A distant second: From Glasgow to Scotland in 5 years…or Everyone Wins – Except the Winners

The last week has been a fond journey into nostalgia for me. Five years ago, I had a wake-up call to overt bias, while watching television coverage of the council elections. I detailed the experience in an earlier blog – the short version is that the BBC reporting of the Glasgow Council elections was nakedly at odds with all other television channels, by virtue of (solely for Glasgow) counting the defections from Labour’s group as representing ‘losses’, and therefore the reelection of those Labour council positions as ‘Labour gains’. This was the only deviation from their otherwise uniform accounting of council changes on the basis of comparison with the 2012 result: it was plain, it was done almost with an arrogance – in the election studio, they laughed at anyone pointing out that saying Labour’s ‘gains’ in Glasgow outnumbered the SNP’s was erroneous. And yet they were the only channel reporting the Glasgow result in this idiosyncratic fashion.

Fast forward from May 4th 2012 to last Friday. The results come in – and the SNP have increased their number of council seats from 425 to 431. But hold – the BBC say that it is a drop of 7 seats? Over the ensuing days, as BBC journalists confessed they had no idea where the figures had come from, it slowly emerged that the figures had been ‘adjusted’. Apparently, if subsequent boundary changes had been in place, the SNP would (‘probably’) have won 13 more seats in 2012 – seats which they in 2017 ‘lost‘. It is a bit like ‘seasonally adjusted averages’ – those unemployment figures that first made you start to doubt the veracity of the UK Government in its reporting of unemployment in the UK – where the adjustment (however it is calculated) becomes more important than the upfront real figure. Surely the modification is a secondary figure, and should not have the headline position? It is somewhat misleading – to say the least – if not introduced by the broadcaster with the appropriate caveats.

But the raw data come out like this: the SNP increased their votes by 21% with over 108,000 more first preferences in the transferrable vote system (39.6% turnout in 2012, 46.9% turnout last week) while holding their vote share on 32.3% from the previous council election (pedants may wish to quibble that the vote share dropped by 0.03% – does not really show up when figures are being reported to one decimal place). In contrast, Labour’s votes fell by 21% (20.2% vote share, so down 11.2%) – Conservatives were up 12% (25.3% vote share) – a straight accretion of the unionist vote, coalescing around the Conservatives as it drifted from Labour, as the SNP vote held up (indeed, with more turning out, held up very well indeed) – as shown by the graphic above. (Indeed, it is striking how poorly the Conservatives did, coming in 155 seats behind the SNP, compared to Labour being only 31 seats behind in 2012.) Yet the Conservatives were hailed as ‘the winners’.

The turnout is important – it was the highest for a council election (when they have not been held on the same day as the Holyrood elections) since 1977, and that can perhaps be attributed to Theresa May’s attempt to hijack the council elections to give some sort of ‘anti-second Scottish independence referendum’ position. Although increased, it is still nowhere near the levels of turnout that we would expect for June 8th’s General Election 2015 rerun.

With the figures for the Lib Dems (6.8%, up 0.2%) and the Greens (4.1%, up 1.8%) added in to the mix, one can read it as an overall 0.6% increase for pro-independence parties since 2012. So, with an increased voting percentage for pro-independence parties, that will be Theresa telt, then?

Well, not so much…of course. Even although they have been making noises about vote share and seats, the Conservative Government just wants one good statistic to say ‘drop in SNP support’, to try and legitimise their resistance to the Scottish Parliament’s support of the SNP’s elected mandate to have a second independence referendum as a direct consequence of the result of the EU referendum. If Nicola Sturgeon engages with that game, then it will be a perpetual one – the electorate supported you this time? Well, then it has to be next time as well. Supported by the electorate again? Well, best of three, surely. It starts to sound like the IRA after the Grand Hotel bombing in Brighton – they only have to be lucky once, we have to be lucky all the time.

The SNP were right not to play that game – they would have undermined their already existing mandate, preemptively won at Holyrood last year if they had. To paraphrase Derek Bateman, how many votes do we need to emphatically record-beatingly win? When your record of support has set records in both the Westminster and Holyrood parliaments, then what can be obtained by repeating them time after time, except by giving the Unionists hope that you will inevitably one day fall as you jump through an infinite number of hoops coated with increasingly flammable materials.

As I have said before, trying to hijack the council elections for a national/constitutional issue is a grossly irresponsible approach of the Conservative Prime Minister – and perhaps shows how much they truly value local government (although given their contempt for devolved governments in the UK, that is not really a huge surprise). Fundamentally, using council elections as some sort of referendum on a national issue skews the quality of representative elected – their intention in standing is not one driven by local issues, but purely to serve the national party leader. This started to manifest itself with depressing speed, as the announcement that a series of Orange Order candidates had succeeded in being elected (without declaring their membership of said organisation, as required) to BOTH Labour and Conservative council posts was followed by some of their somewhat extremist Twitter account activity. A Moray independent councillor (who had, like many notionally independent candidates, stood as a Conservative candidate 5 years earlier) resigned, and a new Dunblane Conservative councillor  (swiftly exposed as an extremist BritNat troll) was under pressure to do the same – but had been ‘talked out of it’ by the Conservative Party.

Two out of nine Stirling Conservative councillors had similarly had their Twitter ‘backstory’ brought to light. On the one hand we can see a ‘barrel scraping’ exercise in terms of trying to get candidates for the unionist parties (particularly Conservative in Scotland) at this time – on the other there is a chill that these ‘shock troops of the union’ have been called upon, and a true indication that there is no level of racism, hatred or violence that will not be stooped to by the Union’s defenders, in order to oppose the assertion of self-determination in Scotland.

And in Stirling we might also see the exception that makes the rule of council elections have nothing to do with national or constitutional issues that are not in any way a part of the remit or competency of councils to handle.

For, in 2014, Stirling Council had an impact on the referendum question, in their approach to host Armed Forces Day in Stirling over the same weekend that commemorated the 700th anniversary of the battle that consolidated Scotland’s independent status, Bannockburn (as seen here, here and here). As it turned out, their little escapade – trying to divert numbers from the paying 700th anniversary event to the free ‘British’ event – did not exactly work out, with noteably larger numbers paying to attend Bannockburn. But they provided the opportunity for the media to parade something packaged as anti-independence, and ignore something more related to Scotland’s history as an independent nation. That had an impact, in the run up to the referendum that year.

In the end, that is the same role that is fulfilled by Theresa May trying to make every election another means of casting doubt on the SNP’s mandate – an excuse to distract, undermine and ignore. The truth of it – as shown by the reportage of the council election results, where some in London and abroad assumed that the Conservatives, with a mere 22.5% vote share, finishing 155 seats behind the SNP, had ‘won’ the election – does not really matter: it is just an opportunity to misrepresent and shout as loudly as possible – knowing the mainstream press will happily only listen to – and volubly echo – that narrative.

Last week, the Conservatives (assisted by Labour and the LibDems) threw everything they had at the SNP, to try and break through against them…even producing leaflets that mentioned no council-related policies – only ‘opposed to another independence referendum’. The SNP vote held firm. The press – led by the BBC – ignored that, adopting something akin to a New Labour education approach, where ‘everyone wins’ – except the winners. The result did not matter – they already had the script. And the script is about momentum for a very specific narrative – and not one that ends with self-determination.

 

“How many elections can we win hands down and still be angling for another referendum – like dookin’ for apples? I see the Unionist Press now indicates that the loss of any SNP seats [in the General Election on June 8th], which seems inevitable to me, will be taken as failure and loss of credibility even if Yes parties win an overwhelming number of seats and 50 per cent of the vote. They, on the other hand, have only to win a seat or two or even hold Edinburgh South to claim a major victory. This is the world of distorted democracy we inhabit.” (Derek Bateman, 19/4/2017)

50 More Days of the ‘Come What May’ Attitude: Is She Looking for Backing, Silencing Dissenting Voices by Establishing Her One Party State, or Just Worried About the Crown Prosecution Service Amputating Her Majority?

Waking up to snow blizzards in Munich in the second half of April, and Theresa May has apparently called a General Election for June 8th – after saying she would do nothing of the sort for the last 8 months (she last reiterated this via a spokesperson on March 21st).

She gave a series of reasons for this turnaround, a mere 21 days after raising Article 50, citing ‘disunity’ in Westminster in contrast to the ‘coming together’ she imagined over the weekend in her ‘God Loves a BrExiter’ beatific Easter Sunday message to the nation. The House of Lords – an unelected chamber that has been a bulwark for the Conservatives and the establishment for centuries – was suddenly the ‘enemy within’ (although their amendments were quickly removed by the House of Commons). The Labour Party was identified as a problem – despite the fact that they (regardless of their leader’s wishes) have shown zero inclination to vote against anything proposed by Theresa’s government, BrExit or otherwise, so scared are they of looking like anything other than Red Tories. Even having helped Theresa obtain a majority for the BrExit bill, she felt threatened by them because they have apparently said they might vote against the final EU agreement that she would bring to Westminster after negotiations were complete. But…surely, in allowing the idea that the Commons could vote on that final agreement, as Theresa had already proposed, that means that people could vote other ways than just supporting whatever pig’s ear of a piece of nonsense she turned up with? (Although, to be fair, on recent form she may have just been expecting Labour to abstain.) But to her, ‘disagreement’ may simply be synonymous with ‘division’.

In her speech on Tuesday morning outside Downing Street, where she had left a cabinet meeting, she invoked the ‘national interest’ – a codified phrase for ‘everyone should unquestioningly be supporting me as the leader of government, come what may’. And she appealed to the public to back her, with her cartoon supervillain line of ‘Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger’. (No secret glowing amulet was immediately visible at her neck.)

It is perhaps significant that her domestic policies are being blocked by members in her own party in a way that her BrExit moves are most certainly not – this notion of a ‘Westminster Fifth Column’ against her BrExit is nonsense, and it is more likely that she is simply creating this myth as a pretext to get past domestic opposition from within her own party. So it may at first sight seem a little strange that she has chosen this path – especially as private polling for the Conservatives by Crosby Textor from only a couple of weeks ago (see 5th April, the New Statesman New Statesman ) indicated that more or less all the Conservatives’ 2015 gains from the LibDems looked to be returned to them in the event of an early general election call. But projections from the weekend’s two polls suggest that this move will increase her majority from 17 to somewhere between 100 and 140, and this would most likely help her a lot in bringing her domestic will to bear. She is clothing her own weakness in her capacity as leader of her own party in the robes of imagined ‘traitors’ to her at Westminster – she will brook no opposition to ‘The May Way’ from within her own party. Because, it’s…y’know…’divisive’. (Or ‘different’ – that has been a very popular thing for Conservatives to complain about, since they started adopting UKIP’s finery – perhaps they are just taking that fear of ‘difference’ that little bit further?)

She did note her current small majority of 17 seats in Tuesday morning’s announcement of the June 8th General Election – and perhaps that is the key deciding factor for her…perhaps even more than the 20-21 point lead over Labour that those two polls over the weekend gave her. It is worth noting that early the same morning as May’s announcement, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that they would deliver their judgement on Tory election fraud in the 2015 General Election in the next few days. With fifteen police forces having handed files to the CPS regarding possible electoral fraud, and 30 individuals consisting of sitting Conservative MPs and their agents under consideration for charges as a result, the chance of Theresa May losing (or having vastly reduced) her current 17 seat majority cannot have been far from any strategic decision that she made in the cabinet meeting before she walked out of Number 10 to stand in front of the cameras to announce the snap election. The CPS will now be in an invidious position in terms of making a decision, given that many of the suspected electoral fraudster MPs will already be out campaigning by the time such a decision is announced. Despite this, Theresa has made clear that she has no problem with those individual MPs standing for the June election – in spite of the fact that they might be under investigation for – and guilty of – criminal wrongdoing in campaigning for the previous General election. (Having said that, a by-election to a Manchester seat has also been confirmed as going ahead shortly, in spite of the fact that it will be to a doomed parliament with less than 50 days to run – farce may simply be compulsory for General Election 2017.)

Within minutes of Tuesday’s announcement, the pound started to recover (by around 1% against both US Dollar and Euro), with London stocks similarly falling (90% of the FTSE 100 fell – see image above, from Newsnet ) – perhaps because the markets could see a glimmer of light for the first time that maybe the London financial market was not going to disappear into the wilderness for 40 years plus due to BrExit locking it out of the European Union (but more likely because businesses relying on income from abroad would start to lose with a strengthening pound…still, it is a nice idea that that might be the cause.).

In recent weeks, Theresa May has looked by turns confused (this is just the latest position that she has reversed on), isolated, at times even quite dangerously deluded – anything but strong, as her narrative of a resolute hard and successful BrExit went cascading off the rails before she had even raised Article 50, with Nicola Sturgeon so predictably preempting her, ensuring no easy negotiations with the EU. She has looked so out of her depth – up to and including calling this ‘snap’ election – that she has seemed the real ‘player of political games’ – playing at being a grown-up possessing the political aptitude to carry out the responsibilities of the position that she occupies, when she clearly does not.

Making a move to use local council elections in Scotland as a vote against an independence referendum mandate secured by the SNP and Scottish Greens in last year’s Holyrood election was a strange tactical move by her, and could be seen as wrong on many levels – but perhaps the most important one being that it is hijacking an election of representatives for local councils which have nothing whatsoever to do with referenda. In short: prioritising the election of a political gesture so that the electorate feel pressured into using their vote for something other than selecting the best council service representative – then are stuck with that individual instead of the representative that they might have selected to do the job for 5 years, as opposed to be a proxy for 1 day of election result exploitation. (An almost Mayfly-like fleeting political existence, one might say.)

In contrast, at least in calling a General Election as a vote of confidence in her (thus far) unmandated BrExit strategy, May’s result will actually be relevant to the representatives elected, in that the elected MPs will actually have an influence as representatives on that BrExit process (even if it is merely as her personal rubber stamp in the House of Commons) – unlike electing council representatives as a proxy for whether or not an already-mandated Scottish independence referendum happens.

[This is a bit of an academic sidebar of a question now, perhaps, but what would have been the benchmark criteria for that, anyway? How could one say a win or a loss either way for May? Simply whether or not the Conservative vote share increased? The SNP’s went down? Or just a straight win on numbers? Or numbers of councils controlled? This question now looks to be applicable to the General Election in 50 days time, as far as Scotland is concerned…what – if anything – would Theresa ‘accept’ as not undermining the Scottish Government’s current mandate? The right wing press are arguing that – less than a direct measure of one party’s fortunes relative to another’s – any metric that in any way declines for the SNP (be it seats, votes cast, vote share, numbers of jellybeans) at all from its astonishing current level, would be swiftly interpreted as a ‘Conservative victory’. But surely – if she is effectively ignoring the mandates of the devolved parliament in Edinburgh, then we are back to the old pre-devolution metric – that a majority of Scottish MPs being SNP would automatically start negotiations for independence?]

Regardless of this, something appears to have changed since Theresa May’s Easter Sunday message about ‘sensing a coming together’ behind BrExit – although one could easily argue that her Easter message was all about establishing a narrative that ‘the country was unifying’, when there was precious little evidence that it was doing anything of the sort, so that she could justify calling a General Election against those naughty (and possibly largely fictional?) MPs who were not mirroring that ‘pattern’. In fact, one could far more easily make the counter argument: the 52% to 48% vote for leaving the European Union has shown little sign of change, whereas the vote to raise Article 50 in Westminster was achieved with a 498 to 114 majority. If anything, the country remains divided, whereas Westminster has – inexplicably, and with a few noteworthy exceptions – united behind her headlong charge at national self-harm.

Although yesterday Theresa May managed to suspend the Fixed Term Act (another tight vote in the House of Commons that she barely scraped through by 522 in favour and 13 against – another ‘clear example’ of Westminster refusing to support anything she does for BrExit…) brought in by her predecessor David Cameron to stop Prime Ministers opportunistically calling elections based on positive opinion polls (although the veracity and sincerity of that move by Cameron is open to question, see here), what might have been of more immediate concern to her was the possible fixed term sentences (a year in prison) that might be handed out to a possible 15-30 of her sitting MPs.

So once again it seems that Britain’s future is being thrown into the tombola wheel – or perhaps simply under the nearest leftover ‘Leave’ campaign bus – purely for the sake of the Conservative Party leadership. By the time May began the debate yesterday to suspend the Fixed Terms Act in parliament, the Crown Prosecution Service had indicated to Channel 4 News that the early General Election would not affect their prosecutions of any of the 30 individuals that they are currently considering charging in connection with 2015’s Conservative Party electoral fraud. And perhaps that was what had changed since her broadcast message on Sunday.

Perhaps May simply knows that the police investigations are not going so well for some of her MPs, and is therefore choosing to jump before the collar (to use the vernacular) is felt of the ‘May Majority’ – to consolidate it, before it is taken from her by her dear BrExit friend – the judiciary.

 

“If any hint of that impending reality has dawned on the UK Prime Minister then she will move heaven and earth to stop Scotland being given an option to choose a better, more progressive, international and egalitarian national culture than post-Brexit Britain can offer…Not least since without Scotland, the UK’s balance of payments deficit would collapse the UK economy and Sterling would sink below the dollar without Scottish exports of food and drink and oil and gas. ..If Scotland’s independence referendum is announced before the Brexit negotiations complete, then the only bargaining chip Theresa May has to retain financial passporting, is offering access to Scottish fishing waters, and if Scotland is to become independent with an option to be fast tracked to full EU membership after a period of EFTA/EEA single market access (if we want it) then May will enter the Brexit negotiations empty handed while simultaneously facing ScotRef, where the economic certainty of the single market, and potentially hundreds of thousands of new jobs would be on offer to an independent Scotland.” (Gordon Macintyre-Kemp, 7/4/2017)

Introducing Melanie Phillips, the new Gustaf Kossinna: New Alt-History from The Times of London, and British Exceptionalism from the Lessons of History

There’s been a very historical feel to the news in these last weeks – even more so than one has come to expect with the standard issue ‘Empire 2.0’ nonsense of BrExit. As Paul Kavanagh noted, with the invocation of Henry VIII powers in conjunction with the Great Repeal Bill, so that legislative alteration avoids scrutiny, and some mainstream newspapers analysing whether war with Spain was viable over Gibraltar, it has all gone a bit 16th century within 4 days of Theresa May sending her Article 50 letter to Donald Tusk in Brussels. This could be interpreted as a positive sign for Scotland – which was of course independent way back then, and free of the worst excesses of England’s trade blockade (see https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2016/11/08/tales-from-brexitland-brexit-and-the-new-darien-an-equivalent-for-the-navigation-act ) – but the campaign to oppose Scotland’s return to independent statehood has recently been remarkably unafraid to revisit and revise history. Just over a week before Nicola Sturgeon stood in Bute House and announced to the world that she would be requesting that the Scottish Parliament support her request for a Section 30 Order from Westminster, a remarkable piece of historical revisionism appeared in The Times on the 7th March, penned by one Melanie Phillips.

Its timing seems to have been dictated by an article two days earlier, with Professor (also Sir) Tom Devine, described as the “preeminent historian of [the British] Isles” in The National on 5th March (http://www.thenational.scot/politics/15133372.Interview__Tom_Devine_on_the_end_of_Scotland_s_long_love_affair_with_Europe/?ref=mrb&lp=14 ). Within this interview, Devine made the point that Scots were European long before they were British: “If you take mainland Britain, then Scotland has long been the less insular part…If you look from the 12th century until today and divide it up into centuries, Scotland’s linkage with Europe has been longer than its link with the Commonwealth, the Empire or with England.” So far, so unsurprising – as a Kingdom Scotland existed from 843 A.D., with England arising a century or so later (possibly taking longer to unite, as they had been overrun by the Roman Empire). Devine explained – using perhaps less than flattering evidence – the reasons why Scotland was less introspective: “The historical theory is that [it] was because of Scotland’s relative poverty. People had to go abroad. A French proverb of the 12th century sates: ‘Rats, lice and Scotchmen, you find them everywhere’. The Scots were nomadic from an early age.” He pointed out that between the 12th and the 18th centuries the Scottish link with Europe was extraordinarily powerful, and believes that this experience prior to the 18th century allowed Scotland to become one of the most efficient trading countries with the New World. “What happened in the mercantile sense is that the lessons Scottish traders had learned in trading with Europe were simply transferred en bloc to the transatlantic area,” he says. Devine then went on to express sadness and regret that this longstanding relationship with the rest of Europe was about to come to an end with BrExit.

Clearly, emphasising that Scotland’s oldest link was not with England but with Europe is not the sort of thing that Westminster wishes promulgated much at a time when Scotland will soon have to choose between these two Unions – and one suspects that the idea that Scotland is a hundred years older as a country than England would not have been terribly welcome either. But hold: two days later, undaunted by such trivialities as academic knowledge and a lifetime of study, there came journalist Melanie Phillips, riding to the rescue of the beleaguered Union.

In a bizarre Alt-Right ‘history’ piece for the second-longest running national newspaper in the world, The Times (The Glasgow Herald being the longest-running), Phillips puts forward an audacious proposal – that there is, and indeed has only ever been, no nation other than Britain on the British Isles (you can find the full article here: http://archive.is/Tq8lH ). Her primary objective lies in one line: “Britain is a nation with the right to rule itself. It is the EU which is the artificial construct” – but then she attempts to justify this with some remarkably convoluted – verging on contortionistic – argumentation.  Firstly, she puts forward the interpretation that “Throughout its history, [Britain] was beset by attempts at secession by tribes across Hadrian’s Wall and across the Irish Sea”, glossing over the possibility that the presence of such movements might just be because it was an artificial political construct. She then asserts that “Kingship matters because monarchs unify tribes into a nation”, overlooking the fact that that would give Scotland priority through precedent, as noted above. She then grudgingly acknowledges that Scotland developed “the characteristics of a nation: a distinct language, religion, legal system and so on” but apparently that is not a ‘real’ nation, so that adds nothing to its right to exist.  All of these differences, history, trade, psychology, philosophy…all dismissed and trumped by the geographical unity of a landmass.

Phillips (fide Wikipedia) writes pro-Israel articles for The Jerusalem Post – so a cynic might say that it is perhaps no surprise that she finds it easy to rip up old established identities and  cultures and resettle them with a constructed fiction of her choosing, but I would be fascinated to see her apply her geographically-driven approach to African nationhood.

But Phillips seems to have a bigger beef with Ireland than Scotland: “Britain, by contrast” with Ireland, which apparently only came into being in 1922, according to her, “is an authentic unitary nation. It didn’t begin with the union with Scotland but as the British Isles, an island nation defending itself (or not) against invaders from across the seas.” The oldest bond, she wrote, was the bond between “Britons”, as being all residents on the same island. Priority means nothing – historical fact, even less.  Never mind kingdoms, identity, or wars of invasion to try and remove that distinctive separate political identity (see writer, poet and lecturer Stuart McHardy’s new book ‘Scotland’s Future History’, in which he points out that these conflicts really are misrepresented by the normally-applied phrase ‘Wars of Independence’, given that Scotland was established as a kingdom a long time before the founding of England); never mind alliances forged with European nations against England because of those invading armies from the south: clearly, the greatest connection is amongst those living on that single landmass.

JK Rowling – no fan, it should be noted, of Scottish self-determination – attacked Phillips’ piece, by quoting it and substituting ‘UK’ for ‘EU’ (as you can see for the graphic above), which she believed demonstrated how ridiculous Melanie’s argument was…although it has to be said that Rowling’s version reads a lot more reasonably as an argument for Scottish independence than Phillips’ original does for Britain. It may be something of an understatement to say that Phillips’ was a ‘bold’ claim, unhindered as it was by facts or reason – but she has now been regarded as such a legitimate commentator on the subject, that she appeared as a recent guest on the BBC’s ‘Question Time’ panel show.

In the run-up to Theresa May initiating Article 50, this move by those opposed to Scottish independence is an even more bizarre shot than the misfire with Sadiq Khan at the Scottish Labour Party conference some weeks earlier: historical details being swept away in the presentation of the sort of irrational sentiment that the pro-independence campaign used to be accused of, once upon a time. This sort of convenient historical revision is not exactly a new stratagem when matters of empire are afoot – Gustaf Kossinna (1858-1931) was an archaeologist whose material culture work in the 1920s was used to spread the idea that there was ‘one German people’ that inhabited parts of Poland and Czechoslovakia, in order to pave the way for those countries to be annexed as part of a ‘traditional greater German homeland’ in the thirties. Having disseminated the idea that there was a deep subterranean unity across territorial borders, it weakened the objections of German people to those borders being dismantled, and the territories annexed.

One article (even if it is in The Times) does not of course equate to the same scale of justification employed by the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in Germany, who went so far as to fake newsreels of archaeological digs in order to support their arguments for expansion. But a determination to rewrite well-established history in such a globally-respected media organ indicates the limited stock that is likely to be placed by Westminster and its pet London commentariat on such accounts of strong European roots and links for Scotland, in the run-up to the second independence referendum. British Nationalists seem unhesitating in reaching lower and lower – into what is undeniably an all too familiar toolbag. When Theresa May, at the Scottish Conservative Party Conference at the start of March, attempted to justify her ignoring of the different political cultures demonstrated in the EU vote as a way of unilaterally setting up a hardline BrExit for English voters, it was more than a little chilling that she used the expression “for at heart we are one people”: as one commentator put it, “did she add ‘one leader, one Empire’?” British Exceptionalism is alive and well – and apparently applies to the warnings from history, as well.

Germany today is a modern global leader, with a progressive view of what Europe can be, and an accompanying comparatively open attitude towards refugees. To a very real extent, there is a sense that Scotland is more represented by what Germany is now in terms of progressive and social democratic pro-EU policies, whereas with its gunboat diplomacy on Gibraltar and rising xenophobia, England is heading very much more in the direction of what Germany was – back in the 1930s. The degeneration of British nationalism continues apace, and there is no small amount of bitter irony that the more the BritNats have attempted to traduce the Yes movement (often in the process trying to refer to them as ‘Nazis’), the more the British establishment has begun to look increasingly like a deeply racist regime…and resembling the early days of one of the most notorious of the twentieth century.

I have dealt with some of aspects of the demise of the British identity that previously gave some access for Scotland to be a part of Britain (first two of three parts here https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/12/20/the-queens-buried-rules-when-the-impartiality-of-the-monarch-is-strained-the-death-of-scotlands-post-war-dream-part-1 and https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/football-is-not-a-matter-of-life-and-death-its-much-more-important-than-that-of-football-and-diverging-flags-the-death-of-scotlands-post-war-dream-pt-2 ) in the Three Estaits series, and Paul Kavanagh  (https://weegingerdug.wordpress.com/2017/03/07/the-wrong-side-of-history/) neatly summarises a further dimension, while looking at Phillips article: “the many ties of Britishness, all the institutions and organisations which once fostered that sense of Britishness which remains strongest in the oldest generations, have been destroyed by the British state itself and most often by the Tories. Just 50 years ago there were dozens of large state owned organisations, British Coal, British Steel, the Royal Mail, British Leyland and many more, all were owned by the state and helped to create and promote a sense of a shared British experience and identity. They’ve all gone now, sold off and broken up, and as they disappeared they took that fragile sense of a British identity with them. And the reason it was fragile was because it was never strongly rooted in history, no matter how much Melanie tries to rewrite the past.” It is one thing for a historian to write of modern political events in the context of such history, but when journalists such as Melanie Phillips indulge in a Kossinna-like reinvention of history to justify the dominance of an anglocentric power construct, it suggests that advocates of the Union may still be experiencing difficulty finding that elusive ‘positive case’ that they searched so long for in 2013-2014.

Trying to reinvent a unitary British dream that was allowed to die in the decades following the second world war, and digging deep in the dirt of an imagined past for shards of justification, has no relevance when looking to decide what our future might be.

 

“I can confirm today that next week I will seek the authority of the Scottish Parliament to agree with the UK government the details of a Section 30 Order, the procedure that will enable the Scottish Parliament to legislate for an Independence Referendum…before it is too late to decide our own path.” (Nicola Sturgeon, 11:44, March 13th, 2017, Bute House, Edinburgh)

 

The ‘Once in a Generation’ Game: 12 Referenda for ‘No’ Monkeys

A reviewer took me to task recently, over my use of the word ‘generation’: in the paper that I had submitted, I was comparing two historically separated figures variously engaged with Enlightenment science, and had said that there was a generation between them. A furious note was scribbled on the manuscript when it came back from review: ‘a generation is 25 years’. I had to confess that I had never before heard anyone say that there was a specific mathematical figure for how many years a ‘generation’ constituted, and thus considered myself duly enlightened.

‘Generations’ are topical right now: there has recently been an upswell in what is colloquially referred to as the ‘YoonStream’ (the Unionist social media bubble), regarding the recurrence of an independence referendum. The prospect of a second independence referendum is taken as perhaps the equivalent of the notorious ‘Vow’ made by the Westminster parties a few days before the 2014 vote, wherein large-scale, wide-ranging new powers would come to Scotland’s Parliament if we only voted ‘No’ to independence. It would be (Scotland was told) the same as Home Rule, the abiding aim of the de facto Labour Party’s founder, Keir Hardie – effectively a federal UK. (If any of this sounds familiar, that is because a couple of Saturdays ago you might have heard similar promises by Gordon Brown, the same architect as last time. What is interesting is that he was wheeled out in the final week of the campaign in 2014, as the polls showed Yes was ahead – perhaps his early appearance now, before the campaign has even started, is a similar reflection of recent polling showing that ‘Yes’ is again ahead…although it may equally have been an attempt to divert attention away from Nicola Sturgeon’s keynote SNP spring party conference speech to former ‘No’ voters, on the same day.) This ‘Vow’ naturally failed to materialise once the No vote had been secured – but the ‘vow’ equivalent that Yes is accused of, is that there was a ‘promise’ that this referendum was a ‘once in a generation’ or once in a lifetime event – ergo there should be decades before there was even the possibility of it happening again.

However, the whole premise is rot, relying as it does on the wilful misrepresentation of comments made by Alex Salmond in the run-up to the vote on 18th September 2014.

I remember seeing the reports in 2014, with him being asked about the referendum by somewhat hostile journalists, in terms of the frequency of such things. Alex swerved the question neatly, choosing to emphasise the rarity of having the chance to have such a vote for independence. “It is a once in a generation opportunity”, he replied. I understood exactly what he meant: it was a warning. He did not want anyone to be relaxed that this plebiscite might commonly recur in the future, that it was a question that could easily be regularly revisited, so no pressure to go with it this time. He did not want such an impression to spread, making the electorate complacent and feel that they could casually vote ‘No’ (or not vote at all) without serious consideration, as there would be ‘another independence referendum along soon’, like a number 11 bus. There had been no vote – or even token gesture of consultation – on the Act of Union in 1707 (to be fair, the closest that regular non-land-owning people had to free expression back then was the series of riots that took place in virtually every Scottish town and city in protest at the idea of the Union coming in to being), or at any point in the ensuing three centuries plus. So to say that the opportunity to have such a say was rare (or even once every twenty five years) is a significant understatement.

It seems fairly safe to say that a major reason for the 2014 plebiscite being agreed to by Westminster was that David Cameron was confident that he could use it to destroy the SNP as a political force.

There was no largesse here, or great love of democracy – he felt he could use it against his political opponents (in much the same way that he disastrously initiated the EU referendum purely to resolve the Conservative Party ascendancy) to his own ends. If Cameron had not seen an opportunity for himself, then that referendum would most likely have been denied – of course, not by being as foolhardy as to say ‘no’, but probably under the guise of ‘now not being the right time’, as Theresa May tried last week: hitting it into the long grass, as the political golfing metaphor goes. In short, it was a fluke of Conservative arrogance and caprice that the first independence referendum happened – Salmond was never, ever in any way shape or form saying ‘fair dos, if you win this, we will not ever mention it again’ – he was saying ‘they have never been so daft as to let the question be asked before, and this will probably be our one shot at it’. You cannot misrepresent the act of encouraging someone to vote because it is a rare chance that may well not come again, as equating to making a promise or vow – such as Cameron, Clegg and Milliband did in that last week of the campaign, in trying to make the referendum seem to be about ‘independence or more powers’, instead of In or Out of the UK. (You can read elsewhere about how that intervention undermined what the referendum was actually asking, as commented on by political scientist Professor Tony Carty, at https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/12/12/beyond-conditional-nos-the-ongoing-political-uncertainty-of-what-the-no-vote-actually-meant .) The two simply do not equate – but perhaps it says more about a certain kind of Unionist mindset that they would hear Salmond’s words as those of someone coming cap-in-hand to beg a favour, rather than a warning to the Scottish electorate against being complacent, because the state might well block any future calls for Scottish self-determination in perpetuity. Instead, they prefer to play the Once-in-a-Generation Game.

Of course, the issue of self-determination is not evenly spread throughout time, and becomes more of an issue at times when the colonial or ‘parental’ government becomes more obviously incompetent or unwilling to represent broader interests and concerns. This has the effect of reminding people of the state that they are in, and how brazenly unresponsive it can be to their needs. At other times, this is not so obvious – although having come through the crucible of 2014, the Scottish electorate look more forensically at Westminster’s performance than ever before. As hard as it was to battle through to the end of the September 2014 referendum and see it end in a failure, the more sanguine among us had been considering that it was an exercise in waking ourselves up – ready for the next time. Like Morpheus in the Nebuchadnezzar, unplugging as many individuals from the mainstream media Matrix as we could, so that they looked more critically at the political world around them, and what it really means to be Scotland in Britain. (Given the recent Panelbase media survey, whereby only 32% of Scots expressed confidence in the BBC as a balanced news-provider regarding constitutional issues, I think we can say that we have had some significant success in that regard.) That has meant the awakening of critical political thinking in Scotland – with political parties judged harshly, and rewarded richly, according to how well they stood up to public scrutiny. The political landscape of Scotland has been transformed – and, some might argue, this has had a knock-on effect in England. It also means that the electorate are a lot more questioning of the media that they more passively consumed in the past.

The ‘Yes’ Movement suffered last time from failing to criticise how Scotland faired as a component within the UK, instead focussing on the many possibilities and opportunities that would come with becoming an independent state. (One of Cameron’s purported reasons for refusing to debate Salmond during that campaign, was to avoid turning it into a referendum on Westminster’s ‘custodianship’ of Scotland within the Union.) Ian Bell wrote that he felt the main reason that ‘Yes’ lost, was in its failure to address why one might not wish to be considered British – in truth, Westminster has stage-managed exposure of precisely why one might not wish to be considered that since the result in 2014, running from English Votes for English Laws, the failure of the Smith Commission, the watering down of those insipid proposals, and the implosion of the EU Referendum and the sudden xenophobic leap towards a hard BrExit. And, so, we find ourselves once more looking at a Scottish Independence Referendum – perhaps more as an indication of the need to call Westminster’s performance over the last three years in the wake of 18th September 2014 to account, than anything else.

It is fair to say that the British state has not favoured the Scottish question being asked, and has relied on a series of unlikely-to-be-surmounted obstacles to prevent that from happening. But how ‘precious’ is that long-lasting union, if the countries of the UK are only in it because none of them are allowed to leave? As one commentator noted, it is the difference between parliamentary democracy and political capture – are we really being treated as though we are nothing more than a 19th century colony, in this ‘union of equal partners’?

For example, it is worth noting that, prior to devolution, there was no consideration of a referendum as the mechanism for Scotland attaining independence – all the SNP had to do was secure a majority of the MPs representing Scotland at Westminster, to automatically gain the right to declare independence. That was, of course, seen to be astronomically unlikely…but Westminster could not have foreseen the degree to which people in Scotland would become so utterly disillusioned with first the Conservatives (primarily from Thatcher), then Labour (through Blair in Iraq), and finally the Liberal Democrats (through coalition with Cameron’s aggressive government). Suddenly, the SNP were the only credible party of government left in Scotland. Today, those old Westminster guidelines seem laughable, with 56 out of 59 MPs elected to represent Scotland in Westminster being Scottish National Party members: never mind a simple ‘majority’ of Scottish Westminster seats as a requisite for declaring independence, they were close to getting ALL of the seats. That could easily be taken as a mandate – but the SNP have even more than that to underpin their right to hold a further independence referendum.

As I write this, the Scottish Parliament is debating the motion to pass a request for a Section 30 Order from Westminster, to make an independence referendum legal and binding. That same Scottish Parliament is governed by the SNP, who were elected explicitly on a manifesto that said that if Scotland voted to stay in the EU but the UK voted to Leave, then this would constitute grounds for a new independence referendum on Scottish independence (especially given that continued membership of the EU was supposedly one of the major reasons to vote ‘No’ in 2014 – although that argument was hotly disputed by ‘Yes’). Although the SNP dropped their absolute majority of the previous Scottish Parliament (which was supposed to be mathematically well-nigh impossible to achieve), the SNP have enough members to pass the motion against united Conservative, Labour and LibDem opposition in Holyrood, and they also have the support of the Scottish Greens for an independent Scotland. The SNP have a clear mandate for an independence referendum from their manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections last year, which described the specific EU vote circumstances that transpired – never mind what would have been a pre-devolution mandate from their near unanimous occupation of the Scottish benches at Westminster. But as you once more hear the desperate unionist howl of ‘but you PROMISED it was only once in a generation!’, remember that there was never any undertaking to Unionists, by either politicians or by the Scottish people, that there would not be another one – it was a warning to the Scottish electorate that, with the paucity of opportunities during the lifetime of the Union for Scots to assess whether the Union should be dismantled, that another chance might well never come again. Not an undertaking, but an expectation – and who could have expected that the Conservatives would press such a self-destructive button on their relationship with the EU, less than two years after citing it as the main reason for Scotland to stay in the UK?

It is interesting to note that Alex Salmond’s explanation to Andrew Marr (see quote below) of the sort of timescale that he imagined for a political generation is not so far from the literary one mentioned at the start of this article – the gap between the Scottish Assembly vote in 1979 (won on the same 52:48 majority as the UK’s EU referendum, incidentally) and the 1997 vote for the Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers, is one of 18 years – and between that and the independence referendum, 17 years. This time, the gap will be much smaller, because circumstances have changed catastrophically over an incredibly short timeframe…and it is hard to envisage another change as cataclysmic (Conservatives take UK out of the UN? Offer to join with Russia as an appeasement to Trump for a better trade deal to circumvent US protectionism? Yeah, I know…as unlikely as hard BrExit was 18 months ago) as to once more demonstrate a clear need to reassess the viability of the Union again. But – as much as Westminster might like to pretend that this is all a ‘plot’ of the SNP, or whomever is in charge of the party at any given time (because they always like to personalise it as an individual’s ‘obsession’, rather than the electoral preference of the electorate…although that is arguably far far more true of Theresa May’s premiership than Nicola Sturgeon’s), it is ultimately the people of Scotland that have that power – and who make the choice of when and if any given political party is given a mandate for an independence referendum. And if the people say it shall be so, then so it shall be.

But if the Unionists want it to be once in a generation, then we have quite a backlog of overdue independence referenda to get through – if it is twelve (for each unassessed batch of 25 years since 1707), then by my reckoning that leaves nine still outstanding, after 1979, 1997 and 2014 are taken into account. The sooner Scotland starts on getting through that backlog of referenda, the better.

Either way, it is coming.

 

“If you remember that previous constitutional referendum in Scotland – there was one in 1979 and then the next one was 1997. That’s what I mean by a political generation…In my opinion, and it is just my opinion, this is a once in a generation opportunity for Scotland.” (Alex Salmond to Andrew Marr, 14/9/2014)

 

 

‘Questions, a Burden to Others’: The True Divisiveness of the Scottish Independence Referendum

The 1960s television series ‘The Prisoner’ warned against asking questions when living in The Village. ‘Questions, a Burden to Others’, followed by the ever-so slightly patronising companion message ‘Answers, a Prison for Oneself’. Nobody wants you to ask questions, is the message – and you will not like any answers that you get. Perhaps they saw it as ‘Divisive’?

‘Divisive’ has become a very popular word in the press recently, in reference to referenda: it is supposed to indicate that asking a referendum question is a bad thing, because it ‘divides’ people. The usage seems to me to be desperately trying to ignore that any democratic process – whether referendum or election – becomes therefore intrinsically ‘divisive’. There is a reason why they ring a ‘Division bell’ in Westminster to signal MPs to go to their division lobby to vote for or against a resolution. Should they rename it something less ‘choicey’? Something that sounds less – dare I say it? – ‘separatist’? If democracy was not divisive, then that would be because everyone thought the same….and therefore there would be no reason to check which was the preferred option for any given question. So, in that sense, ‘divisive’ though asking a question may be, it is also kind of intrinsic to the idea of democracy in the first place…otherwise people are just being dictated to. (We might guess that the individuals that ran The Village were more in favour of the latter – rather than the former – option of government.)

Therefore, the treatment by politicians and the press of ‘Divisiveness’ as incredibly unusual in a democracy, and something that people need to be protected from, needs closer examination. Political elections are HIGHLY ‘Divisive’ – and the fact that they happen pretty much annually, whether for local councils, Holyrood, Westminster or to the European Parliament – suggests that society somehow manages to recover and continue on, no matter how ‘divisive’ – or ‘choice-ive’ – multiple parties on a ballot paper are. So are the dangers of being ‘Divisive’ more unique to the clearly terrible phenomenon of a referendum, rather than an election, then? Astonishingly, Switzerland – which had 31 referenda between 1995 and 2005, to answer 103 questions – has not collapsed into internecine violence and anarchy as a result of this ‘division’ in its political culture. It seems that asking questions is not so dangerous after all.

One thing that the prospective referendum certainly seems to have been ‘Divisive’ about, is the response of the political parties. At their conference in Perth on Saturday, the Scottish LibDems said they would oppose a second independence referendum – just as Nick Clegg (former Deputy Prime Minister and ex-party leader) said that Westminster should not block one. The leaders of the political parties opposing the SNP in Holyrood have faired little better: the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has gone on record saying that she opposed a second independence referendum, but that Westminster should not block it.  In September 2015, the Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said that she would allow Scottish Labour MSPs to have a free vote on a second independence referendum, even permitting them to campaign for independence. However, since then she has moved from her position, saying in July 2016 in the wake of the EU Referendum (The Guardian on 7th July) that it would be “categorically wrong” for the UK Government to refuse a second independence referendum, and now saying that she will oppose such a referendum. And – to top it all – the UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said on Saturday that it would be “fine” for there to be a second Scottish independence referendum. He changed his position again this morning, just before Nicola’s announcement from Bute House – but not before a Labour supporter had started a Twitter poll on whether or not Corbyn was right to approve of the referendum, and 89% of the votes cast said ‘Yes, he was’. So the latest statement from Jeremy is that Scottish Labour will vote to block the referendum in Holyrood, but UK Labour will not vote to block it in Westminster. All clear, then? All this from the party that brought you the new Twitter hashtag of #unitescotlandnotdivide with zero sense of irony.

‘Divisive’ – the word was even used by No.10 Downing Street today, straight after Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement, when the Prime Minister’s Office said that an independence referendum would be ‘Divisive’. This would presumably be ‘Divisive’ in a similar way to BrExit, except that BrExit gets more and more ‘Divisive’ as it continues, steering harder towards an antiquated imperialistic world-view, and away from the liberal state that people once thought the UK was…even going so far as for Theresa May to threaten to take devolved areas back from Holyrood.

In this regard, Theresa May seems to have been keen to be as provocative as possible and make people in Scotland feel divided from the UK’s decision-making, even if she does not want them to vote for independence so that Scotland is actually away from the UK. That single odd action by Theresa May at the Scottish Conservative conference a couple of weeks ago – talking about taking powers back from the Scottish Parliament, for some new devolved settlement – exemplifies how unnecessary it was for Westminster to be facing the prospect of another Scottish independence referendum again, especially so soon. All of this is happening as a result of the UK Government’s mismanagement not so much of the 2014 Referendum, as of the aftermath of the Referendum: from Cameron’s English Votes for English Laws on the morning of the 19th September 2014 (rendering Scottish MPs second-class members of the Westminster parliament, hot on the heels of promises that the Union was a partnership of equals), on to the homeopathic treatment of the Smith Commission to make the promised ‘Vow’ an irrelevance. All this, just at the time they should have been endeavouring to woo people back, to make them feel valued as part of the Union – as JK Rowling opined in her advocacy of a ‘No’ vote: “I doubt whether we will ever have been more popular, or in a better position to dictate terms, than if we vote to stay.” But no: on it went, with the disappointing response to the differential EU referendum result for Scotland…it has all been botched by an indifferent Westminster government, who did not seem to realise that there was ever a ‘peace’ to win, once the first campaign was finished and won.

So ‘wooing’ (rough or otherwise) was the path not chosen by the UK Government. Instead, the message of ‘gotcha, suckers’ was writ large. They were so confident that such an SNP mandate was a one-off circumstance that would not be repeated, that they could be as boorish and triumphalist as they wanted about their victory, secure in the knowledge of the inevitable collapse in support for the Scottish National Party now they had lost the September 2014 Referendum. This was clearly the end of the SNP, and the end of aspirations for an independent Scotland.

Well, not so much. We arrived today at the First Minister’s residence in Bute House for a morning press conference called at short notice. A series of recent polls showing increased support for Scottish independence (one even exceeding 50%) and the campaign had not even had the starting pistol fired. At the end of the First Minister’s announcement to the press that she was going to ask the Scottish Parliament to pass legislation for a second referendum on Scottish independence, a fundraiser was launched to raise a million pounds for the referendum campaign in 100 days. In seven hours, it had raised over a hundred thousand pounds (almost an hour after Wings Over Scotland’s annual crowd-fundraiser had coincidentally hit the same figure following 14 days on Indiegogo).

As much as the rhetoric has been about ‘Divisiveness’ from the unionist parties run from London, it is the negative actions of those parties that have led to a uniting of Scots from different party backgrounds under a Yes banner. Far more so than when the last starting gun was fired, back in 2012, with support for Scottish independence on 28%. The answer this time may – or may not – be different, but the responsibility for the question being asked lies solely in London.

 

“A country denied the ability to run its own economy is blamed for being bankrupt by the authority which exercises those macro-economic powers over it. The British Treasury pulls our wings off then laughs when we can’t fly.” (Derek Bateman, former BBC Scotland broadcaster)

(Thanks to Chris Cairns of Cairnstoon for the above cartoon, first published 11/3/2017)

P.S. I would love to have said that Scotland might culturally be more comfortable with the idea of having referenda than many other areas of the UK, due to its tradition that the people – rather than parliament – are sovereign…but that might be giving a lot of people a little more credit for knowing more details of Scottish political history than might perhaps be realistic. Especially as I could not have claimed to have known this myself before the previous referendum occurred…. 🙂

Tales from BrExitLand: Johnson and May Trying to Steal from Sturgeon, or Stupid Is as Stupid Does

Well, that was a bit of a Summer Surprise, wasn’t it? (And I say that fully conscious that I wrote ‘predicting’ this EU scenario in December 2014.) The narrative for the European vote – even although Scottish independence supporters had been talking about this split outcome as a platform for the next independence referendum for more than 18 months – is still somehow unbelievable…with so many stupid errors of judgement as to make a film script of these events lack any credibility whatsoever.

First of all – what genius (on Cameron’s side, remember) thought that placing an EU Referendum amidst a European Championship football competition where England was represented, was a good idea? The European question was an English question, and so the issue of the Euro Championships obviously come centre stage – a draw with Russia, and a game to win against Wales, knowing that if they lose they are out…if you are going to inflame English nationalism (which many have interpreted as rising through the increasing support for leaving Europe), then of course you hold it during a football championship where England will be playing – a win makes the feeling of empowerment soar, a loss makes their hatred of foreigners do likewise: surely the worst possible time for a referendum on Europe, Cameron? Didn’t you check your calendar and realise that it was happening? I was travelling between Peterborough and Cambridge in the days running up to the vote – deprived housing districts in Peterborough were as redolent in ‘Leave’ placards as they were in St George’s Crosses…and Cambridge was just as devoid of both, instead decorated with a forest of ‘Remain’ banners. You could see a very clear ‘deprivation’ split – as well as the melding (or blurring) of identities.

Secondly, there was the nature of the actual campaign – ‘OutFearing Project Fear’ – such a contrast where September 2014 was Project Fear versus hope, this time it was Project Fear versus a near-identical Project Fear on the opposite side. Cameron obviously thought that what worked in Scotland would work again – but failed to factor in the solid press antagonism to Scottish independence in 2014, as compared to the split in the press over the EU referendum: this time, the press were NOT in his pocket, his message had a stifled platform, and his campaign stalled.

On 1st June, two ICM polls for The Guardian — one online and one by phone — both put the ‘Leave’ campaign on 52 per cent. Previously only the online polls had put ‘Leave’ ahead — those indications were a seven per cent drop for ‘Remain’ on the phone poll carried out by ICM the previous month. But then a further poll came out, appearing to show that ICM’s were yet another Iain Gray rogue poll – the undecideds were breaking 2:1 for ‘Remain’, giving ‘Remain’ a seven point lead. ‘Remain’ breathed a sigh of relief – the data was gathered over 10th-15th June, and on the 16th June Labour MP Jo Cox was killed, reportedly by someone shouting ‘Britain First’. That seemed to be an end to the possibility of the EU departure – because, regardless of whether the individual was a member of the organization, or was not acting under ‘instructions’, surely the associated revulsion from such an act would swing people away from voting for Leave, and thus be associated with such an act? A prompt for ‘shy Remainers’ to come out firmly for the EU, I would have thought.

As much as my sympathies and vote was very much for Remain, it has always annoyed me that single acts of violence, which can be utterly dissociated from the main campaigns and campaigners, can be attached to them by the media in order to discredit the broader campaign. I was pretty sure that was going to happen after the murder of Jo Cox. More than this – with the timing in the polls, Cameron also being put under the spotlight by Jon Snow on Channel 4 News a day earlier for electoral fraud by his party in 31 constituencies at the preceding General Election (thus jeopardising his majority in Westminster), it is hard not to note how politically convenient the timing was for him, no matter how much one wants to resist the tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists with the model of yet another ‘lone nut’. Follow the money, as they say…who would benefit from such a radical move? Certainly not the Leave campaign: they would clearly lose out in the backlash following such a tragic incident.

And yet apparently not. The Jo Cox factor did not have the powerful effect that one would have anticipated at other times – shockingly so.

A friend (who worked in the Department of Environment and Climate Change, no less) described the mood in the office, the morning the result was declared, and the common cause between the City of London and Scotland: the plans to flood the M25, and dig a tunnel up to Scotland to create the new state of the ‘Isles of Sanity’. Sadly, the shock in that government office reflected the preparedness of the whole of Whitehall for that particular outcome.

And as soon as the dust of the result cleared, the leaders were gone – Theresa May stepping into the vacuum, her position of being acceptable to both Leave and Remain factions only credible through her highly understated and modest expressions of support for Remain, while fully committing herself to enacting ‘the wishes of the people’. Which is actually one small sliver of a silver lining for this whole fiasco: during the Scottish Independence Referendum, we were always worried about the margin that we would need for Westminster to not contest or simply ignore the result (as they did with other parts of the Edinburgh Agreement). Part of the sabre rattling in the run-up to the Scottish Independence Referendum very much coalesced around the ‘No’ side saying ‘even if you get a marginal win, we’ll demand a rerun anyway’. Personally I thought that as much as we would have taken a one vote win, we would need to have had nearer 60% of the vote to be reasonably confident of withstanding such calls. May’s acceptance of a result that she supposedly was not in favour of has changed all that – win a referendum by 2%, and Westminster capitulates. Precedent established.

What grounds would justify a rerun (of either referendum) is another question: an online petition to rerun the EU referendum immediately gained over 3 million signatures on the basis that ‘wait we did not understand the question’. Arguments for a rerun of the Scottish Independence Referendum are somewhat less about regarding the electorate as idiots. A reasonable summary would be ‘Westminster, you got a second chance with your promises and threats in 2014, and you blew it on every single level’. And that was even before the hollowness of the promise that ‘you can only stay in the EU if you vote No to Scottish Independence’ was exposed – Sturgeon even flagged that up clearly as their manifesto commitment in the May 2016 Holyrood elections, so they knew what was coming with that even larger SNP landslide than 2011. The difference between the revisiting of each referendum is ‘the electorate were too dumb to understand’ as opposed to ‘last minute promises by the Westminster government of the day in the purdah period utterly failed to be delivered’. The bizarreness of the Daily Record – the newspaper that delivered the hollow empty promises of ‘The Vow’ two days before the Scottish independence vote – now coming out encouraging Nicola Sturgeon to hold another independence referendum after the EU outcome, is …well, surreal, frankly.

And Boris’ plan – if the tales are true – was to narrowly lose the vote – not win it. What – was he trying to do a Nicola Sturgeon, thinking that the electorate loves a gallant loser? Did Boris think that it was just a ‘rebound’ factor in the SNP’s popularity from narrowly losing, that gave them their current status – that if he could emulate the SNP’s gallant failure, that he would spontaneously acquire a heroic status? Not so easy as the SNP made it look, was it Boris? A bit more to it than that, old chap: you have to offer something different from Fear and Hate to do that…or as Sadiq Khan described the ‘Leave’ campaign ‘Project Hate’.

In the immediate aftermath of the vote, I still would not have been surprised if the ‘decision’ failed to be implemented – the ‘Leave’ MPs were talking in a very relaxed fashion about the long grass that it could be kicked into, in stark contrast to David Cameron’s promise to enact Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty as soon as the result was known. The only problem is that the local council elections are due next May, and if the Conservatives do not seem to be respecting the result, they could lose heavily to UKIP. So Boris has announced that Article 50 will be activated early next year (before the end of March). Madness.

Or is Theresa May – similarly to Boris – also trying to copy Nicola Sturgeon? As much as Nicola makes much of attempting to secure a non-BrExit future for Scotland within the UK, you must think that she fully expects to be turning around in 6 months time to say ‘well guys – we tried, but they were not playing ball’, having done enough to win over at least some of those who would not have supported a full-blown attempt to go all-out for independence from June 24th. If Theresa also uses the rhetoric of hard BrExit, in order to appear to be driving down a UKIP motorway, but then is pulled up by some outside threat to say ‘sorry guys – we could not do it after all, we will have to go soft’, then she might similarly be hoping to convince enough UKIP-leaners to abandon support for them because she appeared to sincerely give it a go, even though she had no expectation of success. (After all, why else would you allow Amber Rudd to give such an obviously-repugnant speech about foreign worker registration at a Conservative Party conference? It seems unlikely that that was a serious policy proposal to be brought forward to Westminster, given the cries of ‘neo-Nazi’ that were certain to follow and resonate with such a move.)

The UK Government still seems in utter chaos – for each new glimmer of light shed by a cabinet minister, a distancing statement follows from Downing Street within 24 hours. The new Home Secretary announces a programme of businesses registering foreign workers? No, that is not government policy. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union says that it is highly improbable that the UK will retain access to the single market if the price is free movement of people? No that is an opinion, not government policy. It is fair to say that more has been retracted than revealed about BrExit by the UK government since the morning of 24th June. And yet Theresa May – pursuing a far harder exit from the EU (eschewing even the single market) than was ever in the Conservative manifesto – believes that Nicola Sturgeon has ‘no mandate’ to offer a second independence referendum, despite it clearly being stated in the SNP manifesto that this would become live if the UK vote went against the vote of Scotland in the EU Referendum.

One could argue that the electorate that voted for Leave have been taken for fools by opportunists, and are now destined to be ridden roughshod over by a government driving for a far more damaging break than they had a mandate for. However one cannot say the same thing about Scotland – 44% of the vote went to a party who said that they would have a second independence referendum in the event that the UK voted to leave the EU while Scotland voted to stay in. That path was flagged up very clearly – the Conservatives lemming-charge towards a cliff edge most certainly was not.

 

“For the state must draw a sharp line of distinction between those who as members of the nation are the foundation and support of its existence and greatness and those who are domiciled in the state simply as earners of their livelihood there.” (from chapter 2 of Mein Kampf)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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