The Point
Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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To be Bold?

 Alex Salmond’s speech to the Jimmy Reid Foundation

 a personal view by Gary Fraser




I was looking forward to hearing Alex Salmond’s inaugural address to the Jimmy Reid Foundation. I’m a supporter of the Foundation whose intellectual presence is much needed in Scottish politics. The subject of the lecture, ‘Addressing Alienation: the opportunity of independence’, sounded interesting, unconventional even, and an opportunity for the speaker to make an intellectual case for independence, a chance to demonstrate how an abstract political concept like independence can connect with people’s everyday lives and generally improve our psychological well being. But in all honesty I came away from his speech feeling disappointed.

Maybe, I was expecting too much; after all we live in a world of sound-bites, spin and tweets, where politics is increasingly mediated (and dumbed down) through the media, so much so that it’s a rarity these days to hear an elected politician make an intellectual argument of real substance about anything. Around ten minutes into his speech I realised that the First Minister was not going to be the exception to this general rule of modern politics. Instead, he played it safe and offered a speech which at times sounded akin to an SNP party election broadcast, a strange tactic to pursue, considering this was not a party political audience.


He talked about the SNP’s record in office and mentioned the abolition of prescription fees and tuition fees, free personal care, etc. You know the list. In my view it’s beginning to sound a tad perfunctory. An alternative list was going through my mind. The name Donald Trump was on it. I also thought about the SNPs intellectual timidity in providing an alternative argument to public spending cuts, or their patchy record in local government, where there local councillors all too easily justify cuts as ‘difficult decisions’.

He spoke about jobs and said that after independence Scotland could in his words ‘reindustrialise’. This was a bold statement, yet when it came to specifics he was somewhat vague.  The living wage was mentioned, which is without doubt a progressive policy, but he said nothing about the ‘alienation’ of workers in the private sector forced to suffer the indignity of low pay.

He mentioned the SNP’s proposed Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill and said that after independence ‘communities’ and ‘real people’ (I’m sure he used this term) would have more power. In all honesty, I’m not sure what this means. I have been a community worker for more than a decade and I tend to greet any use of the word ‘empowerment’ with a healthy dose of scepticism. My experience of ‘community empowerment’ is often cash strapped voluntary sector committees, consisting of a handful of  tokenistic ‘real people’, providing services that in all honesty should be provided by the local authority and funded out of general taxation. Of course, read one way, the Community Empowerment Bill could be progressive if genuine power is devolved down the way, but read another way, and I have to confess this is my reading of the Bill, it could involve the by-passing of local government altogether with the third sector expected to plug the gap where the state used to be. The point is that behind the lofty rhetoric the Community Empowerment agenda is problematic.

All in all it was a dull and uninspiring 40 minutes. Hardly the stuff of a leader of a small nation which might, and this is a huge might, be on the verge of full nationhood.  When it came to the question and answer session things hardly improved. When asked if an independent Scotland would repeal the anti-trades union laws, Salmond said there was no appetite for more (my italics) draconian laws against workers. But he clearly made no commitment to repealing the existing laws. When asked about the monarchy, I could actually sense his discomfort, both physically and intellectually, as he attempted to make the case for a constitutional monarchy, an idea so absurd that I’m not even sure he believes it. He then went on to reaffirm the SNPs commitment to cutting corporation tax claiming that small countries need to be competitive. Again, this was disappointing and highly problematic, and leaves him wide open to attack from left critics of independence.  

By the end of the affair, I was left with the impression that if this is the best Scotland’s First Minister has to offer then the pro-independence movement might be in trouble. Any campaign needs leadership and vision. Instead I got the impression, and I apologise for the sound-bite, that Salmond’s version of independence is independence where nothing changes. This will not do. Of course, the point is often made that the YES campaign must transcend party politics and that it needs to be bigger than the SNP or any individual, and to be fair to the campaign, I think they grasp this. Yet making this point and achieving its objectives are too different things entirely because in the minds of the public the two are indistinguishable, which means that the SNP are still important and the First Minister arguably more so.

I sometimes get the impression that the SNP leadership are unprepared for all of this. For the past decade or so, they have hardly mentioned independence and have instead busied themselves with Holyrood and the hum drum politics of local government, which let’s be honest most people see as an irrelevance.

I remember someone making the point that the mid-wife of devolution was Margaret Thatcher. If independence is to have a mid wife, then her name is New Labour. Historically, Scotland has always been Labour, and in many ways it still is, but Labour abandoned Scotland many years ago to embrace Thatcher’s neo-liberal agenda and the Scots won’t easily forget New Labour’s thirteen wasted years in power. This is why we are having a referendum on Scottish independence and it’s something the YES campaign needs to keep in mind.

The campaign has some good things going for it; the people I have met are committed, the branding is slick and professional, and I sense that its media savvy. But in the coming months ahead it needs to develop a political narrative about why people would be better off, both materially and psychologically, under independence. That case is yet to be made and Salmond offered no signs of making it. For me the political narrative must have at its core the values of social democracy or what we in Scotland might call Old Labour. Trying not to upset anyone or ducking the issues by saying that after independence the ‘people will decide’, whilst constitutionally true, is hardly the stuff to inspire the men and women of our small country whose minds are at present undecided. To win, we need to be bold.   


Other articles by Gary Fraser in The Point can be found here

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Viridis Lumen