(Still) Living in Interesting Times: Reinventing 2014 And All That?

I have taken some unintended time out since the last post – a couple of writing deadlines that got in the way while I was stuck out in China, and only really getting my head back above water now I am back in Scotland, at the time of the Chinese New Year.

This means that I will have missed both new year in Scotland and in China, which was not exactly my intention. The truth is, that when I was planning my 2014, I had not intended to be in China for Xmas. As with many – although not in any way regarding a Yes victory as a foregone conclusion – I had thought about the sort of Hogmanay that we would have had as one huge ‘New Yes 2015’ party, ringing out joyously across a land set for a new beginning. When the result came in, it was clear that not only was that not going to happen, but the reality of the poverty of the smaller regular celebrations in contrast to what could have been, would be a somewhat sad celebration to witness.

My friend Antonio stopped me with a grin as I was in mid-flow in Kunming at the start of February, trying to explain something to him about new year in Scotland: “Hey, Man – c’mon – you guys voted to be English, remember?” I hesitate, then grin back – it is hard not to agree with his perspective. It reminded me of my friend, who joined the SNP after the Referendum, as the only party with any chance of making a real difference: ‘I was there the day the strength of Albannach failed…’, he proclaimed on the 19th. (As a scientist, he has since left the SNP because of the issue of creationism teaching.)

That said, although the days of the festive season passed fairly anonymously in China, it was not entirely possible to avoid the reality of what was happening in the outside world. The shops more and more gear up for Xmas, just like any western city, and for two weeks beforehand, the university where I work was playing an arrangement of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ on the tannoy. Naturally, they knew nothing of the roots of the music – ‘it is Scottish? We know the title as something like ‘The Snowflower’….’. Well, I guess Scots was never going to be that easy to translate into Mandarin.

The traditional New Year question holds true, in any language: what, if anything, has changed, as 2014 recedes? Where do we stand now in this Year of the Goat or the Sheep (depending which region of China you are in)?

There were many ‘Review of the Year’ articles that I looked over at the end of 2014, that attempted as usual to answer just that question, all of which had some degree of resonance to them. But the most striking for me was a short paragraph by Stuart Campbell – still the press’s favourite ‘demon of choice’ in the absence of Alex Salmond – which I reproduce in full as my ‘quote du jour’ below: “As far as the wider goal of independence goes, we’re persuaded by the argument that Yes had to lose this time round.” Whoa. Really? The ‘Great Satan of Unionism’ says that?

The ‘need to lose’ seems a harsh conclusion from Campbell…were we the example to the others who come after our own struggle – so that they could see how we were bullied and lied to, as a warning that they might experience the same if they foolishly trusted their establishment governments? I would like to think that our example has thus encouraged the vote for Syriza, maybe even boosted Podemos support, through our sacrifice – going first, like the elder sibling, to endure the worst travails, so that the younger siblings can follow them in an easier trodden path.

That doesn’t mean that I would not prefer that we had reaped the rewards of that struggle ourselves, rather than merely serving as a cautionary tale to others.

I am not denying that I can see some benefits to the movement for Scottish self-determination in losing – as predicted, ‘Yes’ turned into the smug movement of ‘I told you so’ (The Party of I Told You So, or ‘Too Late to the Party’), as the Smith Commission unveiled its feeble offerings, with the usual suspects being pushed into the limelight to assert that the Vow had been delivered, and that being able to redesign the speed limit signs on Scottish roads had been EXACTLY the sort of sweeping new powers that the majority of the electorate had been seeking.

The wake of the result has of course seen SNP support (for both parliaments) and membership rise to fever-dream levels, with a combination of Yes voters becoming politicised into traditional activism, and I suspect more than a few Hangover and Conditional No voters becoming annoyed that they were so arrogantly and blatantly deceived. (Well, we did warn you…) This means that the base of agreement for independence has risen, with support for independence polling at its largest levels ever (up to 60%) – I am aware of course that people feel comfortable saying that now, when there is no threat of another Referendum, but bear in mind that is also true for the vast majority of the figures on support for independence going back to 1978 with IPSOS-MORI, so these numbers today are still perfectly valid and comparable.

In contrast, if we had scraped a win, the communications that have surfaced since the end of the campaign from Whitehall about Scottish independence not being allowed regardless of the result, play to the paranoid conspiracist in me – that we would not have been permitted, despite the vote, to achieve statehood. The oil prices (regardless of how irrelevant they are, as a mere sweetener to the Scottish economy that makes it healthier than the UK’s, and as something that could well have recovered by March 2016) would have been an excellent basis for a black media campaign – yup, even worse than the last one – designed to destabilise the Scottish Government. And if all else failed, and opinion polls started to see a waivering in public support…well, did we just avoid a repeat of January 1919, when the Westminster government sent in tanks to Glasgow and closed the local barracks?

Yeah, I know – hysteria on a par with ‘but you CAN’T have the pound!!’ – but as we appear to be such an invaluable resource, and Britain has a (contemporary) habit of sending in armies to countries with oil, I do not think that the scenario is too unthinkable, even (or especially) in this day and age.

I remember grimly deciding a few months before the vote that we would need a win of at least 5% – knowing the media odds were stacked against us, we could have added an effective additional 5-10% on to our ‘natural’ support base, once the propaganda campaign stopped after the vote. Except, of course – as we have seen – the propaganda would not have stopped – it would just have stepped up. Uncertain people would have had barrel loads of anxiety heaped upon them – they would have felt that ‘Yes’ had strongarmed the nation into a decision before it was ‘really’ ready to do so, and agree to any policy from Westminster that would have headed off the responsibility of independence. As Eddi Reader pointed out, everybody has to make their own journey themselves to get to the conclusion that self-determination will be what makes the difference.

I am always wary of reinvention – sometimes that psychological need to reprocess and represent seems more like pathological denial, a form of callus to grow over an open wound: your heart may be broken, and your mind is thrashing around, desperately trying to find factors about which it can say ‘ah, y’know? We’d never have worked out anyway…’ Sometimes it is too easy to give in to that as a justification for failure – to persuade yourself that you never really wanted to succeed in that after all – and you just had a narrow escape. The thing that makes me fear that I am doing that, is that I am unsure that we will ever be ‘permitted’ a second referendum – and that was almost certainly our one chance (which we were never supposed to have in the first place)…so subsequently building voter support in such a scenario becomes meaningless. Were we politically educated enough before as a people to see through the transparent fiction of the Vow? Is that embittering experience what it takes to build the consensual move forward towards a new Scotland – the recent memory of being blatantly lied to like children? Perhaps…and to an extent, I hope that that is really the case, as it is hard to otherwise find a silver lining from the cloud of September 19th.

So, ‘Kung hei fat choi’ – and we continue to live in ‘Interesting Times’. I myself am somewhat comforted by the words of one correspondent: “It will all be OK in the end. If it’s not OK it’s not the end.”


“As far as the wider goal of independence goes, we’re persuaded by the argument that Yes had to lose this time round. A 51% victory followed by the collapse in the oil price – irrelevant as it actually is, as the factors causing it won’t be applicable by the time Scotland would actually have been independent – would have unleashed unholy chaos and the prospect of some truly dark events. As it stands, things are set fair for the subject to be revisited sooner than anyone would have thought this time last year.” (Rev Stuart Campbell, 31/12/2014)


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)

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)

BarnettMax, Fishfood & DevoCon 2014: Sins of ComMission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No? Not trendy enough? Oh, well…

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

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


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

Forever Autumn: Electoral Counts and Accountability

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Jim, Margo and Me: Starstruck, and Holding on for Three More Years

I was talking to Jim Sillars this week….would be a great way to start a blogpost – but a little context might be better rather than a fraudulent attempt at name-dropping. 🙂

I first had contact with Jim when he was Glasgow Govan MP, and I was working for the University of Edinburgh Students’ Representative Council. Within the SRC there was what was called the ‘External Committee’ – basically it was the political section, for international or more national political issues, so we organized campaigns against student loans as well as apartheid. A standard fixture was ‘International Week’, where something ill-defined (largely whatever the External Convenor wanted it to be – if they wanted it to happen at all) could be organized by the External Committee for a given week. As I have written before, I had become particularly politically aware around 1988 with the twentieth anniversary programmes on Channel 4 dealing with the Prague Spring, Danny Cohn-Bendit in Paris, and other related issues – which subsequently fed into my interest in Croatian self-determination. So I wanted to hold an International Week that would reflect these interests, and I arranged a variety of speakers to talk about different political aspects – including some active for the campaign for Ukrainian independence. I saw Scottish independence very much in the context of these political events, so having seen Jim Sillars speak at the University before, during which he talked about the idea that devolution had never been a road to independence for any nation (see earlier post on Sillars, Synergy…), I saw it as an opportunity to subversively place Scottish independence within an International Week agenda, and had received his agreement to speak during the week of events.

It was summer 1990, and with only a few days to go to International Week, I took a call in the office. It was Jim, saying that he was going to have to cancel his talk, because Westminster had been recalled due to the imminent Gulf War, and as SNP foreign affairs spokesperson, he really had to be present that night for the debate. I laughed at the idea that a puny little Students’ Representative Council talk might even hope to compete with such a matter, and told him that of course I understood, and wished him luck in the debate. We did not reschedule, and did not speak again.

I came very close to meeting his wife once – but suffered from a ‘fanboy paralysis’ which I deeply regret. It was the week after the first Yes September Rally, in Princes Street Gardens in 2012. I was working in the Scottish Parliament (long boring story about paving stones and fossil fish, believe it or not) and was just exiting the private area back into the public lobby, when I realised that there was a figure following me. As I made way for her and held the door, I realized it was the legend that is Margo MacDonald. I had this surge inside me – I wanted to tell her how much I had loved her speech the previous week, where she had urged people to just each convince one other person to become Yes (she also noted Frankie Boyle’s alternative message, that each person should convince 10,000 people…), and we would win this at a trot, how she had talked about the importance of everyone living together afterwards no matter the result, and how nice it was to be on “the side of the angels” for a change. But I completely dried up – nothing came out. As she walked past, she looked up at me from the walking sticks, and I saw this gentle smile cross her face. She could see my expression, and I fancy that she saw exactly what I was going through. The moment passed.

Fast forward to this week, and I was walking up North Bridge, when I recognised a figure standing outside the former ‘Scotsman’ offices. I nodded and smiled at him as I walked past, knowing that he would get a lot of such contact, and made to keep walking, rather than take up any of his time. And then I stopped. I had spoken to Jim Sillars before on a 1 to 1 basis – maybe that entitled me to approach him again. (And I know I was thinking of that much regretted missed moment with Margo.)

I walked back to him, apologising for the intrusion, and gave a cursory summary of where he would not remember me from, almost 25 years earlier. I asked him if he still believed that devolution was not a viable route to independence, and he averred that he did – perhaps, in a way, the No vote had vindicated his position entirely. We talked briefly about the prospects for independence, and – like so many others – he hinted that there might be a chance for a rerun of the referendum in around three years time. “They’ve given so many hostages to fortune”, he said – that it will be more difficult to fob off the people of Scotland with not delivering, I interjected? He agreed, and I was about to question him further, when his lunch appointment showed up, and so I excused myself and left.

And there I felt such a strange upwelling of emotion as I walked away up towards South Bridge – a combination of the bitter regret about not speaking to Margo, a sense of wanting to express my regret in some way that maybe ‘we’ let her down…all mixed in with a final emergence of sadness about the result. There I was in my last post, proclaiming to have not had the obligatory ‘wee greet’ after the Referendum result, and no sooner had I posted it than…..well. That was definitely the closest that I have come since the 18th.

But, more interestingly, Jim had moved so much further on than I had. He is part of the movement going forward over these next 6 months – part of the group that Westminster seems keen to nervously urge to ‘forget about independence’, just as SNP membership goes over 80,000, and the Hope Over Fear Rally takes place in Glasgow today.
As has been said by so many, we have three years to a possible rerun, to try and turn around the ‘Conditional Nos’, and avoid repeating the same defeat. We cannot expect ‘No’ to run as execrable a campaign the second time around – we can’t be so lucky – or they be so arrogant – twice.

I remember watching the leaves start to heavily fall on the morning of the vote as I stood outside a polling station – a Caledonian Autumn may have come, but there is a chance that maybe Spring will come again soon, even if we are just about to head into a bitter winter.


“We’ve got one more chance” (Jim Sillars, October 2014)

‘Conditional Nos’, and the Rougher Wooing of a Second Honeymoon: The Extreme Economic Risk of Scottish Dependence, with a London Set on Expansion

I cannot claim – as many male commentators have done – to have wept since the result, in either minor or major fashion. But I do have ‘moments’ – times when that sense of loss drifts unbidden into my mind, and I drift quietly into reflections on how different things could be right now. In extremely short order after the result was declared, Cameron announced slashing cuts to Scottish public funding, Osborne announced an even higher level of welfare cuts than had previously been declared, and the glorious British Empire announced it was flying off to bomb yet another country, yet again increasing our priority as a target for would-be terrorist attacks. And we are dragged along with it: Scotland’s own Velvet Revolution – withheld; Robin McAlpine’s Butterfly Rebellion (http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2014/09/14/the-butterfly-rebellion/) ‘denied’. No matter how inevitable independence for Scotland may well now be, it is galling and depressing to see The Path Not Chosen diverging further and further from our increasingly bleak immediate future – albeit on lines that were entirely predicted (see previous posts) – and I wonder how emaciated and husk-like the eventually discarded Scotland will finally be. With each new announcement, I catch myself drifting off to the thought of ‘we could have been heading out of this incompetent mess by now’.

Some Scottish voters (allegedly 25% of those that voted No) may have thought that they were giving a ‘conditional No’, on the basis of some enhanced devolution option being touted as ‘The Vow’ – however elsewhere, in strict interpretation of the answer to the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country’, the No vote is tantamount to a centuries-late, retrospective democratic validation of the Union: to continue the tired metaphor of the relationship or marriage in trouble, a ‘renewal of vows’, as it were. And although the ‘rough wooing’ with political and trade sanctions against Scotland that coerced the Union into originally taking place meant Scotland went through a grim time with its sociopathic and hostile neighbour, the prospects for what follows now (a ‘second honeymoon’ perchance?) looks to be even grimmer.

And it seems that – for one party in this marriage at least – a Retail Therapy Binge is called for. We all knew the ongoing costs that Scotland was having to subsidise Westminster for – apart from the more than £120 million every 5 years that Scotland pays to support both chambers of the Westminster Parliament itself, the London costs to Scotland also include the London Supersewer (£500 million); the M25 upgrade (£600 million); London Crossrail (£1.6 billion); HS2 phase 1 London-Birmingham (£5 billion). In the offing were a further £22 billion that Scotland was due to pay, with HS2 phase 2 Leeds-Manchester (£1.7 billion) and a London Orbital Railway costing a further twenty. The latter element was part of the London Infrastructure Plan 2050, and a few days before the Referendum, London announced its shopping list for the other elements.

In an overall projection that argues that London will need to double the amount that it spends on its infrastructure by 2025, the range of additional train systems including the South London Metro and the Outer London Orbital, replaced water and electricity networks, extra green space, houses, schools, colleges and rolling out 5G mobile all come to a grand total of £1.3 trillion. On past form, that would mean Scotland paying over £100 billion to deliver these projects…at the same time as Scottish public funding is slashed, and (the most likely outcome of any Westminster ‘deal’) the Scottish Government has to start paying for an extra tier of civil servants in order to collect some tax revenues.

That ‘No’ vote will cost us financially, and cost us severely: with poverty levelsin Scotland already around 20%, the UK deficit continues to be over £100 billion year on year, and tax receipts (outside of the housing bubble) are not increasing, so it is to be expected that the projected cuts will increase in savagery if some real economic recovery does not miraculously turn up soon.

We may be heading for a Caledonian Winter, but let us hope that the opportunity and chance of that Caledonian Spring will come again.


“When you put all of these together, there’s very little left in the union except sentiment, history and family.” (Sir Tom Devine, historian)