Archive for category Governance

The unbearable lightness of being petitioned.

Slavoj Zizek lecturing in Liverpool

Slavoj Zizek: Taking stock from the Eastern bloc

Another email into my inbox from one of several campaigning groups, asking me to lend me name to an undoubtedly worthy cause. The mechanisms of such campaigns are fairly familiar – an issue is located and a campaign started to make those who hold power realise that it is in their own interests to listen. It is a strange manifestation of a vaguely democratic mode of thinking with its basis in the idea of a benign but uninformed leader, or if you are more cynical, of a government desperately sensitive about the ability of single issues to define or destabilise.

It is similar to what Slavoj Zizek has called the humanisation of capitalism in his thinking on the way which society is required to ‘highlight’ certain issues through consumerism, the support of charity and the construction of individual everyday people as a moral guide in the behaviour of governments, corporations and institutions. It relies very heavily on the centrist addiction to general social doxa and public opinion which has come to define contemporary British politics, evidenced by the protestations of senior politicians that they are ‘listening’.

It must be said that dogma is just as dangerous as the apparent contemporary  lack thereof (though one might argue that centrism is a kind of dogma in itself). As Milan Kundera writes on the nature of mass protest in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.”

The heart of Kundera’s argument is that any movement reliant on the orchestration of thousands of people shouting in union has closed its mind to the possibilities of dialogue, nuance, and independent thought. It is not desirable to live in a society in which problems are solved by shouting loudly – by protest instead of construction – even if we might happen to loosely agree with what is being espoused.

The same might be said for the process of governance by headline and petition. Pressuring politicians into making the decisions we might wish them to make implies a sense of resignation, or perhaps a lack of self-confidence, when it comes to thinking and speaking for ourselves.

To sign a petition asking the Prime Minister for clemency in one area or another is, on a purely functional level, a good thing. Demonstrably so in fact. The well-orchestrated campaign to save woodland in England and Wales proved that there is indeed a point in letter writing, and that governments do indeed care about what voters think, albeit perhaps only as a means of self preservation.

But to look at the genesis of these petitions is to understand how the spread and cultivation of political campaigns work. There are very few people who see politics as a distinct part of their identity, though they are generally good and fair-minded, and would indeed probably find their views in line with a particular political party when asked. By inviting people to lend their support to various worthy causes they become not instigators but respondents.

Furthermore, the petition-writing masses who operate on an issue by issue basis cannot fundamentally change the way in which a society works. This is why we have elections, and this is also why certain quarters are so terrified by the idea of the British parliament operating a system of fair elections. You might call it the illusion of empowerment. We are invited to approve or reject someone else’s ideas, but rarely are we asked by ourselves to produce a blueprint for the future.

Like Zizek’s analysis of the pitfalls of ethical consumerism, causing a bad government to make one fewer bad decision is as transformative as buying a cup of rainforest alliance coffee from a company which dodges billions in tax, and comes no closer to giving people the agency which should be their democratic right.

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Hollow lies the head that wears a weightless Crown

One of the long standing arguments against British Republicanism (and, by extension, Scottish Republicanism in a post-Independence Scotland on the current prospectus) is that the monarch has no actual power.

To quickly deal with a few other arguments:

  • Nobody actually comes to the UK to see the Queen, she isn’t publicly accessible at Buckingham Palace. We could use it for other things, like housing the homeless.
  • Yes, it will mean that we need to come to an accommodation about the current Crown estates and other assets. That’s ok. They didn’t earn them. Those assets were acquired illegitimately through violently undemocratic means. There’s a national debt somebody mentioned we have to deal with and surely it’s better to appropriate unearned wealth that should be held for the nation from the ultra-rich rather than punish the least well off and ruin the economy?
  • The head of state being head of an established national church  is clearly problematic in a multi-religious nation, never mind the rise of secularism, agnosticism and atheism .
  • Yes, the Queen is very old and does a lot of public engagements. So what?

Leaving aside those and other arguments against a constitutional monarchy, such as the inherent injustice and preservation of unearned privilege, the absence of real power has always been one of the central arguments on the pro-monarchy side. It is an argument which is now demonstrably false. A series of stories in the Guardian have exposed that, far from the legally inert and ceremonial role the Queen and her heirs and successors are said to enjoy since  the mid 70’s (between the Australian constitutional crisis and the rather murky goings on around Alec Douglas-Home she played a role in appointing the executive up until then), the monarchy has clearly continued to play some sort of active part in government legislation and policy up until… errr… now.

The “oh, but they don’t really do anything, it’s purely ceremonial” argument prioritises the admittedly useful political and legal fiction of the dignified part of government over the varied and often unclear, vague and nebulous alternatives presented. Admittedly most of the alternatives have drawbacks: an effective President either elected or selected by lot undermines the supposed legitimacy of the Prime Minister (those of an avowedly Nationalist bent can substitute First there and carry on regardless);  a Prime/First Minister accountable to no one save the legislature they control by definition may grow over mighty; a ceremonial President changes little in practice except the abolition of the hereditary principle although I’d argue that this would be worth the candle in and of itself.

The fact the monarchy does do things, and apparently does so with notable frequency and vigour, rather torpedoes that argument for inertia.

However, the current situation has by and large served us well. An elected President, on either the Franco-American or German-Italian models, would fundamentally change the way the country works. One selected by lot, while appealing to my Erisian sensibilities, doesn’t really change much. And it is actually quite useful to have a Crown which, in the idealistic conception advanced by constitutional monarchists, acts as a proxy for the best interests of the people.

Those who protect us from threats mundanely domestic and exotically foreign do so in the name of Her Majesty. The civil servants and elected members who write the laws and the police officers, tax inspectors, lawyers, judges and prison officers who enforce them serve the Crown. They do these things not in the name of the government of the day, although obviously they are accountable to them to a greater or lesser extent.

One of the things that being a programmer has taught me is that when you have a functioning system, and you don’t want to disrupt your existing users unnecessarily, small incremental improvements are better than rewriting from scratch. Given that the Royalist argument that the monarchy doesn’t actually play a role in the government is clearly untrue (and disregarding the counter argument that who cares, they theoretically could and that’s not ok) but removing them would mean unpicking some fairly useful conventions a simple solution occurs to me.

Keep the crown, dispense with the wearer.

If the monarchy doesn’t play a (fundamentally undemocratic) part in government that won’t affect things. If she does play an undemocratic part in government removing her is a clear win. She does, her heirs and successors will. Time to be rid.

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.

If you want to know what Devo Max is, just look at the Faroe Islands

Another Scandinavian-themed guest today, gratefully received from Dom Hindea Scots Green activist and doctoral student in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Edinburgh who has blogged with us before.

When you count down the list of European colonial powers, and consider the various past misdemeanours of Britain, France, Portugal and Belgium to name but a few, it is likely that most people will miss Denmark off from the list.

Our cuddly social-democratic neighbour to the east, producer of gritty crime dramas beloved by the middle class cultural consumers who watch BBC 4 and living standards that draw loving glances across the North Sea from Holyrood and Westminster alike, is still that most outdated of institutions – a European colonial power.

They say that the sun never set on the British empire, but for six months of the year at least this was also true of the Danes, who had the North Atlantic sewn up through their dominion over the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland on the Arctic rim throughout the same period.

Iceland took the step to full independence after the second world war, in part because the conflict had cut it off from its colonial master , making it difficult for the Danes to re-establish control. The Faroe Islands however remained part of the Kingdom of Denmark, obtaining a form of self-government which gave them control over domestic affairs. The majority of foreign policy, defence and policing is reserved to Copenhagen, and the islands still collect a generous subsidy each year from Denmark, the reasons for which are open to debate depending on whether you consider yourself a Faroese unionist or a nationalist.

The other night in Thorshavn, the Faroes’ diminuitive capital with more than a shade of Lerwick about it, I ended up at a concert and poetry evening in support of independence, organised under the auspices of the Leftist Green Tjóðveldi (Republic) party. Of the four main parties in the Faroes, there are left- and right-wing versions of both the unionist and independence movements. Much as is the case in Scotland, the social-democratic and conservative parties favour staying with Denmark whilst the Green Leftists and the centre-right nationalist People’s Party Fólkaflokkurin favour dissolution of the union for democratic and nationalistic reasons respectively.

The high degree of devolution enjoyed by the Faroese means that, on the ground at least, you get the impression of being in a fully independent country, aided by the existence of a national football team and a unique language. Sound familiar? What is more complex, however, is the effect which the current devolution settlement has on the country. Unionists point to the generous government grants from Copenhagen as being vital to the nation’s survival, whilst nationalists argue that such handouts and the restrictions of economic aid mean that the islands are unable and unwilling to seize control of their own future. The Faroes are not without their problems, and there exists real poverty and stagnation in certain parts of the country.

Furthermore, the nature of the kind of specific devolution offered to Scotland and the Faroes undermines any idea of an equitable union. The other regions of Denmark enjoy nowhere near as much power as the Faroese (The Faroe Islands are part of the Kingdom of Denmark but not the Danish State). The use of the Danish Krone for example is problematic for the Faroes, it being tied to the Euro and geared toward maintaining a balance of trade between mainland Denmark and Germany, despite the Faroes themselves not being part of the EU. I have always been of the opinion that any solution which sees Scotland remaining in the UK must also involve a fundamental restructuring of British politics so as to offer the four Home Nations equal power on an equal footing for democratic reasons.

Radically deeper devolution does, however, have its advantages. It has allowed the Faroes to reach a point where they can debate independence knowing full well what it entails, rather than the Scottish model of being asked to jump from a severely limited legislative parliament to an as yet unspecified vision of independence. I was intrigued to see that Alex Salmond has committed an independent Scotland to a cut in corporation tax, something which he has no right or authority to promise given that he may not even be First Minister in four years time and cannot do it at present. As the Faroes show, devo max is not a solution to the independence debate, but it does provide an arena in which the question of self-determination does not become a referendum on the popularity and wisdom of a 57-year old white male.

Yes to Independence, Yes to Growth, “Yes” to Anything


The word will quickly be, if it isn’t already, synonymous with the SNP and winning independence. It is important therefore that the Scottish Government has clear lines of demarcation between what is official devolved Government business and what is part of the referendum campaign.

The above may look like a page from the SNP’s prospectus on independence but it’s actually taken from the Scottish Enterprise website.

I missed this when Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale first blogged on it but I’m surprised the media hasn’t picked up on it yet as I rather suspect that this is the first of many instances where the SNP will be criticised for blurring its responsibilities as a Government of a devolved Parliament and its burning ambitions as a political party.

For me, it’s over the line, quite a way over the line, as it is quite blatantly an attempt to aid the independence campaign by associating it with government bodies. ‘You want growth, you say Yes to Growth, well vote Yes in 2014’ is the quite clear overture here.

It’s not all going to be one way of course. Indeed, the SNP has already fired a very meek shot across the unionist bows for using “Better Together” when (prepare to be outraged), NHS Scotland are already using that phrase. Personally, I think the unionists are jumping on the Better Nation bandwagon here and since we thought of that phrase ourselves we… (what’s that? Alasdair Gray? Dennis Lee?). Ok, never mind…

Taking every fair advantage to get one over on the opposition is reasonable, undermining fairness (and the potential inappropriate use of public funds) is really not. A heavy price would and should be paid by anyone who falls into the latter camp and so parties should tread with caution here. It’s easier to lose a reputation than it is to build one.

The SNP needs to hit everything with a straight bat for the next two years if it’s to have any chance of winning the referendum. This “Yes” linkage with Scottish Enterprise? Well, it’s just not cricket.