A fresh look at Douglas Alexander’s speech

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By Craig Mahon

Recently Douglas Alexander made a speech in which he admitted that Labour had failed to connect with the Scottish electorate.  Many dismissed it as the usual piece of Labour puffery.

I’ve had another look at Douglas Alexander’s recent speech and I don’t think it’s as much of a puff piece as first glance suggests.   There is a hidden subtext.  Yes, there are the usual Labour stock phrases and sychopancies but if you look closely I believe Alexander is trying to say something different.

I believe that the power of his words is not intended for today’s reader but for tomorrow’s, in fact someone reading it in, say 2014 or 2015.  Alexander is, with the most gentle of subtlety, positioning himself for a Yes vote in the referendum.  Then, by extension, throwing himself a lifeline for any future career in politics within an Independent Scotland.  That said, the word “independent” is used sparingly, Alexander prefers “seperate”.

Look closely, the speech is full of non-Labour language and contradictions from generally accepted Labour viewpoints.  Then fast forward to the future, 4 or 5 years, and read it again.

Alexander, is, I believe, shifting to a position where he can occupy a winning camp, but cunningly keeping a foot in both camps at present. The language is so ambiguous that he can portray himself as belonging to whichever camp wins.

I’ll include some content that I believe is revealing. I’ve numbered the paragraphs as accurately as I can.  My comments are below.

Para 3 … accordingly, it is to the issue of Scotland’s political future and Scottish Labour’s place therein that I want to direct my remarks this evening.

An acknowedgement that there will be change.

Para 5 As someone who knows how to run a campaign … This debate demands a different quality of imagination.

Imagination to take a leap unimagined previously by a Labour politician.

Para 11 My work observing and participating in democratic politics both at home and abroad over the last decade has taught me many things.

An attempt to structure a new narrative.  Recent examples are the Arab Spring.  There may be others that can be quoted that have yet to bear fruit.

Para 13  ... the truth is that how we feel about what we know is the deepest way in which we add meaning and significance to whatever information we have at our disposal.

This is ambiguous and could be understood as an invitation to feel good about having Nationalist sentiments and expressing them.

Para 21 I suggest this evening that we need a broader, more inclusive, more generous story if we are to be a better nation, and that to be a better nation does not demand that we become a separate nation.

Note the use of “suggest.”  This is not a strong use of language and in no way embeds the idea that non-separatism is the preferred option.

Para 28 … from Upper Clyde Shipbuilders to Ravenscraig, from Linwood to Methil and the coalfields that had shaped Scotland’s sense of itself for decades.

Cleverly this is a reference to a Proclaimers’ lyric, emotive and recognisable. Alexander is being very subtle here.

Para 31 … the generation of Labour politicians who gave voice not only to our concerns but also to our hopes: Dewar, Smith, Brown and Cook.

A standard reference to the Labour big hitters and thus allowing Alexander to keep one foot in the Labour camp.

Para 46 … the Scottish Party, largely by reason of the unique national element in our politics, never really felt it needed to be “New” Labour.

An admission that Scottish Labour is different.  This is strong stuff, delineating a different direction for Labour in Scotland, should it be required to progress this path.

Para 49 … simultaneously there remained a strength of national pride, reaffirmed in everything from the music of the Proclaimers’ 500 Miles, sung on the terraces at Hampden, to Eddie Reader’s musical reinterpretation of Burns’ poetry and song.

Reference to the Proclaimers again.

Para 58 The Party which, on the day the Scottish Parliament was first elected, could claim without contradiction to be the only true National Party of Scotland.

So there you have it; Labour is being repositioned so that it occupies two areas. Unionism and Nationalism, with the opportunities that this produces for manouver, if required. Alexander is trying to paint himself out of a corner.

Para 78 … this sense that Scotland’s story does not exclude but includes the shared and interwoven stories of these islands.

This is where Alexander is alluding to a change in the relationship between the constituent nations of the current UK but suggesting that any change to the relationships must be a multi-nation solution, i.e. include England.

And I bridle at the suggestion of separateness as the essential attribute of our national story.

Alexander is suggesting that there are other attributes, e.g. a shared history, or shared values.  Is he suggesting that there is a politics, a Scottish National politics that can embrace independence based on additional multiple attributes?

And at the end … Scottish Labour’s political purpose has to be about the future possibilities for Scotland, not the past wrongs, real and imagined, done to Scotland.

This is an open ended idea, Alexander doesn’t close this statement with “within the UK” and by that omission he reveals his hand.