When teenager Jack McConnell served as the President of Stirling University’s Students Union from 1980-82, new ideas surrounding political ideology and identity were buzzing around university campuses across the country – in particular, the idea that Scotland should be an independent nation.
33 years later, the independence debate has intensified exponentially; however, after an illustrious career as Scotland’s longest-serving First Minister, Labour life peer and Stirling alumnus Lord McConnell has grown weary of his nation’s seemingly never-ending debate over its sovereignty.
“This debate has been raging all my adult life,” Scotland’s longest-serving political leader said in an interview with Brig. “I would like Scotland to move on … we need to try and do more with this country than just argue about independence.”
As Scotland’s third ever First Minister, Lord McConnell is no stranger to the debate surrounding Scottish independence. Serving as Scotland’s foremost political leader from 2001 to 2007, McConnell was among the first Members of Scottish Parliament (MSP) to be elected in 1999, and served as the nation’s Finance Minister and Education Minister prior to the resignation of Henry McLeish as Scotland’s First Minister in 2001.
Under McConnell’s Labour administration, the Scottish government found unprecedented success by way of social legislation; McConnell sponsored the Fresh talent Initiative, the Project Scotland volunteer scheme, partnerships with developing countries and even ensured that Scotland was the first in the UK to instigate a public smoking ban.
In May 2007, the Scottish National Party narrowly defeated the Labour Party by one seat – initiating an internal power struggle in which up-and-comer MSP Alex Salmond asserted that the Scottish Nationalists had the right to form an executive due to its slim majority. Although ultimately giving way to the SNP’s demands, First Minister McConnell countered then that “there is no moral authority to pursue separation, and moral authority in the parliament will only come through parties working together in the majority.” Five years on, McConnell’s statements prove truer than ever.
“Most conflicts in the world today have some connection with identity,” Lord McConnell asserts. “For the last 100 years, there have broadly been three camps of opinion in Scotland. One is those who feel far more British than Scottish or feel an allegiance to Britain. You’ve then got a group who believe home rule for Scotland – but don’t see breaking up the UK as a necessary precondition for that. Then you’ve got others who define themselves more by the need for Scotland to be out of the UK.”
Although hesitant to “label it as a middle group”, Lord McConnell himself admits to identifying most with those wishing for more powers devolved to the Scottish government, but not outright independence. Indeed, he asserts that – while nationalists have Scotland’s best interests in mind – some of those involved in the SNP’s Yes Campaign simply stray too far from policy debate, and into a divisive culture war which is driven by a search to pass the blame of policy failures onto others.
“Some are positive. Others – I suspect, unfortunately, maybe the majority – define themselves against the UK, and want away from ‘English dominance’,” McConnell asserts. “The motivation behind the change in the late ‘90s was about democratising Scotland. It was never a motivation to reject the UK or to develop a blame culture against the English – which unfortunately, pure nationalism sometimes drifts into.”
In fact, the Yes Campaign is driven based upon a series of divisive and sometimes debateable platforms – including, above all else, that Scotland has “a government in Westminster that most of us did not vote for.” Yet various polls continue to suggest that the Scottish people are not entirely sure of the validity of these claims – a notion that, according to Lord McConnell, can be blamed on the organisation of the campaign.
“This time last year, I would have said that the campaign in favour of independence was probably a favourite to win,” McConnell warns. “This year, I think that’s probably unlikely. I don’t think a lot of the details have been thought through. It might produce a level of concern.”
Lord McConnell likened the current campaign for Scotland’s independence to the government’s failed devolution referendum in 1979, which took place during his time at Stirling University. The campaign, which ultimately failed to produce the first Scottish Parliament, suffered a lack of organisation – as well as an unquestionably embarrassing level of voter turnout.
“It was the very first time I ever voted. That campaign didn’t really galvanise public opinion in the way that it should have … and not as much thought had gone into the detail,” McConnell recalls. “Whether or not this campaign will be like 1979 or ’97 I don’t know, but I suspect in the case of Scotland being divided, it’s going to be a lot like ’79. People will become more and more polarised … whether that turns the public off or excites them remains to be seen.”
Indeed, only time will tell whether the events that have yet to unfold will shift public opinion towards voting in favour of an independent Scotland or rejecting it; however, Scotland’s longest-serving political leader maintains that both sides of the fight are only doing what they believe to be in Scotland’s best interest, and deserve equal consideration from every single Scottish voter.
“Scotland is not the kind of place where people accept what they don’t want to accept. It’s just too easy for politicians to snipe and to moan and be negative and to blame others,” McConnell says. “But this is a contest between two fair, positive campaigns. Our aim for Scotland should be to make Scotland the best place inside the UK … so let’s take some responsibility here, and make a big decision once and for all.”