The Queen’s Buried Rules: When the Impartiality of the Monarch is Strained (The Death of Scotland’s Post-War Dream, Part 1)

I read yesterday of a rumour that the Queen is due to step down at Christmas. This seems to be doing the rounds (in the wake of her royal household’s faux pas in referring to Nicola Sturgeon as the First Minister of the long defunct Scottish Executive) at the same time as the revelation that – far from being impartial during the Referendum, as she had often stated she would be, according to the rules of her position – she was given a specific script in order to act on David Cameron’s request to make an intervention, which she duly recited for the benefit of journalists. Alan Cochrane relates the story in his recent egocentric memoir of apparently being the secret leader of the ‘No’ campaign as Scottish editor of the Daily Telegraph. While many parts of this work are risible (the remarks attributed to Mark Carney have already been completely and forcefully refuted by his office), his description of the journalists unusually being encouraged to approach the Queen after her Sunday church visit (instead of being kept back, so that she could speak in private, as normal, with other parishioners), and told to listen to anything that she might say, has been independently confirmed. Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary supposedly worked on the wording of her statement (he is also reputed to have worked with Gordon Brown in the wording of ‘The Vow’) that Scots ‘should think very very carefully’. [In this light, it seems deeply ironic that Cameron was criticised for being overheard reporting the Queen’s alleged ‘purring’ response to the Referendum result, after he had specifically engineered her being deliberately overheard reciting his commissioned script. However…] And it should be remembered that the monarchy is far from aloof in terms of getting involved in politics, no matter what the press might tell you: the Queen and Prince Charles have used the royal veto over parliament 39 times – e.g. to curtail Tam Dalyell’s private member’s bill, as it was attempting to transfer authorisation of military strikes from the monarchy to parliament. Again, this was fairly important issue – yet royalty was happy to get involved and nip the democratic process in the bud.

This leads on to a question of just how much the Queen might have had an impact on the Referendum result – regardless of Cameron’s clear belief that it would, as shown by his use of her in an effort to pull out all the stops and recover the lost ground in that last week. It has been detectable for some time that politically Scots have a very distinct approach to a large number of matters, compared to the rest of the UK, and the monarchy is no exception. Although Alex Salmond’s strategy for presenting an independence package that sounded remarkably like DevoMax included keeping the Queen, it is certainly the case that amongst the SNP and ‘Yes’ in general are a large number of republicans – and that is also a reflection of broader Scottish society.

I can remember a chaotic bunfest of a live TV programme back in January 1997 – ‘Monarchy: The Nation Decides’ – in which a live show with an audience of 3,000 herded into the Birmingham NEC attempted to ‘debate’ whether or not to retain the monarchy. Because it was live, they had 14,000 telephone lines for people to vote, as the cat-calling and heckling got louder and louder, as though the audience had all been locked in the Green Room for an hour before showtime. I remember arch-royalist Freddie Forsyth getting particularly irritated and looking angry for much of the time…and then the results of the vote were announced. The Mail and Express the next day ran with shocked stories that 34% of those who voted did not want to retain the monarchy – but the regional variations were perhaps the most interesting, if also ignored by those particular publications.

Of course, telephone voting is not exactly scientific as a method of ‘polling’, people complained about not getting through, others were on automatic redial….but given that that would be the case across the UK, the variations might still be considered to be instructive. Whereas Northern Ireland and Wales were more or less split (Wales marginally voting in favour of retention) and England was predictably supportive, Scotland was the only area that voted clearly (56%) against retaining the monarchy. This was in 1997 – before Blair’s election, the consequent establishment of the long-awaited Scottish Parliament, and the beginning of a sense of ‘reaccumulating’ self-identity in Scotland as a state.

Fast forward to last year in August, and 63% of Scots wanted a ballot on whether or not to retain the monarchy in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote, with only 22% saying that the royals should be retained without question. As Margo MacDonald noted at the time, no talks on a new constitution (post-‘Yes’) could possibly take place without a decision on who the head of state would be.

True, there are other pragmatic considerations for disposing of the monarchy. As Carolyn Leckie notes, it fundamentally legitimises inequality in society. Is it the best use of public money? The Royal Family costs £333 million a year (£33 million for the thousand staff), which is said to be good for tourism…but probably not that much outwith London itself. MacDonald again noted the outcry in England in the wake of Diana’s death, when the Queen retreated to Balmoral with the two boys who had just lost their mother – as though she had gone off to the Bahamas, it was not as though it was a ‘real’ part of her realm…like London, perhaps.

I suspect that Scotland’s perception (perhaps shared by England) of being ‘adrift’ from the UK is more of a reflection of a growing alienation from the monarchy – and, indeed, the identity of ‘Britain’ – in the post-war years. It is fair to say that, the Queen’s accession to the throne was the kickstart to the long modern campaign for Scottish independence: in February 1952 on the death of her father she took the title Elizabeth the Second of the United Kingdom – in spite of the fact that she was the first one of Scotland, thus could be seen to be diminishing her Scottish role as subsidiary to her English one (this lead to the prolonged campaign of vandalism – even involving explosives – against the pillar boxes bearing ‘EIIR’, until after 1953 new post boxes in Scotland carried only the Crown of Scotland image, the EIIR one being retained elsewhere in the UK and its territories); in June 1953 there was determinedly no official crowning with the Scottish honours – which she held, wearing an ordinary hat and coat on the advice of her ministers, momentarily before they were returned to their case (three weeks earlier had been the glitz and showbiz event in London’s Westminster Abbey), and, again, the message of subsidiarity was clear.

Prior to her accession to the throne, the Scottish Covenant (a petition for a Home Rule Scottish parliament) had been launched in October 1949, gathering over 2 million signatures (the population in Scotland according to the 1951 census was 5.1 million) before being summarily dismissed by the Labour government in May 1950. Perhaps it was this high-handedness that led to the band of Glasgow University students descending on Westminster Abbey during Christmas 1950 for as audacious a piece of repatriation of cultural heritage as one could imagine. Although Elizabeth’s royal positioning could be seen as responses to both of those actions, they were probably overreactions: many seemed to have thought of the student heist as little more than a ‘jolly good wheeze’ at the time, and would not normally have linked the monarchy to the question of a request for devolved government. However, the rebranding and repackaging of the monarchy at this time and in this way (and with television expanding into the home, this was the first mass media coronation) provoked a slightly more stunned reaction: a Glasgow University student prank was one thing – but this was the establishment, under guidance from the government, sending a provocative message…and it was not about the ‘Union of equals’ that Scots had been raised to understand and believe in.

In that sense – inasmuch as ‘her madge’ seems to have been carefully controlled and steered in what happened with her accession to the throne, so she seems to have been just another stooge this time (much like Gordon Brown…or any of the other Scottish Labour MPs that you care to mention) – with what may have been one of her last interventions in office…if ‘that rumour’ is true.

 

“The Queen is just a piece of historical baggage that Scotland needs to be rid off – although I doubt that she would like to be referred to as a piece of baggage…” (Edinburgh University Students’ Association President JJ Liston, The Scotsman, ‘Move Over Ma’am’, September 3rd 1991)

‘SpAd-U-Like’: Paul Sinclair Talks Openly of Labour’s Westminster Navel-Gazing

It was interesting to see Paul Sinclair – former Special Adviser and speech-writer to Johann Lamont – spill his frustration out into the open in The Times for all to see on Monday. Lamont left her post shortly after the Referendum, complaining of everything being run from London, with no autonomy, and merely being a ‘branch office’ of London Labour, rather than the ‘brand’ of Scottish Labour. Sinclair goes further in his criticism of Labour’s focus, even in terms of ho wthe New Labour brand got rolled out – but not as far as Scotland: “New Labour reform did not need to come to Scotland because Scotland already voted Labour in droves. Convinced that Scotland would never vote SNP, the Scottish Labour party looked in on itself. And it took the people of Scotland for granted.”

Sinclair, who clearly is no fan of the SNP or Alex Salmond, judging by the speech-writing that he did for Johann, then went on to criticise Labour’s approach to the Referendum: “While the wind of home rule blew, the Scottish Labour party was revealed as the most Westminster-centric of all Scottish parties. Rather than grasp the initiative on the agenda of new powers for the Scottish Parliament, the Labour leadership saw the reforms through the prism of what it would mean for a future Labour government at Westminster. It speaks to a belief that too many of our Scottish MPs regard Westminster as a way to escape Scottish politics rather than a way to represent Scotland.”

This, of course, has been echoed in other statements that we have heard Scottish Labour MPs make: when Tony Blair first asked Jim Murphy to be Europe Minister, Murphy told friends that his first thought was ‘at least it’s not Scotland’.” And yet Big Jim is now coming back to Scotland as Scottish Labour leader, despite not anticipating doing this for until nearer 2030. (He must be delighted.)

Sinclair’s words ring true – of the three Westminster parties, Labour’s offering of ‘DevoNano’ was the most spectacularly underwhelming – particularly for a party that had so long smugly styled itself as ‘the party of devolution’. The focus of its proposals in Spring – as with its position on the Smith Commission – was emphatically focused on restricting any impact on the Labour Party in Westminster, and not about what was good devolution, or what Scotland needed…or wanted. Scotland certainly came a distant second in Labour’s priorities for Smith – where their position could be described as ‘braking’ rather than ‘enhancing’. In that sense – as well as his reference to Scottish MPs using Westminster to ‘escape Scottish politics’, his description of the Labour Party fits well with Craig Murray’s description as that of a machine to make money out of politics (see post: Jim Murphy, Torture and the CIA: or, Why Everyone Loves a Good Margaret Thatcher Assassination Story). For all their talk during the campaign of devolution being ‘a journey’, Scottish Labour seems to have run out of map.

To be fair, this also fits with a growing disillusionment of the Scottish electorate with Westminster. Even setting aside the political support currently being expressed, and going back to August 2013, when people were asked which government they trusted more to give the best decisions for Scotland, 60% said Holyrood (which, incidentally, put it at the top of the EU’s governmental trust ratings, second only to Luxembourg, and well above the UK at 22% – a survey by the Institute for Public Policy Research in April showed English voters had only a 36% level of trust in Westminster), and only 16% Westminster. If Billy Connolly refers to the ‘wee pretendy parliament’ these days, it is not obvious that most Scots will recognize that he is not referring to the one in London.

Given that Sinclair was spin-doctor for former Prime Minister Gordon Brown as well as Johann Lamont, his criticism of Labour’s approach to the Referendum does not reflect well on either of his former bosses’ performances during the campaign. Even if she was only a mouthpiece, Johann’s limitations on taxes and voting, as Brown’s, clearly express the priority of the good of the Westminster party over and above that of Scotland. As a consequence, Sinclair warned that Scottish Labour risks becoming ‘driftwood’ in May as a result of its stance on devolution, and its choice of bedfellows during the Referendum, which chimes with a whole series of polls (most scarcely believable) since the end of October, showing the SNP having tantamount to a majority of all Scottish votes to be cast in May 2015.

Separately, a new analysis by Ian Jones for the New Statesman’s May 2015 website flags up that it is quite reasonable to expect the SNP to gain a further 14 MPs from Labour. Indeed, Jones concluded that on the basis of current polling that only losing 14 MPs would be a ‘good result’ for Labour. For those of us still doubting the credibility of such large gains, an interesting piece over on ‘Wings’ (http://wingsoverscotland.com/the-tipping-point/) shows the First Past The Post tipping point of 42-45% of the vote that could cause a cascade through simple exclusion of other parties – effectively what Labour achieved with a 42% vote share in 2010. Although it might seem over-optimistic, perhaps (as Gordon Macintyre-Kemp of Business for Scotland notes in his piece in The National today – ‘How to get the very best for Scotland…lots of SNP MPs’) these high polling figures are a sign that it is starting to be recognised across the country that, given Labour have three times (Calman Commission, Brown’s Vow and Smith Commission) failed to deliver it, getting a major block of SNP MPs into Westminster really is the best way of securing a much fairer devolution settlement for Scotland.

When all is said and done – it is not as though the ‘party of devolution’ have secured it, with a majority of MPs in Westminster let alone just Scotland…so what do we have to lose by trying?

 

“If you can vote SNP and get a Labour government then what’s the point of voting Labour?” (Paul Sinclair, BBC Good Morning Scotland, 13/12/2014)

A Post-Autumn Statement of the Obvious: Using a Crisis as a Pretext for an Ideological Opportunity

In politics, crisis can often be used as a pretext for the (often less than scrupulous) imposition of an ideology, that has nothing to do with the crisis it pretends to address.

I remember first being aware of this phenomenon while on the University of Edinburgh Court. At the time, the University Court was working through the consequences of suddenly finding itself £5.98 million in debt, and to that end had employed KPMG Peat Marwick McLintock (now KPMG) as management consultants to tell them what to do. In due course, the report arrived: I was informed by another client who had used them, that 85% of the report was merely standard KPMG Peat Marwick McLintock statements, and nothing whatsoever bespoke for the University of Edinburgh – flannel and padding, for the princely sum of more than £70K, if I remember correctly. However, as the University of Edinburgh specific areas started to appear in the report, it became clear that the management consultants were coming up with some slightly bizarre proposals, that would not be expected from a straightforward management analysis – for example, their recommendations regarding the Chair of the University Court. Traditionally, this job was done by the Rector of the University – a position elected by the staff and students, and a means of democratically bringing their influence firmly to the highest level of an organisation that they were the most heavily invested in. The university executives had grumbled for a long time about this – that it was not ‘one of their own’, overseeing things the way that they liked them to be. At the time, the Rector was Runrig’s Donnie Munro – surprisingly effective as chair. And yet, within the management consultant report, amongst other slightly unusual suggestions (bringing accounting procedures of the university as a whole up to the standard of its own Students’ Association was one of the more obvious ones), was one concerning the removal of the Rector as Chair of Court. In the broader context of the report, one could see other, long-term aspirations of the university executives coming to the fore as well – this was not just a management consultancy report, this was a longstanding wishlist.

By and large, it seemed that the university executives had told the management consultants what they wanted to hear back – and then they could appropriately distance themselves from it being their decision to take such inherently distasteful actions – especially when it came to the area of job cuts. In other words, they had their plausible deniability: ‘wasn’t me, mister – big man did it and ran away’. I sat around that huge table, and watched these respected men and women meekly bob their heads in agreement to whatever the management consultants said – and if any queries were raised, the response was standard: ‘The management consultants have indicated this to us, and we must do it, otherwise we would look to be sending the wrong signals to the outside world for not fully complying in the present crisis.’ In short, the crisis was used as a pretext for another, preexisting, agenda.

The most recent example of this technique that most of us will remember, was the curtailment of civil liberties that followed the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center. Those were policies that had been advocated for a long time by some of the more authoritarian elements of government, but their proposals had up until then been met with a stony rebuff…until the World Trade Center provided just the opportunity for their ideological agenda to become policy. Remember how close we came to having identity cards? That one has been knocking around for a long time…waiting for just such a chance to be dusted off and presented as a snake-oil panacea for whatever-security-problem-you-have-got.

And so to Austerity.

Traditionally, the Conservatives were always regarded as the party who could be trusted with the economy. I suppose that I must be getting older – the Prime Minister and the Chancellor look like eager rosy-cheeked schoolboys….are they really where the trust of the country (the UK, that is) is placed? Confidently, to do a responsible job, in the heart of this banking crisis?

The Chancellor’s avowed central policy – on which he wanted the government to be judged – was to entirely eliminate the structural deficit within this parliament. So, how is that going? In 2010 Osborne said the deficit would stand at £40 billion by the end of this year. It does not. The last 3 years have seen deficits of £120 billion, £100 billion and £108 billion. The Autumn Statement revealed that it is already at £91.3 billion for this year, and likely to break the £100 billion mark again by the end of the year, with the second smallest annual deficit reduction (£6.3 billion, half what the Chancellor predicted as recently as March) since 2009-2010.

Despite this, the cuts have been real – and are continuing. Since the Coalition came to power, 600,000 public sector jobs have been lost. As part of the Autumn Statement, the public sector pay freeze has been extended. Welfare is to receive a 1 billion pound greater cut than was forecast. There will be a 2 year freeze in working-age benefits and universal credit. Immigrants – in what is most surely a sop to UKIP rather than for any economic benefit whatsoever – will lose their benefits after 6 weeks if there is “no prospect of work” – however one defines that.

There has been a slump in real wages – down 10% on 2008, having fallen every year for 6 years, producing the longest sustained decline since records began in 1856. Yesterday’s employment figures provided some small crumbs of comfort, but only in terms of Scotland performing slightly better than the UK as a whole. Although employment fell slightly to 2,605,000, the jobless total was down by 11,000 between August and October; the Scottish unemployment rate is now at 5.6% (lower than the UK’s 6%); female employment increased by 21,000; Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants fell by 2,100 from October to November; youth unemployment in Scotland fell by 26% to its lowest level (72,000) for 5 years. The jobs that are being created are low wage/zero hours, so are failing to restore the economy: 400,000 Scots are earning less than the living wage with 120,000 on zero hours contracts. In addition, cuts or freezes on benefits such as Work Allowance (a tax credit for people in work who receive benefits) make it even more difficult for them to cope, meaning that the working poor have even less ability to pay basic bills, never mind support the ailing economy. The widespread cuts to benefits and pay freezes are part of an overall picture of a falling income for individuals, which means lower spending, and reduced tax receipts. The only tax receipts that are increasing now are those from stamp duty – hence the accusations that Osborne’s pseudo-recovery is in fact reliant on creating a vulnerable new housing bubble.

In order to pay for what little economy there is, an increasing sector of the population is now reliant on unsecured lending, rising at a billion pounds a month, with 6 million in the UK now borrowing just to get through to payday.

For the Scottish dimension, StepChange’s new report ‘Scotland in the Red’ notes that the average payday loan debt of Scots was £1,438 (£129 more than the UK figure). Scots also have the largest level of Council Tax arrears, with £1,534 (almost double the UK’s figure of £798). Actually, for those hitherto unconvinced, there is a real argument that the council tax freeze is essential at this time – food in people’s mouths are surely a higher priority than improving council services: let the roads decay, to the point that those whose spending has thus far been unaffected, are inconvenienced – because until then, it simply will not be a priority for them. File under ‘Other People’s Problems’.

To reduce the deficit and curb borrowing, Osborne needs to save over £100 billion a year, so proposed cuts of £25 billion (£15 billion of which are heading to Scotland) are, as one observer pithily put it, akin to placing a band-aid on an amputated limb. But if the cuts are not having the desired effect…then why continue with them?

The recession struck hard in the UK because it was already a debt-ridden economy – and highly vulnerable, thanks to the high-risk concentration of the economy in the financial services industry, a policy firstly pursued with such vigor by Margaret Thatcher, then perilously augmented under New Labour’s Blair and Brown. But for the current government, the recession has been an ideological opportunity – first and foremost – for the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats have done little to rein that in. Their opposition to the principles of the welfare state (now chillingly echoed with even more zeal by their opposition counterparts) has been what has driven their policies of axing it (and, similarly, expanding Labour’s privatization of the NHS, pioneered by Andy Burnham). In pursuing this ideological dogma, they have now destroyed the tax base of the country, pushing more of the population to the financial margins and rendering it incapable of driving the economic recovery.

Nicola Sturgeon is not advocating an end to Austerity because ‘it is nice to be nice’, or part of some socialist utopian vision: Austerity is not working, and is further undermining the economy for an ideological aim without addressing the problem that it purports to be solving. Austerity is about reimagining a future UK as a welfare-less, public health service-free zone – it is about the antithesis of Clement Attlee’s government (voted the greatest British Prime Minister of the 20th Century), under the stealthy cover of a recession caused by inept and unregulated international banking practices.

Ideology has made fools of this Conservative-led Government – to the extent that it has made a mockery of their former long-established credentials of fiscal prudency. Trust the economy with the Conservatives….really? When they can become so fixated by ideology over and above actual economics, that they cripple the country? With financial wizards like these, why would you ever think they could be trusted with the office Xmas Club Fund, never mind the UK economy?
“Far from being ‘all in this together’, the living standards of the most vulnerable – the old, sick and disabled, the poor – have been continuously eroded under good times and bad, through growth and recession. With Westminster parties at best threatening merely to freeze these inequities, they offer no hope for any reversal of Britain’s divisive and world-leading levels of inequality. Each promises the remaining half of austerity cuts will be implemented regardless of the impacts on the poor and social security payments reduced further in real terms.” (Mike Danson, professor of enterprise policy at Heriot Watt University)

Las Tres Amigas: An Alliance for Progress Against Diluted DevoNano

Yesterday’s declaration by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett (Leader of the Greens in England and Wales) and Leanne Wood (leader of Plaid Cymru) of a progressive anti-austerity alliance continues the SNP’s moves to frame a strong alternative narrative for the General Election, to the tired (and increasingly hard to justify, even on UK-terms) argument of ‘Vote Labour to Keep the (Blue) Tories Out’. With the possibility of perhaps a combined block vote of more than 30 Westminster seats, their chances of playing an alternative ‘kingmaker’ to Nigel Farage – and possibly be Labour’s only way of getting back into Downing Street in May – could give them a strong hand to set conditions for ending austerity, cancelling Trident, introduction of the living wage, and putting some teeth into Smith’s recommendations (rather than the rollback of Smith being hinted at yesterday in Westminster by William Hague, with Scottish MPs being blocked from voting on the budget).

Of course, the potential for a greener agenda for Westminster would not be far away from the negotiating table for any ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement – although I was slightly surprised at the lack of emphasis on more environmentally green policies from the alliance announcement – beyond restrictions on fracking. With the close of the climate summit in Lima last week, this is of course becoming an ever more urgent agenda, with the developed and industrialised nations wanting to postpone any serious decision until 2020. While Scotland’s leading role was acknowledged in Peru – Mary Church of Friends of the Earth Scotland describing Scotland’s Climate Act as “the most ambitious domestic legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions in the industrialised world”, and has largely been responsible for producing the bulk of the UK’s contribution to meeting climate change targets – there were also concerns at the three missed climate change targets. Church noted that given “the totally inadequate pledges on the table in Lima, it is more important than ever that Scotland starts to live up to its leadership role by putting in place further serious, practical measures to curb emissions”, and Lang Banks of WWF Scotland added that “at least the same amount of effort [has to be put] into reducing emissions from transport, housing and other sectors as is successfully being put in to harnessing clean energy from renewables.”

It made me reflect on two friends (both geologists) – one from Cumbria, the other from Glasgow, both of whom identified their politics as closest to the Green Party…and their experience of the Referendum. The Cumbrian was a fairly late convert to ‘Yes’, admitting that his politics were very close to the Greens, except for their backing for independence. Conversely, the Glaswegian was very much for independence from the start. Although most closely aligned with Green politics, he told me that his biggest reservation over that party was the advocacy of homeopathic first aid-kits: scientists have long been critical of homeopathy, as it relies in some cases on dilutions of materials to the extent that mathematically there is simply not even one molecule of the original material left in the mixture…which makes it challenging to understand what the source of their supposed medical potency as liquids would be. In spite of this, he felt the only way to actually see politics happening to a green agenda in Scotland was first of all through independence – so joined the SNP within a week of the Referendum result.

I suspect – given Westminster’s tacit abandonment of green policies as their ideological drive to the Right takes hold – that he is probably absolutely correct. And perhaps that explains the lack of overt traditional environmental policies at the head of any new alliance between the three progressive parties. Any other approach, in terms of trying to convince Westminster of a green agenda first and foremost, might resemble the 4th International Committee members (see earlier post: ‘Sheridan. Charlatan.’: Socialist Equality Party, myopic pawns of Empire and Capitalism)…still holding out for that coming workers’ revolution, like soldiers on a Pacific island who do not know the war is long, long over.

Last week’s YouGov poll indicated the level of dissatisfaction of Scots for the Smith’s recommendations, with 51% saying it did not go far enough (even 21% of ‘No’ voters), against 37% who thought Smith got the balance of powers right, or went too far. Interestingly, this belief was held across genders age and social groups polled – so there is a definite appetite across Scotland for more than Smith. I have noted before (see earlier post: BarnettMax, Fishfood & DevoCon 2014: Sins of ComMission) that the real asset of having the Smith Commission is that it has shown that the middle ground of DevoMax simply will never happen – that is a boon that can only be granted by Westminster, and they have shown how light they are on ‘boons’ for the granting. That will not change. Because they have shown that they are utterly unwilling to give DevoMax – even with the incentive of using it to defuse the threat of a rising call for significantly more powers that, while increasingly ignored, is beginning to translate smoothly into calls for Scotland to be independent. The electorate appear to be coming round to the idea that the only way Scotland gets anything approaching DevoMax, is by taking it – without hoping for grace and favour from Westminster.

And the only way that we can take DevoMax, as has now been demonstrated, is by independence…which is the closest thing we are ever going to get to DevoMax. (Which is somewhat ironic, given that DevoMax was always regarded as the one thing that would stop Scotland wishing to become independent.)

In the meantime, this does increase the pressure to get something more than Smith’s recommendations through Westminster after the May election. The current proposals are closest to what was called ‘DevoNano’ back in February, and are already at risk from even further dilution as they pass through the two openly hostile chambers at Westminster. In Scotland, only voting for the SNP or the Greens has any chance of strengthening those proposals (or even getting the existing ones through). Otherwise, we risk getting an ‘enhanced devolution’ so diluted that it is verging on the homeopathic in its concentration.

‘Vote Labour, Get Watered Down Smith’, could be the (perhaps too cerebral) campaign cry…

 

“DevoMax is like unicorns; it just does not exist.” (Craig Murray, Former British Ambassador, in conversation with Derek Bateman, 13/12/2014)

Jim Murphy, Torture and the CIA: or, Why Everyone Loves a Good Margaret Thatcher Assassination Story

I read with some mild amusement of the criticism of the BBC’s Radio 4 for selecting for broadcast a book by (twice Man Booker Prize-winning authoress, no less) Hilary Mantel, that features a fantasy about a woman killing Margaret Thatcher. In a time when BBC journalism has lost its teeth since the departure of Greg Dyke (if not the arrival of John Birt), when Government toadying has become the norm…do we really have to look to ‘Book at Bedtime’ to find the last vestiges of the BBC’s political independence and integrity?

It brought back fond memories of the 1989 ‘St. Swithin’s Day’ controversy, the comic produced by Grant Morrison and Paul Grist for Trident Comics (with no sense of irony), where an individual plans a fake assassination of Margaret Thatcher as she visits a technical college. Even the fact that the denouement shows him pointing a finger at Thatcher and saying ‘bang’ did not diminish the howls of outrage from Conservatives, The Sun leading with the headline “DEATH TO MAGGIE BOOK SPARKS TORY UPROAR”, and questions asked in Westminster were recorded in Hansard about it.

People seem to forget the real feelings that people had at the time towards her, provoked both by her actions and the attitude of contempt that accompanied them, whether engaging in conflict over islands in (arguably) a cynical attempt to retain her premiership, or decimating the mining industry. People forget how easily the phrase ‘vile and evil woman’ followed her name in the 1980s – they look bewildered at the pictures of celebrations in Glasgow last year at the announcement of her death, uncomprehending. Well – maybe you had to be there. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister throughout my secondary and tertiary education, and I can remember coming down to breakfast one morning, to hear the news from Brighton that the Grand Hotel (where the cabinet was staying for the Conservative Party conference), had been blown up by the IRA: you didn’t have to have any interest in Irish politics to feel exultation on hearing the news, and the thought of the possibility – just the possibility – that she was finally dead. I remember t-shirt designs with a picture of the wrecked hotel and the slogan ‘So near – and yet so far’; a working-men’s club in South Yorkshire discussed having a ‘whip-round’ to pay for the bomber to have another go; Morrissey echoed the feelings of a large chunk of the population when he said “the only sorrow of the Brighton bombing is that Thatcher escaped unscathed”. You may not have been political, but you knew enough to hate Margaret Thatcher.

Eventually, it was another form of political violence that brought her down: as much as Scotland protested against the poll tax for the preceding year, it was only when the Battle of Trafalgar Square took place in London that the poll tax was seen as ‘a bad thing’, and it is now portrayed as what led to the end of her premiership (although opinion polls stated that her handling of the NHS and water privatisation were far more unpopular, and Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech that precipitated her 3 week downfall was about differences over European integration). I remember the news coming in at the time of her resignation, while I was working at the student union offices in Edinburgh. A colleague was writing a student paper editorial on Thatcher’s resignation, and had written ‘noone could fail to be moved by those last moments as she got in the car to drive away from Downing Street for the last time…’. I stopped her short: ‘You can’t say that.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because I think the only way that she should have left office was with a bullet in her head.’ (The editorial was rewritten: ‘almost noone could fail…’)

That may seem a hugely extreme over-reaction – and maybe you really did have to be there – but actually the way she has been beatified since her (galling) death from old age, to become untouchable and beyond any form of besmirching criticism, for me actually emphasises exactly why an end that expressed the fact that she was deeply, deeply unpopular and reviled would have been far more appropriate, and honest, for how history recorded her. ‘Gunman ended Prime Minister’s life’ requires an explanation of ‘why’ – even if it is to dismiss as ‘clearly deranged’, or ‘loner’ (as in St. Swithin’s Day, with the obligatory US assassin’s copy of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ in their pocket, mythically supposed to be used by CIA-programmed killers in the more far-fetched conspiracy theories). But this way? ‘She died, peacefully, of old age – in The Ritz Hotel’. O, Rest in peace, you poor, dear, dear, little old lady: all her mistakes, her unpopularity, can be swept under the carpet and ignored, in the face of final frailty and weak capitulation to final oblivion. And now, she has become a sacred cow, where the idea that people did not like her is barely allowed to be uttered – she even received what was tantamount to a state funeral – and is put on a pedestal with Churchill as yet another ‘untouchable’ – beyond question.

Back to the BBC under attack for a short story scheduled for ‘Book at Bedtime’ (which I fully accept the BBC to cave on before broadcast). I find it slightly amusing, buried amongst the outraged criticisms, that one individual (Lord Bell) stated that the decision to broadcast it five months away from a General Election “is inevitably going to be accused of political bias.” Against whom, exactly? Have people suddenly forgotten how much Thatcher is lionised by the Labour Party these days? They do not criticise her legacy or openly condemn her actions for fear of losing another single SE of England vote – oh, no, that ‘radical viewpoint’ is left to be espoused by…the SNP.

Given the current generally right wing state of the UK Government since Blair, Thatcher’s stain extends far into the present, and is much to be reviled. Her example, it seems fair to say, engineered the death of the Left in UK-wide politics, and the birth of Tony Blair. What did she say her finest achievement was? “New Labour.” And it is true – ever since the Labour Party came to power, they have increasingly attempted to out-Conservative (if not out-Thatcher) the Conservative Party: the British Government’s policy on torture changed from Thatcher to Blair: it expanded beyond what was done in Kenya and Northern Ireland, to become far more broadly acceptable policy in the lead up to the first Iraq War. CIA and MI6 operate a mutual exchange of all information – which means that they can spy on each other’s citizens, then report back, so that MI6 (via the NSA) and the CIA (via GCHQ) can keep their respective hands ‘clean’ regarding their own citizens by not having done it themselves (as Snowden revealed). Similarly, they can get third parties to do the torturing for them, while informing them of the sort of information that they are wanting. It was the Labour Government that oversaw the change in that policy to become far more systematic (if not industrial) in scale: ‘Cruel Britannia’ came into being at the same time as the marketing people were throwing the slogan ‘Cool Britannia’ around. (See revelations by Snowden, and listen to Craig Murray, on: http://tvi-media.com/batemanpodcasts/141212_db026_craig_murray.mp3 ).

Which – perhaps inevitably – brings us to Jim Murphy. Is it true that Jim, that arch-Blairite currently trying to reinvent himself as more socialist than Keir Hardie, gets expenses from the Henry Jackson Society, a ‘thinktank’ (allegedly partly-funded by the CIA) that actively supports foreign military interventions as standard policy? That dismisses what it cares to consider as the opinions of ‘non-democratic’ states, or organisations that include such states within their members (that would be the UN, then…)? What…Jim? What…Trident-supporting, pro-Iraq War Jim?

Surely not?

 

“We all know here in Scotland that Labour ceased to believe in anything approaching socialism a long time ago, and has largely ceased to believe in social justice. The Labour Party has really become a mechanism for people to advance their political careers. That’s what it is: it’s a mechanism for people to make money out of politics. And you have people in the Labour Party like Jim Murphy, for example, many of whose views are to the Right of an awful lot of people in the Conservative Party….so you have a party which has abandoned its roots, stopped working for ordinary people, which talks about austerity, which says that not only does it want to keep welfare reforms, it wants harder welfare reforms than the Tories, and abroad has simply agreed to be a servant to American NeoImperialism, and to spend a huge amount of our GDP on the weapons to back that up, so… I find the Labour Party morally disgusting.” (Craig Murray, Former British Ambassador, in conversation with Derek Bateman, 13/12/2014)

EU Exit: Secret Treasury Advice States “It’s Madness”.

Just over a month ago, I was at a conference in Berlin, receiving the commiserations of many colleagues from around the world (including Venezuela, USA, Mexico, Australia) on the globally disappointing result of the Referendum. Inevitably, in this international environment, and directly linked to the result in Scotland, the question of the UK’s EU In/Out Referendum was not far away. Most espoused the opinion that it would be madness for the UK to leave the EU, and although Cameron didn’t want to do it, he might just have painted himself into something of a corner.

Largely, it is madness because of the massive economic impact (an even bigger economic impact than the £500+ million calculated for businesses in England and Wales if Westminster had not agreed to a currency union following a ‘Yes’ vote). A new Freedom of Information request by ‘The National’ has highlighted that the Treasury (so keen to have its opinions on the currency union publicised back in February) are refusing to disclose the same advice given to Government Ministers concerning the implications of an EU exit for the UK. How one interprets the decision to withhold (which seems to be an increasingly subjective decision, depending on the political affiliations of the time, contrary to the intention of FoI), depends on which way Westminster wants the public to jump. And they may well want to contain that little problem until after the May General Election is out of the way…Cameron would not at this moment want to be seen as supporting an EU exit by having the Referendum, in the light of Treasury advice saying (probably) “it’s madness”, as that would make it a little more difficult for him to get reelected, in what is already looking like a difficult fight to win a majority for the right to become the Prime Minister of Austerity Britain.

This is, of course, interesting in the context of the Scottish dimension. Polls (before and after September) have regularly shown a clear majority of Scots wanting to stay in the European Union. At the end of October, a report in The Times noted that only four Scottish Westminster constituencies wanted to leave, as opposed to the majority of constituencies in England – and of those four Scottish constituencies, only one (Banff and Buchan, on 57%) made the top 250 Westminster constituencies that wanted to leave. The lack of support for a Scottish exit from the EU (as one might guess from the percentages cited thus far) also goes well beyond the ‘Yes’ camp: my own constituency of Edinburgh North – which I think only managed in the high thirties for ‘Yes’ – only shows 23% support for an EU exit, with Edinburgh South nearer 24%.

The implications of this apparently likely opposing result on each side of the border then brings the constitutional element into play. In a poll at the start of November by Panelbase, those surveyed were asked to consider the (apparently likely) scenario whereby Scotland voted to stay in the EU, but was outvoted by the rest of the UK to leave with it. They were then asked, in these circumstances, if a second independence referendum would be justified, in order to ensure that Scotland was not taken out of the EU against its will. Excluding the 13% Don’t Knows, 52% said yes (including 22% of former ‘No’ voters in the Referendum), and 48% said no, the UK decision should be accepted.

This, of course, is one of the keystones of the 2017 ‘Referendum Rerun’ scenario. With SNP majorities in the Scottish Westminster constituencies in 2015 and for Holyrood in 2016 endorsing their mandate for a rerun, a split on leaving the EU would be enough to trigger the second referendum as an act of responsible governance. Given that the position of all those malleable banks and big businesses (who were loudly saying ‘No’ in September because of some hypothetical damage to business), would now be reversed at the prospect of losing the EU market with some serious real damage to business, there might be some interesting flipping of positions.

This should be remembered in the context of the IPSOS-MORI poll at the end of October that showed 55% support for a second independence referendum if either the above EU in/out scenario OR a majority Conservative Government was elected in May 2015. Longer term, 58% would support a second referendum within 5 years (or 66% for it happening in the next ten years) REGARDLESS of circumstances.

The EU In/Out split is an interesting scenario – but one should not underestimate David Cameron’s ability to play both the English electorate and his political opponents by using them as proxies (you see, Nick?). His use of Labour as his Referendum prophylactic, so that he could stand back while they soaked up the damage to their long-term reputations, was clever if obvious – as was his linkage of EVEL to ‘The Vow’ (Gordon Brown as the extra-special Labour prophylactic of choice on that occasion – a lot safer than using ‘the Darling’). Cameron also knows that framing the question carefully could also make him appear to partially satisfy both sides to an extent that would defuse the passion for an exit, and thus give him the result that he almost certainly wants.

And all that is before even considering how he would run the campaign – but one would imagine that he would use it to try to eviscerate Labour in England and Wales in a similar way to the neat filleting he just gave them in Scotland.

 

‘[Britain] is a coopted democracy, it’s an aristocratic class aligned with big business, industry, the upper middle class…who control this whole society and manipulate it for their own interests and while it is called a democracy…- nominally it is a democracy but in practice it is a very successful totalitarian paternalistic system, where the government is for the interests of a very tiny minority, and the majority of the people… in my view are not politically mature and have no real idea of what is happening to them.’ (Professor Tony Carty, Professor of Public Law & International Law, Aberdeen University)

The Longest Suicide Vote Ever Given?, or, is Scottish Labour now all Right, with no Left left?

…and its Big Jim Murphy as the new Scottish Labour leader, with 55% of first round votes, and (like the South Kintyre council by-election for the SNP last week) there was no need to redistribute the second choice votes, as a majority had already been won.

And he has a battle on his hands: his party is outnumbered 10 to 1 for membership compared with the SNP (I am pretty sure that there is a way to calculate the individual voting membership from the percentage figures given for leader and deputy leader as two simultaneous equations, but I cannot quite remember how to do that, beyond the principle…); the latest poll from YouGov in The Sun hints at judgement having been passed by the Scottish electorate on the Smith Commission recommendations as inadequate (after discounting the 12% who did not express an opinion, 58% say Smith doesn’t go far enough, 26% says it gets the balance right, 16% say that it goes too far); and – just to top it all – there is also a (further) rise in support for the SNP in Westminster voting intentions.

I know I made the point previously that all this rise in support has been through a time when Scottish Labour was leaderless, ergo during a form of unexpected honeymoon period for the new-look Scottish Government…but it has also been noted that Murphy has been continually feted by the media, often to the exclusion of the other candidates – particularly the BBC – as the already anointed leader ever since he announced he was standing at the end of October…which was when that cataclysmic IPSOS-MORI poll gave 52% of Westminster voting intentions to the SNP. As a comparison for how things have changed during this Scottish Labour leader ‘period of uncertainty’, it is worth noting that the same week as the IPSOS-MORI poll, YouGov gave Westminster voting intentions as 43% SNP to 27% Labour – this week they say 47% SNP, 27% Labour. So…you can argue whether or not Jim has already been treated as de facto leader since he announced his candidacy, as far as everyone else (i.e. the electorate) is concerned, so now there will not be a discernible difference in how people regard his party – or whether it is only now that we start the clocks, to start to measure his impact on opinion.

What was always going to be most interesting about the leadership vote was less the predictability of the outcome, and more the breakdown of this three part electoral college vote – to get an idea of whether Scottish Labour’s ‘soul’ was still intact (if clearly badly damaged). Well, the accurate headline predictions were correct in terms of Sarah Boyack kind of making up the numbers (for all that she was an experienced cabinet minister), Neil Findlay winning the trade union vote (by 52% to Murphy’s 40%, with subsequent rumblings about disaffiliations by trade unions resulting since the declaration) and Jim Murphy winning the parliamentarians’ vote (67% to Findlay’s 20%). I confess that I would be really interested to see the individual votes of those parliamentarians – allegedly they will be declared, at some stage – to see what the split was amongst MSPs, as that might give an indication of just how welcomed the new leader fresh up from the Big Smoke is among their ranks.

But the key thing for us small band of ‘Scottish Labour Soul Spotters’ was always going to be the members’ vote. Between Murphy and Findlay, the split amongst them was 60% to 33%. So, a third of the remaining party membership voted a very different way to one that could be described as consistent with the Labour Party’s recent political trajectory (despite Findlay’s deference to Gordon Brown). How do we interpret this level of support for Jim? Have so many traditional left wing Scottish Labour members left the party since Iraq that there is hardly any Left left, and the remaining party is virtually all Blair’s children of the Right? Or is it that the vote was instead for a perceived ‘candidate of strength’?

Murphy will not bring people back – either the left wing members or voters deserting since Iraq – but viewed dimly from distant Westminster he probably seems like ‘the right man’. Because he will be anti-SNP, spouting the right wing Labour message that they understand – a ‘safe pair of hands’ to show the Scots why they were fools to follow ‘Yes’ – and none of this trade union candidate nonsense like Johann (or Ed himself) was…which right now (if polls such as the one quoted above are anything to go by) looks to be about as toxic a message as you could try to sell in Scotland.

So, is the election of Jim Murphy as Scottish Labour leader the longest suicide vote ever given (if I can paraphrase the famously unkind description of the Labour manifesto under Michael Foot)? Murphy has to oppose the SNP, argue that ‘The Vow’ has been delivered (despite all evidence to the contrary), and send his Deputy in to fight for him every week at FMQs. I have no doubt that he will be combative (‘Male and Pale’ he may be, but he sure ain’t ‘Stale’) in order to convey that image of a strong leader, when given the opportunity – but he is probably going to be relying primarily on smooth set pieces from Jackie Bird, much like Alistair Darling did, in the absence of actually being able to go head-to-head in person with his direct opponent.

People have argued that a pro-Trident, pro-Iraq War Scottish Labour leader is exactly what Nicola Sturgeon could want to go up against, and that from the SNP perspective Murphy is a gift of an opposition leader. However, Nicola (arguably, like Salmond – although you won’t hear a ‘No’ voter admitting it) has an integrity and commitment to principles and social change which Murphy significantly lacks, so they will not be competing on the same battlefield. BBC Scotland will present him as the hero of the No Campaign (now that Gordon’s deliverance of ‘The Vow’ is starting to look a little shaky, they want to draw a little less attention to him), gloss over policy flips and inconsistencies, and soundbite him to the max: they have had all the practice they could want at this over the last couple of years, and have just been waiting for someone to rinse and repeat with, once Johann departed in her famed bean-spilling strop. In that sense, for most of us, it will be back to the pre-September uphill struggle against the mainstream media (albeit this time we will have The National, so let us see if that makes a difference) – remember how journalists used to report with a straight face that Johann was tearing strips off Alex at FMQs every week?
Derek Bateman (http://www.newsnetscotland.scot/index.php/scottish-politics/9874-welcome-to-the-fray-mr-murphy) makes the point about the easy ride from the mainstream media that Murphy will get – that everything will be framed to sell the Labour narrative (as during the Referendum campaign) of reconciliation and learning from mistakes, and – yes – Smith is the Vow of DevoMax and (near)Federalism and Home Rule incarnate delivered. Murphy is also a reassuring voice in the ear of the Unionist left, telling them that their world still exists and never mind those nasty ‘Yes’ people, in a way that Better Together did not attempt to be. Bateman’s perspective is that the baseline message from the members’ vote is not that there is no Left left – but that their primary desire right now is for someone to resist and repel the ‘Yes’ movement and (hopefully) destroy the SNP, both of whom have totally dismissed – even exposed – their paradigm of the kindly Union as utter nonsense.

If that is true – that Scottish Labour has not simply become an exclusively post-Blair branch office, and that their hatred of the SNP and ‘Yes’ overcomes their political preferences for social change – then they have voted for the most tribal candidate possible – whilst he makes all the appropriate noises of platitudes of ‘reuniting a nation’.

Although, so far, it looks like that nation appears to be increasingly uniting in a rather different alignment to the Labour Party’s.

 

“We can laugh at [Murphy’s] overnight discovery of Scottish politics and his duplicity over tuition fees and his endless recycling of old policy positions but because he can flip-flop shamelessly, he is also a chameleon – last week displaying the red, white and blue and this week, the blue and white. He can be whatever Labour voters want him to be.” (Derek Bateman, 13/12/2014)