Scotland, Nationalism and the Left: Can There Be a Politics That Embraces Both Equality and Identity?

By Alexander, Douglas; Hassan, Gerry | Soundings, May 2012 | Go to article overview

Scotland, Nationalism and the Left: Can There Be a Politics That Embraces Both Equality and Identity?


Alexander, Douglas, Hassan, Gerry, Soundings


Douglas to Gerry

Before we get to where we're going, I think it makes sense to be clear where we come from ...

My mother worked as a doctor in the NHS. My father was a Minister in the Church of Scotland. Both of them were inspired by their Christian beliefs to engage in the common life of the community. My first home was 'Community House' in Clyde Street, Glasgow: the mainland base of the Iona Community. We lived above a cafe for the homeless and a meeting room in which UCS Shop Stewards gathered and the Scottish Branch of Anti Apartheid was formed. I was delivering Christian Aid envelopes even before I was delivering Labour Party leaflets. In the kitchen of my father's manse was a poster that read 'Live more simply so others can simply live'.

Tony Blair famously said he chose the Labour Party. I didn't - I was born into it. My father and mother are both lifelong Labour members. My dad joined Glasgow University Labour Club in the late 1950s alongside his friends John Smith and Donald Dewar. My mother is active in the local Labour Party in Renfrewshire to this day. I joined the Labour Party in 1982, motivated to do so by the unemployment and loss of hope I witnessed following the closure of the Linwood Car Plant.

My earliest and formative experiences of politics were not of repeated success but of bitter defeats - in 1983, 1987 and 1992. Part of my response to those defeats was a growing consciousness of the Scottish dimension of my politics. I was there protesting outside New College when Margaret Thatcher came to deliver her infamous 'Sermon on the Mound' in 1988, and in George Square in support of the Scottish Parliament, and in the Meadows in 1992, when we were gathered to reflect what John Smith described so well as 'the settled will of the Scottish people'.

I was there because I reacted to and rejected Thatcher's intolerance towards and ignorance of much of what we in Scotland held dear. At that time if felt like a struggle for Scotland's soul. And for me, and a lot of other Scots, it was Labour politicians of that generation, like Dewar, Smith, Brown and Cook, who gave voice not only to our concerns but also to our hopes. They held out the possibility of a better Scottish nation - by their commitment to constitutional change certainly, but even more by their shared commitment to social and economic change and solidarity with the poor, even when that was not an easy path. As democratic socialists, they never saw a contradiction in working for a better Scotland and a better Britain.

I am forever proud that one of the first acts of the incoming Labour government in 1997 was to set out the Scotland Act, giving birth to Scotland's first democratic Parliament. But nationalism has never held any appeal for me. I believe that our Scottish Parliament could and should be not simply an instrument of greater democratic accountability but also a workshop in which a fairer more socially just Scotland could be forged.

As a democratic socialist myself, ideals have shaped my sense of politics more than identity. I am proud of my Scottishness - certainly. But defined only by my Scottishness - certainly not. I am, and always have been, much more interested in abolishing poverty than abolishing Britain.

That's where I come to this conversation from. What about you?

Gerry to Douglas

It is good to hear your story - behind every political position and philosophy there is a personal story. My parents were born and grew up in Dundee. We lived in a council estate where neighbours popped in all the time for advice or just a blether. My father, Eddie, worked for NCR while I was growing up, while my mother, Jean, managed a chemist shop pharmacy. My dad was in the Communist Party, not unusual for a Dundee shop steward. My mum was a community activist who for several years in my childhood ran the local paper, Ardler News.

My parents believed in two powerful things. …

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