Archive for category Europe

A political machine that gives change

I’m leaving Sweden, again. It feels good to be heading back to my flat in Leith, to Stereo in Glasgow and all my friends, to the Cairngorms, to Frightened Rabbit and Easter Road, CalMac ferries and Scotrail sprinter trains. I would also have put Innis and Gunn Rum Cask on the list, but the Swedish alcohol monopoly sees fit to stock the stuff to an admirable degree.

I’ve been away for a half-year now, watching the independence referendum from afar. I’ve seen TV clips of Johann Lamont declare Scotland a something-for-nothing society before finishing my breakfast and going to work with better paid colleagues at publicly funded Swedish universities. I’ve been forced to turn down Facebook invites to a succession of Nordic Horizons events at the Scottish Parliament, but then had the pleasure of seeing the ideas they promote in action every day.

I’ve heard the Better Together campaign say that modern Scotland is as good as it gets, then walked out of my front door to see a version of urban life which is in many ways better.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a Green party take its place as the third party in parliament and take on both left and right on the environment, on child poverty and on the terrible state of privatized railways. Every day on my way to the metro station I pass three different council-run nursery schools and men with pushchairs taking their paternity leave whilst their partners return to work.

I’ve been able to live cheaply in cooperatively run housing with district heating and communal facilities, so well insulated that I often don’t even need to have the radiator on.

I’ve met young Green activists who, unlike young people in Scotland and the rest of Britain, seem to have a genuine belief in their ability to change their country for the better.  I’ve hung out with girls from a design school who one day decided that all of the products they made should have zero environmental impact and then set about making it happen.

I’ve talked to writers and journalists who are all part of a vibrant cultural arena, and seen what proper funding can do for political diversity (all Swedish parliamentary parties are given money to stimulate debate and encourage youth politics, as well as to maintain a small staff).

I will be sad to leave Sweden, though it is not a country without its own problems (not least a worrying consumerism which accompanies being one of the world’s richest countries), but I come back over the North Sea with a sincere belief that a Scandinavian style approach in Scotland is not just desirable, but both possible and necessary. Britain today is not as good as it gets.

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The anatomy of a referendum, and the messy consequences of cutting off your nose to spite your face.


I am currently writing a doctoral thesis on the dyanamics and strategies of environmental debate in Sweden, a land popularly assumed to be a paragon of environmental virtue. This is a belief apparently held by the Swedes themselves, as illustrated by their somewhat smug showing in Doha where they failed to mention the motorway the size of the Channel Tunnel they are about to build in Stockholm.

A particular area of interest is the referendum on nuclear energy which took place in Sweden in 1980, following the narrow election of a Centre-led government on a wave of anti-nuclear sentiment. As I sit here in the archives of the national library of Sweden shifting through media footage the narrative presented is all too familiar – institutionalised parties unable to accept that the will of the people may be different to their own agenda, dubious claims and character assassinations and an ultimately unsatisfactory outcome. It could quite easily be Scotland in 2013.

The Swedish referendum offered three choices, each embodying a respective ethos of social utopianism (No to nuclear power), realism (Nuclear power isn’t great, but let’s keep the power stations we have so we can carry on as now), and economic necessity (If we get rid of nuclear power the economy will collapse and your children will all live in third-world poverty).

If the third one sounds particularly familiar it is because that is more or less the same ethos adopted by the BetterTogether campaign. Things might not be optimal at the moment, but imagine all the potential bad things which could happen if you chose to change the situation.

The campaign itself was not that surprising, and it was eventually won narrowly by the middle line, in part because of the phenomenal weight of the Social Democratic Party who decided that it was the desired outcome. They successfully combined their campaigning power and a successful synthesis of the Yes and No arguments to win a substantial share of the vote. A similar tactic is being taken by BetterTogether, telling people that they understand the desire for more self-governance in Scotland but that such an outcome is achievable via a No vote without the risks and uncertainty’s of independence. In both cases the campaigners possessed the luxury of not having to specify a post-referendum course of action beforehand.

And therein lies the really interesting thing. The outcome of the Swedish referendum led to the birth and subsequent growth of the Swedish Green Party, now the third biggest party in parliament, and exposed a falacy in politics – namely the idea that there is a straight ideological dichotomy between left and right. It illustrated that the interests of large social-democratic parties which aim to reflect the experiences of normal people do not always do so, and the Swedish Green Party pioneered a kind of leftist liberalism which capitalised on a lack of faith in the institutions of state, red or blue, which had passed down judgement from on high. What was disquieting for the Social Democrats was that a large number of people abandoned the party after feeling short-changed by a lack of internal debate. It illustrated a cynical failure of leadership structures and showed that the kind of campaign tactics traditionally used by the behemoths of left and right are not suitable when the topic of discussion is anything other than their bread and butter.

The SNP, whilst obviously being a political party, is a broad church which encompasses many different types of people from centre-right Celtic-tiger growthers to leftist social democrats, nominal greens and a smattering of cultural nationalists. The party exists, to all intents and purposes, to fight for a yes vote in the referendum. The big problem with the BetterTogether campaign is that none of the parties participating were set up to fight such a referendum. By aligning their political identities completely with a fairly inflexible unionism they are putting square pegs in round holes and are unable to coherently argue for unionism, in part because discussions of Scotland’s constitutional future are taboo-laden. Rather than developing arguments for a union the No campaign relies on attacking the unknowns of the Yes campaign. This is perhaps a surefire way of winning the referendum if people can be made to err on the side of mediocre caution, but in the long term it may well be to the detriment of current political allegiances.

What people conceive of as Scotland is changing rapidly, and this is something which the SNP have capitalised on. Young and fragile it may be, but there is now a distinctly Scottish political discourse which the Labour party and the Conservatives have ignored entirely. Since Scotland ceased to be a collection of local councils with a unique legal system and became a concrete polity, both civic and political life have undergone a process of conceptual transformation. The SNP are by no means the instigators, nor are they the sole beneficiaries of this change, but they have been able to much better understand how people think, rather than telling them how they think. The cleverest move pulled by the SNP has been the name change from Scottish Executive to Scottish Government. This has permeated every aspect of public life and consciousness. In a state where government is customarily used to refer to national parliaments, it was a masterstroke. There are no longer meetings between the British Government and Scottish Executive, but between the Scottish Government and the British Government. Anyone looking to be in charge must govern Scotland rather than just administrate.

This does not mean that the SNP are in any way right in all their policy, but on the issue of the referendum they have a coherent ethos, one which says that they are governing and that increased power is in the country’s best interest. The No campaign’s parties are unable to align their political program with their referendum stance.  Between Yes and No is a realm of possibility, asking for somebody to fill it with a genuine vision for the way forward which reflects the needs and desires of Scotland’s citizens. The bottom line is that Scotland will never be the same again, and even if Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom, there must be room for a less dogmatic unionism which is grounded not in the belief of what is but in a desire for what can be.

Scotland and the EU, a mess of the SNP’s own making

It is ironic that while Little Englanders search for the exit gates from the European Union in ever-increasing numbers that it is infact Scotland that is being politely asked to leave, in the event that it decides to create its own country. If only there was a ‘one out, one in’ policy that we could take advantage of. (There isn’t, or else the drachma would be back on the marketplace by now).

Intuitively, the position set out by Jose Manuel Barrosso makes sense, that new countries emerging from existing EU members would need to reapply for membership. Who is to know after all whether a smaller part of an existing member can pass the numerous hurdles to EU membership? Particularly in the current financial context?

What should be more concerning for the Yes Scotland campaign however is not so much what was said by the President of the European Commission but why it is being said.

Let’s make one thing quite clear, the European Union is a club that sets its own rules. It’s a bit like golf’s Royal & Ancient that way. We may not always get to see how the rules are made, or even understand them, but if they want to change anything about how they operate, and who they let in the door, they have the power to do so. So if enough of the 27 nations wanted Scotland to be a member immediately after independence then they could make it so, and they could speak up for that option now if they so chose.

Similarly, they could hold their tongues and keep the door closed for as long as they wanted which is, sadly, seemingly the preferred option, this side of the referendum at least. ‘Get behind Romania and Bulgaria’ is not the friendliest of calls from our supposed friends and partners at the European table, but c’est la vie.

I am sympathetic to the SNP arguments of why wouldn’t the EU want oil-, scenery-, whisky- and fish-rich Scotland as a member, but that makes it all the more concerning that the EU isn’t vocalising such an opinion.

There is gamesmanship here of course. Spain tried it rather nakedly, and not to mention cack-handedly, when they reportedly said they would veto Scotland joining the EU, quite clearly trying to dampen down support for Scottish independence with a view to dampening down the problematic Catalan nationalism within Spain’s own borders. Or possibly even just rabble-rousing from within the UK if NewsnetScotland is to be believed. Either way, one has to assume there is a similar approach from Barroso at play here, that a vested interest exists to explain why he’d rather just keep the UK as it is. After all, there is nothing to stop the head of the EU Commission embracing the idea of Scotland becoming a member of the EU post-independence, as would surely be the case whether it was sooner or later. This would be the more diplomatic, unbiased line to take, irrespective of what the rules say, and arguably more befitting a man in his position.

But no, his words suggest that he doesn’t want independence to happen in the first place despite the UK as it stands being amongst the most truculent of the EU’s members. Indeed, David Cameron’s posturing and chest beating over budgets and vetos would have suggested to me that the considerable pro-EU bloc, or at least France or Germany, might have been tempted to talk up Scottish membership of the EU in a bid to further diminish already-dwindling UK power within the club or extract a concession at the discussion table in Strasbourg.

But that is not the case. It is the SNP who are suffering from the subtle political positioning of the EU’s power brokers, and boy how they suffer.

John Swinney’s otherwise reasonable arguments regarding a negotation between the EU and Scotland over what its continued membership would look like carries more than a whiff of desperation given the timing and context, and it sits horridly awkwardly against SNP commentators like George Kerevan in the Scotsman today seeking to argue that maybe we don’t need the EU after all. A hollow argument if ever there was one given the EU has been the single most successful political alliance on this continent since, well, possibly ever.

There is something pleasing about throwing all the constitutional and international relations options up in the air and indulging ourselves in speculating as to which one we prefer. Two years out from a referendum is probably the right time to be doing that, but that process requires to be followed by a controlled landing of ideas, settling into a cohesive plan and a public consensus that our politicians can then take forward. We don’t for a moment seem to be doing anything as structured as that and, if anything, that consensus does appear to be retreating into our UK shells.

This is unfortunate, but the SNP may have already blown its chance to lead that consensus into a braver world.

Scots could be persuaded that waiting to join the EU (if Barroso isn’t bluffing) is worthwhile, what’s a couple of years in a lifetime of Scottish independence anyway, but we don’t like being treated as fools. The non-existence of legal advice on joining the European Union, so coldly and calculatingly floated by the First Minister as something we should all rely upon, has been all the more damaging given the apparent reality of being frozen out of Europe, a reality that is diametrically opposed to what this legal advice supposedly said.

Once bitten, twice shy they say, and fervour for the EU wasn’t exactly at fever pitch before this self-primed grenade blew up in Alex Salmond’s face anyway. Far from making Brussels dance to a Scottish jig, the First Minister has helped us Morris dance to a No landslide.

To understand the mortal danger that this single issue poses for independence prospects, we need only consider the following logic that is being drum-drum-drummed into us from Brussels, through the press and via the Better Together campaign:

‘An independent Scotland would have to reapply to join the EU. Joining this way involves adopting the Euro and look at the problems that that brings (Ireland, Greece). Now just imagine the problems that an independent Scotland not joining the EU would cause (border controls, trade disruption). Ergo, let’s just not cause any bother and stay as the UK, ok?’.

Game, set and match to Team No. Back to the trenches for Yes Scotland.

As only the staunchest of Europhiles would argue in favour of the Euro these days, so too would only the most devout of Nationalists attempt to deny that Yes Scotland hasn’t taken a pounding over the EU question in recent weeks.

As for the all-ímportant independence polls, well, plus ca change….

How UKIP are on course to help out the Greens…

Assuming the Conservatives were to fall short of an outright majority at the next election, which smaller party would they rather form a Government with, the Lib Dems or UKIP?

It’s an interesting question, possibly rendered redundant if one stops to consider whether the still-shell-shocked Lib Dems can afford to be shackled to the Tory party for another half-decade up to 2020. My answer to that is, probably not. They’ll do well to even be shackled to Nick Clegg for that long.

So Tory MP Michael Fabricant’s idea of some sort of electoral non-aggression pact with UKIP, whereby Nigel Farage’s party don’t stand against the Tories in key seats in return for a EU referendum, is not a totally bonkers one. That’s right, it’s only a little bit bonkers.

A smarter suggestion, or something that Farage might insist on perhaps, could be that UKIP do not stand in a wide expanse of nominal Tory seats and the Tories, in return, would not stand in Labour or Lib Dem nominal seats, allowing right of centre voters to coalesce around one candidate up and down the land. Except Scotland where barely anyone votes for either party anyway. Especially that loopy anti-EU mob, or UKIP for that matter.

Now, Cameron couldn’t be seen to be in favour of such a blatant democratic rip-off but he might arranage a small team to crunch the numbers and see if it’s worth doing anyway. After all, he must be mightily fed up with the Lib Dems by now, rightly or wrongly, quite rightly, and after all, if you can’t beat them join them. Or, in this case, if you can’t win with them by your side, send them somewhere else.

So, glossing over the inconvenient fact that this won’t actually happen, let’s consider how this might work in practice?

Well, Nigel Farage has a grand total of zero MPs within his party. You could say the only way is u(ki)p. He would surely be grateful to get a toe in the Westminster door any way he can, even if it’s challenging the Green party for 3rd spot in Labour and Lib Dem constituencies. Nigel can fight them on the beaches, but in Brighton rather than Bognor thank you very much.

Nigel’s chances wouldn’t be altogether terrible, and h is party desperately needs a similar impetus to that which the Green party gained when Caroline Lucas won their first Westminster seat. And jings, what an opportunity. This coming election may yet be something of a referendum on Europe, a dry run for the actual referendum itself. There’s no reason why 70-100 red constituencies across England might not vote against Europe rather than for Labour this time around. Bradford were so desperate for a change they voted in George Galloway for goodness sake.

Not that I’m saying UKIP can win 100 cosntituencies, or 70 for that matter, but 9 is a good number. It’s almost 10 better than last time, and would be infinitely superior to their current crop. Even winning 1 MP might be worth some sort of a deal for UKIP, particuolarly if it comes with an assurance that an EU referendum will take place. Is UKIP a party that’s in British politics for the long haul or just with the sole purpose of getting the UK out of the EU? The Tories putting a deal on the table would answer that once and for all.

Do UKIP have a chance in Labour/Lib Dem terrain? Well, a look at the European results suggests that they do.

Labour won 32 of the 53 seats in Yorkshire and Humberside in 2010 (the Lib Dems took a further 3) but UKIP took 17.4% of the European vote to Labour’s 18.8% the year before in 2009.

Similarly, Labour won 15 of the 46 seats in East Midlands in 2010 but only shaded UKIP 16.9% to 16.4% in the 2009 European elections (UKIP received 3.3% of the vote in the General Election, the Tories 30.2%).

It is easy to forget that UKIP came second in the 2009 European elections in the UK. Yes, I do mean second overall, the same number of MEPs as Labour but with a higher popular voteshare. This is with the added handicap of winning only 5% of the vote in Scotland to Labour’s 21%, and the further handicap of not having any well known personalities to work with beyond Farage (a trip to Strasbourg for anyone who can name the leader of UKIP at the 2010 General Election; travel, food & accommodation not included).

Let’s indulge ourselves further by letting ourselves get even further ahead of ourselves than is probably healthy. (Even Michael Fabricant would be shaking his head disdainfully at this post by now….)

Any emergence, by hook or by crook, of UKIP as a consistent ‘second-tier’ political party behind Labour and the Tories, and alongisde the Lib Dems and (humour me) the Greens, could be the beginning of a realignment of UK politics that is long overdue. If it is commonly understood that any future general election contest is between Conservatives/UKIP and Labour/Lib Dems/Greens(/SNP/Plaid Cymru), then voters can be more free to vote in their constituencies for the smaller parties without fear that voting left will allow the right wing in, or vice versa. This is commonplace in other European countries with populations far smaller than ours but with ballot slips considerably richer in options.

We are of course still saddled with First Past the Post which is a particular hindrance for those of us wishing to move away from two-party politics, but progress can still be made despite this and from the unlikeliest of circumstances.

In a way, you get two votes:

If you’re right of centre, you get to vote for a right of centre Government and also vote for whether you want it to be anti-EU (UKIP) or moderately pro-EU (Tories, for now at least).

If you’re left of centre, you get to vote for a left of centre Government (again, humour me) and also vote for whether it will be trades uniony (Labour), closer to whatever the Lib Dem policies happen to be that day (Lib Dem), green (Green) or Nationalist in flavour (SNP/Plaid, ‘… but Jeff, I thought we were all Nationalists‘. ‘Shoosht’).

I rather gnomically alluded to a ‘Green-UKIP’ alliance in the title there but it’s not too much of a stretch to see that the rise of Farage’s anti-EU, pro-business, climate change denying, right wing party can indirectly assist Natalie Bennett‘s pro-EU, progressive, climate change fighting, left-wing party.

It’s a funny old world and it’s a deal that Nigel Farage would be made not to take, so it’s probably not going to happen.

And what’s all this got to do with Scotland you ask? Well, nothing really…

Porridge to Catalonia

The Catalan election at the weekend has attracted a lot of interest here, and comparisons are being drawn left, right and centre. Peter Jones in the Scotsman finds it rather baffling that the centre-right independence party of Artur Mas lost vote share while independence-supporting parties overall boosted their position.

Jones suggests two main reasons for this apparently odd result, the first being the austerity imposed by Mas’s administration before the election, and the second being some kind of cultural argument that he either didn’t flesh out or I simply don’t understand. The idea that one of the reactions to austerity is a shift left makes sense, though.

And it’s true, the three other parties in the Catalan Parliament who now support some form of independence are all more radical than Mas: the Republican Left, narrowly now the largest opposition party with 21 seats; the ICV (the Greens’ sister party there, with a strong ecosocialist side) who went up to 13 seats, plus the Popular Unity Candidates, who won 3 seats.

By coincidence, the Radical Independence Convention met in Glasgow as Catalans voted. I couldn’t make it, unfortunately, but if you read the press, it sounded rather depressing. If you followed it on Twitter, however, it was buzzing with ideas and collaborations and points of contact, all united by two common themes. First, support for independence. Second, a desire for that independent Scotland not be a kind of timid low-tax tartan-austerity Westminster-remade-in-Edinburgh.

Instead, delegates wanted various more radical versions of independence, typically ones where control over the details of the constitution is vested in the people, where there’s room to build support for a Scottish republic with its own currency, a Scotland outside NATO, not beholden to the banks and the speculators, more equal, so on and so forth. It’s a desire which extends into the SNP too, despite the cautious approach the leadership seems determined to take, as illustrated not least by the close vote on NATO.

Again, by coincidence, the Scottish Greens picked their top candidate for the 2014 Euro election this weekend, choosing Edinburgh councillor Maggie Chapman from the party’s left. First elected in 2007, Maggie will be the Greens’ most experienced top candidate ever.

These three events look intertwined to me. The June 2014 Euro-election will come just four months before the independence referendum itself, and it would be a serious mistake to think the media won’t regard the it almost exclusively as a prelim for the October vote. Given that likely media narrative, let’s accept it, and confidently treat that vote as a test of views on the constitution.

If you want a more radical version of independence in October and after, voting Green will be the only plausible way to indicate that (apologies to friends in the SSP). If you want an independence referendum that isn’t just tied to the SNP’s agenda, either because you think that can’t win or because you’d prefer an open constitutional process, electing a Green MEP will be the only credible way to try and achieve it.

What’s more, to get a third SNP MEP elected in place of the Lib Dems takes three times as many votes on average, given the specific electoral system. In real life that varies quite widely. To take 2009 specifically, it would have taken 47,000 more Green votes nationwide to take that final place, but more than 60,000 extra SNP votes would have been needed to see the Nats get a third.

The risk of failure is substantial, too. Two pro-independence MEPs out of six, as now, and both from the same party: it’s quite a plausible outcome, and it would be seen as a massive dent in the Yes Scotland campaign. Electing Scotland’s first Green MEP, especially in a climate where this vote is seen as Scots giving their view on the constitution: that’d be a major prize for Yes.

Just as in Catalonia, that way the main party of independence might make no progress, but the cause of independence itself can be advanced and diversified at the same time. It’ll mean the Greens making an explicit pitch for the Radical Independence Convention vote in the runup to that June, and I hope that’s how the party chooses to take it. Cllr Chapman’s well placed to lead that argument.