Saturday 31 December 2011

A New Year Prediction. A return to reality.

International football analogies are not of my making, they belong more to those interested largely only in flags and anthems.

But, since these are the terms of those within we are in current discourse...........

On 12th October 1977, Scotland beat Wales 2-0 to qualify for the 1978 World Cup.

Three days later, in Turin, Italy beat Finland 6-1, making it almost impossible for England to join us in Argentina.

And Scotland went mad. Not wholly irrationally mad. The Scotland team in Liverpool read: Rough; Jardine; Donachie; Masson; McQueen; Forsyth; Dalglish; Hartford; Jordan; Macari; Johnston. On any view, a somewhat superior line-up to those currently available to Craig Levein.

Nonetheless, in our heart of hearts, a team that we knew was unlikely to be quite good enough to win the World Cup.

But we didn’t allow such considerations to colour our public attitude at the time.

“We’re on the march with Ally’s Army
We’re going to the Argentine
And we’ll really shake them up
When we win the World Cup
‘Cause Scotland are the greatest football team”

The really embarrassing thing with the benefit of hindsight however was not our madness but the extent to which we accepted the patronage of the English.

England has won the World Cup once, with the assistance of every game played at home and even then some pretty dubious refereeing, culminating  in the world’s only two goal hat-trick. We know however that, as a large footballing  nation, one year, they at least have the possibility of doing so again. That’s why we can’t enjoy any World Cup or European Championship until they have been eliminated, no matter how much we are intellectually convinced they have no real chance. They should be more credible contenders than they ever prove to be. And one, nightmare, day that might just change. That’s football.

In 1978 however we in Scotland suddenly purported to become England in our over confidence (or, if you prefer, arrogance). Instead however of responding with reciprocal cynicism, English football opinion, seeing us being set up for a fall, was only too happy to go on for the ride. If we were daft enough to think we might win the World Cup, then why did they need to be so un-neighbourly as to celebrate our coming misfortune? Why not go along with the advance euphoria, particularly if you knew that you would have no need to deal with the aftermath? Or no need ever to truly worry that the achievements of Moore, Charlton and Hurst might be about to be overshadowed.

I was reminded of these events with the news that The Times had declared Alex Salmond to be the Briton of the year.

There are two Scottish interpretations of British (English) establishment opinion in relation to Scottish Independence. Those Scots of a broadly unionist perspective stand beside the Queen. That, for sentimental reasons, the establishment believes that such a development would be regrettable, even though they would surely get over it. Those of a more fundamentally Nationalist bent assert that it would be, for England, an economic catastrophe, such is the extent to which they are subsidised by the exploitation of Scotland’s natural resources. Neither perspective however would expect the man allegedly leading Scotland down a separatist road to be seen as a figure to be smothered in affection South of the Border. And yet we are to believe that he is.

True threats to the established order are not indulged by that same establishment, at least not until their threat has passed. Keir Hardie wasn’t. Nor were Tony Benn, or Ken Livingston or even Peter Tatchell. And, for the avoidance of any doubt, this has got nothing to do with any kind of different approach to a National Question.  Few figures have been more vilified in the newspapers now lauding Eck than Mahatma Ghandi. He was a real threat.

No, wee Eck is patronised in the way that Ally Macleod was patronised (and Parnell never was). He is built up to be an apparently unstoppable force in the comfortable knowledge that he will eventually crash and fail. Like Scotland in 1978. And, when he does, the Establishment will respond: “How sad, have a hug”, like Jimmy Hill infamously wearing a Scotland scarf at, admittedly, a different World Cup.  And the Nationalists will fall out among themselves as to whether to accept the embrace.

The problem with this is the aftermath for Scotland more generally.

The impact of the 1978 World Cup debacle didn’t just affect football. It caused a genuine collapse in national confidence. It was surely a significant factor in the inconclusive result of the following year’s referendum and of the decision taken by the SNP to commit political suicide in that events aftermath.

How much more so would be the debacle of a decisively lost Independence Referendum?

Here, I must diverge slightly to explain why such a referendum would be decisively lost. I know this is an argument I have made before but it cannot be made too often.

It is difficult to see political circumstances getting any better for the SNP than they are at the moment. Not only do they have as their leader a politician who towers in stature over his opponents; they have a Government of manifest competence and confidence; they are blessed with a stellar array of younger members and thinkers with a zealous commitment to their cause and in financial terms they have recently, quite literally, won the lottery.

Meanwhile, their domestic political opponents are inadequately led and erratically followed and funded; derided in the press and Civic Society and almost unrecognised by the general public; even their bigger hitters at Westminster are temporarily divided over strategy, although it says a lot about their assessment of the likelihood of Independence that they regard countering it as less than a primary consideration.

In wider political terms, the UK Government is one that Scotland did not vote for and is currently pursuing policies with which the vast majority of Scottish public opinion violently disagrees; yet, which shows every sign of being re-elected, possibly in an even more right wing, eurosceptical form.

Economic times are tough but the one reassuring asset in a time of global uncertainty is access to  natural resources and Scotland appears, by accident of history and climate, to be particularly well placed in that regard.

How then, conceivably, are things going to be any better placed for the Nationalists in a couple of years’ time? Is more oil to be found, or more wind to blow, or the seas to become more stormy?

Yet, despite all of these manifest current advantages, the polls which give the SNP more than 50% electoral support, continue to show nothing approaching a majority for Independence. And that’s before there is any coherent opposition campaign.

Again, I want to repeat myself about the nature of that campaign. It will be red in tooth and claw. Anyone expecting a civilised discourse around concepts of sovereignty and modern nationality is in for a very rude awakening. The combined devolutionist/unionist camp need not prove that people will be worse off; it need only raise a reasonable doubt that they might. And that's a scoosh.

I want to choose a few (OK, lots of) examples.

On 30th November past we saw a significant public sector strike against perceived threats to pension rights. A lot of people directly concerned got, understandably, exceptionally animated. How much more so will they be when the same Unions who led them out target them directly with material suggesting that if Independence goes wrong, their pensions might not be payable at all? Not won’t be, just might not be. How reassuring will a counter argument based on a promise prove against a status quo argument based on empirical evidence of past performance?

The same goes for State Benefits of any sort, possibly in spades, because benefit recipients are particularly prone to differential turn out. You can focus group this with frightening effectiveness.

Then we have Edinburgh’s financial services industry. Who can say how long they would wish to continue to be based in a different country from their largest market? Again, it is not necessary to conclusively win the argument, it is sufficient to raise the uncertainty to send the Capital’s property prices into a tailspin .

And then there is the military. It is understandable that North East Nationalist MPs go on these marches to keep the various bases there open. They are vitally important to the local economy. Point made in some ways but there is, beyond that,  a more empirical example. On any view the national swing in May should have delivered Jackie Baillie’s Dumbarton seat to the SNP. It didn’t for one very clear reason. The simple targeting of swing voters with material pointing out the local consequence of the withdrawal of the British submarine base. How many submarines would an independent Scotland propose to deploy?

And that’s without even considering the residual loyalty of those proud to have once served in the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force or British Army. Not to mention the potentially limited career prospects of those wishing to continue to serve.

And while we are in this area, and since it is New Year, what about the honours system? It’s all very well to maintain that “The Rank is but the Guinea stamp” but that’s clearly not the view of those aspiring to such recognition, never mind those facing it being taken away. I’m a pretty convinced (British) republican but I’ve met both the Queen and the First Minister and I’m in no doubt which was the more memorable event.

And, finally, there is the central economic argument. Truly, most informed opinion here concludes that a snapshot comparison of the revenue/expenditure performance of the  British and Scottish economies turns on the price of oil in any given year.  But there is no way the actual argument will be conducted in that way. Under the status quo, your taxes are what they are; public services are what they are; the welfare state is what it is. Sure, under Independence they might be better, but they are generally, currently, regarded as adequate (at least by the vast majority of the public). Faced with a choice of them perhaps being a bit better against siren voices asserting that they could be a great deal worse, there is only one rational conclusion.

There is however one absolutely clinching argument in this area. Asked if they would favour Independence even if Scotland were to be, short term, worse off as a result, most Nationalists would reply in the affirmative. That very answer however fundamentally undermines any attempt to make an apparently considered argument to reassure the undecided.

Now, the Nationalists will say “But we’ll have another three years to make our argument”. This however simply won’t wash. They are already very good at making the argument. There are big holes in it: over currency, Europe, the Monarchy, national institutions like the BBC or the DVLA, even, it appears from the report on the Scotland Bill, an ignorance over how much income tax is actually paid in Scotland. These holes are, however, in the argument itself, not in its articulation. Time, in this case, will not be a healer.

More importantly however, delay will allow the Devolutionist camp to get organised. No objective observer would doubt that, relatively, there is much more scope for improvement on that side. Indeed, while for the SNP it is difficult to see how much better things might conceivably be, organisationally, financially or politically in three years time, for their opponents it is difficult to conceive how they might be worse.

So why the delay?  I won’t repeat my previous remarks on why it’s got nothing to do with the SNP Manifesto, It’s simply that they have concluded that, as they can’t conceivably win today, they logically have no less chance of success in three years time. Their fatal error however is to allow their tummies to be tickled  by the establishment in the meantime.

For the problem for the SNP is that the game is increasingly likely to have to be played at some point.  Here some credit is due to the internet! It was @peatworrier and @loveandgarbage on Twitter who first raised the issue of the dubious vires of the Scottish Parliament to hold an Independence Referendum, even a merely advisory one. I then shamefully plagiarised that initial argument before suggesting that it might in fact be Salmond’s strategy to hope that his Referendum was blocked in the Courts, using that as his excuse 2011-16 as he had used the “Unionist Block” in 2007-11. Westminster however appears live to this and might be about to close the loophole by giving this power expressly to the Scottish Parliament, albeit to be exercised by a given date. I see no reason that date should be any earlier than Spring 2016. All possible objections from the Nationalists would then be headed off.

So, will Salmond, all hoped for obstacle removed, then act?

This is a question of considerable complexity but before attempting to answer it I need to deal with one other matter. There can only be one Referendum question. I say that not as a demand on the Scottish Government but as a statement of political reality. The SNP believe in Independence. There is no logic to them therefore asking any other question on their own initiative. Never mind the absurdities of unilateral declarations of devolution, even asking, unprompted, such a second question would imply pre-acceptance of defeat on the first.

They could however spin asking a second question if somebody else came up with it. But they won’t. Johann won’t; Ruth Davidson won’t; Willie Rennie couldn’t with any credibility and some sort of civic Scotland group set up for the purpose of its devising would just look like the Nationalist patsies that they would be likely to be. Anyway, in this Country, important politics is surely for elected politicians. That was the fatal flaw with Calman gaining public attention.

So, without the need for circumscription from Westminster, there will be only one question.

The issue then therefore becomes, will Salmond ask it? There is an apposite proverb “He who fights then runs away, lives to fight another day.”

You have to consider the options here. My own view has always been that after a proper campaign and on a clear question support for Independence will come out at between a quarter and a third of the electorate. Probably nearer the bottom end of that scale. Possibly below it (think Cubillas at this point).

Oddly I do not think that result would be a good thing. It would, rather, be in the nature of a national humiliation. During the campaign itself any number of blowhards will have been put up to maintain that “Freedom” is only days away.  They’ll end up look like idiots but so will the rest of us for appearing to have paid them any attention in the first place. Just like those of us who, knowing better, allowed ourselves to be caught up in the hysteria of 1978.

Obviously, a referendum loss, or, in our case, victory, would suit the partisan interests of the Labour Party as it would probably lead to the fragmentation of the SNP. It would also, presumably, end the career of Alex Salmond who (and here I let you into a secret) we really, really don’t like. It is difficult however to see how it would otherwise serve the interests of Scotland.

For the problem is that the threat of Independence has always been an important card for those of us who believe in a strong(er) Scottish Parliament. Once it’s played and lost, it’s played and lost. What leverage then has further Home Rule opinion with Westminster?  Little or nothing. The only remaining viable route would come from a Labour (or Lab/Lib) Westminster Government legislating on a voluntary basis. We’ve seen too often in the past the limitations of such an approach but how much more would these difficulties be if, for all practical purposes, the SNP, the supposedly most Home Rule Party, had voluntarily given up any influence of their own on the matter supposedly most important to them.

Now the common assumption is that the internal dynamic of the SNP would make it impossible for Salmond not to hold a Referendum. I’m however not so sure about that.

The SNP not only are good at running Scotland, they enjoy it. Not just the Ministers taking important, day to day, decisions but the grass roots activists who can bask in the knowledge that, if required, they could telephone the Education Secretary; email the Health Secretary on first name terms; dare I say it, enjoy a pint with the Justice Secretary. Their Councillors, and their friends, family and supporters enjoy their control of the local state apparatus, particularly, in many cases, having  been previously treated contemptuously by Labour for many years.

I don’t doubt for a moment that they would all like “Independence” even if not entirely united on what that means. If however they could be confronted, by a united leadership, with the conclusion, that Independence was not (currently) achievable, (“Much as we might win, we might, just, possibly, lose”)would they really insist on imperilling everything they have for an impossible (“Risky”) objective? And presumably, in the process, have to dump the leadership that had brought them to this point in the first place? After all, the Party has been remarkably sanguine about Independence being “postponed” from 2011 to 2014 or 2015, despite an outright majority at Holyrood. What’s another few years’ delay?

Nor is it clear why “Scotland” would object to not being asked a question they were patently primed to answer in the negative anyway. Labour will shout about broken promises but, to be honest, shouting hasn’t proved a very effective opposition strategy for us to date.

Sure, it would be embarrassing for Salmond, but not as embarrassing as a decisive Referendum defeat. And it would surely pave the way for continued domestic dominance at Holyrood at least until Labour got its own house more comprehensively in order. It might even give us a dilemma as to whether we were now obliged to take some sort of constitutional initiative of our own.

The Constitution of the SNP provides the Party with two objectives, firstly, certainly, Independence but, secondly, “The furtherance of all Scottish interests”.

Is it inconceivable that the long term pursuit of the first objective might be sold to the membership by the suggestion of the temporary prioritisation of the second?

Anyway, this is going to be the underlying theme of 2012.  I encourage you  to read the runes as it develops. As the Bard says of that moment “It’s coming yet for a’ that”.

Happy, happy New Year, for this is going to be fun to watch.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

(for want of a better title) My Christmas Blog

The Christmas season is an odd time.
Particularly since it has become, for many, a ten day holiday, it is approached in anticipation that there will be more than enough time to do everything. Once the immediate frantic activity around the Day itself is out of the way, sleep will be caught up on; literary presents read; old films watched; old friends visited and obligations to relatives discharged. And, in this modern age, the back catalogue of half watched TV series will also be finally retrieved and digested from the Sky Player or equivalent. Alongside a box set or two.
Then there are the things you don’t normally have the time for: a bit of (proper) cooking; the occasional long walk; some serious music listened to; perhaps a “major” novel (or two) re-read, together with the year end magazines and Christmas special Sunday supplements saved up in case you get bored.
And then there’s the Christmas telly to be watched, no longer on a “see it when it’s on or miss it forever” basis; a bit of shopping to be done; all that eating and drinking (home and away); and of course football, even a concert or two, to be attended, not least to have something to do.
Oh and there’s also the New Year to be prepared for. House tidied; black bun ordered in; all the food bought for Christmas and somehow since disappeared replaced in almost equal quantities if slightly different combination.

And then suddenly that box of work you brought home on 23rd December, confident of doing it at some time over the long holiday, is wailing at you from the boot of the car with the ominous chorus that in twelve hours or so you’ll be back in the office and it will remain unattended to (unless it can be accommodated alongside the last four episodes of the box set; the last 100 pages of the Christmas present page turner............. and the New Statesman Christmas special. And that’s already having admitted defeat over the remaining 350 pages of The Charterhouse of Parma.

Ideally therefore a year end political taking stock could be undertaken at a different time. Perhaps early February.

Normally such an exercise involves three obvious elements; a review of the year past; a prediction of the year ahead and an attempt to show at least some continuity at work.

That won’t really work however in the context of current Scottish politics: the year past was exciting; there was an election and that election produced, on any view, a significant long term development in the form of the SNP landslide. It can be concluded with some probability that that result will not be reversed easily; with equal probability that it will not be done until the opposition Parties come to terms with the National question but, most significantly of all, it can be concluded with absolute certainty that there will be no change in the Holyrood administration until May 2016 at the earliest. And May 2016 is a long time away.

So, for those who like excitement in their Scottish politics, I regret to say that the initial assumption about 2012 is that it will be a lot less exciting than 2011. There won’t even be the “excitement” of any internal leadership contests. It will mainly just be grind. There won’t be a Referendum, or even legislation for a Referendum but the Administration will want to do as little as possible to rock the boat, just in case they do ever decide to hold one, so there won’t be any bold policy initiatives either.

There will be a continued bit of background noise over the legalities of an advisory referendum and a bit of unequal sniping between Salmond and Michael Moore over the Scotland Bill but, even if the Bill passes it wont come into force immediately; indeed if the SNP are to be believed it won’t ever come into force because, before it does, Scotland will be independent, which rather makes you wonder why they are so concerned as to what is in it.

There will of course be local government elections (snore) but the long term significance of these will, I predict, prove to be much less significant than anticipated. The results will simply confirm that the Nationalists currently have the big mo and the opposition are in disarray. Even if Labour holds on to Glasgow, which, incidentally, I think we will, it will be difficult to spin as a real tide turning event that we are still in power where we’ve been in power all of my adult life.

And that’s about it.

If I was writing a 2012 year end review now, and domestic Scottish politics were all that mattered, I suspect I could now invest in the opening line “Scottish politics in December 2012 look much like they did in December 2011.”

But of course, domestic Scottish politics are not all that matters.

It is tempting to think that after the debacle of the Brussels summit, nothing will detach the Libs from the coalition but I’m not convinced. Europe does, I think, matter to them and there will be big choices to be made over Europe in the coming year. I think almost all British politicians misunderstand the strategic commitment to the European idea in the core countries in particular. I think they will all be astonished at the economic pain Italy will be prepared to go through to stay in the Euro. Don’t be fooled by the size of the demonstrations, Italians like that sort of thing, look instead at the approval ratings for Monti and Napolitano.

And the response to crisis in Europe has not been a move towards the looser Union of Tory back-bench fantasy but rather the ever closer union anticipated by the Community’s founders. Along that path there will be any number of forks but there will inevitably be a point when the Libs can no longer simply get huffy over the road not taken. Possibly sooner rather than later.

And since Scotland is (still) part of Britain, perhaps the political year here will prove as exciting as 2011 after all.

Anyway, that’s all, I suspect, from me this year. If it is then I trust that the economic outlook for 2012 will prove to be not as bleak as it currently appears and that my happy band of followers enjoy a peaceful and happy New Year.

I’m off to watch five catch up episodes of Romanzo Criminale and then, if I can find a torch, to go for a long walk.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

San Francesco della Vigna

My favourite Church in Venice is San Francesco della Vigna.

A bit out the way but once you’ve either enjoyed  the long round trip by Vaporetto around Castello or negotiated the labyrinthine trek from the centre, you will find, behind the Palladian facade a perfect interior, by Sansavino, which would be much more at home in Southern Tuscany or Umbria.  

In Vienna, I was horrified to find a Franciscan Church which even outdid the Jesuits in Baroquery, and elsewhere, there are any number of large preaching barns, but, generally, if you are marooned and in need of a place for quiet contemplation, then it never does any harm to seek out the parish Church of St Francis. You will seldom be disappointed; that is certainly the case in Venice.

But Venice is really about facades. If I have a favourite Venetian Church, then how much more so do I have a favourite Venetian walk. Behind the Salute and along the the bank of the Guidecca. Il Redentore; Le Zitelle; above all San Giorgio Maggiore each standing in array on the far side. The best time to enjoy it is undoubtedly on a diamond clear Winter day, when the low sun ripples across the water, but my most memorable negotiation was in deepest Autumn fog, when you couldn’t even see the further bank. On the No.5 back to San Marco, the individual church facades at each stop loomed out of the fog like monuments in a Dickensian graveyard and any potential step ashore was discouraged by the thought that Daphne Du Maurier’s red coated dwarf was almost certainly  lurking down a Calle the minute you stepped away from the crowd.

So, anyway, you might say, what has any of this got to do with the usual topics of my blog? Nothing and everything is the answer.

Since the Scottish Labour Party has clearly to immerse itself in self indulgence for the next four and a half  years, with no interest in returning to power, I have decided that I might as well do so as well. And to have more fun in the process.

So, this week, Venice. Next week, the delights of Puglia: Romanesque Cathedrals and heavenly seafood. Only 233 weeks, and 12 first the post seats still to lose, until normal service is resumed.

Thursday 15 December 2011

'Twas the Night before the Election

So, tomorrow, we will know. Not care, just know.

There has been virtually nothing interesting about the Labour Leadership contest. That in itself is however interesting.

Nobody. and I mean literally nobody, thinks that who emerges as the winner from the contest tomorrow will ever be First Minister of Scotland. Including, in their heart of hearts, the potential victors themselves.

Now, and here I genuinely mean this as no insult, the same, in terms of potential First Ministerial Office,  could equally have been said of the recent Tory contest. But that is the limit of my patronising. Because the Tory contest was still interesting. Murdo had a Big Idea. And that Ruth Davidson, as a gay woman, could get elected says a huge number of positive things not just about how Scotland has changed but, much as I hate to admit it, about how the Tories have shown a willingness to move with the times.

But the Scottish Tories, in terms of historic electoral support, are not the Scottish Labour Party, at least in my lifetime.

Until six months ago, Labour had been the dominant political force in Scotland for...........ever. Let us not forget, when Wendy was elected in Autumn 2007, the consensus, and by no means solely among the ranks of the faithful, was that the position she had assumed was that of  First Minister in waiting.

But let us not also forget that, even then, Wendy recognised that to return to power, Labour had to modernise. More innovative policy, greater focus on Scottish elections on their own merits, better candidates.

With her fall, all of that was abandoned as unnecessary, or at least too difficult. And in May 2011 the electorate passed its verdict on that assessment.

The really shocking thing about this year's contest is two things. I will come to the second. The First however is that, of the front runners, even  the more contemporary candidate, Ken, is about ten years behind Wendy in his thinking, while the other, Johann, is about six months behind Michael Foot. Pledge Cards, PLEDGE CARDS!!!!, are regarded as state of the art campaigning by the latter's camp only to be dismissed as anachronistic by their opponents who have discovered the wonders of robo calls. ROBO CALLS!!!

The second thing is however the more contemptible. Essentially both of the leading candidates start with the admission that they are no match for Alex Salmond. And so, to excuse their own inadequacies, they invest the First Minister with super-human properties.

I do not underestimate the First Minister. He is a politician of the first rank. Scotland. my Country, deserves no less for its First Minister. But big Donald gave him a doing in 1999. Jack McConnell, four years later,  drove him out of the contest altogether. Jim Murphy, as Secretary of State, ran rings round him in the run up to the 2010 General Election. Each were, in their own way, able politicians but none of them would even claim to have been wholly exceptional or unreplaceable  Labour leaders. I refuse to accept that we must now simply accept that we have no-one available of equal talent just because no suvh person exists in the current Holyrood Labour Group..

So, no matter who wins tomorrow, let those of who want Labour to win in 2016 wake up on Sunday with the resolve that, no matter who Labour puts forward for First Minister at that election, it cannot conceivably be either of these people.

Monday 12 December 2011

I Was Wrong

I am, as my regular reader will know, exceptionally annoyed about the Coalition Government's decision to withdraw from the European Union. They have, however, clearly got a Commons majority for whatever they want to do. We can only hope they don't next decide to bring back hanging, since, as Nick Clegg assures us "The Coalition Government is here to stay." No matter what.

And, while it will be fun seeing the destruction of the Liberal Democrats at the next election, there is no reason to think we will be any greater gainers than the Tories. So, if that's all that happens, we will likely just end up with (another) right wing Tory Government. Just with different personnel.

Bernard Jenkin entertained the airways this morning with his observations that the French have never liked us while the smaller countries won't support us because they are all scared of the Germans. When Vince Cable loses his seat, perhaps Mr Jenkin will be promoted to the Cabinet. To be honest, given the events of the last few days, it will make no practical difference.

But, if I am annoyed with the Libs, I am almost as annoyed at the mealy mouthed response of my own Party "Leadership".

I know that London does not pay much attention to the "micro-politics" of Scotland but there is surely one lesson of the three years leading up to the May 2011 elections. There is a world of difference between being an effective opposition leader and being a credible alternative First Minister or Prime Minister.

The first depends merely on an ability to say what the Government has done wrong; the second on an ability to articulate credibly what you would have done instead.

It is said that the best opposition leader of recent times was William Hague. And he nearly was. You can still find you tube clips of his Commons' performances. Hugely entertaining and, on occasions, quite brilliant. But he was so hampered by his own Party's internal disarray he never had a credible alternative programme.

I say however that Hague was "nearly" the best opposition leader because he has one superior, who operated  de facto if not de jure in the capacity of "Leader of the Opposition" for five years: Gordon Brown.

Any time Blair did anything really unpopular "Gordon's people" would let it be known that he would have done things differently. They were careful never to say what they would actually have done, just that it would have been something different. Thus, that "something different" could be whatever you wanted it to be. And since, unlike Hague,  Gordon's road to power ran through the byzantine internal politics of the Labour Party, rather than through the ballot box, in the end he succeeded.

The problem was that he had spent so much time positioning himself to secure the top job that, by the time he achieved it, he had forgotten why he wanted it in the first place. The rest is history.

But, for the moment at least, if the Leader of the Labour Party wants to become Prime Minister then he or she will require to win a General Election. And that requires an ability to answer the question "What would you do?" with something more than "something different".

I have simply not the remotest idea what Ed was up to today. Having attacked Cameron for his European policy he offered no alternative and then, outside the Chamber, presumably out of residual fear of the Murdoch Press, authorised his press team to brief that he wouldn't have signed the Treaty either! That is not alternative government, it is simply opposition.

There were absolutely no implications for Britain, outside the Eurozone, in allowing the others to proceed as they wished. Even to take Cameron at his word and that there is a need to protect the City of London from European Regulation (a very big "even"), there was not a word about that in the Treaty proposed. It was simply not the business in hand.

So, accepting for the moment the "even", when asked if he would have signed, Ed should have replied with the simple one word answer "Yes". That would not have prevented him then briefing that he would nonetheless have raised the issue of City regulation on a future and more propitious occasion.

That would have been leadership.

But, referring back to the title of this article, why was I wrong?

I really didn't want David Miliband to become leader of the Labour Party. I felt he was simply insufficiently apologetic for the errors of Blair's time in office, most obviously over Iraq. I voted therefore for Ed Balls. But I then fatally then cast my second preference for Miliband (E) in much the same way as many of my political soulmates are now voting (at least with their second preference),  for McIntosh (K). Albeit in a different political context, not for who he is but for who he isn't.

In my UK Leadership vote, I was wrong. If the only other credible alternative Prime Minister standing was David Miliband then I should have given him my support.

I'd still, right enough, rather have had Yvette Cooper than any of them.

Sunday 11 December 2011

A big week

I was at my Office Christmas night on Friday and accordingly was in no real fit state to blog yesterday.

With the benefit of hindsight that is just as well because had I done so it is likely the blog would have been composed entirely of vitriol about the Liberal Democrats. I've calmed down a bit now but I'm also heartened by the fact that there seems to be some dawning realisation on their part that they can't simply go along with Cameron on Europe.

It is said that Winston Churchill's favourite Film was Alexander Korda's Lady Hamilton.

Now, for all the beauty of Vivien Leigh, or the melodrama of the plot, no-one is in any real doubt that the reason the great man was drawn to the film is in its finale when the Royal Navy forms its line at the Battle of Trafalgar and, to a score based around a chorus of Hearts of Oak, Nelson orders his famous "England Expects" signal and prepares to meet his destiny.

That is one view of our history and I defy the hardest and most cynical lefist not to be temporarily moved by it.

But it has always seemed to me that the pro-European liberal left has a moment to at least equal that in another film made the following year; Michael Curtiz' Casablanca. Pure fiction (even more than Lady Hamilton!) but powerful fiction nonetheless.

In some ways, the real hero of that film is none of the principal players but the cause they each, in their own way, choose to serve. Among the principals however is Victor Laszlo, described as a Czech Resistance Leader. At no point is Laszlo held out to be a fighter, in the physical meaning of that word. He is a democratic politician; a representative not of how things are but of how they ought to be. His work is not to fight totalitarianism with bullets but to fight it with ideas. Yet when he instructs the band in Rick's Cafe to drown out The Watch on the Rhine with The Marseillaise, even Hearts of Oak must take second place in the goosepimple stakes.

The European Union is the creation of hundreds, thousands of real life Victor Laszlos. Determined never to return to either 1942 or 1805. And among them are an awful lot of Liberal Democrats, in Britain and beyond.

British withdrawal from the European Union, or, better still, the destruction of the Union itself, is clearly a course on which a significant part of the Conservative Party is set. Whether David Cameron is among them or is simply unable to resist them, need not detain us here. There are people who do have the power to prevent that course being set and to do so with immediate effect.

It is easy to say that all Liberal Democrats have no principles but that would not just be unfair, it would be untrue. To choose to participate in politics without joining either of the big parties is surely a sign of people motivated by more than mere personal ambition.

They made a serious error in May 2010 but it was surely motivated by a belief, firstly, and correctly, that the Country needed a Government of some sort but, secondly and fatally, that the Tories could be trusted to recognise that they were simply the largest minority in a parliament of minorities and to govern accordingly. Patently, they are not. Europe is not however just one issue like, for example, tuition fees. That involved only a stupid manifesto commitment and an opportunist campaign. Words could be eaten.

Words surely however cannot be eaten on Europe. The reason the Liberal Democrats are the Liberal Democrats, and not just the Liberals, is because a significant section of their founding membership left the Labour Party over its one time anti-Europeanism. And the reason they, in turn, chose to join up with the pre-existing Liberals was because they had so much in common on, above all, Europe.

It cannot surely be the case that for an unwillingness to admit an error, less still for a ribboned coat, that they are now prepared to sail in the company of John Redwood and Trevor Kavanagh.

The Tories seem for the moment to be consoling themselves that the one thing, above all others, the Lib Dems won't want is an Election. I have already pointed out however that the collapse of the Coalition will not mean an Election if an alternative Government can be formed.

There has been some criticism of the low profile Ed Miliband has been keeping since Friday. I wonder if it's because he has been working the phones? I sincerely hope it is.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

General Elections are Important

On the Friday after the 2007 Scottish Parliament Elections, wee Eck delivered a memorable speech in which he declared that "While it might not be clear who has won this election, it is clear who has lost."

That speech was written in anticipation that the SNP had denied the Labour/Lib Coalition an absolute majority but also in the belief that Labour had, nonetheless, secured one more seat than the SNP in the Parliament.

At the last minute however it was determined that the result in the Highland list was not as had been anticipated and that it was the SNP who had a one seat plurality.

That one seat was nonetheless critical in giving the SNP a moral mandate to form a minority Government and essential to the survival of that minority administration over the next four years. For all the bravado of the First Minister at Prestonfield House, it is difficult to see how that could have been carried off with but a single seat less.

One of the things you learn as you get more experience of politics is that Parliamentary arithmetic is very important. Demonstrations, public outrage, universal newspaper condemnation, opinion polling, by-elections or whatever count for nothing so long as the Government enjoys a majority in Parliament. That is, in the proper sense, democracy.

Now in this context it is important to remember the result of the 2010 UK Election.

The British figures are these. Tories 306 Seats; Labour 258; Lib Dems 57; SNP 6; Green 1; Plaid 3; Speaker 1.

And the Northern Irish: DUP 8; Sinn Fein 5; SDLP 3; Alliance 1; Independent Unionist 1.

So, 650 Seats, with the neutral Speaker, 649.

So, in theory, that means that to have a Commons Majority you need 325 votes. And the Coalition has 363.


Well, first of all you do not need 325 votes for a Commons majority, because the Shinners don't vote.

So there are only 644 MPs who actually vote. 323 for a majority.

And, secondly, this is a coalition with three elements. There are the Libs; the Tories and the Loonies.

And as has been clear over the last 24 hours, you can't ignore the Loonies.

It is apparent to the world that sorting out the crisis in the Euro is essential to the future well-being of this Country.And that sorting the Euro crisis will require a new Treaty. And that thanks to the loonies, the Coalition does not have a Commons majority for that Treaty.

So what does that mean for the Labour Party?

I am in no doubt that if "The Tories" had an absolute majority in the Commons, but a Loony fringe denying them that majority on this one issue, it would mean that, in the National interest, Labour should lend our votes to the the Government to enable them to get the legislation through the Commons. That's what some, at least, of our most distinguished parliamentarians did in 1971.

But the Tories do not have an absolute Commons majority.

And thus, crucially, in a way which most commentators have chosen to ignore, they do not have the right to a dissolution of Parliament.

Lets just walk through what happens when Cameron returns next week. Either there will be no deal because of his fear of his own back benchers, in which case it is difficult to see the Libs staying in the Government. Or there will be a deal but patently no Government majority for its ratification.

So what happens then?

Cameron goes to the Queen and tenders his resignation (Maybe not next week, but eventually). HMQ however would, in accordance with constitutional principle, refuse him a dissolution until it was clear that no-one else could command a Commons majority.

And suddenly, all the focus will be on the Libs. The one certainty of an early Election is that they would be annihilated. But even then it is difficult to see them being prepared to stand aside and watch Britain, effectively, leave the European Union. We've had a lot of anger towards them, and fun at their expense, since May 2010 but they do have some principles and surely Europe is near the top of these. That leads to one obvious conclusion.

So, what if Labour says it will deliver the Treaty Cameron has rejected? Or, at a price, construct a majority for the Treaty he can't get through?

Let's look back at the numbers, for suddenly they are very important. The Left Parties: Lab 258 + 3 (SDLP) + 3 (Plaid) +1 (Green) together with the 57 Libs and the one Alliance vote gets you to that 323.

And then there is the SNP.

There is no need to get involved in an argument where their heart might lie; they would surely vote with their heads. It took them twenty years to recover from the error of 1979 and they can see what happened to the Libs in May 2011.

So, if they sit on their hands, suddenly there are only 638 votes in play. And 323 is a more substantial majority.

But, finally, it might not be as simple as that. You can't ignore the personalities.

Nick Clegg would clearly have no place in any Labour Coalition Government, nor would Danny Alexander. And, to be honest, Chris Huhne should not have a place in any Government, or even in public life. But Ming, Charlie Kennedy, Tim Farron and others would surely be in happier company than at present. As would Vince with a briefly mumbled apology.

Labour also however might have to face up to the fact that such a coalition, in such circumstance, would need a politician of the first rank at its head. And ask itself honestly whether Ed really fits that bill.

So that is why I might be tempted with a flutter on David Miliband being Prime Minister by the First of February.

It's a funny old world.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Lost forever

So, I’d spent the night watching Valencia being eliminated from the Champions League while I shopped online for women’s clothing.

That might have made a good tweet, as I had, I suppose, intended it to be, until the phone rang and I was informed that my neighbour, Dave, had died.

You joke about withholding full names to avoid identifying people but I genuinely do not know his full name. He was “just” my neighbour. Dave to me as I was Ian to him.

I suppose I knew, or at least suspected, he wasn’t well. I’d see him about more often than usual, although I knew he was  a man who loved his work, even  if it did bring him long hours. And I was aware he was losing weight in a not entirely reassuring manner all the time while the enquiry “How are you?” would be answered by the standard Scottish response “Fine”.

Part of what I do for a living is advising people about how to deal with difficult neighbours. Noisy neighbours, neighbours who dispute property boundaries, sometimes neighbours who are simply un-neighbourly.

But there are 80.000 people in Cumbernauld and Kilsyth and only a handful who find themselves unfortunate enough to have to consult me or my professional colleagues because of their neighbours. The real lesson comes from the experience of the rest.

It is said that you can choose your friends but you cannot choose your relatives. Ha ha. But equally, you cannot choose your neighbours.

But, for so many of us, our neighbours, despite the fact that we are initially thrown together by nothing more than random circumstance, become our friends. And in the way we are thrown together so many prejudices are cast aside.

“They are really nice, although they are not married, you know” becomes “They are really nice, although they are Pakistanis” or even “They are really nice, although I suspect they may be homosexuals”. And in time the “although” disappears. As does the rest of the sentence.

Do you know what, that is because most people are “Really nice”.

So, Dave, at your funeral I will finally, presumably, learn your second name. And that knowledge will not be important.  But my loss at your passing will. You were really nice.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Blogging on a Sunday Afternoon

Unlike, it appears, every single other person in Scotland this Sunday, I am bored.

Every second Saturday at St Mirren Park for as long as I can remember it has been possible to see at least one and sometimes two pandas. Indeed on occasions there was also Junior P, so presumably they bred at some point.

I can't therefor see what all these Edinburgh folk are getting all excited about. Even more excited than the Chinese appear to be at the distinction of a visit from the First Minister. I hope the Chinese at least take the opportunity to raise their concerns with him at the proposed abolition of corroboration.

(Diversion 1. Rumours are that Eck's trade delegation was accompanied by representatives of Greggs the Bakers but that their samples had to travel separately to ensure they weren't consumed on route.)

And another thing about Paisley Panda, he did stunts. Bet the Edinburgh pandas won't do that. On the occasion of one Renfrewshire Derby he even approached the Morton support bearing a large scrubbing brush and a gigantic bar of soap. The soapdodgers then reciprocated by hanging a miniature Panda from the crossbar at the return game.  Just as well the new football legislation wasn't in force then, since, as everybody had offended everybody else, the whole County would have had to have been transformed into a giant prison.

(Diversion 2.  In Italy, supporters of Hellas Verona refer to supporters of, their rivals, Vicenza as "Mangi Gatti", (cat eaters) in reference to some otherwise long forgotten 16th Century siege. That makes even the Battle of the Boyne look like a relatively recent event.)

So, anyway, is this blog going anywhere?

Well, not really, because there's not much happening in Scotland other than Panda Mania.

Except that there was an incredibly insightful article by Kenny Farquharson in Today's Scotland on Sunday on the subject of the SNP and Europe. Which touches more generally on why there's not much happening in Scotland.

For all the political sound and fury around last week's Pre-Budget report there was a consensus across the UK Parties about the potentially disastrous consequences of the collapse of the Euro. Douglas Alexander popped up on the UK  section of the Politics Show to comment on this very subject and even the most Eurosceptic of Tories are being a bit more judicious in their schadenfreude.

Now, for the moment at least "this Country" includes Scotland, at least the last I time checked. And, for all the long term importance of opening up new markets, such as China,, "Continental Europe" is likely to remain Scotland's most important trading market (apart obviously from No Longer So Great Britain). The events in Europe are obviously the cause of great domestic political difficulty for David Cameron but nobody would expect him to remain completely immobile simply to "avoid" that difficulty. As, to be fair, he realises.

So one might expect that the Scottish Government, which supposedly trades on a greater European enthusiasm than the Tories, to have something to say on the subject. Certainly something more than "Ooh! Look at the Pandas!".

I bang on and on about the distoring effect that the Constitutional question is having on Scottish politics as the Government concludes that silence can be interpreted in the otherwise silent ear of the listener. Thus you can support Independence from the belief that it will lead to anything from (a) The return of the Stewarts; a separate Scottish Pound and membership not of the EU but of EFTA or, for all I know, the Holy Roman Empire; (b) A Republic; early entry to the Euro and full participation in a fiscal Union; (c) Retention of the Queen; the  Pound Sterling and very little current day to day difference (Flags and Anthems aside); (d) a Socialist state on the Cuban model, including the weather; or even (e) who cares what kind of State so long as we're not in the Common Fisheries Policy; since we all know, then, fish stocks would magically become inexhaustible.

This silence on the part of the SNP as a Political Party on the European crisis is therefor understandable. Whatever they said they'd offend somebody, even if Independence somehow achieved by this sort of route is going to leave an awful lot of these people disappointed if we were ever to get there.

The SNP are not now however just a political Party, they are the Government of Scotland, or so they like to claim, when it does suit them. The Government of Scotland must (in both senses of that word) have a view of the way forward for the European Union it is still their intention, one day, to join as a "full" member. It is time we heard what that view is.

Presumably even they, maintainers though they are that all Scotland's problems would be miraculously solved by Independence, wouldn't have the cheek to suggest that Scottish Independence would also solve all Europe's problems. Even if it would bring back the fish.