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)

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May the Fourth Referendum Be With You: Stall Wars, and the Return of the Rebel Alliance

I flew back from working in China over the weekend, getting into Edinburgh Airport early Saturday evening. A day to chill on Sunday (and briefly adjourn to BrewDog), and I was checking if the Stall was back on Monday.

Yes, the Stall – the one on the Meadows for ‘Yes Marchmont’ that I had helped staff throughout August in the run-up to the Referendum last year. I knew that there were plans to get something in place regularly for the run-up to the election, but was unsure how well those plans had been realised. Sure enough I got a response back – it was running in the afternoon, 2 till 4.

So I went back to The Meadows with some trepidation as to what I would find.

The Yes stall was always staffed by a disparate group from different parties. Last year, following the result, there had been talk of parties standing under a Yes Alliance banner in this General Election – but that was before Johann Lamont became the story with her stinging departure as head of Scottish Labour at the end of October, and launched the SNP’s stratospheric rise to switch its 20-odd% position in the polls with Labour’s 40+% in Scotland. (It is somewhat ironic that Lamont’s departure was allegedly precipitated by Murphy – who ironically now holds the poisoned chalice to his own shouting and protesting lips.) At that point, with such a clear leading party, the idea of an alliance seemed less obvious – in particular for the SNP. It was no longer as though they were a minor party in the run-up to Westminster that could help others in a similar position, and vice versa, as proposed by the tactical voting Unionist advocates: suddenly they were the clear and logical primary ‘Yes’ party in every seat in Scotland, to which votes should be lent.

So, in the absence of an a-party ‘Yes’ stall, were the same faces still there?

Reassuringly – ‘Yes’. A couple of Green activists were not only in evidence, but one of them was actually organising the stall…which was 50% SNP, 50% Green/Scottish Socialists/CND. Non-aligned Kay was there, retired ‘Faslane Frances’ from the Western Isles, Paddy – it was good to see. I felt all fingers and thumbs – all those valuable ‘skills’ of responding to individual questions while deploying badges and asking if any children wanted balloons…those assets needed to be renurtured, and it does not look like there will be time to do that. Rain scheduled for Tuesday, meant only Wednesday remained as a stall option before the day.

Amongst the encouraging numbers of visitors regularly coming to take and display material – stickers to adorn a ‘Revolution’ brand bike, a balloon and badge for the kid riding pillion behind its mother – there was an interesting issue that raised itself, perhaps relevant for that initial broader question of the proposed ‘Yes Alliance’ platform for the vote. It was raised by one somewhat aggressive (?)student individual who approached the older women on the table to challenge the presence of ‘Yes’ imagery as an indicator that there was a secret agenda for a second referendum. As his targets began to answer, he interrupted (in classic troll, Murphy-aping style) with other questions – what about the ‘decision for a generation?’ Was that a lie? I started to answer that I did not believe that it was Nicola that had said that, but Alex – and I understood that was the reason why he had resigned after the result, to free up the possibility of as many further referenda as were necessary. The troll looked confused – I don’t think he expected to be challenged about Nicola, let alone have Alex’s resignation presented in that fashion – then an SNP man moved in to start insistently offering him a leaflet, which he kept refusing, until he moved on.

Of course, it isn’t really a ‘second’ referendum – it would be the fourth one on constitutional change in a generation. The first was in 1978 for the Scottish Assembly, the second the 1997 one for the Scottish Parliament, the third was last September on independence. And perhaps that is a more realistic way to look at it.

In the wake of this encounter, it became evident that there had been a couple of similar (if less aggressive) queries earlier that day. We debated, and decided that it might be simpler – if the presence of ‘Yes’ symbolism was being deliberately misconstrued as a sign of a (poorly) hidden agenda – simply not to display such iconography. But this particular species of attack relies on criticism of ‘the neverendum’, that idea of ‘oh how terrible it is’ that the question was ever asked once in over 300 years, just think how it paralyses the Scottish Government while that happens. It is predicated on the idea that any Scottish Government so committed to such a referendum would just be doing that and nothing else…when actually the reverse appears to be true. While the majority government preparing for the Referendum, the SNP were an extremely dynamic government in office, very much showing how Labour and the LibDems should have been doing it in the first years, and effective and efficient in governance and legislation. Perhaps actually being in office to fight for a single imagination-capturing political issue as the main focus of your time in government should actually be obligatory, if not mandatory, because it is a concrete reminder of why you are in office – and it stops holding office being simply power for its own sake, a lesson that Labour have failed to learn during their stewardship of Scotland.

But it did make me reflect on how problematic it might have been, had the SNP not become such an emphatic frontrunner, and the Yes Alliance had indeed been launched for the General Election: it would have been impossible to deflect the accusation of a hidden agenda – although in the immediate wake of September’s result, many of us were admittedly fired up for exactly that – a second independence one straight away. Under Nicola, we keep the powder dry, and restrict the question to manifestoes for Holyrood only – and if support then delivers a system-beating majority for the SNP again, then a second referendum will happen. In contrast, for Westminster, Nicola Sturgeon is now – following her astonishing individual success on the televised leaders’ debates – campaigning credibly as a UK politician, talking about policies for the whole UK as a result of the potential influence of the SNP on a Labour government – not just Scotland. Even the Labour-supporting Sunday Mail and Sunday People delicately came out in support of Nicola at the weekend….That all builds a perception that does much to ameliorate the anti-SNP (arguably anti-Scottish) propaganda distributed south of the border during the Referendum by the press. It also hints at the possibility of SNP-allied candidates standing in England in the future. Previously unthinkable, that is indeed an exciting prospect.

The Fourth Referendum spectre might well have been the negative aspect of the Yes alliance concept, and certainly for where we have got to now – without at all disputing that we would welcome another one as soon as practicable – it would be a distraction. We have other more immediate fish to fry. I took two new campaign badges from the stall, one in ironically UKIP purple saying ‘Hey, where’s my powers?’ The other one was in Labour red – ‘Labour No More’.

I’m keeping that one – with crossed fingers – in hope for Friday morning.

 

“Scotland reloaded appears to be a nation prepared to challenge the establishment in all its guises, to shine a light, to demand and to do different, to call for and create change, seemingly content to create uncertainty in doing so. We are a country suddenly confident in our choices and challenges. Gaun wirsels.” (Kate Higgins, Women for Independence, 20/3/2015)

Online or Face-to-Face?: Different Method, Same Result

Travelling just now, so just time to do a quick post – in fact,many may be relieved to hear that this will be a shorter one than usual, given some recent ‘accidental epic length’ posts…anyway, news is coming in that Nicola has – again – triumphed in a leaders’ debate, with Survation giving her some excellent post-debate results. As there is only one poll in so far, I’m going to wait and see if any more get released before I write that up more fully…and also see if the Establishment puts out another smear story  within 24 hours like they did after her success in the first Leaders’ Debate. 🙂

What I was going to mention, briefly, was a TNS poll that came out this week, giving Westminster voting intentions in Scotland as SNP 52%, Labour 24%. You might say that these are just ‘same old same old’ figures, pretty much matching IPSOS-MORI in both January and the now legendary October poll that signalled the start of the SNP surge. But TNS is different – they conduct their polling on a face-to-face basis. As James Kelly notes, almost all other polling companies use a component of online polling for their Scotland-wide figures. Now, you can see the possible problems there, as your panel is self-selecting, and therefore usually atypically politically engaged.

Face-to-face interviews are a slightly different business – for one thing, it takes a lot more footwork and time to do your sampling of 968 people…so some of TNS’s work was done before ‘FrenchGate’ occurred. This is important, because TNS’s last poll in March gave the SNP a lead of only 16 points – now they are showing 28 points over Labour. Does that mean that the real growth is larger, and they have missed part of it in their polling?.Only time will tell – it will be interesting to see how the figures change – and with rumours that Lord Ashcroft is using Populus to do a third poll, with 9 constituencies across Scotland, that could mean anothr big (and – possibly – illuminating…) announcement in under a week’s time, if he follows form and announces on Tuesday.

Other results from the poll were fairly mundane, showing Conservatives on 13%(-1), Libdems 6% (+3), Scottish Greens 3%(-1). But the increase in the demographic share for the SNP is also interesting, not only showing 71% support amongst the expected 18-34 year olds, but also 57% of 35-54 year olds, leaving the always difficult 55 and overs on 40%…which is still not be sneezed at. In the TNS sample, the most popular hung parliament option remains Labour-SNP on 25% (including almost a third of all Labour voters).

Oh, and when I said that only one other polling company apart from TNS does not rely on a self-selecting online panel for its Scotland wide polling? That company is IPSOS-MORI.

Yes…the other 52%/24% company.

 

“Particularly difficult to understand is the hysteria surrounding the suggestion that an anti-Tory majority could work together to lock out David Cameron from Number 10. Such a result might not give the majority of people the government they voted for…but it would mean the majority of people would not be forced to accept a government they specifically voted against.” (Richard Walker, 2/4/2015)

Green Interlude 2 – The Green Surges and the UK Shrugs those ‘Broad Shoulders’

As some of you might be aware, the SNP were not the only post-Referendum ‘Yes’-beneficiaries: from their 1,700 members in September, they achieved 9,000 by the end of January, quite possibly making them a larger political party than Scotland’s secretive Labour membership figures. In spite of this, STV took Ofcom’s advice and did not allow them to participate in their Scottish Leaders Debate (although the BBC, the following night, presumably acting from the same Ofcom advice, did). This has also meant a huge demographic change for them, with 40% of the party being under 30. Consequently, they are fielding their largest ever number of candidates, standing in 32 out of 59 Scottish constituencies, and polling ahead of the LibDems 3%. A Survation poll for the Daily Record in February also showed them riding high for Holyrood next year, as prospectively the third largest party, with 13% regional or list MSPs (the same poll in June last year showed them on 10%), which could equate to an increase from their current 2 to 15 MSPs, ahead of the Conservatives on 14 MSPs.

They have a broad range of policies, of course, not ‘simply’ a narrow vision of the environment (which is more what other political parties tend to have, with the environment neatly boxed off from other policy areas, not seeing it as interconnected). The Scottish Greens are proposing a wealth tax not that contentious, as many European countries already have such a tax in place, eg Spain, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, and 48% of Scots think that taxes and spending should increase, and that the government should redistribute money from the rich to the poor. Similarly, they argue for a 10 pound an hour minimum wage. These policies are, of course, designed to address the UK’s horrendous equality deficit: of the 34 members of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the UK has 13th highest level of average household income, but is also the 7th most unequal country of the group.

Aside from this, they act as a very valuable conscience to the SNP government, particularly when it comes to managing the energy mix transition, changing from still supporting fossil fuel industries (in particular coal) towards something sustainable. This is not all about ‘doing the right thing’, either – as Scotland pushes more into the greener energy sectors, it develops international world-leading expertise to put as at the forefront of the next global energy phase.

This came sharply into focus recently, with the fate of the Longannet coal-powered station. Run by Scottish Power, it is scheduled to close in March 2016, after failing to get a contract for 15 million from the National Grid. This has grim consequences for the local economy, with 270 jobs lost and an additional 1,250 jobs supported. As the average age is 50, and there are few local opportunities, it is highly likely that this will mean another thousand adding to the jobless total. Longannet was not going to last forever – it already looked as though it was going to fall foul of new EU regulations in 2020, but the loss of this contract means that its life expectancy has suddenly been cut brutally short by 4 years. In 2013, Scotland’s other coal-fired power station (also owned by Scottish Power) at Cockenzie was closed. Although Scottish Power retains the rights to build a replacement, it seems likely that neither Longannet nor Cockenzie will be replaced – primarily due to the charging costs that have to be paid for connecting to the National Grid.

Despite a recent overhaul of these connection charges, Scottish energy generators produce 12% of the UK’s energy supplies, but pay 35% of the charges, despite in 2013 exporting 28% of their output. The reason for this is that the National Grid bases its connection charges on proximity to ‘centres of demand’ – which actually means ‘London’. As – apparently – the central belt of Scotland is actually a barren wasteland devoid of people. So, located in Scotland, Longannet has to pay 40 million a year (it would have been 50 million, without the recent pricing overhaul) to keep Longannet connected. In contrast, a similar power station in the south of England only pays 4 million, and power stations near London are actually paid a premium TO connect to the National Grid.

This charging system is a UK framework, with the transmission charging methodology primarily introduced to Scotland by Labour in 2005, that penalises Scottish generators and discourages investment. Keith Anderson, CEO of Scottish Power, has argued that the current charging system was a major barrier for future investment in Scotland, for either renewing Longannet or replacing Cockenzie: “No other country in Europe has this unfair locational-based charging system for power stations, and we need a fairer system for Scotland…Scotland needs a mixture of generation types, but there needs to be a fair and level playing field with the rest of the UK in order to develop new power generation in Scotland”. As Douglas Chapman, SNP candidate for Dunfermline and West Fife, put it: “The question is where are these ‘broad shoulders’ [of the UK Government] when the workers at Longannet need them?”

It can be argued that this closure is not without national implications. Built in 1970, Longannet at the time was the biggest power station in Europe. Longannet produces about a quarter of Scotland’s power, which has raised concerns that this closure may require importing electricity, as it now leaves the UK operating on only a 2% extra capacity for the coming winter. The imported coal that produces almost 40% of Britain’s electricity comes from Russia – a country that we are not exactly on the best of speaking terms with, right now.

However the Scottish Greens see this clearly as part of the transition from dirty energy to clean energy, as we enter what appears to be the last year of coal-powered energy in Scotland. Energy capacity in Scotland itself is 11GW, while peak capacity is only 5.4GW – which means we can well afford the loss of fossil and nuclear plants that are scheduled to be decommissioned over the coming years.

A bitter irony is that the closure of Longannet was announced in the month of the 30th anniversary of the end of the miners’ strike (NUM, SCEBTA, COSA), with only 100 members left in the National Union of Mineworkers in Scotland today. Thatcher’s approach to the coal industry put 600 years of coal out of reach through crippling the industry, purely to curtail union power. It has been argued that it was the failure of the trade union leadership to support the miners that led directly to the ease of privatisation of so many basic services under Thatcher’s government. This means that the UK now has the most expensive provision costs of transport, water and energy across the whole of Europe.

Which, with the failure of privatization of utilities to deliver those much-promised ‘cheaper prices’, sort of leads rather naturally to another Green policy.

Nationalisation of utility ownership.

 

“We have the green surge [in England]. They’ve got the green tsunami up there [in Scotland].” Natalie Bennett, Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales)

Cameron’s Dilemma: 5 Years – that’s all we got? (with no apologies to David Bowie)

No exit polls for the two Scottish debates this week, allowing anyone to claim victory (although the two online polls I quoted earlier this week said differently), even Michael Gove emphatically arguing that Ruth Davidson won the first. The next debate will be on April 16th, which will be like the Big Seven Leaders’ Debate last week, except minus the actual government representatives of the PM (the Conservative leader Cameron) and Clegg (the LibDem leader and deputy PM).

In terms of general polling, one that did come out recently seemed to show the SNP down to 43% and Labour up to 33% – 10% is the smallest gap between those two parties for a very long time, and as it was partly conducted over the ’FrenchGate weekend’, one wonders if that is showing the start of an impact from that particular smear campaign. YouGov’s April 9th ‘NowCast’ has Labour ahead UK-wide on 277, Conservatives on 264, SNP 55 – but with several constituencies ‘softening’ towards the SNP, and one (Dunfermline) now going to Labour instead. Again…is this the start of a longer-term softening?

But – soft – for here comes YouGov in The Times today – Friday 10th April – with a poll taken over the 8th/9th April, addressing political support across Scotland, and asking about the first (2 hour STV) Scottish Leaders Debate: it puts the SNP on a record high of 49% (+3), Labour 25% (-4), Conservatives 18%, LibDems doing slightly better on 4%. For those who watched the STV debate and were taking part in that YouGov poll, the winner was supposedly: 56% Nicola Sturgeon (including 88% of SNP voters), Ruth Davidson 14%, Jim Murphy 13% (including 44% of Labour voters), Willie Rennie 1% (bless).

A record high in YouGov, suggests that maybe the softening might not have legs – indeed, perhaps the subsequent revelation from ‘FrenchGate’ of what Martin Hannan described as a piece of “grubby espionage” caused a rebound. Nothing unites people in Scotland to feel well-disposed towards the SNP more than feeling that they are being attacked as Scots, for being Scots, or for daring to have different political choices. This seemed to be something that the Conservative-led ‘No’ campaign never seemed to understand, with its often ham-fisted attempts to ‘woo’ and patronize the Referendum electorate.

So Cameron needs to ramp up the attack, if he truly does not want the SNP to win. You see, as much as Cameron might want the SNP to do well enough to mortally wound Labour in Scotland, and so reduce their number of MPs and thus the chances of Labour being part of the next government, he does NOT want the SNP to hold the balance of power, and significantly influence policy away from the austerity that protects his party’s wealthier sponsors, or the UK’s disproportionate nuclear weapons programme. So he has to try to get a balance that gets him what he wants…inevitably leading to accusations from both sides that Labour or the SNP are ‘in cahoots’ with the Conservatives for this election campaign…depending on who Cameron judges he has to be the most mean to, on a particular day.

Speaking of which, David Cameron is sometimes hard to read, isn’t he? I mean, there are times when he is fairly clunkingly obvious – remarking in one interview that he knows the ‘FrenchGate’ memo that came from the Scotland Office was not leaked by the Deputy Minister there (coincidentally, the only Conservative MP in Scotland – David Mundell – although he, like Jim Murphy, seems to have decided to leave the name of his own political party off his electoral publicity, presumably because he sees it as a liability?). Which, of course, means that, by dint of omission, he fingers Mundell’s boss, the LibDem buffoon Carmichael, as having done it, applying that little bit of pressure to his ‘coalition colleagues’.

Then there was Cameron’s bizarre declaration about 3 weeks ago, that he would not stand for a third term as Prime Minister. If there was a question that no one was asking – that was really it. That is a question that gets raised AFTER a second term has been won – not before. We were treated to a 5 minute ‘at home in Dave’s kitchen’ piece on BBC News (not quite as much of a party political broadcast as Gordon Brown’s 50 minute live show from Loanhead Miners Club, but there was a similar lack of balance), with James Landale cosily hanging with the Camerons, while Dave ‘incidentally’ mentioned he wouldn’t go for a third term. Was Cameron’s unprompted statement that he was leaving, simply an attempt to wrest column inches back from his opponents, so that the focus is back on the Conservatives, rather than who might replace them – and in what sort of a deal? (Naturally, Boris Johnson shot ahead of Osborne and Teresa May in the odds to replace Cameron as leader.) And then, this policy of trying to reframe the narrative in terms of ‘what happens after I win my second term of office’, seemed to be underscored by Samantha Cameron doing an interview with the Mail on Sunday at the weekend, arguing that her husband should have another 5 years as Prime Minister, because of the wonderfully moral and protective society he was building (although it is not clear where this proto-utopia is located…perhaps in the kitchen, with Landale?).

If it was a tactic to get the Conservatives back on to the front pages, then it did not work for too long – but he probably was not expecting Nicola to explode on to the UK political psyche so fast at the start of the formal General Election campaign, as she did during the Leaders’ Debate. So, this week, Cameron has fought back, saying on Wednesday that he would not sanction another Scottish Referendum – except he has a problem with saying that, as the precedent has now been established that if Scots vote for a party at Holyrood with that in its manifesto, then they have that right – and any such denial would not go down well with a Scottish electorate.

But Cameron has good reason to wish to avoid another Referendum, with the arguments still raging over whether ANY substantive ‘Vow’ looks like being delivered without an SNP bloc vote in Westminster. A study of 7,000 voters by University of Edinburgh showed that 69% of those questioned in Scotland believe that Scotland will become independent, echoed by 59% in England and Northern Ireland, and a slightly more pessimistic 54% in Wales. Data from IPSOS-MORI for the BBC this week showed 32% of Scots rated another independence referendum within 5 years as extremely important – 10/10 on IPSO-MORI’s point scale – roughly matching the 31% who gave it 1/10 – it should never happen again – with only 27% saying that an EU in/out referendum was ‘very important’. When one breaks it down into the undecided (the mid-point of the scale, for most people, 5), opposed/less important (1-4) and very important (6-10), the figures come out at 51%, 7%, 42% – a majority in favour of another referendum (and I am guessing most of them do not want another referendum just for the opportunity to say ‘no’ for a second time) within the next 5 years.

As support for independence has risen, post-Referendum, it is hardly democratic for other parties to insist on it being eliminated as an option for the foreseeable future – that is an arrogance of politicians above the electorate that they serve. But they know that now, rather than crushing aspirations towards independence, the Referendum campaign has boosted that interest to a 50 year high. AND – for the first time – that is also reflected in a high number of votes for the SNP (prospectively) in both Holyrood and Westminster, as that party’s credibility has soared as never before. So Westminster will not be looking at a rematch any time soon, when their record of very poor delivery on Smith is so fresh in the Scottish public memory.

And that rising tide for political change is – rather like the SNP – not solely focused on independence without any of the other possible interim steps: in the same survey, of the top seven Scottish political priorities described as 10/10 ‘very important’, three were more powers for Holyrood from Westminster (full control of welfare – 35%, full control of income tax – 34%, ability to increase benefits and pensions – 38%). [For completeness I should note that the favourite was an SNP policy, of adopting the living wage as the minimum wage, on 43%, with an energy price freeze for 20 months on 41%, and a guarantee that pensions will rise over the next 5 years – 37%.]

[Only 8% regarded the renewal and upgrade of Trident as ‘very important’.]

With 57% of respondents placing a high priority (even just at points 7-10) on full DevoMax (everything except foreign affairs and defence to Holyrood) one recalls a quote from the aforementioned University of Edinburgh study: when they spoke to some of the participants in the Smith Commission, a comment came back that “they may have underestimated the public appetite for continued constitutional discussion.” Gee, no shit, Sherlock…although, when one examines the submissions to said Smith Commission, it is hard to see how those participants could really have missed that ‘appetite’: analysis of the 18,000 responses to the call for consultation for the Smith Commission shows 97% of petitions and campaign letters called for all taxation and welfare to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, 72% requesting Home Rule/DevoMax, most of the rest calling for ‘The Vow’ to be honoured or full independence.

And yet what was produced as ‘The Vow Delivered’ was the diluted devo package – eruditely likened by Paul Kavanagh to devolution Jenga, trying to hollow it out as much as possible without the whole thing collapsing in a really obvious way.

But back to Cameron’s dilemma, and trying to take back the oxygen of publicity from the SNP in the campaign. It was probably this tactic that got him to get Michael Fallon to make his ‘all foreigners make the world a scary place that should probably be nuked’ speech yesterday, with his inflation of 520 jobs into ‘the largest employer in Scotland’ (see yesterday’s post: Trident: Three Reasons for ‘Red Ed’ to agree to the Red Line Issue). It looks like a pretty clear attempt to wrest control of the debate, and the initiative, back from the SNP – having resoundingly lost it. I wonder how well it will work? The oress will no doubt play their part for him…

When a Conservative Minister takes the time to describe the leader of the SNP as arrogant, firstly you think how black the pot is looking these days, and then you realise they must really be getting worried, to be doing this only one week into a 5 week General Election campaign.

 

“In that Westminster difficulty, there lies an opportunity for Scotland” (Alex Salmond)

Murphy Madonna: Reinvent yourself until you fall on you’re a**e.

Psychological projection is an interesting phenomenon. An individual will criticise others – usually quite forcefully – for patterns of behaviour that are more readily obvious in themselves, than the people that they are criticising.

I could not but help think of this condition, when Jim Murphy referred to the SNP as ‘David Cameron’s little helpers’, during a visit by Ed Balls to Glasgow a week ago, to give a typical closed audience presentation that was so much the hallmark of ‘Better Together’ last year. At the time, a number of individuals (including Angus ‘I’m taking nothing for granted’ Robertson MP) commented on the hypocrisy of this, after Scottish Labour willingly acted as Cameron’s boot boys in the Referendum, delivering campaigning that Cameron could not be seen to do himself, and voting to support continued austerity cuts, as well as avoiding repealing the bedroom tax (because that would be more convenient for Labour to have a platform on during election time – so let’s not get rid of it early with a Commons’ vote, eh, guys?).

The willingness of Jim and his small band of merry men to jump at whatever piece of bait is thrown for them by the Conservative-press is remarkable – a Pavlovian level of Twitter response kicked in as soon as the Telegraph non-story broke on Friday night, so keen were they at a rare opportunity to get stuck in to Nicola, without bothering to check the facts first. This had a couple of hilarious outcomes – one being Dougie Alexander hastily deleting 48 hours-worth of Tweets, the other being Kezia (first to Tweet within 3 minutes of the story’s release) Dugdale’s dad reprimanding her on Twitter with ‘check facts before opening mouth next time, Kezia!’.

But if the primary target of the scam story was to make left-leaners hesitate about supporting Nicola, it can be argued that that was far from the main objective UK-wide: to have Labour Party leaders (Ed did it too) pile in saying how shameful it would be for the SNP to let the Conservatives in again, also is likely to push those moving towards voting Labour instead of the Conservatives, right back to the Conservatives again. All it took was some ill-chosen criticism by Labour to do it –and some of Labour were all too daft to fall for it. The condemnation that Labour representatives uttered was exactly what Cameron wanted them to say, on both counts, as it attacked Nicola’s rise as a credible force, and also made Labour look bad for reacting so negatively to the idea of him remaining. ‘Cameron’s little helpers’ worked overtime for him over the weekend…then woke up on Monday wishing they hadn’t.

Of course, Jim’s projecting of criticisms of himself on to others is probably quite understandable – he changes policy position so fast, that it must be hard for him to know what to be attacking people with on a day-to-day basis, from one press release in the morning to the next one, half an hour later. Although Jim might not have been deleting Tweets as frenetically as Dougie, it was recently highlighted that Murphy had been removing pro-austerity cuts interviews from his website, as part of his strategy of repositioning himself as a left winger to ‘combat the Tory cuts’ that he apparently used to so dearly love. Now he opposes tuition fees – although he voted for their introduction in 1998, at which point he described free university education as “incoherent, indefensible and unrealistic”. Now he is opposed to the war in Iraq, despite his well-documented hawkish history to the contrary. Even on the NHS, his proposal to hire a thousand extra nurses was framed in the context of ‘a thousand more than whatever the SNP says’, and he did indulge in deleting social media posts when he made erroneous claims about operation cancellations in Scotland because he got his figures completely wrong.

Then there was the bizarre ‘Yes for Labour’ campaign (smothered at birth by Scottish Labour) as an attempt to appropriate the ‘Yes’ voters that they so vindictively derided throughout the Referendum campaign. [Although perhaps he was – again – inspired by an SNP policy, in the way that the SNP website slogan these days is ‘Together we can make Scotland Better’ – shades of the ‘No’ campaign, anyone?] Even the one broken record repeating ‘a vote for the SNP is a vote for the Conservatives’ starts to fall apart when Robert McNeill – a member of Labour’s Scottish Policy Forum – and other Labour activists, start campaigning for their members to vote to get Conservative and LibDems elected – although this increases the chances of the current coalition government being reelected…and it is supposedly against party policy and apparently should lead to automatic expulsion from the Labour Party – just to try and block SNP candidates from getting to Westminster.

Then on Tuesday night in the debate, Murphy was arguing that the Institute for Fiscal Studies had made very clear that Labour Government did not have to make the forthcoming cuts after the 2015/16 budget year – but Ed Balls and Ed Miliband asserted the following day that they would do just that. This was categorically reiterated by Chuka Umunna, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, on April 13th’s Daily Politics show in emphatic form, with the somewhat harsh rejoinder to Andrew Neil: “The leader of the Scottish Labour Party will not be in charge of the UK budget”.

His capacity for reinvention – or attempted reinvention – seems Madonna-esque in stature, but he risks coming to a similar pass as she did during her Brit Awards performance.

I did see one April Fool saying Jim Murphy had resigned and joined the SNP (somewhat unlikely, given Scottish Labour’s obsession with Westminster above all else – especially for the expenses claims opportunities), but what was less clear that morning was if his interview with James Naughtie was a similar ‘huntigowk’. In that programme, Murphy declared that he would of course work closely in opposition with the SNP at Westminster…when the only people who could put themselves in opposition (by putting the Conservatives in) are Labour…by refusing to work with the SNP to support their government. How does that work, then? As much as no party wants to discuss scenarios where they fail to win a majority before it actually happens, the logic of Jim’s assertion is that Labour would rather be a party of opposition and let the current government continue, rather than be serious about stopping it.

Jim did not have the best of campaigns in the Referendum, at one stage last January being openly laughed at by BBC Radio Scotland commentators (normally quite supportive of Scottish Labour), at his attempt to ban supporters of independence from TV audiences (although, for an insight as to how he ‘may’ see his role in that part of history, this video is both highly entertaining and, indeed, informative in that regard: http://wingsoverscotland.com/history-tomorrow/ especially if you are aware of the archaeologist Neil Oliver’s presentation style). But his gimmick of the Irn Bru crate (regardless of whether it was one of his own entourage, as was suggested by photographs, that threw the famous egg at him) gave him the profile to be nominated by Party Central for the Scottish leader’s job, after Johann stormed off in high dudgeon. Around about now, he may be wishing he had not been such a ‘high profile success’ (for such things are definitely relative) for the ‘No’ campaign, as his immediate career prospects have begun to look a little as though they hang on the proverbial Scots ‘shoogly peg’. Last night, on the STV Scottish leaders’ debate (which seems to have been poor compared with last week’s offering), Jim was up against Nicola Sturgeon for the first time since her Thursday night success on the UK Leaders’ Debates, in a position of nothing to lose, and everything to gain, especially knowing that he could rely on the support of Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie against her. According to the initial polling after the broadcast on who won, he does not seem to have made many inroads (Daily Record’s poll: Nicola 71%, Jim 19%, Ruth on 10%, Willie 0%; Press & Journal poll: Nicola 77.69%, Ruth 11.02%, Jim 9.68%, Willie 1.61%), but he did appear to use his favourite strategy of football references to try and show he is ‘one of the people’ – David Cameron, he informed the audience, was not Lionel Messi. So how’s that shrewd populist manoeuvre working out, Jim?

Murphy once said “I won in 1997 without really trying. Tony Blair won my seat.” Since claiming that formerly safe Conservative seat with a 3,000-odds majority, he has boosted that majority through boundary changes to over 10,000 (claiming over a million pounds in parliamentary expenses between 2001 and 2012 in the process). But he has a mountain to climb to reverse his unpopularity ratings both within his own party and across Scotland (his popularity rating dropped 13 points from December to March at -2, leaving him 23 behind Nicola; YouGov’s net satisfaction ratings at the start of February gave Sturgeon +42, Murphy -10), and a whole range of them to traverse in order to gain credibility with the electorate (his leadership rating is -25, compared to Nicola’s +33). With such a heavy baggage of personal and party inconsistency, reversed policy decisions and a party seemingly deviating from his script, that journey – as Paul Kavanagh notes – won’t simply be done through being “borne aloft on nothing more than John McTernan’s frantic spinning and the dust created by a thousand press releases.”

 

“Credibility is the bridge away from populism and towards popularity. It is difficult to sustain popularity without genuine credibility.” (Jim Murphy, Daily Telegraph, January 2012, criticising “shallow and temporary” populism in place of “genuine credibility” – explaining, in the process, why today he is neither popular nor credible)

Britannia Waives the Rules, or The Empire Strikes Back

During the mid-eighties I worked for a contractor servicing Shell oil platforms, which meant that I spent a significant amount of time offshore. One of the most striking things was the quality of the different platforms, from the oldest one (the ‘Auk’) which was like a cramped, high density seabed-mounted prison, to the more roomy modern ones (for example the Fulmar Alpha) which were like hotels, with 24 hour kitchens, so that no matter when you finished work, you could pile in there for large quantities of extremely high quality food. Particularly striking for me were the 3 to 4 different types of trifles that were always on offer. I remember one night, sitting down with David Matheson, a friend from school (his dad was the manager of the service company, who had hired me after I left medical school as their medical officer), and taking a break from my selection of trifles to stare with some puzzlement at the contents of his plate. “But, Dave”, I queried, gesturing towards his food, “aren’t you a vegetarian?” “Oh, yes’” he said, without a trace of internal conflict “but you can’t say no to a really good steak” – and he continued to tuck in, with great relish.

I found myself thinking of that incident this weekend, in the context of the oft-propounded impartiality of the Civil Service.

Last year during the Referendum campaign, there were two clear instances that called this supposed professionalism and impartiality into question. The first was the famous February Statement by George Osborne, backed by Danny Alexander and Ed Balls, that a shared currency would be refused by the UK Government with an independent Scotland – backed up by the highly unusual step of the Permanent Secretary of the Treasury publishing his letter of advice to that effect. Questions were asked at the time about this curious move, as it appeared an overtly political one, on the part of Sir Nicholas Macpherson.

It is revealing to reflect at this point on just who Macpherson is, before we consider his extraordinary actions as a civil servant. Even without the ‘Sir’, he would be a clear part of the establishment, as his family own significant swathes of Ross-shire, in particular the £13 million 32,000 acre Attadale Estate (historically part of the Clan Matheson lands – no relation to Dave, I think…), and he was educated at Eton and Oxford. So, already, we might have an idea of what colour his particular impartiality is.

The published letter made the role of the Treasury a somewhat controversial one within the Civil Service – such ‘advice’ is generally supposed to remain confidential, to keep the apparatus of the state out of the public eye and distinctly separate from the government of the day. And the question of its ‘impartiality’ is a somewhat moot one, advising any rUK Chancellor not to agree to such a currency union, thus supporting Osborne’s position – a strategy supposedly contrived by Alistair Darling, the leader of ‘Better Together’ in the belief that a united Unionist front would reverse the ‘Yes’ campaign’s fortunes.

In the event, of course, it did precisely the reverse – the last thing Scots were going to respond well to was a Conservative public schoolboy from down south coming to Scotland to tell them what they could and could not do – and the ‘Yes’ campaign surged upwards in the wake of that wonderful miscalculation.

But the specific question of the Treasury’s letter supporting the move was another matter. So why did Sir Nick decide to break Civil Service protocol to do this?: “because I regarded it as my duty…the British state’s position was being impugned.” So, yes, completely impartial – but of course, we’ll make an exception for a nice juicy steak, then, eh?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Public Administration Select Committee (chaired by Conservative Bernard Jenkin MP) took a rather dim view of this specious excuse on March 23rd this year, and criticised Macpherson’s decision to publish the letter as it “compromised the perceived impartiality of one of the UK’s most senior civil servants” when they concluded their inquiry into Civil Service impartiality and referenda.

This was not the only questionable civil service action during the Referendum campaign, and in the last days before the vote, the Treasury’s actions were again in the spotlight. On September 10th, a Treasury official gave the BBC an unsolicited briefing on a key Royal Bank of Scotland board decision, 25 minutes before the RBS board meeting had ended, thus breaching Financial Market Rules as well as Pre-Referendum Guidelines. (As Alex Salmond has noted, the Treasury official in question was the son of Alistair Darling’s former special adviser Catherine MacLeod.) Sir Jeremy Heywood, Head of the Civil Service, was less than keen on calls for an inquiry into who was responsible for this – and there still appears to be some sensitivity regarding this issue within the Treasury: Salmond notes that only a few weeks ago, Sir Nick “sent The Sun and my publishers Harper Collins a letter telling them he was considering consulting his lawyers about me in a last-ditch and futile attempt to get this aspect of the serialisation of ‘The Dream Shall Never Die’ [Alex Salmond’s Referendum Diary book] binned.” On 16th March it was revealed that e-mail trails showed that the Treasury had been lobbying RBS heavily prior to their September 10th meeting, and had indeed prematurely announced it to journalists before the meeting had concluded. In this regard, the Financial Conduct Authority have said that they have no power to take action against the Treasury, but the City of London Police have given assurances that they will take appropriate action (whatever that may mean in a pragmatic reality…).

The issue of civil servants directly sending briefing information to newspapers throughout the Referendum campaign brought the question of their supposed impartiality further into disrepute. This was highlighted in the second week of December. That week, awards recognized the functions of those who had key roles in both the ‘Yes’ and the ‘No’ campaigns: The List’s ‘Hot 100’ gave National Collective second place on December 11th. The same week, Civil Service World Magazine proclaimed that the Treasury’s ‘Scotland Analysis’ Programme Team had scored in the Annual Civil Service Awards. The award had been created to give “particular recognition for their outstanding achievement in making a difference on an issue of national significance”, and was handed to the winners at an awards ceremony at Lancaster House (which is operated by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office). One of the winners, Mario Pisani (a former speechwriter to Alistair Darling, Danny Alexander and George Osborne), commented on how thrilling it was to be part of an active political campaign for a change – and his remarks were immediately taken into consideration by Bernard Jenkin’s committee’s inquiry into Civil Service impartiality in referenda. It certainly seemed that these civil servants saw themselves very clearly as being an active part of the ‘No’ campaign, rather than providing the objective analysis that they would ordinarily be expected to.

And so we come to this Easter Weekend just gone: ‘FrenchGate’, ‘MemoGate’ or ‘GalliGate’ (one for the Glaswegians out there), depending on your hashtag preference. (No doubt if they had been drinking milk at the French Ambassador’s reception, it would be called ‘Cow’n’Gate’…)

With Nicola’s success at the Leaders’ Debates on Thursday night, the Conservative machine swiftly refocused, reissuing the Saatchi posters with Nicola (instead of Alex) bearing Ed Miliband in her jacket pocket. I guess that is high praise indeed for her performance – the oft-quoted Gandhi mantra during the ‘Yes’ campaign comes to mind: first they ignore you, then they mock you, then they come to fight you, and then you win. They finally realised she was just as palpable a ‘threat’ to their Old World Order as they had perceived her predecessor to be. Which explains the second action, as well.

By Friday night, within 24 hours of the end of the Leaders’ Debate, Simon Johnson of the Telegraph was releasing a story on his Twitter feed that Nicola Sturgeon had said in a conversation with the French ambassador at a meeting in February that she would prefer Cameron as Prime Minister, and did not see Ed Milband as PM material. This story was repudiated precisely five minutes later by Nicola as “categorically, 100%, untrue – which I would have told you if you asked me”, and within two hours both the French Ambassador and the French consul general in Edinburgh had both confirmed that Nicola had made no such comment. Nonetheless, it was the lead news story on the BBC for the full 24 hour cycle.

So where had this ‘information’ come from? (Setting to one side Simon’s interesting abrogation of journalistic responsibility in not even attempting to contact either side of the conversation for comment before going to publish). It appears that it was a mysterious alleged memo from a civil servant in the Scottish Office (under Alastair Carmichael, the UK Government’s man in Scotland), written by someone who was not at the meeting, supposedly reporting a conversation between the French consul general and a civil servant in the Scottish Office – again, the French consul general denies that he made such a comment. As one correspondent somewhat acidically put it in a letters page: “When I want to read fiction, I buy a novel; I do not expect the press to provide it in the course of its normal reporting.”

This time, unlike RBS, Sir Jeremy Heywood, the head of the civil service, has confirmed an investigation has been launched into who leaked the memo of the ‘disputed account’ of the meeting, after Nicola Sturgeon wrote to him demanding one. In reality, of course, this is highly unlikely to report anything before election day itself – thus the potential damage of Sturgeon being formally vindicated will be conveniently contained until after May 7th.

First of all, let’s take a moment to consider the bizarre situation of the Conservatives setting up a leak of ‘she will support us’ in order to discredit her…but they did so in the full knowledge that Cameron’s little helpers, the Scottish Labour Party, would jump in with both feet, keen to do their masters’ bidding, as always. A noteworthy and honourable exception to this, was the Labour peer Baron Swraj Paul, who claimed that this story was a sign that Whitehall’s ‘dirty tricks department’ had been working overtime, presumably to beat back Sturgeon’s post-debate surge. If you were around for the televised Leader Debates in 2010, we all remember how Nick Clegg was resoundingly declared the winner there, and then his lead was eaten away in the last week’s up until election day.

It seems likely that this will not be the last attempt to smear Nicola in the run-up to the vote – yet I am struck by two positives that come from this situation. Firstly, it has focused the election campaign on the SNP, and gives them the oxygen of publicity as the drivers of the General Election that they have never had before, and may well never have again. Secondly, as we saw last year, with each attempt by the establishment to discredit ‘Yes’, independence or the SNP, they drive yet more voters to them, with a public increasingly cynical of what they are told by the mainstream press – we are a ‘thrawn’ people, as some would say. So the Scottish vote is unlikely to be significantly impaired.

But that is not the whole story for this election: there are, of course, still negatives, regardless of how well Nicola comes out of this. Firstly, and most seriously, Ed Miliband discredited himself by jumping on the bandwagon so fast to condemn the SNP for ‘supporting Cameron’ on zero evidence, just shortly before the story was roundly refuted and fell apart. This could arguably mean that he will be the biggest loser from this affair, having lost some of the stature that he had gained as a result of his performance in that same Leaders’ Debate on Thursday night. And that endangers the hoped-for SNP-Labour majority, if it impacts on the progressive English vote.

So we will see how this plays out – today Alistair Carmichael’s buffoon-like face has been smiling away, saying that yes, the memo had come from his department, but in “the middle of an election campaign, these things happen.” This resonates well with an observation by Alex Salmond in today’s ‘The National’: “The standards of Government departments reflect the quality of leadership. The leadership of the Scotland Office was Alistair Carmichael and David Mundell. Enough said.”

It is perhaps as predictable that it is depressing that as I approach the 100th post on this blog, we are still dealing with the same dysfunctional state behavior from Westminster that we were battling against during the Referendum campaign – it really is all they know. But I will leave the last summative comment on this whole farce to Nicola Sturgeon, at the end of her live interview with James Cook, just before she spoke at the anti-Trident protest rally (really? she is supposed to want Cameron in as PM?) in George Square on Saturday afternoon:

 

“I took part in the Leaders’ Debate on Thursday night, and I made very clear in that debate that this election is an opportunity to change the Westminster system because it’s out-of-touch, it’s remote, and it doesn’t serve the needs of people across Scotland and the rest of the UK. I made the case that the election is an opportunity for ordinary people across the UK, to make the Westminster system better reflect their priorities. Perhaps this morning is a sign that the Westminster establishment doesn’t like that message, and they’re beginning to panic about that message: that’s why I’m even more determined to keep taking that message to the streets and the communities of Scotland over the remainder of this campaign.” (Nicola Sturgeon, 4/4/2015, BBC News24)