Interview with Jack McConnell, 26 Sep 2018
Jack Wilson McConnell, Baron McConnell of Glenscorrodale, is a Scottish politician and life peer in the House of Lords. He is Scottish. He was the First Minister of Scotland from 2001 – 2007, and the Member of the Scottish Parliament for Motherwell and Wishaw from 1999 to 2011. His work today includes extensive humanitarian activities and education of youths and students around the globe. For years now he has been actively lecturing at Libertas International University in Dubrovnik, and this time he has agreed to an interview for the University website. In conversation with Lord McConnell is our own professor Stipe Buzar.
Lord McConnell, how long have you been coming to teach at Libertas in Dubrovnik?
I’ve been coming to teach in Dubrovnik since 2011, so it’s my seventh year coming here. But I heard about the idea of having this university here earlier at an international conference.
Was that also your first time in Dubrovnik and Croatia?
It was my first time in Dubrovnik, but I had been in Croatia before and other Former Yugoslav countries in 2009 as the UK representative and peace-building.
What makes you come back every time?
First of all, it’s a beautiful place with an incredible history so it’s not at all difficult to come back. But in terms of the work it’s the diversity in the classes. At Libertas I have an opportunity to teach and exchange opinions with students from all parts of the world and that makes it exciting.
What topics are you covering in your classes this semester?
This semester we’re talking a lot about what I call the “rise of the outsiders”. Most people talk about populists (of which Donald Trump is now the most famous), but I like to call them outsiders rather than populists, because what they are doing is challenging the insiders, the elite, and its happening in many states in the developed world.
There are many crisis motifs in European politics right now, and reemerging differences between Europe’s western and eastern wings. Mostly I refer to the different approaches that western and Višegrad countries have taken to immigration, but also ?
Well, there are continental tensions in Europe, but there are also national tensions. Almost every country in Europe was not long ago dominated by a large party of the centre right and centre left. Now, in almost every country in Europe, those centre parties are in decline, or have been taken over, and we are seeing a rise in the more extreme parties of the right and left. After the European Parliament elections next year that rise in support will change the face of European politics, but I also think it should encourage those of us who hold a less extreme view of society to rethink how politics and government should relate to people, because something went wrong — this extremism is not the solution, but we need to explain what the better solution would be for the 21st century.
Does that mean that next year’s European Parliament elections might be the most important ones, or at least most interesting ones in a long while?
I think they will be very interesting, and I think they are likely to produce a result that has a significant number of more extreme members of the European Parliament, possibly even the largest block of members in the European Parliament, who come from nationalistic perspectives, and I think that will change the nature and the tone of the European Parliament.
One of the most divisive topics in the last few years has been immigration from less developed parts of the world. What is your general opinion of this, and more specifically, is there a way to alleviate these divisions?
I find the current situation deeply worrying. I understand that just this week the last of the registered rescue boats in the Mediterranean has lost its registration and they’re being turned away from mainland European ports, and therefore people are being left to drown at sea. All this in the 21st century in a comparatively rich world, and we cannot seem to find a way to help these desperate people, who have travelled hundreds and often thousands of miles in search of help on our shores.
To me if Europe is to stand for anything in the world, then it is to stand for humanity, for a sense of values, and for a bit of leadership in terms of decency. We are not living up to that right now, so I think we need to do a number of things. We need to understand that people on this planet have always migrated. Europeans migrated elsewhere for a better life, now others are migrating to Europe for the same reasons. It’s part of human history. So we need to find consistent, fair systems of managed migration that let people do that in an orderly fashion, but we also need to support the development of the countries from which the migrants are coming so that they can come to Europe only when they choose to do so, not because they feel that they have no other choice. We need better opportunities for people to make better choices, and we need to stop this lottery where people are climbing on to boats not knowing whether or not they will make it to the other side.
We know that the EU taken as a whole is not as large, not politically or economically powerful as some other players in the world, but you said that there is a leadership role to be played by Europe in some aspect of international politics. What is this possible role?
I think the EU and the individual states should by their own internal example stand up for liberal-democratic systems of government, human rights and the independent rule of law, cooperation and responsibility rather than isolation and irresponsible short-termism. In European history we’ve been at your best, when this is what we’ve done. When we’ve been at our worst we have only looked after ourselves. If Europe would stand for the right values, we would make a significant impact in the world.
It would be ashamed to have you for a conversation and not mention Brexit. However, as I am not asking you to answer as an MP, but as an IR scholar, the questions I’d like to ask are not about whether you favour or dislike the idea, but how do you see the role of Brexit in shaping or reshaping the identity of the EU, in the survival or possible deterioration of the Union through further exits etc.?
Well, I didn’t vote for it and I don’t think it should be happening, but I think it is going to happen. I think there will be a full Brexit, but I think there is still time to negotiate a close agreement, and I think we should have the closest possible agreement recognising that the UK will be an independent state working in close cooperation with the EU (which is in everyone’s interest and we should be sticking to that as an objective).
More widely though, I think Brexit is a wake up call to the leaders of Europe, and if the EU and it’s institutions do not change dramatically that there will be more exits of other countries in the not too distant future.
The image people have of these leaders – and it’s not just bureaucrats, but elected politicians as well – who are out of touch, living a very good life in Brussels, not listening, but not leading either, and not providing answers. That image is all too often accurate. I believe in the principle of the EU, of European cooperation, and that a Europe-wide institution is a good thing, but I think the current institutions are letting people down by their behaviour, their attitudes, and their complacency.
I think we need a fresh approach to cut out waste and inefficiency and greed at the centre, and to sharpen up the European message to deal with the real problems of the 21st century rather than rely on what we accomplished in the 20th century.
To refer to something you said earlier, do you believe that the Union will, in fact, dissolve, unless it does what it does when it is, as you said, at it’s best?
Well, we’re having this interview in Croatia. No one has joined since Croatia! Only Croatia has joined since Romania and Bulgaria. If we look at the pace of enlargement in earlier decades, then this is a standstill. So, I think it is more likely that we are in a time when the EU will start to come apart rather than enlarge. I think radical action is required to reinvigorate and re-energise the institutions in order to make them attractive and representative for where we are today.
Do you think that following a full Brexit, there may be secession from the UK, in order for certain parts of the country to re-enter the EU?
I think it’s possible that Scotland might vote again on independence, but I think it is, for the moment, unlikely in the short term. I think people are worried that there is so much change happening around them, and that more change might be very destructive. In short, the population is hesitating, so the politicians are hesitating, but at some point I would imagine there may be another vote.
Does this also bring up new possibilities for full Irish unification, given than Northern Ireland might want to choose staying in the EU rather than staying in the UK?
Northern Ireland remains, unfortunately, a very divided community. A significant part of the population associates with the Republic in the south of the island, while a significant part associates with Britain. The divide, though no longer violent, is still very acute. I think the future for Northern Ireland, in that sense, is unpredictable. A lot will depend on the nature of Brexit. If Brexit is messy then some people who in the past would have identified as British, might prefer to see an association with Ireland and the EU rather than a close association with Britain. But ultimately I think that would be a big step for people to take, and they may not be ready for that, because they are worried about instability and see a possible break up of the UK as adding to, rather than reducing, that instability.
Lord McConnell, thank you very much for your time and answers. It is always a pleasure to have you teach at Libertas and engage you as a partner in conversation.
You’re very welcome, and thank you as well.