20 October 2014

Keith Brown: "Stands Scotland where it did?"

Today, I bring you the first in what I hope will be a series of guest posts from the three contenders to replace Nicola Sturgeon as Deputy Leader of the SNP. I'm open minded about that contest, and persuadable, so wanted to provide an open platform to each of the candidates to articulate their visions and set out their values. First up, Keith Brown MSP makes his case....

L'Ecosse est-elle restée fidèle à elle-même?

Well, you can't start a guest post on Lallands Peat Worrier without a spot of French, can you? Stands Scotland where it did?

Scotland did not die; we did not collapse in September and we did not lift ourselves above the ordinary and soar in the clouds of independence. We stood, instead, in the full glare of the world spotlight and decided 'not yet'. They turned the spotlight off and we looked to ourselves again and defied explanation. The Yes campaign, defeated, gathered its strength and got back to its feet within hours. 

In days the membership of the independence parties rose exponentially, the Greens reaching 6,000, the SNP surpassing 80,000. Post referendum Yes demonstrations collected food for those less fortunate, showing the solidarity and social communion that elevated the Yes campaign. We're told we should accept the result, revel in the record electoral registration and marvel at the 85% turnout. Alternatively, we're told that the 45% should fight again, that the 55% were lied to and believed it, and that one last push takes us where we need to go.

I don't hang my coat on either side of that argument, I've got more hope and more ambition for my country than that - tempered with a bit of realism. We watched our country rise to the biggest democratic challenge that any nation can face and our achievement was not the registration or the turnout, and it was neither the 45% nor the 55%. We showed that political debate could be better than the skinking fare that jaups in Westminster luggies; we showed that political debate - the biggest political debate - could be conducted well and with good humour for the most part. 

We showed that the people can own the debate, that they can claim it as their own and that politicians can be and must be a part of the people's debate rather than thinking that they can rule without consent and participation, that somehow they are above the people. Scotland showed that politics can, in that time honoured phrase, be of the people, for the people and by the people. 

That is our achievement; we have raised politics to the level of the people and the greatest failure we could ever have is to let it fall back and become, once again, a playground for the rich, the ignorant and the uncaring. Westminster retains the right to govern, for now, but it cannot dictate how Scotland does politics. Indeed, it the task of all of us, to make sure it doesn't. Survival of the fittest may be how evolution works but society should aspire to something better.

We don't do that by fixating on the past, we do that by inventing the future. We have to look at what we can do now, argue in the Smith Commission for the powers to do what we need to do in the near future, and keep agitating for independence. So we have to prioritise and plan and keep dreaming. We have to be realistic about what we can do but never settle for thinking that it's all that should be done or all we can ever do. Let's keep lifting our eyes so we can see further, make sure we always believe in the strength of people and their imagination, and make sure we trust each other. We need government brave enough to dream and smart enough to face reality, a party hard enough to stand up in the face of the storm and flexible enough to change in the face of changing facts, and a movement still imagining a better future but working for a better present.

So while we dream of eliminating poverty and the need for food banks; while we work to improve education and campaign to get rid of nuclear weapons, what else falls to us to do? Scotland faces debilitating welfare cuts, indifferent economic management and an assault on human rights by the UK Government - including the undercutting of equalities legislation. and a Westminster elite, acting with unfamiliar alacrity to demonstrate that it has 'done Scotland'. Business as usual means looking forward to tax and welfare violence from the UK Government

We've seen John Swinney move to ease the pain of the Bedroom Tax - he can't change the benefits system, though, and that's the problem. We can spend Scottish Government money on one chase after another but there will come a time when we can't. At some point we have to start asking what else we cut to keep mending the wounds caused by Westminster - health? Education? Local Government? 

If we don't control the benefits system we can't change how they work and if we don't control tax we can't find the money to control the benefits system. We need to be able to control both systems just to get some sense of decency back. We don't have those powers now and the chances of the Smith Commission delivering them are fairly low; we'll need independence for that.

We need to be able to get people off of benefits, too - by creating jobs. Bringing forward the capital investment programme brought jobs to our communities but while we're constricted by Westminster rules on borrowing and spending that's a limited bounty. If we can't change the rules around employment we can't make a real difference to job creation, though; that needs independence.

Equality legislation suffers the same problems - someone will be saying that we can't have different laws governing equality here than in the rest of the UK. There won't be any rationale offered for that - just an assertion - but it will be taken to be true. There's no real reason at all why Scotland can't have control of equality, of basic human rights, but it will be 'too difficult' to manage or deliver. The real reason will be that it's too hard for Westminster to let go of anything they hold - any power they have they will seek to keep.

If you want an example of how there is a disconnect between Scotland's powers and the powers we need there's a perfect example in a decision I had to make recently. I'm Transport Minister and had to award the Scotrail franchise; I could award the contract to a public sector company but not a Scottish public sector company - it's illegal for us to own our own railway service. We've got some power over the railway provision but not all of it. I think that the deal I managed to get shows that we do what we can with what we have to get Scotland the best deal possible but the fact that we can't set the basic terms for making the deal points to the real flaw of devolution - you may appear to have power but if someone else has control over the framework you have no real power.

So we'll continue to work with the powers we have and we'll argue in the Smith Commission for the additional powers we need to improve the lives of Scots across the board but we cannot let it lie there. Devolution is the management of power, not the possession of it and that is simply not good enough for Scotland - it never has been. We have to reinvigorate the SNP and the larger campaign that the SNP is part of; we have to be part of a society that refuses to allow the poor to starve and stands up for all of our fellow citizens; we have to be part of a movement that refuses to lie down and allow nuclear weapons to be housed in our waters.

We have to govern well with the best interests of Scotland at heart and that means looking outwards and finding ways to improve the services we offer, we must never be content with how our NHS works, or our education system, or our Justice system. There will always be something that can be done to improve them and we have to look for that; in our newly expanded party membership there will be people who have expertise in all kinds of different areas and we should tap into that and the connections that they have. 

Our policy-making should be owned by our members and I want to give it back with regional policy forums, an online policy discussion site, regular National Assemblies and more open policy formulation. We have to have confidence in our members and in our activists and they have to have confidence in what they're doing. I want to set up training sessions and provide support material for our organisers, activists and local office-bearers. We have to build a party that is connected to every aspect of Scots society and reaches out internationally and that takes work.

Never again should Westminster feel that it can take Scotland for granted, either; we have to continue to agitate for more power to be devolved but we'll also have to continue to campaign to rid our country of nuclear weapons, to have our voice heard internationally, to encourage, social justice, fairness and equality. Independence remains the goal, remains the one major change which will give us the tools to really improve Scotland, and we have to keep working towards it.

Independence will come when the people of Scotland say it does and a new referendum will be called when the time is right because a referendum is the only way in which we can be sure that the people are with us in making that change. In the meantime we have to keep on persuading people, we have to speak to the 55% who said No, find out why they weren't persuaded and work to change their minds. We have to keep making the case for independence, keep campaigning to make Scotland a better nation, and keep working as if we live in the early days of that better nation.

Govern well now, improve Scotland as we can, but reach for the stars. A beacon of hope and aspiration shone across this land and it's our job to keep it lit; it's our duty to plan a better future and build a better present. I want to be a part of that and I can help organise towards it; that's why I want to be Depute Leader of the SNP - our task is not yet done - and I hope you'll join me on that journey.

Keith Brown MSP


  1. Good, positive article - inevitably tinged with regret and realism about the limitations of any likely devo deal. Smith may throw a few fishes our way, but the rod stays at Westminster.

  2. Thanks LPW I too am undecided who to vote for so these posts are great.
    Thanks Keith for all you have said and said very well. I do like your idea of involving all us ordinary folks who usually get forgotten about by the usual suspects AYE

  3. There's a 'law' of political parties (I forget the name of this law) that the policy preferences of the leadership are closer to the mainstream than that of the activists.

    Since the SNP is the one mainstream pro-independence party in Scottish politics I would say it's a priority for it to be centrist (relative to Scottish opinion).

    So, having said that, I wonder - is there a potential danger in moving the SNP to a more activist-driven policy? Will it risk making the party less electable? We saw in the referendum that different groups in Scottish society are "differently noisy", and ultimately the side which had virtually zero activism (the 'silent majority') was the winning side.

    This suggests there is a risk in selecting policy based on the opinions of the loudest activists.

    1. The problem with that argument is it means the SNP should dump its central policy - independence. Or, at the very least, it should have dumped it years ago, meaning we'd not have just had a referendum on it. Should the public lead the politicians, or should the politicians lead the public? The immigration debate in England is a seemingly permanent case in point.

      There's a bit of give and take for sure, but if activists don't get to be involved in driving policy, then why should they go out in the rain chapping on doors to get people to vote for the party? There has to be an element of trust in the activist base, especially because they're the ones actually speaking to people. Activists are just as capable of being pragmatic as the leadership when required, as several points in the referendum debate showed.

      Imagine where Labour would be now if they did a bit more listening to their activists, instead of dictating policy from on high...

  4. The candidate that states they will abolish postal voting will get my vote.

  5. He's a competent minister but he doesn't cut the mustard for deputy of the party at this critical juncture IMO.

  6. I hope I'm not being rude, but maybe LPW can assist some of these candidates with the prose. Or at least provide a list of banned cliches, starting with "governing with the best interests of Scotland at heart." And then there's "reach for the stars" - which doesn't even make sense as a metaphor.

    1. I think it has to be the person's own words - if they talk and think in banal cliches so be it - isn't better to know that?

      Without being rude I do agree that there was rather a lot of 'motherhood and apple pie' waffle. Where is the political beef? Perhaps the role on offer (deputy leader) doesn't allow for much in the way of original thought?

      What does 'the best interests of Scotland' actually mean? How is it to be understood? For whom, for what, for why etc?

      All politics is about power and all power generates antagonisms (see Carl Schmitt). It really isn't an option to please all of the people all of the time - one cannot simultaneously optimize all possible parameter space and trade-offs are inevitable in any complex system. And political parameter space is very complex.

      What is someone against, what is someone for and how do they think they get from where we are to where we want to be?

  7. Cheers LPW, I'm also undecided, so it's good to have this article (and hopefully ones from the others) to help make up my mind.

    I've liked Keith ever since he declared he would be sleeping in the Transport Scotland control room until he'd sorted out the traffic chaos of 2010, and the deal he's gotten out of the ScotRail franchise seems pretty remarkable. It seems telling that the Transport portfolio hasn't had any major negative press since he took it over. And his media appearances during the referendum and since have shown him to be a good communicator - his destruction of James Kelly on Scotland Tonight recently was magnificent, and I was pleased he made it quite clear the Scottish Government is not a fan of the franchise system.

    It's a hard choice, because I like all three contenders. It's going to come down to who makes the best pitch, which is probably how it should be anyway. I like Keith's talk of mixing ambition with realism, and getting the activist base more involved, especially the talk of training and support for local activists (as long as the Play-Doh woman isn't involved...)

    Certainly open to the other two's pitches, though!

  8. Keith Brown: "Stands Scotland where it did?"

    A good question, and a hard one to answer at any time. I dont have a Scottie in this fight of course, but I thought this an impressive piece from Mr Brown.

    Both the Tories and the Greens seem to appreciate that Scotland is not a whole and pitch their campaigns accordingly - the SNP and Labour seems to think there is a 'One Scotland' they can speak for - the reality is that the referendum has shown that is not the case. The SNP can make inroads into what we used to call the Labour heartlands but that will come at a cost in what i think we may soon be calling the former SNP heartlands.

    Strange times - and we all of us need rational voices among those who would lead us. I look forward to the next two, Mr Brown's is most encouraging.

  9. The thing I notice in this article is that while the huge SNP and Green membership increase is commented on, there's nothing about the SSP which has done the same. It was the same in my first ever branch meeting never having been a member of any party before. It was noisy me that pointed this out.

    And yet the SSP were pro-indy and active in the referendum, and perhaps if they got their act together along with all the angry socialist splinters they could form a real alternative to Labour in Scotland, and perhaps even, next ref, come out for a YES.

    YES was all inclusive. It would be a real shame to lose that. It could also stop the SNP having to move too far to the left, a real problem that has already been identified for them. Apart from that as others have said, 3 excellent candidates.