Sunday, 14 September 2014

Terms of Engagement


This is almost certainly my last blog before the big vote itself.

I’m conscious that I’m now in a slightly odd position intellectually.

I started this blog from a standpoint significantly critical of my own Party’s strategy and have gained readership on that basis. In my immediate post referendum observations I promise that I will be that critical friend again.

But, as one of the common infantry,  no matter how much you might to have wished to have been better equipped, or to have engaged on better ground or indeed to have had better Generals, all of that becomes irrelevant when the order is given to fix bayonets.

And that is where I am now. About to advance towards the sound of gunfire knowing that, politically, on Thursday it will be kill or be killed.

With that knowledge, I  kind of feared that in this blog I might be left writing a sort of “Rally round the (Red) Flag” piece  that might have had its place in the Daily Record but is not really what my more select readership comes here for.

Except that, when I got home from work yesterday, Yes Scotland themselves had given me my theme.

For they had sent me a personally addressed communication assuring that my pension would be safe if I voted Yes.

Setting aside what it means for their much vaunted data base that they bothered writing to me at all, let alone that they thought I was a pensioner, this communication was a scandal.

Pensioners are rightly concerned what independence might mean for the value of their pension. It remains the case that they can have no idea of the currency in which it would be paid and it remains the case that Mr Swinney’s leaked document confessed that he had no idea as to how affordable it would be in any currency.

BUT, I concede that, publicly at least, Mr Swinney now says  he has done his sums and that existing pension levels would be affordable. I equally concede that it remains the position of the Scottish Government that, no matter how incredibly, the UK Government will back down on a Currency Union to allow that pension to be paid in Sterling.

So if the leaflet had said that “pensions will continue to be paid at existing levels and in Sterling” I would concede that this is indeed the proposition put forward by the Nationalists. I personally might say that this is unaffordable and incredible but that would be no more than the  counter argument of my side.

Except that’s not what the leaflet said. It said (and I quote precisely although the emphasis is mine):

“The answer is [your pension] will be paid in full, in exactly the same way..............

The Scottish Government guarantees it and the UK Government agrees”.

Now, properly the word “guarantees” might more properly be “proposes” but that sort of word substitution is common currency across different political campaigns.

My objection is to the suggestion that “the UK Government agrees”.

That is an outright lie. It has no basis in fact, it cannot find even the most tenuous basis in fact. It is a deliberate deceit of the (properly intended) recipients of this letter.

I blew up on twitter when I first got “my” letter and the cybernats then directed me to a communication sent in error by a lowly employee of the DWP to one of their number saying that the UK Government would continue to pay Scottish pensions after independence.  For the avoidance of any doubt, not only is it the position of the UK Government that post independence Scottish old age pensions would be the responsibility of the Scottish Government , that is also the position of the Scottish Government.

So it is as absurd to say that the UK Government “agrees” that Scottish old age pensions would be unaffected by independence as it would be to attribute similar sentiments to the German Government.  Post independence, Scottish pensions would be the responsibility of neither of these foreign Governments. They would be our responsibility alone. That is meant to be the whole point of independence.

And so in ending my pre referendum observations I want to observe this.

We, my side, have misunderstood the terms of engagement. For all the faults of conventional politics, Parties understand that while you might gain a temporary advantage by making wild and uncosted promises at one election, if you win on that basis you will pay the price at the next election. Don’t take my word for that, ask Nick Clegg. Or, to be even handed across the Party divide, Francois Hollande.

But of course on this occasion there would be no “next election”. The Scottish pensioner being told in May 2017 that their pension was to be cut by 20% and even then paid to them in a devalued currency so that it purchased even less than that in the shops; to be then being told that there was no "guarantee" from the Scottish Government and even less so from the UK Government and in truth there never had been. That Scottish pensioner might well resolve “never to vote for independence again."
But what would that matter? It would be enough for the authors of my letter that the pensioner had been fooled into doing so just once. For while the pensioner might not have their "guaranteed" pension, the authors of the letter would have the one thing they truly cared about. A flag.
And while you can't eat a flag it is clear that those behind "my" letter believe that waving it would be regarded as adequate compensation for an empty stomach.
Don’t let them get away with it.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Two moments in history

I want to start with two stories. Or rather one piece of history and one anecdote.

On 3rd April 1917, V.I. Lenin got off a train at the Finland Station in St Petersburg, He had returned from a long period of political exile in Switzerland courtesy of the German Imperial Government who saw, correctly, that his presence back on Russian soil offered the opportunity to knock their Russian enemies out of the First World War.

And Lenin brought hope. Hope certainly for the embryonic "urban proletariat" who had been bequeathed to him by the half hearted industrialisation of latter day Czarism. But, in an almost "New Labour" way, hope also to those who seized upon the Bolshevik slogan of "Peace, Bread and Land" as meaning whatever they wanted it to be. For nothing could be worse than the alternative of "War, Starvation and Servitude". Or so it seemed at the time.

And, almost 100 years on, I'd still have been with Lenin. Sometimes the end justifies the means.

But my second story is also important. Some of my readers may recall that during the final period of the 1997 General Election, already on our way to a landslide, Labour went with the slogan, "Seven days to save the NHS".  It played out very well on the doorstep even if the doorstep belonged to the already faithful.

One of its main salespersons was the much mourned Labour MP Mo Mowlam. In common with many other Labour politicians taken before their time, Mo is now an almost legendary figure, even though at her actual time she was as "New Labour" as the rest of them, Some of that legend is therefor a bit overdone but, nonetheless, she retains a certain reputation for integrity and plain speaking not without some justification.

In the final few days of the 1997 campaign Mo knocked a door while canvassing in her Teeside constituency. It was the sort of place unlikely ever to endorse the Tories but, as I'm sure the Tories equally recognise in Tunbridge Wells, you can't be seen to take your own voters for granted.

So, on this doorstep she was encountered by an elderly woman who assured Mrs Mowlam of her life long Labour support. "But" she went on  "I am awful worried about the this Tory plan to abolish the NHS that it talks about in your leaflet

"For my husband doesn't keep good health. It's his lungs. The doctors say its all these years in the blast furnaces. But, whatever it is, we are never away from the hospital.

"We're just working people, Mrs Mowlam. We've only got the basic pension. We couldn't possibly afford to pay for a doctor, If the Tories get back in and abolish the NHS we might as well close the door and let the Lord take us. I'm not sleeping worrying about it."

And Mowlam thanked the woman for her support, assured her of her confidence in a Labour victory, and returned to our canvas team.

But two or three doors knocked later she announced she wanted to go back to a door knocked earlier and that the others should carry on without her.

And she went back to that door.

"Look" she said "If I tell you something you have to promise me you'll keep it a secret". The woman nodded. "The Tories are not actually proposing to abolish the NHS. We're just saying that because.....it's an election.  Even if we lose you and your husband will be fine"

Because that is the post war, welfare state, settlement. Some things are not truly at risk. Sure, the Tories might say it should be harder to get long term Job Seekers Allowance but they don't ever say there should be no Job Seekers Allowance, Sure the Tories might say less should be spent on disability benefits but they don't ever say there should be no disability benefits. (Actually, whisper it, it was the Tories who actually introduced non means tested disability benefits.) Sure the Tories might want more private sector provision in the Health Service but they realise that if the principle of free at the point of need was ever threatened then, even in Tunbridge Wells, they'd find themselves knocking doors for reasons other than appearance.

So that is Labour's achievement. A much more profound and lasting legacy than Thatcher's liberation of the market will ever be.

Except that even that turns on the ability of the basic state structure to pay.

It is easy over the period since 2008 to bemoan the fate fallen upon us. The effective public sector pay freeze. The repossessions falling upon those unable, despite their best efforts, to find work sufficient to pay their mortgages. The difficulty of the young, and the old, to find work.

But against that background it has been difficult to speak up for what the United Kingdom has not been. We have not been Greece. Or Argentina. Or Spain or even Italy.

The Tories like to say "What has Chancellor Brown brought us to?" while we like to say "Why is Chancellor Osborne prolonging our misery". That is Party politics.

But, actually, even in the worst economic crisis since the Thirties there has still been a National Health Service, There has still been Job Seekers Allowance and disability benefits. If you can play the game and avoid being sanctioned there has been no outright destitution. Because there is a political consensus that as long as we can afford it  there should not be.

But what if we couldn't afford it?

Nothing annoys me more than those who announce that they intend to vote Yes because they have nothing to lose.

The vast majority of the objective economic commentary on an independent Scotland says that it must mean significantly higher taxes to maintain (even) the current level of public services.

Now, if necessary,  I'd vote for that. Except that, in building his bizarre coalition, Eck has assured a much larger constituency than that of liberal lefty lawyers that he has no plans for any tax rises. Indeed the only tax proposal he has at all is to cut taxes for big business.

So who'd be the loser in that? Those who don't pay (direct) taxes at all but those who nonetheless depend on the proceeds of these very taxes for their every day survival. Those who have been tricked into thinking they have "nothing to lose" from independence.

I'd readily concede that there is fault to be found with the Scottish Labour Party. There is much self interest, plotting for the sake of it, unwillingness to confront harsh reality. But there remains an underlying commitment to the best interests of working people and to those unfortunate enough to be not even in that circumstance. A commitment well beyond the attraction of a constitutional experiment that, in their heart of hearts, even its most ardent advocates know would only come at the expense of the utter destitution of those at the bottom.

There might have been those in 1917 Russia with so little to lose it was worth a gamble but 2014 Scotland is a very different place.

Vote No.

Vote Labour.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Time to be blunt.


So. There has been a poll and we are on the point of Armageddon. Apparently.

For what it is worth I do not believe that if the Referendum was to be held tomorrow that the nationalists would win and I strongly suspect that in their heart of hearts neither do they.

But only an idiot would now dispute that if the poll was held tomorrow they would get a decent result. By which I mean a result above 40%.

Now my critics can feel free to pile in to observe that I have long maintained that the Yes vote would be 28%.  I still maintain that is the true level of support for Scottish Independence, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the electorate. I readily concede however that I have misjudged how the campaign would unfold. My misjudgement was in assuming that people would vote based on the relative merits or demerits of Independence. It is increasingly clear however that, for a critical section of the electorate, they are proposing to vote not against the union but against the real world.

There is a profound disillusionment with politics in the United Kingdom, indeed across the wider democratic world. It manifests itself in any number of different ways. Insofar as in Scotland it has not, so far at least, led to support for Parties of the extreme right, as it has elsewhere in Europe, or to violent religious fundamentalism, as it has elsewhere in the world, I suppose we have some cause to be grateful.

But it is the same phenomenon. That "the system" has failed to deliver for the "little man" (and woman) in a way it is perceived to have done (often quite wrongly) in days gone by. Indeed that the system has failed to such an extent that virtually nothing else could be worse.

These tides of opinion come around from time to time. In different times they gave rise to the belief that capitalism itself was the problem that needed to be swept away, in others that what was needed was submission to the will of a unique man of destiny as the embodiment of the national will.

And the problem on each and every occasion for the supporters of the status quo was that they found themselves hobbled by the faults and limitations of the status quo while those advocating something new could never be accused of that having failed because that "something new" had never had the opportunity to fail.

But each historic example had its own unique features and so does what we are currently experiencing in Scotland.

It has been a fundamental error of the No campaign from the outset to assume that the key to victory was to deliver the solidly unionist Tories and Liberals to the polls and then to get Labour voters there along side them with the assurance that a Labour Government is just around the corner. That's not to say a Labour Government is not just round the corner, it probably is. The problem has been to assume that Labour's traditional electorate in Scotland is as enthusiastic at that prospect as the Party's hierarchy undoubtedly is.

For we face a dual problem. The days when a new government could offer a real and immediate transformation to the economic prospects of the electorate are past. Peter Hennessey wrote a book about the 1945 Government entitled "Never Again". I suspect that many Tories have a similar conclusion about the 1979 to 1990 period and see a possible solution in withdrawal from the EU. But the days where Great Britain or indeed any other even large European Country could pursue an economic policy in defiance of the wider effects of globalisation are a thing of the past. That's not all bad, for the benefits of the modern, inter connected, world are many and varied: from the relatively trivial in respect of the ease of travel across national boundaries to the very significant indeed in the longest period of continuous peace enjoyed by western Europe since the high days of the Roman Empire.

But that comes at a price. Let us be honest, if Labour had somehow won the 2010 General Election then certainly some things: rampant euroscepticism at the heart of Government, the Bedroom Tax, this bloody referendum would have been different but the general macro economic policy of Government would have been much the same. Perhaps a little less austerity leading to an earlier and more evenly spread recovery but austerity nonetheless. The deficit is as unsustainable for the country as it has proved unsustainable for individual punters to maintain a lifestyle based on easy credit underpinned by rising property prices. So any government would have needed to address that.

And in that process people, poorer people in particular, have been hurt. Certainly  Labour would have spread the misery more fairly but we couldn't have magiced the misery away.

But the danger is that as a consequence of that misery people are understandably drawn to anybody offering happiness instead. Without considering why if it was that easy to do none of the current political shops have it on sale.

To be fair, in proffering Independence as that magic solution the Nationalists can also point to any series of own goals scored by the current system. The lack of regulation of the banks that led to the crash in the first place but, more mundanely, the disclosure  of long running inadequacies in everything from the competence and honesty of the Police to the sexual misbehaviour of once revered public figures to the MPs expenses scandal.

So the initial Better Together offer "UK:OK" was never going to work. The UK had been proved to be far from OK. The question should have been whether what was offered as an alternative would be any better. In that, with a critical section of those contemplating a Yes vote, not the 28% but the others, we have much to do.

What needs explained in much more direct terms than it has been to date, is that the solution to not liking the view does not lie in throwing yourself off the cliff.

The economic evidence that an Independent Scotland would be significantly worse outwith the United Kingdom is overwhelming. It is spelled out most recently here  but there are any number of other independent sources for that conclusion. It is simply not good enough for the nationalists to quote a handful of, often partisan, dissenting voices and even then to often quote them selectively. Decisions of this importance have to made on the basis of the overwhelming balance of opinion not by relying on the occasional contrarian.

Common sense says that the major Edinburgh financial institutions would not wish to be domiciled in a different country from the vast majority of their customers and that our financial services sector and its ancillary support would be devastated by a Yes vote. Common sense says that the pork barrel of warship orders would not be awarded where no electoral reward could ever follow. Common sense says that the complexities of European Union membership could not be resolved in eighteen months and that if the Nats stick to their March 2016 timetable then on September 18th we are voting Yes to temporarily at least leaving  the EU. Above all common sense says that even if it is unwise for the UK to reject a common currency (and it most certainly is not) it would now be politically impossible to sell a U-turn on that to the UK electorate.

Yet a Yes vote demands a suspension of common sense in all of these areas or, and this is where we are failing,  a belief among otherwise sentient potential Yes voters that somehow, even if all of the above does play out as inevitable, somehow the living standards of ordinary working people would not be affected too badly. Ironically the underlying mindset for this is because really significant collapses in living standards "do not happen" in the post war United Kingdom. After all, for the vast majority of people they haven't even really happened even as a result of the 2008 crash. What gets forgotten is that a Yes vote is a vote to leave behind that very security.

The idea that there is likely to be no major financial consequence to Independence is bordering on the delusional. And not just consequence for "the country". Financial consequence for every voter. And their children. And their parents. And their friends. We have to say that loud and clear. Yes means a devalued currency; higher prices in the shops; lower pensions and benefits in real terms; mass unemployment; collapsed property prices.

Independence is not something we could "give a try" and then change our minds about later. It would involve not "a wee bit of hardship" as some of the less dishonest Nats might concede. It would involve years of grinding misery with living standards butchered and with the civil unrest and human misery that would inevitably follow.

The UK is not OK but even with the Tories in power it is a much better prospect than that. That, I'm afraid, is the message we need to get across.

To hell with positive campaigning. Let's just tell the truth.

And, P.S. There are no secret oil fields.

Friday, 5 September 2014

What's not happening

Since the publication of last week's yougov poll a state somewhat approaching hysteria seems to have descended on the Nationalist camp.

Partisans who have been maintaining that "yes will definitely win" since Eck finally realised that he had no alternative but to have a referendum now suddenly claim to have only truly believed this within the last week. Apparently they were whistling in the dark before but, trust them, they are not whistling in the dark now. And what is also rather inclined to be overlooked is that even this poll still showed the No side well ahead and much of the actual apparent narrowing over the last three Yougov polls being attributable to a change in methodology between the third and second last of these.

But, as I have argued before there is a self interest shared by the Yes campaign, the No campaign and the media in maintaining it is close. For the first it keeps up the spirits and efforts of their activists; for the second it serves to guard against complacency and for the third it sells newspapers or gets people watching television programmes.

So when Yes Scotland claims to have registered thousands of last minute (implicitly solidly Yes) voters nobody really has an interest in finding out if that is actually true. If it scares little old Tory ladies in the shires to make an extra effort to get to the polling station, Ruth Davidson might even have cause to thank the Radical Independence Campaign (sic). If it cheers up the Nats to believe their own propaganda, it might avoid too many early internal questions about why, with all these enthusiastic foot soldiers, even in this poll they are still losing. And for the media last minute voter registration is on any view a better story than simply repeating the sound bites that increasingly form the output of both the official campaigns.

But it suits nobody to inquire why, if all these trots and greens really have been swarming over, and indeed being received with acclamation within, the most deprived areas of Glasgow, large numbers (?) of potential voters only got round to thinking about registering to vote within the last 48 hours available to them.

And then we have the "look" of Scotland. There are on any view many more Yes posters in windows than No posters. And far more Yes badges too. But equally there are far more windows with posters from neither side and far more unbadged citizens of any sort. If this really was a popular insurrection about to throw over one of the world's most stable democracies shouldn't the whole thing just be considerably more visible?

And then we have the utter financial calm. Sure, the Yougov poll caused a (very) minor blip in the value of Sterling and sure Eck says we will keep the Pound and many are foolish enough to believe him but many others see through that pledge but yet seem in no hurry to get their money out of Scottish Financial institutions. Myself included. If there was any real anticipation of a Yes vote things would be very different. Sure, many nationalists would regard it as their duty to stand by the state they had created but anybody who thinks "rich Tory unionist capitalist bastards" would feel patriotically obliged to keep their money here and see what happens has a somewhat naive view of that clan. And, sure, optimists in Scotland would believe something could be worked out on currency while optimists in England might believe Scotland's departure would be of no great fiscal consequence. But would that be the view of the international exchange markets who, unlike we common herd, had alternatives to crossing their Zurich based fingers? Most certainly not. And yet the interesting thing about the financial markets is that they are so uninteresting.

And then we come back to the issue of polls. There is a recognised psephological phenomenon about polls in this sort of situation. They cluster. I have to start off by briefly explaining how polling is conducted. The standard sample is usually just over a thousand. But you don't just ask a random thousand people their view. You try to get a "representative" sample. 52% women being the most obvious example but you are also looking for the correct percentage of over 65s or under 30s; the correct percentage of blue collar and white collar workers; of economically active and inactive. And indeed various other determinants.

Now you can try to do this in your initial sampling but without polling much larger numbers and discarding many results you can only achieve a certain degree of precision. So you introduce "weighting". And that then involves value judgements by the pollsters themselves. If, for example, to weight up the under 30s means you increase the number of those economically inactive, the pollster has to judge which which is likely to be the more important determinant  of voting intention. There is nothing sinister about any of this, it is the way things have always been done.

BUT. In this campaign many of the polling companies decided early on that an important determinant was how people had voted in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections. Thus, if crude sampling produced 30% of your sample saying they would vote SNP then in the published poll this was "weighted up" to reflect the 45% the Nats actually got in that election. Fair enough on one view except that obviously that 30% intending to vote SNP were understandably much more likely to vote Yes. This is all very well in a vacuum but of course it ignores three things. Firstly, it ignores the fact that in lower turnout Scottish Parliament elections the Nats always do better (and the Tories worse) than in other elections. No-one expects the referendum to be a low turnout affair. Secondly it ignores the fact that the 2011 Nationalist triumph was against the most inept campaign fought by a principal opposition Party in just about any election ever fought in any country at any time. And thirdly it ignores real elections that have taken place in Scotland since 2011, in almost all of which the SNP vote has gone down while both  Labour AND Tory votes have increased. The very absurdity of this method might best have been demonstrated by Survation who polled on both Independence and voting intention in the European elections in the run up to the latter.Ten days before polling they produced a poll, having applied "2011" weighting that produced a 56/44 No/Yes result. But using the same method they also predicted a 39% SNP vote share in the European elections. Ten days later the SNP got 29% in the actual election.

So maybe, just maybe, 2011 50% turnout voting intention is not the most accurate guide to  party affiliation now, the 80% turnout distribution of that affiliation or, most importantly, the knock on referendum vote based on that premise being accurate.

That certainly was the belief of Yougov who regarded it as of little importance and until recently produced much more robust leads for No. But of course that has changed with the most recent polls. So however has Yougov's weighting. This change has not been intended to bring Yougov into line with actual voting intention (for no-one knows what that is). It is however intended to bring Yougov more in line with other pollsters, albeit without adopting their precise method. Precisely the phenomenon I have described above as clustering. For no polling company wants to be an outlier. Ideally they all want to be right but there is less reputational risk in, at worst, all being wrong together.

Now, finally, if that clustering was indeed taking place then it would affect both sides, of course. If pollsters providing favourable results "to us" start aligning with pollsters providing favourable results "to them" then that cuts both ways.

Panelbase, the pollster who have provided consistently the most favourable results "to them" carried out a poll last week for the Yes campaign. It was a private poll but Yes Scotland have a, perfectly legitimate, track record of publishing favourable private polls. And of course where better to publish that poll than in today's Daily Record under the one off editorial control of Mr Alex Salmond.

But no such poll result appeared and I think we can now assume it is not going to appear. The polls are clustering. And that then leads me to observe this. Actually, although I use the phrase myself,  there have not been polls "more favourable" to Yes Scotland. There have only been polls less unfavourable. Never a single properly conducted poll putting them ahead from start to finish.

Now it might be in 13 days time all the polls are wrong. It might be that this will be just about the only referendum ever where the polls underestimated the vote for change and/or there was not a last minute swing back to the status quo. That might all be what happens.

But for less level heads among the commentariat on our side to be offering "helpful" advice suggesting that the major Parties and the Better Together campaign should, at this point, be engaged in a collective outbreak of "Corporal Jonesism" seems to me to be unjustified. Not least, but not only, by the polls.

P.S. There is, nonetheless, no room for complacency.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Joy of Sects

It was once observed, not entirely frivolously, that the Scottish Labour Party has got more factions than it has got members.

It can't be denied that the Leader of the Labour Group on Glasgow City Council is a man (or very occasionally woman) who survives at all only by virtue of sleeping with one eye open. Sinilarly, no sooner had we gained control of the first Scottish Parliament and with no inkling on anybody's part of the tragedy to follow, manoeuvring started as to would be best placed to be Donald's successor, even though that eventuality was, then, anticipated to be at least six years away. Then Henry won by virtue of being willing to stand and not being Jack; Henry fell as it quickly became apparent that his only qualification for the position was "not being Jack"; Jack took his revenge; then he fell; then Wendy did finally stand but was then brought down by a leak which could only have come from within the Labour Party itself; then Iain Gray did the decent thing and most recently we have had Johann, although even she is not immune from mutterings that she "Won't do" for May 2016. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

But there is something that I think was overlooked in the anticipation of the Independence referendum. When the chips are down, Scottish Labour knows, firstly, if not what it is for then certainly what it is against and secondly than when it's very existence is under threat then even the joy of sects must be put to one side (at least temporarily).

We've been there three times in my lifetime: with the first SNP surge of the seventies; with the SDP split and most recently since 2011. (No harm to the Nats but at the time 2007 was regarded very much as temporary aberration).

In each of these three potentially terminal situations the Party has rallied; the ground troops have actually got on the ground and the threat has been seen off.

Those who thought Scottish Labour would fight the referendum divided on tactics and unmotivated on effort must now surely concede that hope to have been unfounded. And that's not going to change in the next three weeks.

But that's not my main topic tonight.

The SNP themselves are no strangers to factionalism. Labour has never got to the point where we expelled a future Party leader or more recently deselected our most high profile and popular elected representative!

But it has to be conceded that since Salmond's return to the leadership the Party has shown a remarkable discipline. It is inconceivable that the numerous republicans in SNP ranks are all now content to be loyal subjects of the Queen; or that more than a few are truly convinced of Salmond's currency strategy; or indeed that intellectually many can truly reconcile "British unity bad" with "European Unity good".

But silence has prevailed for good reason. Firstly, Mr Salmond is entitled to their loyalty. On any view he has been electorally a  remarkably successful leader. Anyway, he is the best leader they've got. Secondly, whether they like it or not, the Salmond way is the only way. It is only his proposition which is on the ballot paper on 18th September. No point in arguing about things before then. On any view his Yes is still better than any conceivable No.

So recent developments are worth considering.

Firstly, the Nats have started to leak over internal disagreements on strategy, most recently in Fife. Eighteen months back it is inconceivable that no-one in the SNP was unconcerned as to how Bill Walker had become a candidate in light of what the leadership knew about him. But not a whisper appeared publicly. This week the fact that their leading remaining Fife MSP has fallen out with their local convenor over referendum tactics is suddenly all over the Dundee Courier.

Then we have the strange case of Mr Alex Bell and the serialisation of his diary in (of all places) the Daily Mail. For what it is worth I agree with much of his criticism of the Yes campaign, I have said as much on this blog. That's not the point. Patently the Nationalists can't change their pitch now, even more so as if it was seen to be in response to articles in..... the Daily Mail! So what is the point of publishing this book now? Mr Bell's views would surely be of as much interest on September 20th. Unless of course Yes win when he would be saved a considerable embarrassment by quietly binning the manuscript.

But most tellingly of all we have the activities of Mr Jim Sillars. I've spoken to a few people who have attended Mr Sillars evangelical events, some of them committed Yes voters. They have all expressed the same curiosity as to what transpires. Mr Sillars expends almost as much of his oratory attacking Mr Salmond than he does advocating Scottish Independence.

Now, let us for the moment assume that the purpose of these meetings is truly to persuade genuinely undecided voters of the virtues of a Yes vote. Does anybody really think that an undecided voter is likely to be persuaded to vote Yes by a Yes platform that proceeds on the basis that the leader of the Yes campaign is a man who doesn't have a clue what he is doing?

No. That's indeed why my Yes voting informants found the whole thing so curious.

Nor is it any more likely that Mr Bell truly thinks that he is offering last minute helpful guidance or indeed that the Fife SNP are truly fighting like cats in a sack over the best way to win.

The fight now taking place is not about September 18th. It is about framing the terms of the debate on September 19th. About who takes the blame for the defeat and, since it is clear that is to be Mr Salmond, more importantly who is to absolved of blame. For the prize at stake is not now Scottish Independence but rather the future leadership of the SNP.

So that's what is really going on at Mr Sillars "public" meetings. The important audience is not the unconverted. It is too late for them to exist in sufficient numbers for them to be important. Rather, the important people in the hall (the vast majority anyway) are the true believers seeking an explanation as to why they have lost and who might, at some future date, secure a different outcome. In that regard it is of interest to note who regularly sits next to Mr Sillars at these public meetings, demurring at no point from Sillars' rhetorical assault on the First Minister and his strategy.  I mean not the miscellaneous Trots or Greens rolled out to make up the numbers but rather the other reasonably well known face on the platform. The most prominent figure at the Cabinet table around whom the venn diagram of nationalist fundamentalism and infantile leftism intersects.

I mean Mr Alex Neil.



Thursday, 21 August 2014

Off to War.

In the Spring of 1992, as it does every Spring, the Scottish Labour Party held a conference.

That Spring it was in Edinburgh and was a curtailed event for we knew that within two months there was to be a General Election. The faithful were rallied but little more was achieved. A mood of both anticipation and apprehension was in the air.

We'd been out of power for thirteen years but we had come through the darkest days of 1983 and the holding exercise of 1987. There was every chance that we were on the verge of returning to power.

On the last night of the conference Mo and I went for dinner with a big group of similarly minded comrades and a few discreet journalistic sympathisers.  The centre of attention however was one man, Neil Stewart.

Neil had been President of NUS Scotland and someone most of us had already known for fifteen years. But while we were still "on the ground" activists based in seats that, win or lose, would remain resolutely Labour, Neil was now at the centre of the high command. Working directly with Neil Kinnock in London as his deputy Chief of Staff.

Unsurprisingly, while he clearly just wanted a night off, the rest of us wanted to know Neil's real thoughts. Not "could we win", we all believed that, but rather "would we win", a matter on which he would surely have a better insight than the rest of us. In the end however, he admitted he had no more idea than we did. We had got to the point where we had a chance. That was all.

At the end of the night we all individually shook his hand and wished him all the best. And we then all went off to the war.

That was the last General Election about which I had any doubt, at the start, about the outcome.

In 1997, it was as clear as day that, by the time the election was called, we were going to win. As indeed it was in 2001 and 2005.

Just as it was clear in 2010 that we were going to lose, although not perhaps quite as clear as it had been in 1983 or 1987.

Margins of victory can have a strategic significance. Labour still being second in 1983 was important, as was Cameron's failure to win outright the last time round. But, immediately, all that matters is who has won and who has lost. And if you know that in advance it does rather take off the edge.

My side is clearly going to win the Referendum. All this "some Labour voters will vote Yes" (true) and "people who have never voted before will vote this time" (less true), can't disguise the fact that even areas that have consistently returned SNP members of Parliament and local authorities for the best part of twenty years; patently, even there, voters have no intention of endorsing Independence.

Once the dust settles the margin will be important but that is not how it will feel for either side in the early hours of 19th September.

And you got that distinct impression today, as the Scottish Parliament broke up.  Older Nats were coming to terms that this is probably the only attempt in their political lifetime. Younger ones to the years of non ideological but competent occupation of public office that might form their only possible consolation prize.

For the unionists Parties there remained the slight irritation that we are going through this at all but at the same time the realisation that, no matter what spoils will fall to us (mainly, I suspect, to the Tories) in May 2015, we are still some way come the May 2016 elections in having a coherent platform that will ensure political nationalism is put to bed forever.

But neither side really doubted the result in four weeks time.

Not that a lot of heat, if not light, will be generated in the meantime. Or that the ultimate margin won't be of a longer term significance.

For that reason at least there is no room for complacency




Sunday, 17 August 2014

All aboard the Independence Convoy


So, five more weekend blogs until polling day.

I quite like politics so I’m not really one to complain about the length of the campaign. What however is undeniable is that, despite its length, some of those saying that they intend to vote Yes simply have no idea what they are voting for.

The obvious example is the currency. I’ve pointed out before that when Eck declares that “there will be a currency union” he never for a moment goes on to say “and if there isn’t we’ll call the whole thing off” but it is clear that some at least of those telling pollsters they will vote Yes do so assuming we  would keep the Pound. They won’t however be offered the chance to vote again if/when we are not.

Then again, many voting Yes openly state they don’t want to keep the Pound. That this would, at best, be a temporary expedient. A future Scottish Government of their preferred political complexion would pursue a different policy. This fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the Currency Union Eck (even fancifully) proposes. This would be an international treaty that bound future Governments on both sides for at least a prescribed fixed period. Indeed, insofar as I understand Eck’s proposal, in perpetuity. If the treaty read instead that “there will be a Currency Union but only so long as one side and the other wants it” then it would be worthless. The markets would smash it in five minutes by simply being unwilling to trade Scottish issued Pounds and British issued Pounds on the same basis since the issuers themselves would, at the point of issue, have conceded that the two currencies might, at some future point, have different values. That is what destroyed the Czech/Slovak currency union so quickly.

So, although the” Vote Yes means we’ll keep  the Pounders” and the “Vote Yes and we’ll ditch the Pounders” are both voting Yes they are patently voting for quite different things.

Quite who gets to “interpret” their vote is something I’ll come back to.

I do however want to make a point that it seems to date my own team have failed insufficiently to articulate. A separate Scottish Currency is potentially disastrous for the poor. There is no point in the Scottish Government simply stating that “A Scottish Pound is worth the same as an English Pound.” Assuming that it was an internationally convertible currency that parity would not be their decision. And it is inconceivable that initially at least the new currency of a Country with no economic track record would stand the test against that of a currency with three hundred and more years of international tradability. I’ve pointed out that this is specifically the reason that the Scottish Government’s own Council of Economic advisers specifically recommended against this option.

But let’s assume that the Scottish Government went ahead anyway (in my view it would be their only viable option)  and then paid Scottish Social Security benefits  on the basis of their assertion that the two Currencies “are” worth the same. That assertion would be worthless when the recipients of these benefits tried to spend their Scottish Pounds in the shops. For the prices in the shops, not least for imported FOOD, (and that is an awful lot of our food) would reflect the International value of the Pound Scots. And the option of paying out more Pounds Scots in Social Security Benefits to compensate for the reduced value of the currency, even setting aside which taxes  would be raised to fund this, would, in any event, simply lead to an inflationary spiral that devalued the currency even further.

And just in case you think it would only be those directly dependent on the state who would be affected, so would anybody with a Scottish House and a Sterling mortgage. Not only would their house be instantly worth less, in real term;  unless they hade been foresighted enough to renegotiate its terms, any mortgage obligation to a British Bank would continue to be payable, by them, in Sterling while they themselves were only being paid in Pounds Scots. I joked in the past, but it was not entirely a joke, that if my only consideration in voting was the interests of lawyers I would be as enthusiastic for Yes as Alex Salmond. For the potential emergency remortgage work and later repossession litigation would be enormous.

And finally, just in case the public sector salariat think themselves immune, they might have contributed to their pensions in Sterling but the Scottish Government can “honour” them in whatever currency they wish.

When a currency is devalued it always impacts on domestic living standards but this is usually disguised by the diversity of foreign trade and the feature that since the abandonment of fixed exchange rates (modern) devaluation takes place gradually. Here we are talking about instant devaluation of our currency against that of the Country with which 70% of our trade is conducted. Think that through. Although, to be fair, it would be good for exporters. And, as I say, lawyers.

It seems to me however that, to date, my team have allowed the impression that whatever currency we use is a matter of grand economics and possibly sentiment but actually of little day to day significance. Tell that to the Greeks.

But,  and here is my central point. If you vote Yes you are voting for whatever you get and the arbiter of what you get will be Alex Salmond. The express proposition in the White Paper is that the current Scottish Government be given a mandate to negotiate the terms of Independence and that Independence take place before any opportunity arises  to replace that Government. And no matter whether I,  or Jim Sillars or Patrick Harvie, like it, the current Scottish Government enjoys an absolute majority at Holyrood. So to those who suggest that “The wider Yes movement” (setting aside for the moment whether such a thing actually exists) would have a say, I reply “how”? Mr Harvie leads a minority opposition Party with two MSPs. Mr Sillars isn’t elected to anything and it is unclear to me how he ever would be.

But I close with perhaps a question possibly even more important than currency. Membership of the EU.

A good number of those voting Yes assert they are doing so for fear that otherwise “The English” might, at some future date vote to take us all out of the EU. Setting aside the frankly ludicrous proposition that we could remain in the EU if the rest of Britain, with whom we do 70% of our trade and with whom we wish to maintain an open border, opted to leave, I will take these Europhile nationalists at their word.

The shortest ever negotiations to join the EU involved  Finland and took 31 months from start to finish. Now, let’s just take from that that there is a possibility, at least, that negotiations for Scottish membership would not be concluded in the 18 months between September 2014 and March 2016, the future date we would putatively, on 18th September 2014, have voted for Scottish Independence to take place. Who would decide what objective was given priority? The current Holyrood Administration. That is expressly what the White Paper says is authorised by a Yes vote.

So, if you want to remain in the EU and nonetheless intend to vote Yes you are expressly delegating that decision to Alex Salmond and, in March 2016, trusting him to prioritise your desire for EU membership over his desire to achieve his life long ambition of Independence. And to do so knowing he faced an election in May 2016.

So long as you vote Yes on that understanding, and are fully aware of what you are doing, fair enough. But don’t complain after the event. For the First Minister will be in possession of “The Sovereign will of the Scottish people” and you will have given it to him.