I was watching Gordon Brown’s speech at the launch of United with Labour (in May) earlier today. It was powerful and passionate, not so much in its defence of the Union but more in the mesmerising way he brought to life the totemic figures of the Labour movement and what they stood for.
He described with deep emotion the part played by Hardie, Wheatley, Maxton and others (heroes of the Labour movement and of Scotland) in the construction of our welfare state and set out with great clarity the values and principles that drove them to achieve so much. Without doubt, we owe these towering figures a huge debt. The Labour Party is, quite rightly, proud of their legacy and from the reaction to Mr Brown’s speech in the room, it is clear that the values they espoused and lived are also etched deeply into the Scottish Labour Party’s soul.
It was a moment that gave me a new understanding of, and respect for, the history of the Labour Party in Scotland.
There was an element of sadness though. A belief in social justice is clearly part of Gordon Brown’s very essence and while some steps forward were taken during his time as Chancellor and Prime Minister, I was left with the lingering feeling that, if he had been able to, he would have done so much more.
I couldn’t help wondering how much greater the legacy of Gordon Brown, as Prime Minister of Scotland, would have been. How much more he could have achieved for the people of his home country, without the compromises that were forced on his party at Westminster to win over Tory votes in the South East. Westminster was the focus of Gordon Brown’s ambition, and yet Westminster required him to tack to the right and, tragically, that stopped Mr Brown from truly being himself.
Perhaps my Labour friends can advise me otherwise, but I doubt any Labour Prime Minister at the UK level can ever be true to the values of Maxton, Hardie or Wheatley in the same way as a Labour Prime Minister of Scotland could be. And Scotland is poorer for that fact. A Scottish Labour Party, true to its values, should never have to tack to the right to overcome the SNP and indeed would find an ally in the Scottish National Party if or when it comes to using the new economic and social powers of an independent Parliament to deliver greater equality and social justice.
One of the most powerful Labour values that Mr Brown set out was solidarity, but it left me with many questions. What about solidarity within Scotland, is that of lesser value than solidarity within the UK? Is social justice only allowed for Glasgow on the condition that it is also achieved in Manchester or Luton - must we all move forward together or not move forward at all?
I think of some of the achievements of the Labour led Scottish Executive, in particular free personal care, which was taken forward with cross-party support, and I am glad that they chose to use the tools at hand to make life easier for vulnerable older Scots. But, is there a substantive difference between social care for the elderly and social protection (for those, for example, currently facing the full onslaught of Westminster welfare changes) that I am missing? Surely if Scottish solutions are ok in the former they are also justifiable in the latter. Can we not choose to provide greater insurance and security for older Scots and vulnerable Scots as part of a social race to the top, where our target must be to match or even overtake the sort of social provision that exists for parents, pensioners, job seekers and children (among others) in Scandinavia?
If there is a will for change in Scotland, why should we delay? Is it not possible that change in Scotland might also inspire change elsewhere? As I said, I know I aspire to achieve the same levels of equality that exist across the North Sea in Scandinavia, so perhaps people in England will be motivated by a nation north of the border that shows different choices can be made successfully on these isles too.
Perhaps my ambition for social justice is different from Mr Brown’s after all, although from conversations with people in the Scottish Labour Party and Labour movement I detect a large degree of overlap between my view and their vision for a more socially just nation. Like them, when I see poverty that is endemic in parts of my home city I want to be able to do something about it, right now. When I know working families’ standards of living are falling, the ability to do more, on issues such as a living wage, for example, (which Mr Brown himself has argued for passionately) seems even more crucial. I don’t want to wait for Dover or Dudley to vote the right way, or hope that the price that has been paid to woo the Tory voters isn’t too high (once again). If we want all the tools at our disposal, why is that wrong?
This recognition of a shared hunger to do more now, leads me to an important conclusion. Today, there are no longer anti-independence parties in Scotland, simply anti-independence people within each of the UK parties. Alongside them are people who are Yes, admittedly much smaller in number, and, a greater number who are undecided. My sense is that these particular undecideds, especially those within the Labour Party, will have a very big part to play in determining the course of this referendum debate over the next 12 months. And, their final decision, whether Yes or No, will be based on whether the achievement of social justice in one country, this country, is a good enough first step. After all, Scotland is wealthy enough to be a fairer nation, and the political consensus is favourable to change: we just need ability to make it happen.
It would be great if progress on these isles and across the globe could go forward at the same pace, but that is not how life is, unfortunately. If we go forward at the pace of the slowest are we surprised that so little changes? To accept this limitation is a philosophy of despair and one that, to my mind, puts Westminster at the pinnacle of what we care about, rather than the people in the communities we live in. And, that is not good enough.
There is a different way of doing things and it is one that puts our commitment to social justice before any loyalty to a Westminster system that has clearly had its day. It’s called independence and it gives us the opportunity to create a new reality in Scotland and a new partnership on these isles. That really would be the best of both worlds. And, it comes, next year, from a Yes.