Saturday, 16 July 2016

I will survive?

The weird thing about Corbyn's continued limpet like attachment to the Party leadership is that it is difficult to see where it sees itself going.

Bevan's maxim "Never underestimate the passion for unity" still has considerable traction, indeed it is effectively Owen Smith's entire campaign strategy. But, equally, we cannot expect that that passion to be shared by those Johnny come lately "conditional" members and supporters who Corbyn has undoubtedly already rallied to his tattered flag.

So Corbyn's survival is a very real possibility. But to what end?

There is no way back for the 172 resignees. They could not possibly remain collectively on the back benches and then face their local electorate come a General Election in the position of encouraging confidence in a candidate for Prime Minister despite having publicly declared no confidence in the same person's inability to be (even) Leader of the Opposition. That is of course assuming they hadn't been reselected in the meantime.

The Party would inevitably split. In a much more significant way than in 1981.

And that split would start with many more advantages than the "Gang of Four" had then. Not just in the number of Labour MPs it would take with it.

Tribal voting is much less of a factor thirty five years on. In 1979, as Labour lost, 36.9% of the electorate still voted Labour. In 2015 that figure was a mere 29%. But, just as significantly, in 2015, the Tories actually WON the election with a smaller proportion of the the electorate than that which had led Labour to defeat (by a margin) in 1979. There are a lot of unattached voters out there and Scotland shows that even life long loyalty can prove to be anything but given the right set of circumstance.

Money is also much less of an issue. Labour in 1981 retained a considerable advantage over any pretender to the title of, at least, principal opposition through the guaranteed income from the Trade Union link. Since then, not only has Trade Union money declined as Trade Unionism itself has declined but Party funding has also moved more generally on, not just in relation to the relative importance of "Short money" but also in the willingness of well to do individuals to intervene, for philanthropic motivation or otherwise, in the political process.

And there is even a "cause" in the way the SDP never really had a cause except by way of a general disgruntlement with the Labour Party. That cause is Europe and more broadly an embrace of, rather than a retreat from, the modern world. If not the EU precisely then certainly the EEA or, better still, the "special associate" status being discussed in some German quarters.

You can see such a project, embracing the Lib Dems, and dependent on the right surrounding circumstances and leadership, getting to 30%. Not enough to win but probably enough to finish off Labour.

But, oddly, that's not really my point.

For my point is, to go back to where I started, what would the prospects for RLabour (to borrow an adapted phraseology from the Scottish Independence campaign)?

We would still have assets. Firstly, and not unimportantly, the brand. The brand means quite a lot to some people, me included. It might be ridiculous, sentimental or whatever but I'd find it quite difficult but to vote anything but Labour. You can relatively easily see Tony Blair or Kezia Dugdale endorsing the new Party project I outline. As the former famously said, to his one time reassurance of the wider electorate, he wasn't born into this Party, he chose it. The latter, at best, only ever had it as a second choice. But Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown and so many, many, less prominent others now serving as Party Officers, local Councillors or even (just) humble door knockers ? They were born into our Party. They would find it very difficult to belong to any other.

And secondly, it is undeniable that to a certain constituency: public sector trade unionists; that part of the very poor who are politically engaged at all; young people legitimately motivated by generational inequality, Corbynism has a genuine appeal. A Coalition of the Angry as I have previously described it. The 18% who expressed the preference for Corbyn over May as Prime Minister in the recent poll are presumably these people. Even stripping out those faced with having to make a binary choice and those who simply don't know that much about him, there is probably still a core Labour/Corbyn vote concentrated in what remains of our heartlands, South Wales, South Yorkshire, The North East, Lancashire, the industrial Midlands, Inner London. Assuming at least that UKIP don't point the anger of the coalition of the angry in an entirely different direction, as they undoubtedly partially did on 23rd June past.

But lets again return to where I started. Suppose Labour somehow scrapes vote to "victory" over any new initiative? So what?  We might have won the battle for the minor places but Mrs May's carefully centrally positioned Tories would still be holding up the Gold medal and belting out the National Anthem.

And eventually, if not after the 2020 General Election, then after the 2025 one, or at least the 2030 one, Labour would either finally die or realise that we need to track back towards the centre in order to win. And that no number of rallies or marches was sufficient consolation for failing to do so.

So I finish with the question I started with. What, even in his own terms, is the point of Corbyn surviving?

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Salmond for the Prosecution

I wrote in my last blog on Friday about how angry I am with the result of the European Referendum.

A lot of people are. And are looking for a solution, any solution.

David Lammy MP even suggested Parliament should just ignore the referendum altogether! I'm not quite sure that would mean for our Party's prospects in the North of England.

Elsewhere, three million people have signed a petition calling for a re-vote. Except seventeen million people actually voted to leave and the only polling done since indicates that they are overwhelmingly happy with what they have achieved. I'm in no doubt that, in time, we will see buyer's remorse but that time is not yet.

Thousands of others are desperately off to try and get an Irish (EU) passport but it's not clear where they actually propose to live.

All we need now is a Euro camp in Parliament Square full of zoomers invoking the intervention of Jesus and the Queen. While blaming the whole thing on Murray Tosh.

This is all nonsense. I am in no doubt we need to work to reverse or at least mitigate the result last Thursday but this is not something that will be achieved overnight and depends on a number of other factors: the immediate response of the 27 other EU members; the result of the Tory leadership (de facto Prime Ministerial) election;  the fall out of the instant challenge to Corbyn, whichever way it goes; the result of what appears now to be almost certain 2016 General Election and, if that doesn't reverse last Thursday by itself, any negotiations that then take take place between the EU and the UK in its aftermath.

But I just want to say something about the other immediate angry response we have seen to the vote, one particular to Scotland, that in response we should declare independence (via a second independence referendum) so that Scotland could remain in the EU at the price of leaving the UK.

This is understandable, because anger is understandable, but it is nonsense. Because by the time of any such vote, the consequence of such a cutting off one's nose to spite one's face would be a lot more apparent than they are in the current febrile atmosphere.

I could list any number of reasons for this but I'll choose just one, currency. Say what you like about Alex Salmond but he is not a stupid man.

I am in no doubt that he understood that for Scotland to actually operate a different economic policy from our own much larger neighbour we would need to have a different currency which could trade at a differential value on the world's currenc exchanges.

But in 2014 he didn't offer that, instead he proposed a currency union with England. This was improbable then, something that Salmond himself has since admitted. On any view however, now it would be impossible. A currency union from within the EU with a country outwith the EU? It is inconceivable that this would be acceptable to either Brussels or London.

So, we would be left with only one option*, our own currency. An independently issued, central bank backed, convertible currency is an absolute sine qua non of EU membership as, if you consider it for a moment, you will appreciate that it is required for the stability of a single market.  That currency, the Pound Scots, might be declared on creation to be intended to be worth the same as the Pound Sterling but it wouldn't be. Because, in the absence of a reciprocal arrangement, convertible currencies are not worth what their governments declare them to be. The key is in the word convertible. Governments might produce the "goods" (The Pounds or whatever) but they don't own the shop, let alone control the customers.

And these markets would immediately place a shadow value on this Scottish currency,indicating not exactly what it was worth (because it would not yet exist) but rather what it would be worth when eventually placed on sale.

And that value would inevitably be significantly less than the Pound Sterling.

Why? Because the key element in pricing any national currency is the size of the national fiscal deficit. And, as a percentage of GDP, Scotland's deficit is significantly higher than that of England, even before the boost the latter would get from losing its obligation towards subsidising Scotland. That is based not on my opinion but on the annual GERS figures produced by the Scottish Government.

And there is no politically acceptable solution to this because to continue with that deficit (setting aside for the moment whether any wider EU entry  obligation would permit that) would mean one thing. That anybody paid from the public purse: every public sector worker; every pensioner; every benefit claimant, would know that on Independence Day they would be immediately worse off. On the other hand, if it was announced in advance, to reassure the markets, how the Scottish Government proposed to address the deficit? Then every public sector worker; every pensioner; every benefit claimant would know that on Independence Day they would be immediately worse off. Not just worse off when they went "abroad" but worse off when they tried to purchase any imported item at their corner shop.

And, crucially, that isn't something that would come as an unpleasant surprise after any second referendum vote, it would be known on polling day, because the Scottish currency's shadow value would be known on polling day.

So, maybe people will be so filled with affection for the EU, or resentment of England, that they might still vote for that. For an immediate, significant, cut in their living standards. But I very much doubt that. And my number one witness for that conclusion................? Alex Salmond.

*I haven't addressed the suggestion of immediate Euro entry because it is almost certainly technically impossible but, even if it wasn't, Euro membership requires a target deficit of less than 3%. Scotland's deficit is currently 9.4%, so for that to be possible the spending cuts I refer to would just as certainly have had to have been detailed. Anybody who thinks that might be negotiable should ask the Greeks.

I also haven't mentioned "Sterlingisation" (using Sterling without permission) not just because it was always a farcical proposition but because having one's own currency (or the Euro) is an express requirement of EU membership.

Friday, 24 June 2016

San Giovanni Battista

Excepting days involving personal family loss, today has been the worst day of my entire life.

I just can't quite believe what has happened. I concluded my previous blog by observing that I didn't want to go back to 1971. It appears that a majority of my fellow citizens thought differently.

I've lived long enough to remember the 1975 Referendum,when the political centre rallied together against the fringe on either side to deliver a very different result. When this current process started, I kind of assumed that this time would in the end be the same, except that this time the pincer movement the Leavers might attempt would be so much weaker because in the interim its left wing had lost much of its power, never mind its inclination.

Even when it became apparent during the campaign that this optimism might be misplaced I retained a belief that, even if my own admitted European enthusiasm might not be likely to be widely endorsed, economic "common sense" would still carry the day, much as it had, as a last resort, in September 2014.

So, as the results came in I was seized not just with the disappointment that accompanies any normal electoral reverse but with a real sense of grief. My whole life ambition, reflected, with the occasional reverse, in my whole life experience was being called into doubt. Ambition and experience combined as it seemed towards greater tolerance and co-operation, across domestic society but also across the wider world. In a moment,a result declared from Sunderland, that had experienced an almost certainly permanent set back. The great European project would, at best, go forward without me and, at worst, disintegrate altogether as a result of a process to which I had been an, even unwilling, party. It was as if there had been a vote to reverse the Equal Pay Act, or repeal (what was originally) the Race Relations Act. It was as if s.28 had been reinstated or that we had voted in a referendum to close the Open University because working people should know to know their place.

It was, it is, terrible.

And of course with grief initially comes anger.

Anger at the voters. Angry at them being racist, although patently by no means all of the Leavers were. Angry at them being stupid, although patently by no means all of the Leavers were. Angry at them being selfish, although.....Angry at them being old and comfortable and choosing to deny opportunity to younger generations, although......Angry, yes, at them being English, although actually they were also Welsh and indeed here in Scotland there were almost 40% of them right here among us.

And also anger at the press, except that in the North of England, ultimate Leave heartland, Labour voters mainly read a regional press and/or the Daily Mirror, all of which were relentlessly Remain. Kevin Maguire, the Mirror's chief political correspondent,  is arguably Sunderland's most famous son. Nobody could have argued the Remain case consistently or better. Yet Sunderland voted 60% Leave.

So also anger at the ineptitude of others on my own side, particularly the utterly useless Jez and Kez, engaged not meaningfully against the enemy but in a private competition for the prize of most useless Party leader of any Party, in any Country, at anytime. In the entire history of the recorded world.  But angry also that, inept though Jez was, nobody really thought that, even with Liz Kendall as leader, Barnsley (Barnsley! Residual headquarters of the NUM) would have been transformed from a 70% Leave vote to a populus skipping to the polls singing the Ode to Joy? So anger also at the Labour Party for having lost touch with its own voters,

And anger also against events. The Syrian War that has led so many desperate souls to seek refuge, refuge anywhere, but hamstrung liberal opinion here on the hook of "We're sorry, we'd have you in but our voters won't". But also anger at a European commitment to free movement that anticipated lots of moving about among mutually attractive destinations rather than reaching a common sense conclusion, in certain late accessing countries, that the movement would inevitably be overwhelmingly only one way. And anger that pointing that out would be denounced as "Racist".

And, finally,  anger against a Scottish communality that allowed Nicola to seize the agenda in the aftermath, talking up grievance, as always, without even being asked, never mind answering, the basic questions: "Will you actually have a referendum rather than just a grievance?" "What currency would this hypothetical (substitute) 28th member use?" "What do you think Northern Ireland should do?" or "So, on your argument,  38% of Scottish voters are English racist scum?"

So the public me is angry. But the private me is also sad.

Today, the 24th of June, is the feast day of St. John the Baptist. It is regarded as Midsummers Day in Italy and is a major feast day there, "San Giovanni Battista".

Wee Mo and I always planned to retire to Italy and to one day celebrate the feast day in situ. Had Mo not become ill, we undoubtedly would have . And we would, in that earlier world, have congratulated ourselves that we didn't have to queue up once a quarter, as Mo did when she lived there in the seventies, for a "Permesso di Soggiorno". Or pay, as she had to do then, albeit only in the form of English lessons for his children, to see a local doctor. For we were all EU Citizens now.

And although Mo has gone now, mentally if not physically, Andi, my new companion*, Hungarian born but here twenty years past, long before she was automatically here as an EU citizen, still talks with alarm about the days she didn't have the automatic right to be in the UK. When she worried that, if her first marriage broke up, she might have to leave the country while leaving her children behind. Until at cost and trouble she obtained UK citizenship shortly before, until yesterday, that turned out to be apparently academic. For we we were all EU Citizens now.

And yet she is still told today by her workmates that they are sorry if the vote means that she will have to go "home".

We thought these days were past. Past for good and for well.

I hate. yes that is the word, hate what has happened today as the votes were counted. But I console myself  that there are many others of even mind. Labour people certainly but also Libs and Greens and above all decent Tories. If what has happened can yet be reversed, I'm up for any alliance. Even if it involves the death of my other great love, the Labour Party itself.

*So, what do you call a woman who you love desperately and would marry in an instant, except that you are still married to another woman, who you also love but is now at late stage Alzheimer's disease.  Even German complex nouns would struggle with that. 

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Voting against Now


I wrote this blog in almost its entirety last Wednesday night intending to give it a final once over before publishing it on Thursday evening. Then, at about 1pm on Thursday, the world changed. I then swithered about publishing it at all, not just because of, initially, what would have been the inappropriateness of its timing but later because of some of its content. On reflection however I think it bears up in light of events. Those working class voters intending to vote Leave, with a few very, very small exceptions, are not closet racists. We serve neither our short term or long term interests by suggesting that they are. It doesn't however mean that they are right. But we, the Labour Party, by our past behaviour, should accept our responsibility for their misconception that they might be.

Voting against Now

Much has been written about the similarities between the two referendums although there is one big difference in that, this time, I believe there is a real possibility my side might lose, something I never feared at any point in September 2014. And not just because of the very different polls.

But there is still merit in considering the similarities between the two events.

The coalitions assembled by both Yes and Leave each have three elements.

Two of these were anticipated to be there in advance: firstly those who just don’t like foreigners/English people very much and secondly those who, genuinely not of that first view, have nonetheless a sincere belief that “the Country” (defined as required) would greatly benefit from an alternative constitutional arrangement.

At the start of each referendum the forces of the status quo identified these groups as essentially lost causes but remained confident that their combined ranks would never approach a majority.

But in each case "we" initially, and indeed until dangerously too late, failed to appreciate the third prong of our opponent’s fork. Those who would be voting against "Now”.

If you look at those areas of “the Country” which voted Yes and are looking like voting Leave, they share one thing in common. A legitimate feeling that while “elsewhere” prospers, their own location and indeed personal circumstances do not.

And that is, for the avoidance of doubt, a legitimate feeling. The affluence of the “white working class” is at best getting no better, following a period, starting after the war and continuing until perhaps thirty years ago, when a year to year improvement in circumstance, marginal but noticeable, was expected as the natural order of things. Just as, with the benefit of hindsight, that improvement happened marginally but noticeably, it equally ceased to happen marginally. But it is certainly noticeable now. And to compound the resentment of that experience, the relative affluence of others in our society has, over that same thirty year period, visibly improved; whether catching up from behind in relation to the general circumstance of ethnic minorities and “immigrants” or pulling further away in front in relation to a distant metropolitan elite.

And overwhelmingly, those standing still, or sometimes worse, are people who used to “produce” things. All sorts of things from coal brought to the surface to iron turned into steel; from tiny buttons to ocean going ships and things of all sorts and sizes in between. Different things in different places but with a common culture. Industrial work that often depended on brawn rather than brain but which nonetheless, for the long post war boom, had more or less guaranteed availability. Work which brought with it honest reward that fuelled a local service economy: shops, cinemas, social clubs, that was visibly there not as an end in itself but rather as support to allow the primary “producing” purpose of the place to function.

In many, many places this world has gone. It hasn’t changed or modernised. It has just disappeared. The same things are (generally) stillproduced, obviously, but they are not produced here. They are produced in India or China or wherever. Produced by different producers, working in harsher conditions and crucially at a much lesser level of personal reward.

And what’s left, too often, is little more than the service economy that once enjoyed only a support role. As Shirley Williams famously described it, an economy based on people selling hamburgers to each other.

Now, of course, that’s not the whole economy of the country. We have a vast knowledge economy that has largely replaced in our GDP what the producing of real, visible things once provided. But that knowledge economy is not open to all, only to those intellectually equal to it. Often, even then, not open in the place where its participants themselves were born. Indeed not just the place where they were born but the place where their parents, and their grandparents and their great- great grandparents had been born. Where, ideally they would have liked their own children to be born.

So local communities lose their brightest and best while those left behind curse the circumstance that prevents them from doing precisely that themselves. For as local people leave, "others" arrive to fill the vacuum. In many cases of necessity, for every community needs young people to renew itself at all. But, for the avoidance of doubt, it is not necessary to buy into the patent fiction that these incomers have driven out the established population to nonetheless regret that they have replaced them at all.

And that all leads, in the minds of those "local people" left behind, to one conclusion. That there is something the matter with Now. 

With both referendums that has posed a particular problem for my Party. At general elections for almost the whole of my life Labour has had two distinctive messages to the two parts of our own electoral coalition. To "traditional" Labour voters we have been against Now. Now has been portrayed as the sole creation of the "evil Tories", who closed their factories, shut their pits and devalued the worth of honest labour.

There was no more bizarre example of this as when Jeremy Corbyn during his leadership campaign, if only briefly, suggested to a South Wales audience, that a Government led by him might re-open the coalfields! Why? A return to pneumoconiosis, industrial deafness, percussion white finger? Early death for those who survived the a lifetime of such working conditions and sudden death before that for random others? A life without daylight whose workforce had but a single ambition for their families, that they would not need to follow them down the pit? But was Jeremy decried for this suggestion? No, he was cheered to the echo. Because it was what his audience wanted to hear. For closing the pits was regarded by them as the greatest crime ever of the "evil Tories", conveniently forgetting that Tony Benn had closed more pits than Margaret Thatcher ever did. Not because he was "evil Tony" but rather because it was an industry close to the end of its natural life, not least because of the human cost it involved. It is one thing to criticise how it was done, a criticism I readily share, it is another to maintain that what was done was ultimately anything other than inevitable.

That's not (for once) a criticism by me of the Party leader but rather a caution against nostalgia clouding recollection, as much on the left as by those proudly owning up to being Conservatives.

For to the other part of the Labour coalition we condemn these self same "evil Tories", these self same Conservatives, as not being to blame for Now but rather for being not Now enough. Insufficiently modern. Unwilling to accept ethnic diversity; sexual diversity; meritocracy. Not willing to confront demographic necessity. The Tories are not, as we say to that first group of supporters, responsible for the state of the modern world but instead, we say to this second group, they are insufficiently welcoming of it!

Now, in microcosm, this costs us no more than the winning of general elections, for that part of the electorate not tribally attached to either big Party see through our contradictions. But by nonetheless keeping on board those who,for diametrically opposed reasons, would "never vote Tory" we survive these conventional contests as a substantial minority, albeit, if that's all we've got, an inevitable minority nonetheless. While the "evil Tories" work, in their evil way, to constantly reduce the numbers of those who would "never" vote for them.

But, anyway,  referendums sweep all that, "normal" election calculation away. While Labour's own internal dichotomies are inevitably exposed. As they were in Scotland and as they might be in England over the next week. Those who are against Now and those who believe we are not Now enough simply cannot possibly be corralled together in such a context. Put bluntly, with the best will in the world, the "Refugees welcome" section of our support cannot possibly be reconciled with the "Local houses for local people" element. And in attempting to do so we only end up alienating both. Particularly when, as has inevitably proved the case in both referendums, our opponents are free to portray themselves as all things to all men because, being in the field only for one single purpose, they have no track history to defend and can happily disown elements of their own side that does not suit what "they" believe "they" are voting for. Not least the barely disguised fascist element that undoubtedly exists on the fringes, at the very least, of both the Yes and Leave "movements".

So from the perspective of somebody who has been all their life a Labour tribalist, things look pretty bleak. But perhaps, just perhaps, from the point of view of somebody who believes in the cause of progress, there might nonetheless be a glimmer of light.

For I'm for Now. Now isn't just ignoring racial difference but positively embracing it. Now involves my nephew being more likely to marry a man from Berlin than a woman from Bellshill (or a woman from anywhere to be honest). Now is an improved concern for the environmental consequences of all our behaviour. Now is more kids going to university than ever before, even in Scotland. Now is life expectancy being, with every year of my own life, ever longer for those around me and Now also means far greater dignity, financial or otherwise, in old age. Now is the treatment of those with disabilities, even under the evil Tories, being better than at any time in history. Now is better food, eating out or eating in. Now is more diverse cultural experience on the stage or in the street: Now is ever cheaper and easier holidays. Mundanely, Monday to Sunday, Now is an ever greater diversity of choice on the telly. Actually, Now is an ever greater diversity of choice in just about every aspect of life.


"Joy was it in that morn to be alive but to be young was very heaven!"

Certainly, let us concede that there is much wrong with the availability to everyone of Now but let's stop pretending that there will ever be a majority for going back to Then. Let's instead work to spread the benefits of Now more comprehensively. As socialists, to strive for that by the traditional means, in opposition, of organisation and, in power, of legislation. To work to ensure that Now leaves nobody drowning in its wake, not by throwing some existing passengers overboard but instead by ensuring through dignity, security and due reward of labour, of whatever sort, that there is room on board for every willing passenger. Even if that does mean smaller first class cabins to provide more comfortable accommodation in steerage.

The great socialist writer, R.H. Tawney famously wrote that for the left, if there is to be a golden age, it will always lie not in the past but in the future. Let us embrace that sentiment.

I don't want next Thursday to go back to 1971, even if that was possible. Any more than, eighteen months back, I wanted to go back to 1707.

And, in the end you know, excepting a very very few, nobody else really does either. So let's work for that to be reflected in the result on 23rd June 2016 as decisively as it ultimately was on 18th September 2014.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

San Luigi dei Francesi

                                                                                   The calling of St Matthew. Caravaggio. San Luigi dei Francesi, Roma.

San Luigi dei Francesi is one of my very favourite churches in Rome.

Situated between Piazza Navona and the Parliament building it has, by virtue of that latter circumstance, also the advantage of being close to my very favourite restaurant in all of Rome. Of which perhaps I'll say a little more later.

San Luigi, you will gather from its name, is the French church in Rome. It is mainly visited on the tourist trail by reason of its three great Caravaggios, featuring scenes from the life of St Matthew. But to nip in and out just for the Caravaggios would be a tragedy. For its interior is, since its completion at the end of the sixteenth century, a miniature history of the French nationals once resident in the (now) Italian capital.

The completion of the church itself starts that story, benefiting from the personal patronage of Catherine de' Medici, widow of one King of France, mother of three others and mother-in-law of a fourth.

Inside the pillars of the church, the walls and even any unused space in the side chapels boast barely an empty piece of wall, such are the plaques and funerary monuments to the countless famous Frenchmen who at one time worshipped in the church, often dying in the eternal city.

You could spend a day, more, just reading these and placing the departed faithful referred to within the context of the events of their time.

But for the modern visitor the most moving plaques bear more recent dates. Countless bearing little more than a name, a rank and a date of death, the latter at an age seldom stretching beyond a thirtieth birthday. And beyond that, a simple encomium, "TuĂ© en Italie pour La Liberation de France". Killed in Italy for the freedom of France.

You forget the role the free French played in the Italian campaign during the Second World War but in 1943 and 44 they fought alongside us and the Americans and, more famously in British legend, the Poles in the long slog up the peninsula. And, as the plaques in San Luigi testify, died alongside us as well.

The Italian campaign saw as much fighting and misery as anywhere else on the "Western front". And as much brutality, it can now with the passage of time be confessed, not least from the French colonial troops deployed in that campaign.

But had the church a conscious existence, that brutality would have been no stranger the the stones of San Luigi. Its patroness, Catherine de' Medici, was of course mired in the Wars of Religion. But her departure from the scene was marked by nothing approaching peace. Through the transitional events of the Thirty years war, still, even including 1914-45, regarded by the Germans themselves as the single greatest calamity to befall their nation, the focus only shifted from confessional disputes to those involving nation states in the constant warring for supremacy that bedevilled the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Now, we British have been sheltered from much of this, the last land battle here was in 1746, but by the time of the culmination of this gory history, this isolation of our civilian population was no more. In the horrific clash of competing nationalisms and ideologies that saw the deaths marked in San Luigi's memorial plaques, and so many, many more deaths, our civilian population could die in their own beds in London, or Coventry or Clydebank just as readily as continental Europe's  peasantry had once been at the random disposal of any marching army or mercenary band.

And then it stopped. There has not been a war in Western Europe for seventy one years.

And I defy anyone not to concede that the European Union has been central to that great achievement. It is no accident that the genesis of the EEC came from the desire to create a joint German and French "Steel and Coal" Community that would make war between its participants practically impossible. Or that the greatest British advocates of  membership were commonly those  who had seen the reality of war close up. Or that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the central European countries who queued up to join saw membership not just as a road to prosperity but as a passport to continued peace.

It has been said that those who defended the British Union in the Scottish referendum were too blind to legitimate criticism of it. There is a degree of truth to that. No "UK OK" sticker was ever displayed by me. For the UK is far from OK, particularly for those at the bottom. And there are certainly many legitimate criticisms of the EU: Its excessive bureaucracy and the waste that goes with it; the lack of transparency, indeed democracy, in much of its decision making; the lack of compassion or exception when it comes to its economic prescriptions. These things are all true and even the most Europhilic, such as myself, need to make that concession. You vote In not because of these things but despite them. And in the belief that they can change. Indeed that continued British membership makes them more likely to change.

But it has also been said that the Scottish Referendum was won by too much appealing to heart over head. Indeed that victory in that manner explains the continuing bitterness on the losing side in its aftermath. We might have had the better prose but they had all the poetry. And there is also a degree of truth in that.

It would be a mistake to repeat that error over the next six weeks. To allow the narrative to become "a proud island nation making its own distinctive way in the world" head to head with little more than "that's all very well but house prices will fall."

The European Union was and remains a great enterprise and its greatest achievement is peace. And there is no greater achievement than that for any political arrangement.

But it's not just peace through bureaucracy. It is peace through love. If you visit San Luigi you encounter visitors of all and every European nationality. The older visitors are polite to each other and to the surroundings, perhaps boldly venturing a few words of mutual appreciation of the vista in another's language. But the younger ones....they are a very babble of conversation. Proud of their own country, often wearing its football colours, but no more reserved about speaking to those of differing nationalities than would a Glaswegian hesitate to speak to a Dundonian. These kids are European.  And indeed we Brits can be proud that their lingua franca is almost invariably English.

I'm not for walking away from that or, worse still, starting a wider crisis of confidence in the European institutions the end product of which would inevitably be be far from certain,

So I'm voting in, not blind to the flaws but nonetheless with a song in my heart. An ode to joy.

And that's that. In my minds eye I'm now off for lunch in the Trattoria Dal Cavalier Gino, just round the corner in the Vicolo Rosini. Antipasto di verdure; fettucine con cinghiale; ossobuco (to die for); seasonal veg; pannacotta; litro di vino rosso (compulsory); acqua gassata; coffee and an Averna.

Take cash. Despite being next to the Parliament and filled with deputati, it's a strictly cash only establishment. In Italy, there are some things even the EU will never change.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Yes we Khan?

We have just had a distinctively Scottish Election.

The results are the results but, be in no doubt, it was won and lost in Scotland.

Neither of the two main UK Party leaders did more than barely set foot here. For the same reason. Their presence was not regarded as being helpful to their own side.

And I doubt any but the most blinkered of Corbynistas would disagree with that, although they might also pause to reflect that, if that was the view here (and in Wales), then where exactly in the country is it that Jeremy is believed to be a vote winner?

For it certainly wasn't in London, where Sadiq Khan spent the last month of the campaign not just declining Corbyn's "help" but publicly rejecting it.

But, more interestingly still, that worked.

By framing the campaign as being solely who was best for governing London and specifically rejecting the idea that it had anything to do with endorsing a patently useless national operation, Sadiq triumphed. And was then free to observe that, ideally, his campaign should have been capable of drawing strength from the Party leader, but it hadn't, and he had instead won despite, rather than because, of him.

That last point might as easily apply to Scotland without for a moment suggesting Corbyn as the reason we lost. Because he wasn't.

The day when Scottish elections can be won or lost on UK issues (pace Labour's infamous opening line to our 2011 Manifesto "Now that the Tories are back.....) are over. If indeed, post devolution, they ever existed. In a Holyrood election we might be helped by a better UK operation but we will never win on its strength alone.

The question is however, can such an approach work with other elections?

Local Government elections have, in recent times, been too often seen as little more than big opinion polls on events taking place elsewhere.

And in some parts of Scotland, where boundaries are drawn on the basis of little more than cotermininity and putting everybody somewhere, that might indeed be true. Who honestly has ever owed affiliation to North Lanarkshire (particularly those of us living there without being in Lanarkshire at all) and the same undoubtedly applies to any number of other of Michael Forsyth's, mid-nineties, Macedonian creations.

But the cities, where there is a city authority, are different.

Long before they were in the position of national pre-eminence they now enjoy, the SNP built a power base in Dundee that was at least as much based on being Dundee Nationalists as Scottish Nationalists. In 2012, Aberdeen distinctly bucked the national trend by throwing out an existing local administration of particular ineptitude and returning Labour, as much to the surprise of the Party in the rest of the country as to anybody else

And of course, that same year, Glasgow famously defied Salmond's premature predictions of triumph to preserve Labour in power.

Now today, the assumption is that this was just putting off the inevitable, particularly following the nationalist advances in our greatest city in the aftermath of its unexpected Yes vote. Mind you, before Thursday the same people were inclined to think independence was inevitable.

But, for what it is worth, if the local government election in Glasgow, becomes a "Scottish" election, a bit of which happens to be taking place in Glasgow, then it is difficult to see past that outcome. And that will undoubtedly be how the Nats will wish to frame it. Even if they, this time, won't be stupid enough to announce, through their local leader, that they principally wish to take the City Council "as a stepping stone to independence."

So Labour's strategy must be to frame the 2017 election as the exact opposite. A Glasgow election where you vote on what will be best for the city.

And if we can do this then there remains all to play for.

For then we have a number of advantages, not least as a backwash of the SNP's own more recent successes which have transmogrified most of their better and more experienced local government troops into MPs or MSPs.

But above all we have Frank McAveety. I should declare an interest here as he is one of my oldest and dearest comrades. But, despite his long association with the Home Rule cause, (he was, with me, one of the founders of Scottish Labour Action as long back as 1987) I don't really believe that his heart was ever entirely at or in Holyrood. The job he enjoyed most was leading the City of Glasgow Council before 1999 and, on losing his Holyrood seat in 2011, it was getting that job back that motivated him much more than any real attempt to return to the elliptical chamber.

Sure, that might have involved a bit of deployment of the dark arts (this is Glasgow Labour politics after all) but, now that he is there, he enjoys the confidence of the local Party in a way neither of his predecessors experienced and has a clear vision for the way the city should go forward.

But above all, he is seen as somebody who will stand up for Glasgow in a way no "Yes Nicola, no Nicola, three bags full Nicola" alternative will ever do. Whether that is over the disgraceful financial settlement visited on the city (and local government more generally) by the SNP or the Scottish Government's steady erosion of power away from all local representatives or indeed over our governing Party's continued determination to shut the City's warship yards.

So, as in 2012, this needs to be a Glasgow Labour appeal. And it needs to be made clear to leaders from London or Edinburgh that their "help" is not required, unless asked for. (By which time, barring changes in personnel in the interim,  Hell will have frozen over).

Will it work? I make no guarantee of that, for Glasgow has many virtues but it doesn't have a flag. It is certainly however, under the hapless Kez and Jez tag team, the only show in town.

Just ask Sadiq Khan.

Or indeed Jackie Baillie.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Kez must stay.

You'll have noticed that I didn't do any blogging during the election. As always I voted Labour, although more than in hope than in expectation.

I was however never really in any doubt we'd be third. And given that conclusion I had no desire to undermine my own credibility by mindless cheerleading before a select readership already of pronounced political opinion.

That third place was effectively decided when Kezia Dugdale used her position as deputy leader to fix the rules to restrict the candidates eligible to stand for the leadership after Jim Murphy's defenestration.

The Party, already traumatised, simply lost the plot at at that time, stampeding into an election with ludicrous haste and losing sight of the most essential element of the job description: that the successful candidate for leadership of  the Scottish Labour Party had to be a credible candidate for First Minister. Or at least, that failing, to be a credible candidate for leader of the opposition. Kezia Dugdale was neither.

But the most bizarre thing is that she effectively stood on a platform conceding that. A platform that even attempting to hold constituency seats was a fool's errand; that we were bound to get gubbed; that another SNP overall majority was inevitable and yet that she, Kezia herself, must then, irrespective of the result, be allowed to hing aboot for another five years to have another go. People voted for this. Or at least by the time they thought "Haud oan a minute", Kez's own rules prevented a rethink.

So there was no alternative. Except that nice man Ken McIntosh who had, unfortunately, already been at Holyrood for sixteen years without anybody really noticing.

I abstained.

The problem of course is that thereafter of course, for the wider electorate, there actually was  an alternative. Unfortunately that alternative was outwith the Labour Party.

Five years ago, Murdo Fraser, a prophet before his time, stood for the Tory leadership on the platform of winding up the Party altogether and starting again under a new name as an independent Scottish enterprise of the centre right. I can't remember the name of this proposed vehicle, although the Scottish Unionist Party springs to mind. Anyway, personally, Murdo lost that contest. And yet ultimately his ideas won.

For, over the last eight weeks we saw the emergence of precisely what Murdo proposed. A Scottish political party of the centre right, allied to the "English" Tories but, when required, prepared to distinguish itself, even distance itself, from them. Only it wasn't now called the Scottish Unionist Party. It was called the Ruth Davidson Party. And be in no doubt, it is the Ruth Davidson Party that is now in opposition. As Ruth puts the boot into this minority government over the next five years no-one but the most deluded of cybernats will buy into a line that she acts only at the behest of her "London masters".

Anyway, congratulations to Ruth and commiserations and congratulations at the same time to Murdo.

But my own principal role isn't to comment on the Tories other than in passing. It is to comment on my own Party and our own hapless contestant yesterday, Kezia Dugdale. Before moving on to that however  I would just point out one other "bleeding obvious" point. For the Tories (and indeed the SNP) their leader was up front and central in everything they did. "Ruth for an effective opposition" "Nicola for First Minister" These were messages tailored to win votes, as they did. The problem with "Kezia for.....what?" wasn't just the "what", it was also the "Kezia". The other two were substantial public figures with an established life history. Our woman had been a student and then......had run George Foulkes office.  So instead we just had "Vote Labour.......please". Or phrased our appeal (sic) ...."Vote Labour for higher taxes", although we struggled, to put it mildly, to explain what, other than as a demonstration of public virtue, these higher taxes were actually meant to be for.

But the Ruth/Nicola dichotomy also had a blunter engagement in post referendum Scotland: "Vote Nicola for independence". "Vote Ruth for the Union".

Where however did Labour now stand on the Union? I've made the point repeatedly before but the only reason there ever has been an SNP is that, back in the 1930s, it became clear to people who were then  in, or associated with, the Labour Party, but who believed Scottish Independence was the way forward,  that their views were never going to be acceptable to the vast majority of the Party. So they left and formed a rival Party.

No harm in that, that's democracy. And, who knows, maybe they were right and the Labour Party was wrong? Only time will tell. Although when most recently put to the test, on 18th September 2014, it appears for the moment my own  Party's decision of the 1930s remains vindicated as reflecting majority Scottish opinion to this day.

But that shouldn't be difficult to know, or understand, by someone aspiring to a position of Labour Party leadership. When asked if Labour elected representatives might support independence, for such a person to reply "No. If that's what they think there's another Party for them". Or indeed when asked if they themselves might ever support independence to respond "Never. If I thought that I wouldn't be in the Labour Party."

Yet that is what Kez pointedly refused to do. Albeit to then correct herself on the latter point when confronted by internal outrage. 

I'll be honest, I've always been a bit suspicious about Kezia Dugdale. She emerged explaining that she had no previous Party history: no history of family links; or student political activity; or trade union or other radical cause involvement. This, she explained, was because she had not been interested in politics, indeed hadn't voted at all, until she was twenty three. Yet, when it emerged, during the election campaign, that at almost that same age that she had volunteered for the SNP, her explanation was that she had then, within apparently a few months, not only developed an interest in politics but had begun contemplating it as a career. Although, given the nature of her volunteering, patently not a career necessarily in the Labour ranks.

The best possible interpretation of this is that she at one time decided on "a career in politics" without actually being sure of what the complexion of these politics might be. And that's the best possible explanation.

In my day job you see stories that you think won't stand up to cross-examination. This, I have to say, is one of them.

So, anyway, you'll be surprised at what I say next.

Kez must stay.

Obviously not until the next election. But for the immediate future.

That's not just because an immediate contest would inevitably be coloured by the as yet unresolved matter of whether Corbynism is the way forward for the wider Party, it's also because we should appreciate what we should have appreciated in 2011, 2014 and 2015. That there isn't going to be an election next month.

As indeed, there is not going to be an election for the Scottish Parliament, in this case, for five years. Sure, the Nats don't have an absolute majority but they will always be in a position to pick and mix from the other Parties to support them on a particular issue, either because these Parties actually do support them or because they fear an immediate encounter with the electorate.

So, Labour doesn't need a (this time credible) candidate for First Minister for at least three years.

My own view, in an event, is that the key to a Labour recovery in Scotland doesn't lie in Scotland. UK politics are increasingly presidential. If Labour gets a credible candidate for that "presidential" Prime Minister then Scotland will have a big choice to make. .But at the moment that choice isn't even on the table.

So, given that Kez was so desperate to fix the rules to get into the position of leader, we should let her, having made her bed, then lie on it. And then dispense with her services at a time of our, and not her, choosing.