stones (if you haven’t seen them, a visit is to be recommended – details here) to the people who helped with the PA system and the doors, their support was wonderful. And the Church is simply a stunning venue for a lecture, one I hope we’ll use again.

I also want to address the issue of ‘political neutrality’ raised by a few people. There was a little unease among some supporters of the Foundation that having been set up to provide a party-politically neutral space for debate about Scottish politics, providing a platform for one party leader to outline a vision of independence did not live up to those aspirations. But it is important to make three quick points. First, neutrality does not mean refusal to engage. We have and will continue to engage with anyone willing to debate left politics. We have an agreement from Len McLusky, the leader of the UK’s biggest union (and one which is affiliated to the Labour Party) to give the next lecture. If anyone from Better Together wants to make a left-wing pitch for the British State we will be more than happy to provide a platform. Second, as well as a neutral space we also exist to put pressure on politicians to articulate a left vision for Scotland. I think we were successful in that last night. But thirdly, we simply agreed that we would have invited whomever was the First Minister to give the inaugural lecture because heaven knows few enough people seek to prize a left perspective from government in a world where corporate media and corporate interests set the agenda.

So, what did those in attendance learn? The First Minister spoke for about 40 minutes and then took questions for about the same time again. It is inevitable that government politicians will list their actions in every speech. There are few people outside government who would not, as a general rule, happily live with a bit less of this. On this occasion much was relevant – the heart of the First Minister’s argument was about universalism and shared values as a society. In this context listing again matters such as free prescriptions, free university tuition, free bus passes and the like was entirely relevant. These were among the parts of the lecture that received the warmest welcome from the audience. But after that lengthy sequence we did get a more thoughtful take on a number of issues.

The following are my impressions of what was said. The First Minister is strong on the universal welfare state. Newsnight UK spoke to me on Monday. They were preparing a package on universal benefits that went out last night (we missed it since it aired during the Scotland opt-out). They said that the only organisation in the UK they could find making a strong and consistent case for universal benefits was the Reid Foundation and the only senior UK politician they could find to articulate it was Alex Salmond. For my money I’d have liked to hear more about what might happen to universalism in an independent Scotland (he would do well strategically to develop a stronger case on childcare). But the principles talked about here were good if hardly unfamiliar territory.

The segment that followed this was for me the weakest part of the night. This involved a combination of data on the outcomes of apprenticeships and the list of industrial investment projects in Scotland, especially in renewable technologies. Of course this stuff is to be welcomed, but I will take a fair bit of persuading that this is really a ‘strategy for reindustrialisation’ as the First Minister suggested. Actually, it sounded to me rather like the same old neoliberal economics – we’ll train the kids, Captains of Industry will do the rest. There is so much to discuss here; ownership of enterprises, reinvestment strategies, diversification, incentivisation and so on. To be honest, the First Minister did not engage with this. The call for the reindustrialisation of Scotland was one of the most interesting and potentially powerful strands of argument the SNP brought into the election campaign. As a phrase and as a concept, it has slipped from the political agenda. And it seems to me it has developed no further than a rebranding of the Scottish Enterprise worldview.

It coupled with the other part of the evening that did not convince me at all – a defence of the policy of a corporation tax cut. The First Minister left just about enough wriggle room to tweak this policy (and a severe tweak is needed). But to base the case for a corporation tax cut on Laffer curve modelling is to base it on a weak concept. This kind of supply-side economic modelling is precisely the kind of modelling that granted Lehman Brothers a triple-A credit rating the day before it crashed the world economy by being insolvent. The maths might look pretty; the reality is quite different. The wriggle room is that he did not defend a blanket corporation tax cut, just the need for ‘flexibility’. I have no problem with tax incentives to encourage certain kinds of enterprise or certain types of business practice. Tax cuts for high R&D companies? That makes sense. Cuts to encourage diversification out of harmful or unwelcome industry sectors (such as defence)? Fine by me. Discounts for companies that reinvest their profits into business development (rather than sucking it out for personal profit)? That would be a sensible move. Cutting tax for predator corporations which suck wealth out of Scotland and add little value? This makes no sense. Supermarkets, high street coffee chains, online retailers – they have nowhere to go and there are no shortage of competitors who would move in if they did. A tax cut to these businesses is nothing more than a cash gift.

But other than a half-hearted defence of the Queen as Head of State, these were the only areas where the audience generally appeared to me to have problems with what was said. It was in two themes he picked up later that I found most interesting. More in a second. But there is also something people might have missed, something that I found very compelling indeed in the simplicity of its delivery; the First Minister was both generous and perhaps cunning in drawing Labour into his case for independence. Time and again he made the simple point that it is largely the Parliament – not any one government or any one party – which has protected a social model of government in Scotland. This is in part a statement of fact, in part an attempt to be statesman like, in part a genuine recognition of the actual politics of Scotland. But it was also an effective and subtle answer to a number of the questions that were put to him. Would an independent Scotland be a country that imposed anti-trade union laws? It is impossible to say for sure, was the answer, but he could see not evidence that this was at all likely given the political make-up of Scotland. How could we know that the commitment to a universal welfare state would be safe after independence? We couldn’t, but he could detect no serious suggestion that it would be from any of Scotland’s politicians. By crediting Labour with protecting Scotland from the worst of London’s right-wing agenda, he suggested that an independent Scotland would be safe for the left because of – Labour. This is an interesting argument. Will Scottish Labour contest it?

But it is the final two themes which drew me in most. The first was the section of the speech and even more so the unprepared answer to questions where the First Minister seemed most committed, fluent and indeed passionate. This was about the idea of a written constitution. He argued that the debate about what should be in it might prove even more important that what ends up being in it. No constitution is a guarantee of anything, he argued, but it can express collective values. And if there is a wide and inclusive process of writing it, there is a good opportunity for Scotland to come together in articulating those values. He spoke convincingly about the Icelandic process and seemed genuine in his pluralist commitment to developing an inclusive constitution. He was asked about whether there should be a revising chamber in an independent Scotland. He mocked the Lords relentlessly (if it is such a great revising chamber, how did it fall for the Iraq War lies he asked). But he made the more important point that a constitution doesn’t ‘fix’ anything. It is an expression of a country’s will, and it is only that will in action which guarantees good governance. The dismissive attacks from the right wing media on his comments on the constitution seemed juvenile and petty in comparison; we may not wholly agree with all of this agenda, but he’s thought about it and there is some serious content in those thoughts. We should listen.

It is when he came to talk about political and social empathy that I was most interested. Rats, he tells us, will on average release other rats from a cage when given the choice between doing that or something selfish like eat. He made a passionate claim that only empathy prevents politicians from running the country like a theoretical exercise. Only in empathy can we find a way of understanding big political projects and what they really mean for people. He talked about the kind of nation Scotland can be, its sense of community and its size and argued that this makes for a strong base for the development of empathy. He talked about empathy education. He also linked empathy back strongly to his central theme of alienation. Here I must admit I would have liked him to go further. Had he cut out ten minutes of recitation of ‘things my government has done’ and instead expanded his analysis of alienation as a psychological phenomenon and lack of empathy in institutions and in the economic forces of society as a key cause, it might have been a genuinely memorable lecture and not just a very interesting one. I very much hope he will return to this theme again. Indeed, I would very much like to hear others in politics developing this theme. The idea that politics is about something more fundamental than management was stimulating. I want to hear more. (OK, we all know this. I want to hear more from senior politicians. And something more than just slogans.)

And so we were left with enough to feel OK about – a rousing and surely absolutely unequivocal defence of Scottish Water as a publicly-owned utility was met warmly (though if anyone is complacent about this they should look more carefully at how Scottish Water actually operates). We were left with some genuine thinking. We were left with some defences of existing SNP policy which convinced few in our audience. And we were as always left with a desire to hear fewer lists and more engagement with the big questions. But I think most people were left stimulated. We are very grateful to the First Minister for making the time and for making this a priority.

One last comment. The evening was of course littered with tributes to and commemorations of Jimmy Reid himself. That the First Minister and Jimmy were friends infused the evening, but not as much as the sense of Jimmy’s influence over the political development of our country’s leader. I am very conscious that as a think tank we carry the responsibility of Jimmy’s name and of his political legacy. It was therefore very important indeed for us that Jimmy’s widow Joan and his daughters Eileen and Shona were able to be with us, along with their families. For me personally, of all the evening’s achievements, the fact that the family were so happy and proud of this tribute to Jimmy was the most important.

Robin McAlpine

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