Saturday, 19 July 2014

A change of air

So, I’m back.

I am not the greatest fan of Bernard Ponsonby but just over a month back he observed that those who believed that the Independence Referendum would  dominate the public discourse in Scotland between now and 18th September did nor appreciate the impact of the World Cup.

He was right.

By virtue of the Summer break I saw the World Cup in three different Countries. Or, if you prefer one view of Scotland’s status, four different countries.

Having left my own Country/Countries after the group stage, I saw the round of 16 and most of the quarter finals while with Andi’s family in Hungary. I then saw both the semis and the final itself in Italy.

The final I saw on a big screen in a square in Rome in the company of the citizens of many nations but most prominently, and understandably, of those of Germany and Argentina.

Sportingly, there was no love lost. Afterwards the Germans drank (even) more publicly in celebration while the Argentinians drank (even more still I suspect) privately in grief.  But during the event there was a strange kind of love. Love of “il calcio” certainly but also love of an event that could bring so many nations together in a moment of mutual interest in ninety or, as it transpired, one hundred and twenty minutes.

For the World Cup probably sums up more than any other event that the world is shrinking. That German fans would be as well informed of the constant diligence of Mascherano or the faltering form of Messi as the Argentinians were of the fortuitous absence of Khedeira or the potential danger of underestimating the German’s one extra rest day if the game went to extra time.

And when Klose was taken off for the last time in a World Cup, it wasn't just everyone in the stadium who applauded his final departure from the field, it was everyone in that square in Rome. And I suspect everyone in hundreds, thousands, of similar locations across the world.

The next day I was home.

To a country where, in the aftermath of the world coming together, some still seemed anachronistically determined to see reasons for putting us all once again apart.

Except that for all Bernard claimed that nothing would change during the World Cup something seemed subtly to have changed. The Nationalists had realised they were going to get beat. And that this was all the fault of the electorate.

I could cite any number of such pieces from the press or the blogosphere but they all share common themes. A bitterness towards the people of Scotland. Somehow we are not worthy of all the poems written and faces painted in the cause of “freedom”.  Surely any true patriot would be unconcerned with the economic technicalities? That they would if necessary be prepared to starve for their flag? Self determination is a wonderful thing but only if it is exercised in a particular way. Class politics must, at least for the moment, step aside in the interests of “the nation”. Most bizarrely of all, that after 18th September, the SNP will enjoy a benefit from losing while the Labour Party will pay a price for winning.

For prominent examples over the last few days you need only look to Joyce McMillan in Friday’s Scotsman, Neil Ascherson in today’s New York Times or Stehen Maxwell in the New Syatesman. Perhaps at its most grande guignol, this piece by Peter Arnott  in Bella Caledonia.

Well.

There are two iron rules of democracy. The first is that when the voters have spoken, the voters have spoken. And the second? That the voters are always right.

I have written before about the parallels between Yes Scotland and the Labour Party of the early eighties. Then, even  more fully packed and self satisfied rooms of the same people on different, sometimes every, night of the week wore different hats and titles as the occasion demanded. The platform on a Tuesday, the audience on a Wednesday, the Committee on a Thursday.  Convincing themselves of their own certainty while the wider public looked on askance. Initially with disinterest and then, as that public inreasingly found themselves accused of lacking appropriate sympathetic zeal, with ever more certainty that those so fanatically engaged with politics were not quite "like them".

Yet, as the prospect of inevitable defeat sinks in it seems to me that the Nationalists have learned nothing from that earlier political period. Post 1983 there was a brief fashion for badges bearing the message “Don’t blame me, I voted Labour”. It certainly allowed us (and I readily concede I was one of “us”) a degree of comfort but as to persuading those who had not voted Labour? That accusing them of stupidity or, worse still, personal responsibility for what then followed was unlikely to win them over? That lesson took a longer time to learn. Arguably a full further fourteen years.

That wiser heads in the SNP have not always had an eye to at least the possibility of defeat is almost inconceivable but whether they will learn from it what they might need to survive; an acceptance of the result and an avowed determination to get on with the proper governance of Scotland for the next eighteen months? That is more difficult to call.


For the victors it will certainly be amusing to watch.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Buona Vacanza

This is my last blog before I depart on holiday and I'm somewhat demob happy. I toyed with writing it in pidgin Italian but was fearful of causing offence (even though I only speak pidgin Italian). I also suggested on twitter I might only write about my favourite artist, Piero della Francesca, but, to be honest, nobody comes here for art criticism.

So in the end I'll stick to my usual stuff, Scottish politics although I might illustrate it with some pictures from the great man.



I'll start with this. The Flagellation of Christ. In the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino.

I first visited Urbino on the day Italy beat Spain in the quarter finals of the 1994 World Cup. "Il Roberto" (Baggio) scored the winner. Anybody who thinks the BBC is too anglo-centric in its coverage should reflect that, when the victory led the RAI News later that evening, the "highlights" of the game did not include the Spanish goal, which was merely mentioned in passing.

Anyway, this has been described as the greatest small painting in the world. I thought by John Mortimer but Wikipedia corrects me to Sir Kenneth Clark. The Wikipedia entry is well worth reading for the various interpretations of the painting it contains. What it doesn't really reflect is just how small the painting is. Not much bigger than a large laptop screen.

And yet it is a great painting. Small can be beautiful. One of the great fallacies of the referendum campaign is that anyone on our side ever described Scotland as "too small, too poor, too stupid" to be independent. In fact, the first person to say that was John Swinney, albeit attributing the words to (invented) others in the usual chip on the shoulder manner of so many Nationalists. The only way the word stupid features in the argument on our side would be to suggest that Scotland is far from a stupid country. That's why the No side is so clearly winning the argument at a canter.

Confession

Now, at this point I'm afraid my own conceit defeated me. It is simply too much of a leap, for me at least, to link Piero della Francesca repeatedly to the micro politics of Scotland five hundred and more years later.

But I can't be bothered starting again, not least because I'm keen to watch the football.

So,

I'm not always the biggest fan of Bernard Ponsonby but he observed ten days or so ago that the idea that the Referendum would dominate public discourse in Scotland now that the World Cup had started was perhaps, on the part of the political class, a somewhat optimistic one. And that is without Andy at Wimbledon or the Commonwealth Games to follow. But most importantly of all because, if even I am now thinking mainly of my holidays, then how much more so are people not obsessed with politics.

I have no idea how many people Eck thinks will be watching a two hour debate between him and Alistair Darling on 16th July, the Wednesday before the Glasgow Fair weekend, but I suspect it will be very few indeed. Even among those actually in the Country. Perhaps that is his hope

Of course the obsessives on both sides will still .....obsess.....about every twist and turn. But the public, particularly the undecided public, will have more pleasant ways to spend their time.

There is still an important period in the Independence debate but it will start only when the schools go back and, in Scotland at least, the Autumn starts.

I'll be back long since.

Meanwhile:

Firstly, I'm off to watch South Korea against Algeria.

Secondly, here is another painting by the great Piero della Francesca




Santa Maria Maddalena. Duomo, Arezzo.

Finally, a great Summer to all of my readers. Even the cybernats.


Sunday, 15 June 2014

Cybernats

I have now got to the point of conceit to believe there might be an anticipation that I will produce a Sunday Night blog which will outrage some and reassure others. So this is it. although I don't have any particular "big point" to make.

Interestingly, this week it was revealed that there are only 78,000 active twitter accounts in Scotland and if you drill down into their number it would  reveal that the overwhelming majority of these have no interest whatsoever in politics.

Instead they are engaged with football, or popular music fandom, or simply in talking about what is happening on the telly. That is that part of the telly which doesn't include Scotland Tonight or Scotland 2014.

Perhaps we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that we (by that I mean all of us reading this blog) are living in a pretty small bubble. Sometime in the past week somebody on twitter reported on an event specifically called to debate "the" question where those voluntarily present were asked how many had ever heard of Campbell Gunn. A solitary hand was raised.

If that is the impact the "scandal" of the week had had on those actually engaged, how much less so did it impact on the 5,217,000 Scots without an active twitter account?

Nonetheless, it is one aspect of that episode that provides my first (but not only) topic tonight.

Some time back the SNP clearly made a strategic decision to make common cause with a small group of cyberspace fanatics who saw it to be their task to try to verbally intimidate anyone prepared to suggest on the internet that they were not wholly persuaded of the merits of independence.

It would only be fair to point out that a number of committed nationalists were opposed to this strategy from the start, Who exactly were these people? Had they ever knocked a door or even delivered a leaflet in "the cause of Scotland"? Why did most of them feel it necessary to conceal their identities?

Nonetheless, Eck clearly felt they could do a job for him and, in the modern SNP, what Eck decides is final. So they were allowed to proceed with only the mildest of censure.

With the highlighting of the vile, misogynistic  attacks on Claire Lally and J.K. Rowling this week the chickens have come home to roost. When your key demographic weaknesses are with women and young people, what more lunatic strategy than to personally attack the mum of the year and the greatest living children's author? Suddenly the SNP leadership realised that they should have listened to wiser heads on their own side. Too late. In the words of Windsor Davies: "Oh dear, how sad, never mind".

But in the midst of the storm this week there has been one constant Nationalist counter argument. Yes, finally, we might be trying to disown this but the other side are just as bad. "Nicola Sturgeon received death threats on twitter".

Now this is an allegation that has gone the rounds before. And it falls into, the Nats hope, one of these situations where if something is said often enough people will come to assume it must be true.

Except, as a lawyer, it has always seemed to me to be a bit of an  incongruous allegation. You can be pretty outrageous on twitter. I have been myself. But direct threats to the life of another still attract the attention of the criminal law. There are, quite rightly, people in the jail right now for having made such threats against Neil Lennon.

So surely if people had threatened the life of the Deputy First Minister of Scotland that might reasonably have been expected to attract the priority interest of the Polis?

Well, as with so many assertions by the nationalists, when you look into this, this matter is somewhat different from how it was being portrayed last week. There is a single source for the allegation that Nicola Sturgeon received death threats on twitter and that single source is.................... Nicola Sturgeon, in an interview that she gave to the Daily Express. Now look at what Ms Sturgeon actually says. She suggests that the "threats" came from a single account (of a "sad and lonely individual" ) and that she herself did not take them seriously. Indeed so not seriously that she decided to report these "threats" not to the Police but rather to the Daily Express. In, it should not be overlooked, an earlier attempt to excuse the cybernats.

Yet by last week this "fact" was being held up by various SNP spokespeople as somehow equivalent to  the systematic vilification of Ms Lally and Ms Rowling by literally hundreds of nationalist online supporters. Or at least, since these supporters mostly remain anonymous, by literally hundreds of nationalist supporting accounts.

Which leads me on to whether there is a central mind controlling this. Well, there is and there isn't.

Most of the cybernats congregate around a single notorious nationalist website from which they take their cue. They certainly did that in the case of Claire Lally. And it was the failure to realise that what appears on that sewer often bears no relationship to the truth that led the fundamentally decent Campbell Gunn astray. Perhaps he was misled by the willingness of Yes Scotland to endorse the site as a source of "facts" when it is anything but.

So if the SNP are finally serious, as they claim to be, about reigning in the cybernats then a good start would be to ensure that there is no further reference to this sewer on Yes Scotland literature. Let's wait and see.

Or perhaps they should simply consider the second half of Jim Sillars intervention and reflect on where this man came from and how he comes to be so well funded?

And normally, that would be me. Except that something else happened today, Gordon Aikman announced he was dying..

I wrote at the start about appreciating how few of us exist in this electronic referendum bubble. But Gordon is one of us. One of the brightest and best and most tragically one of the youngest.

For me he did not need to write of the horror of Motor Neurone Disease, for it claimed the life of the wife of a close colleague who is now a major fundraiser in its combat. But even in her case it was in later life.

It is almost impossible to comprehend why a young man so full of life should be struck down in this way.

I can only end by doing what he does himself and ask you to donate towards finding a cure. That would almost inevitably come too late for him but it would be a worthy lasting legacy.




















Sunday, 8 June 2014

Arthur Donaldson and others

It was the seventieth anniversary of D-Day on Friday past.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has many great achievements to its name but surely its role in the defeat of Naziism is the greatest of these.

And, now the full history is known, it can be realised that it was a close run thing.

Those in the Conservative and Liberal ranks who would have appeased Hitler emerge with much discredit. As indeed do those of a 1930s pacifist bent in my own Party. But, in the end, Labour, at the instigation famously of Ernie Bevin, ditched the pacifist Lansbury and installed as leader instead Major Clement Attlee. Much more importantly, when that self same Attlee, at the demand of Leo Amery, spoke "for England" during the Norway debate, the Tories finally got it too. Not just that Chamberlain had to go but that the only credible candidate to replace him was Churchill.

And the ultimate triumph of these political events came on 6th June 1944 and over the ten months that followed until final victory.

Now, ask any Tory, Liberal or Socialist today about their own Party's history and they will acknowledge these events. They will be entitled to observe that neither Lansbury nor Chamberlain actively sympathised with Nazi ideology but they would readily acknowledge that their respective political responses to Naziism at the time were, not even just with the benefit of hindsight, fundamentally wrong.

Nothing I have said above is remotely controversial.

So, let us turn to the case of the fourth participant in Scotland's democracy. The SNP.

Now, in the 1930s they were a relatively new phenomenon, having only been founded in 1934. Actually, you would have thought that this being their eightieth anniversary they might have been keener to publicise that. I mean, all Parties are proud of their history. But for some reason the SNP are not. Here is why.

The original leader of the SNP was the innocuous figure of Alexander McEwan, who was even knighted by the King for his public service. But he was insufficiently Scottish for the rank and file. So in 1936 he was bumped out in favour of one Andrew Dewar Gibb. And let us be in no doubt about it, this man was a fascist.

Obviously, there were relatively few Jews in Scotland so Gibb seized on another target; Irish Catholics. You don't need to take my word for this, he wrote a number of books about the danger of Irish Catholics to the well-being of Scotland. And just like the wee man with the moustache, since outright racism needed a rationale, he seized not on their origin but their religion as their "fault". He was particularly outraged that "these people" (as he would have it) not only were allowed a vote but then used that vote to support the Labour Party. For he hated the Labour Party. But not quite as much as he hated the Communist Party, which he described as "too largely Jewish in origin".

There you are. One of Alex Salmond's direct predecessors. Never disowned by the SNP to this day.

But, I hear you cry, this was a long time ago!.As indeed it was, although still within the living memory of those who returned to Normandy this week.

So, presumably when Gibb departed, the Nats saw sense. No more anti-semitism. Well, No.

In May 1941 a man called Arthur Donaldson was detained under the emergency powers regulations for his pro Nazi sympathies. For he had been foolish enough to say the previous January to an MI5 officer (who he believed to be a sympathiser)

"We must, he declared, be able to show the German Government that we are organised and that we have a clear cut policy for the betterment of Scotland; that we have tried our best to persuade the English Government that we want Scottish Independence and that we are not in with them in this war. If we can do that you can be sure that Germany will give us every possible assistance in our early struggle. The time is not yet ripe for us to start a virile campaign against England, but when fire and confusion is at its height in England, we can start in earnest. He then went on to tell them that he had an idea in his mind for fixing up a wireless transmitting set in a thickly populated district in Glasgow or Edinburgh, in order to give broadcasts to the public"

(My emphasis)

Now, let's just consider when this conversation took place. After Kristallnacht. After the fall of France. When any lingering doubts about the nature of the Nazi regime could not surely be held by any reasonably informed person.  Yet here was this man wishing for a German victory and actively distancing himself from any continued resistance to it.

So what, I here you cry again?  So what even if this guy was a member of the SNP? All Parties have nutty members.

Except that in 1960, during my lifetime, after six million Jews had died, twenty million or more Russians and indeed more than 50,000 Scots, without ever disowning these views, this man was elected Leader of the SNP. 

And I will, believe me, come back to that.

For even then you say, this is all still history!

Well, Donaldson served as leader of the SNP until 1969, when he was succeeeded by a man called William Wolfe. Mr Wolfe was clever enough to keep any pro Nazi sympathies under wraps. But he remained in office until 1979, during which time, before 2007 at least, the Nationalists were at their most electorally successful. When, having demitted office, he was given the honorary position of Party President. And Mr Wolfe might then have faded into obscurity. Except that the removal of political necessity allowed him to express his true views.

In 1982, Pope John Paul II came to Scotland. I am  not a Catholic or even an unconditional admirer of the Catholic Church. But I recognised even then that this was an important and good man in the slow thawing of the Cold War. At least as importantly a man whose presence on Scottish soil would bring great joy to many of my fellow Scottish citizens. Except that wasn't the view of Mr Wolfe, let us not forget, leader of the SNP for a full ten years. 

Catholicism, he believed, was an alien religion, practiced largely by Irish immigrants, who, even if they had by now been here for several generations were, by implication, not "true" Scots. Now, don't forget, this wasn't in the depths of history, it was only just over thirty years ago. When Alex Salmond was already a member of the SNP. And while it might only have been in 1982 that Wolfe made his views public they could surely not have been a secret to those who worked with him daily before that?

Although, since those of you who have borne with me this far might see the echo of the words of Andrew Dewar Gibb, perhaps it is not unreasonable to assume they were widely shared internally within the SNP. After all, the Catholics weren't "really" Scottish. That was demonstrated by their voting Labour.

And the reaction of the SNP to Wolfe's remarks at the time? Did they disown him, expel him? Did they........

Instead they protested mildly that he did not speak for the SNP. Far from him being expelled or even being removed from office, instead he was allowed to step down in his own time and when he died in 2010, (yes, that's right, just four years ago), he was described by Alex Salmond, cuddly friendly inclusive Alex Salmond, as 

"incredibly influential in developing a social democratic ethos for the SNP in terms of its political identity".

Well, I don't know about you but that tends to lead me to think that Mr Salmond must have a pretty warped view of social democracy if he believes that Mr Wolfe had a place within its ranks. Mr Wolfe was a piece of racist scum would have been more in line with my assessment although,  to be fair, the First Minister might just have said that it was best not to speak ill of the dead. Except, tellingly, he didn't.

But anyway, that was four years ago! Since then the SNP really really have been converted to social democracy. I mean look at Yes Scotland! It has the support of Pat Kane, Lesley Riddoch, Patrick Harvie. These people aren't fascists!

And of course they aren't. Nor indeed are most modern members of the SNP. But, and this is a big but, why won't the SNP confront their own history? And why won't their media cheerleaders demand that they do so.

I realise that this is an angry piece. It is anger provoked by an article in today's Sunday Herald. In it Iain McWhirter states

"The character of "Naw" is revealed Daily in the stream of sneering tweets by its social media outriders who portray the SNP as Party that celebrates Nazi-sympathisers............"

I think by that he means me for I had indeed pointed this out on Twitter.

But more tellingly he goes on to assert

"I don't know who they think believes this stuff"

Well, I believe it. Only belief is not the right word for I know it with certainty to be true. Every year, every single year, at the SNP Conference, as part of the official programme, there is an Arthur Donaldson Memorial lecture. Yes, that Arthur Donaldson, the one who was interned for being..........a Nazi sympathiser. Last year it was delivered by Andrew Wilson. The year before by Blair Jenkins. That is a matter of public record. And Iain McWhirter knows that for, as a journalist, he will surely have attended at least one of these events.

So, two final questions.

The first for which I cannot possibly find an answer is why Iain wrote what he did? You'd need to ask him that.

The second is however more telling. Why do the Nats persist in honouring this man Donaldson? Even I don't believe the likes of Nicola Sturgeon or Roseanna Cunningham would want, in an ideal world, to have anything to do with him.

The reason is that to drop the Donaldson lecture would infuriate a significant minority in nationalist ranks. Who would dissent, thus highlighting their views. And that would be disastrous for the SNP electorally. So let us all, they calculate, just ignore that this happens and hope that nobody notices. That nobody notices that a significant minority in our governing Party hate the English so much that they believe that even a Nazi victory in the Second World War would have been an opportunity for "the betterment of Scotland."

And let's just pretend for the moment that these people, the Donaldson faction, SNP rank and file in some number, after independence, would not then be likely to move on to hating somebody else. Somebody nearer at hand. Citing indeed that such views had a legitimate tradition within "their" Party.

It is annoying enough when the Nats mislead people about the future but when they are prepared also to mislead them about the past? What kind of regimes come to mind as doing that?



















Monday, 2 June 2014

Credit where it is due

I wrote back in March about how disappointed I was with Labour's revised devolution proposals. I also however speculated as to the reason why, mainly involving the internal tensions among the various competing interests in my own Party.

Now, as someone seldom with a good word to say about the Tories I have to first of all concede (through gritted teeth) that their proposals published today are far from disappointing. They are comprehensive and radical and they make a proper attempt to address the absurdity that since 1999, far from echoing the American colonists demand of no taxation without representation, Scotland's politics have been corrupted by representation without taxation.

All the focus on the coverage of the proposals today has been on Income Tax but it should not be overlooked that there is also a tentative proposal to assign VAT revenues and devolve Air Passenger Duty. The ability to "top up" benefits will also call the bluff of those who think Scots would readily pay higher taxes to do just that. A typically devious Tory manouver.

The conclusions reached about which taxes cannot/should not be devolved: National Insurance; Corporation Tax; Capital Gains Tax and excise duties coincide largely with my own thinking on these matters (for what that's worth).

If I had a minor quibble it might be about Inheritance Tax. It is a geographic tax and it is difficult to comprehend how it might be subject to tax competition other than in the most macabre of circumstance. It has also seemed to me to provide the potential long term solution to the ever increasing cost of free personal care. Perhaps Ruth might yet be persuadable on that.

For my sentence immediately above betrays why the Tory proposals are so much more radical than our own. For these proposals, with no disrespect to the other contributors and advisers are, recognisably, Ruth Davidson's proposals. Now, Ms Davidson has a number of advantages over my own Party leader. She has not required to juggle competing internal interests. To start with, she has no Westminster Group of MPs to worry about. Insofar as she has required to take on the Thatcherite dinosaurs in the Lords she has the huge advantage of already starting to recover the Party support they are mainly remembered for having thrown away. And a gratitude for that has already started to filter down to local government and to ambitious future candidates for either Parliament. So she has, "up here" an almost free hand.

And then most crucially of all, in playing that hand, she has had the support of the Prime Minister. On this matter he clearly trusts her and she, in turn, trusts him to let her get on with it.

I have never for a moment thought anyone on the English Tory camp, other than a few nutters, has ever viewed the departure of Scotland from the United Kingdom with equanimity. But particularly I have always thought that David Cameron himself is utterly sincere in that sentiment. So sincere that he would do whatever was felt required to prevent that.

Today he saw the reward of what all able politicians do. He had delegated the detail to a trusted lieutenant, trusted their judgement, and then backed them to the hilt.

If there is any justice, then, come May 2015, they will be rewarded at the polls. Just hopefully not so much that they start taking seats off us.
 

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Answer the Question!

I might do a bit of blogging but I also have a proper job.

And it is from that proper job that I draw my theme tonight.

In the course of today I had a conversation with a social worker in relation to one of my more important current cases due shortly to come to Court. Without going into too much detail it relates to a matter in which she previously had a long term  involvement and had taken a view advantageous to my client. Only she was no longer involved in the case and her successor, of much less experience in dealing with the matter, had chosen to take a very different view. A view, shall we say, not nearly as favourable to the interest I had been engaged to represent.

So it was obviously of importance to me, and my client, to know whether the first social worker agreed with that change of approach. In pursuit of which I had written to her asking her to contact me. Which she had singularly failed to do.

Accordingly, the Court date looming, this afternoon I phoned her.

And, initially, perfectly politely, she advised that she was not willing to speak to me. It was no longer her case. But I pressed on. "But surely you still have an opinion on it?"

In response she as good as admitted that she "could not" be seen to disagree with her colleague. So she did not want involved. Now, would I please respect her wishes?

But, of course I could not respect her wishes. For my duty was to my client. If, as was her privilege, I conceded, she did not want to give me her view directly on the phone, then I would simply cite her to court.

"Well obviously I would have to attend" she in turn accepted "but then I will simply refuse to answer your questions."

"Well, we'll see what the Sheriff has to say about that" was my parting observation.

For that is how my job works. I put witnesses on the stand and, assuming my questions are competent and relevant, then they have an obligation to answer them. And if they refuse to answer them I can appeal to the bench, who will direct the witness to answer or end up in jail.

Now, I am moved to observe that this is very different from the trade of politics and the broadcast media. The broadcast media do not have anything other than moral authority to require any politician to appear before them. Patently, they do not have the ability to "stick" their chosen "witnesses" with a citation and obtain a warrant for their arrest if they fail to attend. But more distinctively still, they do not have the ability to insist that their questions be answered.

For there is no arbiter. No third party to observe that a question has not been answered and then in turn insist that it is. There might be any number of viewers or listeners shouting over the airwaves "Answer the question!" but none of them, unlike a Sheriff, have the simple power to direct of the prevaricator that he or she answer or be "taken down."

And, even then, in broadcasting, there is the limitation of time. In a court setting there is no need to worry about that. But on the radio or telly both witness and interrogator know that in another three minutes or so there will be a need to go to the sports news or the traffic news or the weather.

Quite differently, if a witness in court wants to waffle on for ten minutes providing no answer to the question then, once they have finally run out of breath, you can simply ask the question again. And, if needs be, again and again and again. Until finally you can turn to the Sheriff and request "I wonder if your Lordship/Ladyship might direct the witness to answer?"

When, so directed, I say from experience the witness slowly realises that the stakes have now risen beyond their ability to keep this evasion up and on to the territory of their future liberty. And, if they don't realise that immediately, they are most certainly alerted to that from the bench if they attempt another waffle. At which point generally proper answers are forthcoming.

Now, I am prompted to these observations by two recent developments in the independence debate. The first is the most recent blog of my fellow, if much more distinguished,  lawyer, Professor Adam Tompkins. There he asks three reasonably straightforward questions of the SNP.

(Actually he asks five questions but two are insufficiently focused. That's the difference between a distinguished academic and a mere hack trial lawyer. Never mind that the other "two" questions are actually the same question)

1: how would an independent Scotland fund the Scottish fiscal deficit: by implementing spending cuts of £2.5bn, by increasing taxation by this amount, or by borrowing? 

2: if the Scottish Ministers do not accept that it would cost an independent Scotland £1.5bn to establish the institutions and public services it would need, what is their alternative figure and how has it been calculated?

4: how is Mr Salmond’s new immigration policy consistent with the commitment given by his Government in the independence White Paper that “there will be free movement across the border between Scotland and England”?

These are important questions but I mean no disrespect to the Professor when observing that none of them are new questions. Nonetheless the broadcast media have been unable to secure an answer to any one of them in the more than three years since this whole debacle started.

Just as I might add a sample question of my own.

6. if negotiations for continued EU membership are not concluded by 16th March 2016 would independence still go ahead on that date even if that meant leaving the EU? 

Never mind the bloody obvious question, also  never answered

7. if ruling out a Currency Union is not a bluff, what currency will we use?

So that is the first development. 

The second was John Swinney's interview on Good Morning Scotland yesterday morning. He was asked eleven, or arguably thirteen, times what would be the transitional costs of Scottish Independence?  And eleven, or thirteen. times he declined to answer. Before they had to go to the sports/traffic/weather news. But at no time did he say he didn't know. For, even in the forum, simply, of the broadcast media he remained aware that prevarication was a lesser crime than perjury.

However, although neither of them can claim the distinction of being lawyers, today, in the Parliament, as Senior and Junior Counsel respectively, Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie got as close to getting an admission of guilt from his co-accused as might have been possible under the auspices of a bent judge in the chair. 

For Salmond as good as conceded that the SNP do know the transitional costs of independence. They had asked that question of their Civil Servants and presumably had been provided by them with an answer. An answer that would reveal  how much money that might otherwise be available to combat child poverty or early diagnosis of cancer or educational underachievement would, in Salmond's opinion, be much better spent on a flag.

So let's have Mr Swinney back on Good Morning Scotland. And, while a Sheriff to direct him might be too much to hope for, let's ensure that the Sports/traffic/weather news waits until he answers the question. 

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Scotland in Europe

Strangely, the first Prime Ministerial Hand I ever shook was that of a Tory, Edward Heath.

It was during the European Referendum campaign of 1975 and Heath was the main speaker at a rally in Paisley Town Hall. I was sixteen and had just left school but my Dad, who had only recently demitted office as Paisley's Provost, was in the Chair. So he made the necessary introductions.

I've always been a strong advocate of an ever closer Union. Certainly, the EU has its faults, its bureaucracy and its lack of democratic transparency, but these are surely nothing besides its shining achievement. Open borders and free movement and trade between countries that, within living memory, had engaged against each other in the most destructive wars of all time. (See Note 1)

So, amongst my major objections to Scottish Independence has always been the fear that we would put that membership at risk. Not merely in the technical way that Scotland itself would, at best, have to re-apply for membership but in a more symbolic way. If we could not demonstrate that, even after three hundred years of mutual peace and prosperity, it was possible for two neighbouring countries to remain in Union on one small island, does that not threaten the idea that twenty eight countries might reasonably expect their own much shorter alliance across an entire Continent to be of a more permanent nature?

It hardly seems the best way to advocate the merits of village life by personally moving into a remote farmhouse.

And be in no doubt, as I highlighted in my immediately previous blog, while I have no doubt that some in the SNP would genuinely prefer to be in the EU, not one of them has ever suggested that failure to secure membership would be a bar to proceeding to Independence. I am surprised sometimes that they are not more directly confronted about this for it seems to me that all precedents make their eighteen month timescale for this wholly unrealistic. (See Note 2)

But there is another, even more delusional argument made by the Nationalists. That is that  the major threat to Scottish EU membership lies with euro-sceptical opinion in England and the potential in/out referendum promised by the Tories if returned in 2015.

For what its worth, I do not think, even if there was an outright Tory Government and even if there was a referendum, Britain would vote to leave the EU. The vast majority of Labour voters wouldn't; nor would those remaining loyal to the Lib-Dems. And while I accept that the Conservatives do contain there share of little Englanders, they are also the Party of big business. Indeed that's one of our major criticisms of them! But British big business would be as overwhelmingly opposed to British isolation in Europe as Scottish big business is opposed to Scottish isolation in Britain.

And, in the end the vote would, as always, turn on "the economy stupid". And the economic imperatives of staying in are just too obvious, just as they will be on September 18th.

But of course two things would make a British vote to leave slightly more likely. Two things also at stake on 18th September next year. The first is that a Yes vote to Scottish Independence significantly increases the chances of their being an outright Tory victory next year. For not only would that remove Scottish Labour MPs from the Westminster arithmetic, it would remove Scottish Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs as well.

And of course, secondly, a "British" vote without Scottish input would also be more likely to produce a vote for "Britain" to leave. The differences in Scotland's degree of support for the European project might not be quite as wide as suggested in some quarters but they do indeed exist. If there was to be an EU referendum one would assume that the Pro-Europe campaign would start with the assumption that London, Scotland and Wales were the equivalent of their "safe seats".

"But none of this would matter to us anyway if we're free (and in)" protest the Nationalists. "If England left, we would stay!" (See Note 3)

This is arrant nonsense. Two thirds of all of Scotland's "foreign" trade is directly with the rest of the UK and almost all of the rest has to pass through England to get to its ultimate market beyond. A Scotland in the EU and an England without would mean tariffs on that trade. We (or even the English) might not want those tariffs between ourselves but THAT WOULD NOT BE OUR DECISION! For the external tariffs of the European Union are precisely the sort of situation where the views of twenty seven countries are required to be considered. We'd be a pretty small voice (to put it at its kindest) if we advocated free Trade with England. A frankly irrelevant voice if England proposed having the advantage of free trade with any part (and thus all) of the EU while free of the other regulatory requirements of the Single Market.

And then there would be the question of the open border. It would defeat the whole object of trade tariffs if English goods could evade them simply by driving up the M6 to Gretna. Certainly Europe does have open borders with certain other Countries: most notably Norway and Switzerland but that is because they are members of EFTA and thus part of the European Economic Area. No eurosceptic proposes that following a British exit, because participation in the EEA requires agreement to observe EU Rules without having a say in their terms. And paying a substantial fee for the privilege. No matter what one thinks of those campaigning for a British withdrawal, nobody thinks that either of these conditions are ones they would be likely to agree to. Their whole rationale is to escape rule from Brussels even when we do have an input.

So Scotland in and England out would mean a physical customs border and, what is more, likely restrictions on the freedom of English citizens to come and work in Scotland. Restrictions not made by us but rather by our European partners. And who would then be confident the English would not reciprocate? If they didn't want Romanians and Poles "taking their jobs", why would they want Scots?

But, in reality, would any of this happen? Of course not. The damage to Scotland's economy would just be too great. Just as Ireland, long wanting to be in the EU, realised nonetheless that because of similar trade and border considerations, they could not join unless Britain joined. It is no coincidence that Ireland first applied for EEC membership on exactly the same day as Britain in 1961 and did not actually join until exactly the same day in 1973. And, whether they like it or not, the continued desire for an open border with the North and the continued importance of Britain as their largest European export market would cast severe doubts over whether Ireland could remain in the EU if  Britain were to withdraw. Yet only 16% of Irish exports are to Britain. Less if you excluded Scotland. More than 60% of Scottish exports however are to the rest of the UK!

So let us be clear. If Britain votes to go, then, independent or not, Scotland would need to go as well. The only thing at stake on 18th September this year is whether we would have any say on that inevitable consequence.

Notes: 1. Albeit from a slightly different perspective, @effiedeans has blogged on this same topic this weekend here Much of what she says was in my original imagined draft of this piece so I haven't repeated it for fear of accusations of plagiarism! I would however commend what she says.

2. I was assisted in some of my thinking and history by reading "Enlargement and Accession to the European Union" by Christopher Peston which can be found here

3. Throughout the piece I have referred to "England" rather than to the alternative formulation rUK. Here I mean no slight to the Welsh or Northern Irish. It is however the case that their attitude to an Independent Scotland is largely irrelevant to Scotland's potential prosperity. The continued economic goodwill of England however would be essential. I've made the point before that those who dispute that are not simply in denial of the economics, they require to be in denial of simple geography as well. That is nowhere more important to appreciate than when it comes to Scotland's ability to export.