Sunday 30 March 2014

There is no room for complacency!

Last Wednesday Liverpool played Sunderland in the Premier League. Liverpool are a much better team than Sunderland and by early in the second half were 2-0 up. Then, with twenty minutes to go, Sunderland scored a goal completely against the run of play. Despite being still the much superior team, Liverpool panicked. For the next quarter of an  hour they looked as if they might throw the game away. Because while Sunderland had little to lose, Liverpool were challenging for the title and for the moment their nerves got the better of them.

As it turned out, by the final stages, both sides were just playing out time before settling for the home win outcome most had predicted before kick off.

I found myself thinking about this in the context of this weekend's bizarre wobble by the Better Together Campaign. 

Obviously we were taken aback on Friday by the most spectacular of own goals by the unnamed Government Minister's comments in Saturday's Guardian but, to be honest, on reflection, the very proposal of "Trident for a Currency Union" betrayed someone who might think themselves to be a key player but who clearly doesn't understand Scottish politics at all. Indeed once the dust has settled it will be noticed that it was Nicola Sturgeon herself who immediately ruled out such an arrangement. So the Currency Union idea is as dead as it always was.

That doesn't mean that the culprit should not be found and made an example of. The assumption, it appears, by the Prime Minister that this will all blow over if it is ignored, is a fundamentally mistaken one. A percentage point or two could undoubtedly be lost if the Nationalists can maintain there is any uncertainty on whether we retain Sterling.

But my target tonight are others who are genuine allies. I have no idea why the Lib Dems decided to launch an outright attack on Better Together at their Conference. I know they might be scarred by their continued electoral rejection but we and the Tories are not. I'll come back to that. From Tavish Scott's suggestion that a man who barely retained a single mainland Scottish Parliament seat was best placed to advise the rest of us on electoral tactics; through Charlie Kennedy's spontaneous appeal for more big hitters when we've been trying for months to get him to do some more hitting himself; to the culmination in Alistair Carmichael's "doomed, doomed" finale, I am simply at a loss as to what they thought they were up to here. Might I suggest that they would have been better employed in persuading their own Party's former functionaries not to be assisting the enemy by defecting to the Yes Campaign?

And as for the Daily Mail! I know they have to sell Newspapers. Even I was alarmed to read, in the edition which I confess to having bought, that you might catch TB from your cat (and I don't have a cat). Nonetheless, the suggestion Better Together is in internal disarray is nonsense. It is not the No campaign which has had to dispense with most of its original personnel. There is good reason for that.

Now, on twitter, I amuse myself by the occasional observation that "There is no room for complacency!" But tonight I thought I should perhaps point out that actually there is quite a lot of room for that sentiment.

Firstly, we have the polls. Here they are.  Look at the orange line (that's us) and then look at the blue line (that's them). What do you notice? The orange  line is comfortably above the blue line in every case but one and even that one is a poll now accepted on both sides to be flawed in it's methodology. And what else do you notice? That this hasn't changed in a year.

Then we have real elections. The SNP won a local government by-election, retaining a safe seat, in Kilmarnock on Thursday. Congratulations to them. Particularly since it was the first by-election of any sort that they had won in the last eleven. And even then their vote dropped 9%. While the unwritten story of Scottish politics continued. That there was a major swing to the Tories. Now, it might be the case, as the SNP  losing candidate in Cowdenbeath maintained with a, just about, straight face, that voters are embracing Nationalism while simultaneously abandoning the Nationalist Party. Somehow, however, I doubt it.

Then we have the school polls. School polls are interesting since they don't rely on adjustment by pollsters. There were another slew on Friday and again Nationalism was rejected by a margin of between to and three to one. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, no secondary school of any proper size in the whole of Scotland has yet to vote Yes in such an exercise. Now, it might just be the case that the views of teenagers depart dramatically from the views of their parents and grandparents on this matter. Somehow, again however, I doubt it.

Then we have the "feel" of the ground troops. Those who are doing the telephone and street canvassing. Obviously I speak to more of ours than theirs. But I do speak to theirs. Ours admit to genuine bewilderment as to where this supposed, even significant minority, Yes vote is. At  best, theirs insist they have "still got a chance" even while bemoaning the various factors (apathy, fear, the BBC) conspiring against them. It may be that they are completely deluded but I meet many in my Party concerned about what the Tory revival might mean for Edinburgh South or Dumfries & Galloway in 2015. I've yet to  speak to anyone worried about losing a single Westminster seat to the SNP. And before anybody thinks these are just partisan mad bastards, many of these conversations concede that 2016 will be a much harder challenge than the UK General Election. 

Then we have the argument, not on the policy but on its prospects, of our opponents. Chief among these is Mr Stephen Noon, who informs his observations with hints of secret polling known only to an elect of which he is one. I have no idea why this guy is taken seriously. Here is what he wrote on 27th April 2012, a week out from the local government elections in 2012. Either his "inside information" was seriously flawed or more likely he was just making it up. For we know the actual results of these elections. 

"But let's remember 2011"! The Nationalists protest. "Look how we turned things round then"! As indeed they did. Credit where it is due. But in 2011 Scottish Labour ran the most incompetent election campaign of my lifetime. Possibly one of the single most inept election campaigns ever run by any Party, in any Country, at any time. I'll say no more than that. AND EVEN THEN, on a differential low turnout, with many of our voters staying at home in despair and many more Tories largely disinterested in Scottish Parliament elections,  the SNP and their minor Party allies still did not secure a majority of the electorate for even having a referendum on independence, let alone on the proposition of independence itself.

So, here I turn my fire back on the Daily Mail. They might not like the politics of those at the heart of the Better Together Team because these politics are irredeemably Blairite. I'm no Blairite myself, albeit from a different direction. 

But say what you like about Blairites, they know how to win elections.

So I finish where I started. With a football analogy. Today Liverpool played Spurs. Spurs are a much better team than Sunderland. But the Anfield jitters were gone and the five time European Champions ran out 4-0 winners. Comprehensively the better team from start to finish. 

There is no room for complacency with regard September 18th. But only to the extent that we don't want the game remembered as Liverpool against Sunderland, even if we do end up playing out time for the last five minutes.  We want it remembered as Liverpool against Spurs. Or, better still, Real Madrid against Eintracht Frankfurt.

Saturday 22 March 2014

Together we can.

Busy, busy weekend so I suspect a shorter blog tonight. I was at the Law Society Dinner last night in the truly spectacular setting of the grand hall of the Museum of Scotland. My last one, as past Presidents only get five invites after their departure. How life moves on. A great sign off regardless.

Lots of interesting chat among the legal establishment but what happens at the Law Society Dinner stays at the Law Society Dinner. Sorry.

What's not a secret however is that it's a late night and the Society's hospitality remains generous so I wasn't exactly fizzing with energy when I set off early this morning for the Party Conference in Perth.

But on arrival there was enough fizz to make up for my own inadequacies on that front.

I've written before about Party Conferences in the aftermath of la grande debacle of May 2011. And they haven't been the cheeriest of events.

And my reservations mid-week about the intellectual coherence of Devolution Commission Report were clearly shared by others who I spoke to privately in and around the event. Although, to be fair, those who possibly thought it the greatest thing since sliced bread would hardly have sought out my company.

But, nonetheless, the Party seemed in remarkably good spirit. And this seemed attributable to three things.

Firstly, and this will I have no doubt lead to the usual "How dare they!" reaction from some of my readers, the assumption is that the referendum is over. Indeed, during the desultory pre big event debates somebody was even reduced to appealing from the platform with my own war-cry "There is no room for complacency"! But while Iain Davidson's metaphor that all that is left is bayoneting the wounded might have been better chosen, certainly in the presence of a mixed audience, it would be a lie to say that our activists are not looking forward with some enthusiasm to doing that bayoneting.

Secondly, oddly, there was a document, "Together we can." Everybody of any Party persuasion is used to glossy Conference Documents left thoughtlessly on seats or in pubs as the weekend proceeds and forgotten altogether by return to work Monday. Tomorrow's recycling. But this document is an exception. Many, many copies will have been packed carefully to take home. Well written, with simple statistics and easy to understand graphics, it is precisely the sort of crib that you would want before going out to knock doors. And, crucially, it is mainly about what Labour is FOR, after far too long defining ourselves simply in terms of what we are against. I don't know who wrote it but I take my hat off to them. It is, dare I say it, everything the Devolution Commission Report is not.

And finally, there was a speech. Not Ed's rather mundane effort on Friday. Not even a speech made to the actual conference. Rather a speech made on the fringe by Gordon Brown on a United with Labour platform. If I was asked once if I had seen it, I was asked half a dozen times.

The Scottish Labour Party loves Gordon Brown. And we grieve with him over his ill-starred occupation of the position he had aspired too for so long. For we, for the most part, aspired with him and on his behalf. But his reappearance now inspires within our rank and file an emotion which can only really be compared to Charlton Heston, in the title role, being strapped to his horse to lead the final charge at the end of El Cid.

Nobody could possibly think Gordon is too close to the Tories in the fight for the Union. And no half baked ideas among various middle class nationalist "creatives" could ever be held up with any credibility as being more motivated to assist the cause of working people than could be the life work of this man. No harm to Ed but immediately before Johann spoke there was an otherwise very good wee video made for us by Better Together. Various Scottish Party luminaries were cross cut with ordinary people pledging support for a No vote. Well made and well put together. But for the finale was...Ed. At the end people applauded politely. I say with absolute confidence however that if it had been Gordon who had appeared at that point rather than Ed then the conference would have not just applauded but cheered. And they wouldn't have waited to the end of the video to do that.

If you are not in the Scottish Labour Party I don't expect you to understand that, let alone agree with it. Just take it from me that it is true. It is a personal thing. We could have no better morale booster than Gordon being "back".

So, with these three great pillars to build on, it was over to Johann. Who didn't disappoint. There will be lots of press coverage tomorrow so I won't duplicate that. I am confident it will be generally positive. But there is no point in me analysing the speech in a way which might allow any mild criticism of a particular emphasis or momentary tone to detract from its overall achievement. Read it yourself. It is, read as a whole, very, very impressive.

I finish with one final observation. The Labour Party in Scotland might not yet be able, without dispute, to assert that it has recovered its former strength. But within the the Party itself there is no doubt that it believes, with increasing confidence, that it has. It is too early yet to talk of May '16 but in regard to May '15 the chat is already about East Dumbartonshire, Dundee East and even, possibly, Argyll and Bute.

Time will tell but, from this distance, I expect next year's eve of poll event to have a greater fizz still.

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Thought for the day

Where to begin?

With the words of Oscar Hammerstein, placed into the mouth of Julie Andrews.

"Let's start at the very beginning, that's a very good place to start".

Scottish Labour has always been divided on the issue of Scottish Home Rule. Not Independence, it has been consistently opposed to Independence. Indeed, as I have already observed in an earlier blog, it was that very opposition which led to the formation of the SNP.

But on the question as to whether Scotland should have a devolved/federal/home rule assembly there has always been a difference of opinion. Sure, Keir Hardie was for it (albeit on the basis of  the creation of a similar English "government" distinct from the "Imperial Parliament" at Westminster)  So was Maxton. But it was no real priority for the first two (minority) Labour Governments in 1924 or 1929, whose most prominent Clydeside member, John Wheatley, had strong reservations about what the whole thing might mean for the Irish Catholic minority. Nor was a Scottish Parliament any part of the platform of our greatest ever Government from 1945 to 51 or of even any great interest to our greatest politician of that age, Tom Johnston. Indeed by the late 1950s it was official Labour Party policy to be positively opposed to the very idea of a Parliament (or whatever) sitting in Edinburgh.

But there has always, equally, been a counter tide. By the sixties and early seventies coalescing around the likes of  George Foulkes and Jimmy Boyack and John P. Mackintosh but above all personified in Donald Dewar. Those who genuinely thought that a legal system without its own legislature was an affront to democracy and who, crucially, dismissed the idea that a Scottish Parliament need inevitably lead down Tam Dalyell's slippery slope to separation.

And in the middle there were those who didn't care much either way. Who subscribed to Herbert Morrison's dictum that "Socialism is whatever a Labour Government does" and whose only priority was to maximise the electoral chance of such a Government being elected. And, let's be honest, this middle ground were more motivated by the electoral success (or otherwise) of the SNP than any great point of principle either way.

So you have to understand that history before you go on to consider what has happened today.

If Labour had won the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary Election, there would never have been a Scottish Labour devolution commission. That is obvious. But it didn't mean that it wasn't an opportunity.

And, to be honest, I believe it was an opportunity missed.

Now, before I go on, I want to say two things.

The first is to say that I don't think today will make a scintilla of difference to the vote on September 18th. Anybody who protests that the incoherence of the proposals has persuaded them to vote for independence is lying. They were voting for independence anyway. The key message, that devolution is not yet at the "line in the sand" point, is the crucial one. We can sort out the real details beyond September 19th.

The second is that I have, for the avoidance of doubt, thought about whether I should keep my reservations to myself. If I thought they might have any influence on the referendum result I most certainly would have. But I don't. We already know the referendum result. What's left is just about the margin of victory.

But the document produced today is a complete mess. One of the major criticisms of the White Paper is that it confuses policy with principle. That's true. However compared to the Labour document it rivals the Constitution of the United States in its focus.

How can it possibly be the case that the Scottish Parliament has the right to vary taxes upwards but never downwards? Why is the law on misuse of drugs or abortion to remain reserved to Westminster and thus uniform across the UK? Why are we "devolving" the administration of Employment Tribunals but not the Employment Law they enforce? Why shouldn't we (have the right to) cut Air Passenger Duty? Now all of these outcomes might well constitute the policy platform on which Labour would seek (currently) to be elected (I'm certainly not for cutting any form of tax)  but the point is THAT IS A MATTER FOR THE ELECTORATE, it is not something to be written into a constitutional settlement.

And as for the idea that the Scottish Parliament could not be abolished without its consent? Where to start. Certainly, even now, that would be politically unthinkable, but for that to be "outlawed" wouldn't be possible without ripping up the UK's unwritten constitution and starting again with a properly written one. For what it's worth, once again, I am personally for that but that constitution can't be written unilaterally by less than ten percent of the UK's population, let alone by one political Party within it.

Now, in terms of allowing Labour to posture as to being to the left of the SNP this document might just have some purpose. The idea that "the rich" might be squeezed till the pips squeak by us while the Nats squirm on the sidelines will undoubtedly allow us a bit of fun at the expense of the "radical" elements of the "Yes coalition". When however you consider that there are less than 13,000 of these additional rate taxpayers, earning more than £150,000, in the whole of Scotland out of more than two and a half million total income tax payers;  and consider that there are far fewer still living in houses worth more than two million pounds, it doesn't take long to recognise this for what it is. Posturing.

The document is not a mouse but a mess. A document produced as a compromise between the three competing strands of Labour opinion I started with. It reminds me of.........the 1979 Devolution proposal with all ups and no downs for Labour. As I say, it won't, I suspect, have much bearing on the referendum either way but as for a way forward after 18th September? Never forget. It wasn't the 1979 scheme that came to pass but one devised by a cross party Constitutional Convention. That is surely, once more, where we would need to go.

Sunday 16 March 2014

Cometh the hour, cometh the woman.

I was out today. I went down the coast and had a fish tea (actually a fish lunch) in Nardini's at Largs. I cannot praise that experience too highly.

And it got me thinking. Who are the Nardini? (no "s", that's the correct usage. Look it up.)

They are Italian immigrants. They came here from Barga, in the province of Lucca in Tuscany. And they worked hard. Very hard. All hours in chip shops and ice cream parlours until they could acquire the jewel in their crown. The art deco cafe that famously bears their name on the esplanade at Largs.

Now, I don't want to attribute to them political views but I will. For, with due modesty, I know many Scots Italians and all of them respect hard work and none of them want to pay any more taxes than they absolutely have to. They are business people.  They want their children to do better than them and if they or these self same children succeed then they so no reason that the sweat of their labours should be siphoned off to support those"unprepared to make that effort".

And for the Italians of the twenties and thirties and beyond, you could just as easily substitute the Jews who had come before; the Pakistanis and Indians who came after; the Poles and Latvians who are coming now and indeed, I suspect, the Bulgarians and Romanians who are yet to come.

Certainly there will be those who fall by the wayside, by reason of illness or simply wider economic factors. Those who will be grateful, in time, for the British Welfare State. But many of those who succeed will inevitably fall back on the old saw "The Lord helps those who help themselves", whichever Lord they have in mind in that process.

And so these people should either be natural Tories or at least willing to consider that option.

It was the great, electoral, achievement, of Margaret Thatcher to appreciate that. Not for nothing was it observed that she transformed the fortunes of the Conservative Party by making it a Party as much for Estonians as it was for Etonians.

Yet somehow in Scotland that didn't happen. And, when you look back, the reason for that was that it lacked....diversity. The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party remained a  Party of middle aged white men. And their wives. Certainly often self made but most commonly self made going back several generations. Golfers, Freemasons, Kirk Elders. Whether there were even fewer Catholics than there were women would have made an interesting thesis.

And the element of diversity they were most almost unthinkingly hostile to was "the cause of Scotland". They were conservatives with both a small and capital "c". So the need for a devolved parliament was as difficult to sell to them as it would have been difficult to sell to Metternich in 1847 that perhaps Catholic Absolutism was an idea which had had its day. Thus we ended up with a situation where a man of such impeccable Tory credentials as Alick Buchanan-Smith was regarded as politically suspect by reason of believing in a Scottish Parliament and Malcolm Rifkind having to recant his earlier devolutionist views in order to prosper.

It has taken the Scottish Tories a long time to recover from that legacy. Indeed to the extent that they still have little ethnic minority support they still haven't recovered. How many of those in the, primarily anti-Labour, "Scots Asians for Independence" might be in Tory ranks had they played their earlier cards better.


Sometimes Parties just get lucky. Labour got lucky when in 1983 particular local factors delivered the safe north-east seat of Sedgefield to a little known London Barrister with no previous connection to the seat. The Tories got lucky (although perhaps the lady made some of her own luck) when the indecision of their grandees saw Thatcher succeed Heath.

And I'm increasingly thinking the Scottish Tories might have got lucky in the aftermath of the 2011 Scottish election. All justice should have handed the succession to Murdo Fraser. His policy pitch was exactly right: that far from remaining implicitly hostile to devolution the Tories should positively advance it to go further and deeper. Only then could the Parliament have the financial accountability that would allow the centre right to prosper.

And Murdo had also done his time. An accomplished debater and public speaker, no one would be hiding behind the settee when he went head to head with Salmond or Johann. Of those time served in the Parliament, with no disrespect to the personable Jackson Carlaw, he was the only possible choice.

But there was another option. A complete leap in the dark. A young, gay, woman who had literally come from nowhere and who might conceivably have returned there. Sure, Murdo is entitled to feel aggrieved as to the "line in the sand" message that got her there but sometimes politics isn't fair. FDR was elected President of the USA on a promise to balance the Federal Budget! Who cares now?

Today, Ruth Davidson spoke to her Party Conference. And, afterwards, who would doubt that it is now truly her Party? And a Party about which you know where it stands and what it's priorities are.

Now I could pick holes in her message. For example, it is simply impossible to offer educational choice in much of rural Scotland. The task is not to make some schools better but all schools better. As it should be in urban Scotland as well. And as for her endorsement of Universal Credit! That's not really the point. She'll never get my vote. But I can see the attraction to others of the message. Not all of them Italian.

And it is a message with increasing traction. For buried in the small print of the speech is the fact that in eleven consecutive Scottish Parliamentary or local government by-elections the Tory percentage share has increased

In the end however the messenger was more important than the message. Oddly, Ruth is I think a Kirk Elder. She might even play golf. Although I doubt she is a Freemason. But she doesn't come across like that. She comes across as somebody who is living in the twenty-first century. Who just happens to be a Tory.

So I conclude with two observations. Firstly, there is a big election within eight months of 18th September. And while I don't doubt the ability of the Nats to put up a last ditch fight in May 2016, particularly if they hold back money from the referendum lost cause, it is difficult to see what their pitch will be the year before.That choice will be Cameron or Miliband. And, in its pursuit, from a Tory perspective, might I respectfully suggest Business for Scotland have already have provided a useful contact list?

And secondly? The most likely outcome in May '16 remains a nationalist victory but without an overall majority. In the end their people are more motivated to vote in a Scottish Parliamentary Election than ours. But if our Parties are agreed on much that needs to change in Scotland do we really need to sit about in collective opposition letting the Nationalists blame four more years of complacent inaction on the constitution? Couldn't we perhaps sort something out? Dare I say it, I suspect Murdo Fraser would make a formidable Finance Minister. Well to the left of John Swinney.

Saturday 8 March 2014

I've lost that blogging feeling

The Fight between Carnival and Lent - Pieter Bruegel the Elder

In honour of the season, here is one of my favourite Breugel's. "The Battle between Carnival and Lent." From the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. For it's significance you will need to read to the end.

You might have noticed that there was no blog from me last weekend.

In fact, I wrote a fair bit of a draft about the Ukraine, essentially suggesting that the post putsch regime in Kiev was not exactly the Liberal Democratic happy clappy bunch it was being portrayed in much of the media. That that while Russian military intervention was to be deplored, so was the idea that democratically elected governments could be unconstitutionally overthrown just because they were unpopular or even corrupt. And that countries generally could only be truly called democracies if all concerned accepted that any freely elected government had a legitimacy even if a critical part of its support came from an ethnic minority community. That either has to be accepted or the only logical alternative, an agreed fragmentation of the state, equally conceded.

At least a significant part of Ukrainian Nationalism seems to accept neither proposition. That while, to aspire to be part of the EU,  they say (or at least they claim to say) that they wish to be a democracy, only a Ukrainian Nationalist administration, oriented away from Moscow, would ever, to them, be an acceptable outcome of that democracy.It shouldn't be up to the Russians alone to point out to them that they cannot have their cake and eat it in that regard.

And, finally, I was going to point out the parallel with a certain trend in more domestic nationalism. Certainly, Scotland has the right to self determination, but whatever way it chooses to exercise that right will be a valid exercise of that right. Arguing otherwise is in fact arguing against self determination, instead suggesting not self determination but rather the unilateral determination by one side alone. Even if it proves to be the minority side.

Anyway, I didn't get the blog done as I kind of wandered off into the research undergrowth of the shifting boundaries of eastern Galicia, best illustrated by the fact that Lviv/Lvov/Lemberg has been, in peacetime alone, in four different countries in the last hundred years. By the time I might have engaged in slash and burn editing on Monday to get the thing finished, that day's papers had been ahead of me in suggesting the Ukrainian situation was already appearing less black and white.

So, like the the onetime Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, my blog has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

But I'd enjoyed the exercise at the time. For at least it was a departure from finding something new to say about the Scottish Referendum in isolation from events in the wider world.

Where we increasingly all find it difficult to find something new to say. The polls aren't moving and neither are the Nats moving  from their apparent belief that they don't need to, or possibly can't, do anything to shift them.

We've now seen an advance of their new poster campaign and it must be said that it looks like a desire just to go to a core vote strategy.

Collegamento permanente dell'immagine integrata

The "Scotland's Wealth" line will no doubt appeal to those who already believe in "Scotland's Wealth" (and that it is being stolen by the English) but the rest will I suspect regard it as no more credible than a suggestion that the accompanying photograph represents "Scotland's Weather".

That the campaign poster was leaked on twitter by someone on the inside of the Yes campaign to express their own annoyance at the bland message is of, I suppose, minor significance. As is the emergence of the occasional nationalist press or online comment along the lines of "Why we might (sic) lose" or indeed "No would not mean No". Their message is fraying at the margins.

But majority nationalist opinion is taking on a sort of sad recognition that, no matter how they got to this point, they are where they are. That the best they might now achieve is respectability but that even that is a still a cause worth pursuing. Most certainly, that while their project might be terminally ill, nothing is to be gained by prematurely commencing a post-mortem. Not least since it remains the only project they've got.

So we'll stumble on. With them occasionally hailing a rogue poll or the patently self-interested intervention of the likes of Willie Walsh as a "gamechanger", while we demonstrate public exasperation yet private glee over whatever next intellectual house on sand they ask Scotland to stand back and admire. In the world of real voters however both sides continue to gather more and more voter identification information pointing only to one decisive result. And fewer and fewer voters to be moved either way.

Good news for my side but not such good news in respect of finding material for my blog.

Maybe I should just go back to blogging about Art.

Which brings me back to the Breugel.

Pure dead brilliant.