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by Tom Freeman
07 July 2016
Jack McConnell: diversity must be celebrated not tolerated post-Brexit

Jack McConnell: diversity must be celebrated not tolerated post-Brexit

Jack McConnell tells Holyrood he was not surprised by the UK voting to leave the European Union. “I tried to tell them,” he says.

Sitting down with Scotland’s third First Minister the day after the results come in, Brexit understandably dominates the discussion.

He is in a reflective mood. As the last Labour First Minister, it is surprising to hear him praise an SNP successor, Nicola Sturgeon, for the way she has handled the immediate political fallout. Three hours ago, Sturgeon gave a press conference pledging she will do “whatever it takes” to ensure Scotland’s continuing membership of the EU.

Although a second referendum on independence is “very much on the table”, she said, time would be taken to explore “all possible options.”

McConnell welcomes the “caution” in the statement. “Obviously, as Nicola said, there is likely to be a second independence referendum. That is going to be held in very different circumstances to the first one,” he acknowledges.

While many may now be attracted to independence as a way of staying in the EU, McConnell suggests the previously espoused model of an independent Scotland with an open relationship with the rest of the UK – including currency and open borders – may prove more difficult now.

“It’s already been pointed out that it has major implications for the border with the Irish republic,” he says. “It would also definitely mean implications with the border with Scotland, and so I think this is going to be a very difficult judgement for people, and that’s why I certainly welcomed today Nicola saying she’s going to take time to think about this properly, and think over the options.”

With so much shifting politically south of the border, the case for independence would need to be different from last time, suggests McConnell.

“What Scotland doesn’t need is another referendum on the back of a fag packet scheme. If there’s going to be another referendum it should be on a properly thought out proposal with all the pros and cons spelt out.”

This, presumably, will depend on what the EU decides. “There needs to be a period of time to see what Brexit actually looks like so we can make a judgement about that,” he says.

One thing which has been clear about the EU referendum debate is immigration has been a central theme. While circumstances are different north and south of the border, the result also suggests attitudes are too. 

McConnell recognises initiatives in Scotland under his government which may have contributed. The Fresh Talent – Working in Scotland scheme was launched in 2005 in response to population decline and was intended to retain skilled graduates.

“The day we launched Fresh Talent, The Sun in the UK had a front page about asylum seekers, very much of the front pages they had at that time. The Sun in Scotland had a front-page endorsement of my call for fresh talent. We won the argument,” he remembers.

While that argument was centred on what was best for the country in the long term, there were other challenges around the same period. Holyrood remembers The Daily Record – a Labour-supporting newspaper – covering the murder of an asylum seeker in Sighthill in Glasgow with a report questioning the legitimacy of the victim’s asylum status.   

McConnell says the ‘One Scotland, Many Cultures’ campaign was launched as a direct result of the incident. 

“There was a shock that in Scotland there could be such a tension in a community. In my travels, particularly in the asylum-seeking communities, what we found was these families were making amazing contributions,” he says, remembering encountering asylum-seeking kids who had become school prefects. 

“I remember going to a butcher on the Isle of Arran and the guy had been trying to get two local apprentices for two years, and couldn’t get anyone. He had a young girl and a young boy from Poland and he was over the moon he was able to keep his business going.”

McConnell argues the approaches taken by his administration are different from the language used in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.

“I listened to the telly last night and everyone was talking about how we need to be a more tolerant country. It’s not about tolerance. If you go back to any of the speeches I made between 2002 and 2007 it was about celebrating diversity, not tolerating it.”

Diversity leads to investment, he argues. “If you look around the world, the most successful, entrepreneurial, exciting places in the world are places that have diversity. People coming in and out. I still strongly believe the best companies in the world, the best investments in the world, will go to places where their top people want to live.”

Isn’t it more about tax incentives? 

“The argument at the time was Ireland is doing well because of tax breaks, but my view was what we could offer was about quality of life. I think we were really getting somewhere with that.”

With the last nine years being dominated by constitutional positioning, McConnell fears the EU vote may mean the new parliament will also be focused on whether to have a new referendum on independence.

“‘One Scotland, Many Cultures’ took time, it took effort, promoting Scotland abroad for investment and jobs, building those relationships with China and America and so on took time,” he says, pointing to the establishment of a network of global Scots, an international advisory board, university links with China and formalising Scotland’s international development relationship with Malawi, which happened under his watch.

But hasn’t the SNP carried it on? It was his predecessor who introduced a minister for external affairs, for example.

“Initially I think there was an enthusiasm to carry it on, but the closer it got to decisions about referenda, the less generally ministerial activity was going on. The First Minister and ministers are distracted year after year by one issue which is not about delivery,” he suggests.

If celebration rather than tolerance of diversity is the answer, why wasn’t Labour doing that at a national level? By 2010 Gordon Brown’s answer to a supporter admonishing him on immigration and crime was to call her a “bigoted woman”, albeit apparently out of earshot and off camera. Does England just have different challenges?

“Politicians in England have been running away from it for decades, he says. “I think the majority of human beings are decent people. If leaders lead, and make the positive case, and they back it up – they don’t just say warm words or the right thing in a TV studio, but actually have a programme of hard work that makes it work for people, then I think people can be persuaded to do interesting and progressive things, and to back interesting and progressive things.”

Politicians of both centre right and centre left parties across Europe are paying the price for “walking away” from making the difficult decisions, McConnell suggests.

Nevertheless, nationally, some of the recent language on immigration from Labour – including a bizarre anti-immigration mug in 2015 – have been a far cry from Scotland’s ‘One Scotland, Many Cultures’. 

McConnell says devolution brought politicians closer to people. 

“We weren’t talking about people’s concerns in a TV studio, we were actually talking about it with them. I think that closeness helped us be in touch but also be brave from time to time,” he says.

While he describes the first three years of the Scottish Parliament as “very rocky”, McConnell says the energy “unleashed” after 20 years of campaigning finally found a voice after the 2003 election. The position of First Minister, he found, had more authority than a previous secretary of state.

“When I called the first sectarianism summit, for example, the Cardinal and the Grand Master of the Orange Lodge had never met. They had never been in the same room together. It was a first,” he remembers. 

The atmosphere wasn’t too frosty. “They had a handshake, they sat down. There were a few games played around the table. But they were at the table. And they were at the table the following year when we had to say what we’d all done.” Rangers and Celtic football clubs, too, were active at the time, inviting schools of other faiths into the club stadia, he says.

How successful was the initiative, though? Even if the meetings were productive, sectarianism is still a problem in Scottish society today. “These things run deep. It’s about identity.”

The SNP legislated, in an act which now looks precarious since the party lost its majority. McConnell says the annual summit would have been a better route to changing attitudes. “I wish I’d legislated to make an annual sectarianism summit a compulsory thing the First Minister had to call. Then Alex would’ve had to keep it going.”

Nevertheless, the second parliament saw the Scottish parties begin their own policy development, and McConnell remembers the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Labour drawing up manifestos for the 2003 election with one eye on coalition, enabling a proper “programme for government” for the first time. 

A ‘rainbow parliament’, which saw Socialists, Greens and vocal independents like Dennis Canavan and Margo MacDonald “reflect strands of opinion”, set up home in a new parliament building where McConnell, acting SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Presiding Officer George Reid decided privately to “raise the quality of what went on to match the surroundings”, he remembers.

“History will show the period between 2003 and 2007 could well be the most productive four years in the Scottish Parliament for decades into the future. It was a lot of work by a lot of people, but it was partly the moment in time. We had the plans, we had the agreement and we got on with it.”

Did this new political autonomy and confidence within the party spark tensions with Westminster? 

“At the very beginning under Donald’s coalition there was a bit of tension. There wasn’t really a government to government tension when I was First Minister. What there was, I think, was a tension between MPs and MSPs.”

Some MPs resented the growing confidence and stature of MSPs, even in those early days, McConnell remembers.

“I did a big event in Paris promoting Scotland and the ambassador flew the saltire above the embassy and a Scottish MP wrote to the Foreign Office asking them to ban it ever being used again. The Foreign Office sent it to me to reply to him, so I knew who wrote it…”

By 2014 the tension had grown to such proportions that resigning Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont accused Westminster of treating the Scottish party as a “branch office”. McConnell leapt to her defence at the time, saying the then leader Ed Miliband had to take responsibility. 

It seems a marked deterioration from the relationship between Prime Minister Tony Blair and First Minister Jack McConnell. Was forming two oppositions harder than forming two governments? 
“It was not easy being a Labour First Minister during a Labour Government. Because you were caught. I was caught in the crossfire. 

“They were moving to the end of their time in government. I was still feeling quite fresh and new, but I was spending a lot of time having to answer questions about whether I agreed with what they were doing. It was deeply frustrating.”

Although McConnell says Tony Blair was “broadly supportive” of Scottish Labour’s policy agenda, rumours have circulated the former PM, secretly, was not fond of devolution. 

McConnell says support of the Fresh Talent initiative shows that he was. “It was enthusiastically supported by Tony Blair, Charles Clarke and David Blunkett. They were the three main supporters in the UK government, and they were resolute in backing me on it. They changed the national immigration rules to help me make it happen.”

Indeed, McConnell leaving office in 2007 coincided with the beginning of Gordon Brown’s premiership, and the scheme was dropped, replaced with the post study work visa. 

The decline of Labour in Scotland since, insists McConnell, is linked to wider political changes across Europe in the wake of the end of the cold war, when left-leaning parties struggled to find a place in a new political orthodoxy. 

“You were either with the status quo, with capital and business, the establishment and traditions or you were with labour, the employees, the downtrodden, and you were fighting for change. That got blurred in the 1980s,” he says.

“Then the end of the cold war diminished the impact of the old political theories of right and left. I think the centre left has completely failed to find an articulation of what they are trying to achieve at home and abroad in the last 20 years.”

A key component in the new political landscape is identity, according to McConnell. “As the world has become more and more interdependent, as the economy and security and environmental challenges become more global, people have become more and more assertive about their national or local identity. 

“People want to see their identity getting a voice, being recognised. They want to feel some kind of control over their local circumstances and the future of their kids in that globalised community.”

McConnell’s Scottishness, he says, has been “a big part of my politics”, but the identity arguments are harder for social democrats in the bigger nations like Britain, France and Spain. The Social Democratic Party of Germany, for example, “is stuck below 20 per cent in the opinion polls and struggling to get back again”. 

How do they recover? “You need global solidarity to take action, while in local life recognising people’s identity as part of that. Culturally, but also in terms of their community. The Scottish Labour Party has become in recent times one of the big casualties of that failure. I suspect the English Labour Party might be about to face a similar challenge.”

For Scottish Labour to recover, suggests McConnell, the party needs the space to be able to rebuild “from the bottom up”, free from interference from Westminster. “Whatever people might say about Jeremy Corbyn in other respects, he very positively recognised and deferred to Kezia’s leadership in Scotland, and that’s a very healthy thing.”

Holyrood suggests the Brexit result and growing support for independence may be as much about railing against the establishment as identity politics. McConnell says it is “totally understandable”. 

But isn’t Labour part of that establishment? Has it stopped being the party of change? “There’s far too many elected representatives for the Labour Party who do not exhibit enough passion for the causes we are there to push. You saw the outpouring of grief for Jo Cox over the last week. The reason Jo Cox was so popular in the party, in particular among the generation of young women, but men as well, who were slightly younger than her, is that she did exhibit that passion. And she lived it. She was not in this for herself.”

Unlike, he suggests, many career politicians. “People are astonished to discover I was a mathematics teacher. That would be a rare thing in today’s House of Commons. I think there’s a real problem.”

The public, he believes, can “smell” a sense of entitlement about many politicians. “They can smell the lack of genuine opinion in what people say, and they can sense people who are just scoring points. People were at it as the results started to come in last night. People were trying to score points and blame other parties, instead of trying to understand what had created this in the first place.”  

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