Archive for category Ideology

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.

Johann’s Lament



I thought the BBC News website was playing up again when ‘Johann Lamont raises questions over free tuition policy’ popped up. Surely she hadn’t decided to go further down the road taken at the infamous ‘something for nothing’ speech?
At the centre of Lamont’s critique of current education policy is something fairly irrefutable. Despite there being no tuition fees for Scots students there is still a frightening disparity in the number of rich and poor children attending university. This is simply not good enough, and with one eye on academia I must say that universities are shooting themselves in the foot by not tapping the underdeveloped potential of some children from poorer backgrounds.  I’ve seen it both as a student and latterly as a course tutor.

But Johann’s critique, instead of asking what is desirable in society and asking what the best way to get there would be, simply looks at all the bits of the train set and makes a decision on how best to put the track together. It illustrates well the managerialism which has crept into politics and the lack of real vision which has accompanied it. The ‘long term solutions’ envisaged by Lamont only reinforce the status quo which has caused so many problems. There is an implicit acceptance in the existence of rich and poor, and with it the idea that social inequality is to be tolerated so long as those at the bottom have the means to raise themselves to the sunny plains of the middle class.

This background-based approach to the provision of services also reinforces the very notion of patronage which I thought Johann’s party were supposed to dislike. By linking children to their parents we reduce them to assets. Should a mother receive less maternity pay because she has a rich husband who can keep her whilst she is off work? Removing universalism as a philosophical grounding to how we organise our society can only lead to social friction. It reduces our personal freedoms and traps us in systems of patronage which can only be broken via collective understanding of and consensus on universal rights.

If you charge for university based on the assumption that it will result in higher earnings, you reduce a degree to nothing more than a means of individual self-betterment in the narrowest and most soulless sense. If you charge because you feel that those from wealthier backgrounds should pay, why not just levy a higher rate of income tax as a general principle?

Universalism is vital to a society because it is a concrete sign of the fact that all of us, wherever we may be from, have the same basic rights and opportunities. Furthermore, to try and remove universalism from higher education is an attack on the right of all people to develop what makes us people, our minds. If Johann wants to see an end to the something for nothing culture, why not reduce subsidy for railways used predominantly by middle class commuters, or airports used by people from privileged backgrounds as they jet off on holiday?

There is an argument to be had about the appropriate subjects for a university to be teaching, and whether or not some disciplines would be better taught in a non-university environment, but universities are built on the notion of universalism – of teaching all subjects and all students equally.

A university can take no blame for what happens before students reach its gates. It can try to discern more carefully between students with an expensive education and students with a keen mind, something many are not currently very good at, but the inequalities which are inherent in society from a child’s formative years cannot be laid at the door of the university. It is a responsible government which will work to eradicate poverty which will change the kind of student entering Scotland’s numerous and generally good universities.

The narrative presented by Johann Lamont in her education vision is one of hardworking individuals working their way out of poverty. This is in some sense admirable, but it is also inherently antagonistic toward those who currently enjoy publicly funded education. It is a strange corruption of class politics which assumes both the continued existence of poverty and buys into an old fashioned concept of social climbing, rather than an aspirational vision of what an egalitarian society can look like.

This is not to say that the SNP are any better in their educational/social/economic policy (and these things are inseparable). Neither do I buy into the SNP spiel about having a social democratic vision for Scotland. Social democrats don’t freeze local tax and refuse to use the income-tax powers given to them, nor do they spend increasingly large amounts on private transport and refuse to embrace truly social urban policies. The worrying thing is that, in a country where we have two parties who call themselves social democrats, neither seem to really understand what the term means. We need to have Johann’s honest conversation, but the outcome should be a recognition of the need for greater collective resources, not the abandonment of the principle that all of us are of equal worth.

The SNP should cease to be after a 2014 Yes victory

If the SNP resolved to disband in the aftermath of a Yes vote, would it be more likely to win in 2014?

It’s Nick Clegg’s fault really, but what isn’t these days. The No2AV campaign successfully, if malevolently, turned the referendum on the Alternative Vote into a referendum on the Lib Dem leader rather than on the issue itself. Faced with having to personally win over more than 50% of the voting electorate, Clegg and his proposed improvements to the UK’s voting system were doomed before the debate had even gotten off the ground. 

The SNP could and should learn from this. After all, it is facing the same opposition that so ruthlessly put the Deputy Prime Minister to the sword. Given the chance, they don’t take prisoners and will leave you tied in knots before you even realise that you are done for.

Take the NATO debate. The SNP is getting publicly bogged down in what its own party policy is rather than facilitating a national discussion on whether Scotland should make this decision on its own in the first place. The Scottish media, naturally, is leading everyone a merry dance in portraying this as an independent Scotland’s de facto NATO policy rather than just one party’s. It is the same, or at least similar, for policy areas such as nuclear power, tuition fees, currency and foreign relations. The SNP speaks for Scotland when, for once, it doesn’t want to. 

There is, of course, every chance that it would be a Labour (or a non-SNP coalition) that makes up an independent Scotland’s first Government. What would our country’s policies be then? Well, we don’t know because every unionist party is wisely keeping schtum and letting the SNP twist in the strengthening southernly breeze.

To win the referendum, the SNP is having to jump through two hoops: 

Hoop 1 – to soften up enough people to the very idea of independence
Hoop 2 – to effectively win the first independent Scotland election on domestic policy two years before it takes place. And with a clear 50% of the vote. 

You simply can’t succeed with odds stacked so heavily against you. No wonder Alex Salmond has summoned all of his political nous to try getting a Devo Max option onto the ballot slip, but that is not going to happen. After all, why should the unionists give the SNP an easy way out when they can win a single question referendum at walking pace and potentially blow the SNP’s formidable machine to smithereens?

The fight that needs to be fought is the first of the two hoops above and in order to stop hoop number two even being a consideration in the public’s mind, the SNP needs to take itself out of the game entirely, and I do mean entirely. I am proposing that the SNP would cease to be after Autumn 2014 if it is a Yes victory with all SNP MSPs immediately being Independents in the Parliament and all party employees made redundant soon after, unless able to be kept on by the aforementioned MSPs.

This would, needless to say, be unfortunate for those involved but there may even be a further, subtle advantage to this. The McChattering classes openly speculating where Sturgeon, MacAskill, Russell et al would go, how many new parties may spring up in place of the mothballed SNP and what sort of policy shakeup this would mean for Scotland across all parties. It would be a fascinating discussion at an already exciting juncture in Scottish politics and the more people speculate, the more they’ll want to know the answers, answers that can only come with a Yes vote. 

Let’s be honest, the SNP would be creaking at the seams if it didn’t have independence to bind it together. The party contains, from top to bottom, would-be Conservatives, Greens, Labourites and even Lib Dems. Pull away that Saltire-emblazoned big-top canvas and Nats would be tumbling out in all manner of directions.

Perhaps the very onset of independence is the time to let that free for all take place. Why delay the inevitable if it’s win-win?

Another factor to consider in all of this is that a significant slice of the establishment has a deep-seated, irrational hatred of the SNP. Examples abound from Coventry journalists labelling us racists, Tom Harris’ famous ‘hate fest’ comment, Guido Fawkes’ assistant’s “scum” insult and of course the unimaginative classic ‘xenophobe’ charge from MSPs in the Lib Dems and Labour. The SNP’s collective instinct surrounding this problem is to fight back fairly but harder, and that has reaped dividends over the past decade. However, there are times when flight is a smarter choice than fight and robbing the exhaustive list of influential persons across the UK who don’t have a good thing to say about the SNP of their bogeyman may be the smartest means to a particular end.

To take this one step further and for the SNP to actively talk up Johann Lamont as the likely first Prime Minister of an independent Scotland would be the ultimate example of flattering to deceive. How many soft but currently resolutely partisan ‘Labour’ votes could be turned with that inducement alone?

And, needless to say, to take the duplicity to the fullest extent, the SNP could simply reform under a different name and brand in the relatively long period between a Yes victory in Autumn 2014 and the Spring of 2016 when the first elections would likely take place. All is fair in love and war, after all. The Scottish Social Democrats has a nice ring to it, a title that hasn’t done too badly across most of the Nordic countries in the past few decades.

Anyway, if there is a No vote in 2014, this is all largely redundant. The SNP would regroup, lick their wounds and try again in a generation, or sooner if they can engineer it. I see the Quebec Independence Party is set to return to power again, promising a new referendum, a mere 17 years since the last one. Noting that the one before that was only 15 years ago, there’s realistically really not so long for the SNP to have to wait to rebuild their strategy and have another go at this constitutional question. 

Not that many in the SNP will be considering defeat. Indeed, they are presumably willing to leave it all out on the field to get the result they want at the first time of asking. Well, why not make that literally ALL out on the field? Furthermore, to invoke Clegg again, is there a hint of a suggestion that to not stick to the underlying objective of the party and to not disband the SNP after an independence victory smacks a bit too much of a love for the ministerial limousines? We wouldn’t want the SNP staggering on into the era of independence primarily because its once-radical leaders enjoy their privileged lifestyles too much.

No, the longer this moribund excuse for an independence debate continues, the longer the polls remain resolutely rigid and in order to concentrate Scottish minds into delivering its goal, the Scottish National Party might be required to make the ultimate sacrifice.


Sometimes it comes down to the simplest things.

I have struggled with holding my Labour Party membership ever since the Glasgow East by-election. To be confronted with the destitution I saw only five miles away from where I used to live while canvassing and leafleting shocked me to my core.

Maybe I’m just a naïve, privileged stupid girl, or perhaps I’m just a normal person, rightfully horrified by walking into a close with shit and graffiti smeared all over the walls and kids playing next to methadone tumblers and needles.

It was only one close, because the two activists and I decided to jettison our leaflet run after that, but it’s horrified me ever since.

Whenever I have campaigned for the Labour Party I have been able to justify seeing the more unpleasant parts of lots of places in Britain by truly believing the candidate I was working for and the wider cause were both doing good, or were going to do better, albeit perhaps slower than I would want to see. But in Glasgow East, a seat I knew Labour had held forever anon, I couldn’t in good faith console myself that this was an acceptable place which my party had abandoned people and children to live, within an hour’s walking distance of the contrast of my comfortable life surrounded by my university and West End lifestyle.

But I stayed in the party. I was able to pass off a sight that I still have nightmares about as an aberration, something the cause I was dedicated to would eventually solve.

I believe the Labour Party is still the best vehicle to solve poverty in Britain, but it’s not a journey I can take any longer. The children I witnessed in that close in Easterhouse that day were not there because immigrants had taken their parents’ jobs, but because a Thatcherite government strangled funds to a Labour-led council that had no hope to even begin to address those children’s needs.

I cancelled my Labour Party direct debit on Friday, because Ed Miliband’s intervention on immigration is to me the single, worst, most crappy-William Hague-era thing I have ever heard a Labour leader say. At a time of economic austerity, to even subtly posit that low wages, poor housing and lack of opportunities are caused by ‘them’, a foreign other, coming across from somewhere else, when the root of poverty in Britain is the fault of the political and economic system we continue to inhabit, is just the cheapest political posturing, and I cannot endorse it.

It is the final straw in a lapse that has been a long time coming. But it does come down to the simplest things.

I spent this weekend at the STUC’s youth conference, where policy for Scotland’s young trade unionists is debated and agreed for the year ahead. On behalf of the STUC’s youth committee I moved the motion for debate on the independence referendum, dedicating the STUC to convening events and debates for young trade union members to fully explore the pros and cons of independence, to receive input from both the Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns, and to make their own minds up about what will almost certainly be the most decisive vote my generation will take part in.

I remain undecided about independence. I look at the Yes Scotland launch and am left cold by the unrepresentative panel and the clear SNP-only organization. But then I look at the Better Together launch on Monday and I’m left even colder.

It’s a simple thing, to believe an organization you value and even love, will value your own views back. Too simple, perhaps.

Independence, whatever your views, is too important an issue to be left to the politicians to decide. It’s certainly far too important a decision for us on the left to trust to a coalition between Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, who have already decided for us that the UK is the best possible political and economic system we can possibly have.

I’m a big fan of British democracy, but a walk around the east end of Glasgow a few years ago was enough to convince me that it wasn’t the best of all possible worlds.

It wasn’t enough for Labour to only consult with members on the timing, the number of questions, the electorate and the governance of an independence referendum.

As the party who delivered devolution for Scotland I’m angry that Labour have not seriously consulted party members on attitudes towards independence, or the devolution of further powers, and translated those attitudes into a less strident, pro-UK-as-it-is campaign. Sure, the attitudes of a party and activists who know they rely on a Scottish bloc vote to hold the balance of power in Westminster will be skewed. But I don’t believe there is mutual exclusivity in wanting every child in the UK to be lifted out of poverty, and in wanting economic powers to be closer to the communities they are meant to serve.

Until now I have always been able to stick with Labour because I believed my efforts served a greater cause. I know there are many, many Labour representatives who know this, and strive and work towards it every day. I’ve been incredibly privileged to know and work with a few of them, and I hope to continue to support them whenever I can. There is certainly no other political party I would consider joining.

But when Labour decides to blame immigrants, however subtly with one speech, and chooses to side with those whose economic policies cause the social ills we witness, by just deciding that there isn’t an alternative to the current system, it becomes a cause which no effort of mine can hope to change.

Some taxing questions for Scotland

Image by TaxBrackets

Andrew Smith is a London based Scot. He has previously written about the NO campaign and The Scottish Sun. He grew up in Edinburgh and studied at Dundee, and you can read his blog at

With George Osborne’s budget on the horizon the usual array of briefings and whispering campaigns are in full swing. The horse-trading is no longer happening behind closed doors; in fact it’s being done very publicly. In the past weeks we have seen the usual suspects in the Tory party being joined by business leaders in urging the government to scrap the 50p rate and the media only too happy to help. The position of the Liberal Democrats is unclear, although recent interventions from Vince Cable and Nick Clegg would suggest that they are happy to reach a compromise.

Whether or not it happens this year it is looking likely that it will happen soon. This raises a host of different questions and scenarios about what the impact would be on Scotland.  We already know that the probable ‘replacement’ for the 50p tax rate is unlikely to affect Scotland without separate legislation, although scrapping the 50p tax rate would.
I am in favour of the 50p rate, if for no other reason than the fact it is worth £6bn to the economy. I am also in favour of a mansion tax for the reason that it will have no impact whatsoever on the great majority of the population and will also bring a lot of money into the economy.

Cutting corporation tax is a shared goal of governments in Scotland and Westminster and is something that will happen with or without independence. The wisdom of this is open to dispute, quite possibly the best line of Ed Miliband’s otherwise lacklustre speech to the Scottish Labour Spring Conference this year was when he said “you can’t have Scandinavian public services on Irish rates of corporation tax”, which was an effective way of underlining the contradiction that many see in the SNPs vision for Scotland.

Cutting corporation tax and freezing council tax are may be high profile policies but the SNP 2011 manifesto does not mention income tax once. There is a precedent for the discussion though, of course there was the notorious ‘penny for Scotland’ campaign, but more recently John Mason MSP raised the prospect of raising the top rate and was slapped down by the First Minister.

With all these factors and others being taken into consideration it’s not impossible to imagine that by Autumn 2014 the UK government will have removed the 50p rate, brought in a ‘mansion tax’ and removed tax for the first £10k. Would the SNP approach a referendum by pledging to raise taxes? It’s very unlikely. Would they go into the referendum without touching any of these changes? Where would that leave free tuition, free prescriptions and the council tax freeze?

If policies in Westminster have been moving into more classically neoliberal territory (NHS bill, education reforms and local services provision) then the Scottish parliament has been moving in a more traditionally centralised/ social democrat direction (free prescriptions, free care for elderly, extra tax on bad things and scrapping university fees) all of which are long standing commitments of successive Scottish governments that I fully support. Should the parliaments keep moving in their own directions then it makes the politics of independence seem more inevitable. However, Osborne, who is running the NO campaign for the Tories, will be gambling that if people see a Green Investment Bank in Edinburgh and extra money in their pockets from income tax cuts at both ends of the scale then they’ll think twice about voting for a split.

What do you think? I have looked through the website and can’t find anything about what they want from the forthcoming budget; at the time of writing (3pm on 10th March) the only comments from the press office are about introducing a fuel regulator. Would the Scottish Government oppose scrapping the 50p tax rate and all tax on incomes below 10k? By 2015 could Scotland England have two totally different tax policies? Would the social democrat and neo liberal policy split continue or would it be the starting gun for the race to the bottom?