EU Immigration and English Identity: Mr Ed Bets on the Wrong Horse

It’s been a funny couple of weeks. 120 English councils signed a demand for powers equivalent to the Scottish Parliament – really? The trivialities of the Smith Commission recommendations provoked that? I find it hard to believe that that can really have ruffled so many feathers…not if they had really looked at them with any care. Similarly, the call for English Votes on English Laws – I (like most Scots polled), have no objection to that at all, but the emphasis put on it is bizarre, given the minuscule difference that such a change will actually make. The recent House of Commons Library report noted that of 3,600 divisions between June 2001 and September 2014, the presence or absence of the votes of Scottish MPs affected precisely 22 of them – 0.6%. So, Scottish representatives don’t really have much in the way of an impact just now, to justify others being that bothered about reducing it. More than that – the same report concluded that the way that English MPs vote 99% of the time is the same as the majority vote in Parliament. Scottish MPs only voted with the majority 24% of the time. So – not only do Scottish MPs make no difference (and get ‘their way’ less than a quarter of the time), but English MPs determine policy almost exclusively – much as south of England MPs determine who forms the Westminster government.

But it’s all about the illusion of parity – or, more accurately, the illusion that Scots might be having some sort of advantage, that must instantly be eliminated. This ‘unfounded grievance’ politics is a part of the recent rise and assertion of an English identity within UK politics – and its attitude towards Scots and their governance is rather similar to its attitude to the EU.

But it need not have been this way. In 2012, Ed Milliband was pushing to take hold of the opportunities presented by the rise in English nationalism, by promoting an English identity based on “great Labour traditions”. Unfortunately, this was just at the time that Scottish independence propelled the Labour Party (with a knowing nudge in the back from David Cameron) into the role of primary defenders of the Union in the face of the Scottish independence referendum, the party traditionally representing the mainstream left choosing instead to embrace their ‘One Nation’ theme, and quietly dropping their English nationalistic aspirations. Now, according to the new report ‘Taking England Seriously’ from the University of Edinburgh, this move has allowed the concept of ‘Englishness’ to become tightly associated with hostility to both the EU and immigrants – perfect for UKIP.

Increasingly over the last years (some might cynically say, since the banking crisis, in a preposterous attempt to deflect the blame), a variety of myths have been promulgated, which feed the right wing mindset associated with this ‘new Englishness’ – such as the poor all being scroungers, and all EU immigrants are here as benefits tourists. To an extent, some of this ‘straw man external threat’ rhetoric is quite familiar in Scotland, the model perhaps even being pioneered by the ‘benefits junkies’ slander first being perpetrated against Scots years beforehand, along with the myth that English taxpayers’ money supports Scotland, when the reverse is actually true. Of course, looking at the actual figures concerning these two freshly-demonised groups, you see that the small quantity of benefits paid incorrectly (£1.4 billion overpayments plus £1.2 billion benefit fraud) to those on low incomes is vastly outweighed by the quantity of benefits that simply goes unclaimed by the legitimately entitled (£16 billion), and the vast majority of EU immigrants come to the UK to work, generating much tax and spend to boost the economy, rather than to claim any benefits.

Whisper it quietly, but – the UK is not such a great place to come to live (especially with a government opposed to you being there), and these days it seems somewhat vain to think that it is so attractive. Indeed, some have satirically suggested that that state of affairs is a deliberate ploy by the government, to deter immigrants from coming to the UK, citing: an end to decent affordable healthcare; low-paid jobs for much of the population; the most expensive and unreliable rail system in Europe; ridiculously low wages and massively high prices and rents (see http://tompride.wordpress.com/2013/01/29/government-ministers-announce-plan-to-deter-immigrants-to-uk-by-making-it-shit/). Well, there has to be some strategy for such a ‘race to the bottom’…doesn’t there?

But in their quest to demonise the poor and the foreign for the ills of the UK (despite the numbers simply not backing up such outrageous nonsense), the right wing government and press may have put a monkey on their own backs, with the rise of UKIP and a surge to leave the EU. A poll in The Sun the other weekend found that immigration was a “key issue” for just 34% in Scotland compared to 56% elsewhere, and while it was the single biggest issue in the rest of the country, Scots were more concerned with the economy and the NHS.

And the economy – particularly the consequences for the poor – is increasingly visible as an issue in Scotland: the number of people using FoodBanks was 5,726 in Scotland over 2011-2012, but that has rocketed (with only a portion of the austerity cuts in place) to 71,428 in 2013; in October 2014, the Social Mobility Child Poverty Commission estimated the number of children in absolute poverty (the lack of sufficient resources to “keep body and soul together”) in Scotland as 17-20%(170,000-200,000), with children in relative property (where family income is less than 60% of the median) at 15%-19%(150,000-180,000, out of 1.4 million across the UK). Given the recorded popularity in the Referendum of ‘Yes’ in areas of poverty, and the likely increase of those same levels of poverty in the next couple of years with increasing austerity, one might expect an increase in support for, or at least an increase in receptiveness to, the idea that something radically different is urgently needed in politics. And that idea seems to be spreading, even through ’No’ voting areas in Scotland, if the two unexpected council by-election gains by the SNP yesterday (for Kintyre South and Elgin North), taking both seats through huge voting swings, are anything to go by.

Perhaps Scots could have forgiven Ed the ‘One Nation’ aspect – perhaps even acting as an advocate of English identity – on the grounds of getting Labour values in some way back into Westminster. However, the recent record for that – as noted above – is not good… You’ll have noticed that the 2001-2014 period noted earlier was predominantly a Labour Government, but a very right wing one, followed by an even more right wing coalition. In those contexts, as I said above, the votes of Scottish MPs have coincided with the majority vote of the UK MPs on only 24% of those 3,600 occasions. Now, against a background of supporting – nay, promising to outdo – Conservative cuts, against the current background of increasing poverty in Scotland, what appeal is there left for traditional Scottish Labour supporters in a vote for a Labour government at Westminster?

Straddling those two horses of defending the Union and supporting English identity politics would have been difficult for Ed, without further alienating a Scottish electorate, although socialist values would have helped to ameliorate that impact (the rationale being that some form of caring socialist values at the heart of a pro-English identity government would have been better than not having those values in a more evenly British one). But how much stronger would Labour have been, if they had elected to support the emerging English identity and nurtured it away from the right, as a means of reclaiming a potent political left in the UK mainstream?

Today we will find out whether Scottish Labour wants to recover its Soul, in the form of which leader it chooses. But Ed Milliband gave Labour’s UK – and, indeed, English – Soul away at least two years ago.

 

“Ed Miliband should be in full election mode.” “How would you know?” (Maurice Smith in conversation with Derek Bateman, on Bateman Broadcasting, 30/11/2014)

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Beyond ‘Conditional No’s: The Ongoing Political Uncertainty of What the ‘No’ Vote Actually Meant…

I listened with interest to Professor Tony Carty (Public Law and International Law) the other day as he was interviewed by Derek Bateman (listen here about 35 minutes in, after the also interesting Steven Purcell: http://batemanbroadcasting.com/episode-25-stark-choices-facing-labour-scotland/ ). Tony works in both Aberdeen University and Hong Kong University, and in lieu of my argument with the would-be ‘No’ voters the other night, his interpretation of the real nature of the states of China and the UK was very interesting. We are used to thinking of China as a totalitarian state and Britain as a democracy, but Tony’s assessment, based on the actual political structures and the degrees to which freedom of expression is allowed, is very, very different:

“China is not a totalitarian state – I think the political scientists call it an authoritarian state, where there is a very large if not complete freedom of expression and opinion in China, and that is terribly important in terms of intellectual creativity and dynamism, and it is a part of the world which is on the way up financially and economically. And Britain is in a very serious structural bind….it is virtually a kind of museum, a kind of antiquated structure which  is entertaining to observe and to find amusing, but I have very dark views about where Britain is going to go…its economic and social situation can only get worse…. While its called a democracy…in practice it’s a very successful authoritarian paternalistic system where the government is for the interests of a very tiny minority. …Britain [having lost its Empire] is still fundamentally suffering from massively reduced abilities to earn and to compete at the global level and all the social and economic problems are really within that frame. And Britain, as a whole, is not coming up with a solution.”

All very fascinating – if not chilling – and his distinction between ‘Britain as a whole’ and Scotland was quite deliberate. But Professor Carty’s assessment of ‘The Vow’ and its consequences for the Referendum were even more interesting.

First of all, let’s have a bit of a recap of the little that we know of how ‘The Vow’ came about, based on various investigations so far. Trying to track back the evolution of ‘The Vow’ has been an oddly empty journey, with no paper or E-trail apparently there (according to Freedom of Information requests) to show the development and refining of the wording between the different parties. This is kind of odd. Did the party leaders really just give it to a marketing or PR firm (perhaps one of the many based in London that sponsored the hoax astroturf ‘No’campaigns?) to come up with, and say ‘do something sexy-looking – but ultimately vacuous so we cannot be pinned down on it – for a tabloid front page’? In the absence of any sign of dialogue between the supposed signatories (although according to other FoI requests there is actually no signed piece of paper by the party leaders either – so referring to them as signatories of something that they did not actually sign is probably inappropriate), perhaps that is not such an outlandish suggestion.

Be that as it may, when ‘The Vow’ emerged (perhaps via immaculate conception between the three?), many people cried ‘Purdah violation’ – that one month period immediately prior to the vote, within which no new proposals were supposed to be made. Unfortunately, ‘purdah’ appears to be little more than just a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’, without any legal binding nature, even though mentioned in the Edinburgh Agreement.

But what Professor Carty, as a specialist in international and public law says, is that ‘The Vow’ actually invalidates the Referendum.

“A No against independence would have meant the status quo – and what ‘The Vow’ amounted to was very substantially increased powers as an alternative option. And so that makes it very difficult to know what people were voting for – I think the Ashcroft poll analysis shows that at least I think 27% of the Nos – something like that – were influenced by this ‘Vow’, and they would have voted the other way if it hadn’t been for ‘The Vow’. I think it does really muddy the waters. If the government had kept its nerve and the unionist parties had kept their nerve, and done nothing, kept their mouths shut, and there had still been a ‘No’ vote, no matter how small, they would have had much more authority.”

He distinguishes very clearly between ‘The Vow’ and the proposals that each of the political parties had brought forward in the early spring for more powers for Holyrood, stating that ‘The Vow’ was altogether different: “The small number of polls that were coming out with a majority for ‘Yes’ produced a panic and this was a pretty formal solemn undertaking and not merely a speculative discussion.”

“These promises made at the last moment on the Tuesday of the week of the Referendum, two days beforehand are a changing of the goalposts and invalidate the Referendum, because they change the question, or try to change the question, just before the people voted, and consequently its virtually impossible to say what it is people actually voted for.”

This is a far more succinct explanation than I have been able to employ with regard to the term ‘Conditional No’, although that group is certainly immersed within the electorate that day, in terms of people who thought they were getting a significantly enhanced set of powers by voting ‘No’ – maybe even DevoMax – purely because ‘Yes’ looked like winning and had forced Westminster to finally offer it. It’s hard to measure, of course (although one can certainly use the Ashcroft analysis), and that is where the uncertainty comes in, and David Cameron’s use of the phrase the ‘settled will of the Scottish people’ becomes utterly laughable. His sleight of hand gave the illusion of an offer, but when the ‘No’ voters turned over the cup, they found not even a bean.

But Professor Carty does not finish there. He sums up the Referendum process, disrupted at the eleventh hour by ‘The Vow’, as inconclusive, not just because of the muddying of the waters of what people were actually voting for, but also, as he puts it, “the political uncertainty in England that makes it unlikely that there will be anybody there, a negotiating partner on the English side, who will honour this vow.”

In a sense, that ‘get out of jail free’ card that the Westminster parties have, with no legislation being now required before May, makes it all the more important that a cadre of MPs are sent to London then with a very clear agenda to ensure that they DON’T get out of jail…perhaps even spend a bit longer in the Tower of London, getting their tootsies burned as they are held to the fire for as long as possible. Because otherwise, the ‘No’ voters, blinded with promises of magic beans, really will have thrown away our one moment of strength and sovereignty entirely.

“These promises made at the last moment on the Tuesday of the week of the Referendum, two days beforehand, are a changing of the goalposts and invalidate the Referendum, because they change the question, or try to change the question, just before the people voted” (Professor Tony Carty, Professor of Public Law & International Law, Aberdeen University)

Will the Mountain Come to Murphy?: The View from the Bottom of the Hill

So, Wednesday has come and gone, and so have the postal ballots for the Scottish Labour leadership. With the votes cast – and some late rumblings that perhaps Findlay can mount a challenge, despite Murphy’s attempt to slough his right wing skin to appeal to Scottish voters – we now have to wait until Saturday for the result.

I mentioned before that Labour had an electoral college system for the Scottish leadership, although they have a simple one member one vote system for the UK leadership. This means that the Scottish Labour leadership process has three separate ballots, each worth a third of the final tally, with the votes for the third place candidate being transferred once they are knocked out of the contest.

The first ballot is of the 80 Scottish Labour MPs, MEPs and MSPs . This will be interesting, as for the first time their individual votes will be made public. It seems to me that this would work in Westminster’s favour, as the most powerful scrutineer of who votes which way, and how this will affect their progress as career politicians for Labour, if they do not side with party central’s favoured candidate (who would certainly appear to be Murphy). Party central can, of course, award grace and favour for those who do ‘the right thing’ – let us not forget that Anas Sarwar’s sudden change of heart about staying on as Deputy Leader was swiftly followed by the announcement that he had been given a junior ministerial position in Westminster (Shadow Minister of State for International Development)

The second ballot involves quarter of a million members of affiliated trade unions and societies, and it is here that Findlay’s campaign team have been making noises about progress – although I have seen one estimate say that turnout in this section may be as low as 10%.

The final ballot is of party members in Scotland – which probably constitutes around 9,000, from previous estimates. The precise number has been a closely-guarded secret (probably because they don’t want to drop the strapline of ‘Scotland’s Biggest Party’), as it is rumoured to have been dropping significantly ever since their government placidly followed the US to its illegal war in Iraq: even before the post-Referendum surge in membership, the SNP could legitimately say that at 23,000 members, it had more members than all the other Scottish party political memberships combined.

For all three groups, it is likely that this will become a choice between a strong personality with right wing values (no matter how prepared he is to reinvent himself) to forcefully lead Scottish Labour, or someone more close to traditional Labour values in Scotland. Perhaps this is Scottish Labour’s last chance to try to reclaim its Soul, and stop the rot before May. The lucky winner (and their Deputy, Katy Clark or Kezia Dugdale) will have a mountain to climb in short order, in terms of winning back their support, in the hope of holding their current Westminster cache of MPs in what is looking like a very difficult May General Election for all parties, but particularly for Labour.

And the scale of that mountain to be climbed is significant: immediately after the Referendum, Labour had to come to terms with 37-40% of ‘their’ voters saying that they had voted ‘Yes’, and in the heartlands of Glasgow and Dundee it was even clear that over 50% of them had done so. But in the last 6 weeks, a series of polls have indicated that – far from simply being a momentary ‘Referendum wobble’ – much of their voter base is currently intending to abandon them in May.

I have talked about some of these figures before – when Electoral Calculus took STV’s IPSOS-MORI polling figures at the end of October and translated them into a (highly unlikely) uniform swing, that annihilated all but 4 Scottish Labour Westminster MPs (see post: Electoral Calculus and the New Gold Dream: 50, 51, 52…), giving the SNP 54 out of 59 Scottish seats at Westminster. This would be beyond remarkable as an achievement, as the SNP do not fare at all well under the First-Past-The-Post system: in 2010, getting half as many votes as Scottish Labour, they got 6 seats to Labour’s 41, yet the LibDems got almost twice as many seats (11), from fewer votes than the SNP; similarly, the Conservatives, with only 2% fewer votes than the LibDems, only achieved a single MP in Scotland.

This electoral projection came from voting intention figures gathered in an IPSOS-MORI survey between October 22nd and 29th, just as the leadership row broke with Lamont’s departure, the SNP polling 52% of the vote, and Labour polling 23% (Don’t Knows were excluded). That same week, YouGov obtained more cautious – but still apocalyptic – figures of 43% of the vote to the SNP, compared with 27% Labour, with the same ‘if there was a General Election tomorrow, how would you vote’ question for The Times. Using the same YouGov figures (corrected by 2010 turnout, they give SNP 40%, Labour 29%, Conservative 16%, UKIP 6%, LibDem 5%, Greens 4%) with the Westminster predictor at ScotlandVotes.com gave a perhaps more realistic prediction of SNP 36 seats to Labour 19, Conservative 2 (taking one from Michael Moore) and 2 for the LibDems (see: http://wingsoverscotland.com/2015-general-election-results-in/ ).

To an extent, the scale of these figures should be unsurprising, given that they were being predicted as far back as October 2013, when a Panelbase poll showed that in the event of a ‘No’ vote, Labour would do worse in Holyrood 2016 (compared with a ‘Yes’ result, where they would hold 55%), only retaining 47% of those who voted for them in 2016. Even further back, in December 2011, polls were already showing Westminster voting intentions as 51% for the SNP, with Labour even then trailing on 26% of the total vote share.

But there are a couple of things to note here. Firstly, YouGov appears to not be removing Don’t Knows from its final figures (and they seem to constitute around 11%) – and this would reduce the disparity between the topline percentages and somewhat harmonise the two (IPSOS-MORI and YouGov for that October week) polls. Secondly, YouGov has continued to ask this question over the ensuing weeks, and the SNP/Labour ratio has continued to grow (albeit slightly), with this week’s survey (conducted between December 2nd and the 9th) now giving the SNP 45.2% as against 24.6% for Labour.

But thirdly – and most importantly – all of the YouGov polls have taken place during the rudderless time for Scottish Labour. True, the gap between SNP and Labour has continued to grow over the weeks, but it is hard not to imagine that gap not starting to contract swiftly again (at least to some extent) once a figure is in position at the head of the party. To an extent, that would be regardless of who that figure was – but a personality helps give a party an appearance of purpose, in a way that the invisible and hesitant Johann Lamont (often rumoured to be hiding in the ‘Scottish Labour bunker’ during the Referendum campaign) never did. In this scenario, of course, the best fix for Scottish Labour is to have the media darling Murphy in position, so that the BBC can spend hours filming someone that they have heard of, and consolidate the image of him at the head of the party.

Again, it comes back to whether the three ballots want Scottish Labour to go back to its core values, or to appear strong with a right wing pro-Trident figurehead (although of course Jim will happily forget about his support for nuclear weapons on the Clyde in a heartbeat if it will keep him in power). Although ideologically Murphy may present the most problems for bringing the mountain of lost Scottish Labour voters back into the fold (as the rumblings of predicted trade unionist resignations from the Scottish Labour Party if he wins, testifies to), he will certainly give the party a strong identity and presence.

And an identity can be a good surrogate for actual strength – in the absence of any real fortitude.

 

“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.” (http://news.stv.tv/scotland-decides/analysis/297349-devomax-daily-stephen-daisley-on-johann-lamont-and-labours-new-leader/ )

Winding Up Westminster: Alex Salmond and the EVEL SNP

The howling backlash against Alex Salmond announcing that he will stand for the Westminster constituency of Gordon (about to be vacated by long-term occupant LibDem Malcolm Bruce), has been enlightening. Not so much as an indication of how much animosity there is towards him (we kind of got that idea already), but as to how much fear the Establishment has of him: he came so unexpectedly close to winning the Referendum that they were sure they could not lose, that they panicked and were forced to throw in a faux devolution soundbite package at the last minute (which is now something of a headache for them)…when they really didn’t want to. So…they must be wondering what exactly he will have in store for them – if elected.

Well, to be fair, he made it quite clear within 9 hours of the Referendum result on the 19th September, when during his speech announcing his intention to stand down as both First Minister and party leader, he said the following: “We now have the opportunity to hold Westminster’s feet to the fire on the “vow” that they have made to devolve further meaningful power to Scotland. This places Scotland in a very strong position.” Holding Westminster’s feet to the fire…so I find it surprising that the SNP are subsequently criticised for saying that Smith’s recommendations are not nearly enough: isn’t that their job? I mean, they are clearly going to push for more powers for Scotland wherever possible, with every single one a step closer to independence, and anything less is not going to be satisfactory. That is the obvious starting point – based on their reason to exist. [It could – however, be argued as more bizarre that Labour is so critical of the outcomes of Smith – they have no similar raison d’etre to guide such an opinion, outwith their participation on the Commission, especially if they are still trying to pretend that they are truly ‘the party of devolution’.]

But going even beyond those fundamental underlying philosophical principles that should have them arguing for more, the Scottish National Party have a far more current and immediate need to criticise how far short those recommendations fall from people’s expectations. The SNP know that the Smith Commission, in representing Westminster’s initial act to supposedly ‘deliver the Vow’, has to be held sharply to account for its final utterances: is this the promised ‘near Federalism’, DevoMax, Home Rule, all those phrases that were bandied about as consequences of a ‘No’ result in the last hours before the vote? If not, then the SNP have a responsibility to say it loud and clear – hold Westminster’s feet to the fire, indeed – because none of the union-supporting parties have any interest whatsoever in drawing attention to any shortcomings in Smith (I dealt with the vested interests of Labour and the LibDems in portraying the outcome as positively as possible in ‘Powering Down the Parliament?’), when held up to compare with the expectations deliberately raised of what would come from a ‘No’ vote because of ‘The Vow’.

And everyone knows that the likelihood is that from the initial starting point of Smith’s recommendations, the proposals are liable to become progressively more and more diluted – heavily – in their passage through Westminster. So…fight early, fight often, and draw attention to the feeble offer to buy off Scotland’s aspirations for greater self-government.

But back to some of those faux outraged reactions to Alex Salmond’s announcement as candidate for the Westminster constituency of Gordon. His standing seems to be regarded, by some, as an act of great temerity. Why? An individual, who was previously an extremely successful MP, standing again for Westminster?

‘Gordon is not a consolation prize for losing the Referendum!’, squeals the 14 year old Labour candidate for Gordon (ex Northumbrian nationalist, now OneNation Labour bootboy). In what way is it a consolation prize, if it is a seat (albeit of somewhat different constituency boundaries) that he held as an MSP, and when he has been a successful MP elsewhere before?
“I don’t want him to make decisions about England” said the wonderfully uninformed Petrie Hosken on the BBC’s newspaper review. As the SNP have always steadfastly refused to vote on legislation that does not affect Scotland (and have similarly declined to nominate individuals for the House of Lords), and there is no prospect of that changing, this seems a straw man at best. The SNP has never had any interest in voting on matters that do not affect Scotland – because they pioneered the policy of English Votes for English Laws a long time before anyone came up with EVEL as an acronym. It is the MPs from other parties in Scotland that you need to direct your wrath towards, Ms. Hosken. Do please try and keep up.

(Incidentally – do you know how big an impact EVEL would have? A report just released in the House of Commons Library ran the numbers, to see how many of 3,600 parliamentary divisions between June 2001 and September 2014 would have had an altered outcome with Scottish MPs excluded. Answer? 22. That is an impact on 0.6% of the votes in the House of Commons. Remember that, when it is held up as a ‘major concession’ for Scottish MPs to either vote or not vote on Westminster policy…)

But – perhaps inevitably – it is a Labour Party representative (Tim Stanley stood as a candidate in the 2005 General Election), on that same BBC newspaper review, who perhaps gets to the nub of the issue: “I actually find him pretty hateful.” Whoa, strong emotive words indeed! But why this strong reaction? Perhaps the part that they really dislike is that – far from Alex Salmond neatly heading into the sunset as though (according to the dreary unionist narrative) he had lost some big personal gamble, his return is consistent with the perhaps more unexpected outcome of the Referendum campaign – as an affirmation of the national rise in support for more powers for Scotland up to and including independence. The polls showing 54% Yes that slipped to 45% on the day, have been the biggest endorsement of Salmond’s strategy of the long consultation process of the Referendum (before it was sidetracked in the last 48 hours by that ‘Vow’ – on which more later). Even a substantial chunk of those that voted ‘No’ wanted substantially more powers devolved to Holyrood (see earlier posts on Conditional No). Far from being ‘one man’s obsession’ as the unionists have continually tried to argue, ignoring the 50 year rise of the SNP and the 45% that voted ‘Yes’ in the face of stiff media intimidation, this is now a very popular mandate for change. Far from killing independence ‘stone dead’, this Referendum campaign has made its support far more solid and over a far greater section of the population than could previously have been hoped for. Everybody knew that DevoMax was the most popular option at the start of the campaign – but now people don’t just like the idea of that option – they actively WANT it, and are perhaps even politicised enough to go for it, too…maybe even as a stepping stone to something far bigger and better.

More than this, the prospect of the election of more SNP MPs this time around than ever before (including the experienced Mr. Salmond) also serves as a renewal of the popular mandate that he had to keep fighting for as much for Scotland as he possibly can. And – potentially – for the SNP to have the numbers in Westminster to be able to improve on Smith’s paltry offering. This, my dear friend Tim, is the consequence of holding us within that Union that you fought so hard to retain. Perhaps – just once – Scotland might be the determining influence on the final complexion of the Westminster Government, as opposed to regularly looking south and not recognising anything of what it voted for, in the party(ies) in power in London. The boot on the other foot – for once – one might say. And – unless you want to come clean and say that you feel Britain is in reality ‘the English Empire’, therefore all other regions are subject to that centralist perspective (and not just through numerical advantage), then your attitude towards Westminster democracy is quite unbecoming for the supposed ‘Mother of Parliaments’. A friend of mine, discussing Salmond stepping down in BrewDog Edinburgh with me, a couple of days after the event, reminded me that ‘all political careers end in failure’. You are, of course, entirely right, Neal. I just suspect that Alex Salmond has not yet reached that particular ‘failure’ – not just yet.

So, Westminster. You wanted us – you got us. Now, take your medicine…and, please, can you smile while you do so?

 

“Alex Salmond’s announcement yesterday is a double win for Scotland. More wide-ranging powers…and more entertainment while we wait for them. Westminster won’t know what has hit it.” (Richard Walker, Editorial in ‘The National’, 8/12/2014)

Powering Down the Parliament?: Putting on a Brave Face in the Wake of Smith

It is said that if Scotland had declared for independence, it would have done so as the only country in the world that derives more than 50% of its energy from renewables. Last month, wind turbines in Scotland produced 107% of the electricity required to power all the homes in Scotland. Therefore it comes as no surprise that – to make a crassly obvious link – there has been a large quantity of hot air billowing backwards and forwards regarding the wake of the Smith Report in the last week, and some of its consequences.

The union parties obligingly stood in line to hit all the buzzwords for the press, in yet another attempt to look like the winners of the Referendum that they supposedly were: most of these buzzwords were clearly designed for use on people who did not know what they meant. Otherwise, it could be said that Charles Kennedy and Michael Moore had no clue what they were saying when they described Smith’s proposals as ‘tantamount to Home Rule’. Ah, yes…that great Liberal aspiration. Although it becomes hard to imagine that control of raising such a modest proportion of income tax and the ability to change speed limits and road signs was quite what the great Liberal minds of former ages were so dreamy-eyed about.

A ‘powerhouse parliament’ was Labour’s Ian Gray’s take on it – in contrast to Gordon ‘The Vow’ Brown’s description of the outcome as a “Tory trap” (and as he initiated this whole process, it is perhaps telling that that is his conclusion). Then Robert Smith himself (ex. Morgan Grenfell) mentioning in passing that yes, of course Holyrood could be taken out of existence at any time in the future by Westminster. So perhaps not the empowered, nearly DevoMax, embedding-it-as-a-permanent-fixture settlement that was advertised.

The Smith Commission’s outcomes are far less about delivering change to the Scottish Parliament, than they are about helping the parties suffering in the wake of the Referendum to be able to pretend (in the run-up to the very near General Election) that they have achieved something positive by thwarting independence. The LibDems and Labour once more have common cause – now to attempt to spin the Smith recommendations into a hard-fought win, in the face of polling that darkly predicts their near-annihilation in an apparent backlash against their Better Together complicity. If the LibDems want to have more than the predicted Orkneys and Shetland, and Labour want to avoid the doom-laden halving of their representation of Scottish MPs (especially when Labour as a whole look to be struggling to get a majority for Westminster next year), then they have to try and make noises as though they have achieved a great victory…despite the difficulties in making Smith look or sound like a powerful set of proposals (having been heavily watered down by the Cabinet in London already, in terms of the varying of Universal Credit already having been vetoed, for example). And those parties know that they have to make those noises NOW – because those proposals are likely to get severely mauled and stripped down even further as they encounter hostile opposition in both Houses. For the purposes of Labour and the LibDems – arguably the two biggest losers from the Referendum process – it is vital that they can stand in front of cameras and be able to say (preferably with a straight face) that ‘successful delivery of The Vow has occurred’, whilst knowing that they are facing the prospect of severe electoral losses. It is their only chance of survival in Scotland.

In a sense, Smith is designed as a winding up of ‘the Scottish Question’, so that everyone can happily return to General Election mode – filler to some, a bridge between political events to others.

It also – Labour hopes – gives soft Yes-voting traditional Labour supporters enough of a sop for them to return to supporting the Party in May. In this way, we can view the Smith Report as something that is aimed (or is being aimed) very much at the Labour voters that defected (for it certainly was not aimed at the Labour Party, who have widely moaned about some of the outcomes, including the devolution of even a small portion of income tax, and air passenger duty), in the hope of winning them back, as well as reassuring ‘Hangover Nos’ or even some ‘Conditional Nos’.

It is unlikely that some of the more apocalyptic predictions for Labour will come to pass, in terms of the SNP taking 40 seats in the House of Commons. But Labour have been damaged by their willingness to stand on a Conservative-sponsored platform, spouting a message that came across as very far from a positive vision of why Scotland should remain in the Union. I listened to Stephen Purcell over the weekend, as he made the point that Labour’s demographic was aging in Scotland – and the last party that that happened to in Scotland was the Conservatives in the sixties and seventies. If they continue to be bound to London, Labour – like the Conservatives – will grow increasingly irrelevant to Scots, and their core base will continue to shrink with the passing years.

If the Labour Party wants to have a serious presence in Westminster from Scotland, then they have to do more than chant ‘The Vow Honoured’ as they praise the Emperor’s dazzling New Tax Powers. And they cannot rely on the old lie of ‘Vote SNP, Get Conservative Government’: given their recent activities, the quite legitimate reply would come back ‘Vote Labour, Get Red Tories’.

 

“The Smith process is purely about politics – the Smith process is nothing to do with governance.” (Peter Arnott)

No ‘Cold Turkey’ on Scottish Politics with Bitter ‘McPravda’ Nuggets, or Dinner with the ‘No’ Advocates:2

I am back in China for a while, and I have used this as a chance to subscribe to my first ever newspaper…I feel almost grown up now. First, it was getting into the routine of buying a Sunday paper at my local shop regularly once the Sunday Herald came out for Yes on May 3rd, and now a digital subscription for 6 months to a daily (and yes – it gets under the Great FireWall of China very nicely, thank you). Yeah, okay – predictably, it is The National that I am referring to, the new paper produced from the Sunday Herald stable, proudly stating that it is ‘The Newspaper’ [note: singular] ‘That Supports An Independent Scotland’ under its masthead. A clear response to the market opportunity represented by both the 1.6 million ‘Yes’ voters and by the 110% increase in sales that the Sunday Herald witnessed after it declared its support for ‘Yes’, it comes with a short-term aim of resolving the print media’s political deficit in Scotland, and the longer term aim of providing the more balanced voice that was missing from any future referendum campaign, it is to be welcomed, encouraged and criticised to strengthen it.

Naturally, this has led to bitter howls of protest from the unionist side, who (regardless of what the referendum result says, appear to have been thoroughly routed by the campaign itself) bitterly referred to it as ‘McPravda’ for the Scottish National Party, an accusation that does not really seem warranted, given the diversity of voices as columnists within from Women for Independence, Business for Scotland, the Scottish Greens and others (in fact, a somewhat noticeable – and probably deliberate – lack of SNP voices). Unsurprisingly, the uptake during its 5 day trial week was huge (despite it apparently being banned by a number of large supermarket chains – but more on that another time), selling out over 100,000 copies on its second day (it took me until Day 3 before I could grab my first copy, from the local shop). The 5-day trial was an unsurprising success and this has just seen the end of its first full week as a regular fixture. Although unlikely to reach those figures again with regular sales, it has a voice and a refreshing psychology: it considers options leading to independence without instinctively barring its gates and throwing up its hands in horror at the very thought of such a dreadful thing.

This diversity of media voices is a healthy thing (do I really need to say that – apart from to those bitter ‘McPravda’ nuggets?), and it came up recently in the context of moving to China. This gave me an opportunity to catch up with one of those would-be north of England ‘No’ voters that I spoke about before (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)), Derek. This time, his twin brother David was part of the conversation. Far more loquacious, David may have travelled slightly more than Derek, but both have really clocked up the miles over the years, going into Russia regularly since the seventies and China since 1986. So they have certainly been seeing the world, with all its political systems and changes for many decades. As academics, they have engaged with university departments globally (for example facilitating students to leave China so that they could undertake postgraduate study with them), and so know political issues from the perspectives of their hosts as higher education institutions. Which perhaps made what follows a little surprising.

Once again we were out at dinner (bizarrely, David and Derek wanted to have pizza) – which is a really big thing here in China, by the way: university departments lavish hospitality on their guests in a quite astonishing way, with banquets every night, and the host department picks up the tab. One could contrast this with the poverty of those working in the paddy fields and villages, but…anyway, the department representative (i.e. the guy with the cheque book for the evening) was my colleague Peiyun, way at the end of the table on the left. Peiyun has been a good friend to me, and has helped a lot, and I watched him as David brought the conversation round to what was happening in Hong Kong. We talked about the desire of the Hong Kong citizens to select their own slate of political candidates, rather than have them vetted by Beijing, and how incredibly modest this was, compared to the student demonstrations of 1989 in Tiananmen Square, which I had watched live on the BBC, when democratisation of their government was what they were calling for. But the premier then was Deng Xiaoping, a veteran of Mao’s Long March, and as much as he modernised the country by implementing a vast road-building programme, changes to the political culture of the country were not at all on his agenda. I might now say that what happened next is history…except it is not, really, in China itself, where a blanket ban on discussions of ‘the June 6th incident’ has resulted in a large part of the population being entirely ignorant of – and resistant to the idea of – the People’s Army attacking the people. It is an astonishingly successful suppression of a huge event from China’s recent political history, and a chilling reminder of what is possible when (as Orwell noted – allegedly from his time at the BBC) you control the past.

The conversation organically grew, and I started to notice a definite patronising tone in David’s discourse opposite me, as he talked about it being such a shame that there was so much money vested in the top of the Chinese government, which inevitably caused corruption. Peiyun was being calm and politely quiet, and maybe I felt the need to step in on my host’s behalf, as I said with a laugh ‘Just like Westminster’. “What?!!” Someone had evidently passed an electric current through Derek, sitting on my immediate right. David looked at me curiously across the table (it is true, I was wearing the new saltire hoodie that night) and continued onward. As he bemoaned the situation of how the media were reporting Hong Kong protests in China, Peiyun finally stirred.

“But you have protests in your own country, too, which are not reported.”

“So you are saying, it is not our business what happens in Hong Kong, and we should just look after our own issues?” I realised that David had misunderstood what Peiyun was saying when he said ‘not reported’ – he was not talking about it not being reported in China, as David assumed. His point was quite different.

“I think Peiyun is talking about the protests that the BBC refuse to report in Britain itself.” I interjected, and Peiyun asserted that this was correct – he had been noting that China was at least reporting its own protests, which was more than could be said for the BBC in Britain. “What protests?” said Derek disbelievingly. “There was a huge one where 50,000 people went through London over the summer and there was no mention of it” I said – referring to the infamous blanket ban on coverage of the anti-austerity march on Saturday 21st June. The BBC has seemed far happier to follow a government line since the Hutton Report and the resignation of Greg Dyke – one might guess that their enthusiasm to run stories inflating the idea of ‘benefit scroungers’ and not reporting marches against austerity cuts, played well with the narrative that the coalition government are currently trying to sell – but the observation that they selectively blanked such a huge public protest didn’t go down well with the brothers. “But the degree of media manipulation that you get here” wailed David…..”But you forget” I interrupted, “that people in traditional communist bloc countries like China or Russia have such obvious propaganda, that large quantities of the people just ignore them completely”.

“In contrast”, I continued “western democracies are taught to believe that what the media tells them is true, and therefore they are far far easier to manipulate politically.” David started to protest and I continued “and it is utterly naive not to recognize that vulnerability.” I paused, then noted that although China’s ranking in global freedom of journalism statistics was appalling, the UK was one of the worst in Europe. The conversation went silent again, as they eyed me darkly across the table…I had the impression that these razor-sharp fine intellectual minds conceded the points – but still rejected the conclusion completely that there was anything rotten in the British state.

Later, Peiyun and I bid our guests farewell at the hotel, then walked back to the department together, laughing about the evening’s conversation. He thanked me for backing him up: “You know,” he said “I think it is because you have lived for some time in China that you understand a little better the situation of the media.” “No, Peiyun”, I said, a little sadly, “it’s not because I have lived in China – it’s because I live in Scotland.”

The beginning of a daily newsprint voice that might stand against the one-sided wall of unionist opprobrium against independence is an important development, and a welcome advance on the social media that flowered over the past three years of political debate surrounding the Referendum, to fill the gap left by such low mainstream coverage of pro-Yes stories. But it takes a lot more money to support the much-needed alternative broadcast equivalent – and (although Dateline Scotland are working on it) that seems both far more significant, and very much further away.

 

“I like the Chinese people – they are smarter than us. I asked them what they thought of the Ukraine, and they said ‘we don’t know because we don’t believe the media.’” (Antonio, from Bergamo, Italy, resident in China)