Archive for category Westminster

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.

Fringe benefits of independence

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 11.04.23The worst reason for voting No to independence is because you don’t like Alex Salmond, and the worst reason for voting Yes is because you don’t like David Cameron. This is a long-term decision about the future governance of Scotland, not a referendum on some here-today, gone-tomorrow politicians on either side of the campaign. However, as the Telegraph reports today (emphasis mine):

The Prime Minister is mindful too of the political peril that comes with defeat. Losing the referendum would be a terminal event for the Conservative and Unionist Party and, as Westminster now acknowledges, would require his immediate resignation. Unsurprisingly, if somewhat depressingly, some Tory MPs have begun factoring in the loss of Scotland as a way of achieving the regime change they yearn for at the top.

Let’s not leave that anti-Cameron glee to the headbangers and Europhobes. Let’s instead accept that the stakes are a little higher even than we thought. Imagine if we could achieve democratic self-governance and simultaneously leave our English/Welsh/Northern Irish friends with a legacy to be thankful for, i.e. ending the political career of the most right-wing Prime Minister in living memory.

This should be a wakeup call to the rUK left. You may not instinctively support independence, perhaps because you’ve got an unduly rosy view of the dinosaurs and timeservers (of all parties) we tend to send to Westminster, or perhaps because you don’t see how it will benefit you. But a Cameron resignation, followed by a vitriolic battle for the future of the Tory party just eight short months before a UK General Election? It’s surely time to book the buses to Scotland from Brighton and Manchester and the Rhondda. Help us to help you.

Seeing an end to Cameron’s misrule shouldn’t swing any votes in Scotland – after all, if he stayed on after a Yes vote he wouldn’t be our problem anyway. But a Yes vote certainly brings some pretty enticing fringe benefits for the left both north and south of the border.

What’s the weather like in Montenegro?

MONTENEGROThe latest round of “positive campaigning” from the Westminster parties centres again on the currency. It’s clear they’ve decided it’s the SNP’s weak spot, and they want to hammer on it. So now all three of Westminster’s parties of government have declared (or will declare, so the BBC have been briefed) that an independent Scotland would be barred from the SNP’s preferred approach, a formal currency union with the rUK.

On one level this is a trap the SNP have laid for themselves. Their policy has essentially evolved like this: “Yey Euro! No, wait, the Euro’s collapsing. Shit. What shall we do? Well, we could have our own currency. But that sounds scary. What’s the only other option? Keep the pound. Phew. Sounds safe.”

A better approach would clearly have been to say “well, on day one Scotland still continue to use the pound, as is normal when countries achieve independence, and it will be for the Scottish people to decide whether they prefer to move towards an independent currency, either as an end point or as a step towards the Euro, or to seek an ongoing currency union with rUK”. Not least because then the post-2016 Scottish Government would have a specific democratic mandate for a sterling zone if that was indeed the outcome of the election. Fear of uncertainty is why this is off the table. But if you want to know what happens after a future election, you’d better get used to uncertainty for obvious reasons.

Given that formal currency union would require Westminster’s assent, though, today’s stramash was entirely predictable (Jeff saw something similar coming in November 2011, although I disagree with some of his conclusions). Perhaps the SNP genuinely like the sight of Tory/Labour/Lib Dem bullying on this issue. It certainly looks ugly, but I can see Osborne’s logic: like it or not, this announcement does take the SNP’s preferred option off the table. They can’t keep saying “once we’ve had a Yes vote Westminster will have to take Scotland seriously”. Well, they can keep saying it if they wish, but it sounds increasingly ridiculous and practically as petulant as the Westminster parties’ position. Strategically, the Tories are correct to assume that this mess must reduce the chance of a Yes vote, and of course it’s not just them. With all three of the biggest parties at Westminster now publicly opposed to currency union, the SNP are effectively relying on persuading one or more of them changing their mind. Not a solid basis for the last seven months of a referendum campaign.

The reality is that on 24 March 2016, the SNP’s proposed independence day, we absolutely will be using sterling in Scotland’s shops. Our bank accounts will still be denominated in sterling. The pre-dissolution SNP Government has no mandate to change that: it’d be utterly undemocratic to do so prior to the election which kicks off on that day. And then on 7 May 2016, when Scotland wakes up with its first independent government, we’ll still be using sterling no matter what. That government will have had a policy (or policies, if it’s a coalition) on the currency, but the starting point will be the pound in your pocket.

And the basis for the pound in your pocket won’t be a currency union. It can’t be. Even if Westminster were entirely relaxed about it, the SNP don’t have a mandate to establish a currency union in the September 2014-March 2016 interregnum and to tie future Scottish Governments’ hands. We’ll be using the pound like Montenegro uses the Euro, or (as Jeff pointed out) like Cambodia uses the dollar. We won’t have a seat on the Bank of England’s (!) Monetary Policy Committee. Scottish budgets won’t have to go to Westminster for oversight, or vice versa, as formal currency union would require. Nothing will have changed.

At that point, if that new independent Scottish Government has been elected on a platform of pursuing currency union, they can get on and pursue it and hope that the post-2015 rUK Government would support it. The only easy route to co-operation on this would be if Labour somehow managed to win both elections while losing the referendum. But if currency union is sought and rUK Ministers stick to today’s line, there would only be two options for those future Scottish Ministers: the Montenegro way, or the Montenegro way moving towards our own currency like a normal independent state. That way we could manage our affairs without our economy still being skewed towards London and without our fiscal policy still being skewed towards austerity. An independent currency seems almost inevitable, especially in the longer term. Or it would do if the Yes campaign wasn’t bogged down by the SNP’s short-sightedness on this issue. They need to think again or they risk jeopardising the recent progress that’s been made towards a Yes vote.

Our Friends In The North: The Nordic dream without the navel gazing

It was with trepidation that I sat down to watch Our Friends in the North, BBC Scotland’s attempt to address the Nordicism that has crept into the independence referendum. It is an important part of the debate and the closest Scotland can get to imagining an alternate reality. Alex Salmond doesn’t really seem to get the Nordic countries in anything other than economistic terms, but as a former oil economist maybe that is to be expected. What Our Friends in the North and its host Alan Little did so well was demand answers to the questions created by the rhetoric. It is very easy to project your dreams onto something you don’t know much about, and is easy to imagine the First Minister sitting at home with a big Norwegian flag on the wall like a teenage boy staring wide eyed at a poster of Che Guevara he’s bought off the internet.

The programme asked a fundamental question: Is the Nordic economic model one Scotland can follow? There was some mention of shared heritage and attempts to problematise Scotland’s position bridging the gap between the British and the Northern, but it was largely an economistic view of events.

The excellent Alan Little began by popping off to Finland to find out about Nokia and childcare. There was an admirable attempt to situate Finland as a post-colonial country like Scotland might become. There was discussion of the economic crash of the early 90s due to dependence on the Soviet Union and a mention of how Scandinavian economies are not that diverse, but parallels could be made with the collapse of the largely London-based UK economy after the last financial crisis – in Finland at least the government had the tools to come up with a policy tailored to the country.

The childcare aspect was a detour into social policies, and these are perhaps the hardest to replicate. It also began a theme for the rest of the show that was never explicitly articulated. Many of the people encountered or interviewed were professional women enjoying high levels of access to both professions and childcare. The integration of educated and working women is one of the things that truly divides Scotland from its easterly neighbours, but as gay marriage so happily proved, that kind of equality is about mindset as much as money. You want it and then you fund it, rather than deciding you have the spare cash for such luxuries.

Next up was Sweden, and Alan Little went to speak to The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson. In London. Nelson is a man who knows very little about Sweden and not an awful lot more about contemporary Scotland. He gave the Cameronite line on the country, painting  the Swedish New Moderates and their liberal coalition partners as guardians of a progressive society. He claimed improved economic performance and employment, ignoring the fact that since the Moderates have been in power there have been serious tax cuts and in increase in temporary, lower paid jobs. Youth unemployment has increased and educational reforms, including the Free School concept, have created myriad problems. Stockholm is also suffering from an acute housing shortage due to the refusal of the Moderates to build accessible housing rather than suburban developments.

Alan popped back to Scandinavia to interview Lars Trädgårdh, a Swedish academic who has spent a lot of time in America and become a bit of a talking head for this kind of thing. Lars took Alan up onto the roof of the Higher Education where he works and pointed at the headquarters of the tax authorities. The problem was it isn’t the headquarters of the tax authorities and has not been for quite some time. I know because I used to live in it, but seeing as the tallest building being the tax headquarters is an established narrative trope in any guide to Sweden it seems a shame to get caught up on it.

 There was an assertion that Sweden doesn’t have a generous welfare state, which was a bit of a lie. It has an extremely generous welfare state, but it is built on a more expansive understanding of welfare than state unemployment benefit. This includes paying people to not work when they have young children, wage-linked unemployment funds and more robust attempts at education and retraining than that provided by either the current or previous Westminster governments, or by Britain historically for that matter. Alan Little’s assertion that “This isn’t the Sweden many on the left imagine” is true in part, but it almost seemed like it was too good a discovery to not make a point of. The truth of the matter is that many of the tenets of Scandinavian welfarism find no points of reference in British models or parlance. It isn’t Robin McAlpine’s William Morris inspired consensual welfarism, but neither is it Fraser Nelson’s utopia of hard work and sticks over carrots.

Last up was Norway, though Denmark wasn’t allowed a mention for some reason. Norway is the most prosperous of the Nordic countries, and as Alan strolled around Oslo’s redeveloped waterfront of speedboats and yuppie flats straight into the Nobel Peace Centre everything looked rosy. Norway is undeniably a great place to live, and definitely a much better bet than contemporary Britain by all kinds of measures. He visited a former industrial area reborn through a private business school. At an employment fair members of Norway’s so-called ‘dessert generation’ (because they are young enough to have only turned up for the sweetest part of the country’s journey from poor to rich and are known for wanting to have their cake and eat it) flocked to tables to become investment bankers or recruitment agents. The conclusion though was fairly unambiguous – even a tiny public oil fund would do wonders for Scotland’s economic and social rebirth.

There then came a very important question: why couldn’t Scotland pursue this Nordic model with further devolution? It was a question Little did not try to answer, but looking back over what was said some of the conclusions were self-evident. Could devolution make a Scottish oil fund, help protect Scotland from the economic collapse of a larger neighbour or allow it to radically reform its welfare and monetary policy? Probably not.

The best contribution though came in the show’s final lines. Alan Little is in the privileged position of speaking as a Scot who has gone not just to London but all over the world. He understands the context of change and political evolution, and his final question was the right one to ask. Should we not see the referendum in its broader, European context? Is this cutting Scotland off, or is it a repositioning at the nexus between two sets of neighbours?

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The squeezed bottom

21px-Compression_applied.svgOf all of this era’s grim political soundbites, is the worst “the squeezed middle”? This Miliband coinage takes a real problem (yes, middle-class incomes are rising less quickly than costs, privatised utilities are gouging their customers etc) and applies a subtle and divisive dogwhistle to it.

The problem isn’t just that the bottom, the poorest, get neglected every time the focus is on the “squeezed middle”, although that is true. A living wage is a great policy, for example, but it does nothing for you if you don’t get a wage. Similarly, the Lib Dems redistributed upwards with their increase in personal allowances, all the while waving the policy in the air as a supposedly progressive figleaf over the ugly assaults on the poor they have perpetrated with the Tories. A higher personal allowance would be a fine thing, as would a restoration of the 10p tax rate.. if there was any effort to make the poorest, those out of work, significantly better off (which doesn’t mean threatening to take their benefits away unless they find non-existent suitable work), and also to tax the rich a bit more.

No, the worse problem is hidden in the physics. If the middle is being squeezed, logically it’s being squeezed between what’s below it as well as what’s above. This metaphor implies that the poorest are part of the problem, part of the squeeze put on the middle. Presumably this is meant to provide a deniable echo for Labour’s long-standing distaste for those right at the bottom of society, the “scroungers” and the like.

The reality is that every time benefits are cut or things like the bedroom tax imposed, that’s a squeeze on the bottom, and it’s accompanied by bungs for the better-off: cheap housing to restart the bubble, boosts to personal allowances, and on top of it all, fiddles like non-dom status for the top. The middle may be under pressure, but it’s all from the top. And the bottom bears the weight of both.