By Jamie Maxwell
According to Owen Dudley Edwards, the only person who regularly described Winnie Ewing as ‘Madame Ecosse’ during her 20 year tenure as an SNP MEP was Winnie Ewing herself. Such was the conceit of the one-time Hamilton by-election victor.
I suspect Douglas Alexander’s reputation as Scottish Labour’s ‘big thinker’ has a similar backstory. The shadow foreign secretary clearly fancies himself as an intellectual – a loyal career politician, yes, but one with a uniquely thoughtful and expansive mind.
Over the last couple of years, Alexander has delivered a series of well-publicised speeches attempting to craft a new ‘progressive’ unionist narrative to rival the SNP’s centre-left nationalist one.
So far, the Alexander lectures have followed a pretty rigid formula.
Each of them does some or all of the following things: draws a distinction between ‘good’ patriotism and ‘bad’ nationalism; includes quotes from Great Men such as Barack Obama, David Hume and JFK; references Scotland’s achievements as part of the UK, with a particular emphasis on the Enlightenment; expresses concern for those brave souls who ‘speak out’ against the SNP’s ‘narrow’ vision; rattles off the predictable and discredited list of ‘good things’ Labour did in government; concludes with a plaintive appeal to us, the Scots, to stick with the UK’s successful multi-national family.
Alexander presents his speeches, collectively, as a good-faith attempt to ‘engage’ with the debate over Scotland’s future on a ‘deeper’ level. But as his recent piece for the Scotland on Sunday revealed, his underlying attitude is much less benign:
[The Yes camp] know full well that Ukip’s success, and the rise of other nationalist parties around Europe, owes more to emotion than economics. As Fareed Zakaria has written about the rise of nationalism: “The question that fills people with emotion is ‘Who are we?’ And, more ominously, ‘Who are we not?’”
So expect lots more lectures about “Westminster Rule” and “London Labour”.
With families still grappling with the traumas of a post-crash economy, there will be a none-too-subtle appeal to suggest proximity is identity, and that people furth of Scotland do not and cannot share our values.
Can you see what Scottish Labour’s leading intellect did there?
In just a few short, superficial paragraphs, Alexander brackets the entire Yes campaign in with extreme right-wing parties on the European continent – parties that include, presumably, pseudo-fascist outfits like the Front Nationale in France and Geert Wilder’s Freedom Party in the Netherlands. In just a few short paragraphs, he manages to conflate the civic nationalist argument that ‘Westminster rule’ undermines Scotland’s economy and its democracy with the chauvinist argument that ‘foreigners’ – whether English people, immigrants or whoever – threaten the ‘authenticity’ of Scottish identity. (And he does it, hilariously enough, quoting a journalist – Fareed Zakaria – who was for a long time associated with the American neo-conservative right.)
Sadly, despite his torturously ponderous efforts to tackle ‘the national question’, this seems to accurately reflect what he actually thinks. For Alexander, the Yes campaign really is stacked with closet Anglophobes, while the SNP is consciously trying, against the determined resistance of Scotland’s moderate majority, to ‘other’ our closest neighbours.
This is puerile, gutter-scraping politics of the sort Alexander wants us to believe he is above. Alexander doesn’t like Scottish nationalists, so Scottish nationalists must be bad guys – bad enough to warrant being lumped in with the European hard-right. Never mind that the SNP’s independence pitch includes Scotland’s continued membership of the EU, increasing levels of immigration and a staunchly liberal approach to citizenship. None of this matters to Alexander. All he sees is nationalism, and one form of nationalism, however outwardly inclusive, is indistinguishable from the next, however nakedly backward or xenophobic.
But looking again at Alexander’s speeches, I can see this nasty, lowest-common-denominator habit is not new. It runs through all recent his contributions to the independence debate. In his 2011 ‘Andrew John Williamson Memorial Lecture’, he argued that the ‘hate filled outpourings of the so called “Cyber-Nats” … challenge the very suggestion of a more pluralist, open, discursive politics if ever [the SNP] were to prevail in its primary purpose’. In another 2011 speech, this one to the Scottish Labour youth conference, Alexander recalled how, in 1995, he was ’spat upon – literally – by nationalist supporters’ before complaining about the way ‘the nationalists, from researchers, to MSPs and Ministers’ treated his sister when she was Scottish Labour leader. Neither of these serious charges are substantiated with even the slightest bit of evidence.
But then none of Alexander’s charges ever are. When it comes to Scottish nationalism, all Alexander really trades in is innuendo. ‘I don’t look at English people and see foreigners’, he said in January 2012, as though that is precisely what Yes campaigners do. Alexander’s strategy is to dress disgraceful smears such as this up as enlightened analysis. But sandwiching a slur between two Bobby Kennedy quotes doesn’t make it any less of a slur; knowing who Ernst Renan and Ivan Illich are doesn’t give you license to imply your opponents are a bunch of thugs.
So when you strip away all Alexander’s self-righteous verbiage, what are you left with? A cheap, partisan political operator who remains utterly convinced that the interests of his party and those of his country are still essentially the same. Bear that in mind next time you hear him say the words ‘National Convention’.