Friday 30 September 2011

Well here we are

I now, somewhat spookily, am being followed on twitter by Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister.

I don't know if this is in the hope of some insight into the future of the Scottish Labour Party; if it is I urge her not to waste her time. The Labour Party has never listened to me; quite right too given the unparalleled progress they have made in Scotland since 1997 without the benefit of my counsel.

Unless I am misjudging matters, this may be a curse that I am about to bestow on Tom Harris. He is a terrible right winger; he even voted for the Iraq war! When the Party this last week booed Tony Blair, I sighed at the own goal being scored but I still booed along silently inside. Tom, on the other hand, might well have hit somebody. (For the avoidance of any doubt, cybernats, I mean this metaphorically and not as a suggestion that Tom might actually be given to physical violence. Outwith the Labour party, at least.) He's even in the Herald today suggesting tuition fees are inevitable in Scotland. He's right, of course, but he didn't need to gloat about it.

I'll come back to Tom. First a bit more about Nicola.

I am so old I remember Nicola before she was famous. I ran across her as a lawyer when she worked at the Drumchapel Law Centre. Having passed some vaguely favourable remark to my pals at the time about her legal ability, I remember being pulled up by the question "Did I know she was in the SNP?"

Now there were a number of subtexts to this remark but they amounted to essentially this:

Could I possibly be saying something positive about anyone's legal ability despite the fact that their Party affiliation established them,  by definition, as a bit of a lunatic?

That mindset has too long beset the Scottish Labour Party. Essentially, "These people are not quite the full shilling."

Well, as we prepare to choose between Johann and "the other excellent candidate", I increasingly worry about who are the idiots here.

I joined the Labour Party between the February and October General Elections in 1974.

It was, how shall I put it,  an institution not without faults. Nonetheless, it was an institution with an agreed direction of travel: not on the route; not on the pace; not even on the ultimate destination but, nonetheless an agreed general direction. And that was a general direction agreed upon with the people of Scotland.

Towards an end to the Scotland where neither the Sunday Post nor the Scottish Sunday Express was the voice of the nation; to a Scotland  where "what school did you go to?" was not a loaded question at any interview; to a Scotland where things would be "fairer" (which none of us would know until we saw it, and some of us even not then).

It was a pretty odd journey with a pretty odd group of companions: John Wheatley; Leon Trotsky; Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Antonio Gramsci; Robert Burns; St Ignatius Loyola; Marshall Zhukov; Martin Luther King; above all perhaps Clement Attlee, all joining the route at one point or another.

And in the current struggle: Communist Miners; west end intellectuals; reactionary bishops; Tamany Hall Councillors; careerist Trade Union officials; any number of other participants. All with virtually nothing good to say about each other but all nonetheless engaged in the same project and convinced by the secret companion, Joseph Stalin, lurking well back in the shadows, that if you were not with us you were against us.

So that was the mindset with which we first met the modern SNP. Either they were actual Tories, engaged in a machiavellian plot to split the working class vote, or they were willing dupes, unaware of the extent to which their naive beliefs were being manipulated by the forces of reaction to serve reaction's objectives in the wider class struggle.

Oddly enough I still have some time for the first assumption; not that they are secret partisans of David Cameron but that rather that no Party defined by loyalty to a flag has ever been a force for progress. It is however the latter assumption which is, for progressive opinion,  the more dangerous one. These people are not, for the avoidance of any doubt, idiots. The extent to which they have forced a concept, Independence, to the forefront of public discourse while being unable, even themselves, to define what Independence actually means is not a mark of their idiocy, it is a mark of their genius. That they might seriously suggest that Scotland and England might, as sovereign states, maintain joint armed forces over whose deployment each might have a veto is a construction of such intellectual lunacy that only the truly brilliant could have persuaded anyone to consider it without bursting out laughing. That......................I'm sorry, at this point I was intending to say something about their position on an Independent Scotland's currency but every time I start to type I end up rolling about the floor.

But this brings me back to the Labour Party. It also takes a different sort of genius to have lost to these people. Or a ridiculous degree of hubris. But, like the Bourbons, it appears we have forgotten nothing and learned nothing.

"The SNP are idiots; we only need to get our act together and they will be blown away. Indeed, they are such idiots that we don't even need to get our act together; half our act will, never mind half.................a quarter!"

Either Johann or even the other excellent candidate will be more than up to such a simple task.

Clearly they can't be held responsible for last May's debacle, they weren't involved!

(Well, mibbee as Deputy Leader Johann was a bit involved, but experience is a great teacher; and mibbee nobody asked the other excellent candidate for his opinion because......................better not say any more than that).

I keep coming back to Tom Harris. The extent to which it has become common media parlance that he is obviously the best candidate is becoming a bit embarrasing, not for him but for the Labour Party who would appear to have little intention of electing him.

He gets the SNP. They are not Tories but they are nonetheless our political enemies. They are not lunatics but they are most certainly dangerous, to us and ultimately to Scotland. And they are not going to go away voluntarily no matter how much we would like them to. They require to be driven from the field.

I wish he was a bit more left-wing but you can't have everything. He is that greatest of all attributes, a Labour Man. And he could actually get elected as First Minister. That will do me.

Sunday 25 September 2011

It's many a mile from here to there

There is a very wise observation that a four day golf tournament can't be won on day one, but it most certainly can be lost.

The same in many ways applies to Party Conferences in the early days of a new Parliamentary Term.

Labour could have a model conference this week. Enlightened and perceptive discussion on the fringe if not in the hall (no Party offers that nowadays, its too dangerous); Great speeches from our major players; a mesmerising address from Ed and a general atmosphere of fraternal bonhomie and common purpose.

And do you know what? It wouldn't matter a jot come the next election. Other than Ed getting elected I can't remember a single thing that happened at last year's Labour Party Conference and I am, how might I put it, more interested in the internal politics of the Labour Party than most people.

But Conferences, even at this distance from the polls can certainly make a major contribution to defeat.

Since I started with a sporting cliche I make no apology for repeating the political cliche that oppositions don't win elections, Governments lose them. That is true but it is equally true that most Governments have the additional advantage that they are  the Government. Other than in the most extreme of circumstances that has at least proved that under their existing stewardship the Country functions on some basis. Accordingly, even when the Country is not functioning very well, seldom are the other side swept into power unless they have demonstrated to the satisfaction of the Country that they are capable of doing a better job.

That's why the elections of  1974 and 2010 proved so indecisive and why that of 1992, for us, proved such a disappointment. The Country wanted something better but they were not convinced that was on offer. To that extent, Party Conferences are important. They put the alternative under the spotlight and, if it holds up, invite the electorate to return to it when the time is right.

But a good conference this year counts for nothing if next year's is a disaster. On the other hand, if this year's is a disaster then the danger is that minds are set against paying future attention. That's why the disastrous Conferences of the eighties took so long for Labour to recover from.

Conferences are however important in another less public way. They make the Party rules and the effect of that can have a slow burn for good or ill. The farcical compromise reached on the electoral college is just another fix to put off the eventual decision that the only viable way for any party to elect its leader is by one member one vote. The very, very small toe dipped in the water of registered supporters the start of a long process that will eventually, one day, lead to a Primary system to elect our candidates. The frustrating thing is that both moves are so.......................conservative and the need for something bolder so obvious to everyone except the Party itself.  If fortune favours the brave then it looks like we can look forward to a fair amount of bad luck.

The general public don't pay any attention to such matters but they do to the results they produce. "How did he/she end up as Leader?" they will ask  in time. Or "How could you possibly expect people to vote for........?" in a Constituency context. If the only answer is that this was in accordance with our rules they are unlikely to be mollified. Much more likely they will conclude that if these are your rules then it's no wonder nobody votes for you.

There is however a very imporant and enlightened change likely to go through the Conference this week and that is the rule change which will, at a different Conference in late October, allow the Scottish Party to make its own rules. Unfortunately there is a strong body of opinion that sees this simply as an opportunity for us to decide to have the same rules as the Party in England. It would however be a serious error for that to be what happens.

Sometimes, just sometimes, having a row at a Party Conference, is actually the best thing to do. It was when Kinnock denounced the Militant or Blair announced the revision of Clause 4. Such rows are only justified when the status quo isn't working and  that a row is the only way to show people that some, at least, realise that.

This October, it's time for a row. For the May 2016 Election can't be won in October 2011 but it can certainly be lost.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Budget Day

I didn't envy Richard Baker's task today.

Labour has to get its head round the fact that no matter what we think of the SNP's position on the constitution, in day to day Government, they are broadly social democratic. That may, I concede, be for tactical reasons; their true colours may indeed be shown by their stated desire to cut taxes on big business if given the chance or indeed their continued support for a Council Tax freeze benefiting mainly those (the rich) who pay most Council Tax.

That's not however really the point. Today, John Swinney was faced with trying to balance the books against a financial settlement from Westminster which involves significant fewer resources at his disposal. It doesn't matter that we (possibly more sincerely than him) regard the scale of these cuts as unneccessary. If, by some miracle, we had won in May we would still have faced the same challenges.

So what would we have done differently?

It must be the case that faced with a choice between freezing public sector pay and compulsory public sector redundancies we would have made the same call.

The "Tesco Tax", if it works, is surely a good idea, even if the money raised is pretty small beer (sorry).

The decision to prioritise capital expenditure is classic Keynseianism and even the decision that if the Scottish Government can't borrow then Local Authorities might do that for themselves is one that, faced with the initial premise, we would probably also have arrived at.

The commitment to the Christie report is a commitment to a report written Christie, hardly a running dog of capitalism.

Even the jiggery-pokery surrounding the likes of Legal Aid or FE expenditure is only the sort of jiggery-pokery all governments engage in.

And, finally, the decision not to spend money on a Referendum on Independence is in accordance with long term Labour Party policy (even if I don't agree with that policy myself.)

No, the only real controversy is in the treatment of Local Government, and here there is a lesson for us.

There is no doubt that the budget involves very real cuts in the resources available to local councils. There is however no reason to think that this will be unpopular, even if properly understood. Just as there is no evidence that the council tax freeze is unpopular; indeed that policy is so unpopular that in a panic move Iain Gray saw fit to adopt it.

The electorate understands what local councils do. They appreciate the importance of education; roads and lighting; refuse collection; child protection; planning controls and any number of other essential functions. But the electorate believes that all of these functions could be delivered in a more cost effective and less bureaucratic way; that the purpose of local government is to provide services and to provide employment only so far as necessary to do so; and that "local" accountability, outside the cities, might just as well be provided by one Council than the two, three or four as we have at present. And the electorate is seldom wrong.

Lots of my social circle are Labour Councillors. I'm even on reasonable terms with some SNP Councillors and I once met a man at a Party who claimed to be a Tory Councillor (although, admittedly that was in Edinburgh  and, even then, he may have been joking). But, even when talking with these more articulate specimens of the class, I am reminded of the story I was once told by one of the Labour Ministers trying to persuade Glasgow City Councillors to agree to stock transfer. "If the stock transferred" she was asked in all seriousness, "could the Council still have a Housing Committee?" Assured that it could, his support was secured.

There is far too much bureaucracy in Local Government: Too many Committees; too many Councillors; too many Councils; and, above all, too many employees with either undefined roles or at least too many duplicated roles.

The problem with John Swinney's settlement is that it doesn't address this at all.  In consequence,  the cuts will not fall on that layer of lard but rather on the food on the plate.

But while Labour won't address that we are left with the proposition that more money for Councils must mean less for Higher Education; curtailed free personal care; higher Council Tax or an end to the eye catching free bus travel or free prescription charges. In relation to the latter three, I would have other priorities, but I regret it would not be more central government money for Local Government in its present incarnation.

Thank goodness I'm no longer interested in getting a Labour Nomination. And, sympathies, once again, to Richard Baker.

Thursday 15 September 2011

A Confession

I really don’t like Tony Blair (that’s not the confession, that’s common knowledge).

No, here is the confession. In 1994, I voted for him to become leader of the Labour Party. I did so, as the phrase has it, “with no illusions”. Nothing he then did disappointed me, because I had “no illusions”, although even I was a little surprised by his slavish subservience to George W Bush. I couldn’t wait for him to go. If I had any criticisms of the various plots to get rid of him once we were in power, my only criticism would be that they were not more successful at an earlier stage.

So why did I initially give him my support? Because if Labour hadn’t won in 1997 there would still have been an increased gap between rich and poor (New Labour’s central failure); there would still have been a new generation of British nuclear weapons; there would still have been a free rein for corporate banking leading ultimately to the biggest slump since the 1930s; there would still have been PFI; there would still have been an Iraq War with UK support.

But there wouldn’t have been the Working Families Tax Credit; or Civil Partnerships; or the Human Rights Act; or the minimum wage; or, probably, a Scottish Parliament. These required a Labour Government and, if Blair was the price, it was one I was willing to pay.

By themselves, the policies of the Labour Party are utterly unimportant. And, by itself, the position of Leader of the Labour Party is utterly insignificant. If it were otherwise, in 1994, in a contest with three candidates, Blair would have been my fourth preference. But the only important policies are the policies of the Government. And the only important leader is the leader of a government. And to be in government requires the winning of elections. That’s democracy.

I voted for Blair in 1994 because, as I saw it, of those actually standing, only he could win a General Election. Because I’d been there, in 1980, with a man I really loved as Labour Leader and policies that had, mostly, my unconditional support. But to paraphrase the saying of a defeated US politician, the people had then spoken..............the bastards.

It appears in 2011, Labour in Scotland still hasn’t got this. Neither Johann Lamont nor Ken McIntosh are remotely electable as First Minister. Neither was Iain Gray. Actually we all know this. The Labour Party knows this, the media know this but, most importantly of all, the people of Scotland know this. It appears however that the Labour Party proposes simply to proceed to elect one or other of them and proceed to ignore the people.

The only certainty of such an approach is that the people are likely to reciprocate.

Now this is not an encomium for Tom Harris. I’ve already said that of the declared candidates he is the one who will have my support but he is hardly Barack Obama. To be fair, even he wouldn’t claim that he is. He is simply the only the Candidate who has even the remotest chance of actually returning Labour to power. Indeed he seems to be the only one whose supporters are actually interested in their candidate being elected as First Minister, as opposed simply to being elected as leader of the Scottish Labour Party, (Although I accept one of the other candidates might not be bright enough to have worked that out for himself).

Ken’s supporters are united only by the fact that he is not Johann (and that there is nobody else). Johann’s by the belief that there is nobody else (and that she is not Ken).

In the eyes of both camps, Alex Salmond is an irrelevant bystander. Although neither camp would be able to explain why.

Now, and I’ve said this to Tom himself, if a candidate with a better chance of securing the position of First Minister came forward, then I’d wish Tom goodbye and good luck. Only I suspect I wouldn’t need to, because I believe that Tom would be right beside me in switching his allegiance. Even if that person was a bit of a Leftie.

There is a convention in internal Labour politics that, no matter what your private feelings, if, in advance of the contest you have expressed a preference for an unsuccessful candidate, in the aftermath of that contest you acknowledge the successful candidate to be the obvious and manifestly best qualified choice.

I said in one of my earliest blogs that I no longer had any aspiration to elected office. I therefore have no reason to abide by such conventions. If either Johann or Ken become leader of the Scottish Labour Party we can write off the 2016 election now and look forward to four years of hiding behind the settee whenever they appear head to head with Salmond.  How did it come to this?

Expel me if you like.

Sunday 11 September 2011

What really needed done by Ian Smart aged 53 and one day.

So the Scottish Executive have laboured mightily and laid a curate’s egg.

There are some really good things in the report. Contrary to reports they do not include devolution of domestic policy, for we’ve got that already, but they do include devolution of Scottish Party rules; changing the basic unit of party organisation to Scottish Parliamentary Constituencies and moving the Party HQ to Edinburgh. All good, although I doubt any of these previous failings had anything other than the most marginal effect in our catastrophic defeat.

There are other proposals for better training and support for candidates which may be more significant . This however only hints at the real problem which is that, while competent candidates will always benefit from better training and support, the precondition is in the adjective competent. You simply can’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear and that applies not only to candidates for individual constituencies but also to our potential candidate for First Minister.

And on this the report ducks all the important issues, not because they weren’t identified but because the need to juggle the various conflicting interest groups in the Party: The MPs; the MSPs; the Councillors; the Unions and the feared knock on to English Party rules and practice simply made it impossible to do what was necessary.

Well, let me spell this out. There is only one acceptable vested interest for the Scottish Labour Party; the vested interest in getting elected.  In getting elected to govern Scotland, not simply  to the sinecure of back bench opposition in what remains of our safe seats.

So let’s start at the very beginning: the membership.

680,000 people still voted Labour in May. This is the real core vote. Nonetheless, of even those prepared to vote for us in the most adverse of circumstance, less than 1% were eligible to participate in the selection of our candidates. So is it any surprise that so many of our candidates were not representative of Labour voters but rather only of 1% of Labour voters, heavily skewed in favour of councillors; would be councillors; full time public service trade union officials and the families of all three groups? Now, I’ve got nothing against any of these people but it is hardly surprising that, in expressing their own preference for who should represent them, they favour those with similar backgrounds. The problem is that the electorate doesn’t share that prejudice. It wasn’t always like this. Look at Donald’s first cabinet.  Before Wendy, Susan, Sarah and Sam took office they all had had varied careers and lives outwith the Labour Party. Certainly Henry and Jack had Local Government experience but they had done other things, other major things, as well. That diversity of experience not only served to increase the competence of the Administration it also contributed to getting it elected.

Since 1999 however almost every vacancy that arose was filled by a serving councillor, the exceptions being people elected off the list only because Labour had done badly at the polls (ironically often because the electorate was unwilling to thole the undistinguished councillors that the Party wished upon them with their constituency vote).

What can be done about this? We can widen the selectorate for our candidates. We had a lot more members in 1999 and a lot better candidates as a result.

Why shouldn’t people identified by the Party as solid Labour supporters be entitled to a say in who should represent them? In this age of ever more sophisticated canvas techniques we know who these people are and in this internet age it is not even expensive to communicate with them. And far from disenfranchising the Unions, levy payers could automatically entitled to have a direct vote if only the unions would tell us who they were.

There is no downside to this: We get candidates chosen by a more representative group; we give Labour voters more reason to feel ownership of “their” candidate and thus to promote and actually go out and vote for them; we have some right to call on the selectorate to actually work on the campaign; we even have the opportunity to solicit financial support.

I say there is no downside, but of course there is. Such a change would significantly reduce the prospects of some people of ever becoming a Labour candidate. Unfortunately these “some people” are disproportionately represented in the Party’s current hierarchy, locally and nationally.

Then there is the issue of our candidate for First Minister. Elections are now essentially Presidential contests. I might not like that but I can’t turn back the clock. No Party could be elected to majority power without a credible candidate for the top job. But there is simply no reason that a credible candidate needs to be in the Scottish Parliament before the election as a necessary pre-requisite for First Ministerial Office.

Donald wasn’t. Nor was Alex Salmond. Jack did the job for five years not on the basis of his couple of years experience of the Scottish Parliament chamber beforehand but rather of his diverse experience in teaching; in local government  in Party position and in Ministerial Office  that all preceded his election as FM. Why has any of that changed? Various names have been floated as potential Labour First Ministers since the election but the present rules prevent many of them from even standing. Jack or Wendy couldn’t come back, because they’re not currently in the Parliament; John Reid or Des Browne because they don’t currently hold elected office. Most bizarrely of all, if Alistair Darling, or Jim Murphy or Douglas Alexander or, dare I say it, Tom Harris was to win the post and left Westminster before the election to concentrate on winning here they would automatically disqualify themselves from the position, even if already selected for the safest of Scottish Parliamentary seats!

Four and a half years before his election, Barack Obama was a State Senator in Illinois. Essentially a Turbo Regional Councillor. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, before his fall, was front runner to be President of France without even living in France! The credibility of a candidate for First Minister depends on their perceived ability to do the job. Certainly that credibility could be achieved in the Holyrood Chamber but it could just as easily come from having served (not necessarily currently) at Westminster; or at the top of a public company; or at the leadership of a major local authority; or even in the media.

And the candidate does not need to be chosen now. Fixed term Parliaments mean that we know when the next election will be. The next US Presidential Elections are in November 2012 and yet the Republicans are still months away from having a candidate. If someone had suggested it would have been advantageous to have had that person in place in the Spring of 2009 they would have been regarded (quite rightly) as off their head. Even more so if it was put to the Democrats that the best time to choose their candidate for November 2016 was in April 2012.

Obviously there is a need for day to day opposition but the person who does that does not need to be the candidate in four and a half years time. One Nicola Sturgeon performed perfectly competently in that very opposition role. Iain Gray is doing it now. And, and I repeat, fixed term Parliaments mean that May 2016  can only ever be the date on which Labour will require a candidate for First Minister.  It goes without saying that the position at Westminster is quite different when the Government of the day can (normally) opt to call an election at any time.

So, again, why doesn’t the Party get this? Well, once again vested interest is at work. The proposal for an immediate election serves the interests of those currently eligible to stand and, once again, they have a disproportionate influence in the Party’s deliberations.

And the final vested interest standing before electoral success? The method of selecting the leader.

The electoral college is a disaster waiting to happen. Ed Miliband was not the choice of either the membership or of the Parliamentarians as leader of the Labour Party . We (just) got away with this because the front runner had, depite manifest initial advantages, so obviously stumbled; because Ed came very close (particularly) among the membership but mainly because of the bizarre family circumstance of the election itself.

We won’t always be so lucky. There is every prospect of the winner of a contest to be leader of the Scottish Labour Party being won by someone declared and revealed publicly by the Party itself to have been rejected for the role by a clear majority of the membership or (despite being from the Holyrood Group) a clear majority of the Holyrood Group. In certain circumstances, if the Westminster MPs and the Unions line up behind the same candidate, we could see someone being chosen without the majority support of either the membership or the Holyrood group!

What possible credibility could such a candidate have?

And anyway, the Scottish Electoral college is a farce. Why do elected members have a disproportionate vote? In theory because they have been elected and have more knowledge of the candidates. But, first of all, some of the list MSPs haven’t been elected other than by accident of Labour’s catastrophic loss.  For some at least their only merit is that they were prepared to put their names forward for the thankless position of list candidate at a time when no one believed that to be a matter of any importance in Labour’s departed heartlands. Secondly, how does someone who has been in the Parliament for a couple of months have a better view of the candidates than those who lost their seats in May having worked with these people for twelve years? Thirdly, how much more do Westminster MPs really know about the Holyrood group members than is known by committed Party activists and Councillors (or even people who just read the newspapers regularly)?

But since everybody is aware of these anomalies and even those with a self interest in them have some sense of the absurd, that’s not the real reason we are persisting with the college. The real reason  is that it gives the Unions the illusion of power. I say, quite consciously, the illusion because in reality they could only ever really use that power at the price of bringing down the whole institution.

Either we will get a result where all three sections vote the same way, or at least in which the winner carries the membership, or we will end up, in reality, with a contest without a meaningful result in terms of producing a credible leader of anything. Even of the opposition.

But the Unions fear the end of the college will signal a decline in their influence and ultimately bring about a similar change for the UK leadership. So again that means no change. Even if the obvious change might simply be to give all levy players a vote alongside members in one big “one supporter one vote” contest. That however, while it might just be acceptable to the Unions, would not be acceptable to the potential candidates among the MSPs or to some of the existing Party members as they give the same vote to everyone irrespective of the level of their contribution of effort or cash. I needn’t point out that the logic of this would currently give activists more votes than simple card carriers and those who give additional financial donations more votes than those simply paying the basic sub.

You couldn’t make the level of obduracy here. WE GOT GUBBED! This is not the time for the defence of vested interest or it will simply be a vested interest in a worthless institution.

I finish (more or less) where I started. The only acceptable vested interest the Scottish Labour Party has is the vested interest in getting elected. Regrettably yesterday’s report makes only a marginal contribution to that prospect being realised.

Saturday 10 September 2011

Thoughts after the Last Night of the Proms and before the triumph of Andy Murray

I'm a devolutionist. I accept that this may be a minority opinion. Many of these who have supported devolution over the years have done so only as a stepping stone to something further while others have done so only in an attempt to head off something, in their opinion, much worse.

That's never been my view. Oddly enough there was a time when I thought that there might be an opportunity for the minimalist wing of the SNP and the maximalist wing of the Labour Party to meet somewhere in the middle. If the UK had joined the Euro and engaged wholeheartedly with European integration, then I could certainly have forseen a situation where the importance of "British" government would wither away, a bit like the state under primitive communism. But events elsewhere make that increasingly unlikely. I might be tempted to suggest to say by virtue of the cowardice of Blair but, to be honest, at least as much by virtue of the lack of vision of Brown.

So we have to accept where we are. A Scotland with a (UK) Government we didn't vote for (yet again), and a Scottish Government with little they can do about it.

So why don't I think we should bail out? Well partly because we can't bail out.

I disagree fundamentally with the economic policy of the coalition. Nonetheless, I recognise that the economic policy even of a “second division” member of the G8 can’t be isolated from world events. If the USA goes back into recession, so, inevitably, will the UK. And that would be the case even if Labour had been returned with a landslide in 2010 and Ed Balls had been given absolutely free reign ever since.

So even a big nation, like the UK, has limited control over economic events. So much more would a small country like Scotland.

But that’s never been my major objection to “Independence” (whatever that is).
I don’t like the idea of wee Countries. They are inclined to be too full of people determined to prove their own importance and to hide behind perceived grievance with others to explain or excuse their own inadequacies. I am slightly reluctant to engage in football analogies but, no matter what the shortcomings of the referee a week past on Saturday, in the end Scotland failed because they were, at the very best, no better than a team who had lost at home to Lithuania. That was no doing of the referee. But who in Scotland was prepared to say that? Once again, all the commentary was of the “We were robbed!” variety.

No great harm in that if it’s restricted to the field of sport but a rather dangerous basis for a view of the real world.

And big countries inevitably allow more diversity. No wee Country could contemplate the diversity of output we enjoy from the BBC. Or the influence in the world enjoyed by the British Council or, yes, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I’ve certainly had my disagreements with British Foreign policy over the years but I am uneasy with the idea that it would be better for us to ignore the rest of the world altogether or at least to be no more than a spectator.

So, in the end, I’m quite happy being British. But I’m Scottish as well. There’s no real rationality to this but on the few occasions I’ve driven abroad on holiday, I’ve not felt “home” at Dover. Home is the “Welcome to Scotland” sign on the M74. Whenever, in my almost second home of Italy, attempts have been made to describe me, officially or otherwise, as “Inglese”, my otherwise wholly inadequate Italian has always, somehow, risen to the task of assuring my accuser that I am anything but the sort.

The Union was a long time ago, but it is still a Union, not a merger, nor even less a takeover. Although it was more than three hundred years ago, I’ve never doubted that the population of Scotland, however constituted at the time, had and has the right to dissolve it on request. I’ve just never wanted to dissolve it.

But I have wanted to recognise, and protect, Scottish particularism.

I’ve never been a huge 1314 man. To be honest, one group of Normans, calling themselves Scots (or possibly Ecossais), defeating a different group of Normans, calling themselves something else, always seemed to me to have likely to have been, even at the time, a matter of huge indifference to the vast majority of the population, particularly because, no matter what Nigel Tranter says,those who ended up on which side at the showdown was largely a matter of historical accident or personal opportunism.

On the other hand, I’ve always regarded 1560 as a hugely important date. After 1517, religion engaged popular opinion in a way that nationalism never had (to date). And in 1560, Scotland took a very different religious route from England. Which led to a very different attitude to education as the embryonic modern nation state began to emerge and also led to Scotland, by 1707, being a significantly different Country from England. This time not in the calculations of its ruling classes, but in the day to day lives of its people. We were not Catholics (most definitely not!) but we weren’t Lutherans or Anabaptists either. We were Presbyterians. That might not have been an entirely happy inheritance but it was indubitably where we stood. For predestination but for popular Church governance and the universal right to be able to read the Bible as well.

So, when the Treaty of Union was drawn up, what was the Scots bottom line? That this religious difference be protected, as it was; with the protection of an independent legal system as a necessary adjunct.

And, on the one occasion this was seriously challenged it brought about the Disruption, a much more important and popular movement than the 1821 martyrs or, I concede, Thomas Muir of Huntershill ever represented.

But progress in other spheres, welcome progress, together with the decline of religion in public life threatened that diversity and led to demands for Scottish distinctiveness to be protected. The National Health Service, no matter how welcome, was about a different “Nation” from Scotland; universal education meant something different across the Border if it encompassed a burden rather than an opportunity; British Rail, British Steel, the “National” Coal Board all had a dangerously sounding homogeneity.

So, particularly if Scottish people stopped going to the Church of Scotland, but still wished to be Scottish, then they needed to be able to assert their nationality in another way. And that’s where I come from; for the benefits of the Union but also for the protection of that distinctiveness. For Devolution. And that’s where I believe most Scottish people stand.

Now in the last weeks we have been told that the SNP’s victory in May allows them to define (subject to a Referendum) not only the terms of “Independence” but also the terms of devolution.

I’ve always believed devolution might be improved. Within the context of a hostile Prime Minister, the original Scotland Bill was a masterful achievement but on the day it was published I emailed Wendy querying where the borrowing powers were. That wrong has been righted by the current legislation but there remains no reason Drugs legislation remains undevolved;  or any number of other specific examples. Equally, some would say more importantly, it seems to me that the taxation powers of the Parliament could be strengthened in a number of ways not inconsistent with continued membership of a unitary state.

But defining devolution is for the devolutionists. Having seen off the Unionists on one flank there is no reason we should cede ground to the nationalists on the other. I am more than a little irritated by the demands of the SNP that we need to develop a different devolved settlement to enable them to put it as a fall back option in their legendary referendum.

No matter what devolved scheme is developed it will never be acceptable to Nationalists. Quite right too.  If you believe in an “independent” Scotland then why should you settle for something less?  If I was of that persuasion, I certainly wouldn’t.  I don’t however go about insisting the ways in which the Tories should organise their affairs; any more than I would demand of Methodists that they abandon their aversion to strong liquor or aspire to select the team at Greenock Morton. I’m not a Tory or a Methodist or (thank the Lord) a supporter of the Morton so while I might have an opinion about how they conduct their affairs I recognise that, in the end that’s a matter for them.

However no such stricture applies to the SNP. They complain, if we don’t come up with a different devolved scheme we’ll end up with the status quo. Well, firstly, that’s got nothing to do with them, because they’re not in favour devolution at all and, secondly, and in any event, maybe we devolutionists are more or less happy with the status quo.

I had some part in the thinking behind the Calman Commission but I always thought it was too “Grandee” a project, particularly after Wendy’s fall detached it significantly from those practising day to day politics in Scotland. It nonetheless is a well argued document. If you wish to exist within one nation state (Calman’s essential premise) then its constituent parts must have a modus vivendi and that has to be on some basis other than trying to fight each other for competitive advantage. If, on the other hand, you want to make devolution meaningful, then it requires not just to be about how money is spent but also about how it is raised. And not just year to year.  Calman makes a fair stab at coming up with a solution.

But the SNP didn’t win in May, or Labour lose, because people were unhappy with the current devolution settlement. They won, and we lost, because their people were perceived as competent to govern Scotland, and our’s, correctly, weren’t. Because they were perceived to have some idea where they were going, and we, correctly, weren’t. Because while they might have few ideas other than independence, we were perceived, correctly, to have no ideas at all.

But the SNP’s Achilles heel lies in that last sentence. The Government programme published this past week is, bluntly, boring. The SNP is a coalition held together by a common belief in Independence. But real politics is about choice and that choice is measured on a left/right spectrum. Across the world, the Left is for higher taxes and collective provision while  the Right for lower taxes and individual initiative. The Left is for personal liberty while the Right is for the maintenance of order; the Left stands for the essential goodness of creation while the Right persists with original sin.

 But to hold their coalition together, the SNP can’t address these universal choices. So the only solution is to choose to do nothing at all.

As a result, Scotland will stand still for the next three years. Nothing wrong with that if we were already a happy and contented Nation. But we’re not. Our health statistics are appalling; our proud education tradition is being bypassed by the rest of Europe; we are developing a permanent underclass and such indigenous industry as we have left has neither support nor even a clear future.

What has the Government programme to say about any of this? Nothing at all, except that we might save a bit of money by having a National Police Service. An initiative so exciting that it was in the Scottish Labour Manifesto.

Now there are lessons about opposition and the first is that you are the opposition.  You can’t legislate for anything. But there is also a danger about opposition. Not just that you fall into the trap of opposing measures that are patently sensible (because “that’s your job”) but also because it frees you from the responsibility of saying what you would do yourselves.

With the exception of no-one (my own candidate Tom Harris not excluded) no potential candidate for the Labour leadership has had anything to say about the platform on which we should have fought the last election, let alone the programme on which we should fight the next one. It has, so far, been about how the winner might reform and then run the Labour Party.

And, for what its worth, the same might as easily be said about the Tories and their own contest.

Scotland needs change. And bluntly one of the major obstacles to that change has been the Labour Party itself.

So, c’mon Tom. Let’s have a bit of New Labour thinking about Scottish public services; or institutional poverty; or chronic ill health. I reserve the right to denounce your ideas but I promise an alternative proposal. I hold out no hope of any ideas of any sort from any of the other potential candidates.

Sunday 4 September 2011

Everybody needs to keep the heid.

Look, we lost. I accept that. And they won. I accept that too. I don’t like it but I accept it.

Obviously we presented the victory to them on a plate. We didn’t take the election seriously; we had no proper policy platform of our own; some of our candidates could only be voted for by people who were completely ignorant of them personally; no-one had heard of our candidate for First Minister; and those who had didn’t believe him to be up to the job.

So we lost. But they still won.

But there are turning points in politics.

1945 was a turning point and so, I regret to concede it, was 1979.  And, and here I suspect I will fall out with some of my co-contributors, there are also false dawns. 1970 was for the Tories and 1997 was for us.

Sometimes you don’t have a real mandate for change; you are simply not the other side, like Wilson in 74. And sometimes you do but have a leadership who are simply not that interested in doing much to disturb the status quo, like Blair in 97.

I genuinely don’t believe 2011 was a turning point election. In the aftermath there was little said about why the SNP won. Instead almost all the attention was on why Labour lost.

Now Labour lost big and consequently the Nats won big. But let’s not let them rewrite history about why they won.

The constitutional issue simply was not a major issue during the Scottish election. That’s not to say the SNP wouldn’t have liked it to be: they would have much preferred to have been swept to power on a mandate for Independence but, even at the height of Labour’s incompetence, they knew that would be a mandate they couldn’t procure. So they didn’t seek it. They said there would be a referendum on Independence at some indeterminate point in the next Parliament and they hid behind the subtext that since they were not anticipating an overall majority even that was unlikely to happen.

But they clearly did not anticipate the magnitude of Labour’s ineptitude and in consequence they did win on a scale even they had not predicted. So, one might expect, no matter how they came about it, they are surely entitled to say with some justification, we do now have a mandate for a referendum on Independence. But, although to some extent they do say that, on the other hand they don’t.

It’s not just that they show no immediate signs of holding a referendum, or even introducing the paving legislation to permit one; or even that they appear to be having doubts about exactly what “kind” of independence they want; it is also that it now appears that they want to put other questions to that referendum.

Now this is not the action of a Party confident of victory.

Surely the best hope of victory in an Independence Referendum is on a straight choice between Independence and the status quo? That is only common sense. Given a third option at least some of those drawn to it must be doing so at the expense of choosing not to go the whole way. And given Salmond’s position that an Independence Referendum would be a once in a generation event, (which, as far as I am aware, remains SNP policy) why do anything at all to hamper the chance of victory?

Unless of course, in your heart of hearts, you know there is no chance of victory but still hope that you might be seen to have achieved something.

The difficulty with this strategy is in defining the nature of the questions.

It’s difficult to see these being organised with Independence being the first option.

That would inevitably lead to a second question being predicated on the failure of the first; something along the lines of:-

Even if you do not want full Independence would you like the Scottish Parliament to have the following [specified] additional powers?

But equally its difficult to see Devo Max (or whatever you want to call it) being the first option, not just because it is not (presumably) the preferred option of the Government but again because the second question put would have to be with a predicate:-

Even if the Scottish Parliament receives the powers above would you still prefer Scotland to be fully independent?

Indeed, the more you consider it, the more you see the difficulty in putting two different, and ultimately inconsistent, propositions on the same ballot paper.

But that’s not the only problem. It’s difficult to see who is going to frame the non-independence option. Presumably, the SNP Government, even though it’s not their desired outcome. The problem with this is that any settlement short of full independence is not a matter for the Scottish people alone. So what happens, in advance of a referendum, if the rest of the UK says that what the SNP want (as their fall back position) is not on offer? That it's independence or bust. What’s the point of then asking the “other” question? The question becomes redundant whether or not the full independence question is won or lost. If the referendum produces a yes vote to independence the “other” question is redundant per se and if the Scots have rejected the nuclear option of “full” independence then why should the rest of the UK make any further constitutional concessions in the aftermath of that. After all, the SNP could hardly hold another Independence Referendum but this time with a single question. That would be silly.

And just for the sake of completing the logic of my argument, what if, in advance of the referendum, the rest of the UK says that Scotland is welcome to what it seeks by way of additional powers for the Parliament while within the UK? Again what’s then the point in an SNP Government risking the people rejecting powers the SNP Government themselves want and which are freely on offer, particularly given the political embarrassment which would follow if that happened?

Now, there would be some sense in having two separate referendums: the first on additional powers and, if that was won, the second some time later on, having factored in the rest of the UK’s response to the first result. But, again, that logic is predicated on not wishing to maximise the chance of winning the “full independence” referendum. You might lose the first referendum, or win it by so slight a margin that attempting a second referendum became impossible. Or you might win the first referendum decisively, only to prompt UK concessions which significantly reduced your chances in the second vote.

So, in summary, if we accept that the SNP genuinely do want “full” independence, the only possible reason they are unwilling to put that to a simple test is because they know they couldn’t win a referendum. That’s what every reputable opinion poll has always said and I’m sure that’s also what the SNP’s own private polling and focus groups will be saying.

So let’s consider where that leaves the Labour Party in relation to the issue of the Constitution? It leaves us where we always should have been. We need to develop a policy towards the powers of the Scottish Parliament based on what we believe these powers should be, not on what we fear they must be to defeat an independence vote. If the SNP themselves have concluded such a vote can’t be won, why should we be intimidated by what amounts to little more than chutzpah on their behalf? And anyway, if we believe that some of the “solutions” on offer are likely to be nearly as damaging as independence itself, are we not obliged to say so?

Scottish Labour Action looked at length at what is now described as “full fiscal freedom”, indeed for a time we advocated it under the different nomenclature of the “Reverse Block Grant”. In the end however we rejected it chiefly because it was dependent unduly on the variability of the price of one commodity, oil. That remains the case, as indeed it remains the major economic argument against Independence itself.

Contrary to popular myth, it was not big Donald, but rather the less fondly remembered Ron Davies, who first said that Devolution was not an event but a process. It was however that belief that prompted Wendy to initiate the Calman Review which forms the basis for the current Scotland Bill. There will, undoubtedly, be future changes to be made to the Scotland Bill settlement  but these changes should be justified on their on merits at the time of their proposing, not thought up in haste and in panic for fear of something else . 

So, let’s get on with what we need to change in order to win in 2016: The fundamental Party structure; the quality and selection mechanism for our candidates; the imagination of our policies and the credibility and authority of our leadership.

But let’s not let others direct us down a path we do not need nor have any desire to follow.

Let’s leave that to the Tories.