Tuesday 30 August 2011

Home thoughts from Abroad (until recently)

“Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honeydew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.”

Italy remains the  beautiful, prosperous, contented and yet anarchic country it always was. And the Italian Left remain as inept as ever. Anybody who thinks we get a hard time from the Guardian should try reading La Repubblica although La Repubblica at least, has more justification.

Thanks to the wonders of modern communication, I have not been entirely isolated from events during my absence, or returned with a confused version of what has happened: e.g. “Tom Harris announced he would stand for the Labour Leadership to prevent rioting spreading to Scotland” or “Following the fall of Colonel Gadaffi it has been discovered that he was secretly on the payroll of News International”

Nonetheless, the best thing about a holiday (apart from the art, the sunshine, the food, the scenery and the fact that you’re off your work without being sick) is that you are a bit cut off from the urgency of day to day events and thus have time to read, and to think.

One of the books I read this Summer was “And the Land Lay Still” by James Robertson, which, although I didn’t know this in advance, I was informed by the cover had been chosen as Alex Salmond’s book of the year. I’m not surprised.

I, had to be fair, been driven to read the book by a very close friend who exhorted me that it represented “What these people really believe”!  That there was astonishment in her voice at the time was, I regret to say, not unusual, but this time she was right; for Mr Robertson’s book does, I believe, disclose the world view of those who, since 2007, have been the political masters of Scotland. And, since the life of the central character runs, chronologically, with my own; since many of the political causes it references are ones with which I was also engaged and since it is largely set in a Scotland, urban but not metropolitan, with which I am also familiar it is a book with which, if nothing else, I should have had a certain familiarity, as I did. And yet, as I will go on to explain, it was like reading one of those “alternative history” books set in a world where the USA had lost the War of Independence or Hitler been successful at Stalingrad. For Mr Robertson’s book is about a Scotland I recognise only so well, and yet a Scotland I do not recognise at all.

Now hear I want to digress very slightly. “And the Land Lay Still” is a major work of modern Scottish literature. It is beautifully written, there are strong and memorable characters and the intertwining of their meetings, sometimes significant while on other occasions merely incidental, is worthy of Balzac. That achievement has to be recognised, not simply in justice, but also to head off the suggestion that the criticism which follows can be deflected by the “it’s more than you could do” school of response. It is more than I could have done and I will now certainly seek out and read Mr Robertson’s earlier work (although not probably till my holiday next year!)

But back to the critique. Mr Robertson’s book purports to be a history of Scotland since the 1950’s, albeit through the mechanism of fiction. It portrays a country ill at ease with itself; denied its proper place in the world through the devices of the English and unable to recognise its true destiny until these issues are resolved.

Now here I require to diverge again with a bit of personal narrative. I’ve got a fair bit of history with the Home Rule movement. Unlike Jack McConnell, I can’t claim that a Yes vote in the 1979 referendum was my first ever vote (that was for a deadbeat Labour Councillor in 1977) but I was a consistent advocate of Devolution from the moment I joined the Labour Party in 1974. When Mr Robertson writes of the hostile climate that surrounded Home Rule in the early eighties and of the assortment of pamphleteers in and around the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly who swam against that tide, I am one of those of whom he writes and, I say with due modesty (although this is unacknowledged by Mr Robertson) it was my initiative, with others, that, through Scottish Labour Action, led first to Labour’s participation in the Constitutional Convention and then to the development of the revised scheme and to its adoption as Party policy and legislative fact.

Yet there is so much of Mr Robertson’s narrative which clashes with my own recollection of events. The fall of the Labour Government in 1979 was not an act of God, as he might as well portray it; the “true” SNP did not ever (even today) consist entirely of well meaning lefties who happened to believe in Independence; and while the Tartan terrorists of the sixties and seventies did undoubtedly set back the cause of Home Rule there is no evidence at all that they did so as agents provocateurs put up to it by the British State. That they are no longer a factor today is not because the British State lost interest but rather because the SNP themselves realised that tolerating these nutters was counterproductive.

That however is not the ultimate reason I find myself so disengaged with Mr Robertson’s book. That reason is that for me the political history of Scotland, during the period of which he writes, was about so much more than Scotland. The central character of the book goes to Edinburgh University in 1972 yet the only mention of Vietnam is to compare its struggle to that of Scotland (truly!); Allende’s overthrow is worthy of a single (and background) pub exchange; the struggle against apartheid which, while I was contemporaneously at University, albeit in Glasgow, united students of any sort of progressive opinion doesn’t rate a single mention. To read this book, insofar as it purports to be a fictional political history of Scotland, you’d have thought that all that was going on consisted of people sitting about bemoaning the constitution. It most certainly was not.

And then there are the cultural references. I’m not a great folk music devotee but no-one on the left is immune from the influence of folk music and Scotland has some great folk music. But so has England, and most politically influential (even in Scotland!) of all, so has the United States. But not for Mr Robertson. It’s all plaintive ballads about a lost Scotland which, if only people would listen, would alert them to their national destiny.

And finally there is the day to day politics themselves. A lot of important things happened in the seventies and eighties. We joined, and decided to remain, in the European Union; syndicalism was flirted with and then rejected and in its aftermath, Thatcherism changed the whole terms of the political and economic debate, laying waste, as it did so, to working class communities the length and breadth of the UK. All of this, Mr Robertson would have us believe, was however largely secondary to Scotland’s struggle for its own Parliament. It wasn’t. I’ve been on too many demonstrations over the years to remember them all but while I marched against mass unemployment; in support of the miners; for the freedom of Mandela and, in something of an epiphany, declined to march against the the first Iraq war. (Although I certainly marched against the second!)

I can only however remember one significant Home Rule Demo, when John Major held the G8 in Edinburgh. That’s a pretty good indication of where the priorities of the left have lain over that period and it is dishonest for Mr Robertson to suggest otherwise. There were certainly people who obsessed about home rule to the exclusion of just about everything else, but equally certainly they weren’t on the left.

Now, I accept the virtue of Michael Corleone‘s advice that it is a mistake to hate your enemies, because it clouds your judgement; nonetheless, I hate Mr Robertson’s history of Scotland. And I worry about it become common currency.

My Scotland is a country engaged with the world, not constantly engaged in contemplating its own navel; which engages with England in an equal and voluntary partnership, punching well above its weight in the process; where a location that is my home doesn’t in the process become superior to the home of anybody else.

But some issues are simply irreconcilable with some with an opposing view. It is impossible to win an argument over regulated abortion with someone who believes that life begins at the moment of conception; or an argument over animal use in scientific testing with someone who believes mice have the same rights as human beings. Equally, it is impossible to win an argument with someone who believes the single most important priority facing this country: above the success of the economy, the eradication of poverty or even the preservation of democracy itself is in fact the cause of independence.

That’s why it would be a strategic error for Labour to engage in a Dutch Auction with the SNP over what degree of Home Rule might buy them off. This, Mr Robertson’s view of the world, is what these people really believe; that Scotland is under the English yoke and that, at least until that is cast off, everything else is secondary.

As such, this is an argument which it is simply impossible to defeat by rational argument because it proceeds not from logic but from belief.

So in constructing the basis of our counter-argument, let’s start by refusing to accept the right of the nationalists to frame the terms of the debate. They did not win in May by securing the support of of a huge tranche of the population who also supported that belief in either the past or of the future of Scotland. Rather, they won by securing the support of those who believed no other Party had any alternative vision at all, a conclusion in which they were broadly correct.

Yet our Party at least did once have a more clearly expressed alternative vision. A vision of greater social equality and personal opportunity; a vision not of a nebulous “better” Scotland but rather of a very real fairer Scotland; a vision which saw Home Rule not as an end in itself but as simply a means to an end.We may have temporarily lost our way but I am in no doubt that is still the direction in which we wish to travel and we should be confident enough in ourselves, supported by the facts rather than the fiction, that that is a journey on which it is possible to persuade the Scottish people to travel with us, as we have done to our mutual benefit in the past.

But the victory of ideas must be organised so, for starters, we need leadership committed not simply to occupying office but to securing and exercising power.

History is not unimportant and there is a fair bit of history between me and Tom Harris. Nonetheless, I was surprised at the extent to which in the aftermath of the great defeat, how much his thoughts independently coincided with my own. We need to be proudly, and on occasions assertively Scottish but equally every Labour figure committed to Home Rule for Scotland, from Keir Hardie to Donald Dewar, has always understood that Constitutional reform, of any sort, was never, for socialists, any more than a tactic. The importance of flags and songs was always an attribute of the opposition. Our view was, and remains, to recognise that, in Tawney's words,  if there is a golden age it will lie not in the past but in the future.

So, I’ve said, and I don’t retract it for a moment, that I believe the best way forward for the Labour Party would be an interim leadership to be cast off as we approach the actual 2016 Election. If however the Party is determined that we must in 2011 decide who is to lead us into that far off event then I’m happy to stand beside the one person to date who seems to have the remotest idea how to reverse our fortunes and the courage to have put his head above the parapet. I’ll be voting for Tom Harris.

Thursday 4 August 2011

Watching the news is not a lot of fun. Glad to be going on holiday.

Four random thoughts.

The bloody obvious reason for the current danger of a double dip recession was the result of the mid terms in November 2010 which stopped the Obama stimulus in its tracks. That’s what the Americans voted for, so that was their right, but lets not kid on there is any other reason. Or that many Americans are other than incredibly stupid.

It is not necessarily a good thing that lots of men with beards are running about Syria, shouting “God is Great” and condemning the Assad regime for being insufficiently hostile to Israel. No matter what the BBC says, it is difficult to see this ending in a triumph for liberal democracy.

Italian taxation is a mess. I love that Country; I’ll be there in 48 hours. But, as I plan ahead, I am struck by the repeated requirements, in imperfect English, that payment should be, for whatever service, “in cash”. If they don’t address this then one can’t help feeling that, sooner rather than later, the cash involved will, once again, be in Lira and paid in multiples of 1000.

The first step to Scotland acquiring a better government would be for it to acquire a better opposition.

I’m off, definitely and finally, on holiday. I promised on Tuesday that you had already read my last words before departure. My apologies to those who took me at my word

Monday 1 August 2011

I want to start with a confession. On Saturday, as has been our custom for many years, Mo and I will depart for three weeks holiday in Umbria. We’ve got a house, with a pool, and have arranged for various friends and family to join us over our three week absence. We will, I confidently predict, have a great time. And we will spend a fortune.

I say all of that, not to boast but to acknowledge in advance the easy route to criticise what I say below. I am a middle class bleeding heart liberal; a champagne, or at least prosecco, socialist. I have never been poor, or unemployed, for a single day of my adult life, and hopefully I never will be. I say only in my own defence that in choosing to practice in the Legal Aid field for the whole of my professional career, I have made that choice in the knowledge that while I will always be comfortably off (Legal Aid Cuts permitting!), I will never be stinking rich.

My day to day practice involves, always, ordinary people; almost invariably, ordinary people at points of crisis in their own lives, but I regret to say that these ordinary people increasingly divide themselves into two divisions: those who fear lapsing into poverty and those simply interested in making the most of their self acceptance of that state.

I’m going to gone to say a fair amount of controversial things about the current Benefit system but I want to start with a brief diversion into a different group of people altogether: bogus asylum seekers.

Now the Left doesn’t like the term “bogus”. I’ve never quite understood why. A large number of people do enter this Country making false claims of political persecution elsewhere and they do undermine public sympathy for those with a valid claim for asylum. If they do not have a valid claim, what are they other than bogus? But the bogus asylum seekers (excepting a very few genuine criminal elements) are not themselves bad people. They do not come here to exploit our welfare state, for they have little or no understanding of how they might access it, and they are probably unable to do so anyway. They come here because they believe that here they will be able to find work. And, bogus or otherwise, they do. Just as have done the hundreds of thousands of Poles, Slovakians, Portuguese and other nationalities who have taken legitimate advantage of the EU Rules on the free movement of Labour.

But, despite this, even at the height of the New Labour boom, this Country had a stubborn figure of more than one million people allegedly actively seeking work but unable to find it. And as many as three million allegedly medically unfit to undertake work of any sort.

Again, at this point, I need to depart on a caveat, or maybe two caveats. No, three caveats.

1. My office deals with a large number of ESA appeals and some of the decision making is absurd. I hesitate to choose the most ludicrous example but, if forced to do so it would probably be the man who was awaiting a surgical operation to repair the trauma preventing him from using his left arm, and keen for it to be undertaken, who was nonetheless assessed as being fit to work in the meantime. What kind of job is open to a man with (effectively) one arm? And who, anyway, would employ someone imminently awaiting a major operation followed by a six to eight week recuperation? Needless to say, he won his appeal, but what kind of idiot made this decision in the first place?

2. Depression is a terrible illness but, bluntly, depression is a word with two meanings: a clinical illness and, regrettably, a simple state of mind.  The second of these, that I’m depressed because I sit about the house all day doing nothing, is not an excuse to qualify for additional Benefit but rather a perfect example of why you should be encouraged back to work for your benefit as well as that of everyone else. That does not mean however that those with a genuine mental illness are not as deserving as those with a broken leg.

3. Some people “earned the right” to be unemployed. That still unduly colours the thinking of the Labour Party. Fifty year old men, made redundant, having worked all their days in the pits or the steelworks did not deserve to be driven into call centres or check outs at Tesco. If that could be disguised behind the veil of incapacity (and Incapacity Benefit) then I was as up for that as anybody. But that generation has largely now passed into retirement and the rest of the world goes on.

I express these  opinions not to curry favour from those intent in cutting the benefit system but rather in pursuit of a more equitable distribution of its.........err..........benefits.

Someone who has worked for twenty years and who is then made redundant is entitled to Job Seekers Allowance of £67.50 per week. And at the end of six months they get nothing, unless they can pass a means test. This is a ridiculously low figure when set even against the median national wage of £499. On the other hand, someone who hasn’t worked for twenty years but who can pass (or fail) the medical test for Employment Support Allowance, perhaps qualifying on the basis of their alcoholism or drug addiction,  after an initial thirteen weeks, gets £94.25, hardly a devil’s ransom, but still a nice wee £20 bonus if you had no intention of working anyway. I can’t be alone in believing there is something wrong here.

And then there are means tested benefits. The vast majority of benefit claimants never see these. They are unemployed, or unfit, for a short period and then they go back to work. When the Tories proposed to cap Housing Benefit at £400 my immediate reaction was that this seemed a bit draconian. After all, anyone with a big family would find it difficult, particularly in the South of England, to find decent accommodation for £400 a month. Then I realised it wasn’t £400 a month, it was £400 a week!

Now, the average weekly wage in this Country is, as I say, £499 a week (before tax).  Nobody, and I mean nobody, earning the national average wage, or even significantly above it, is living in accommodation costing £400 a week. “But”, some complain,”because of this cap, we’ll be unable to continue to live in the centre of London”. Well, I’m a lawyer and I couldn’t afford to live there. All working people face up to that reality. I pay my taxes and, indeed, would be content to pay a bit more, but not to subsidise the lifestyle choices that I couldn’t possibly choose for myself. If you can’t afford to stay in a particular house, move.  Even as to where I live now, that’s what I’d have to do if they abolished the Legal Aid Scheme tomorrow.

I could go on but I am in danger of turning into James Purnell.

The real point however is not to engage in a right wing rant but to engage in a left wing rant. For in addition to the client group who wish simply to make the best of a life chosen to live on benefits, I deal with an awful lot of ordinary working people who are being screwed by the current economic situation. People on compulsorily shortened hours; arbitrarily renewed or not renewed employment contracts; suddenly displacement from secure and well paid employment through no fault of their own;  working week to week as opportunity presents itself.

Never mind those whose lives are suddenly transformed by unforeseen illness.

And, it is they, not me, with my comfortable lifestyle, who are most resentful of those who play the system and most resentful of Labour’s support of that choice.

Yet these people, not the chancers, are those for whom the welfare state was originally created: those who have contributed to “National Insurance” but who hoped personally never to have to call upon it. And yet they are the group who increasingly feel Labour, the creator of the Welfare State,  has forgotten them.

So, let’s be more judgemental. Let’s not be afraid to say those who can work are expected to work and, if they choose not to do so, should be entitled to nothing more than the most basic level of subsistence until they change their minds. And if that means they can’t “afford” their chosen place of residence without working, then they have the simple solution of finding work, not in every part of the Country but certainly in those parts where work is patently available.

I suppose in the end I should own up to the origin of this rant: The London Olympics. I am simply fed up with the number of “Eastenders” complaining that there are no jobs for them from this project. They don’t mean that. They mean actually that there are no jobs that they can be bothered to do. As I write this there will be people in North Africa and Near Asia prepared to risk their lives to travel half way across the world to find work at the Olympics. And people from Eastern Europe prepared to be separated from their nearest and dearest for the same opportunity. And yet, all the while, my taxes and yours will be paying for people across the road from the stadium to exercise their “right” to stay in bed until the start of the Jeremy Kyle show.

So here’s a proposal for Ed. Between now and the end of the Olympics no one in East London , fit for work and without family obligations, should be entitled to any form of state benefit (including housing benefit) for more than thirteen weeks unless they are working at least sixteen hours a week. Not only would that recoup some of the public money thrown at this project, it would be incredibly popular with voters: Labour voters. Particularly those here in Scotland, and Newcastle, and Manchester, and Birmingham, who only wished they had such an employment opportunity on their own doorstep.

And, just in case this appears unduly London phobic, when it’s over, let’s go to the East End of Glasgow and do the same with the Commonwealth Games.