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Don’t walk away

Douglas Alexander

This time next year Scots will vote on whether to sever remaining ties with Westminster. Scottish Labour MP and UK shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander believes solidarity is more important than independence.


Let's work together, not walk away. In just over a year voters across Scotland will go to the polls and make the most important choice in our country's constitutional history. It is a decision which will impact not only on Scotland but on the rest of the United Kingdom, particularly if the result means the break-up a 300 year old union which has seen experiences, objectives, risks and rewards shared across our family of nations. Whether to remain part of the UK or walk away is an individual choice for each voter in Scotland about the future we want for our family, our children and grandchildren but it is also a decision about the nation we are and the nation we aspire to become.

So the coming referendum debate demands a different quality of imagination. Given the degree of integration between the Scottish and the British economies, our single market and shared currency it is inevitable that profound economic questions will be asked in the months ahead. But this debate will, and must, involve more than accountancy. It will involve deep and profound issues about identity and community in the 21st century, about our values, and our beliefs.

The nationalists have sought to characterise independence as an enlightened act that should be supported by progressives in England in supposed solidarity with progressives in Scotland. However this is an argument that Scottish pioneers for social justice, those on the political left, have for decades rejected, not leastbecause the break-up of Britain would represent a defeat for progressive ideals and a retreat from a shared vision of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-national state.

The referendum instead is an opportunity to reaffirm the shared endeavour of sustaining a just and tolerant society across these islands and to uphold the idea of neighbourliness - being our brother and sister's keeper - as an idea still worth cherishing.

It has never been in Scotland's nature to walk away, to look inward or isolate ourselves from the challenges of the times. We would not become more Scottish by walking away from our friends, family and neighbours across these islands. As partners in the UK, as Scots we can make our voices heard on big global issues, like climate change and global poverty, with a seat at the G8, the G20, the Security Council, the IMF and the World Bank.

And not only does Scotland benefit from our position within the UK on the world stage but I believe the voice of the UK would be diminished and the battle for social justice across the globe weakened if we were to walk away from our partnership and its collective endeavour.

If the establishment of our political, economic and social union over 300 years ago was derived from hard headed calculation based on specific interest it has evolved into something deeper and more enduring over the years. The movement of people across our islands has seen family ties spread across our borders. Our shared political history demonstrates the very best of what working together can achieve. It's not just that our grandparents stood shoulder to shoulder in the fight against fascism, but that they then built the National Health Service and the system of National Insurance that enshrined the principle that sharing of risks by all of us provides rights for each of us.

Those were forward-looking, radical, reformist acts and they were realised through a political economic and social union built on working together. Our most iconic and cherished institution the NHS was founded by a Welsh Minister and enacted by a UK Government to the benefit of everyone; the creation of a welfare state, the idea that taxes should be paid by those who can afford them to sustain public services for everyone was the inspiration of an English Minister; these ideas highlight the strength of our union.

Similarly, our Armed Forces, who come from every part of the UK and serve in every corner of the globe to defend our islands and keep us all secure - their bravery and their service cannot and should not be categorised by whether they are a Welsh soldier, a Scottish sailor or an English pilot.

To my mind, just because we are to varying degrees Scottish, British and European, it does not follow that loyalty to one must come at the price of denial of the other. I am passionately Scottish but I have never felt that to stand-up for Scotland we should break away from Britain. I don't believe that the values I grew up with in Scotland, our ideals and our vision for a fair and just society, stops at the border. I do not believe that families relying on food banks in Preston are any less of a priority than families visiting the local food bank I helped establish with local churches in Paisley.

I believe we have a duty to care equally, and work tirelessly to support those struggling in every part of the UK. Of course I disagree profoundly with the economic approach being taken by the present Conservative-led UK Government. Yet that government will have a mandate of just eight months to run by the time of Scotland's choice. Our challenges are better met by standing together.

Our successes too are ones in which we can all share across these islands. That was never more appropriately demonstrated than during the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, when the whole country cheered on Team GB, or more recently when Scottish born Andy Murray became the first British winner of Wimbledon in 77 years amidst a roar of support from English, Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish supporters watching from around the country.

The truth, on this rainy collection of islands in the North Atlantic, is that by geography we are neighbours, by history we're allies, by economics we're partners, and by fate and fortune we are comrades, friends and family. It is in that spirit that working and cooperating together, not separation should be the future we aspire to and is an idealism worth celebrating.

The progressive story of the UK is one of common endeavour to build a just, tolerant open society where our collective resources can be shared. The idea of a state pension - the concept of a Welsh liberal integrated into an English Minister's national system of social security - means that if you retire in Lerwick your pension is paid by tax contributions of a young worker in Liverpool. Being part of the UK means that resources are spread to provide public services for all people across these islands, from the most affluent to the poorest areas of the country. To reject this principle of sharing risks, rewards and resources, to forsake our solidarity with our friends and neighbours and instead spend the coming years erecting new barriers between the nations of these islands would, for me, represent a fundamental separation from a progressive tradition that the nationalists have tried to falsely claim they represent.

A fundamental belief in human equality is the core of my politics, more than a fundamental belief in national difference. I am, and always have been, much more interested in abolishing poverty than abolishing Britain. That's why I believe now is the time for progressives on both sides of the border to stand together and vanquish a politics of manufactured grudge and grievance, to reject a politics that draws its energy from unfortunate assertions of difference rather than expressions of solidarity and co-operation.

I remain of the view that this United Kingdom, this oldest political union, embodies a quintessentially modern idea - that this coming together of family, friends, ideas, institutions and identities is a strength, not a weakness. And in an age defined by greater interdependence and connection, walk away nationalism is the wrong path for Scotland - and for the United Kingdom.