Some thoughts on the First Minister’s Lecture
Robin McAlpine, The Jimmy Reid Foundation
But it is the final two themes which drew me in most. The first was the section of the speech and even more so the unprepared answer to questions where the First Minister seemed most committed, fluent and indeed passionate. This was about the idea of a written constitution. He argued that the debate about what should be in it might prove even more important that what ends up being in it. No constitution is a guarantee of anything, he argued, but it can express collective values. And if there is a wide and inclusive process of writing it, there is a good opportunity for Scotland to come together in articulating those values. He spoke convincingly about the Icelandic process and seemed genuine in his pluralist commitment to developing an inclusive constitution. He was asked about whether there should be a revising chamber in an independent Scotland. He mocked the Lords relentlessly (if it is such a great revising chamber, how did it fall for the Iraq War lies he asked). But he made the more important point that a constitution doesn’t ‘fix’ anything. It is an expression of a country’s will, and it is only that will in action which guarantees good governance. The dismissive attacks from the right wing media on his comments on the constitution seemed juvenile and petty in comparison; we may not wholly agree with all of this agenda, but he’s thought about it and there is some serious content in those thoughts. We should listen.
It is when he came to talk about political and social empathy that I was most interested. Rats, he tells us, will on average release other rats from a cage when given the choice between doing that or something selfish like eat. He made a passionate claim that only empathy prevents politicians from running the country like a theoretical exercise. Only in empathy can we find a way of understanding big political projects and what they really mean for people. He talked about the kind of nation Scotland can be, its sense of community and its size and argued that this makes for a strong base for the development of empathy. He talked about empathy education. He also linked empathy back strongly to his central theme of alienation. Here I must admit I would have liked him to go further. Had he cut out ten minutes of recitation of ‘things my government has done’ and instead expanded his analysis of alienation as a psychological phenomenon and lack of empathy in institutions and in the economic forces of society as a key cause, it might have been a genuinely memorable lecture and not just a very interesting one. I very much hope he will return to this theme again. Indeed, I would very much like to hear others in politics developing this theme. The idea that politics is about something more fundamental than management was stimulating. I want to hear more. (OK, we all know this. I want to hear more from senior politicians. And something more than just slogans.)
And so we were left with enough to feel OK about – a rousing and surely absolutely unequivocal defence of Scottish Water as a publicly-owned utility was met warmly (though if anyone is complacent about this they should look more carefully at how Scottish Water actually operates). We were left with some genuine thinking. We were left with some defences of existing SNP policy which convinced few in our audience. And we were as always left with a desire to hear fewer lists and more engagement with the big questions. But I think most people were left stimulated. We are very grateful to the First Minister for making the time and for making this a priority.
One last comment. The evening was of course littered with tributes to and commemorations of Jimmy Reid himself. That the First Minister and Jimmy were friends infused the evening, but not as much as the sense of Jimmy’s influence over the political development of our country’s leader. I am very conscious that as a think tank we carry the responsibility of Jimmy’s name and of his political legacy. It was therefore very important indeed for us that Jimmy’s widow Joan and his daughters Eileen and Shona were able to be with us, along with their families. For me personally, of all the evening’s achievements, the fact that the family were so happy and proud of this tribute to Jimmy was the most important.