Sunday 9 December 2018

Time to help Horatius keep the Bridge

For the last week I have been physically in Hungary but intellectually in the UK.

We've been to the opera. Twice in fact. Once to see a wonderful performance of The Magic Flute and on the other occasion to see for the first (and undoubtedly last) time, Puccini's Golden Girl of the West. Which, if it is not the worst opera written by a major composer in their prime, must certainly be on the shortlist.

But we've also been to see the magnificently restored Budapest Museum of Modern Art (picture above) and on an extended tour of the Christmas Markets. I cannot commend either too much.

Mainly however we have been visiting Andi’s folks and, since I don’t speak Hungarian, outwith these  couple of trips into central Budapest, I have been largely left to my own devices while Andi chats away interminably to her mother about God knows what, possibly me, and her dad watches 1970s US cop shows dubbed into the local language.

So I have spent even more time than usual on Twitter. Following the current dysfunctional state of British politics. And here are my conclusions. Over Brexit, there are only two intellectually coherent camps. There are the hard brexiteers. Sure, much of their short term argument is dishonest, presumably on the principle that the end justifies the means, but, like the Scottish Nationalists, to whom they bear such a marked resemblance, they believe that any interim pain will be worth it for the long term gain. To continue that analogy, they aren't even entirely clear what that long term gain would be but they do genuinely believe it will be there. Thus their strategy is clear. Run out the clock. We are leaving on 29th March and they have the metaphorical points on the board in the form of The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.  Like Clive Woodward's England, what does it matter if the ball is messily retained by the forwards for months on end (to be fair, with Woodward's England, it only seemed like months) in a spectacle few would want to pay to watch? Wait for the 81st minute and then kick the ball into the crowd. Victory will be their's. They know what they are doing.

And so to the second coherent argument. That of Mrs May and her principal public partisan, Rory Stewart. I have a huge regard for Rory Stewart, who I first met during an earlier referendum. He is no lackey. Had it not been for his principled opposition to British policy in post 9/11 Afghanistan and indeed his opposition to the complete folly of the second Iraq War, he would surely be much higher up the ranks of Government than he currently is. So, when he allows himself to be called to the colours, it is not out of blind loyalty, it is out of conviction. He makes no pretence that the current deal is perfect. No agreement could be which both respects the result of the referendum and yet wants to protect as much as possible of which we already have, (an "already have" which, let us not forget, is still the personally preferred and informed option of almost all senior politicians in all four of our major Parties). No such deal will ever be perfect. But Rory asks the simple question "If not this, then what?" And no-one answers. For no one else has a coherent answer.

Let's start with the "Peoples' Voters". If I thought for a minute that we could just re-run the original vote and that, this time, my team would win by a landslide, then the Peoples' Vote would have no greater advocate than I. I really, really want to stay in, with a commitment that would make Michael Heseltine look almost eurosceptical. Only there is no evidence at all that this outcome would be the inevitable result of a Peoples' Vote. . Choose your opinion poll and sometimes we win. Indeed on balance we are currently more likely to win (just). But, two things. That was also what the polls said before 23rd June 2016. And even if we do win? To settle the matter it would have to be decisive. To pose a far from hypothetical example, suppose, this time, my team this time triumphs 51/49? Who would actually have won this double header? So, onwards to a "best of three" penalty shoot out? And that's even before we look at the simple practicalities of how we actually hold such a Peoples' Vote prior to 29th March? Or indeed what the question would be. This is not a serious proposition.

And then we have the "EFTA"ers. I'm for this as the least worst option for our future relationship with Europe. But Mrs May's deal is not about our future relationship, which is what any ultimate EFTA deal would be about. It's about the terms on which we leave NOW. Now being by the end of March. For that, let me just repeat, is the law. The transitional provisions baked into the deal settle nothing in that regard. They just guarantee there would be a transition. And in terms of that guarantee, it is this deal or no deal. And as to the importance of that transition?

This has been the week of Priti Patel's observation that if there is disruption to our food chain then the Irish won't be exempt. Given British/Irish history this was, to put it mildly, best left unsaid,. It is however  undoubtedly true. Let's be frank. In the event of a hard Brexit, the Irish might up end up with empty supermarket shelves and have little choice about it. For much of their fresh food would then have to cross two customs boundaries.  Except that, unlike the Irish,  we do have a choice. And while this potential food shortage is a choice the Irish didn't choose for themselves, it is one, for ourselves, that Ms Patel actively favours! For them in the form of a punishment but for us in a bizarre form of reward!

And then finally we have the Labour Party. To what end? I am a member of the Labour Party. I may have mentioned that previously. So, if I confess I have no idea what our policy is, then I defer to no less informed individuals in trying to explain it to me. Our "policy" appears to be a General Election. During the campaign of which election we would have no policy at all other than an inexplicable "better" deal on leaving. Albeit that we couldn't explain what that better deal was and the vast majority of our candidates wouldn't actually want to leave at all. But this apparently would be all right on the night. Anything's possible, I suppose. Particularly if you ignore the MSM and assume the electorate will gain their information entirely from Novara Media. Except the Jews of course. Who can just fuck off altogether.

So, back to where I started. There are only two serious options and they in the end both turn on a question their partisans both agree on, if they agree on nothing else . It all rests on whether Mrs May survives. If she does, then in the end her deal will pass. If she doesn't, then we will be left with the only other coherent option. A hard Brexit. Possibly even embodied in the person of her successor as Prime Minister.

And thus finally I come back to Rory Stewart. During the week he was described somewhere as Horatius charged with keeping the bridge. Suggesting that he was faced with a hopeless task. Forgetting that Horatius, although does not actually keep the bridge, does in the end win the day. It is a poem I knew in childhood and thus, like such poems it never entirely leaves you. Although I confess to a bit of internet research to refresh my memory.

But that done, I remember the words of Spurius Lartius provided by McAulay.

"Lo, I will stand at thy right hand and keep the bridge with thee."

Time others stepped up to that plate.

Sunday 18 November 2018

Deal or no Deal?

I am very annoyed we are leaving the European Union and wish that could be stopped.

But I am very annoyed about a lot of things. The current league position of St Mirren; Legal Aid pay rates; the weather. Me being annoyed about them really doesn't matter. They are facts of life and I just have to live with them. And so, at this point, is Brexit.

That need not have been the case. In the aftermath of the referendum, there could have been a re-alignment of the centre of British politics. Or a Party could have stood at the 2017 General Election on a platform of reversing Brexit or at least re-running the Referendum. But none did and the one which came closest, the Lib Dems, made little or no progress. Or public opinion could have so fundamentally changed that Parliament and Government felt emboldened enough to disregard the referendum result altogether. But that hasn't happened either.

Two big things have however happened. Firstly, as authorised by the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 the Government gave notice under Article 50 of the Treaty of European Union that we were leaving, setting that process starting and, secondly, by passing the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the date of our leaving as set by the terms of Article 50 (29th March 2019) was encompassed into domestic law.

Now, Parliament is of course sovereign and it could repeal or amend the latter piece of legislation. And never mind the question of withdrawal of the Article 50, the terms of the article itself provide that, with agreement on both sides, the actual exit date can be postponed, if necessary indefinitely.

But there is simply no majority for such legislation in the current House of Commons. The Tories, even the most "remainery" of Tories believe that, unless it is re-run, (a point to which I will return) the result of the referendum must be respected. Putting the most innocent of interpretations on what the Labour leadership are up to, that is also there stated view. That is what both Parties said in their last General Election manifestos and there is nothing to suggest that, even if there were another General Election, they would be saying anything different. And, in any event, there is not going to be another General Election because there is equally no majority in the House of Commons to bring down the current Government and even less likelihood of that Government voluntarily submitting its fate to the electorate.

But there is also one other given. A (literally) handful of Tory nutters aside, everybody agrees we need to leave with a deal. For the avoidance of doubt, that "everybody" includes Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab. They just don't want the deal the Government has negotiated and believe, no matter how deludedly, that a different deal could be done. But, crucially, that "everybody" includes pretty much all of the Parliamentary Labour Party.They also would prefer a different, "better" deal but, unlike the fantasists on the Tory benches, are surely sanguine to the fact that had a "better" deal been available, Mrs May would surely have done it. There simply is no deal that is as good as our current deal but, for good or ill, the will of the electorate is to reject that and the stated position of both Government and opposition front benches is to respect the will of the electorate.

So what other options are there?

Well, in theory, there is a second referendum. But the theory simply does not match up with reality. What would the question be in that referendum? Mrs May's deal or remain would clearly be the preferred option of the remainers but that would undoubtedly disenfranchise that not insignificant section of the electorate who want neither. And Justine Greening MP (although just about nobody else) has suggested a multiple choice, transferable vote, referendum but that begs the question of how many questions? And if it was just Remain, Mrs May's deal or no deal, what way would Boris and Dominic Raab vote? While if it was Remain, Mrs May's deal or "neither", how would victory for the last option leave us any the wiser?

Anyway, how and when would this referendum take place? The process couldn't even start until Mrs. May's deal had failed to win Commons approval in mid December.. Even if a Commons majority could somehow be cobbled together, it would require Primary legislation. It couldn't possibly be held any earlier than the very eve of 29th March. With no idea what would follow from any result except a simple remain. It would inevitably have to come with postponing the 29th March departure if only, in a worst case scenario, to allow us more time for no deal. And there is no Commons majority for postponing 29th March! It is a chimera, an illusion, a hopelessly lost cause.

There is of course one other option, a different deal. Not the fantasy different deal of Johnson, Raab and the Pizza five but one the EU might actually agree to.  Its main partisan is Nick Boles MP, who wants EFTA. That's fine. EFTA is my own second choice. But how would that possibly be achieved either? International treaties are the domain of Governments, not Parliaments. But how do we get to this Government that would negotiate EFTA? It couldn't be led by Mrs May. It wouldn't be led by any Tory Brexiteer successor to Mrs May and it couldn't command a Commons majority if led by a non Brexiteer Tory successor to Mrs May. At least not without Labour support, which, shall we say, under a Corbyn leadership, it is never likely to enjoy. Matters would be as gridlocked as at present with the one remaining constant, that fixed date of 29th March.

The truth is that starting from here, on 18th November 2018, and without changing our potential exit date, we now have a binary choice. Mrs May's deal or no deal.

It's a terrible deal, much worse than we currently have, full of things which, even within its own terms, could be much improved. But it is the only deal in town and it is still a far, far better deal than no deal. It keeps the Irish border open, it stops Kent and the Pas-de-Calais from becoming lorry parks. It removes the very real threats of disruption to life saving medicines and indeed basic food supplies.

Best of all however, it leaves open the question of whether our future relationship with Europe lies in being further apart or, once again, closer together. A question which could then be answered in calmer, more considered, time.

I'll be astonished if, ultimately, it is not backed, albeit with gritted teeth, by all the Remainer Tories. It should be backed as well by all Remainer Labour MPs. For there is, in truth, no alternative and simply protesting otherwise demands more than protest. It requires process. And the time for process has long gone.

Monday 22 October 2018


Preface. One of the advantages of being a mere blogger rather than an actual journalist is that you don't have to work to a deadline. Nonetheless, some time that means, having written most of your blog, you can run out of time without consequence. As I did on Sunday when Dr Who and Strictly, followed by a box of Legal Aid accounts to be done, meant my blogging had to be abandoned. So the reportage of this has been lost. But I hope not the underlying argument.

So, start again.


,On Saturday afternoon I went to Paisley to see St Mirren ultimately defeated 2-1 by Kilmarnock.

We were a bit unlucky but Kilmarnock are a good team so there was no disgrace in defeat. I have nonetheless still enjoyed better afternoons.

But, as I set off to the football, I did wonder if, had I lived in London and my team played there, I would have chosen an alternative Saturday afternoon expedition. Attending the People's Vote demonstration.

And, on reflection, the answer is no.

Now, I should make it clear, that I have no objection in principle to demonstrations. I have been on many, many, over my now sixty years. Most recently in Edinburgh against Trump's visit to Scotland earlier this year. Seldom did I think my presence on such a demonstration, or even the demonstration itself, would make a direct difference. About 10,000 marched beside me in Edinburgh but had it been 100,000 or even 1,000,000, I didn't think for a minute that Trump would react by immediately getting on Air Force One back to Washington D.C. For me, however, it was important to make a personal point.

Any more than I thought the Government of South Africa would ever have reacted to the wonderful "Free Mandela" demonstration in Glasgow on June 12th 1988 (a date of which I can be sure for the poster still hangs in my kitchen) by announcing Mandela's immediate release.

Sometimes you demonstrate because you think it is right to demonstrate. Not just because you know what you are against but also because you know what you are for. And that's where Saturday's event would have failed my test. Not in the former but in the latter.

I have no doubt I would have found, in the vast majority of fellow marchers yesterday, kindred spirits. Nice folk who also grow herbs in their garden, look forward to retiring to Italy or France,  and who currently enjoy nothing more than whatever features on BBC4 at 9pm on Saturday night.

For, like them,. I have believed in the European project all of my life.

In 1975 I went about Paisley fly posting for the Yes campaign, in the company of my father. My first ever experience of fly posting and his last, for he died the following year at an age far younger than I am now. But as a life long Labour man, he taught me that this was a cause greater than Party politics, not least when he introduced Ted Heath as the main speaker at a rally in Paisley Town Hall.

In 1983, I nearly became an MEP by accident. Having been told that it would be "good experience" I sought the nomination as Labour Candidate for Strathclyde West and, to my own surprise, failed to secure it by a handful of votes. Afterwards, Jimmy Allison, the legendary Labour organiser, observed that I had made a brilliant speech. "Most of these people didn't realise that you were in favour of staying in the EEC". He was right about the internal politics of the Labour Party then (and perhaps now again) but I was undoubtedly for staying in. I have always been for staying in.

So why would I have not marched yesterday?

Well, firstly, because it is an impossible demand. We are leaving at the end of March. The impossible demand is not that we have a second vote but that we have it before then. My great comrade Mike Gapes, who I first met in the window between the two historical events referred to above, suggested today on twitter that this this is how it might happen. Technically it might be possible but politically it is incredible. You might as well suggest that Theresa May resign and be replaced as Tory leader by Anna Soubry. That would just as certainly stop Brexit (actually much more certainly than a second vote) but in the real world it is not going to happen.

But, secondly, we should not underestimate the potential political consequence of the referendum result being "ignored". The assumption is that a second vote would produce a different result. I'm by no means convinced of that. It seems to me that the supposed demographic three year on advantage of more young voters (largely remain) being assisted by the....departure....of older voters (predominately leave) is far from being reflected in the polls. But even if that works? Let's be honest, the Brexit vote was about an awful lot more than the technical merits or demerits of belonging to a supranational union. It was a cry of pain by those who feel they are both left behind and, at the same time, ignored. Graft on to that a sense that they have been cheated and more conventional British politics might take a very nasty turn indeed. Think Trump, think Salvini, think Orban. First past the post is a vicious beast, normally used to crush minor Parties but in certain circumstance capable of producing vast swings in outcome once the insurgents gain a critical mass, particularly against a multi-coloured opposition. You need only consider Scotland at the 2015 election to appreciate that.

Brexit, for good or ill (actually entirely for ill) needs to be seen through. But it can be seen through on the least worse terms. And that's where I get annoyed. Not with Corbyn, whose strategy is clearly that the worst possible outcome might somehow lead people to turn to "socialism". Not with Farage or Johnson, whose politics are as appalling as they are obvious. Not even at Mrs May, the rabbit caught in the headlights.

No, the people I am most annoyed at are the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

They,like me, didn't want to leave. But they were in a position to ensure that we left on the least worst terms. Not as a few dots among a crowd of a million but each as one vote in a Parliament of 650.

Some kind of  EFTA deal is clearly the solution. It is not perfect for it does undoubtedly leave us as "rule takers not rule makers". But it does preserve the Customs Union and Single Market. And it leaves us to fight another day. When perhaps the chance to (participate in) making the rules might regain its logical advantage.

The reality is that an offer of that sort has clear majority support in the House of Commons, in the governing (don't forget) Conservative Party and within the EU.

But nobody is making it.

It is time somebody on the Labour benches did.

To say "This is a deal we'd support. It is on offer. Go and get it. And, if you do, forget about worrying about the ERG, or Corbyn's unholy alliance with them, because you will have our support." Every vote, all the way.

No harm to my comrades marching on Saturday, but, insofar as they are Members of Parliament, working out the detail of that offer would have been a much more useful use of their time. I'd have happily gone to London to serve them coffee and mineral water. while they were so engaged.  But for the marching? Not so much.

Sunday 7 October 2018

A deal changes everything.

Anybody who watched Channel 4 News on Friday night couldn't have failed to notice the belated recognition by the Irish Government that, while a hard Brexit would be a disaster for us, it would be a catastrophe for them. And that, if they played too hard ball, the British Government was not bluffing about that outcome.

The British |Government, on the other hand, will happily sell out an obscure North Western Province over whether you need an identity document to travel from Larne to Stranraer, not least because you currently need such an identity document to fly from Glasgow to Manchester without anybody being noticeably outraged.

So there is going to be a deal. And that will completely change the game.

Because, once there is a deal, it will be the only deal in town. Unless there is somehow cobbled  together a Parliamentary majority for a "People's Vote" it will be Mrs May's deal or a disastrous hard Brexit.

But let us be blunt, there is simply no way a majority for a second referendum could be constructed. It would have to start with the whole of the Labour ranks to vote to withdraw the article 50 notification to enable this "People's Vote" to take place.  Anybody, anybody, think McDonnell and Corbyn would be up for that? Me neither, So you don't even have to start on ruling out the DUP joining it's ranks. Never mind the SNP, worried about the precedent set about a "Leave" vote in a different context.

Once there is a deal, it is the only deal in town.

So let us also consider where that leaves our three major Parties in Parliament in turn faced with this "deal or no deal".

Firstly, the Tories. There are "no deal" Tories but they are pretty small in number. They don't include anybody still in the Government. But they equally don't include Boris either, who wants not no a no deal but a different deal. The opportunity for which, if it was ever on offer, would, after Mrs May brings home her deal, and, hypothetically, has seen it voted down, would depend on, either, being willing to withdraw the article 50 to allow more time for negotiation or resigning ourselves to crashing out and then trying to negotiate a way back in. Let's see how many are in that camp. Although to be fair they would potentially include the DUP.

Secondly, Labour. McDonnell and Corbyn clearly share Trotsky's strategy of welcoming the fall of France to the Nazis as being likely, through the misery resulting, to usher in "socialism" by popular insurrection. It's a view, but not a view shared by the overwhelming majority of the PLP who get what a no deal Brexit would mean for working people. Now, some will remain  fanatical in their pursuit of overturning the June 2016 vote but, by the time of any Commons division in December the majority will appreciate that this  is never happening and that, by that point,  virtually any deal is better than no deal. And vote accordingly.

And then finally the SNP. A chaotic Brexit would undoubtedly serve their cause. But not if they had trooped in to vote for it alongside Jacob Rees-Mogg.

So a deal, any deal, will almost certainly pass the Commons.

And then?

Well, first, Mrs May will be seen to have extricated the Nation from a mess of our own making. And, no matter how unfairly, reap her reward.  I might be wrong but if the Tories are not ten points ahead in the week after a deal passes the Commons I'd be genuinely surprised.

Second, Magic Grandad, on that same spread, will shortly have to appreciate the Unions having had enough of his ineffective sanctimony . And that it might be better if he returned to his previous occupations of digging his allotment while hating Jews.

Third. The justification for a second independence referendum before 2021 will be gone. 

So, a deal changes everything. Assuming, of course, that there is a deal.

Monday 24 September 2018

Things that don't matter

I've kind of stopped the blogging.

Fair enough, for the last six weeks my life has been dominated by my holiday, three weeks in the Province of Ragusa in Sicily, wonderful, but which required two weeks of slog to clear my desk before I went and then a further week of slog to catch up on my return.

But that is not the only reason I have kind of lost interest in "the blogging". Politics is increasingly fixated on things that don't matter.

Take, firstly, the minor stushie this week when Corbyn refused to unequivocally rule out a UK Labour Government allowing a second Independence Referendum. Let's consider, just for a moment the accepted chronology here. The SNP might (big might) request "Section 30" permission to hold a second Independence Referendum before the 2021 Scottish Parliament election. But if they do then the decision on whether to allow it will be taken by a UK Tory Government. Labour's view will be irrelevant. If (big if) the SNP win the 2021 Scottish Parliament election with a clear manifesto commitment to a second referendum then that will be a big decision for the UK Government of the time but that still won't be us for at least a year. If they don't win (or don't have a clear commitment in their manifesto), then the issue goes away. The only circumstance in which the position of the Labour Party is important is if the SNP gain a clear mandate in May 2021 and the Tory Government denies them the power. Then, potentially, in the Autumn of 2021 the position of the Labour Party on this matter might be important. It is utterly irrelevant in the Autumn of 2018.

And the same goes for a "People's vote", that is a second referendum on the UK leaving the UK. How is this objective to be achieved? A referendum requires an Act of Parliament and an Act of Parliament requires Parliamentary time. Suppose even a Macedonian Commons majority, involving most Labour MPs, a minority of europhile Tories, miscellaneous Nationalists prepared to forget about other referendums (to be honest, at this point I'm given over to the absurdity of the idea but suppose anyway), what is the process? Who introduces this proposed Act as a Bill? How does it get Parliamentary time against Government opposition?  What would be the proposition put?  Most importantly, when would this vote take place given that Brexit is just over six months away and we won't know the terms of a deal (or indeed the acceptance of giving up on any deal) any sooner than November? It is shooting at the moon. Things will be resolved in the Commons and it seems pretty obvious will hinge on whether sufficient Labour MPs conclude that whatever deal  Mrs May gets is still better than a no deal and are thus prepared to back it, no matter what the position of our front bench.

Because, there will not in any circumstance be an election. The Tories have the benefit of a five year mandate. There is no way the DUP would oppose them in a confidence vote which might lead to Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister and there is no way that the Tories would volunteer to face the electorate at a time of maximum internal disarray, not least because, even if they won, it is difficult to see how that would improve things for them. Mrs May's problem is not a rampant external opposition, it is an irreconcilable internal opposition, to be fair, on both her eurosceptic and europhile flanks. How would a General Election at which Jacob Rees-Mogg and his ilk and Anna Soubry and her ilk would each remain Tory candidates progress anything?

And there is not going to be a new Party either, at least just now.  It would be fair to say that few Party members are more disgruntled with the current leadership than me. To be in a situation where the Leader can be described as a vile anti-Semite and can't sue his accusers because he would lose is an absurd one to believe to be sustainable. But it is where we (currently) are. Nonetheless when people challenge me to leave I ask them two things. Who is leaving with me and what is our position in respect of those mainstream Labour figures who won't leave? I want Pam Duncan-Glancy, Kate Watson and numerous others to become Labour MPs. I would like Anas Sarwar, Jackie Baillie, and numerous others to be in the Scottish Government. I would like Frank McAveety to be back leading Glasgow City Council. Accuse any of them of being an anti-Semite and you'd need to have very deep pockets indeed to pay the damages involved. And that's the position of tens of thousands of Party members who were in the Party before a Corbyn leadership and will still be there when his new recruits have departed back to the political fringes, or, in some cases, back under the vile racist stones, from which they emerged. And in the end the Party will come to its senses. Even genuine Corbynites will get fed up losing; those, even well to the left of me, who entered politics to make a difference will conclude you don't do that from permanent opposition and the Unions will get fed up wasting their money. It might take ten years, last time it took seventeen, but in time it will happen. My own impression possibly as soon as the next leadership contest, which might be sooner than people think.

And finally, there is not going to be another Independence Referendum before 2021. This has got nothing to do with the current internal considerations within the SNP. It is because Westminster, where the constitutional authority undoubtedly lies,  has said no and those more sensible heads in the SNP realise that the lessons of Catalonia are that "do it yourself" options have nasty consequences with no great achievement to show at the end of it.  Now, in 2020, there will be a big decision for the SNP on what to say in their 2021 Manifesto. But by then Ruth's wean will be two and we'll be in a different world. Where we'll be discussing whether, if Labour is third, which way we should jump. I may have a view at the time. But not so much in September 2018.

And so, that's why I've not been blogging. Because, in reality, there is nothing to blog about.

Unless you want to hear how brilliant are the Baroque Churches in the Province of Ragusa.

Sunday 5 August 2018

What's Corbyn up to?

At the end of the Second World War, there was a massive displacement of peoples. Millions of Germans were displaced from East to West but so were millions of Poles, hundreds of thousands of Hungarians and, in lesser numbers, minority populations from across the former Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. There was then, in the War's aftermath, further displacement of millions as the old overseas empires broke up, most notoriously during Indian Partition.  And then, of course there were the Jews.

Each in time settled elsewhere, a good number of the Jews in the USA but the vast majority in Israel.

And, be in no doubt, that displaced other people. Golda Meir's famous slogan "A land without people, for a people without a land" had one significant drawback. It wasn't true.

During the establishment of the State of Israel, some 800,000 Palestinians left the territory Israel initially encompassed, most of them with little choice in the matter.

And, yes, not long after 1948 a similar number of Jews left Arab countries to move to Israel, many of them also far from voluntarily.

The point however is not "whataboutery". It is this. All of this was a very long time ago. And pretty much everywhere else the world has moved on.

Sure, the initial post war platform of Angela Merkel's CDU might have included the "right of return" of Germans to Pomerania and Silesia but it hasn't been their policy for more than fifty years; certainly there might have been a small terrorist war in the Alto Adige/Sud Tirol in the 1970s with reunification with Austria its objective; perhaps the wilder fringes of Hungarian politics might, even now, seek the recovery of Transylvania but essentially it is accepted that people should now have the right to live where they ended up after the tides of war receded. And equally accepted that they don't have the arbitrary right to live elsewhere. Pakistan and India might have continuing border disputes but neither suggests the right of their current citizens to "go back where they came from". That would not be a recipe for peace, it would be a recipe for war.

So, this seems to be accepted in every part of the world. Except one.

 Refugees come under the jurisdiction of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which defines refugees as those forcibly displaced from their place of birth. Palestinian "refugees" however, uniquely come under the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestine, which defines these refugees, I repeat uniquely, as not only those in the former category (few and far between since they'd need to be at least 70) but also their decedents in perpetuity. The reasons for that have little to do with Israel and everything to do with letting the wider Arab world off the hook.

And this is where support for a fair deal for the Palestinians has to meet the hard reality of what a fair deal would involve.

It certainly involves the right to their own state on (broadly) the pre 1967 borders. And, unless otherwise agreed,  the withdrawal of all Israeli West Bank settlements. It also involves some sort of dual jurisdiction in Jerusalem. But it can't possibly involve the "right of return" to a Country in which the vast majority of those asserting this "right to return" have never as much as set foot. For that, in reality, involves the end of Israel as a Jewish state and the consequent displacement of Israelis who have never lived anywhere else.

Now this is where the the Arab/Israeli conflict slips into our own politics. If you are arguing for the Poles to accept the right of the Germans to return to Pomerania: the Romanians to accept the right of the Hungarians to return to Transylvania; the Pakistanis to accept that right for Hindus; or indeed (much more recently) the Croats for Serbs, then your demands would be consistent. But I know of no-one who is making that argument. If however you have chosen to single out one particular small Country for this particular obligation, then you have to ask yourself why.

And here I might surprise you. I don't think it is necessarily as simple as crude and overt anti-Semitism. It is because you are attracted to permanent lost causes. Because causes which are not lost involve inevitable compromise in their solution. And you would then be "tarnished" by accepting that compromise. As, for some on the respective extremes, peace in Northern Ireland "tarnished" those prepared to live with it. As peace with Israel "tarnished" Sadat and possible peace with Palestine "tarnished"  Rabin. As, but for the unique figure of the great hearted Mandela, the end of Apartheid always threatened to "tarnish" the ANC.

And also because "success" might show the heroes of your cause to have feet of clay. As, regrettably.  has been the case all too often in Latin America.

Take Gaza. Once the Israelis withdrew, it could have modelled itself into what a wider Palestinian state might have become. A democracy (at least of sorts) able to call in economic support by morally blackmailing the rest of the world. Proof that, in one small part at least, a two state solution was a viable end game. But then of course it might instead have collapsed into the sort of corrupt, theocratic or authoritarian regime that exists (sometimes in a combination of more than one feature) in much of the rest of the middle east. So how much more convenient that there was to be no such attempt? That the chief "achievement" of Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was to allow a place where rockets would be launched randomly into Israel and border protests organised for little more purpose than hoping (and regrettably often succeeding) in provoking Israeli over reaction. No compromise but no sell out either. No tarnish. Just the excuse for continued grievance. Applauded from afar by those with little politics than continual grievance themselves. No matter what needless misery that might entail for those more directly involved.

So, is Corbyn an anti-Semite or just someone perpetually attached to hopeless causes? Probably a bit of both. In support of the former conclusion, he could for example have promoted the equally hopeless cause of the Kurds. Or the Burmese Muslims. But he has notably not done so. My principal problem however is that, under Corbyn, Labour itself has become a hopeless cause and I increasingly wonder if that is not his hope but his objective.

He's not so stupid as not to appreciate that failure to enjoy any meaningful poll lead in current circumstance bodes disaster when the Tories get their act together, as, inevitably, they will. And he must realise that the determination of some of his allies, at least, to provoke a formal split would be a lunacy that might finish off the Labour Party itself.  He surely realises that the current anti-Semitism problem is not one of his opponents' making but rather one of his own. And that, whatever its rights and wrongs, it is electorally toxic and can only be resolved by his compromise.

But perhaps he genuinely doesn't care? Had we won on the 2017 Manifesto, we  couldn't possibly have delivered on the public spending and public sector wish list that underpinned it. Compromise (and disappointed outrage) in government would have been inevitable. Never mind that, we'd have needed to sort out Brexit. Tarnish would have been inevitable. So perhaps he actually wanted to lose? Perhaps he actually wants to lose again.

For, of course, there is no need to compromise from the position of permanent opposition. You will never be tarnished.

Sunday 3 June 2018

In praise of a happy ending

As those who follow me on twitter will know, I was a great Partisan of Susan Calman on Strictly. She went much further than anybody predicted and brought joy to a nation as she did so.

Anyway, when she got to Blackpool a galaxy of literary stars were rounded up in her support and photographed among them was the author Jenny Colgan.

It was, I confess, for that reason alone, having exhausted a Sunday newspaper some weeks later that I was drawn to an interview with Ms. Colgan. In that she commented that her real breakthrough novel was a book entiled "Meet me at the Cup-cake Cafe" about a woman who seizes the "opportunity" of redundancy to open a cafe where she bakes and sells her own cakes and, after various trials and tribulations, finds true love.

Andi is a mug for such tales and I thought it would make her a good Christmas present. Unfortunately it was unavailable in the late night garage on Christmas Eve, so Andi had instead to make do with a bunch of flowers and a puncture repair kit. And a bag of logs as a stocking filler. I told her it was the thought that counts. I'm not entirely sure she believed me.

Anyway, it turned out I'd have been wasting my money for, a couple of Sundays back, at the start of the good weather, I was sitting in the garden and had truly done the papers to death, so decided I would read a book. Only problem was that Andi's boy was back from Uni and in occupation of the spare room where my books are all kept.

But Andi's books are in a bookcase in the hall! So I had a rummage there and, eccola, there was the very legendary volume. And, on the principle of any port in a storm, I decided to give it a wee read.

And I loved it. Now, to be clear, even if you had known nothing about the book in advance, it would have been clear to you very early on that it would not end with the heroine dying of consumption penniless in a garret, or seeing all her children slain in a pitiless religious war, or even being sold as a wife at a fair.

No, from about five pages in, you knew this would be a book with a happy ending. The pleasure was just in seeing how it got there.

You see, people like a happy ending. That's why they had to have one final episode of Car Share. It couldn't, just couldn't, have ended as it did last year. The public wouldn't have stood for it! And if there is a man in the entire Country who knows what the public want, it is surely Peter Kay.

Now, you'll wonder where all this fits in to a political blog. Here's where. Really successful political projects promise a happy ending. Whether it was Attlee offering a new Jerusalem or McMillan you never having had it so good, or Blair, not so much New Labour as a New Britain or (even) Thatcher proposing a return to a more ordered way of life, all of these platforms were built on optimism about not just the country but the fate of its individual citizens.

Today, nobody is offering that. The Brexit riven Tories offer a future offering nothing certain except uncertainty; my own Party offer"struggle" (possibly mainly with each other) and, the SNP,  post Growth Commission, a country where Enver Hoxha's famous exhortation "This year will be tougher than last year, but next year will be tougher still", looks like it would replace Nemo me impune lacessit as the National motto.

Now, that's not to say optimism can be an end in itself. No matter how illusorily, Salmond, Tsipras, Trump and now the even more ludicrous Di Maio in Italy offer optimism without rationalisation. But there is no point in denying that they attracted or attract many to their banners for that reason alone.

And that is part of the problem. If the democratic centre fails to offer real hope then their ground is occupied by those offering false hope.

Ruth Davidson got this a few weeks back when she made a speech exhorting the Tories to, essentially, cheer up. Her problem is that, beyond the continued survival of the hapless Corbyn and his poisonous allies, they really don't have very much to be cheery about.

But, if someone, anyone, could come along offering real hope of a happy ending? The nation would be theirs. Without even a cup cake or a Gary Barlow song to assist.

Sunday 27 May 2018


So, we finally have the report of the SNP Growth Commission.

Supposedly this was to set out the economic argument for Scottish Independence. Its publication has been much delayed and it was eventually virtually sneaked out on the Friday of a long Bank Holiday weekend. Having had a look at it, the reason for reticence is clear. Even honest Nationalists have ultimately to concede that there really isn't an economic case for Scottish Independence.

Nobody is saying it is impossible but then nobody on my side ever said it was impossible. We simply pointed out that it would involve a significant degree of economic hardship with no guarantee at all of ever even getting back, economically, to where we started. And, here, almost four years after we were attempted to be sold the "land of milk and honey" nonsense of the 2014 White Paper, it turns out that is confirmed by a document produced by the SNP themselves.

But others have made that point elsewhere so there is no point in me labouring (sic) it. Rather I want to look at what I think is to be welcomed in the document; the recognition that to date, and by that I mean not just under SNP administrations since 2007 but under the Labour/Lib Dem ones that preceded these, not nearly enough effort has been made under the devolved settlement to promote economic growth.

The Growth Commission rightly points out the asymmetrical nature of the British economy. We regularly deploy Scotland's fiscal deficit as an argument against independence without recognising that every one of the small nations in our Union has a per capita deficit at least as large as Scotland, as indeed has every region of England outwith London and the South East. And that is not as it should be. Indeed, as Andrew Wilson points out, it is not as it is in virtually any other Country in the developed world.

But this is something that Devolution was meant to do something about and yet it hasn't at all. In truth it has hardly tried.

It was not always thus. Scotland, at least urban Scotland, profited as much from the British Empire as did England and Wales, as indeed did we mutually partake in the benefits of the industrial revolution. Certainly, I share the criticism of late Thatcherism/Majorism and then New Labour that they were far too content for growth to be largely generated in the area of finance capital but when that tendency started the one part of the UK outside London that had its own indigenous financial sector was Scotland. Far from riding that wave, since 1999 we have actually seen a relative decline. And that despite technological advance which has effectively removed the geographic advantage of "being in the room".

And while we continued to bewail the lost of heavy industry that is never going to return, what has the Scottish Government done to support diversification? I am all for wind turbines but the capacity to manufacture them in Scotland falls far behind demand, never mind opportunity. And as for much of our food and drink industry, it survives (and prospers) against a barely concealed climate of hostility to its often "red in tooth and claw" (and foreign owned to boot!) capitalist model.

Then we have our new industries, bioscience, computer gaming (which currently astonishingly employs directly more than 20,000 people), distance learned vocational education? What Government help or support do they get? Do they even get asked how the Government might help?

And what could be done in many cases is bleeding obvious. Better links between colleges and industries; better basic education at school level. Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. A Scottish Investment Bank, certainly, but one working alongside private capital rather than giving money to hopeless projects already turned down by those with a nose for business.

Andrew Wilson gets this but he is not alone. Richard Leonard arrived in Holyrood only in 2016 but long before he aspired to the leadership he was the driving force behind the publication of Scottish Labour's new Industrial Strategy, sourced largely from experience he had gained working for one of the few Trade Unions with a significant residual private sector membership. Next week, Ruth Davidson will make a long trailed speech setting out her own ideas in this area. And the Growth Commission is an important contribution to this debate as well.

Andrew Wilson is widely regarded as one of the most thoughtful of Scottish nationalists but his wiser colleagues might ponder his hidden message. Independence would be very painful indeed if the UK Fiscal transfer was removed overnight, probably so painful that a majority will never vote for it. But if the need for that transfer was reduced or even eliminated? Well, that would be a very different proposition indeed. And the key to that is not more flags or more marches. It is more growth.

Monday 7 May 2018


There was a demonstration on Saturday. Depending on who you listen to it was attended by somewhere between 10,000 and 90,000 nationalists. On any view a lot of nationalists. Having declined to put a single leadership figure on the platform for the rally which followed, towards the end of the event, the First Minister panicked and, believing the attendance to be nearer the latter than the former figure, sent, as a tweet, a single thumbs up.

And, do you know what, I really wasn't interested.

There is not going to be a second independence referendum any time soon. The constitutional position is clear, It requires the agreement of the UK Government and the UK Government isn't going to agree.

So, any attempt at such a vote will come to grief in the Supreme Court . And any attempt to defy the Supreme Court has a ready example of the former Catalan Education Minister fighting for her liberty in a different country a thousand miles away. Whilst in the meantime Catalan education policy is being run from Madrid. And nobody, even in Catalonia, seems to be that bothered about it.

But anyway, the whole, All behind a Fascist Banner event was just so much yesterday's politics. In reality, the only game in town, for the moment, is Brexit.

And the key players in that are the two brexiteers, Corbyn and Rees-Mogg.

To get a sensible deal, The Prime Minister needs a Commons majority and both are determined to deny her that. The second at least because he genuinely believes in the long term benefit of a year zero approach.

The motivation of the former however is more difficult to work out. Sure, he is no Europhile but I suspect it is also because he is, frankly, not very bright.

He simply hasn't worked out that there are no conceivable circumstances in which failure to get a Brexit deal would bring down the Government. That is because of the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. There are, from time to time, demands, from one or other of side of the great Tory European schism, for votes on the Brexit legislation to made "confidence votes". But this is the constitutional politics of a different age. If May was to lose a vote on a critical part of this legislation, the Government would not fall. She could toddle along to the Palace the next day and ask the Queen for a dissolution but that would be refused. Because the only circumstance in which a UK General Election would take place before June 2022 is if either the House of Commons passed a vote expressly declaring it had no confidence in the current Government (not incidentally to something else but in these specific terms) or if a two thirds majority voted for an early election. (As happened last year).

Now, are either of these things likely, even conceivable, particularly after the Tory experience last year? Are there really any circumstances in which the Tories would take even the remote risk of Corbyn becoming Prime Minister? Or at best of the Commons arithmetic potentially becoming even more chaotic? The answer to that is no. And that's the calculation of the 60 or so hard core eurosceptics in the Tory ranks. They think they can vote down any attempt by May to reach a compromise in the knowledge that "their" Government would survive and indeed a chaotic, no deal, Brexit be the outcome resulting. Precisely their desired outcome.

And, unless something changes, they are not wrong.

So, something has to change. And the change has to be on our side.

Britain joined the EU by virtue of the European Communities Act 1972. But the then Prime Minister, Ted Heath, did not have a Commons majority within his own Party for that legislation. It passed because 69 Labour MPs, including John Smith, defied an opportunist Labour leadership of a different political stripe to get the Bill through.

On continued membership of the Customs Union, at least, Labour back-benchers should, in the national interest, to be willing to offer the Government support. As should the Lib Dems. The detail would need negotiating but surely one of the pro European Tories could be recruited to that role. And if, in its aftermath, Rees-Mogg and his crew want to go through the division lobbies with John McDonnell and Diane Abbott to bring down their own Government? I'd believe that when I saw it.

Time the tail stopped wagging the dog.

And time we, on our side, stopped thinking politics is a game.

Sunday 1 April 2018

La Primavera

About twenty years ago, Maureen and I decided we would go to Puglia, in the heel of Italy, for a week's Easter holiday.

The weather at home had been foul and we had both been working exceptionally hard without a break since Christmas, so by the time the holiday arrived we were more than ready for it.

There  was only one problem. It depended on a flight from Stansted to Bari early on the first Saturday of Holy Week and there was no way, that morning, to get from Scotland to Stansted in time. Indeed, since this was the first day of the holidays, there wasn't even a flight the evening before.

So we had no alternative but to drive through the night.

On my last working day everything that could go wrong went wrong and by the time I arrived home about seven o'clock my stress levels were already off the scale, never mind that in but a couple of hours I was faced with an at least six hour drive South.

But needs must and with the assistance of copious amounts of coffee, at about ten, we set off.

The rain was falling in Biblical quantities and the radio informed us this was unlikely to abate. By the time we were on the A66 and had had just about our fill of Whispering Bob Harris on Radio 2, the news bulletins were conveying police advice not to travel unless your journey was essential. But of course our journey was essential. So we pressed on.

Somewhere near Sheffield matters had got so bad that the motorway was closed by flooding and we were sent off in an interminable diversion, during which, for the first time, the thought arose that we might not get to the airport on time. Back on the A1, making the best time we could, that thought became increasingly a fear.

Still we went on. For some reason, possibly folk memory of its most famous citizen, Grantham seemed to be signposted for hours without ever getting noticeably nearer. And then, even when it passed our eventual destination seemed just as far away as ever.

All intention of stopping for a break had long been abandoned. Rain from the heavens fell torrentially but by this time was a minor irritation compared to spray and worse from the road. The "do not travel" radio warnings became ever more imperative.

We made it with less than an hour to spare. Parked the car and made the terminal, pausing only to get personally soaked to the skin in the process.

Exhausted was an inadequate word for our condition but we nonetheless boarded the plane.

Three hours later we were in the mezzogiorno.

It was still early Spring and relatively early morning at that, so the temperature was not yet the baking heat of high Summer but there was not a cloud in the sky and the Sun was shining in its full glory.

Bari Airport is to the north of the city so you initially travel south on a superstrada that takes you through the suburbs, albeit lined on both sides with Bouganville already in flower. Once you leave that urban sprawl however the road bends towards the coast and suddenly it rises and turns and you see the crystal clear blue of the Adriatic for the first time.

It was, quite literally, like a shot to the heart.

We carried on to Monopoli, where we had been before, and where we planned to lunch.

It was still to early for that so we parked and "took" a cafe and then wandered the streets of the old town.

Monopoli is a quite beautiful place, even in some of its modern parts, where it boasts a Scuola Materna dedicated to the great Anita Garibaldi, who died beside her husband while fleeing fallen Rome for surviving Venice after the failure of the rebellion of 1848. But the old town is yet more special. A Romanesque Church (what else!) a beautiful port with a small sandy beach and lanes and by ways leading everywhere and nowhere. All with the sun getting ever warmer and the sky ever clearer.

By now it was lunchtime.

We had intended to eat in the Trattoria Pierino l'Inglese  where we had eaten, exceptionally well, on our previous visit to the town (Not being Nationalists, we had no objection to its antecedents). But it was full!  And thus we fell upon the Trattoria del Porto.

One street back from the Port, it had an arched ceiling that marked it out as a one time wine cellar. It was busy but not to the degree that a table could not be found. Wine, water and bread appeared alongside the menu which we studied indecisively until the padrone appeared to take our order. "I would recommend the antipasto" was his counsel. So we agreed , together with a basic pasta dish to follow. Never has advice been so wisely accepted.

What followed was simply exceptional, Not just insalata di mare, which is kind of what we expected, but dish after dish after dish. Mussels in brodo certainly but also baked, unscraped of seaweed, in the oven. Polpo. Carpaccio di Pesce Spada! (cured raw Swordfish). Prawns, grilled and fresh. A flan, also with seafood. Sea urchins, sliced in half and to be scooped out raw. Calamari, both deep fried in batter and grilled. It just kept coming.

And as it did you slowly realised something. This was not "just" an antipasto, it was a Mezze. The Greek tradition of ever more and more small dishes until the guest cries enough.

And its origin? Well, you see, today, Puglia might be a part of Italy but before that it was part of "Magna Graecia", Greater Greece. I say before but in fact it was two thousand years before. Nonetheless, here, in the Trattoria del Porto, that folk memory had survived.

We struggled, if I'm being honest, to finish the traditional pasta dish which followed. And speedily declined the offer of a "secondo" of grilled fish. But we did have a sweet. Panna cotta. (My friends will know that if there is Panna cotta, then I will have Panna cotta).

But then something strange happened. Something I remember as much as the meal itself. I started to cry. And I couldn't stop. The Padrone noticed and, having been reassured it was not the fault of his food, inquired (of Maureen, in Italian) if I might perhaps have had a recent bereavement. I hadn't. And I wasn't crying tears of grief. I was crying tears of joy.

For Spring had come in one day.

Happy Easter.

Thursday 22 March 2018


Although it might be a surprise to some of the newer members of my Party, in a democracy the purpose of political Parties is to win elections.

At the first by-election in which I was heavily involved, Glasgow Garscadden 1978, I encountered for the first time, the wonders of what was known as the "Reading System" so called because it had first been developed by Reading Constituency Labour Party to win that very seat at the 1945 General Election.

Now, the Reading system, primitive as it now appears, was all about data. As activists of all colours will know, contrary to the impression perhaps of the general public, canvassing on the doorstep or in more modern times over the phone, is not intended to persuade people to vote for you. No, it is intended to find out how these people are already intending to vote and then to make use of that information to best advantage. Back in 1978 that was essentially in one way, by maximising the chances of getting your voters to the actual polling stations on the due day. And that was where the Reading system came into its own.

For canvas results were collated and then marked up onto many layered street by street duplicate pads (known as Mikardo sheets in honour of our 1945 candidate) which by polling day morning had been pinned or stuck to pasting tables in the committee rooms. "Numbertakers" were then dispatched to the polling stations with the sole purpose of asking for the polling card numbers or names of those voting and that information then conveyed back to the committee rooms where the names of those Labour voters "already voted" could be scored off the sheets.

So, when the knock up teams went out to remind people to vote and/or assist them to the polls these voters could be by-passed, making maximum use of limited personnel resources. The knock up teams could also feed back voters who, on the doorstep, claimed to have voted unrecorded at the polling station, again refining the targets for a "second knock up" (and making sure you weren't annoying people by repeatedly knocking their door).

It was very homespun technology but for its time it was state of the art. So much so that the Tories quickly realised that imitation was the best form of flattery and developed a pretty similar system of their own.

For the best use of the technology of the time, whether to "Get out the vote" or persuade the public in a particular direction has always been used by political parties.

I give but a few brief examples. The first, targeted mail. The masters of this seem to me initially to have been the Liberals. Traditional canvassing created data not just about which people were voting for your own Party but also about their voting intention if they were not. This latter information was of limited use to the two big Parties but it provided an opportunity for the one in the middle. In a "safe" Tory seat, where the Libs were second, knowing the identity of intended Labour voters could be used to turn base metal data into gold. These voters could be targeted with the message "only the Libs (Lib/Dems) can beat the Tories here", initially with little more than one of their famous/infamous "Bar chart" leaflets but as the coming computer age allowed, increasingly with personally addressed and delivered communications. To be fair, the Libs were ecumenical in this, in that they applied exactly the same technique to Tory voters in "safe" Labour seats.

Next, advertising. Political Parties had used advertising agencies to limited degree since the 1950s but in 1979, with the engagement of Saatchi & Saatchi, the Tories took this to a completely new level. Their "Labour isn't working" posters scar my memory to this day but the passage of time lets me realise that my annoyance with them was based entirely on their undoubted effectiveness.

Then, the use of the Party Political Broadcast. "Forever" these had been little more than talking heads, talking up the merits of the producing Party and in passing the iniquitousness of their opponents. In 1987, Labour changed the game with "Kinnock: The Movie", boasting state of the art cinematography, directed by a top Holywood director, talking about our candidate for Prime Minister as something more than a politician and, for a few days at least, transforming what appeared like a foregone conclusion into a real contest.

But what, including the Reading system, do these four examples have in common? Their opponents,  at the time, thought them "unfair".

I'm sure, were he still in the land of the living, the Tory agent in Reading would complain that interfering with the inclination of the voter to vote, or not to vote, at their discretion, was "not cricket". Although both Labour and Tory modern digital equivalents, Contact Creator and VoteSource respectively are both truly grandchildren of Reading.

I am certain that both big Parties thought the Libs Bar charts misleading, or at least not in keeping with the spirit of a first past the post Electoral system. Indeed we still do, although both of us now use targeted mail in a far more sophisticated manner than its pioneers ever envisaged.

I am equally certain that Labour's advertising strategy, after the disastrous first try of 1983's "Think Positive, Act Positive, Vote Labour", is now based on our advertisers being better than their advertisers. Rather than that professional advertising expertise is per se a bad thing. (As was undoubtedly our 1979 response, for I was there).

And finally, the Tories rejoinder to "Kinnock: The Movie"? Ultimately it was the equally effective "John Major: Brixton boy", five years later. Scratch equally effective, for they won. Handing me the most miserable night of my political life.

So, to Cambridge Analytica.

Is this not just history repeating itself?

Obama for America was a joyous thing but its very progenitors would concede the importance of the then relatively early impact of social media in making it so. In every State, across every demographic group, streamed coverage of those wonderful early speeches were used to give rise to any number of "........... for Obama" online communities to get activists engaged for what was then, still, largely on the (terrestial) ground activity. By re-election day in 2012, the same team were boasting of their intention to fight the most micro data campaign ever. Which they then did. Online data was now king and people who understood data were overwhelmingly young and edgy and.....lefty. So the future was ours.

And less than a year ago, the surprise outcome of the UK General Election was ascribed specifically to the by passing of the "main stream media" to deliver a (literally) revolutionary message online, entirely unseen until the polls closed. Although we shouldn't lose sight that we still lost.

But that was all fair because "we" did it. When however precisely the same techniques were employed by our bitterest opponents, Trump and Leave UK, well, obviously, that must have been "unfair" in some way.

Except was it? I have struggled, in the wall of coverage, to find any actual accusation of specific illegality, as opposed to exploitation of inadequate regulation.  There are lots of implications of links to "fake news" but no actual evidence of it. The one really dodgy thing, the suggestions of "honey traps" and blackmail, is the one aspect of the whole thing that has no link to the internet at all, and is hardly news to anybody who has seen the Godfather Part 2. Which is where I suspect the big talking Mr Nix got his inspiration. Mainly the coverage consists of a complaint that no properly informed people could possibly have voted for Trump or Brexit so "something" must be up.

But maybe what was up was people rejecting the status quo. The failure of a metropolitan middle class elite (me included) to appreciate that "the system" had failed too many people who felt it was due a kicking for that failure. An earlier failure to defend what we saw as that system's self evident merits against an encroaching tide of "nothing could be worse" fuelled by little more than ignorance.

And if our opponents found a tool, within the rules, to refine and target and give voice to that rejectionist sentiment?

Labour did not win Reading in 1945 just because of our superior get out the vote strategy any more than the Tories won in 1979 just because of their superior advertising. Each victory actually depended on seizing the tide of history.

Maybe my team should stop getting madder and madder amongst ourselves about contests lost and instead start to think how we might, in future contests, get even. 

To accept that our losses were not down to the illegality of our opponents tactics as to, for the moment, the inadequacy of our own.

To start, once again, to catch the tide of history.

Friday 2 March 2018

Not what it appears

As you may have noticed, there has been quite a lot of snow.

As a result I've been unable to get to my work but it has given me the opportunity to write a blog about a matter of some considerable importance as a reminder that one should never take anything done by the SNP at face value. No matter what they claim to be upto they in reality are only ever up to one thing. Trying to advance the cause of independence.

As you may also have noticed, a year past in June we had a referendum in which the Country voted to leave the European Union. I'm not commenting here on the merits of that decision, my views on it are well known, but rather on its legal consequence.

Currently, Scotland has four sources of law. I set them out in order of introduction.

1.The common law Best example being that murder is a crime without it ever have been declared to be so by any Parliament.

2. UK Statute Law and secondary legislation flowing from Statute Law. Not just in areas outwith devolved competence such as the Employment Rights Act 1996 but also in relation to matters now within devolved competence but on which the law has remained unchanged since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, such as the Family Law (Scotland) Act 1985.*

3. Scottish Statute Law and secondary legislation passed or authorised by the Holyrood Parliament.


4. European Community Law with direct applicability in the UK.

It is this last which so infuriates (some of) the Brexiteers. For it can mean that we have no say (or more precisely no veto) over "our" laws.

But even Jacob Rees-Mogg does not not want EU Law to disappear overnight. He is an improbable anarchist.

Existing EU law is for the vast part both uncontroversial and necessary, setting out commercial rules and standards that would be required in any advanced democracy. So, while Brexit will provide the future opportunity to amend or even repeal these laws, no-one's interest is served by the emergence of a legal vacuum on 29th March 2019. EU Law must therefor be carried forward on that date and Westminster is proposing to do that by means of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, currently proceeding through that Parliament.

But, of course, matters are not as simple as that.

And here we must first go off on a wee legal detour.

Our devolution settlement proceeds under the Scotland Act 1998 (as subsequently amended). And ,under that Act, Holyrood, subject to certain other restrictions, the importance of which I will come to, can legislate on any matter not "reserved" to Westminster. Except that when the Scottish Parliament was created in 1999 no-one contemplated that the UK would ever (be daft enough to) leave the EU. So there was no need to "reserve" to Westminster matters on which Westminster had delegated to Strasbourg. 111 such matters it appears. Thanks to a helpful list drawn up no one less than Nicola Sturgeon herself.

Now, if you are I were so inclined, you might think that Westminster, in preference to Holyrood, legislating about the "Energy Performance of Buildings Directive" is a matter about which a woman, even a woman with grievance as her middle name, would find it difficult about which to become outraged. Particularly as (insofar as she knew about it all) she'd been quite happy to share decision making on the subject with 27 other Countries for nearly twenty years without objection. But of course this wasn't about sharing decision making with 27 Countries but with "them" (copyright Angus Brendan McNeil). "Best of all, 27/28 Countries make decisions together. Worst of all, 2 Countries do". (Apologies to Wales and Northern Ireland).

So, in summary, the position of the SNP is that these decisions should be made anywhere except at Westminster.

But they have been facilitated by the ham fisted way the UK Government has gone about this in their withdrawal Bill. Clause 11(1) of that Bill currently reads

11 Retaining EU restrictions in devolution legislation etc. 

(1) In section 29 of the Scotland Act 1998 (legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament)— 

(a) in subsection (2)(d) (no competence for Scottish Parliament to legislate incompatibly with EU law) for “with EU law” substitute “in breach of the restriction in subsection (4A)”, and

(b) after subsection (4) insert— 

“(4A) Subject to subsections (4B) and (4C), an Act of the Scottish Parliament cannot modify, or confer power by subordinate legislation to modify, retained EU law. 

(4B) Subsection (4A) does not apply so far as the modification would, immediately before exit day, have been within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. 

(4C) Subsection (4A) also does not apply so far as Her Majesty may by Order in Council provide.”

Now, just to explain, if this becomes the final version of the Bill, its effect is that although these 111 matters are not reserved to Westminster, Holyrood would be prevented from changing "inherited law" in any way, while Westminster could do so at a whim, under the principle that power devolved is still power retained.

And nobody at Holyrood is very happy about that, including, importantly, the Scottish Tories.

So, the UK Government has committed itself to re-framing  Clause 11 by House of Lords Amendments and has, behind closed doors, been discussing with Mike Russell, the Scottish Government's Brexit Minister, what changes might be made.

That's where we had got to on Tuesday when Russell suddenly announced he was bringing in his own "Continuity Bill".

Now, to say this was a surprise would be a considerable understatement. The Scottish Government/UK Government talks have not broken down. Indeed Russell has not even withdrawn from them. There is no particular urgency (a point again to which I will return), since we are not leaving the EU for at least a full year and any transitional arrangement need only be in place by then.

That notwithstanding, Russell also announced that this legislation was to be forced through Holyrood  under "Emergency Procedure" in less than a month, rather than the nine month or so it takes for an "ordinary" Government Bill to proceed to a conclusion. A timescale, you will note, which would still be concluded well before 29th March 2019.

And finally, the Bill is of, to put it mildly, dubious legal competence, since it is incompatible with current EU law and Section 29 of the current Scotland Act reads:-

"(1) An Act of the Scottish Parliament is not law so far as any provision of the Act is outwith the legslative competence of the Parliament

 (2) A provision is outside that competence so far as any of the following paragraphs apply.......

  (d) it is incompatible with any of the Convention rights or with EU law....."

(my emphasis).

Now that the Bill is incompatible with current EU Law is not disputed on any side. The view of the Lord Advocate is however that, since it expressly won't have effect until the UK leaves the EU, it can still currently proceed. Although again, why then it needs to proceed as emergency legislation is  point on which he has been strangely silent.

In any event, this argument is, as we lawyers put it "pish".

It tries to draw authority from para 130 of the Supreme Court's ruling in the (Gina) Miller case.

Presumably the Lord Advocate sailed on assuming MSPs would think that "He's the Lord Advocate, he must know what he's doing". And, to be fair, excepting Adam Tomkins, he might have a point. But he doesn't.

Here is Para 130 in full.

130. Accordingly, the devolved legislatures do not have a parallel legislative competence in relation to withdrawal from the European Union. The EU constraints are a means by which the UK Parliament and government make sure that the devolved democratic institutions do not place the United Kingdom in breach of its EU law obligations. The removal of the EU constraints on withdrawal from the EU Treaties will alter the competence of the devolved institutions unless new legislative constraints are introduced. In the absence of such new restraints, withdrawal from the EU will enhance the devolved competence. We consider the effect of the alteration of competence in our discussion of the Sewel Convention in paras 136 to 151 below. 

I have underlined the sentence on which he relies, suggesting it implies Section 29(2)(d) constraint on the Scottish Parliament will automatically expire on the day we leave the EU. This is simply nonsense. There is no precedent at all, ever, for words "disappearing" from a statute as a result of an external event but just so you are in no doubt about it, firstly, have a look at (the first two sentences of) Para132 of the same judgement and indeed refer back to the current terms of Clause 11 of the Withdrawal Bill I quote above. Which does provisionally but expressly repeal clause 29(2)(d). But only at the point the UK leaves the EU.

By the logic of the Lord Advocate's position, if the Scottish Government introduced a Bill to raise a standing army but qualified it by saying this would only come into effect once Scotland was independent, then everything would be hunky dory. Aye, right.

Anyway, enough of this because the Lord Advocate is, I suspect, a pretty isolated legal voice in this matter. As he was when he last lost unanimously in the Supreme Court.

For I must now go off on a different but important wee legal detour.

The Footway Parking and Double Parking (Scotland) Bill 2015.

In March 2015, the SNP backbencher, Sandra White, introduced a Bill at Holyrood with cross Party support to do what it said on the tin. Regulate footway parking and double parking. This was a meretricious measure particularly sought by the visually impaired. There was only one problem with it. It was beyond the (then) legal competence of the Scottish Parliament, because it proposed to legislate in the area of a reserved matter, that reserved matter being Part 1 of the Road Traffic Act 1988. (Pay attention at the back there.) Not in the opinion of some terrible anti devolution Tory, but in the opinion of the then Presiding Officer,  Tricia Marwick. Just about as "of the Purple" as any Scottish Nationalist has ever been.

Now, you may be surprised to hear this, I'm a bit of a nerd when it comes to the statutory framework of the Scottish Parliament. Yet before this episode I had believed that, to introduce a Bill to the Scottish Parliament, you needed two certificates. A statement from the introducer and a statement from the Presiding Officer. Both to the effect that the Bill was within legislative competence. Otherwise the game was a bogey.

Only you don't. The introducer must certainly make that statement but in fact the Presiding Officer must only express an opinion. If it is a negative opinion but the introducer carries on regardless "nothing" immediately can be done. That "nothing" may also become important in due course.

Anyway, Ms White's Bill went on to Committee where it was kicked about for a few months, mainly discussing how it might be amended to become competent, until it fell with the 2016 election. And by the time everybody came back, the, Westminster,  Scotland Act 2016 had made it, when re-introduced, competent.

But something quite important had happened in the meantime. It had become clear that a Bill beyond the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament could nonetheless progress. For a bit at least.

Anybody still awake?

Hopefully this will wake you up. INDYREF2!!!

Stick with me, I'm slowly getting to the point.

If you Google search "Nicola Sturgeon calls for second independence referendum" you can find a result for just about every month since May 2015, although to be fair a good number of these link only to articles written by over excitable "National" columnists.

But we forget that in March 2017, less than a year ago, she really did do so. Within days, Theresa May told her to f.... go away in respect of gaining legislative consent from Westminster. Whereupon Nicola said she was considering her next move over Easter.

Except, over Easter, the self same Theresa May called a General Election. With the Scottish result we all know. Or, possibly, if you don't know, may finally make you realise that you have stumbled into reading a blog which really isn't intended for you.

So let's go back to what Nicola's next move might have been?

Might she have introduced a Holyrood Bill for a referendum without Westminster's consent?

Well, you see, that's where Sandra White re-emerges as a significant figure. Nobody, even in the SNP, would regard Ms White as the Brain of Britain. Or even, honestly, the Brain of Scotland. Or, even more honestly still, the Brain of her own street. One doubts very much if she could have mustered a counter argument to the Presiding Officer's legal objection to her Bill. Indeed, detailed consideration of the Bill's Committee proceedings leaves you in little doubt on that matter. (The sacrifices I make on my reader's behalf).

But I quite strongly suspect that others saw the path she had inadvertently laid.

So let's assume Ms White's Bill had passed through Stage 3 and become the intended law of Scotland. What would have happened then? Well, firstly, within the next four weeks, the Secretary of State for Scotland could have referred it to the Supreme Court. Where it would have died a pretty immediate death.

But suppose the Secretary of State couldn't be bothered? Or indeed publicly  sympathised with the (now) Act's objectives and saw no reason to intervene? Well some random punter, leaving the football and finding themselves with a ticket for parking on the pavement contrary to the Act would have refused to pay. As his penalty was "beyond the competence of the Scottish Parliament". And eventually the Courts would have supported him in that. That's how the rule of law works.

But, from a political perspective, all of this would have been post legislation. And that's where I (finally you say) start to reach some conclusions.

There is a lot of internal pressure on Nicola to hold a second Independence Referendum. Those in her closest circle know the dangers of that. No polling suggests that Scotland wants such an event, let alone that the Nationalists would win it. But the SNP rank and file are a different matter. If you go back to the 111 powers I refer to above, one of them is the regulation of organ donation. Hardly a matter you or I might worry about, except to ensure it was regulated sensibly by somebody. But not so to the cybernat who intervened to suggest regulation must remain in Scotland to ensure his organs were never donated to an Englishman. And in that he spoke for a fair number of Nicola's foot soldiers.

So, Nicola is under a lot of pressure on this. So knowing how far she might get with this before being "stopped against her will" would be a matter of relief. With a trial run a bonus.

And that, in truth, is what this week has been about. Can the Scottish Government run "legislation" through all it's stages at Holyrood until it is referred, post stage 3, to the Supreme Court? And what can they get away with meantime?

So, I'm going to start with my second question.

There is no conceivable interpretation of the word "emergency" which makes providing for events thirteen months away an emergency. Except until you consider the definition of emergency in the Standing Orders of the Scottish Parliament. For in terms of these Standing Orders (9.21) anything certified by a Minister to be an emergency becomes one if it is supported by a simple majority in the Scottish Parliament. And legislation can then be passed in a day. Although even Mike Russell proposes three weeks in this case.

So, can the word "emergency" be self defined by the Scottish Government and not be subject to judicial review so long as it complies with the Standing Orders? Wouldn't that be interesting to know?

And then return to my first. Could the certification of a Bill as within legislative competence by a Minister, even in bad faith,  also not be subject to judicial review?  Wouldn't that also be interesting to know?

Particularly if an adverse consequence brought no personal liability in costs.

So, in summary, Russell's Bill is going nowhere. Not least because there will be a deal on Clause 11 in the meantime. That's not it's purpose. It's purpose is to set precedents or learn lessons on the way.

Because if you wanted to try and force through a Bill for a second Independence Referendum in a month ("as an emergency") and then risk it all, without interruption, on a single turn of pitch and toss in the Supreme Court, wouldn't it be convenient to know in advance how you might get on in that process?

That's all. Enjoy the weekend.

Saturday 20 January 2018

Decisions, decisions, decisions.

I want to  start by saying something that might surprise you. I am in favour of the decision to close Ward 15 (the Children's Ward) at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley.

And here is why.

The standard of hospital medical treatment is not, can never be, the same across the whole of the NHS. It depends on the number and qualification of the medical staff available and inevitably in busier metropolitan areas these staff are more numerous and the possibility of sub-specialism much more readily available. The larger the unit therefor the greater the level of expertise and experience available and with that the greater the prospect of expeditious and successful treatment.

Further, the quality of all medical professionals is not the same and inevitably the very best are inclined to be attracted to where they will enjoy the greatest variety of medical experience. Again creating a virtuous circle where the best treatment is inclined to be in the larger hospitals.

Further still, the constant interaction between the university based medical schools and the hospital sector makes working in a hospital near to such a university a much more attractive proposition for those providing teaching as well as treatment, as well as for those still engaged in professional development.

And finally, when it comes to the quality of life, working with more colleagues and being able to draw on their expertise is in itself a significant stress reducer. Not to mention the greater flexibility likely to be available when wanting a holiday. But, outwith work, basing yourself where you can work until 6.30 and still get to the opera or the theatre is a consideration all of its own. So if you are at the top of the profession, with skills in demand and the opportunity to make a choice then the choice is obvious.

Thus, as a general rule, medical expertise is greater and treatment likely to be superior in the cities.

At the back of our minds we all recognise that but we also recognise that in where we are treated the system makes a trade for our own convenience. If hospitalised we might, indeed often do, prefer to be treated where we can easily be visited by friends and family and readily and easily get back home when our treatment is concluded. That's why not all hospitals are in the cities, even in urban Scotland.

But of course that's not always possible. Some illnesses or conditions are sufficiently complex but relatively rare to preclude the maintenance of local expertise and to require the creation of National or regional specialist units to which, like it or lump it, the patient requires to travel.

And it is not at all unreasonable to class children sufficiently ill as to require hospitalisation as falling into that rare or complex category. Particularly as the hospital to which Paisley's juvenile patients will now be referred, The Royal Hospital for Children in Govan, Glasgow, is, frankly, no great distance from Paisley and indeed for patients from the north and east of the town, if not nearer as the crow flies then certainly quicker to get to at certain times of the day when otherwise you would require to negotiate the centre of Paisley.

And the geography is hardly unprecedented. It is eight miles from my home town, Paisley, to the hospital. My new home, Kilsyth, hardly in the middle of nowhere, is twelve miles from our nearest general hospital, Monklands, without anybody locally being noticeably outraged by that. Our nearest Lanarkshire Health Board children's ward is in Wishaw!

So why all the fuss?

Because the decision making over the RAH is indicative of something much more concerning in Scottish public life under the SNP, an unwillingness to be honest with the electorate. To be honest about difficult decisions for fear of offending.......somebody. "Rumours" about the possibility of the ward closing have been circulating for more than two years but the response of the SNP until yesterday, not just locally but in a now notorious television appearance by the First Minister herself,  has been simply to deny the very possibility. Accusing opposition politicians raising concerns of, using that all purpose nationalist response, "scaremongering".

The problem for them is that this is a strategy that eventually falls foul of time. The outrage over the closure will inevitably be much greater now than if an honest case had been made for it earlier in much the manner described above As it is going to be over a similar exercise still going on over the eventual permanent closure of the children's ward at St John's Hospital in Livingston.

But this is only indicative of a wider stasis in our devolved public services. Consider education. There is a widespread acceptance that something needs to be done but doing anything will inevitably upset somebody, I suspect indeed a good deal more somebodies than the local Paisley campaigners. So the response has been little more than the wringing of hands.

Take fracking. They could pass legislation blocking this permanently but in doing so cause significant damage to the Scottish economy possibly paving the way for the departure of our biggest single site employer. Or they could allow it, outraging their more luddite supporters and perhaps even causing discrete noises of disapproval from their not quite totally owned minor Party allies. So instead they have announced a permanent moratorium clearly in the hope that the judicial review now launched by Ineos will get them off a hook of their own creation.

Or taxation. They could stick with UK levels ("while we remain without the full levers") on a point of principle or they could raise taxes to sufficient effect as to provide meaningful additional public spending. Instead they've done neither. Bringing in negligible additional income (less than £200 million against expenditure of more than £32 billion) with tinkering aimed at little more than making us "different" from England.

Why this timidity on all these fronts and, perhaps most appallingly, on the example I conclude with?

Because the SNP are in reality two things at once. Certainly they are the government of Scotland but they are also a permanent campaign for Scottish Independence. And that latter function depends on the maintenance, indeed the expansion, of the fragile "Yes coalition" that has got them (to their mind at least) close to their ultimate goal. But the danger of alienating anybody as a supporter of the SNP is that you also offend them as a supporter of independence. And decisions of any sort inevitably offend somebody.

Yet sometimes decisions have to be made as they ultimately had to be made over the RAH children's ward. As they will ultimately have to made over education and the other examples I provide. And ignoring that inevitability only makes the ultimate climb down all the more offending.

As I said I will finish with one particularly outrageous example.

On 3rd May 2015, a man called Sheku Bayoh died while being restrained by police officers in Kirkcaldy. Now, as I said above, the Yes coalition is a wide one. It includes on one wing many who are of a naturally anti authoritarian bent with little time for the "forces of state repression" in any form. But it also extends well into the leadership of the Scottish Police Federation, who have come repeatedly to the nationalists assistance, from during the referendum when they claimed to have seen little or no evidence of nationalist thuggery, to more recent support over the handling of the leadership crisis at Police Scotland.

But the problem over the Bayoh case is that, whenever a decision is made on whether there should be prosecutions, one or other group is going to be furious, "offended". For the former can see no circumstance in which a black man might die accidentally while in police custody while the latter no circumstance in which Police officers might ever be heavy handed in dealing with any suspect (at least unless they had brought it on themselves).

So, the nationalist answer to this conundrum? Nearly three years after Mr Bayoh's death, eighteen months after a report was submitted to Crown Office, no decision has been made either way whether to prosecute or to rule out prosecutions.

Now the actual decision is of course a matter for the independent prosecution service but demanding that they make a decision is surely a matter within the remit of the Justice Minister's responsibility to protect the integrity of the system? Except of course, no decision offends nobody. And perhaps offending nobody matters more than any other consideration.

I'd only point this out as a statement of the bloody obvious. A decision of some sort will have to made sometime and that's highly unlikely to be after a "second referendum", even on the most optimistic of nationalist timetables.

Perhaps it's time for them to realise that, to paraphrase Lincoln, "You can't please all of the people, all of the time" and just get on with it. Indeed get on with deciding things more generally.