Thursday, September 25, 2014

How bad was the Labour Conference?

Maybe not quite as bad as the commentators have suggested.  Certainly, it was no political lighting storm, but then we've just had one of those in the form of the Scottish referendum, and it was rather bad luck for Labour that their conference should come by just as the majority of the British public have had their annual politics fix.  Most people - including the 'ordinary people' name checked by Ed Miliband in his widely panned conference speech - simply aren't engaged with politics.  The chance of creating or rejecting a new nation seems to get them out, but a bog standard party conference isn't going to do the trick, so it would be unfair to be too condemning towards Labour on that front.

Nevertheless, this is an Opposition party that could form the next government heading towards another close election battle, so it is a failure on their part that they didn't even seem able to energise their own supporters. The most admired speech was from an elderly World War Two veteran, while the international guest speaker, Bill De Blasio, mayor of New York, failed to alight the passions of his fellow social democrats.  The two shadow cabinet ministers who seemed to energise their audiences the most were probably Health shadow Andy Burnham (a not very secret contender for the leadership vacancy that most observers think will be sooner rather than later) and Yvette Cooper, shadow Home Secretary.

Miliband's own speech was a seriously uninteresting ragbag of anecdote and under the wire policy ruminations.  His forgotten sections were all the more newsworthy for the remembered bits having been so dull.  His party trick of seeking to memorise the speech probably tells us more about the disconnection of policy-wonks-turned-leaders who think memorising a speech is more important than its content, than it does about his actual policy priorities.

The excellent Spectator Coffee House blog, currently on very good form with several pithy, readable and shrewd updates each day, carries this analysis by Isabel Hardman of what was wrong with the Labour conference. meanwhile is more positive about Ed Miliband generally, but damning about this year's his speech.  

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Has Scotland shown us how to reinvigorate democray?

There hasn't been wanting commentators and ordinary joes to tell us that the extraordinary turnout in the Scottish referendum has shown us the way to a better, more invigorated democratic system.

Janet Street Porter, one of the more emotional of these, says in her paean of praise to the Scottish people that "You showed us what commitment and passion are all about and given the rest of the UK a wake-up call."  Mind you, Janet also noted how wonderful it was that "people who don’t agree can accept a result and move forward together", suggesting she hasn't been watching events in Glasgow too closely.

The reality, though, is that this is an exceptional rather than indicative democratic event.  Rarely will people get to vote on the very nature of their country, or to bring a new country into existence, so it is hardly surprising that the interest and turnout should have been high.  Scotland has hardly been a shining example of democratic activism in any of its other elections however.  Turnout for their own parliamentary elections in 2011 was a mere 50% (it's on this miserable turnout that the SNP won their victory).  It was slightly up for the apparently hated Westminster elections in 2010 at 63.8%, and even for the first ever elections to a Scottish Parliament in 1999 it was only 58%.  So let's rest on praising the Scots as great democrats and consider that this was an exceptional circumstance.  

The referendum offers us no answers about the participation crisis in British democracy.  Indeed, it is instructive to note, as politicians start discussing regionalism as a way forward for a more balanced UK polity, that even in Scotland, where bile towards Westminster was at its height, voters have still preferred to turn out and vote for a parliament that no longer runs their domestic services than they do for their own home-grown assembly. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

After 'No', What?

First detailed reaction to the No vote in Scotland comes from the Spectator's team of Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth.  Their article here is a thorough examination of the campaign, and the problems it now poses.  "This morning, the United Kingdom wakes up to one of the biggest constitutional messes in its history" they begin, and who could argue with that?

Key points:

- The referendum has failed to settle the issue of devolution, as it was supposed to, because David Cameron changed the terms of engagement at the last minute
- The Egnlish Question is now writ large on the political agenda, with most Tory MPs determined to pursue it (and, incidentally, furious with Cameron for his ill considered 'Vow')
- Ed Balls is angry at Miliband's commitment to this 'Vow' too as it hamstrings Labour's ability to pass a budget for England
- Today's mess is the consequence of the original, and disastrous, New Labour devolution settlement
- All the main Westminster parties are frankly in a mess in Scotland; in Labour's case they have a B-list of politicians active at Holyrood, easily outmanouevred by Salmond and Sturgeon
- Salmond remains in charge in Scotland - he will use any failure to pass the pledges of the 'Vow' as an excuse to reignite the independence question
- The referendum question was poorly worded as far as the Unionist side were concerned; nstead of asking whether to vote for an independent Scotland, it should have asked whether Scotland wanted to remain part of the UK, giving the Union campaign the advantage of a positive 'Yes'.
- The leadership of the Better Together campaign was fraught, with Darling unequal to the street-fighting nature of the Yes campaign
- The rejection of a currency union was done in a way that made it look like a Westminster diktat - grist to the nationalist mill
- "A mixture of Labour squeamishness and Tory uselessness ensured that the battle for Britain was never properly fought. The case for the Union was reduced to a series of dire and sometimes implausible warnings."

Nelson and Forsyth conclude:

The unionist campaign was designed to achieve a victory clear enough to end the independence question for a generation. Instead, it found itself taking support for separation to levels never seen, or anticipated. Scotland is now a divided country, after a debate that has split families and damaged friendships. The healing process will begin, but no one can claim the country is stronger for all of this. It would have been bad enough for the combination of Cameron, Miliband and Clegg to have had no impact in saving the Union — but in many ways they managed to make things worse. This weekend, all three party leaders have a lot to answer for.

Yes. One hundred per cent spot on. Sadly.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

David Cameron's Leadership Flaws

As we await the results of the Scottish referendum - and with the No vote sounding more confident than they have done for the past fortnight - reflections are obviously turning towards the post-vote fall-out.  There has been a widespread belief that David Cameron would not have survived a Yes vote.  The question is whether he can survive a No vote.  His credibility is at an all time low with his backbenchers, who believe he has ill-advisedly offered the Scots too much on the devolution front in his panicky attempts to ensure the Union stays together. 

Gaby Hinsliff, in the Guardian, has provided a very effective analysis of the Cameron leadership and its flaws.  One prescient passage notes this:

It’s become a bit of a cliche to accuse the prime minister of treating government like it’s an undergraduate essay crisis, with everything tackled at 10 minutes to midnight in a caffeine-fuelled blur. Cameron is neither so dim nor so thoughtless as he’s sometimes painted, and nor is he the only senior politician ever secretly reduced to crossing fingers and hoping for the best. But he has now flown so often by the seat of his pants that they’re getting worryingly threadbare. Too often he has either busked his way to the “right” result for all the wrong reasons, or got the wrong result for what were frankly good reasons – namely that he didn’t deserve to win.

She provides evidence of his leadership style throughout her piece, but he can be effectively summed up as the  threadbare prime minister.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Yes Vote for Scotland is the best possible result for Scotland; and England too.

I want Scotland to vote Yes tomorrow.  Not just by a small margin, but by an utterly convincing majority.  Had you asked me a few weeks ago I would have been far less convinced of this; might even have been a little agnostic on the issue.  But the events of the past couple of weeks have convinced me that Scotland needs to vote Yes, not just for her sake, but for England’s too.

I have watched all three Westminster party leaders be panicked by opinion polls into making rash and self-serving promises that will simply serve to send the Union into meltdown.  Promises which they may not even be able to deliver on.  Promises on behalf of other nations – England, Wales and Northern Ireland – which they have barely deigned to consult. 

I have watched three Westminster party leaders scurry up to Scotland in the last couple of weeks of a campaign that has lasted for some eighteen months to deliver from their southern redoubt a plea for Scotland to vote No that has no basis at all in the real interests of the Scottish people who they have ignored for so long.

I have watched a Prime Minister who, eighteen months ago, was so dismissive of the idea of further devolution that he refused to countenance it as a referendum option, now embrace it fully and quickly offer it to the Scottish people.

I have watched a Labour leader muddle his way through his English leadership, ignoring his Scottish heartland and finally wake up to the realisation that his party’s vote is collapsing north of the border.

And is there anything still to say about a Liberal leader whose last unbreakable pledge was reduced to nothing within months of taking office?

There is no doubt in my mind that the Scots should vote Yes if for no other reason than that the referendum campaign, in its last two weeks, has found the Westminster leadership of the Union utterly wanting.  Should they do so, the English parties may well each carry out a coup and install new, fresher, more creative leaders who will be forced to face the challenge of re-casting English politics.  Scotland voting Yes not only gives the Scots a chance to form their own nation, but gives the English, the Welsh and the Northern Irish too chances to re-mould theirs.  It is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and it is in the hands of our northern neighbours.  Please, please give us all the chance.  Scotland is not just giving themselves the chance of freedom and a brave new world.  If she can make the leap, she offers it to all the other parts of the United Kingdom too, and boy do we need it.

I love Scotland and I think the Scots people are inventive, down to earth, witty and wonderful.  It is not much surprise that so many Scots have made their way south and then dominated.  But my question to them would be why?  Why haven’t you stayed to infuse your own nation with your wit and your cleverness and your articulate genius?  And the answer surely lies in the fact that the Scots haven’t felt they truly have a nation.  They have an adjunct province to a ‘united’ kingdom dominated by one of its constituent parts.

Well, now is the chance for Scots genius and Scots creativity to have a future in its own home.  I hope the Scottish people ignore the fear-mongering that has been the only really substantive part of the No campaign.  I hope they accept that the creating of a re-born nation is fraught with challenges, but that seizing those challenges with alacrity will offer a far greater opportunity than the reluctant acceptance of the status quo.  Nothing worthwhile comes without difficulty, and that is as true of nation-building as anything.  As the Scots have watched cynical English politicians troop north at the last minute with hastily cobbled together pledges they should ask whether they really want to vote to keep those same politicians as their leaders.  Because that is what a No vote will do. 

And as for England, what happens to us if Scotland chooses to go her own way?  I have listened with fascination as well meaning English men and women have spoken up about the importance of Scotland and the Scots to the United Kingdom, and wondered where on earth their own sense of English pride has gone.  If nothing else, Scottish independence will free the English to rediscover their own national virtues and character. 

But there would be more.  We would also gain a proudly independent northern neighbour with whom our relations should be able to remain cordial and arguably stronger than they have been before.  No longer will Scotland see herself as subject to England, or England view Scotland wearily as a complaining drain on her resources.  Two equal and independent kingdoms – united, perhaps, by a common monarch and probably (whisper it quietly) a common currency – will now be able to pursue their relationship in far greater harmony than will be the result from a whimpering No vote.

England will also get the opportunity to re-cast her own politics.  The weak, visionless leadership of the parties that has been thrown into stark relief by the referendum campaign is ripe for removal – a Yes vote may just engineer that. We can talk of an English parliament.  We may even start to see the flowering of a regionalism that might finally be able to break free of its overpoweringly mediocre leadership.  The Welsh and the Northern Irish, too, can breathe new life into their countries either through independence or at the very least a far greater autonomy within a new federation of the island nations.

The United Kingdom is broken.  Where once the referendum had the possibility of it continuing as before in the event of a No vote, the sudden U-turns of Cameron and Milliband have now removed that.  A No vote plunges us all into the mire of constitutional chaos wrought by inadequate and poll-driven politicians with the political depth of half-filled paddling pools.  A Yes vote provides a clear and fresh beginning.  Not just for the Scots, but for all of us.  For the sake of Scotland, and for the sake of the UK as a whole, I hope the Scots vote Yes tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Leaders of Chaos

The calamitous descent of the Westminster party leaders into ignominy over the Scottish referendum is now complete.  Panicked by opinion polls, lacking any confidence in the Union as it stands, failing to provide leadership of any sort and exhibiting an extraordinary level of short-term political cowardice, the Cameron-Miliband-Clegg bandwagon has finally hit the buffers with the issuing of an unprecedented 'Vow' to the Scottish people.  What makes it even more ironic is that the vow in question has been largely crafted by the much-maligned previous Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.  Yes, so bereft of ideas and political clout is David Cameron that he has simply allowed Brown's agenda to prevail.

The "Vow" essentially promises everything short of outright independence.  Alex Salmond wins whatever the vote on Thursday.  The inequitable Barnett formula for funding Scotland's excessive public spending regime is to continue.  The Scottish parliament is to gain yet more powers (whilst Scottish MPs presumably remain at Westminster, merrily legislating on English issues because they haven't the capacity to legislate on their own home ones).  And, most astonishingly of all, they've promised that the Scottish Parliament will be a "permanent and irreversible part of the British Constitution."  The most constitutionally illiterate leaders in British political history have promised to codify just one part of our constitution to embed one assembly, with blithe disregard for the mayhem that must follow as they find themselves patching up tear after tear.

When Mr. Cameron first agreed a Scottish referendum, it was on the understanding that it would provide a decisive and permanent answer to the devolution issue.  Either Scotland was out, or she was in the UK as it stands.  That was the point of not having "devo-max" on the ballot paper.  Now, as part of his typically short-termist political approach Cameron has U-turned again, but this one will prove the most costly and damaging U-turn of all.  He failed to appreciate the significance of the Scottish issue until an opinion poll woke him up.  How long will it be before he's looking at opinion polls that demand English, or Welsh, or Northern Irish restitution for the huge boons rashly promised to Scotland?  Cameron and his equally culpable fellow party leaders have just lit the blue touchpaper which will lead to constitutional chaos in the UK for a long time to come, and none of them have the vision or creativity to deal with it.  It'll almost be easier if the Scots vote 'Yes' on Thursday.

Rallying for Scotland - in England

The “Let’s Stay Together” rally in Trafalgar Square this evening was a decent, worthy and ultimately pointless affair.  It took a while to get going.  By 6pm, the advertised start time, the square was definitely less than crowded, perhaps indicative of the shrug that many English people seem to be giving about the referendum.  Eventually, around 6.30, things started happening, and the crowd had certainly got larger.  It was a perfectly nice crowd, with lots of very upper middle-class accents from English people who are probably a bit concerned about their Scottish holiday homes ending up in a foreign land.

Television historian Dan Snow kicked proceedings off with a litany of great Scots achievements; everything from Nelson to victory in the Battle of Britain.  Listening to his paean of praise I began to wonder whether the English could claim credit for anything good.  The United Kingdom, unbeknown to most of us in the southern kingdom, has been almost completely crafted, created and moulded by geniuses from Scotland.  No wonder they want to go independent.  They’ve been giving far too much of their unmatchable talent to England all this time and we’ve forgotten to thank them enough.

After a brief interlude where we were obscurely asked to applaud the NHS (they weren’t trying to imply that was essentially Scottish too by any chance?), writer Jenny Colgan took to the podium to explain her commitment to the UK, which she broadly did by listing lots of memories from her childhood, including the Swap Shop telephone number.  Not sure memories of Noel Edmonds are really going to persuade Scots to stay in the UK.

By this time the theme of love-bombing the Scots from the southern safety of Trafalgar Square was pretty well established, although Bob Geldof struck a more discordant note with his claim that we all hate effing Westminster politicians (I’ve anaesthatised his principal comment here).  If we do, we only have ourselves to blame for constantly voting them back in, and the Scots are every bit as responsible for that as the English.

As I wandered away from the rally I reflected that it was an essentially English thing to do – nice, well-meaning, utterly worthy and probably useless.  But with nice English people gathering round to say lots of nice things about Scotland, I’m beginning to wonder whether we aren’t suffering a bit of an identity crisis ourselves, which could lead to bigger things.  The rumblings are already starting.  That’s the thing about nationalism.  Spark one bit off and it lights another, and the English response isn’t always going to be the fundamentally decent one it was in Trafalgar Square today. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Union on Our Minds

What a difference one short week is making.  Alarmed by the advantage of the 'yes' vote in polls at the end of the last week, the English have finally been showing an interest in the northern country of their joint kingdom, while the Scots too have been on the receiving end of an at-last invigorated 'No' campaign.

The most recent polls are too close to call in real electoral terms, but the fact that the 'No' vote is coming back may add some crumbs of comfort to those north and south of the Tweed who would prefer to see the Union maintained.

Spectator editor Fraser Nelson, a Highland Scot now working and living in London, has put a perceptive and useful post up on the Spectator's blog.  Analysing the return of the 'No' vote, he also comments quite personally on his own perspective as a UK Scot living and then working in radically different parts of the kingdom where he can nonetheless feel equally at home.  It is all his country after all.  I feel a little similar in reverse, though only for brief periods admittedly as I don't work in Scotland, but on our regular CCF visits to the Cairngorms it still feels good to consider that remarkable area of the country a part of our joint home.  Our journey from Aviemore to a rafting centre just near Forres is one of the finest you can travel, and it is a journey we take in our own united kingdom.  Emotionalism such as this should have an equal - if opposite - impact upon unionists as it does on nationalists.

Nelson also notes the alarming rise of the 'dark side' of nationalism, which he acknowledges Alex Salmond has sought to carefully avoid in his own leadership of the 'Yes' campaign.  But nationalism will always have a dark side, and it rears its head every time this most febrile of ideologies drives an agenda.  It isn't just in Scotland.  The current debate on Scottish independence, with Westminster politicians promising the earth to Scotland if it will only stay in the Union, is seriously in danger of promoting a more fervent form of English nationalism that can only rebound to the detriment of both countries.  The vote on Thursday might just be able to head this darker side of the debate off before it gains too much headway.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Should we really be bribing the Scots to stay in the UK?

George Osborne doesn’t strike me as a particularly emotive or soft-headed politician, but even he – in fact, especially he – was falling over himself today to promise the Scots whatever they wanted short of full devolution if they voted no in eleven days time.

The realisation that Scotland might just vote to leave the Union – and thus effectively bring it to an end – seems to have concentrated a large number of English political minds, all bent on seeking to persuade the Scots to stay at almost any price. 

But should the English really be working so hard to keep Scotland? 

If Scotland were to decide for independence, we might perhaps expect the following consequences:

1.     The removal of the estimated £3,150 per head subsidy that the rest of the UK currently pays to Scotland

2.     The removal of the 41 Labour MPs who can vote on English matters such as health, education and transport, but have no say on those issues in their own Scottish constituencies

3.     The stemming of the flow of Scots men and women into English jobs, as they presumably fall foul of the same rigorous immigration restrictions applied to other European countries.

4.     A final cessation of the constant Scots whinging about how all their problems are the fault of the English

5.     The excitement of a new constitutional experiment

6.     More jobs in the north of England as we man the northern border with shiny new customs points

7.     The need to re-think – and possibly abolish – the hugely expensive and largely useless nuclear submarine deterrent, on the grounds that we’ve nowhere to put them

8.     The departure of Scottish politicians like Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander from English politics (although we are sadly doomed to keep George Galloway, who cannily moved to English constituencies – but see point 3 above as a promise of no more similar Scots’ politicians in England)

9.     A boom in English business and financial industries as firms exit Scotland and relocate to England

10. An end to Sean Connery’s persistent witterings about Scottish independence.

Quite a few positives there, I’m sure you’ll admit, and a full blooded ‘Yes’ vote would also have the advantage of at least providing a clear solution – something an anaemic ‘No’ vote absolutely wouldn’t.  So perhaps we should stop promising the earth, and just wait on the Scots to make their own decision about a brave new world; one which perhaps might benefit England too.

Scottish Tremors Finally Hit England

Alex Salmond has a few things in common with his English nationalist counterpart Nigel Farage.  They both admire Vladimir Putin, for example, and despise what they call the ‘Westminster elite”.  They both appear to be electorally very shrewd politicians, but if Salmond has his way in a couple of weeks time he will make the title of Farage’s insurrectionist party look a little redundant.  For of the United Kingdom there will be no more.

This debate has failed to properly permeate English consciousness, perhaps one indication that the Scots may not be wrong when they claim that England exudes a general stand-offishness towards its northern neighbour.  This weekend, however, appears to have changed that.  A poll from Yougov shows the ‘Yes’ campaigners (i.e. ‘Yes’ to an independent Scotland, for those whose failure to follow the referendum includes ignorance of the question being asked!) ahead of the ‘No’s” for the first time in the campaign.  Given the substantial lead that the No team had at the start of the campaign, that’s a pretty bad blow.  And a shocking indictment of the way the “Better Together” campaign has been run.

The momentum is now with Salmond and the independence advocates, and it might just succeed.  Momentum counts for much, and two weeks or so before the vote it might be enough to take them over the finish line, while two weeks represents a very short window for the complacent and unimaginative No campaigners to get their act together again.

It is in some ways astonishing how little attention this campaign has had south of the border, given that it is one of the most significant constitutional challenges since….well, since thirteen colonies on the eastern seaboard of America chose to go their own way.  Perhaps it was because no-one ever really believed Scotland would possibly want to go independent.  I’ve lost count of the number of English friends who have no possible ground-connection with Scotland but who have cheerfully asserted that Scotland will clearly not vote ‘Yes’.  Hmmm.  Maybe we should have paid more attention to, er, the Scots themselves on this one?  The Scots may have a natural wariness of the dangers of independence but they also appear to be warming to the high-risk strategy that says whatever the downside, at least we are our own nation again.  We are Scots, and we don’t have to live under the yoke of English government ever again.  I suspect that if that is the case, it could be a dangerous delusion.  The Economics Editor of the Sunday Times is just one of the several voices suddenly raised today warning that an independent Scotland is doomed to fail (his article is behind the paywall, so I haven’t bothered linking here, but probably worth begging or buying a copy of the Sunday Times for today). 

The shock of the poll has prompted unrest in Tory ranks – never very far away to be honest.  Several un-named ‘senior’ Tory backbenchers have given voice to the idea – gaining momentum on much the same trajectory as the move towards a Scottish Yes – that David Cameron, the Englishman with the Scots name, might be forced to do a Lord North and resign if he presides over the loss of Scotland.  Quite apart from the fact that it is a remarkable feature of modern British politics that Tory MPs cannot bear to stay united behind a Prime Minister for more than a week or so, the ‘Cameron must go” brigade is making much of the advantage given to Salmond in allowing him the upper hand when negotiating the date, franchise and question of the referendum.  But their real issue probably remains a belief that Cameron still represents a marginally more constructive attitude towards Europe than most of his party wants, and a triumphant ‘Yes’ vote offers them the opportunity to get rid of him.  The Tory responses to the Scottish campaign, and their continuing travails as an utterly dysfunctional party are worth a separate post, but it does indicate how the referendum north of the border is finally making its tentacles felt in all aspects of the British body politic.  Perhaps it should have done so earlier.  

Whatever the tremors in the Tory Party, they should be as nothing compared to what might happen in Labour’s ranks.  “Better Together” is as much a Labour campaign as anything, and while Scottish Tories remain solidly pro-Union (and over 400,000 Scots voted Tory in the 2010 election, a mere 80,000 fewer than the SNP) the key to the campaign lies with wavering Labour voters seduced by Alex Salmond’s promises of a state with pretty well free everything.  Labour have 41 Westminster seats in Scotland, and a Yes vote could traduce them as a governing party in Westminster.  It isn’t just Cameron who might fear for his position if Scotland votes to go it alone.

The Sunday papers are awash with the sort of articles about Scottish independence that could usefully have been part of their warp and weft for many months prior to this weekend, but what we have is fascinating.  The single best analysis, in my view, in that it takes a broad look at all of the implications behind the vote without reducing itself to a particular partisan view, is Andrew Rawnsley's commentary in the Obsever.  Will Hutton, in the same paper, offers a crie de coeur against breaking the Union, while Dominic Lawson over in the Sunday Times suggests that an independent Scotland would soon become a low-tax, right-wing haven.  There is also the interesting notion being raised of an independent Scotland seeing a revival of a centre-right party, once the Tories have been freed from the hated English link.  In the Telegraph, Iain Martin writes a more viscerally anti-Salmond piece under the giveaway headline “The final push for Alex Salmond’s land of fantasy”.

The Scots have been arguing about independence for months without us taking much interest.  Time now to sit up and notice, for an earthquake might be coming.