Archive for category Holyrood

Two weeks, two votes, two very different journeys

Look deeper into the people's home, and you see one utopia fading, another never built.

Look deeper into the people’s home, and you see one utopia fading, another never built.

The day before the referendum on Scottish independence I took the train from Edinburgh to Glasgow, the Bathgate and Airdrie way, through the central belt. With a Danish TV crew in tow we rolled past the industrial estates of the Almond valley and over the wind-beaten hills from Scotland’s second biggest city to its largest. We were there because the Danes wanted to report on the Scotland beyond the clichés and find a bit of normality somewhere. We found it in a Coatbridge tower block, a pensioner in a dressing gown and hair net waiting for her hairdresser to arrive as she stared out over the Lanarkshire hills from her weatherproofed window on the 13th floor.

A week after the referendum I found myself on a different train journey, from Gothenburg to Stockholm.  The country that became a blueprint for what the imagined post-independence Scotland could have looked like has a central belt too, a string of small factory towns stretching from coast to coast. Take the slow train and you see an awful lot of them, clustered around canals and lakes with wood processing plants and packing warehouses in red brick. In some the social housing projects of the fifties and sixties mingle with the wooden villas of an earlier age and the eco-leaning terraces of 1990s and 2000s Scandinavinism sub-urbanism.

Both countries are currently on a comedown, dealing with the fact that their dreams have been tempered by a democratic reality. In Scotland’s case, voters said no to independence, and in Sweden’s the hopes for a majority left government for the first time in almost a decade faded at the hands of a far-right surge and the unenterprising vision of a Social Democratic party looking desperately for a sense of purpose.

Yet Sweden is a particularly mundane utopia. The great Social Democratic project may be as directionless as the dream of a Scottish people’s home, but Scotland and Sweden are still two very different places in how they look and feel. Sweden has entered a stage of indecision at the end of the project, whilst Scotland has not begun. If the question in Sweden is ‘what now’, the question in Scotland is ‘why are we still here?’

Waiting for the train, smoking a cigarette outside the shuttered booking hall of Coatbridge Sunnyside railway station, my half Swedish, half Danish colleague gestures toward the grey pebbledash and the jumble of Yes and No Thanks signs in the tiny windows opposite.

“Why are all the homes here so poor?”, she asks. She doesn’t mean the poverty, even though you do not have to go far in Coatbridge to find examples of it, from the empty shops to discount chain stores. She is talking about the dysfunctionality of the buildings. Cut off from the street by protective barriers across a sea of tarmac, they ring the spot at which many people arrive in the town.

This was the utopian dream, I answer. These were the new homes, the open towns away from inner city Glasgow, but now we’ve all decided that inner cities are the place to be and everyone has forgotten about the new towns and housing projects of the 60s and 70s. Once again Labour are in charge of the project, but instead of building council houses it is all about incentivising newbuilds on the red sandstone ashes of central and eastern Glasgow, a fast track to easy pickings for private developers.
In Sweden meanwhile the sun is shining on the lakes and forests. The Göta Canal, designed in part by the Scot Thomas Telford, cuts across Sweden together with the railway. Along it are the kinds of small towns that most people never see, a main street around a railway station with a municipal sports hall and a supermarket. Many of them are single-industry places, but unlike the grey sameness of Bathgate or Blackburn they have somehow survived.

In the small town of Arboga, a women’s football match has just kicked off by the station. The town was previously home to Volvo aviation, now gone, but it is not mired in post-industrial malaise. The sports facilities are well maintained and it still feels like old fashioned Sweden in many ways. That partly explains the political makeup – in the recent elections forty per cent of people voted Social Democrat, but almost fifteen per cent voted for the populist right Sweden Democrats. The Sweden Democrats campaigned on a platform of ‘tradition and security’, and in a country struggling to adapt to globalisation and the brutal orthodoxy of contemporary European markets their message is simplistic but attractive: Sweden was better in the past, and we can bring it back. This is Sweden’s mundane utopia.

Further on, the train rolls through Stockholm’s northern suburbs. Small communities sucked in by the growing city and connected by metro and commuter train. It was a dream Glasgow briefly held in the fifties before abandoning it in favour of motorways and a disdain for inner city living. The tracks are being quadrupled to cope with increased demand for public transport, but how Sweden is going to pay for such long term investments is increasingly unclear. The previous government reduced taxes significantly and public finances are no longer as forthcoming as they once were. Now all the talk is of management and small changes over utopian visions. Sweden has had its age of transformation, and now politics is about safeguarding what was once achieved.

Back in Scotland, George Square is alive with Yes supporters optimistically waiting for a vote they themselves still believe they can win. Old nationalists shouting ‘freedom’ with lions rampant mingle with hipsters and peace campaigners. Down the street some younger female campaigners complain about the vocal men with saltires round their shoulders driving potential voters away.  This temporary fusion of old nationalism and new utopianism need only hold up for twenty four hours more.  The Danes get the shots of saltires and crowds they need for their TV spot. A few thousand people who all share the same dream, some in all the nuanced shades of colour and some more black and white.

In Stockholm the mundane utopia still ticks over,  though it is starting to come apart at the seams. The Greens are trying to form a minority government with the Social Democrats, struggling with a the details and responsibilities of administering one of the wealthiest nations on earth as it goes through a crisis of self image. In Lanarkshire meanwhile, people still wait for the mundane comfort the referendum promised them.

A modest riposte

Esteemed traitor Peat Worrier wrote today about the SNPs new mission: “the greatest autonomy possible within the Union.” based on another key phrase which was heavily used during the campaign: “Absolutely no one will run the affairs of this country better than the people who live and work in Scotland.”

As well as somehow escaping the gallows of retribution following the glorious No vote, I’m afraid Mr Worrier (if that is his real name. I have my doubts) is guilty of a fallacy common throughout the referendum: not even Yes thought that all the affairs of this country should be made in Scotland.

By arguing that a currency union was “common sense” (despite it not being obviously so to almost every economist that wasn’t on the Scottish Government advisory committee), that we would continue to share a common energy market across the UK and continue to funnel subsidies to non-Scottish renewable companies from the levies on English, Welsh and Northern Irish energy bills and the maintainance of EU membership (the potential terms of which no longer really matter) Yes conceeded that actually, no. There are times when it’s better to pool decision making across a broader population than those who live and work in Scotland.

It always was, and now remains, a rabble rousing slogan rather than a principle. It wasn’t even a policy.

That said the legal analysis in that post is worth paying attention to. Anything we’re talking about in terms of further devolution will be a textual amendment to Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act and given the time scales we’re working to as a result of the Vow it’s useful to bear that in mind.

I would agree that we should be aiming for “greatest level of Scottish autonomy within the United Kingdom” but I don’t think that necessarily extends as far as some assume it does. For instance, Corporation Tax and Air Passenger Duty are unsuitable for deciding at a Scottish level due to the pressure and temptation to compete within the UK on that basis. There are better, more easily targetted mechanisms, for encouraging specific industrial sectors to locate here through Scottish enterprise and subsidise flights to remote communities which can only be meaningfully serviced by air in under 8 hours from major population centres.

Sometimes we increase our autonomy by giving up our control (as I’ve argued in this blog before and, helpfully, seems the majority of Scotland agree).

Welfare is possibly more easily devolved within the context of universal credit as rates could be set, and funded by, the Scottish Government if it was devolved.

The timetable set out in the vow (and that’s all it was, no new powers were promised or even really hinted at) needs to be adhered too, and we need to have an open, inclusive process.

As a starting point we should be able to synthesise the three devolutionist parties proposals into common ground quite quickly alongside the framing set out in the Scottish Government White Paper and the Greens proposals to identify a base line. The currency, monetary policy,defence and so on are clearly off the table entirely.

A series of citizen juries could then be convened to consider and discuss the contentious areas where the various party proposals differ, allowing for them to be prioritised and ideas fed back into the main process to be turned into something concrete and implementable.

Finally, and this is the one major change I’d suggest we should make in addition to the proposals that are already on the table: the wording in Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act should be reversed. Rather than devolving everything but a few areas to Holyrood it should be reworded so that everything defaults to Holyrood except for the specified areas which are delegated from a sovereign Scotland which has taken a concsious, democratic and unequivocal choice that we wish to be part of the United Kingdom and to pool our decision making on certain areas with the other people of the UK.

That would mean that we can take a longer and more considered look at the balance of powers in future, would mean that further devolution can be initiated through primary legislation at Holyrood and then be consented to at a UK level.

What it is and what it isn’t

Green v LabourFirst things first. We lost. We know how and why we lost, too. There was a solid base of natural No voters for them to build on, and their demographics have been well analysed in the aftermath. Many people just feel British and think their governance should reflect that: personally I don’t really feel national identity either way, but so be it. Beyond those groups, enough of the swing voters were secured for a flagging No campaign when they played two cards. First, a campaign of fear and lies, run by Number 10 and their media cheerleaders, using banks and big business to quash change. Second, of course, that promise of more powers.

We may abhor the first, and we may be convinced that the second will prove to be a sham too, but we still lost. And we need to accept it. That doesn’t mean going cold on the idea of independence, mind, any more than you should give up on any other principle or objective when you hit a setback.

The nationalists I know won’t do so. But, perhaps more importantly, I don’t think we non-nationalists for Yes will either. The ones I speak to are, like me, much more committed to independence than we were a year or five years ago. Friends who came over to Yes in the last week or month sound like they’ll never go back.

A large majority of the Scottish Greens’ membership joined in the last few days, too. Most will be Yes voters, but many will be No voters who want a radical slate of additional powers. The party has changed, and it’ll also be a lot closer to a “big party” electoral force on the ground in areas across the country where we simply didn’t have a decent activist base.

Meanwhile, the Yes activists on the ground, the true heroes of the Yes side, are networked, experienced, motivated, and informed like never before. The SNP had a great machine already, sure, but the breadth of the Yes movement eclipsed them. The No side, on the other hand, predominantly activated their existing operations.

But. But.

This is not the time to talk about another referendum, or even to spend too much thought on the last one. The specific circumstances which made the Scottish electorate into the 45% and the 55% has passed. There may be a time for another referendum, but only when the circumstances permit it, demand it even. Right now it is totally inappropriate. And there’s much more to be done right now.

Besides, in many ways we won. It certainly didn’t feel like it on Friday, but over the weekend, as the dust settled, I became more Tigger than Eeyore. Let the No side have their triumphalism, their sense that Scotland has been put back in a box: we haven’t been, and we can’t be. For one thing, it might have been less close than we thought a week out from the vote, but it was still way more close than anyone predicted a year out (aside from some of my more enthusiastic SNP friends). Whole cities voted to leave the UK. Even in our worst areas almost a third of voters backed independence.

That 1.6m people voted Yes is extraordinary. At the beginning of the campaign Yes Scotland set a target of a million pledges: bear in mind the total Holyrood turnout in 2011 was less than 2 million. A chunk of SNP voters were always going to vote No (the stereotype being the anti-Labour Perthshire resident who does well from the council tax freeze and loves John Swinney’s reassuring managerialism), and a bigger chunk of Green voters did so too: both offset by the Labour voters who came over to Yes. That vast Yes total should therefore be regarded as extraordinary and significant. Sure, less than the No vote: I can add up, but extraordinary nevertheless. Remember how far away even having a vote looked just a decade ago.

Back in the day, the 1998 devolution settlement was described as the settled will of the Scottish people, but less than two decades later the debate was being framed by the Westminster parties themselves as more powers versus independence. The 1998 settlement, and the weak post-Calman additions to it: they’re dead already.

The reality is the settled will changes. It moves slowly, perhaps, but the last twenty years have seen it move in one direction: in favour of a higher proportion of decisions being made in Scotland. The centre of gravity is now devo max, unquestionably. It’s not my first preference. But I’ll take it if I can.

Tam Dalyell opposed devolution because he thought it was “a motorway to independence with no exits”. To have arrived at our destination this week would have suggested a proper German autobahn with no speed limits. We may not even be in the fastest lane on the motorway. It may even just be a modest A road. But I think it’s likely we will eventually get there.

Right now, though, those who campaigned so hard for a Yes vote have a substantial task to work on. As some will know, on a personal level I’m not a Salmond fan. I disagree with him on a wide range of policy issues, from oil and Trump and road-building to the Council Tax Freeze and the centralisation of Police Scotland. However, I admire his professionalism and I’m extraordinarily grateful that he got us to where we were last week. I also believe he hit the nail on the head in his resignation speech. In it he said:

We now have the opportunity to hold Westminster’s feet to the fire on the “vow” that they have made to devolve further meaningful power to Scotland. This places Scotland in a very strong position.”

This is where the work needs to be done now. And that’s a project which reaches out beyond the 45%, and especially allows the Yes side to make common cause with those in the 55% who voted No because they believed the pledges of more powers. After all, the Record’s front page used Photoshop to engrave them onto a parchment, so they must be real. Are they, though? We don’t know at this stage. The disarray and machinations between the Westminster parties suggests nothing real will happen. They think it’s time to worry about England now (and they’re half right – they should be worrying about both Scotland and the rest of the UK).

They offered a lot, albeit incoherently. They made it all sound substantial, and they said it would be quick. They promised to involve us. On all of those things we should both take them at their word and not trust them an inch.

Let’s rally round this next task, the one Alex Salmond rightly set out. Let’s have a debate, an open debate, and then tell them what we think their promises mean. What we heard them say. Quote their own promises back to them. Define what Devo 2.0 looks like, not wait for them to see if Devo 1.2 is sufficient for us. Not settle for a bunch of tax powers designed to be as likely to be used as the 3p Scottish Variable Rate of income tax, let alone powers designed to push Holyrood towards austerity. Not just tax powers, either: primary powers over every domestic policy area that can be done differently within one nation state. Let’s push in the same direction on that, and bring in No voters who wanted those powers but who also felt independence was too big a leap. Aim to include not only the Greens who went for No but perhaps also the 10-15% of SNP voters who did the same. And the newspapers who opposed independence so vigorously but argued for devo max: let’s see if they meant it.

Let’s also concede something. Cameron wants English Votes on English Laws out of self-interest, but I want it out of democratic principle. I have English friends on the left who are as infuriated by the failure to answer the West Lothian Question as any ‘kipper. There’s only one democratic answer to “should Scottish MPs with no remit on policy areas devolved to Holyrood be allowed to make decisions on those same policy areas for England and Wales?”, and that’s a no. It applies in spades if we get devo max as well, and that should make it clearer which Westminster laws don’t affect Scotland. There may be some more sophistication required with drafting, but it’s not impractical. And if you’re a partisan thinking that bloc of Scottish MPs in some way helped deliver more left policies, you’re wrong: read this.

What’s more, the same logic applies to Welsh and Northern Irish MPs, in line with either the current devo settlements for them, or with whatever may follow. Being an MP for a non-English seat may become a part-time job, voting on defence, foreign affairs, a few similar issues. But the jobs will still exist, which should be a consolation for Labour. In fact, there’d be no reason to continue with the smaller number of MPs per capita outside England either. We all deserve an equal say on defence, on foreign affairs, etc.

How the rest of the UK governs itself (for England is that just the same old English MPs? Is it a separate English Parliament? Devolution to English regions?) must be up to them. I hope to see a Yes-style movement for radical constitutional change take to the streets of the rest of the country, adopting the same spirit, agitating for Westminster’s semi-democracy to be reformed out of all recognition. But that’s a matter for them, even if we might feel able to go and help support their campaign, just as many English radicals came here to help us. The problems they face, after all, overlap extensively with the ones we’ve identified in Scotland.

But we must continue to have our say about the powers we believe Scotland needs, the powers we were offered. That’s up to us, and we must redouble our efforts to secure them.

We also have the perfect vehicle for holding the Westminster parties to account for it all. The timing couldn’t be better: the Westminster election in May. In Scotland, much as some will wish it not to be, much of the debate will be about whether the Vow has been met, whatever we do. This process, whatever it becomes, will determine what powers the next Scottish Parliament will have, elected a scant year after that. Sure, I wanted all power to come to the Scottish Parliament, to the Scottish people. But let’s see if we can go a good way further down the road away from a centralised British state. I may think that leads to independence, but for now it doesn’t matter whether it does or not. There’s a natural majority for devo max, at least as the next step, and the polls show it. If we get it, and it just works, maybe that’s where we’ll stay: maybe there’ll never again be an appetite for an independence vote. It’s possible that devo max could indeed be the end destination for that settled will of the Scottish electorate. But if the Westminster parties let us down and we don’t get those powers, or if whatever gets devolved clearly doesn’t work in practice, there will be another vote on independence soon enough. I’m convinced in either of those circumstances another vote would be justified, and we could walk a Yes with the support of many who voted No last week.

So let’s go with the grain. Let’s make securing devo max the focus of the Scottish part of the next UK General Election, alongside resistance to the Westminster consensus on welfare, immigration, and the rest. Use the ballot box again to force them to deliver the powers we want as an electorate. Let’s be clear that they can’t fob us off with something weaker now the referendum isn’t hanging over them. Accept that independence is off the table, maybe for now, maybe forever, and respect the will of the electorate. If we get what we’re promised then many of the other issues I care about, from climate change to inequality and decentralisation, will be in the hands of the Scottish electorate at the Holyrood election a year later. Issues where the SNP and the Greens disagree profoundly. Before that, in May, though, the aim of those parties who argued that the current arrangements are too weak should be to hold the Westminster parties rigorously to account while they squabble with each other and try to forget about us. We’ll be fired up with that massive influx of new and activist members, many of whom will be new to party politics altogether. The Greens and the SNP should be aiming to take not just the 1.6m with us into Scottish polling places in May, but many many more from the 2m who voted No on Thursday. That’s a formidable set of forces.

Some thoughts on the 45

A quick guest post from Sarah Beattie-Smith, an activist with the Scottish Greens. Thanks Sarah! More post-indyref analysis to come.

Sarah Beattie-SmithI get it. I get why you might want to hold on to the fact that you weren’t alone in voting for independence. That 45% of the voters were with you. But I think it’s unhelpful. Here’s why;

1) Calling yourself part of the 45 harks back to Jacobites. They may have had super cool wigs and kilts and lived romantic (and short) lives fighting for Scottish freedom, but come on! It’s 2014 and we’ve just held the only democratic vote *ever* on independence for Scotland. We don’t need swords to fight for independence, we need an informed, engaged and pissed off electorate with the will and the means to change things democratically.

2) It’s divisive. A quarter of those voting no did so because they believed “the vow” that we would get more powers as part of the union. By focusing on being part of the 45% of folk who voted Yes, we cut off those people from being part of fighting to ensure we get as much power as we possibly can. A lot of them will be feeling pretty low right now. I know some No voters who really desperately wanted to vote with hope and optimism for Yes but just didn’t feel they could – whether because of attachment to an idea of shared struggle across the UK or distrust in the idea of an automatically better Scotland after a Yes vote. They need us as much as we need them if we’re going to build a better Scotland. Cutting ourselves off is just daft when we should all be reaching out – from both sides.

3) It makes us look like we’re wallowing in self pity. What do you notice about 45%? That it’s smaller than 55%. We lost. Let’s not do that awful Scottish thing of celebrating being the underdog and feeling contempt towards everyone else. If we’re ever going to win, we need to have a hell of a lot more people voting Yes and that means we need to look at why people voted no and help move them from No to Yes – just as we’ve done for the last 2 years. We did bloody well to get from 25% two years ago to 45% last week. Let’s not turn that number into a sad vainglorious symbol – it’s there to be built on, not to stand as a permanent memorial to the injustice of No.

For the record, I don’t think we need “reconciliation” – that’s what happens when both parties have done something wrong. But we do need to keep fighting for the Scotland that I believe the vast majority of people want to see – free of nuclear weapons, where poverty is a thing of the past and where we care for people and planet for now and into the future. The folk who want that are far more than 45% of the electorate. Now is the time to build that new Scotland, not to build a bunker.

In the music of yes, a very distinctive Green chord has been struck

Another wee guestie from Shonagh McEwan, a bit more partisan this time. Thanks Shonagh! 

Green YesBack in the day, I was cynical. At the beginning of the referendum campaign, I simply thought us wee Greens would be a lost grain of sand on a very SNP beach. How could our distinctive Green voice be heard? Salmond would beating his SNP drum upfront, I’d get a headache and the rest would be history.

The start of the campaign seems so long ago now, and so does my cynicism. My initial concern was, thankfully, misplaced. It’s been a vibrant, dynamic, creative and colourful Yes campaign. The nature of grassroots activism and community campaigning has enabled diverse strands of the debate to grow.

Postive campaigning has also allowed the Yes collective to gain strength from that diversity. There has been a shared space for the distinctive Green Yes to flourish alongside others. Visually, we’ve made our mark. The badges, the t-shirts, posters – a fantastic display of Green Yes. In the public debates, whether broadcast or not, we’ve sung our vision for a different future for Scotland beautifully and because of that, we’ve been heard.

I have hope for the music of Yes this Thursday. As someone listening closely to the campaign, it actually has been like an orchestra to listen to. And that’s not just because I’ve been moved by the distinctive, individual sound of the Green Yes. It’s also because all the Yes campaign strands have worked so well together.

Part of me could go back to being cynical, but I’m going to try hard not to. Because after Thursday, I have hope for something much bigger. And that’s for a new politics, in a new Scotland, that continues its diverse musicality without me getting a headache.