Electoral Registration Forms & Sassenachs: Ideals and Identity

It has been a much argued point over how much the Referendum was about identity. It was not the primary driver of the independence campaign, although identity undoubtedly had that role in earlier decades. The ‘No’ campaign very much tried to pretend that it was about identity, in an ethnic sense, Alistair Darling even going so far as to support the idea that it was ‘blood and soil’ nationalism (i.e. next-of-kin to national socialism in Germany – thanks, Al). On the ‘Yes’ side, one particular polling analyst very much expected that there would be a direct correlation between the census figures showing 62% of those living in Scotland solely identifying themselves as Scottish (with no element of ‘Britishness’ in how they self-identified), and the numbers who would vote ‘Yes’ – on the grounds of how could anyone think of voting against their self-identified country’s existence. Although this made perfect sense to me as a perspective, it is clear from the eventual 45% vote in September that he – like dear Alistair – was wrong.

Interestingly, within a couple of weeks of the vote, many of us were again challenged on how we self-identify, with requests to confirm our registration on the electoral role by the end of that month. One thing that was interesting was that there was a hefty fine involved if you failed to respond – and I could not help but think of Aberdeen Council’s apparent attempts to punish supposed ‘Yes’ voters who had avoided council tax payments for decades, yet had come back on the register for the Referendum. Not everyone on the register was asked to confirm our registration – my mother got a standard ‘you do not need to do anything about this’, presumably because her voting address has been unchanged for some 50 years. But I, as someone who recently moved their registered address from Glasgow to Edinburgh, was asked to confirm. (I recently found that I had had a similar letter to my mother sent to my former Glasgow address – and indeed  a second polling card had been sent to me there, as well, despite me deregistering from that address.) The registration process was straightforward, asking for a very few answers to supplement the details held. As sending something by post seems such an involved process these days (I’ve clearly sent too many e-mails in my life), I opted to complete the form online. As I clicked through the options, I came to the identity question. But the options were British, Irish, or other nationality. No Scottish option was available.

Identity is of course a very personal issue, in terms of how we engage with the concept, so this post has to be a very personal viewpoint – perhaps even more so than the others. Everybody defines their interface with culture, origins and living space in a unique way, very much weighted by the significance or impact that those individual factors have made on that given person both currently and in their development. In that regard, I confess that I have never seen or identified myself as British, and have always endeavoured to find other options to select, when confronted by tick-boxes and pull-down menus that mad such an assumption about me, treasuring those few that offered ‘Scottish’ or ‘Scotland’ as options. Indeed, it was an online discussion with a colleague in the north of England back in February-March, which dealt with just such issues as the Scottish experience or identity within the British Empire and thereafter, that convinced me that I should start this political blog (so blame Mike Boyd). I think that as much as Scots ended up being the engine of the British Empire, and therefore were complicit in its many appalling acts, I recognize that it was not necessarily the case that they had a great deal of choice in their overall participation, given the very deliberate restrictions on their opportunities at home, and perhaps as a result I feel far more shame than any sense of pride at being associated with the concept of Britain. I realise – of course – that that is far from many people’s experience on the ‘Yes’ (let alone the ‘No’) side, and was very proud to work alongside those with very differing senses of identity who recognised the common cause of the need for independence to make Scotland (and, perhaps, the world) a much better place.

That said, I am hardly a flag-waver, painting my face blue and white at every chance to attend a sporting event. My need to promote a sense of Scottish-ness within Scotland has never been that strong. Identity is a complex weave, interacting with place and culture, ramifications of language, music and – particularly in Scotland’s case – aspects of textiles. Musically, I am hardly a folk music fan (although in primary school we were all taught ‘Flower of Scotland’), but then again I also like popular music that varyingly displays its Scottish roots, whether Big Country’s skirls, the Proclaimers, Simple Minds or the bagpipes in some early AC/DC tracks. As a ‘lowlander’ from the central belt (and not even from Glasgow, but Edinburgh – the shame!!), perhaps it was some vague sense of ‘not being that Scottish’ that led me to learn Gaelic some years ago, in some quest to embrace a concept of identity. Nor do I wear the kilt at every opportunity. This is partly because I have never felt that comfortable with this aspect – my family does not have an ‘automatic’ tartan and yes, I know (as my Auntie Sheena, a former kiltmaker, has on many occasion been at pains to try and impress on me) one can be entitled to wear whichever tartan one likes, as the ‘family tartan’ idea is very much a 19th century confection. Nonetheless…the once-modern myth of the family tartan entitlement does now feel old enough (to me, at least) and comfortable enough to be a ‘genuine’ tradition – so I am happy to buy into it.

Therefore, I have not had a kilt of my own since I was around 7 years old – save for rentals when I was acting as best man or usher at weddings, when the choice of tartan was up to those who were headlining the ceremony.

Until this year.

When I saw that a tartan had been produced for the ‘Yes’ Campaign, I knew that this was finally a tartan that I could wear feeling complete entitlement. More than that – (and even better) it was a political statement. My brother married again in May, and for that event I finally bought my first kilt, and was able to wear the ‘Yes’ kilt for a wide array of international guests (many from down south) as an usher. It was really good to do.

The strange thing is, that my dynamic with these badges of identity has changed with the Referendum – perhaps because of the result, although I feel that the incidents that I am about to relay would probably have happened with a ‘Yes’ result as well. Firstly, I attended a conference in Berlin a few weeks ago, presenting two posters on some research I had been doing. Needing a blue and white background for one of them, I suddenly found myself importing an image of a saltire…and printed it, so that it resembled a large flag in the middle of the poster session (it worked well with the rest of the design too, by the way – at least, that’s my story). What was this? The only flag I had ever owned in my life was the Croatian one (see earlier posts for tha story), so this was slightly strange behaviour. On my regular bus journeys to the centre of Edinburgh in order to help staff the Marchmont stall, I passed many souvenir tat shops presenting overpriced tacky Scottish garments…yet, on those trips I began to be drawn to a saltire hoodie, of all things. As I saw it each day from the bus, I made a deal with myself that if there was a ‘Yes’ vote, I would buy one – perhaps to wear at the inevitable Hogmanay Party to end them all at the close of 2014. There was no ‘Yes’ vote – but I bought it today, for some work I am about to do out in China. Again – I believe this is quite uncharacteristic.

Back to the electoral registration form. When, in my frustration at an online form that seemed to smugly want to present me as British when I had just been part of a campaign trying to mark a separate, cleaner identity on this country, I had ended up putting myself down as a Chinese national from Ireland, as a result of refusing the mantle of the British identity, I abandoned the online process. I went back to the printed form that had been sent to me in the post, as I did not have a memory of it being so polarizing when I had first scanned it. Sure enough – the handwritten form allowed you to define yourself however you wished in an empty white box. I wrote ‘Scottish’ (as with all my visa application forms, to whichever embassy), signed the form, and sent it off.

So, what have we learned – if anything – from this mish-mash of identity-related experiences? I certainly regard myself as Scottish – not as some ‘pure-bred’ sense of identity, but as part of a relaxed acknowledgement of our joyously mongrel nation. I take that identity to mean what I want and need it to – as everyone else does – but that has somehow changed for me during this year. I feel more uncompromising in my sense of a Scottish identity than ever before, particularly within Scotland itself – perhaps because it represents the Nation of Yes, just as much as any older idea of Scotland – a place where it does not matter where you were born or where your parents were from, or if you are from the Lowlands instead of the Highlands or – heaven forfend!! – from Edinburgh instead of Glasgow. I think there are a lot of things to be proud of in the idea of how an independent Scotland can be – and the simple possibility of being different to what we were – and what we have historically been part of – is reason enough for optimism. And I think also that that is a part of why so many more saltires are on display around Scotland, than there were before the Referendum. That symbol has become more important to people than it was before.

Scotland can be something greater than what it would leave behind it. Much of the rest of the UK either has a longer way to go – or is on a very, very different journey of identity to a very different destination.


“The men and women of Yes should live and work as if they already belonged to an independent country. And perhaps, in a sense, that is what Scotland has now become.” (Neal Ascherson, 21st September 2014)


BarnettMax, Fishfood & DevoCon 2014: Sins of ComMission

And so yesterday the Smith Commission delivered its recommendations in my current place of work – the grand hall of the National Museum of Scotland. A small stage was erected at one of the points where the much-missed fish ponds used to sit in the beautiful open space (fish ponds that were removed by the desire of a director who wanted to ‘make his mark’, no matter what), and the Commission members sat behind Lord Smith of Kelvin as he made his announcement. The task of getting agreement between 5 political parties on an extended package of devolved measures for Scotland within ten weeks had earned the project the nickname ‘ComMission Impossible’. So, would it have been more worthwhile shredding the report’s pages for distribution as some faux fish food for those erstwhile ponds?

Before looking at the nutritional value (or otherwise) of the content, even in simple overview form, it is worth remembering that all the Smith Commission has produced are ‘recommendations’, just as the Calman Commission before did, and there is no certainty that those recommendations will come to pass. For example, the oft-discussed Air Passenger Duty was a recommended area to be devolved by Calman in 2009, but that did not happen. And, as Labour last night ‘demanded’ that English airports are not disadvantaged by the resulting legislation, it is easy to see that that particular proposal might not make it to the final bill without a struggle.

Soon after the announcement, David Cameron used the Smith Commission’s report as a neat springboard to reiterate his intention of bringing forward his English Votes for English Laws (and the tying of EVEL to the Smith Commission may well delay the implementation of the latter), as a response to the West Lothian question of old. And why not? A YouGov poll the other week showed that Scottish voters very much backed the principle of English votes for English laws, with 68% in favour, and only 18% against. Scots don’t seem to have any problem with the idea – but Labour seems to: apparently the spectre of them losing the power to pass their own budget without the support of their Scottish MPs is a very real fear for them.

But the House of Commons is not the only chamber that has to be considered in such a rejigging to accommodate and reflect regional interests. Today I bumped into a colleague on George IV Bridge, whom I first met while he staffed the same polling station as myself on the 18th September. He was dismissive of the Smith Commission (unsurprisingly) – and, after mocking the association of terms like ‘modern blueprint for Home Rule’ ‘Federalism’ or ‘DevoMax’ with these most anaemically modest of proposals, he was clearly enraged by a discussion of EVEL that was completely ignoring an EVEL Elephant in the palace of Westminster. “Nobody’s mentioning the House of Lords!”, he said with exasperation. And it is true – the dominance of the right wing southern England perspective in the House of Lords should not be forgotten, as it is a chamber which has great power to amend or even veto legislation relating to Scotland – and did so without hesitation or so much as a ‘by your leave’ when it came to energy/fracking-related powers for the Scottish Parliament being summarily taken back from Holyrood without warning in December last year.

But back to those recommendations – very similar to Labour’s ‘DevoNano’ (or what one colleague wittily referred to as Labour’s ‘DevoF***All’) proposals before the Referendum. Critically, any additional sources of revenue are explicitly compensated for in paragraph 95, which makes clear that there is always a reduction in the block grant to match any new source of revenue. So – no matter what certain ‘Vow-toting’ tabloids might pretend…no more money for the Scottish Government to spend. Just the extra costs of paying for the administration of collecting some of it – although the fact that this means one less institution to have to pay set-up costs for in the event of independence, is not to be sneezed at.

The actual tax-related powers proposed to be devolved are very telling. Despite the ability to set income tax rates and bands, the taxes relating to personal allowance, capital gains, corporation, inheritance, rates on savings and dividends and National Insurance all remain reserved. Interestingly, the personal allowances for income tax, employers’ National Insurance contributions, inheritance tax and even the power to create new taxes without Treasury approval were all in a November 21st draft of the Commission’s report, within 7 days of its final recommendations being presented. Sources close to the Commission identifed Labour as the principal obstacle to tax proposals – perhaps ironic, given Richard Murphy’s (economist and tax advisor based in England) observation that the only people that the final tax proposals impact on – and does so quite negatively – is working people. So far from an addressing of inequality, a threatened increase of that inequality.

Similarly, in terms of welfare, Holyrood could now (if the proposal goes forward to become legislation) decide on whether to pay housing benefit weekly, fortnightly or monthly – beyond that (and some incapacity benefits) pretty much every other aspect of welfare benefit remains reserved. Although throughout the Commission’s work the representatives of the Westminster coalition were most interested in welfare proposals, it is apparently the case that in the last two days of negotiation, Labour opposition resulted in a far more substantial welfare package (including aspects of Universal Credit) being removed from consideration, to leave only this wizened and restricted effort behind. One wonders what differences in social support might have been possible, had this omission not occurred in the last phase.

But what did make it through to the Report are moves to allow 16/17 year olds to have the franchise for Holyrood elections, the option of public ownership of rail franchises, and some controls ceded over Crown Estates and fracking. These may not go far, but have to be clearly acknowledged as ‘good things’. [Therefore, unlikely that they, along with Air Passenger Duty, will all make it on to the devolved statute books.]

So – not exactly Gordon Brown’s promised “near Federalism”. And definitely pretty far short of that mythical, rarely seen (rarer than the water beastie in Loch Ness) but often discussed beast – DevoMax.

DevoMax (aka Full Fiscal Autonomy – Scotland standing on its own two feet, with no Barnett Formula, and paying a lump sum to Westminster for shared services, rather than receiving devolved funding back, as currently) was never on offer, despite media attempts to conflate what was ‘on offer’ with that (thanks again to political pundit Jackie Bird, famous impersonator of journalists) to the extent that ‘any further devolution’ became synonymous with ‘DevoMax’. If you like it was a switch from DevoMax meaning ‘the maximum devolution POSSIBLE while still remaining a part of the UK state’, to DevoMax meaning ‘the maximum devolution that Westminster are ever going to ALLOW you to have within the UK state’. Interestingly, amidst this confused bandying around of the term in the run-up to the Referendum, it was observed that support for DevoMax (from the position of it being the preferred option of the electorate) had DROPPED compared to support for full independence during the last month leading up to the Referendum date.

With the release of the Report, the signatories to the notorious ‘Vow’ have predictably been queuing up with unseemly haste and enthusiasm, like goldfish gulping at shreds of paper that they mistake for flakes of fish food at the surface of their tank, to aver that they have delivered on their promise – now please stop asking them for more. Hilariously, I heard Nick Clegg yesterday try to create his own iteration of this ‘Devo’ meme, referring to the proposals as ‘VowMax’, as though he were a) trying to come up with a trendy new term no journalist has thought of and b)trying to preempt the rising arguments of the proposals being much less than expected by ‘Conditional No’s.

Beyond the ‘No’ side enthusing to an embarrassing degree over the Emperor’s dazzling New Tax Powers (less than 30% of taxes set in Scotland, just under 40% of its total expenditure, so not exactly earth-shattering), the conclusions on the ‘Yes’ side are pretty much as predicted ten weeks ago: not only do the proposals fail to meet the aspirations of two thirds of the Scottish electorate for DevoMax (all powers apart from defence and foreign affairs devolved to Holyrood), it merely gives Scotland significant power to spend money, with zero power to create that money in order to spend it. In other words, the same as before – choose which of your existing services you are going to cut, if you are going to use these powers, and have no means whatsoever to make changes that increase the revenue necessary to create Change.

When Patrick Harvie noted that it was “a funding formula for devolution, not the transfer of genuine economic power”, I started to think that these proposals were little more than revising the Barnett arrangement. Some relabeling of the means by which it comes to the Scottish Government, but still ultimately controlled by Westminster. In that spirit, perhaps I can grab the same thistle as Nick Clegg, and describe this set of proposals (highly unlikely to be approved as a bill with no omissions, just as Calman was) as ‘BarnettMax’.

No? Not trendy enough? Oh, well…

Ariel Dorfman remarked that it placed the Scottish Government clearly in the role of Secretary to Westminster as Boss – no ability to make any decisions, but responsibility for all the administration and paperwork. In effect, for as much as we still have to see what will be proposed for legislation on January 25th next year (as one observer put it when the original schedule was announced by Gordon Brown, “St Andrews’ Day and Burns Night – could they BE any more patronising?”), the Smith Commission has given us a valuable insight into precisely how far the Westminster party consensus is prepared to move – the maximum amount of devolution that they are prepared to concede – in order to retain Scotland within the UK.

In a sense – particularly considering how hard they fought to persuade the people of Scotland to stay – it is perhaps surprising that the distance they are prepared to move is so remarkably small. Now there’s fishfood for thought.


“There isn’t an effective devolution of tax and yet it says there is an effective devolution of tax. There is no corporation tax devolution, no oil tax devolution, no National Insurance devolution, no capital gains tax devolution, no inheritance tax devolution. The VAT devolution is completely and utterly useless. Only working people in Scotland can be impacted by what is happening. It won’t affect rents, it won’t affect dividends, it won’t affect savings, it won’t affect land distribution…all you can do is change the rates. All in all it’s a disastrous package.” (Richard Murphy, Tax Advisor and Economist)

Forever Autumn: Electoral Counts and Accountability

Autumn seems to be dragging this year, from its first signs of heavy leaf-fall on that faraway 18th September morning standing outside the polling station, to these mild days. And perhaps the shockwaves of that day are similarly continuing – as with an appetite for a rerun of the Referendum in the not so distant future. At the start of this month, a poll showed that a remarkable three-to-two majority of Scots would welcome a second independence referendum within five years, and a two-to-one majority would be happy to have one within a decade. IndyRef fatigue? Apparently not. As much as David Cameron wanted to present that vote as the ‘settled will of the Scottish people’, those same Scottish people seem remarkably unsettled on this being the final result.

And yet I recently read Derek Bateman railing against such open discussion of ‘IndyRef2’ without ‘fundamentally changed circumstances’, as though it was somehow disrespectful of the result and therefore insulting to those ‘No’ voters that we have yet to win over. It is almost like we are being told not to showboat or grandstand, as though it is distataeful behaviour in the wake of some victory (we DID lose, didn’t we?). But I feel that this policy of silence is disrespectful to those who have newly joined the ranks: they need a focus, not to be told ‘Alex said not for 20-25 years, so just shut up about it for now’. However much the opposition might have willed otherwise, Alex Salmond was never ever the leader of the Yes campaign, and certainly did not dictate policy for either the movement, or any of his successors.

We have a large population new to the idea that ‘independence is a good thing’ – they are not as experienced as most to the idea of the ‘the long game’ in which the Referendum was the latest (albeit the closest thus far to final victory) in a long series of skirmishes. They have recognised that independence is necessary and necessary NOW, and why should they just lie down and accept the Referendum result as though it was a final audit for all eternity? Why should they not feel cheated of a Future that they had embraced wholeheartedly as necessary, if not essential? The rest of us may have experienced disappointments on this road over many decades, and may have expected the grand last minute deceptions (even black ops) right from the start – but they did not. They have a keen and urgent expectation for change. It is very hard – if not inappropriate – for them to turn away and act as though the current trajectory is acceptable.

The consequence of a Conditional No – which, to a large extent, the purdah period was supposed to prevent from being a possibility, by stopping last minute bartering and offers of mythical beads or magic beans from London – is that if the promise of ‘more’ is dangled in front of the electorate, then you have given up on trying to win a straight vote, and are attaching strings to that ‘No’ vote. You are tied down by that as a commitment – and it matters not how you intend to divest yourself of any responsibility for such commitments after the polls close. You are tied into that result, regardless, as a result of pretending to make a pact with the electorate. The idea that a side can bargain with the electorate at the eleventh hour, and say ‘Ok, we’ll give you virtual federalism within 6 months’ – then not do anything of the sort, is something that has to be held accountable. Sure, politicians are ‘economical with the truth’, but this is so naked that it should be made an example of. What has been clear from the speed at which the ‘No Alliance’ distanced itself from its ‘Vow’ is that they absolutely believed that no delivery of anything other than token powers was required – just win the vote, and move on leaving the impotent wails of the defeated behind them.

The only way that we can hold them accountable, is by deciding whether or not they have fulfilled their ‘offer’. And the only way to remind them that we are watching, is to keep reminding them that we can do this again. It is the only Sword of Damocles that we have, to make them more honest than they might wish to be. And the Smith Commission report tomorrow will be an important stage for the electorate to scrutinise what comes forth, and see whether there is anything significant there – or whether it is simply repackaging of the remaining changes from the 2012 Scotland Act, mixed with one or two tweaks on taxes from the spring proposals. But ‘DevoMax’ it is fairly unlikely to be.

To be frank, a default on their ‘Vow’ is more than enough for me in terms of fulfilling the condition of ‘changed circumstances’: I do not need anything as elaborate or apocalyptic as an EU departure divergence scenario in order to justify running the referendum again. So, my answer to the question: ‘Why have another referendum?’ is ‘Because they lied to you to steal the last one, stupid.’ If they default on their own ‘terms and conditions’, then we just do it again.



“SNP figures say independence won’t return to the agenda for a generation. This is unlikely to be true. Scotland is being carried along on a process of steady institutional, political and social divergence from the rest of the UK, which will continue.” (Neal Ascherson, 21st September 2014)

Student Politics And The Microcosm: The true story of Pontius Pilate and Professor Malcolm Macleod (Neurology)

The launch today of the 5 day pilot of ‘The National’ newspaper supporting independence, in the midst of the Scottish labour leadership contest, made me reflect on former encounters in the student realm with both aspiring journalists and Labour careerists.  In this regard, I do sometimes wonder if I have just been extremely unfortunate in the Scottish Labour individuals that I came across on a personal, working basis within student politics – Jim Murphy, Malcolm Macleod, Dougie Alexander… While Alexander seemed quite the non-entity when I worked alongside him compared with his public profile today, he served as Rector’s Assessor to the today more generally-anonymous Macleod. I knew Macleod much better, first meeting him at medical school: although he seemed to specialise mostly in offending his classmates, and apparently having a big hand-up in his career from his mother (although nepotism is perhaps not so unusual in the medical profession – as with others), he was otherwise not exceptional.

I can remember the first time that Macleod’s political venom first became evident to me. I had completed a summer working for a life assurance company, and was commenting on how poor the security was, in terms of how easy it would be to send penalty payments through to people on their policies. “I wouldn’t hesitate if I saw Malcolm Rifkind’s name” he said, in a flash. For myself, I had only been casually joking in more modest, parochial terms – perhaps an unpopular and sectarian anatomy lecturer, for example – but Malcolm’s instincts were swift, to the point and extremely serious.

When I came back to university a couple of years later, things had changed – he was standing for student president on a Labour Club ticket – the standard way for political hacks to start out when they wanted a career in the Labour Party. What struck me was that a number of our friends, who were Labour Club members, were avowedly declaring that they would not support him under any circumstance. I was a little surprised by their vehemence – which seemed to indicate a mistrust not of his abilities but his motivation, and what he would actually do in post – but I helped in his election campaign anyway. Could he have changed that much as an individual, to become so mistrusted by friends (some of them, admittedly, now somewhat distanced from him)? Macleod won, and took office – however, soon afterwards, a number of those who had campaigned for him were starting to wonder if they should have expended quite so much effort in doing so. His abrasive style did not go down well, and his year troughed particularly when he was exposed as having an affair with the editor of the Student newspaper, at the expense of his long-term partner. I think that, for me, this defined a fundamental mistrust in that type of infidelity in a politician – frankly, if that is how they behave with someone who trusts them implicitly, then how can they be trusted to do anything for the electorate, beyond taking whatever they can for themselves? But there was something slightly bizarre about this revelation – the way in which sleeping with a newspaper editor mirrored ‘grown-up’ politics and advancement. Did Malcolm not realise that this was kiddies politics? Was he perhaps not taking it a bit too seriously?

I wondered if he would continue his Labour career trajectory, and it was with little surprise that I read of his failed attempt to get selected for the Ochil seat: I would be unsurprised if in particular it was his abrasive personality that led to his 5th place on a regional list. But I only read of this retrospectively in August 23rd’s The Herald, where he was touted as the leader of something called ‘Medics for No’ (me neither) in their head-to-head section against Philippa Whitford speaking for NHS for Yes. Within that piece, Macleod’s familiarly offensive nature rose to the fore again – I could practically hear his grunting laugh with amusement at his own comments, just as he used to – referring to Yes supporters as ‘delusional’, ‘juvenile’ and ‘immature’. He still patronises well, after all these years: ‘There’s a lovely, attractive optimism in the Scottish psyche. It’s given us the confidence to travel to the furthest corners of the world’ – actually Malcolm, that’s a little bit more to do with having no choice but to leave, due to clearances and land ownership, not some twee ‘och theres gie few like us, eh?’ attitude. Check out the ‘The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil’ to fill in those convenient gaps in your education.

In classic deflective style, he then accused his opponents of telling lies (although the idea that he can accuse anyone of that, given his time as student president, is frankly risible), but deliberately used the term ‘porkies’: always talk down to your audience as though they are children, use that vocabulary to remind them that they know nothing and should listen to whatever you tell them. This, of course, was a set-up for his own great lie: he defended the fact that the cuts in health service spending in England would be communicated via the Barnett Formula to Scotland as not impacting on the NHS in Scotland, because ‘you can always raise more taxes if you need them’.

This uncomfortably reminded me of my own time working for the Students’ Representative Council at the University of Edinburgh, again involving the Student newspaper (although perhaps not in quite the same marriage of convenience that Macleod would have opted for) – and, in that sense, this post serves as much as an apology for that, as for aiding the beginnings of Malcolm’s political career. A cut in funding was implemented by the University on the funding that it was supposed to disburse to us, in spite of the fact that we had run our finances competently for very many years (they had woken up with an unexpected £5.98 million deficit, as one or two financial overseers mysteriously left the organisation one lunchtime), and while we campaigned against this, a large number of our internal budgets had to be cut.

One of them was the budget that the Student newspaper was funded from. The Student newspaper was founded in 1887 by Robert Louis Stevenson, making it the UK’s oldest student newspaper, but the paper was running at a hugely disproportionate loss as part of the Students’ Association’s publications board, compared to (for example) student societies, and the question was asked as to whether we as a student body could afford to keep subsidising it on this basis. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Student newspaper responded by calling in some favours from its generations of media graduates, and the local press corps (e.g. the Scotsman newspaper) got involved, asking the question ‘Why are you trying to close down the Student newspaper?’ From the political perspective, I knew exactly how to answer that: ‘The only people who can close the Student newspaper are the students who run it’. Ring any bells? David Cameron came out with exactly the same phrase with regard to NHS Scotland (and Macleod is clearly a kindred spirit) – and from personal experience I recognised it for the empty statement that it was: you can say you are not deciding to privatise NHS Scotland, but through the mechanism of the ‘death of a thousand cuts’ to the overall budget, you are still deciding that that will be the result. Your hand does not need to be the one that signs the piece of paper, you can pretend it is the decision of the one who has to choose between destinations for diminishing resources – it wasn’t me, guv – and that they were the one to have been the one to make that outcome inevitable. The fact that Pilate outsources the decision of who to pardon, does not detract from the fact that he had already decided that people are going to die.

Tom Gordon’s piece remarked, without a trace of irony, that in Macleod, politics’ loss might well have been medicine’s gain. I am less convinced of the latter interpretation – and I am similarly unconvinced by Macelod’s guarantees of the safety of funding for the NHS in Scotland, in the wake of reduced NHS expenditure in England. Yes, you can choose to support other NHS Scotland funding from your budget, regardless of what happens to the NHS south of the border – but that means making a priority of it at the expense of other areas that are already funded, and it is utterly disingenuous to fail to recognise that in the same breath as you state that its funding can only be threatened by the Scottish Government, as though NHS funding was magically protected – something that I was guilty of all those years ago, when referring to the Student Newspaper’s continuing existence. And sure, you can increase taxes – but that is further stretching an already overburdened people, and unfairly driving them towards a neoliberal agenda that they did not in any way vote for.

Of course, the way to progress is to break the linkage between the Treasury in London and the taxes raised in Scotland, so that the money is spent there on the priorities decided by the people that live there, without having an increasing chunk of it reserved for London usage. In this regard, there might be an unlikely source for optimism to be taken from Ruth Davidson’s recent observation that full transfer of raising all income tax to Scotland was a minimum requirement in more devolution – even a “red line issue” (ignoring her previous ‘line in the sand’ statement as regards the idea of more powers for the Scottish Government). This means that the Barnett Formula is history…but that only works if the responsibility for spending it also is devolved – not just a portion, the rest being sent in tithe to the Treasury, but all of it. As much as such a step would no doubt be presented as ‘full control’ and ‘full responsibility’, full responsibility to collect without the power to spend it fully is meaningless, and simply translates into a devolving of the costs of tax collectors…to be yet another additional element that has to be funded by Scottish taxpayers. Just as the shortfall in Barnett resulting from the enhanced privatisation of the NHS in England would also be. Scotland already pays more than its fair share to subsidise the ongoing union – and will be asked to pay yet more (we are already slated to pay £12 billion towards National Infrastructure Plan projects – although only one of those billions will be spent in Scotland, and it is somewhat challenging to see how transport or sewer infrastructure projects in London will directly beneift the scottish subsidisers of those particular projects). Being asked to pay to collect taxes without freedom to allocate the spend of all taxes is not ‘more powers’, but ‘more liabilities’ and ‘fewer services’. Not such an attractive offer.

In the week that the Smith Commission has to deliver its report, that is worth bearing in mind.

“Reading ‘Scotland’s Future’, I couldn’t at first account for a faint twinge of melancholy, a recognition. Then it dawned on me. The Scotland being here described – or proposed – was the Britain so passionately hoped for by the millions who voted for Tony Blair, back in 1997.” (Neal Ascherson, 29th November 2013)

Lead and Leadership: Labour’s Consistent Million Scottish Westminster Voters

Rien ne va plus – no more bets, ladies and gentlemen. Nominations closed for the position of Scottish Labour leader on the 4th November. The call had inauspicious beginnings – by the end of the first day, noone had declared, and the media were frantically having to run stories of people being ‘the favourite’ in a field of precisely zero confirmed candidates. That ‘favourite’, of course, was Big Jim Murphy – as the silence grew from him, one wag commented that his Irn Bru crate was “in heated discussions with the Labour leadership should Murphy rule himself out.” The reluctance was understandable – and perhaps most succinctly summarised by the STV’s spoof politics page: “Both of Scottish Labour’s members will cast their vote in the next few weeks to decide who will lose to Nicola Sturgeon in the 2016 Holyrood elections.”

The tub of lard from ‘Have I Got News For You’ (Roy Hattersley’s emergency stand-in for one show) seemed an equally plausible candidate (the Sun also promoted a Brick into the spotlight from its coy Facebook page candidacy), as MSPs and MPs danced around the poisoned chalice sitting amidst their collective handbags, waiting to see who would jump…and with whom. Anas Sarwar having stepped down, it became a ‘meal combo’ ticket – perm your favourite meal combo from MP and MSP baskets, balance London and Scotland, right and (tokenistic) left wings of the party, male and female, union-friendly and union-hostile…

It brought back memories to me, of when somewhat-less-than-Red Ed was first elected leader of the Labour Party. I remember watching it live with my partner, as he stole the position from his (supposedly) more terrifyingly right wing brother (but – really?) when key union support delivered the party to him. Those were happier, more optimistic times – and I cannot but also let that memory lead me to that similarly false dawn of Blair’s election in 1997, with Professor Brian Cox’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ pumping through the air. If only we had known – in both cases – what had just been elected, the positivity would have been short-lived indeed.

Leaving to one side Blair’s delivery of the Scottish Parliament (which clearly Labour hoped would be enough to neuter any dissatisfaction in Scotland over poor governance from Westminster), the ensuing thirteen years of failing to repeal any of the Conservative Government’s anti-union laws, failing to reform the House of Lords – and developing an appetite for war more associated with the party they had expelled from Downing Street – have been sobering indeed, and have done more to break traditional Scottish Labour voters ties to the Party than the SNP ever did.

I am not going to pretend to have the necessary understanding of the complex electoral college system that Labour will employ to choose between the union-friendly Findlay, the safe-pair-of-hands Boyack or the roaring right wing abuser from East Renfrewshire. Of the three of them, the media have already anointed their Chosen One – the Westminsterian Murphy. Initial ideas that the unions would back Findlay have fallen away, with a sense now that in the face of polls showing electoral meltdown for Scottish Labour, there might be an urge to go for a ‘strong’ leader in Big Jim, and any remaining progressive aspects of the party would grin and bear it as they voted for a pro-Trident, pro-war candidate. Recent polls also seem to show rank and file Labour supporters moving towards him (28% support, according to a November poll, taken prior to candidates being announced, but including all those who subsequently declared) perhaps having bought into the BBC’s hero worship campaign.

And in related news today we read the results of the Rochester and Strood by-election, where UKIP threw out a 9,000 Conservative majority, the LibDems polled only marginally ahead of the Monster Raving Loony Party, and Ed Miliband again unconvincingly expressed his resolve to resist the rise of UKIP after his party’s support dropped by almost 12%. The battlecry in Scotland is similar – we are told that a vote for the SNP is a vote for the Conservatives, and we should all be voting Labour. Actually, the voting records do not bear that theory out at all – Labour’s support in Scotland has stayed evenly between 920,000 and 1.33 million over 70 years, and the surges in SNP support seem to mainly coincide with Labour getting into Westminster.

But – leaving facts to one side – I do understand that many in Scotland might end up wanting to vote Labour to keep the Conservatives out, perhaps out of instinct, but I do have to wonder if Labour, with Miliband at the helm, really has any appeal as a candidate for Westminster leader to the Labour voters in Scotland?

In that sense, whomsoever gets the Scottish branch office job should be prepared to act as a palatable mask in Scotland for Ed – so that people do not have to think so much about him becoming Prime Minister. Because convincing as a leader – whether party or garden fete – is something that he is not.


“It could be Scotland that lets us down.” (Katy Clark, MP, deputy leader of Scottish Labour, 10/11/2014)

Having a Say, and Eating It: Or, what I actually DID say before dessert at the dinner with ‘No’ advocates…(with grateful apologies to Peter Arnott)

“We should have a say, too.”

“Excuse me?”

I was having dinner at a Chinese restaurant (literal, rather than in Scotland) with two colleagues in May last year. They were both originally from the north of England, now at Oxford University, one freshly retired, the other a postdoc. One of them was very clearly an old-style Conservative, from the generation for whom the Labour Party being seen as capable of fiscally competent government was as ludicrous as the idea of Scotland becoming independent (and to be treated with as much light, patronising derision). In contrast to that, Johnny was a Labour supporter, and his opposition was knee-jerk and unthinking, paradoxically espousing ‘internationalism’ as though it were limited by national boundaries (which many others besides myself have dealt with elsewhere). That can sometimes be symptomatic of underlying (and probably unrecognised) British Nationalism.

I guess that it had all really started when he had tried to urge me that the only way to get rid of the Tories in Westminster was to vote Labour. ‘Really?’, I smiled: ‘where I come from, we call them Red Tories’. I admit that I may have then riled him when, after moving on to a doomed attempt to convince me that there was ‘no distinct political identity’ in Scotland (I cited polls on retaining the monarchy: Game Over), he expressed how appalled he was that the Referendum was even taking place.

‘And I think it’s so wrong that we don’t have a say in that decision’. I guess that my mistake was to be overwhelmed at the audacity of such a suggestion, and the blindness of arguing such a position without acknowledging its insincerity: given the vastly disproportionate numbers involved (and that any likely weighting system would have favoured the Westminster preference), their desire to ‘have a say’ equated to MAKING the decision themselves.

Johnny was hardly unique in his perspective, either. Five days before the Referendum, the Herald published a survey showing 70% of English voters opposed independence, and 56% of them felt that they should have a had a vote too. Let’s just leave aside the argument that the government dominantly run by those elected by those same English voters was having something more than ‘a say’ in matters, as it was actively throwing tens of millions into funding the campaign to obstruct independence…the decision to leave a union because it is not working having to be unanimous, is tantamount to saying ‘it does not matter if it does not work for you – it has to no longer be working for us, too, before it is over’.

The standard baseline metaphor used throughout the Referendum, was that of a relationship breaking down – if someone does not believe a relationship is working anymore, and wants out, how can you morally justify a position of wishing to overrule them? That is not a partnership. When it is between nations, that is called something very different.

But earlier this week, a better – and perhaps more obvious – comparison hoved clearly into view.

On Wednesday, Nicola Sturgeon announced the intention to table an amendment to any EU In/Out Referendum bill, to give any separate one of the UK’s ‘family of nations’ an opt-out, so that the vote in England would not overrule differing attitudes to EU membership in Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland. Unsurprisingly, it was not a viewpoint that either David Cameron or Bill Cash supported – some saying that it was even hypocritical, given that those elsewhere in the UK were not allowed a say in Scotland’s independence referendum.

But – wait – back up there. Have they not missed the point? Surely the comparable situation in that proposal, where an individual nation is trying to leave a union that was not working, but having to be voted on by all members of that union…would mean that all EU member states would get to decide whether the UK could leave in an EU In/Out vote?

I felt a fool for not having deployed that argument – not only in the restaurant in May last year, but since then when campaigning. It seems so obvious now (and I am sure that others were using it), but I just failed to pick up on it. It took Nicola to make that point, for it to register with me.

And I am pretty sure that it will not just be me that gets it, as it sets up the ‘Referendum Rerun’ nicely. There are three pieces that need to fall into place: a Conservative (with or without UKIP) government in May 2015, a majority for ‘Yes’ political parties at Holyrood in 2016, then an EU vote that splits with England saying ‘Out’ while Scotland says ‘In’ (and let us note the YouGov poll this week, that indicated that 57% of people in Scotland would vote to stay in the EU if a referendum were held, compared with 37% of people across the UK, 28% in Scotland wanting to leave compared with 47% across the UK).

That leads to the emergency consultative independence referendum, where the reprise is framed within the context of ‘the only way that we stay in Europe’ – ‘Better Together in Europe’, anyone? – with suddenly large businesses and banks perhaps less interested in the departure option. Of course, we can expect them to be campaigning for an European ‘In’ vote, and, as with Scotland’s independence referendum, their money and voice will make a significant impact. Possibly even a decisive one.

One fly in the ointment, of course, is if Farage gets his July referendum next year, as that means a Scottish ‘Yes’ Government will not have had the opportunity to be reelected (never mind BE reelected) with a renewed mandate for a referendum. However, if a majority of MPs from Scotland are SNP, that could be taken as a proxy for that.

All other things being equal (and certainly the polling evidence strongly supports SNP dominance for both Westminster and Holyrood, even if they do not get an outright majority there again), that leaves it up to how xenophobic England is becoming, as to whether all three of these pieces fall into place. Clacton and Heywood/Middleton are fairly strong indicators that they probably are, but it remains to be seen whether the Rochester by-election on 20th November follows the same pattern of huge advances for UKIP.

While Westminster may well be congratulating itself on winning the Scottish Referendum war, they may be about to lose the peace.


“The results of academic research suggest that an in/out referendum on EU membership would generate a different result on either side of the border” (The Times, 23/10/2014)