Archive for category International

Does the General Election hold an unexpected result?

A wee Italy-via-Eastleigh guest today from Scotland’s super-punter Ross McCafferty, who’s got previous here with us. Thanks Ross! Oh, and the picture choice isn’t his fault. Apologies to anyone scrubbing their eyes.

Beppe and his laptopBritain is not Ireland. Nor is it Italy, but the respective hammerings of largely centrist Parties in austerity governments should terrify David Cameron. In the 2011 election to the Dail, Fianna Fail, who had dominated Irish politics since the inception of the Republic, were beaten into a distant third, going from over 40% of the vote to 17. In an onimous sign for Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems, the junior coalition partners, the Irish Green Party, saw their vote share halved and they lost all of their seats. In Italy, incumbent parties who saw themselves as the guarantors of belt tightening economic credibility fared little better. Technocrat Mario Monti’s austerity coalition was beaten into a distant 4th, to have little or no say in the future governance of the country.

Having staked their economic credibility to both the elimination of the deficit, the strength of the pound, and Britain’s international power, David Cameron’s Tories are in dire straits as we come to the halfway stage of this five year term. Indeed, as we get closer to the 2015 election than we are from the 2010 election, the “Last Labour government” line stops having any credence. Where Labour could move into landslide territory, for me, is two fold. 1) Sacking Ed Balls, a man with a reputation for being pure poison, not to mention being an unfortunate relic – despite his weepy conversion and revisionist approach to his own role in Blair/Brown conflicts – of a bygone era in Labour history. 2) Stepping up attacks on Tories. There was little between Labour and the Tories in macro economic terms in 97-2010. They should press Cameron on what money he wouldn’t have spent in the New Labour years he derides as being so profligate.

But, despite cruising in the polls, Ed’s appeal thus far has been limited. He came to Scotland plenty in 2011 to support Labour, and lent his voice  to the AV campaign, both of which were soundly beaten. He lost battles in formerly fertile Labour ground in Bradford and the London mayoral election.  His best hope in tomorrow’s Eastleigh by election is now a UKIP win, which would focus attention on the coalition parties, and divert comment and introspection away from his parties now seemingly  inevitable distant fourth.

My central question is: does the UK have a Beppe Grillo? The satirist and comedians anti political rallies saw him propelled from non existence to 3rd place and the position of kingmaker. Could we see this in the UK? On the face of it, it doesn’t appear so, our two and occasionally three, and if you believe Farage barely 4 party system is pretty deeply embedded. But I bet if you asked Mario Monti who his main danger was halfway through his term, a wild haired comedian convicted of manslaughter would not feature on the list. That’s not to say such an insurgent campaign would be the preserve of the left in Britain. A free speech, Englishman’s home is his castle, wheelie bin hating Jeremy Clarkson esque figure is  just as likely as a Charlie Booker (who has fictional form) or a David Mitchell.

Sadly, what might make this unlikely is that the British electorate have had their fingers burnt before. Before he was merely looking glum and slightly ill over David Cameron’s right hand shoulder, Nick Clegg was the new face of British Politics, reinvigorating the scene with his talk of breaking from the two main parties. Friends who used to roll their eyes when I mentioned politics declared they were voting for Clegg, someone who understood their disdain at the same old politics. Naturally, true to form, at the first sniff  he sold out his principles and went back on everything he had said. One thing is for sure, the 2015 General Election result isn’t guaranteed.

P.S. It wouldn’t be a guest post from me without some betting tips. You can get any other party to win most seats at 113/1 with Betfair. Ukip to win the election is 200/1 with Coral. And the Government to be ‘other’ is 8/1 with William Hill.

Jumping into bed with the Swedes

Shetland's hybrid Scots-Scandinavian flag

Shetland: Already halfway there

There have, in the past week, been a few noteworthy articles regarding the Scandinavian shadow which looms large over the issue of Scottish independence, as well as the future and makeup of Scotland’s economy, welfare system and society more generally.

Now I write this as somebody who knows a fair deal more about Scandinavia than most, for both personal and professional reasons.  A colleague of mine in the Greens remarked that the next Scottish Green manifesto should just be called ‘Scandinavian Nirvana’, such is the appetite in the party for increased welfare, greater social freedoms, gender equality and local democracy. I wholeheartedly agree.

Which brings me to something said by Blair McDougall in a BBC interview on the independence referendum. He accuses his opposite number in the Yes campaign, the significantly more articulate and less hackish Blair Jenkins, of wanting ‘57 per cent tax like in Norway’. There are indeed people in Norway paying that much tax, but these kind of people are not the salt of the earth working men and women which McDougall thinks will be crushed by the weight of Kaiser Salmond’s iron taxation, if he did indeed have such plans.

Then there was a report in The Economist which made the odd logical step of collating the radical reforms by centre-right governments in Sweden and formerly in Denmark with the high living standards and safe economies of the Nordic countries. As the Swedish journalist Katrin Kielos noted, there is an awful schizophrenia about the new craze for the Nordic centre-right, in that it assumes that being Scandinavian is a virtue in itself and argues that the path forward for these secure and durable systems is to follow a more British or American model . It is a trend which wishes to dine on the fruits of the Scandinavian countries’ labour whilst seeking to undermine it at its foundations.

The whole thing is illustrative of the fact that there is a huge amount of ignorance about the way in which Scandinavian society functions, and that this ignorance can be used to significant political advantage. It is also debatable to what extent it is even appropriate to address the Nordic countries as a single unit. There are however certain things which underpin  ‘the Scandinavian model’ which Scotland would have to adopt were it to develop in such a direction.

The first is a strict ethos of universalism. Not all services are free in Sweden or its neighbours, but notable by its absence is the incredibly British notion of selective assistance. Britain seems to implicitly accept that there should be huge gaps in income between different levels of society, and that one of the roles of public welfare is to alleviate this. It is a mode of thinking which the New Labour project perfected with its targeted alleviation, support for bright pupils from state schools and university access bursaries, without ever tackling the structural causes of poverty and discrimination.

Secondly, the way in which Scandinavian trade unions work is different to the British model. The nostalgia for the 1970s which pervades much of Britain’s left ignores the fact that old British models of trade-unionism were what allowed public support for the radical reforms of the 1980s. The systems of collective bargaining employed in Sweden and relatively high levels of unionisation amongst what might be termed normal people means that it is both destigmatised and can claim to represent large portions of the population.  This system has come under attack from centre-right governments in recent years but has survived relatively intact. The Scandinavian countries do not have a legal minimum wage, but they do have an effective minimum wage proportionally higher than Scotland, leading to a reduction in income inequality before the tax system has even played its redistributive  role.

And once tax is collected, where does it go? Not into benefits as they might be normally understood, but rather into the provision of universal services.  Childcare, incredibly well funded education systems, transport and infrastructure and healthcare.  The biggest challenge to Scotland is whether it is possible to transfer to this type of system given the appalling disparity evident in the country and present. It is in the interests of every Scottish woman to vote for a scenario which will provide the funding and structures for them to work and live on the same terms as men (and from a male feminist perspective, in men’s interest too).

Now to return to Blair McDougall and his mythical 57 per cent tax rate, I would say that it would only become an issue when you earn as much money as a senior press adviser or an MP.  Having large tax reserves means that in times of crisis governments are able to effectively deal with them, unlike the British model of medium taxation on an out of control financial system without any thought as to the after effects.

So to be realistic, adopting a Scandinavian social model would involve higher rates of tax, but it would also involve higher wages and better public services. In real terms incomes might well be higher, or at least remain static whilst providing for higher levels of public investment.

The whole thing is also dependent on a grand narrative. People vote for things because they believe in their viability, and the Scandinavian system is underpinned by a notion of functional redistribution different from the dominant discourse in Britain, and even in Scotland. It isn’t about smashing the rich or shooting bankers at dawn, but rather about building a cohesive society which works in the interest of all. As Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg says, “to create we must share, and to share we must create.”

David Leask’s excellent ‘As Others See Us’ column in the Herald, in which a group of Norwegians were asked for their opinion on independence, was revealing. The lack of interest in Scotland’s constitutional future was unsurprising – I frequently find myself explaining to Swedes the ins and outs of the independence movement – as Scotland is not politically visible. The Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter  recently published a feature on Europe’s contemporary independence movements which mentioned Scotland in the same breath as the Northern League in Italy and Flemish separatism in Belgium, entirely ignoring the broadly leftist motivations found in the majority of pro-independence groups and parties in Scotland. The challenge will be to explicitly build the construction of a sustainable and humane welfare state into the Scottish cultural narrative at home and abroad.

Neither would we or should we transform Scotland into Scandinavia overnight. When talking with a good friend of mine about how I hoped to live in a Scotland where I felt the state and society treated me and any potential wife/partner equally she smiled wryly and wished me good luck, with some justification. But that isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try. I answered that to combine the best aspects of Scotland and Sweden would create something beautiful, but that it would require the type of radical social change not seen since the 1960s. It would be a national project which larger countries would be entirely incapable of, but which might just work in Scotland. Scandinavia might be a fluid concept with many faces, but the values which it ostensibly represents are what we should really be aiming for. Both financially and morally, we cannot afford not to.

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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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Arming bears would make more sense now

8293886881_9e189768e2_oThe gun debate in America rages on, with the NRA’s spokesman giving a speech today, just one week after the massacre at Sandy Hook, a tone-deaf speech even by their standards. While he was speaking, a gunman in Pennsylvania shot three others and then (we believe) himself. So what can be done to deliver gun control?

Some people think a reinterpretation of the commas in the Second Amendment can save America. To remind you:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Current rulings make the first part about a militia and its purpose merely “prefatory”, i.e. irrelevant context, with the part starting “the right” being “operative”. Others think the commas are a well-armed red herring, and considering the framers’ intentions might be more productive.

Neither is unlikely to help any time soon. Neither the current Supreme Court, nor any Supreme Court imaginable in the next decade, is likely to accept any kind of more radical ban on guns with the Second Amendment still unchallenged.

It’s time for America’s progressives to make a real push on a different front: abolishing the Second Amendment altogether. As Walter Shapiro says, it’d take just 15 words: “The second article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.”

It’d be absurd to suggest that’d be easy, or even realistic any time soon. Even to get a 28th Amendment proposed takes either two thirds of the Senate and the House or two thirds of state legislatures. That’s hard. Then 38 states need to ratify it. That’s even harder.

The polling trend has been heading in the wrong direction, although there’s been a bit of a shift after the most recent outrage. But (as Shapiro again observes) opinions have changed radically on issues like equal marriage, and the fact that it might take 15 or 20 years doesn’t mean the job shouldn’t be begun. It means ignoring Alex Massie’s unusually siren argument that it’s hard to do so it shouldn’t be done in case someone takes away rights you care about. It would get round the concerns about democracy in the otherwise sensible Lexington blogpost.

Those equal marriage wins took some serious strategic thinking to deliver in four states this November, too: can the same techniques be applied here? After all, frustrating and unequal as the reservation of marriage for heterosexual couples is, it’s not in the same league as being shot in your classroom.

(pic from Code Pink)

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.