Archive for category Democracy

This wooden IKEA is how you sell reduction

Being back in Sweden for the first time in a while, I’ve been able to watch Labour’s devolution proposals unfold from afar. What struck me most is that Labour still want the Scottish parliament to have less control over taxation than Swedish regional government does. Having tried to explain it to a journalist friend inquisitive about the referendum she was amazed that they would even attempt such a damp squib (from a Swedish perspective, some of the logical inconsistences of the Holyrood settlement are painfully obvious)

Within a few days of the independence referendum Sweden will go to the polls for its municipal and general elections, with expected gains for the Green and Left parties and perhaps even the first seats in parliament for the Feminist Intitiative party. The strategy of the Social Democrats in Sweden at the moment is to do absolutely nothing and ride the wave of disenchantment with the Cameronite Alliance for Sweden with whom they actually share a great many polices.

The Swedish Social Democrats, once one of the most respected and successful progressive movements in global politics, has become an intellectual void in the same way as the British Labour Party. Unable or unwilling to act decisively, time after time it produces reforms and reports they fail to either honour its past or develop any coherent vision for its future. Anas Sarwar’s doxological addiction to ‘fairness’ would be well at home in contemporary Swedish social democracy, just as it would be in that erstwhile heavyweight the German SPD. Drifts to the right are one thing, but drifts into directionless tokenism and policy by policy compromise and point scoring are almost worse.

The upshot of this could be that come October of this year Sweden will have a progressive government of Greens, Socialists, Feminists and Social Democrats in which the biggest party lacks any purpose whatsoever. It is strangely reminiscent of what one Labour insider said before the last Holyrood election when a Green-Labour coalition briefly appeared to be a possibility: “It’d be great. You’ve got the ideas and we’d get to be back in power.’

Splitting yourself between two similar but also very different political systems is a fantastic way of exploring political alternatives. The question for both Sweden and Scotland come September will be whether their social-democratic heritage can help to positively influence the future or whether they end up rudderless and unambitious in a tokenistic race to tick the right boxes without knowing why.

Fringe benefits of independence

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 11.04.23The worst reason for voting No to independence is because you don’t like Alex Salmond, and the worst reason for voting Yes is because you don’t like David Cameron. This is a long-term decision about the future governance of Scotland, not a referendum on some here-today, gone-tomorrow politicians on either side of the campaign. However, as the Telegraph reports today (emphasis mine):

The Prime Minister is mindful too of the political peril that comes with defeat. Losing the referendum would be a terminal event for the Conservative and Unionist Party and, as Westminster now acknowledges, would require his immediate resignation. Unsurprisingly, if somewhat depressingly, some Tory MPs have begun factoring in the loss of Scotland as a way of achieving the regime change they yearn for at the top.

Let’s not leave that anti-Cameron glee to the headbangers and Europhobes. Let’s instead accept that the stakes are a little higher even than we thought. Imagine if we could achieve democratic self-governance and simultaneously leave our English/Welsh/Northern Irish friends with a legacy to be thankful for, i.e. ending the political career of the most right-wing Prime Minister in living memory.

This should be a wakeup call to the rUK left. You may not instinctively support independence, perhaps because you’ve got an unduly rosy view of the dinosaurs and timeservers (of all parties) we tend to send to Westminster, or perhaps because you don’t see how it will benefit you. But a Cameron resignation, followed by a vitriolic battle for the future of the Tory party just eight short months before a UK General Election? It’s surely time to book the buses to Scotland from Brighton and Manchester and the Rhondda. Help us to help you.

Seeing an end to Cameron’s misrule shouldn’t swing any votes in Scotland – after all, if he stayed on after a Yes vote he wouldn’t be our problem anyway. But a Yes vote certainly brings some pretty enticing fringe benefits for the left both north and south of the border.

The London model is more like us than we’d maybe wish to think.

Sitting in the foyer of the Citibank building in Canary Wharf, where the trains have no drivers and the supermarkets no checkout staff, Scotland seems a long way away. For many in the independence movement the heart of Britain’s financial industry is the antithesis of everything they want to see in a country.

                             A few miles north, in trendy Hackney (the hipster who attempted a citizen’s arrest on Tony Blair and wrote about it in the Guardian walked past me with his girlfriend) the Olympic park and its adjoining shopping centre lie on one side, on the other former warehouses converted into breweries and arts centres. A woman from the Green Party of England and Wales offers me an anti fracking leaflet and the bar is selling bottles of Schiehallion.

                             Down the road in Shoreditch there’s a festival going on of ‘Nordicana’. I don’t go – it’s 25 quid a ticket – but if I had I’d have been able to eat Scandinavian food and ask fawning questions of the stars of Borgen, The Killing and The Bridge.  We would probably have talked about how edgy the shows were and how lovely the cakes in the café are, like watching the Wire with a grab bag of American popcorn and a Budweiser.  

                             If you really want genuine though go a few miles further east still, to Upton Park at the flashpoint between what remains of East London’s white working class mixed with monied and hair-gelled Essex fringe dwellers and the vibrant South-Asian communities that have made Green Street and the area around West Ham’s stadium their own. Inside it might still be 1980 – there isn’t an Asian face to be seen and men wear long coats and caps over impressively engineered haircuts.  In front of me David James does a TV spot. Bobby Moore looks on, England is intact and unchanging. West Ham are one of the best clubs in the country. Men stand smoking in the toilets under the banks of seating, convinced of the superiority of their team like Celtic fans living in 1967. The only Bridge they worry about is the Chelsea one.

                             Then out again, the Olympic park on the horizon. It could almost be the East End of Glasgow, but instead of getting ready for the Commonwealth Games the workmen are trying to erase the Olympics and replace it with ‘regeneration’, expensive flats and transport for commuting south to Canary Wharf and west into the City. In modern Britain this is what prosperity is. Scotland wants London’s immigrants and it wants its wealth. It wants its global profile. In many ways it wants to exist as the British Isles’ other city state. It wants the finance and the business growth, the arts scene and the airport hub. It wants Nordic lifestyle but without too much hard thought given to how or why.  Are these the right things to want? For some, perhaps. If Scotland wants London without the geographical inconvenience of a flight or a train ride, but we should be careful. My company is forthright about the shortcomings. As we stand at the automated checkouts of a Sainsbury’s in Holborn packed with high-heeled young professionals shoving gourmet ready meals into expensive bags, all she wants is to move back to Glasgow, “the most beautiful city in the world.”

Thinking the unthinkable.

When The Scotsman is agitatedly reporting a poll showing moves towards a Yes vote then you know it’s time to start believing it might happen. Not in the way that belief works as a manifestation of the dreams of the independence movement, but giving plausibility to the idea that by next October Scotland may well have taken its first steps to once again becoming a sovereign state.

This is of course great news for supporters of the Yes campaign and will not cheer Better Together and the other unionist campaign groups at all. More importantly, it requires those currently opposed to independence to seriously ready themselves for the democratic changeover and for all of Holyrood’s opposition parties (including the pro-indy Greens) to come up with a plan to beat the SNP in the first post-independence elections. If the white paper was an ‘SNP manifesto’ as many people have claimed, shouldn’t the Tories, Liberals, Labour and the Greens be making up their own manifestos for the day after?

Marked out as the bright young hope of Scottish Labour, what is Anas Sarwar’s Plan B? There’ll be no more Progress think tank meetings in London and probably no Sarwar family seat either. As someone who lambasts the SNP for not focusing on the issues that matter to people, can we assume that  Anas has a long list of issues to talk about the day after? Can Scottish Labour just plot UK policy onto Scotland or will they have to come up with an entirely new political project in the space of 9 months before that final UK general election of 2015? Similarly, can the Liberal Democrats recover their traditional territory without any real policy input. What are their plans on an independent Scottish energy policy? What are the Lib Dem views on currency, immigration and the broadcast media? Come a Yes vote it could be the No parties drawing up ideas on the back of a fag packet, and in a new democracy with one party making all the running that is a dangerous place to be.

The No campaign portrayal of Alex Salmond as a tinpot dictator risks becoming a reality should they not get their act together. An SNP dominated Scotland could be a self-fulfilling prophecy in the absence of any alternative vision from opposition parties, so by refusing to embrace the notion of independence at all they are playing a very dangerous game with democracy. For everybody’s sake, we should probably hope there are a stack of brown envelopes in the locked drawers of Ruth, Johann and Willie’s desks underneath all those UKOK badges.

Academics prove nothing in the hands of spin doctors

During the autumn I was asked to join up to a campaigning group that would have assembled people working in universities with a predisposition for voting Yes in the referendum as a counterweight to the rather limp Academics Together arm of the Better Together campaign.

                             I declined for a number of reasons, including that it was evident a great many other people of more academic standing than myself had probably said no before me, but mostly because there is something deeply wrong with academics getting involved in political campaigning.  This is especially the case when you’re writing about the referendum, as I currently am, and when the respective campaigns wish to appropriate the legitimacy that comes with having academics on board without paying due attention to what those people might actually be saying.

                             Every time anything vaguely academic comes about that supports the needs of either side it is jumped upon as empirical, rational and falsifiable proof of the madness of the other team.  The truth of the matter is, you can always do more research and you have to ask the right questions. The Economics and Social Science Research Council report on inequality in an independent Scotland that was seized up by Better Together when it came out recently is a case in point. It is, by the looks of things, a well put together piece of research, but its research parameters are based on SNP policy outcomes and not on the actual policies available to an independent government. As a stick with which to beat the SNP that is all well and good, but in terms of independence as concept it does not tell us all that much. I also feel sorry for Dr David Comerford, who no sooner than he had signed off his name at the bottom of the study found his words selectively used by both The Scotsman and the Better Together press team. The report even mentioned that changes to Scottish employment law, not currently on the table in the UK, would make a difference to tax takes and general equality. From reading the newspapers and the press releases associated with the story you’d have struggled to pick out the truth. What the paper actually says is that tackling inequality in Scotland would require more radical change that what either the No Campaign or the SNP policy advocate.

                             We should, of course, be making an informed decision about the country’s constitutional future, but when ‘academic’ knowledge is propagated and appropriated by the press teams of the Yes and No campaigns it becomes contaminated by their own desire to give a rational justification to a choice the people behind the desks have already made. Moreover, these people will be particularly loyal and convinced by particular old and concrete sets of beliefs, identities and standpoints that give them a high threshold for resistant readings of the other side’s outputs. Ironically, they are also some of the worst placed in the entire country to convince the middle ground of their case because they are almost incapable of seeing the justification for their opponent’s course of action. This is why academia is such a boon for them, because it allows them to seize on what the public might see as objective truth (there’s a discussion to be had there, but that is for another day), and claim that they were indeed right all along.

                             The other side is that there are a number of academics who are ‘out’ for either camp, but because academics are people they can have all kinds of reasons for being so. A physicist worried about childcare might be tempted to vote Yes, not because it would have any bearing on the world of physics but because they cared about their child’s future.  A Perthshire-born political scientist who has written extensively about the advantages of smaller democracies might vote no because they like the idea of watching the Football League Show and have a dislike of Alex Salmond. It isn’t cut and dried, and none of us are as rational as we think, but academia is there to serve Scotland’s people and not the press-desk loyalists of the referendum HQs.

*I had originally intended to include a tweet from Better Together’s Gordon Aikman on the ESRC story, but it appears to have been deleted from his account. I’ve asked Gordon why this is.

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