A Croatian Commemoration: Bleiburg and the Mare Nostrum

A month ago, I spent the weekend attending a ceremony in the intense afternoon heat of the Bleiburg field in Austria. It was a 70th anniversary commemoration for the forced repatriations of 200,000 surrendered, disarmed ex-combatants and 500,000 civilians (figures estimated by the British Army at the time) from Croatia. A forced repatriation, by the British Army, to Tito’s partisans. In May 1945, after the end of the second world war, it was known exactly what fate awaited those people, which was one of the reasons that Churchill opposed the policy. Yet it was done under the direct advice of the later British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

The events are well recorded in Nikolai Tolstoy’s 1986 book ‘The Minister and the Massacres’, as well as many subsequent publications. The Croatians (other smaller groups such as Serbs, Hungarians, Slovenes were also attempting to flee the partisans at the time) were fleeing from the advancing partisans, who were supported by the Red Army, because the partisans’ policy had become one of killing anyone who had not supported them during the war. Tito intended to create a new political order for his philosophy across Yugoslavia – and the best way to secure that was by removing all political opponents to do so. Where ‘opponent’ translated as ‘non-supporter’…using the American Civil War parlance, ‘if you were not for us, then you are against us’.

The Croatians knew that the partisans were likely to kill anyone who had not supported them during the war, so hence the mass exodus as the partisans swept forward. They had the option of standing to fight and hold Zagreb, but with so many women and children, they knew that it would become a bloodbath, as well as the destruction of their capital. Nonetheless, with the curse of hindsight we can look back and see their decision to surrender to the British Army in Austria, through a misguided sense that the British Army would treat them honorably as prisoners of war, as fatally naive. Instead of sending them to refugee camps to await resettlement, Harold Macmillan’s officers circumvented the agreed policy arranged between the US and Churchill, and arranged for them to be sent back into the waiting hands of their pursuers.

The accounts of the treatment of the surrendered and unarmed are harrowing tales of barbarism in what was – technically – peacetime. Hands were pierced with knives so that two people could be wired together through their flesh, making it that much more difficult for them to escape before they reached the point where they would be executed. Gold fillings were removed from the living on the edge of pits and tank trenches before they were shot. The graves were then mined to cover the mountains of corpses. Furthermore, since Croatia and Slovenia again won their independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, there has been the opportunity to uncover more than 1,200 mass graves throughout those two countries, which have been identified as the direct consequences of that act of allied betrayal. For death marches commenced from Austria across the length and breadth of the country, the dying falling as they were starved and left behind, with intermittent stops wherever suitable geological features allowed for the creation of another mass grave for the unfortunates. As an example, these 1,200 sites include two pits in the forest of Kočevski Rog, that contain the skeletal remains of over 30,000 victims ‘generated’ in a mere 8 days (figures come from a partisan participant, as only a handful have ever been completely excavated to be thoroughly documented).

Although this event had had recognition from emigre Croatians in publications dating as far back as 1947, actually attending the site had been a dangerous thing, some mourners being attacked and even killed by Yugoslav state police. (The Yugoslav state police appear to have operated with some impunity throughout Europe, if the current trial in Munich of a former head of Yugoslav state police – UDBA – for the deaths of 68 Croatian emigres in Germany alone is anything to go by.) Things have changed with Croatian independence – for a start, people are allowed to discuss the fact that Bleiburg and the ensuing massacre happened now, where they could not have under Yugoslavia. According to Austrian police, 61,300 people attended the public memorial mass with me this year, at the site of where a population fleeing the advance of Tito’s partisans surrendered, before being systematically slaughtered by the very enemy that they sought to evade through surrendering to Allied Forces.

In court, some years after Tolstoy’s book was published, the only justification presented by Lord Aldington (then Brigadier Austin Low) for knowingly handing the surrendered – predominantly civilian – masses over to certain death at the hands of the partisans’ execution squads, was one of logistical problems in incarcerating and maintaining camps containing such a quantity of political refugees. During reflection on that Austrian field on the 16th May, I was struck by the resonance of this callous decision with recent pronouncements by Theresa May on the ‘Mare Nostrum’ question, where refugees were knowingly left to die in the Mediterranean, through a policy of deliberately cutting funding to the pan-European safety net, on the spurious grounds that it would ‘only encourage’ people already attempting to avoid Islamic State kidnap (and, ultimately, death) squads in order to escape through Libya. Many of those migrants of today have been displaced as a result of the US/British invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the subsequent unplanned endgames that ultimately left chaos in the wake of the departing troops. It seems that there are some shameful attitudes in British foreign policy in Europe that have changed tragically little despite the lessons of the ensuing 70 years: a humanitarian crisis is merely an administrative burden – and not a moral responsibility – that can be easily shirked.

In his final article of 2014, reviewing the last epic year in Scotland, Ian Bell argued that in his opinion the Referendum was lost “because too many of us were afraid to say why a Scot would not want to be British.” The cynicism of the British participation in the Bleiburg tragedy is certainly something that makes me profoundly ashamed to be identified in such a way – and it seems that that attitude is still alive and well with regards to the Mediterranean.

 

“We have an absolute moral obligation in the interests of humanity to do our share in a European effort to help people in extremity. If you look at many of the places these people are fleeing from, this country – and others – had a substantial role in the destabilization of those countries.” (Alex Salmond)

David Cameron, a Pro-Poverty PM for an Anti-Vulnerable Age: or, The Walrus and the Carpentier

Around two years ago, I read Alejo Carpentier’s ‘Explosion in a Cathedral’ (original title ‘El siglo de las luces’, which translates as the Age of Enlightenment). The Cuban writer and musicologist’s 1962 novel deals with the ‘exporting’ of the revolution to France’s Caribbean colonies, and was recommended by a friend as a ‘mood-setter’, before we went to Cuba. Its opening line is haunting and chilling in equal measure: “I saw them erect the guillotine again tonight. It stood in the bows, like a doorway opening on to the immense sky…” The book records the transmutation from Enlightenment to Terror and the mirroring of the wholesale executions on both sides of the Atlantic. Inasmuch as some have argued that Scotland’s Enlightenment role was one of seed to its equivalent in France (rather than simple recipient as elsewhere int he world), I think that is a legacy that most of would want some distance from.

I found myself prompted to think of this by David Cameron’s speech yesterday. Emboldened by his unexpected electoral success, he has increased his austerity target to £12 billion in welfare cuts, but will not say where they will come from.  It is planned to cut Personal Independence Payments – the replacement for the Disability Living Allowance  – by 20%, as apparently the list of disabled deaths resulting from the welfare cuts to that sector (see calumslist.org) as a direct result of the implementation of the austerity measures is not long enough already. As Frances Ryan notes in today’s The Guardian, Iain Duncan Smith and his Department of Work & Pensions is in conflict with the Information Commissioner’s Office over figures showing how many individuals have died within 6 weeks of having their benefits stopped. As has been noted elsewhere, this is not exclusively a Conservative problem, as half of the deaths resulted under Labour, the other half under the coalition government. (Journalists such as The Telegraph’s Brendan O’Neill conveniently dismiss this toll as merely a ‘problem of suicidal people’, thus neatly sidestepping any need for responsibility to be taken. Stay classy, Brendan.)

Yeah, maybe it gets boring, dealing with that old idea that austerity is predominantly hitting the wealthy, when of course Dave told us that “we are all in this together”. Here was Dave’s new message, yesterday: the poor, he says, will be hit much harder, if the deficit is not brought under control. This is the myth of trickle-down economics for a new age – once the economy is stable again, then we can look after the poor….but, if we are still ‘in it together’, is austerity hitting the wealthy? Well…since the 2010 General Election, the wealth of the top 1000 has grown by £212 billion (to reach £547 billion), so I’m not sure how much traction that idea really has. This is not trickle down: this is sucking up.

And with the UK’s debt now at over £1.5 trillion (one correspondent suggested Cameron’s promise to ‘look at Holyrood’s books’ was because he was desperately trying to find handy hints on ‘how not to increase your national debt’ for his Chancellor), and the deficit reduction targets consistently being missed by Osborne since he became Chancellor (see https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/12/18/a-post-autumn-statement-of-the-obvious-using-a-crisis-as-a-pretext-for-an-ideological-opportunity/ ), it seems unlikely that that aspired to ‘stable economy’ is going to be showing up anytime soon to stop the position of the poor getting worse.

Purely in Scotland, there were 510,000 people in severe (with an £11.5K household income, equivalent to 50% of the UK average, or less) or extreme poverty (on a £9.2K household income, equivalent to 40%), in 2012-2013, with 410,000 the year before. With the forthcoming introduction of Universal Credit (the ‘super-benefit’, replacing six others: including Job Seeker’s Allowance, tax credits, income support, housing benefit – see https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/the-labour-conservative-alliance-two-sides-of-the-same-coin/), rent payments will go direct to the household, rather than the landlord, despite the outspoken opposition of many charities: as Social Work Scotland said in their submission to Holyrood’s Welfare Reform Committee, “Increased  homelessness is widely anticipated as a result of Universal Credit being paid directly to individuals.” The recent drop in relative poverty (60% of the UK average) not only is a reflection of the general cross-the-board drop in living standards: it was also reflected in the increased numbers of those in severe and extreme poverty. These people aren’t leaving poverty by being ‘upcycled’: currently, there is no way but down, once you get to that income level.

But more than that, as I have said, there are a further £12 billion in cuts coming, meaning that the current proportion of 1 in 10 in Scotland living in severe poverty is scheduled to rise, with a further 100,000 children in Scotland projected to be in poverty by 2020. Audaciously, Cameron attempted to morally justify this move yesterday, by accusing welfare of being a “veneer of fairness”, papering over the cracks of poverty, as opposed to “extending opportunity”…although quite how opportunity will be extending by precipitating more people into the poverty trap of the ‘in-work poor’ in full-time working austerity is currently unclear. More sinisterly, this speech heralded a move to make a significant legislative change, as The Times reported: “The Child Poverty Act, one of the final pieces of legislation passed by the last Labour government, commits the government to ensuring that, by 2020, fewer than a tenth of children live in relative poverty. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the latest figure is 2.3 million, or 17.4 per cent of children in Britain. Cutting child tax credits, one option under consideration by ministers preparing to cut a further £12 billion from the benefits bill, could add 300,000 children to the total living in poverty, according to the IFS. The prime minister said that the definition of relative poverty enshrined in law meant that even a small rise in the state pension led to an increase in average income and, consequently, the number of children living in relative poverty.” A familiar pattern of goalpost-moving for those who remember the modifications of definitions of being ‘unemployed’ under the last Conservative Government, in order to cosmetically reduce the numbers.

Pensions will supposedly be protected in this new round of cuts. One might cynically say that this is because the demographic that will be recipients are traditionally a core Conservative-supporting group, but in reality (if looked at by share of average earnings) the UK pension ranks 23rd out of 27 in the European Union. Instead, tax credits are widely viewed to being in the frame for a significant part of the cuts…as Alison Garnham of the Child Poverty Action Group put it: “No moral mission involves taking away tax credits for our poorest children. No serious plan for the low-paid begins with making them poorer by cutting their tax credits.”

Mike Danson, Professor of Enterprise Policy at Heriot Watt University, warned us before the General Election that the remaining austerity cuts would be implemented regardless of the impact on the poor, because they were ideologically-driven – and this was reinforced by Osborne not backing away from further austerity in his last budget 50 days before the General Election (https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/the-labour-conservative-alliance-two-sides-of-the-same-coin/), as well as the recent noises that they will go even further. Other than meeting purely ideological objectives, these cuts achieve nothing…in fact, they further contribute to low growth and extend the life of this (increasingly-localised) recession. Simon Wren-Lewis, Professor of Economics and fellow of Merton College University of Oxford, criticised the austerity ‘strategy’ for this very reason before the General Election: “The main impact of lower growth – including that caused by fiscal austerity – has been on living standards.” Lower growth caused by fiscal austerity would normally mean higher unemployment or lower living standards: “Austerity in itself has increased child poverty…Nicola Sturgeon’s statement on the economic impact of austerity on the UK is correct, with no qualifications.”

It is scenarios like this that start to give one a glimpse of the anger of the people that simmered under the former European aristocracies, eventually causing the people to take to the streets and later execute those aristocrats. Working in China during the last couple of years, I saw the gauche evidence of China’s new rich, driving their Maseratis past the subsistence farmers, who were struggling with their donkeys along the same stretch of motorway. Culturally, rural China might well have been long indoctrinated through the Cultural Revolution into believing in their inherent agrarian nobility – but how long can you expect such flaunted wealth to not provoke a reaction? Perhaps the most powerful – and most likely the least-intended – lesson that I derived from Carpentier’s novel was that, bloody as the Terror was, at least the aristocrats did not smoothly slip back into their previous roles within a short space of time, restoring the status quo that had been so comfortable for them at other’s expense. True, others eventually did – but it took much longer than in France, and at least was not the originals.

Cameron states the continued existence of the deficit would harm the poor in the long-run – that, in effect, the increased poverty (and – inevitably – deaths) are ‘for their own good’: he plays the part of Lewis Carroll’s Walrus to Ian Duncan Smith’s Carpenter…sobbing crocodile tears and feigning sadness, while keeping right on eating. Except the lives affected are not oysters, but those of real people, successively demonised by the press since the recession began, and now ripe for victimhood. The difference being that, by the end of Cameron’s gluttonous meal, there will be far more impoverished and suffering than at the start of his ill-advised walk upon the sand. Does Cameron really understand the keg of nitroglycerine that he is kicking around? Does he see the abyss, or is he too drunk on the heady intoxication of his unanticipated electoral majority to remember to care?

Perhaps he can act with complete impunity. But he would do well to heed the warning: Sands shift.

 

“It has been astonishing, from a US perspective, to witness the limpness of Labour’s response to the austerity push. Britain’s opposition has been amazingly willing to accept claims that budget deficits are the biggest economic issue facing the nation, and has made hardly any effort to challenge the extremely dubious proposition that fiscal policy under Blair and Brown was deeply irresponsible – or even the nonsensical proposition that this supposed fiscal irresponsibility caused the crisis of 2008-2009.” (Paul Krugman, Nobel economist 2008, The Guardian, 29/4/2015)

Galloway and Salmond: An Unlikely Unified Chorus

Alex Massie in The Spectator has noted that there are now more members of the Scottish National Party than there are soldiers in the British Army. Which is all well and good (unless he is actually proposing a direct ‘contest’ between the two?) – but that means little compared to actual electoral success. Despite that simple statement, lots of external commentators have taken very different meanings from the result of the General Election in Scotland. The SNP winning 56 out of 59 seats was, for example, presented by Vladimir Churov, the head of the Russian electoral commission, as clear evidence that the Referendum last year was rigged – but that is (to say the least) a simplistic analysis, that ignores the focused media impact in a binary plebiscite, compared with a multi-party election.

Writing provocatively for The Telegraph within 24 hours of the General Election results being finalised, Bruce Anderson had a hilarious piece harrumphing away at the presence of the Scottish electoral choice in Westminster, declaring that Scotland needs time to “calm down”, that Westminster should “stop appeasing the Scots”, and the wonderfully insulting “when the Nats launched their offensive the Labour high command found out that their party was almost extinct. Some Glasgow constituencies had a nominal membership role of a hundred, half of whom turned out to be dead: another quarter, in Barlinnie Gaol. The rest were often some of the most primitive socialists ever known. As no-one had told them that the Warsaw Pact was also extinct, some of them were still hoping for the arrival of Stalinism”. So, no stereotypes or cliches there, then: with such a grasp for politics (and the Labour Party) in Scotland, it is a wonder that Anderson is not considering running for First Minister next year.

In another interpretation, you can also say that in May pro-independence parties secured 51.3% of the vote in Scotland, but – as much as there is an increasing receptivity to the idea – the majority of people understood that the General Election was not a rerun of the Referendum, that this was about opening up a new front in the campaign for Scotland to take charge of its own future. I would argue that this is demonstrated in a number of ways – and not merely by the SNP saying it, because, well ‘they would wouldn’t they?’ What is telling is not the numbers of independence supporters that voted for the SNP, but the ones who are not yet convinced by independence, yet know that the SNP has that long-term objective, and still saw a good reason to support them going to Westminster. In a way, supporting the SNP in spite of – not because of – the longer term goal.

I have referred before to the October 2013 poll that indicated how much Labour support in Holyrood was projected to fall in the event of a ‘No’ vote in the Referendum (47% of their 2011 voters, see https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/all-those-wee-things-the-loss-to-labour/ ), and the latest TNS poll of 1,031 makes even gloomier reading for them: 60% of those planning to vote next May would now vote SNP (45% in 2011), Labour would get 19% (32% in 2011, so 59% of that vote rather than the 47% predicted two years ago), which would leave them only marginally ahead of the Conservatives on 15%…and then there would be the LibDems on 3%. This result would mean zero Holyrood Constituency seats for Labour (they currently have 15). For the Holyrood List section vote, the results are lower at 50% for the SNP (which actually might, through the PR system, lead to them losing their majority in Holyrood), with Labour still on 19%, Conservatives 14%, Greens 10%, LibDems 5%, UKIP 2%. Also, the TNS poll (from the end of May, therefore predating Charles Kennedy’s death) shows that among under 35s, 80% say that they will be voting for the SNP, with only 6% going for Labour.

Poll results like this, the successful crowdfunding of the Carmichael money, the continuing popularity of the First Minister as well as sites like Wings Over Scotland, all suggest that the appetite for change is not restricted to elections…and it has not gone away after returning 56 SNP MPs out of 59 possible constituencies, no matter how much the enemies of change might wish to rationalise it otherwise – or be unwilling to countenance the result in other terms such as ‘a political sea change’.

As much as these figures all seem to show that support for the SNP – and trust in them, even from ‘No’ voters – is strong, the bigger question remains what this may or may not mean for the question of independence. Arch-Unionist George Galloway, launching his campaign for London Mayor a week ago, declared that he thought independence could probably ONLY have been stopped from happening within the next five years by a Labour government winning last month. Not exactly the most credible of political commentators, Galloway’s expressed view echoes Salmond’s comment just after the General Election, that (when asked directly) he thought the result in May had brought independence closer for Scotland. At the time, this was seized on with howls by the media in an attempt to show a ‘split’ between him and Sturgeon (who had clearly said that a vote for the SNP was not a vote for independence at this General Election), his successor – in much the same way as they have tried to misrepresent the SNP MPs Sheppard and Kerevan as descrying Full Fiscal Autonomy, when they were very explicitly criticising the idea that FFA could happen overnight as opposed to being a phased process, and supporting the argument that it would take time to change over. After all, we have just seen how badly botched a rushed constitutional modification can be, with the Smith Commission translating into the limp rag of the Scotland Bill. Nobody would be arguing for FFA of all proposals to happen swiftly, without negotiation…but I digress.

When Alex Salmond says that this Westminster result brings independence closer – of course it does: just not in the way that some of the southern commentariat appear to be thinking, not as part of some plan to achieve it through a devious plot enacted by a Westminster bloc of SNPs orchestrating some dastardly scheme. In a post-election poll, almost 50% said that last month’s Westminster success for the SNP made independence more likely, with 39% saying that it made no difference. It brings independence closer in exactly the same way as the SNP becoming the largest party in Holyrood in 2007 brought independence closer, as it led to them subsequently gaining a majority government in Holyrood in 2011 – which again brought independence closer, as that has (along with their performance in the Referendum) in its turn brought this Westminster landslide. Each of these stages is symptomatic of the people in Scotland placing more representational responsibility with the Scottish National Party as their trust in them slowly grew, in the absence of any credible alternative in the wake of Iraq. Last month was another stage in that growth. After a while, there will be few other ways in which the people in Scotland can invest further trust in the SNP – apart from voting for independence. According to a recent poll, 80.4% of Scots want another Referendum on independence, with 58.6% wanting it within the next ten years. It may not be the EU referendum that provides the ‘material change in circumstances’ that warrants another independence referendum within 5 years rather than 10, but perhaps in that regard Galloway might yet prove to be unexpectedly prescient after all.

 

“I think independence is probably nigh. The only way it could have been stopped is if we had got a Labour government last month and if that Labour government had begun to make a difference. But these next five Tory years are going to be very cold, and the SNP leadership seems to have the ball at their feet and know what to do with it. So I’d be very surprised if there wasn’t another referendum in the course of this next five years, and I’d be very surprised if we managed to repeat the result we got last year. I’d take the same stand that I did last year. But I wouldn’t be expecting to win.” (George Galloway, 14/6/2015)

Of Vetoes and Slaves: Living in an Age of Empire

I remember hearing Stephen Noon of Yes Scotland speaking during last year’s Edinburgh Festival, referring to the ‘charm offensive’ of the UK Government:” ‘we love you, please stay, if you go we’ll wreck your economy’…sometimes we’re treated very colonially.”(see ‘The Party of I Told You So’ at http://wp.me/p4SdYV-2r ) This got me wondering at the time – to what extent was Scotland’s relationship with England – or, perhaps more precisely, London – a mirror of an empire with a colony? Intrigued by the question, I scribbled a few notes down to investigate for the Blog…but by that stage we were entering the last days of the campaign, and it seemed a somewhat esoteric issue to be researching, when everything was entering the Referendum equivalent of a gameshow’s final decider ‘quickfire round’….then promptly the result seemed to make such a question somewhat less relevant and a lot less immediate.

I’m not trying to overstate the subsidiarity, or pretend that there is some directly analogous situation between what happened during European colonialism and what has happened here in any literal way – of course not: such an approach would trivialise the experiences of Africa and Asia…perhaps in a similar way to David Starkey attacking the saltire as being some kind of swastika over the weekend (classy). But to remove some of the extremity of the situation, and those emotive terms (as I’ve said before, “We don’t need assassinations, internment, or abuse through interrogation, to make the claim of self-determination legitimate” – see ‘What price legitimacy?: The beautiful, shining example’ at http://wp.me/p4SdYV-4 ) and look at it purely in a power and commodification sense – is there any legitimacy to such a comparison?

Firstly, let us look to basic definitions, without the extremity of any examples: an ’empire’ is defined as ‘an extensive group of states or countries ruled over by a single monarch, an oligarchy, or a sovereign state’. Or, alternatively, ‘Supreme political power over several countries when exercised by a single authority’. Well, however you want to cut the arithmetic, those arguments can certainly be made for definitions of the United Kingdom – and perhaps is underlined by the howls of outrage at the very idea that the Scottish bloc vote was going to have a direct influence in the heart of government, as widely believed immediately prior to the General Election last month. This was no ‘family of nations’, in terms of the response from the centre – this was an outrage born of ‘but they are not supposed to be able to do that – not even ONCE’. Imperialist?

Colony – well, that is different. Most definitions rely less on reflections of the power structure and more on the importing of a minority ethnic component to define a colonial approach, whereas this is an attitude based outwith that. Stripping it down a little, as definitions we can have ‘A country or area under the full or partial political control of another country’, or even a definition of colonies as ‘All the foreign countries or areas formally under another nation’s political control’. The ethnic introduction is tacitly assumed as going along with a style of government that would be regarded as colonial. Within this, one can talk about ‘a colonial approach’ without talking about a ‘colony’ in the sense of people imported to live there, so that it is dealing more with where power and decision-making resides.

Which, of course, brings us to Lucy Fraser QC, with her maiden speech to the Commons last week, where she celebrated her constituency’s historical links to Cromwell, and what Cromwell did to the Scots, to ribald guffaws from her benchmates: “”[South East Cambridgeshire] is the home of Oliver Cromwell, who defeated the Scots at Dunbar, incorporated Scotland into his protectorate and transported the Scots as slaves to the colonies…Now there is an answer to the West Lothian question.” The fact that she was responding to a Queen’s Speech which was underlining the importance of extending the powers of the Scottish Parliament (whether or not there is any intention to do that is quite another matter) in the wake of an ongoing constitutional crisis that might require a little bit of sensitivity, clearly did not occur to her.

Dr Tanja Bueltmann makes a far better analysis of this faux pas than I am able to do (see http://thescottishdiaspora.co.uk/?p=2152 ) particularly with relevance to more recent forms of slavery (if it had been a Japanese politician joking about use of British prisoners of war to constructing the Burma railway, would there have been the same perception of it as acceptable, do you think?), but her comments on inappropriateness in terms of slavery, prisoners of war and death marches do raise the question as to whether simply number of years makes such abuse of people acceptable to laugh about – or is it being laughed about because it would always be seen as acceptable by a particular mindset? This, also, is a persistence of imperialism – whether an attitude to invading other countries, or retaining ultimate control over Scots…and not even thinking for a moment that such remarks might be the sort of thing that pushes more people towards independence, just a few more inches at a time – a bit like the Osbornian ‘Sermon on the Pound’ did, for example.

Perhaps, also, this imperial ‘attitude’ is also relevant in other ways – the way that the UK government sees itself is by the shadows of the possessions of its former empire: this is also why such an absurd GDP expenditure on nuclear weapons per capita occurs in the UK, that is entirely out of proportion to the size of the country or its economic productivity. And in that sense it is one of the reasons why Westminster was willing to fight so hard (the Westminster spending in Whitehall on the Referendum vastly outstripped the Scottish Government, and yet also was more poorly argued and researched) to try and win the Referendum. The potential loss of Scotland would (somewhat belatedly) confirm the disappearance of the British Empire, in a very close-to-home fashion: actually, whether one dates that from the mishandling of the Suez crisis, or the rush of former colonies to independence that was completed by the early sixties, this has been over for some time – but that does not prevent the UK being very much in denial.  This denial means that the ‘imperial factor’ continues to be one of the main drivers for independence, as Scots are increasingly repulsed by the participation of Westminster in the illegal wars of the USA, in some sad attempt to prove that ‘they still matter’ on the world stage – and this, of course, led to the first terrorist attack on Scottish soil as a direct result of us being associated with Westminster’s activity against Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course, comparisons are often drawn with Ireland. Ireland was fortunate enough to leave prior to the second world war, and the collapse of the British empire’s global dominion, when ceding something so near to London might have seemed trivial – and an acceptable loss – in the broader global picture of Britannia über alles. Perhaps that is why there has been such a bitter cultural excoriation of the Irish in the post-war years, and that they regularly are used by London as an example of a bad economy (although they are still doing much better than the UK, in terms of recovery). As much as the ‘No’ campaign would trot out ‘do you want to end up like Ireland?‘ with all the scorn in their voice, they never raised the question if, for Ireland, they would prefer to be back in the Union than ‘where they are’ right now. Noone believes for a second that they would under any circumstances vote to rejoin a union that still tries to mock them so bitterly, even today, almost 100 years after they left. In this context, I was struck by how a distinction was noted between those two countries with the weekend’s football match: an advert displayed in Dublin by the Irish bookmakers Paddy Power, showed Roy Keane mocked up as Mel Gibson in ‘that Scottish film’ (see Holding the Line: ‘That Scottish Film’… at http://wp.me/p4SdYV-2W ), and pointedly paraphrased a quote from that film in advance of the qualifying game: “You may take our points – but at least we have our freedom.”

There was a certain chilling resonance to that line – and it is hard not to concede that it is true. It is there in the draft Scotland Bill: “The UK Parliament will not normally legislate in devolved areas without the consent of the Scottish Parliament, whilst retaining the sovereignty to do so.” In addition, the requirement to have the agreement of the Secretary of State of Scotland for changes in the areas proposed to be ‘devolved’ in the draft bill is an additional micromanager’s veto – a sign of some panic, if nothing else, at what Holyrood might possibly come up with – but nonetheless, as George Kerevan puts it, a “subordination” of the Scottish Parliament. So much for making Holyrood an enshrined legislature, with real powers, that could not ever be removed by Westminster, as per ‘The Vow’ – power devolved is very much power retained…especially when there is a refusal to actually relinquish a veto: those powers are not even being devolved, they are simply allowing Holyrood to propose changes, which will only get through if Westminster would have come up with them (assuming Scotland would ever have such priority for them to spend time coming up with such proposals for that territory) itself.

With this apparently being the limit to which Westminster is willing to relinquish powers to Scotland – in the wake of a General Election defeat for them in Scotland (for that is what last month was) that makes it clear that the best way to neuter the rising demand for such powers is to swiftly make a significant offer of real devolved powers – then it seems clear that they see us as part of their empire, with all the limited autonomy of a controlled colonial territory.

And here we will stay, in the powerless austerity of the dregs of the British Empire – until we finally decide otherwise.

 

“…pleading with us to stay because they loved us – apparently – but now we are going further and actually voting to be part of the government, they treat us like immigrants from the sub continent. Britain took over India, ran it, exploited it, made Indians work for them through enslavement and violent threat and got rich off the back of the Indians. In return the Indians got passports but encountered discrimination and obstacles when they got to Britain. Oh, we didn’t expect you to actually come to live here…” (Derek Bateman, 22/3/2015)

Nicola has Fun in America: Baggage-free and Palatable

It has been an interesting week in the broad sense of Scottish politics. Monday June 8th was the most potentially stressful day – as part of Nicola Sturgeon’s grand tour of the US (Ok, NYC and DC), she was a guest on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. As confident as you can be in Nicola, that could so easily be a step too far…and yet she did brilliantly. For those of you who have not seen the full 14 minutes, I commend this link: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2tabx8_the-unexpurgated-sturgeon_news which will give you the 7 minutes broadcast, and another 7 shot for web content. The desperation of her political opponents to attack her being such that they relied on saying ‘Stewart compared her to Saddam Hussein’ as their strapline for commentary on her appearance – in other words, they were relying on people not checking the actual show for what was really said, but just take the commentariat’s word for it. It was very clear from the show that Stewart had a great deal of warmth for her as a guest – and far from being misrepresented by the show’s website (which had initially billed her as a comedienne), she was funny…and also promoted Scotland extensively, even announcing that she had secured Jon Stewart’s agreement to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe next year. Even when she is going out there to get grilled on political chatshows, Nicola is still procuring ‘investment’ in Scotland…what an absolute star. Perhaps even funnier was her modest assessment of her performance on the show in her trip diary (published in today’s Sunday Herald): “it seems to go Ok”. Aye…naw bad, hen.

I watched at midday on Tuesday June 9th, as the crowd-funder for the legal case against Alistair Carmichael under the 1983 Representation of the People Act broke through its £60,000 target in just under two weeks. Supported by some 3,900 donors, the campaign launched by 4 Kirkwall residents in Orkney now has the required sum of money to take in a possible series of legal defense teams…although the LibDems are still refusing to say whether they will fund Carmichael’s defense. I find it heartening to see that the new politics in Scotland lives and extends beyond a simple general election – the expansion in support for independence (as well as the SNP) since the Referendum has been that of a Scottish people that takes particular exception to being openly lied to by its politicians – whether through the tissue-thin lie of ‘The Vow’, or through Carmichael happily lying about his involvement in and knowledge of the leak of the ‘FrenchGate’ memo, as a rather transparent strategy to not jeopardize his campaign to retain his Orkney/Shetland seat. Commentators might do well to recognise that this is not an ‘SNP witchhunt’, but something much broader and more publicly-owned. Regardless of what happens with the legal case (and I would cynically expect it to be unsuccessful, simply because of its direct opposition to the Establishment), or even if he secured a win in a rerun by-election, it is hard to see how Carmichael does not come out of this as a major liability for the LibDems – and the Union more broadly: his defense appears to be that his lies were “purely political”, therefore did not reflect on his character, and that he did not lie about when he first heard about the memo, he (wait for it) ‘misdated’ when he heard about it. I love that – hardly a robust opposition to the case, that will renew faith in him as a constituency MP of impeccable character.

That night, I watched Evan Davis interviewing Alex Salmond in the studio, reflecting on Nicola’s tour de force on the Daily Show, Davis putting it to Salmond that Nicola was “less divisive” than he was. I felt that Davis was slightly missing the point – Salmond was forced as party leader and First Minister to be the lightning rod of every anti-independence writer since 2008, and has a lot of baggage directly attached to him from that relentless six year onslaught. Nicola presents an alternative second figure to his – and the ‘second figure’ makes a huge psychological difference to the wide audience. It changes the dynamic (to use an analogy of the white American position during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s) from being either for or against Martin Luther King, to having a choice between King and Malcolm X. People could more easily support King after Malcolm came to the fore, as they could feel that they were still opposing Malcolm by supporting King; before that, they had no such choice, and it was easiest to simply go with mainstream opinion and oppose King. Similarly, Nicola does not have that legacy (yet) of the UK media constantly attacking her for years to build up this attendant baggage – so she becomes the ‘palatable’ option. I think this is demonstrated in a number of ways – not least in the YouGov post election poll, where (as noted by James Kelly in ‘Scot Goes Pop’): “The most intriguing finding is that English respondents are now much more supportive of independence than they were prior to the referendum. Across Britain, support has increased from 19% in mid-September to 30% now, and opposition has slumped from 65% to 51%.” I would suggest that a lot of that has to do with it not being the successfully demonised Salmond that is now the figurehead of Scotland and independence – but it is our equivalent of MLK – the palatable baggage-free alternative.

And then, the week ended yesterday with Jim Murphy’s departure as Labour leader. With his ‘reforms package’ doing nothing to propose autonomy from the London party (just more autonomy from the unions), there is little to say. He came, he failed, he left to make room for the next leader to repeat the same identical cycle in time for Holyrood next year – Labour’s resolute determination to neither listen nor learn is now simply boring. This morning on Andrew Marr’s show, Tessa Jowell, the Labour candidate for London Mayor was describing the London Mayoral Election on 5th May next year as the next real test for the Labour Party recovery. The Scottish Parliament elections are on the same day – but I can kind of see why Tessa and others are not holding their breath for any miracle to take place in that regard for Labour in Scotland in the next 11 months.

 

“The argument [from Labour] is that nationalism has replaced class as the driving force of Scottish politics. But here’s the thing; if that was the case then you wouldn’t expect to see such a close mapping between the size and nature of the swing from Labour to the SNP and the class profile of the seats where those swings were biggest. Put simply, SNP won biggest and most impressively wherever class politics are strongest. So could Labour perhaps at least consider that this is the most class politics-driven election since the 1980s? And should they not dwell on the possibility that they lost Scotland because they gave up on class politics in the Blair years?” (Robin McAlpine, May 8th 2015)

Mad Murph: Last Days on Futility Road

After some weeks of working on manuscripts and application forms while I procrastinated about doing another blog, I’m finally moved to write this evening, after politics has escalated over the last few days.

This is politics in the broadest sense: Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy has finally yielded and agreed to go despite winning a vote of confidence from his party – he’s just waiting to put his own spin on the direction Scottish Labour’s recovery should take before he leaves. Appropriately enough, given Murphy’s inability to stop using footballing metaphors, someone equally unassailable – Sepp Blatter – having won his own ‘vote of confidence’ at the weekend, has also just an hour ago announced that he was standing down. I queried the announcement on FaceBook, asking what the reasoning behind such a decision could be, unless perhaps the sponsors Coca Cola and MacDonalds had exerted pressure on him to go – simple, replied a friend of mine: I bribed him to go.

Football, as they say, is a funny old game. As much as Murphy’s tireless football metaphors defined his leadership of Scottish Labour, so the allegations of corruption became synonymous with Sepp Blatter’s leadership of FIFA. It therefore seemed appropriate that Blatter’s departure (I’m goin’ – just no’ straight away) mirrored Murphy’s, ironically after both won their respective ‘votes of confidence.

In the run-up to the General Election last month, Murphy painted a dystopian future, invoking that old chestnut of the volatile oil resource and an accompanying apocalypse, under the rising spectre of an SNP bloc being elected to Westminster…a doomed fantasy which was ultimately less-convincing than George Miller’s current futuristic cinema outing, as far as the electorate was concerned. He campaigned on a series of scare stories that were not only reminiscent of those deployed by his identical backroom crew of MacDougall and McTernan during the Better Together fiasco last year, but also in direct opposition to public opinion on those very issues. Full fiscal autonomy was not a turn-off to the electorate (47% supporting it with only 33% opposed and 19% Don’t Knows), 60% supporting the football offensive behaviour act and 70% supporting the alcohol ban at football matches. 80.4% of Scots want another Referendum, with 58.6% wanting it in the next ten years, so presenting a second referendum as a bogeyman was likely to be similarly unsuccessful in terms of making inroads into the rising SNP powerbase.

And, hardest of all, Jim Murphy was up against Nicola Sturgeon. Never mind her well-recorded popularity in Scotland -during the last week of campaigning, Murphy’s popularity ratingwas at -35 next to Nicola’s +56 – TNS’s poll of 1,200 people in England gave her +33, the highest rating they have EVER recorded for a party leader.

Murphy had a mountain of trust to recover in around 5 months before last month’s Westminster routing, and although – as Andrew Tickell noted – he was probably the wrong man to work that particular miracle over that time frame, prospects seem little easier in the run-up to May 2016’s Holyrood election, with the likelihood of Sturgeon still being in post, and more limited funds than Scottish Labour has been used to in almost a century, to support their forthcoming campaign. Not only from the reduced party membership in Scotland: SNP’s Trade Union Group membership at over 15,000 now exceeds the total claimed membership of Labour in Scotland, and the unions are finally making noises about withdrawing their unconditional support for a party that has not looked remotely like protecting working people whilst in government since the 1970s. UNITE is the Labour Party’s biggest funder, with £1 million, UNISON the second, donating half that amount. There are now moves within UNITE to devolve its structure, and thus make separate (devolved) decisions over whom it supports politically, which could have repercussions for Labour’s campaign for Holyrood, given moves within Scottish members of the union to distance themselves from Jim Murphy and Scottish Labour. The motion is coming up to UNITE’s conference in July, proposing the concept of ‘Home Rule for Scotland’s Unions’, and in the absence of Scottish Labour looking like returning to its roots enough to appease union activists, it will be interesting to see what support this idea has without Murphy’s presence to effectively goad it along. Labour is no longer the party of working people in Scotland (although we can debate how long that might have actually been true for, or otherwise), and it is by default that the SNP have quietly picked up that discarded mantle, as part and parcel of becoming the party of Scotland. The SNP appears to have worked the trick of becoming the party of everyone in Scotland – primarily through the combination of the Referendum and the wondrously catastrophic mismanagement of the result by the Union parties, which revealed a more common cause than had been suspected, uniting us (50.2% of the electorate is no mean feat) as never before.

Once again you have to feel for whomsoever Jim’s replacement will be. Does Ken Macintosh really want to stand for the Scottish Labour leadership against deputy leader Kezia Dugdale right now, bearing in mind his constituency as an Eastwood MSP overlaps significantly with Jim Murphy’s ultimately fatal East Renfrewshire Westminster constituency? A second sipper from that bitter Eastwood chalice, if he is not careful…but it is hard to see how anyone would be keen to be piloting another turbocharged Pursuit Special down Scottish Labour’s futility road to yet another polling station again any time soon.

Murphy has espoused the need to guide the reassessment of the party prior to the conference at which he will resign – an offer which seems to be being resisted in some sectors of the Scottish Labour executive – but if they have the same mantra of ‘we have listened, we have learned, we have changed’ as they always had in their many leaders over the last few years, then one feels that it is fairly certain that they will have done nothing of the sort. I think it was Paul Kavanagh that noted: “It’s time the party stopped confusing a ‘period of reflection’ with looking at itself in the mirror and thinking it is gorgeous.”

Anything short of a break from Labour’s Brewer’s Green headquarters in London will not be enough to satisfy their former electorate in Scotland, especially as the party of the south summons its energies for yet another determined jump to the right again, almost as though it wanted to spite its former Scottish members. There is a mockingly hollow quality to the self-styled ‘party of devolution’ title that the Labour party once claimed for itself these days – but Labour has to devolve its Scottish branch if it wants to have any chance of becoming credible in Scotland again.

Scottish politics needs an opposition – but whether Labour can make itself fit for that role (the Scottish Conservatives voteshare dropping last month, despite what is generally agreed to be a good campaign by Ruth Davidson) by next May remains to be seen.

 

“But the evidence is mounting: for Scottish Labour, Murphy is the wrong man, with the wrong message, at the wrong time.” (Lallands Peat Worrier, Andrew Tickell)

Slain in the Ratings: The death of another Kennedy, and yet another assassination attempt

There has been a – deliberate, naturally – obfuscation regarding what is so objectionable about Alastair Carmichael, sole remaining Scottish LibDem MP, and former Scottish Secretary.

True, he comes across as a buffoon. He is also an audacious hypocrite, calling for the abolition of the position of Secretary of State for Scotland, because he regarded it as pointless, before taking the ministerial salary for himself…and allegedly having forced dismissal of his LibDem predecessor Michael Moore in order to achieve that end. And as for Carmichael’s cynical leak of a note alleging that David Cameron was Nicola’s preferred choice of Prime Minister to Ed Miliband? He did not even realise that saying ‘I did not read the memo’ does not give him plausible deniability – it instead adds to his buffoonery, giving him a generous helping of incompetence.

The subsequent ethics investigation launched by Kathryn Hudson, the parliamentary standards commissioner, seemed to be a surprise to many, and perhaps raises some doubts as to whether a further police inquiry might also go ahead. Defenders of the Union have been desperate to tie Alex Salmond into this argument – ‘but Salmond lied about advice over EU status, so it is no different’, they say – omitting to note that Salmond submitted himself to a standards investigation into the matter, was fully exonerated, and did so BEFORE he stood as an MP for Gordon…with a 14% swing to the SNP in that constituency delivering him as their MP. A little different, in terms of openness and transparency, then…indeed, some might argue that the fact that the swing was 14% as opposed to in the twenties or thirties, is an indication that he suffered a setback in the polls, in comparison to the bulk of the seats taken by the SNP on Charles Kennedy’s “Night of the Long Sgian Dubhs”.

Carmichael not only authorized the release of a memo to happen within the purdah period of the election campaign, but he denied knowing anything about it, allowing the idea to grow that it was some junior civil servant that had done it…similar to the CBI’s excuses for accidentally coming out as campaigning for a ‘No’ vote in the Referendum last year. Except, as with the CBI, under closer scrutiny it became clear that that decision was authorised by several senior members as opposed to the office coffee-gopher. Alastair personally authorised the memo being sent out, so willingly not only tried to damage another political party’s campaign (by saying they would quite like his coalition prime minister to stay in power), but then refused to be honest and take the consequences of possible damage himself before he defended his own seat in the election. Orkney and Shetland had noted a swing towards the SNP amongst council places, and Shetland voted SNP last month, leaving Orkney to vote Carmichael back with a majority in the 800s, down from over 10,000 at the previous general election in 2010. Validation – yet again – of how willing the LibDems have been, to lie while in government (the memo which he read before authorising the leak was dated March 6th, some weeks before parliament dissolved and he effectively ceased to be a minister), not just for tuition fees.

The ‘FrenchGate’ memo was discredited within hours, and seen as a desperate kneejerk response to Nicola Sturgeon’s tour-de-force the previous evening on the Leaders’ Debate, where UK-wide audiences voted her as the winner of all seven parties…including the incumbent prime minister and the leader of the opposition. And one cannot but help see that same desperation to attack opponents of the Union at all costs, in the willingness for critics to attack Alex Salmond yesterday over his generous comments about Charles Kennedy in the wake of his sad demise. Any opportunity for a bitter attempt to character assassinate Salmond is not to be missed by the general press, and so his observations that Kennedy’s heart was not really in the Better Together campaign are not presented as an attempt to rehabilitate a man so fondly regarded by the electorate, so that history does not consign him to being behind the curve of Scottish politics, but an attempt to ‘appropriate’ him as an independence advocate (see the actual quotes below). In truth, Salmond’s remarks may be over-generous, to those of us who remember Charles Kennedy being quoted some months ago as saying that no politician, journalist or academic had any clue as to why the losing ‘Yes’ parties were on a roll since the Referendum result – he may well have recognized that Better Together was damaging the support for the Union, but his bewilderment does not really fit with a man who was in touch any longer, and perceived what had happened over the previous 12 months in Scotland.

Accusations have been shamelessly hurled that Kennedy died because of something called ‘SNP Greed’ (I wonder, do they countenance the existence of the idea of ‘LibDem Greed’? Say, being prepared to lie as a Cabinet Minister in order to hold on to your own constituency salary?), therefore desperately trying to make the party that was the people’s choice in not just last month’s General Election, but also the 2011 Holyrood election, and even won the popular vote for the first time in the Scottish council elections, somehow responsible for his demise….except that who you are blaming with that attack is clearly that same electorate. The voters chose – and you cannot blame the other political parties for being a more palatable choice. Masquerading your attack on the electorate’s choice under the guise of it being an attack on ‘the party’ that defeated him still damns the voters: if anyone, Kennedy was executed by his constituents. Still determined to be behind that political curve, in the face of these three plebiscites, Unionists should take greater care of whom they launch attacks on – and whose death they attempt to bitterly exploit in an attempt to give their existence meaning.

And I cannot but think that the venom of their comments are yet another attempt to distract and deflect from their own wounded compatriot – Carmichael, the LibDem Scottish panda, still trying to limp out of the harsh and unrelenting limelight.

 

“In terms of the independence campaign, I don’t think his heart was in the Better Together campaign…His heart would have been in a pro-European campaign – that’s the campaign that Charles would have engaged in heart and soul… As early as the beginning of last year, Charles was one of the first unionist politicians to realise that the result [in the Referendum] would be close and said publicly that he felt that the actions of the No campaign were contributing to this.” (excerpted from Alex Salmond’s tribute to Charles Kennedy)
“Don’t hate the media; become the media.” (Jello Biafra, Dead Kennedys)