Saturday, 31 December 2011

A New Year Prediction. A return to reality.

International football analogies are not of my making, they belong more to those interested largely only in flags and anthems.

But, since these are the terms of those within we are in current discourse...........

On 12th October 1977, Scotland beat Wales 2-0 to qualify for the 1978 World Cup.

Three days later, in Turin, Italy beat Finland 6-1, making it almost impossible for England to join us in Argentina.

And Scotland went mad. Not wholly irrationally mad. The Scotland team in Liverpool read: Rough; Jardine; Donachie; Masson; McQueen; Forsyth; Dalglish; Hartford; Jordan; Macari; Johnston. On any view, a somewhat superior line-up to those currently available to Craig Levein.

Nonetheless, in our heart of hearts, a team that we knew was unlikely to be quite good enough to win the World Cup.

But we didn’t allow such considerations to colour our public attitude at the time.

“We’re on the march with Ally’s Army
We’re going to the Argentine
And we’ll really shake them up
When we win the World Cup
‘Cause Scotland are the greatest football team”

The really embarrassing thing with the benefit of hindsight however was not our madness but the extent to which we accepted the patronage of the English.

England has won the World Cup once, with the assistance of every game played at home and even then some pretty dubious refereeing, culminating  in the world’s only two goal hat-trick. We know however that, as a large footballing  nation, one year, they at least have the possibility of doing so again. That’s why we can’t enjoy any World Cup or European Championship until they have been eliminated, no matter how much we are intellectually convinced they have no real chance. They should be more credible contenders than they ever prove to be. And one, nightmare, day that might just change. That’s football.

In 1978 however we in Scotland suddenly purported to become England in our over confidence (or, if you prefer, arrogance). Instead however of responding with reciprocal cynicism, English football opinion, seeing us being set up for a fall, was only too happy to go on for the ride. If we were daft enough to think we might win the World Cup, then why did they need to be so un-neighbourly as to celebrate our coming misfortune? Why not go along with the advance euphoria, particularly if you knew that you would have no need to deal with the aftermath? Or no need ever to truly worry that the achievements of Moore, Charlton and Hurst might be about to be overshadowed.

I was reminded of these events with the news that The Times had declared Alex Salmond to be the Briton of the year.

There are two Scottish interpretations of British (English) establishment opinion in relation to Scottish Independence. Those Scots of a broadly unionist perspective stand beside the Queen. That, for sentimental reasons, the establishment believes that such a development would be regrettable, even though they would surely get over it. Those of a more fundamentally Nationalist bent assert that it would be, for England, an economic catastrophe, such is the extent to which they are subsidised by the exploitation of Scotland’s natural resources. Neither perspective however would expect the man allegedly leading Scotland down a separatist road to be seen as a figure to be smothered in affection South of the Border. And yet we are to believe that he is.

True threats to the established order are not indulged by that same establishment, at least not until their threat has passed. Keir Hardie wasn’t. Nor were Tony Benn, or Ken Livingston or even Peter Tatchell. And, for the avoidance of any doubt, this has got nothing to do with any kind of different approach to a National Question.  Few figures have been more vilified in the newspapers now lauding Eck than Mahatma Ghandi. He was a real threat.

No, wee Eck is patronised in the way that Ally Macleod was patronised (and Parnell never was). He is built up to be an apparently unstoppable force in the comfortable knowledge that he will eventually crash and fail. Like Scotland in 1978. And, when he does, the Establishment will respond: “How sad, have a hug”, like Jimmy Hill infamously wearing a Scotland scarf at, admittedly, a different World Cup.  And the Nationalists will fall out among themselves as to whether to accept the embrace.

The problem with this is the aftermath for Scotland more generally.

The impact of the 1978 World Cup debacle didn’t just affect football. It caused a genuine collapse in national confidence. It was surely a significant factor in the inconclusive result of the following year’s referendum and of the decision taken by the SNP to commit political suicide in that events aftermath.

How much more so would be the debacle of a decisively lost Independence Referendum?

Here, I must diverge slightly to explain why such a referendum would be decisively lost. I know this is an argument I have made before but it cannot be made too often.

It is difficult to see political circumstances getting any better for the SNP than they are at the moment. Not only do they have as their leader a politician who towers in stature over his opponents; they have a Government of manifest competence and confidence; they are blessed with a stellar array of younger members and thinkers with a zealous commitment to their cause and in financial terms they have recently, quite literally, won the lottery.

Meanwhile, their domestic political opponents are inadequately led and erratically followed and funded; derided in the press and Civic Society and almost unrecognised by the general public; even their bigger hitters at Westminster are temporarily divided over strategy, although it says a lot about their assessment of the likelihood of Independence that they regard countering it as less than a primary consideration.

In wider political terms, the UK Government is one that Scotland did not vote for and is currently pursuing policies with which the vast majority of Scottish public opinion violently disagrees; yet, which shows every sign of being re-elected, possibly in an even more right wing, eurosceptical form.

Economic times are tough but the one reassuring asset in a time of global uncertainty is access to  natural resources and Scotland appears, by accident of history and climate, to be particularly well placed in that regard.

How then, conceivably, are things going to be any better placed for the Nationalists in a couple of years’ time? Is more oil to be found, or more wind to blow, or the seas to become more stormy?

Yet, despite all of these manifest current advantages, the polls which give the SNP more than 50% electoral support, continue to show nothing approaching a majority for Independence. And that’s before there is any coherent opposition campaign.

Again, I want to repeat myself about the nature of that campaign. It will be red in tooth and claw. Anyone expecting a civilised discourse around concepts of sovereignty and modern nationality is in for a very rude awakening. The combined devolutionist/unionist camp need not prove that people will be worse off; it need only raise a reasonable doubt that they might. And that's a scoosh.

I want to choose a few (OK, lots of) examples.

On 30th November past we saw a significant public sector strike against perceived threats to pension rights. A lot of people directly concerned got, understandably, exceptionally animated. How much more so will they be when the same Unions who led them out target them directly with material suggesting that if Independence goes wrong, their pensions might not be payable at all? Not won’t be, just might not be. How reassuring will a counter argument based on a promise prove against a status quo argument based on empirical evidence of past performance?

The same goes for State Benefits of any sort, possibly in spades, because benefit recipients are particularly prone to differential turn out. You can focus group this with frightening effectiveness.

Then we have Edinburgh’s financial services industry. Who can say how long they would wish to continue to be based in a different country from their largest market? Again, it is not necessary to conclusively win the argument, it is sufficient to raise the uncertainty to send the Capital’s property prices into a tailspin .

And then there is the military. It is understandable that North East Nationalist MPs go on these marches to keep the various bases there open. They are vitally important to the local economy. Point made in some ways but there is, beyond that,  a more empirical example. On any view the national swing in May should have delivered Jackie Baillie’s Dumbarton seat to the SNP. It didn’t for one very clear reason. The simple targeting of swing voters with material pointing out the local consequence of the withdrawal of the British submarine base. How many submarines would an independent Scotland propose to deploy?

And that’s without even considering the residual loyalty of those proud to have once served in the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force or British Army. Not to mention the potentially limited career prospects of those wishing to continue to serve.

And while we are in this area, and since it is New Year, what about the honours system? It’s all very well to maintain that “The Rank is but the Guinea stamp” but that’s clearly not the view of those aspiring to such recognition, never mind those facing it being taken away. I’m a pretty convinced (British) republican but I’ve met both the Queen and the First Minister and I’m in no doubt which was the more memorable event.

And, finally, there is the central economic argument. Truly, most informed opinion here concludes that a snapshot comparison of the revenue/expenditure performance of the  British and Scottish economies turns on the price of oil in any given year.  But there is no way the actual argument will be conducted in that way. Under the status quo, your taxes are what they are; public services are what they are; the welfare state is what it is. Sure, under Independence they might be better, but they are generally, currently, regarded as adequate (at least by the vast majority of the public). Faced with a choice of them perhaps being a bit better against siren voices asserting that they could be a great deal worse, there is only one rational conclusion.

There is however one absolutely clinching argument in this area. Asked if they would favour Independence even if Scotland were to be, short term, worse off as a result, most Nationalists would reply in the affirmative. That very answer however fundamentally undermines any attempt to make an apparently considered argument to reassure the undecided.

Now, the Nationalists will say “But we’ll have another three years to make our argument”. This however simply won’t wash. They are already very good at making the argument. There are big holes in it: over currency, Europe, the Monarchy, national institutions like the BBC or the DVLA, even, it appears from the report on the Scotland Bill, an ignorance over how much income tax is actually paid in Scotland. These holes are, however, in the argument itself, not in its articulation. Time, in this case, will not be a healer.

More importantly however, delay will allow the Devolutionist camp to get organised. No objective observer would doubt that, relatively, there is much more scope for improvement on that side. Indeed, while for the SNP it is difficult to see how much better things might conceivably be, organisationally, financially or politically in three years time, for their opponents it is difficult to conceive how they might be worse.

So why the delay?  I won’t repeat my previous remarks on why it’s got nothing to do with the SNP Manifesto, It’s simply that they have concluded that, as they can’t conceivably win today, they logically have no less chance of success in three years time. Their fatal error however is to allow their tummies to be tickled  by the establishment in the meantime.

For the problem for the SNP is that the game is increasingly likely to have to be played at some point.  Here some credit is due to the internet! It was @peatworrier and @loveandgarbage on Twitter who first raised the issue of the dubious vires of the Scottish Parliament to hold an Independence Referendum, even a merely advisory one. I then shamefully plagiarised that initial argument before suggesting that it might in fact be Salmond’s strategy to hope that his Referendum was blocked in the Courts, using that as his excuse 2011-16 as he had used the “Unionist Block” in 2007-11. Westminster however appears live to this and might be about to close the loophole by giving this power expressly to the Scottish Parliament, albeit to be exercised by a given date. I see no reason that date should be any earlier than Spring 2016. All possible objections from the Nationalists would then be headed off.

So, will Salmond, all hoped for obstacle removed, then act?

This is a question of considerable complexity but before attempting to answer it I need to deal with one other matter. There can only be one Referendum question. I say that not as a demand on the Scottish Government but as a statement of political reality. The SNP believe in Independence. There is no logic to them therefore asking any other question on their own initiative. Never mind the absurdities of unilateral declarations of devolution, even asking, unprompted, such a second question would imply pre-acceptance of defeat on the first.

They could however spin asking a second question if somebody else came up with it. But they won’t. Johann won’t; Ruth Davidson won’t; Willie Rennie couldn’t with any credibility and some sort of civic Scotland group set up for the purpose of its devising would just look like the Nationalist patsies that they would be likely to be. Anyway, in this Country, important politics is surely for elected politicians. That was the fatal flaw with Calman gaining public attention.

So, without the need for circumscription from Westminster, there will be only one question.

The issue then therefore becomes, will Salmond ask it? There is an apposite proverb “He who fights then runs away, lives to fight another day.”

You have to consider the options here. My own view has always been that after a proper campaign and on a clear question support for Independence will come out at between a quarter and a third of the electorate. Probably nearer the bottom end of that scale. Possibly below it (think Cubillas at this point).

Oddly I do not think that result would be a good thing. It would, rather, be in the nature of a national humiliation. During the campaign itself any number of blowhards will have been put up to maintain that “Freedom” is only days away.  They’ll end up look like idiots but so will the rest of us for appearing to have paid them any attention in the first place. Just like those of us who, knowing better, allowed ourselves to be caught up in the hysteria of 1978.

Obviously, a referendum loss, or, in our case, victory, would suit the partisan interests of the Labour Party as it would probably lead to the fragmentation of the SNP. It would also, presumably, end the career of Alex Salmond who (and here I let you into a secret) we really, really don’t like. It is difficult however to see how it would otherwise serve the interests of Scotland.

For the problem is that the threat of Independence has always been an important card for those of us who believe in a strong(er) Scottish Parliament. Once it’s played and lost, it’s played and lost. What leverage then has further Home Rule opinion with Westminster?  Little or nothing. The only remaining viable route would come from a Labour (or Lab/Lib) Westminster Government legislating on a voluntary basis. We’ve seen too often in the past the limitations of such an approach but how much more would these difficulties be if, for all practical purposes, the SNP, the supposedly most Home Rule Party, had voluntarily given up any influence of their own on the matter supposedly most important to them.

Now the common assumption is that the internal dynamic of the SNP would make it impossible for Salmond not to hold a Referendum. I’m however not so sure about that.

The SNP not only are good at running Scotland, they enjoy it. Not just the Ministers taking important, day to day, decisions but the grass roots activists who can bask in the knowledge that, if required, they could telephone the Education Secretary; email the Health Secretary on first name terms; dare I say it, enjoy a pint with the Justice Secretary. Their Councillors, and their friends, family and supporters enjoy their control of the local state apparatus, particularly, in many cases, having  been previously treated contemptuously by Labour for many years.

I don’t doubt for a moment that they would all like “Independence” even if not entirely united on what that means. If however they could be confronted, by a united leadership, with the conclusion, that Independence was not (currently) achievable, (“Much as we might win, we might, just, possibly, lose”)would they really insist on imperilling everything they have for an impossible (“Risky”) objective? And presumably, in the process, have to dump the leadership that had brought them to this point in the first place? After all, the Party has been remarkably sanguine about Independence being “postponed” from 2011 to 2014 or 2015, despite an outright majority at Holyrood. What’s another few years’ delay?

Nor is it clear why “Scotland” would object to not being asked a question they were patently primed to answer in the negative anyway. Labour will shout about broken promises but, to be honest, shouting hasn’t proved a very effective opposition strategy for us to date.

Sure, it would be embarrassing for Salmond, but not as embarrassing as a decisive Referendum defeat. And it would surely pave the way for continued domestic dominance at Holyrood at least until Labour got its own house more comprehensively in order. It might even give us a dilemma as to whether we were now obliged to take some sort of constitutional initiative of our own.

The Constitution of the SNP provides the Party with two objectives, firstly, certainly, Independence but, secondly, “The furtherance of all Scottish interests”.

Is it inconceivable that the long term pursuit of the first objective might be sold to the membership by the suggestion of the temporary prioritisation of the second?

Anyway, this is going to be the underlying theme of 2012.  I encourage you  to read the runes as it develops. As the Bard says of that moment “It’s coming yet for a’ that”.

Happy, happy New Year, for this is going to be fun to watch.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

(for want of a better title) My Christmas Blog

The Christmas season is an odd time.
Particularly since it has become, for many, a ten day holiday, it is approached in anticipation that there will be more than enough time to do everything. Once the immediate frantic activity around the Day itself is out of the way, sleep will be caught up on; literary presents read; old films watched; old friends visited and obligations to relatives discharged. And, in this modern age, the back catalogue of half watched TV series will also be finally retrieved and digested from the Sky Player or equivalent. Alongside a box set or two.
Then there are the things you don’t normally have the time for: a bit of (proper) cooking; the occasional long walk; some serious music listened to; perhaps a “major” novel (or two) re-read, together with the year end magazines and Christmas special Sunday supplements saved up in case you get bored.
And then there’s the Christmas telly to be watched, no longer on a “see it when it’s on or miss it forever” basis; a bit of shopping to be done; all that eating and drinking (home and away); and of course football, even a concert or two, to be attended, not least to have something to do.
Oh and there’s also the New Year to be prepared for. House tidied; black bun ordered in; all the food bought for Christmas and somehow since disappeared replaced in almost equal quantities if slightly different combination.

And then suddenly that box of work you brought home on 23rd December, confident of doing it at some time over the long holiday, is wailing at you from the boot of the car with the ominous chorus that in twelve hours or so you’ll be back in the office and it will remain unattended to (unless it can be accommodated alongside the last four episodes of the box set; the last 100 pages of the Christmas present page turner............. and the New Statesman Christmas special. And that’s already having admitted defeat over the remaining 350 pages of The Charterhouse of Parma.

Ideally therefore a year end political taking stock could be undertaken at a different time. Perhaps early February.

Normally such an exercise involves three obvious elements; a review of the year past; a prediction of the year ahead and an attempt to show at least some continuity at work.

That won’t really work however in the context of current Scottish politics: the year past was exciting; there was an election and that election produced, on any view, a significant long term development in the form of the SNP landslide. It can be concluded with some probability that that result will not be reversed easily; with equal probability that it will not be done until the opposition Parties come to terms with the National question but, most significantly of all, it can be concluded with absolute certainty that there will be no change in the Holyrood administration until May 2016 at the earliest. And May 2016 is a long time away.

So, for those who like excitement in their Scottish politics, I regret to say that the initial assumption about 2012 is that it will be a lot less exciting than 2011. There won’t even be the “excitement” of any internal leadership contests. It will mainly just be grind. There won’t be a Referendum, or even legislation for a Referendum but the Administration will want to do as little as possible to rock the boat, just in case they do ever decide to hold one, so there won’t be any bold policy initiatives either.

There will be a continued bit of background noise over the legalities of an advisory referendum and a bit of unequal sniping between Salmond and Michael Moore over the Scotland Bill but, even if the Bill passes it wont come into force immediately; indeed if the SNP are to be believed it won’t ever come into force because, before it does, Scotland will be independent, which rather makes you wonder why they are so concerned as to what is in it.

There will of course be local government elections (snore) but the long term significance of these will, I predict, prove to be much less significant than anticipated. The results will simply confirm that the Nationalists currently have the big mo and the opposition are in disarray. Even if Labour holds on to Glasgow, which, incidentally, I think we will, it will be difficult to spin as a real tide turning event that we are still in power where we’ve been in power all of my adult life.

And that’s about it.

If I was writing a 2012 year end review now, and domestic Scottish politics were all that mattered, I suspect I could now invest in the opening line “Scottish politics in December 2012 look much like they did in December 2011.”

But of course, domestic Scottish politics are not all that matters.

It is tempting to think that after the debacle of the Brussels summit, nothing will detach the Libs from the coalition but I’m not convinced. Europe does, I think, matter to them and there will be big choices to be made over Europe in the coming year. I think almost all British politicians misunderstand the strategic commitment to the European idea in the core countries in particular. I think they will all be astonished at the economic pain Italy will be prepared to go through to stay in the Euro. Don’t be fooled by the size of the demonstrations, Italians like that sort of thing, look instead at the approval ratings for Monti and Napolitano.

And the response to crisis in Europe has not been a move towards the looser Union of Tory back-bench fantasy but rather the ever closer union anticipated by the Community’s founders. Along that path there will be any number of forks but there will inevitably be a point when the Libs can no longer simply get huffy over the road not taken. Possibly sooner rather than later.

And since Scotland is (still) part of Britain, perhaps the political year here will prove as exciting as 2011 after all.

Anyway, that’s all, I suspect, from me this year. If it is then I trust that the economic outlook for 2012 will prove to be not as bleak as it currently appears and that my happy band of followers enjoy a peaceful and happy New Year.

I’m off to watch five catch up episodes of Romanzo Criminale and then, if I can find a torch, to go for a long walk.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

San Francesco della Vigna

My favourite Church in Venice is San Francesco della Vigna.

A bit out the way but once you’ve either enjoyed  the long round trip by Vaporetto around Castello or negotiated the labyrinthine trek from the centre, you will find, behind the Palladian facade a perfect interior, by Sansavino, which would be much more at home in Southern Tuscany or Umbria.  

In Vienna, I was horrified to find a Franciscan Church which even outdid the Jesuits in Baroquery, and elsewhere, there are any number of large preaching barns, but, generally, if you are marooned and in need of a place for quiet contemplation, then it never does any harm to seek out the parish Church of St Francis. You will seldom be disappointed; that is certainly the case in Venice.

But Venice is really about facades. If I have a favourite Venetian Church, then how much more so do I have a favourite Venetian walk. Behind the Salute and along the the bank of the Guidecca. Il Redentore; Le Zitelle; above all San Giorgio Maggiore each standing in array on the far side. The best time to enjoy it is undoubtedly on a diamond clear Winter day, when the low sun ripples across the water, but my most memorable negotiation was in deepest Autumn fog, when you couldn’t even see the further bank. On the No.5 back to San Marco, the individual church facades at each stop loomed out of the fog like monuments in a Dickensian graveyard and any potential step ashore was discouraged by the thought that Daphne Du Maurier’s red coated dwarf was almost certainly  lurking down a Calle the minute you stepped away from the crowd.

So, anyway, you might say, what has any of this got to do with the usual topics of my blog? Nothing and everything is the answer.

Since the Scottish Labour Party has clearly to immerse itself in self indulgence for the next four and a half  years, with no interest in returning to power, I have decided that I might as well do so as well. And to have more fun in the process.

So, this week, Venice. Next week, the delights of Puglia: Romanesque Cathedrals and heavenly seafood. Only 233 weeks, and 12 first the post seats still to lose, until normal service is resumed.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

'Twas the Night before the Election

So, tomorrow, we will know. Not care, just know.

There has been virtually nothing interesting about the Labour Leadership contest. That in itself is however interesting.

Nobody. and I mean literally nobody, thinks that who emerges as the winner from the contest tomorrow will ever be First Minister of Scotland. Including, in their heart of hearts, the potential victors themselves.

Now, and here I genuinely mean this as no insult, the same, in terms of potential First Ministerial Office,  could equally have been said of the recent Tory contest. But that is the limit of my patronising. Because the Tory contest was still interesting. Murdo had a Big Idea. And that Ruth Davidson, as a gay woman, could get elected says a huge number of positive things not just about how Scotland has changed but, much as I hate to admit it, about how the Tories have shown a willingness to move with the times.

But the Scottish Tories, in terms of historic electoral support, are not the Scottish Labour Party, at least in my lifetime.

Until six months ago, Labour had been the dominant political force in Scotland for...........ever. Let us not forget, when Wendy was elected in Autumn 2007, the consensus, and by no means solely among the ranks of the faithful, was that the position she had assumed was that of  First Minister in waiting.

But let us not also forget that, even then, Wendy recognised that to return to power, Labour had to modernise. More innovative policy, greater focus on Scottish elections on their own merits, better candidates.

With her fall, all of that was abandoned as unnecessary, or at least too difficult. And in May 2011 the electorate passed its verdict on that assessment.

The really shocking thing about this year's contest is two things. I will come to the second. The First however is that, of the front runners, even  the more contemporary candidate, Ken, is about ten years behind Wendy in his thinking, while the other, Johann, is about six months behind Michael Foot. Pledge Cards, PLEDGE CARDS!!!!, are regarded as state of the art campaigning by the latter's camp only to be dismissed as anachronistic by their opponents who have discovered the wonders of robo calls. ROBO CALLS!!!

The second thing is however the more contemptible. Essentially both of the leading candidates start with the admission that they are no match for Alex Salmond. And so, to excuse their own inadequacies, they invest the First Minister with super-human properties.

I do not underestimate the First Minister. He is a politician of the first rank. Scotland. my Country, deserves no less for its First Minister. But big Donald gave him a doing in 1999. Jack McConnell, four years later,  drove him out of the contest altogether. Jim Murphy, as Secretary of State, ran rings round him in the run up to the 2010 General Election. Each were, in their own way, able politicians but none of them would even claim to have been wholly exceptional or unreplaceable  Labour leaders. I refuse to accept that we must now simply accept that we have no-one available of equal talent just because no suvh person exists in the current Holyrood Labour Group..

So, no matter who wins tomorrow, let those of who want Labour to win in 2016 wake up on Sunday with the resolve that, no matter who Labour puts forward for First Minister at that election, it cannot conceivably be either of these people.

Monday, 12 December 2011

I Was Wrong

I am, as my regular reader will know, exceptionally annoyed about the Coalition Government's decision to withdraw from the European Union. They have, however, clearly got a Commons majority for whatever they want to do. We can only hope they don't next decide to bring back hanging, since, as Nick Clegg assures us "The Coalition Government is here to stay." No matter what.

And, while it will be fun seeing the destruction of the Liberal Democrats at the next election, there is no reason to think we will be any greater gainers than the Tories. So, if that's all that happens, we will likely just end up with (another) right wing Tory Government. Just with different personnel.

Bernard Jenkin entertained the airways this morning with his observations that the French have never liked us while the smaller countries won't support us because they are all scared of the Germans. When Vince Cable loses his seat, perhaps Mr Jenkin will be promoted to the Cabinet. To be honest, given the events of the last few days, it will make no practical difference.

But, if I am annoyed with the Libs, I am almost as annoyed at the mealy mouthed response of my own Party "Leadership".

I know that London does not pay much attention to the "micro-politics" of Scotland but there is surely one lesson of the three years leading up to the May 2011 elections. There is a world of difference between being an effective opposition leader and being a credible alternative First Minister or Prime Minister.

The first depends merely on an ability to say what the Government has done wrong; the second on an ability to articulate credibly what you would have done instead.

It is said that the best opposition leader of recent times was William Hague. And he nearly was. You can still find you tube clips of his Commons' performances. Hugely entertaining and, on occasions, quite brilliant. But he was so hampered by his own Party's internal disarray he never had a credible alternative programme.

I say however that Hague was "nearly" the best opposition leader because he has one superior, who operated  de facto if not de jure in the capacity of "Leader of the Opposition" for five years: Gordon Brown.

Any time Blair did anything really unpopular "Gordon's people" would let it be known that he would have done things differently. They were careful never to say what they would actually have done, just that it would have been something different. Thus, that "something different" could be whatever you wanted it to be. And since, unlike Hague,  Gordon's road to power ran through the byzantine internal politics of the Labour Party, rather than through the ballot box, in the end he succeeded.

The problem was that he had spent so much time positioning himself to secure the top job that, by the time he achieved it, he had forgotten why he wanted it in the first place. The rest is history.

But, for the moment at least, if the Leader of the Labour Party wants to become Prime Minister then he or she will require to win a General Election. And that requires an ability to answer the question "What would you do?" with something more than "something different".

I have simply not the remotest idea what Ed was up to today. Having attacked Cameron for his European policy he offered no alternative and then, outside the Chamber, presumably out of residual fear of the Murdoch Press, authorised his press team to brief that he wouldn't have signed the Treaty either! That is not alternative government, it is simply opposition.

There were absolutely no implications for Britain, outside the Eurozone, in allowing the others to proceed as they wished. Even to take Cameron at his word and that there is a need to protect the City of London from European Regulation (a very big "even"), there was not a word about that in the Treaty proposed. It was simply not the business in hand.

So, accepting for the moment the "even", when asked if he would have signed, Ed should have replied with the simple one word answer "Yes". That would not have prevented him then briefing that he would nonetheless have raised the issue of City regulation on a future and more propitious occasion.

That would have been leadership.

But, referring back to the title of this article, why was I wrong?

I really didn't want David Miliband to become leader of the Labour Party. I felt he was simply insufficiently apologetic for the errors of Blair's time in office, most obviously over Iraq. I voted therefore for Ed Balls. But I then fatally then cast my second preference for Miliband (E) in much the same way as many of my political soulmates are now voting (at least with their second preference),  for McIntosh (K). Albeit in a different political context, not for who he is but for who he isn't.

In my UK Leadership vote, I was wrong. If the only other credible alternative Prime Minister standing was David Miliband then I should have given him my support.

I'd still, right enough, rather have had Yvette Cooper than any of them.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

A big week

I was at my Office Christmas night on Friday and accordingly was in no real fit state to blog yesterday.

With the benefit of hindsight that is just as well because had I done so it is likely the blog would have been composed entirely of vitriol about the Liberal Democrats. I've calmed down a bit now but I'm also heartened by the fact that there seems to be some dawning realisation on their part that they can't simply go along with Cameron on Europe.

It is said that Winston Churchill's favourite Film was Alexander Korda's Lady Hamilton.

Now, for all the beauty of Vivien Leigh, or the melodrama of the plot, no-one is in any real doubt that the reason the great man was drawn to the film is in its finale when the Royal Navy forms its line at the Battle of Trafalgar and, to a score based around a chorus of Hearts of Oak, Nelson orders his famous "England Expects" signal and prepares to meet his destiny.

That is one view of our history and I defy the hardest and most cynical lefist not to be temporarily moved by it.

But it has always seemed to me that the pro-European liberal left has a moment to at least equal that in another film made the following year; Michael Curtiz' Casablanca. Pure fiction (even more than Lady Hamilton!) but powerful fiction nonetheless.

In some ways, the real hero of that film is none of the principal players but the cause they each, in their own way, choose to serve. Among the principals however is Victor Laszlo, described as a Czech Resistance Leader. At no point is Laszlo held out to be a fighter, in the physical meaning of that word. He is a democratic politician; a representative not of how things are but of how they ought to be. His work is not to fight totalitarianism with bullets but to fight it with ideas. Yet when he instructs the band in Rick's Cafe to drown out The Watch on the Rhine with The Marseillaise, even Hearts of Oak must take second place in the goosepimple stakes.

The European Union is the creation of hundreds, thousands of real life Victor Laszlos. Determined never to return to either 1942 or 1805. And among them are an awful lot of Liberal Democrats, in Britain and beyond.

British withdrawal from the European Union, or, better still, the destruction of the Union itself, is clearly a course on which a significant part of the Conservative Party is set. Whether David Cameron is among them or is simply unable to resist them, need not detain us here. There are people who do have the power to prevent that course being set and to do so with immediate effect.

It is easy to say that all Liberal Democrats have no principles but that would not just be unfair, it would be untrue. To choose to participate in politics without joining either of the big parties is surely a sign of people motivated by more than mere personal ambition.

They made a serious error in May 2010 but it was surely motivated by a belief, firstly, and correctly, that the Country needed a Government of some sort but, secondly and fatally, that the Tories could be trusted to recognise that they were simply the largest minority in a parliament of minorities and to govern accordingly. Patently, they are not. Europe is not however just one issue like, for example, tuition fees. That involved only a stupid manifesto commitment and an opportunist campaign. Words could be eaten.

Words surely however cannot be eaten on Europe. The reason the Liberal Democrats are the Liberal Democrats, and not just the Liberals, is because a significant section of their founding membership left the Labour Party over its one time anti-Europeanism. And the reason they, in turn, chose to join up with the pre-existing Liberals was because they had so much in common on, above all, Europe.

It cannot surely be the case that for an unwillingness to admit an error, less still for a ribboned coat, that they are now prepared to sail in the company of John Redwood and Trevor Kavanagh.

The Tories seem for the moment to be consoling themselves that the one thing, above all others, the Lib Dems won't want is an Election. I have already pointed out however that the collapse of the Coalition will not mean an Election if an alternative Government can be formed.

There has been some criticism of the low profile Ed Miliband has been keeping since Friday. I wonder if it's because he has been working the phones? I sincerely hope it is.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

General Elections are Important

On the Friday after the 2007 Scottish Parliament Elections, wee Eck delivered a memorable speech in which he declared that "While it might not be clear who has won this election, it is clear who has lost."

That speech was written in anticipation that the SNP had denied the Labour/Lib Coalition an absolute majority but also in the belief that Labour had, nonetheless, secured one more seat than the SNP in the Parliament.

At the last minute however it was determined that the result in the Highland list was not as had been anticipated and that it was the SNP who had a one seat plurality.

That one seat was nonetheless critical in giving the SNP a moral mandate to form a minority Government and essential to the survival of that minority administration over the next four years. For all the bravado of the First Minister at Prestonfield House, it is difficult to see how that could have been carried off with but a single seat less.

One of the things you learn as you get more experience of politics is that Parliamentary arithmetic is very important. Demonstrations, public outrage, universal newspaper condemnation, opinion polling, by-elections or whatever count for nothing so long as the Government enjoys a majority in Parliament. That is, in the proper sense, democracy.

Now in this context it is important to remember the result of the 2010 UK Election.

The British figures are these. Tories 306 Seats; Labour 258; Lib Dems 57; SNP 6; Green 1; Plaid 3; Speaker 1.

And the Northern Irish: DUP 8; Sinn Fein 5; SDLP 3; Alliance 1; Independent Unionist 1.

So, 650 Seats, with the neutral Speaker, 649.

So, in theory, that means that to have a Commons Majority you need 325 votes. And the Coalition has 363.


Well, first of all you do not need 325 votes for a Commons majority, because the Shinners don't vote.

So there are only 644 MPs who actually vote. 323 for a majority.

And, secondly, this is a coalition with three elements. There are the Libs; the Tories and the Loonies.

And as has been clear over the last 24 hours, you can't ignore the Loonies.

It is apparent to the world that sorting out the crisis in the Euro is essential to the future well-being of this Country.And that sorting the Euro crisis will require a new Treaty. And that thanks to the loonies, the Coalition does not have a Commons majority for that Treaty.

So what does that mean for the Labour Party?

I am in no doubt that if "The Tories" had an absolute majority in the Commons, but a Loony fringe denying them that majority on this one issue, it would mean that, in the National interest, Labour should lend our votes to the the Government to enable them to get the legislation through the Commons. That's what some, at least, of our most distinguished parliamentarians did in 1971.

But the Tories do not have an absolute Commons majority.

And thus, crucially, in a way which most commentators have chosen to ignore, they do not have the right to a dissolution of Parliament.

Lets just walk through what happens when Cameron returns next week. Either there will be no deal because of his fear of his own back benchers, in which case it is difficult to see the Libs staying in the Government. Or there will be a deal but patently no Government majority for its ratification.

So what happens then?

Cameron goes to the Queen and tenders his resignation (Maybe not next week, but eventually). HMQ however would, in accordance with constitutional principle, refuse him a dissolution until it was clear that no-one else could command a Commons majority.

And suddenly, all the focus will be on the Libs. The one certainty of an early Election is that they would be annihilated. But even then it is difficult to see them being prepared to stand aside and watch Britain, effectively, leave the European Union. We've had a lot of anger towards them, and fun at their expense, since May 2010 but they do have some principles and surely Europe is near the top of these. That leads to one obvious conclusion.

So, what if Labour says it will deliver the Treaty Cameron has rejected? Or, at a price, construct a majority for the Treaty he can't get through?

Let's look back at the numbers, for suddenly they are very important. The Left Parties: Lab 258 + 3 (SDLP) + 3 (Plaid) +1 (Green) together with the 57 Libs and the one Alliance vote gets you to that 323.

And then there is the SNP.

There is no need to get involved in an argument where their heart might lie; they would surely vote with their heads. It took them twenty years to recover from the error of 1979 and they can see what happened to the Libs in May 2011.

So, if they sit on their hands, suddenly there are only 638 votes in play. And 323 is a more substantial majority.

But, finally, it might not be as simple as that. You can't ignore the personalities.

Nick Clegg would clearly have no place in any Labour Coalition Government, nor would Danny Alexander. And, to be honest, Chris Huhne should not have a place in any Government, or even in public life. But Ming, Charlie Kennedy, Tim Farron and others would surely be in happier company than at present. As would Vince with a briefly mumbled apology.

Labour also however might have to face up to the fact that such a coalition, in such circumstance, would need a politician of the first rank at its head. And ask itself honestly whether Ed really fits that bill.

So that is why I might be tempted with a flutter on David Miliband being Prime Minister by the First of February.

It's a funny old world.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Lost forever

So, I’d spent the night watching Valencia being eliminated from the Champions League while I shopped online for women’s clothing.

That might have made a good tweet, as I had, I suppose, intended it to be, until the phone rang and I was informed that my neighbour, Dave, had died.

You joke about withholding full names to avoid identifying people but I genuinely do not know his full name. He was “just” my neighbour. Dave to me as I was Ian to him.

I suppose I knew, or at least suspected, he wasn’t well. I’d see him about more often than usual, although I knew he was  a man who loved his work, even  if it did bring him long hours. And I was aware he was losing weight in a not entirely reassuring manner all the time while the enquiry “How are you?” would be answered by the standard Scottish response “Fine”.

Part of what I do for a living is advising people about how to deal with difficult neighbours. Noisy neighbours, neighbours who dispute property boundaries, sometimes neighbours who are simply un-neighbourly.

But there are 80.000 people in Cumbernauld and Kilsyth and only a handful who find themselves unfortunate enough to have to consult me or my professional colleagues because of their neighbours. The real lesson comes from the experience of the rest.

It is said that you can choose your friends but you cannot choose your relatives. Ha ha. But equally, you cannot choose your neighbours.

But, for so many of us, our neighbours, despite the fact that we are initially thrown together by nothing more than random circumstance, become our friends. And in the way we are thrown together so many prejudices are cast aside.

“They are really nice, although they are not married, you know” becomes “They are really nice, although they are Pakistanis” or even “They are really nice, although I suspect they may be homosexuals”. And in time the “although” disappears. As does the rest of the sentence.

Do you know what, that is because most people are “Really nice”.

So, Dave, at your funeral I will finally, presumably, learn your second name. And that knowledge will not be important.  But my loss at your passing will. You were really nice.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Blogging on a Sunday Afternoon

Unlike, it appears, every single other person in Scotland this Sunday, I am bored.

Every second Saturday at St Mirren Park for as long as I can remember it has been possible to see at least one and sometimes two pandas. Indeed on occasions there was also Junior P, so presumably they bred at some point.

I can't therefor see what all these Edinburgh folk are getting all excited about. Even more excited than the Chinese appear to be at the distinction of a visit from the First Minister. I hope the Chinese at least take the opportunity to raise their concerns with him at the proposed abolition of corroboration.

(Diversion 1. Rumours are that Eck's trade delegation was accompanied by representatives of Greggs the Bakers but that their samples had to travel separately to ensure they weren't consumed on route.)

And another thing about Paisley Panda, he did stunts. Bet the Edinburgh pandas won't do that. On the occasion of one Renfrewshire Derby he even approached the Morton support bearing a large scrubbing brush and a gigantic bar of soap. The soapdodgers then reciprocated by hanging a miniature Panda from the crossbar at the return game.  Just as well the new football legislation wasn't in force then, since, as everybody had offended everybody else, the whole County would have had to have been transformed into a giant prison.

(Diversion 2.  In Italy, supporters of Hellas Verona refer to supporters of, their rivals, Vicenza as "Mangi Gatti", (cat eaters) in reference to some otherwise long forgotten 16th Century siege. That makes even the Battle of the Boyne look like a relatively recent event.)

So, anyway, is this blog going anywhere?

Well, not really, because there's not much happening in Scotland other than Panda Mania.

Except that there was an incredibly insightful article by Kenny Farquharson in Today's Scotland on Sunday on the subject of the SNP and Europe. Which touches more generally on why there's not much happening in Scotland.

For all the political sound and fury around last week's Pre-Budget report there was a consensus across the UK Parties about the potentially disastrous consequences of the collapse of the Euro. Douglas Alexander popped up on the UK  section of the Politics Show to comment on this very subject and even the most Eurosceptic of Tories are being a bit more judicious in their schadenfreude.

Now, for the moment at least "this Country" includes Scotland, at least the last I time checked. And, for all the long term importance of opening up new markets, such as China,, "Continental Europe" is likely to remain Scotland's most important trading market (apart obviously from No Longer So Great Britain). The events in Europe are obviously the cause of great domestic political difficulty for David Cameron but nobody would expect him to remain completely immobile simply to "avoid" that difficulty. As, to be fair, he realises.

So one might expect that the Scottish Government, which supposedly trades on a greater European enthusiasm than the Tories, to have something to say on the subject. Certainly something more than "Ooh! Look at the Pandas!".

I bang on and on about the distoring effect that the Constitutional question is having on Scottish politics as the Government concludes that silence can be interpreted in the otherwise silent ear of the listener. Thus you can support Independence from the belief that it will lead to anything from (a) The return of the Stewarts; a separate Scottish Pound and membership not of the EU but of EFTA or, for all I know, the Holy Roman Empire; (b) A Republic; early entry to the Euro and full participation in a fiscal Union; (c) Retention of the Queen; the  Pound Sterling and very little current day to day difference (Flags and Anthems aside); (d) a Socialist state on the Cuban model, including the weather; or even (e) who cares what kind of State so long as we're not in the Common Fisheries Policy; since we all know, then, fish stocks would magically become inexhaustible.

This silence on the part of the SNP as a Political Party on the European crisis is therefor understandable. Whatever they said they'd offend somebody, even if Independence somehow achieved by this sort of route is going to leave an awful lot of these people disappointed if we were ever to get there.

The SNP are not now however just a political Party, they are the Government of Scotland, or so they like to claim, when it does suit them. The Government of Scotland must (in both senses of that word) have a view of the way forward for the European Union it is still their intention, one day, to join as a "full" member. It is time we heard what that view is.

Presumably even they, maintainers though they are that all Scotland's problems would be miraculously solved by Independence, wouldn't have the cheek to suggest that Scottish Independence would also solve all Europe's problems. Even if it would bring back the fish.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Upon the Feast Day of St Andrew

Unlike the English, Welsh or Irish, we've got a proper Saint. Mentioned in the Bible. No harm to the Welsh and the Irish but although their patron Saints were clearly real, and Godly,  people, their Sanctitude clearly depends on the endorsement of the Church of Rome. As for the English: well, let's be honest, who has ever actually seen a dragon?

But St Andrew is a proper Saint. Undisputed before or after 1560. Brother of St Peter (and although no doubt Eck would assert the more distinguished brother, most of us would settle for simply brother). One of the Disciples. As I say, a proper Saint.

I do, however, accept that he may not actually have been born on 30th November. Good though the Romans were at record keeping it is probably unrealistic to hope that this could ever be conclusively be established.

I'm also reasonably certain that he never set foot on Scottish soil. Having been born in the Mediterranean, and benefiting from Divine Guidance, for him to have ended up in Fife would have marked Him out not as a Saint but as an idiot.

Now, how can I write all of the above, I hope at least, reasonably wittily.

Because personal history is important. What you learn through it,  but also how you learn from it. So. as someone brought up (baptised  but not confirmed) in the Church of Scotland, I can pick up the distinction between undisputed Saints and.......others. Pick that up even while I recognise that the most Presbyterian of Ministers will never have referred to (merely) Francis of Assisi.

Religion remains important in much more significant and potentially embarrassing terms than we care to acknowledge.

When I first set up my own business my relationship manager at the Royal Bank (whom henceforward I will call "Shug" provided me with a great deal of assistance. I'd never really worked for myself; being a partner in a larger Firm didn't really count. So. getting the balance right between an initial, and repayable, capital loan and a working overdraft was uncharted territory and Shug undoubtedly helped me to negotiate my way through it.

So, when five years later, Shug told me he was leaving the Bank to set up his own business and asked for my help with the legal work I was only too happy to assist.

Until Christmas.

At Christmas each year my Firm sends, I suppose somewhat cynically, Christmas Cards to our most valued clients. Or at least to those not currently in Barlinnie.

But there was a problem with Shug. Because that wasn't (as you'll already have guessed) his real name. It was, and even now I hesitate to confess this, possible to conclude from his real name (and more reprehensibly still, his skin colour) that he was unlikely to be of a Christian confession. Almost as certainly as it was possible to conclude that Patrick O'Donnell from Croy was unlikely to be unhappy when his Christmas card dropped through the door. Particularly if Our Lady featured prominently.

So, shame on me, Shug's contentious card sat on my desk until Christmas Eve. When we received one from him.

Now, in the West of Scotland, the word "bastard" has a much more complex entymology than a mere reference to the legitimacy of one's parentage. Or even to an actual insult.  And it was in that context that I looked at this particular Christmas card. Thinking that I had no opportunity to reciprocrate. Bastard.

So today is Scotland's day. St Andrew's day. And you don't have to a believer to think that. But you also don't need to dismiss the sentiment/history/theology behind it.

So, as a self professed agnostic....

God bless Scotland.

And God bless St Andrew, our Patron Saint.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Strike

I was brought up and lived the first thirty years of my life in Paisley, Renfrewshire.

Now Paisley has a proud Labour Movement history. It elected it's first Labour MP in 1924; Willie Gallacher, Scotland's first Communist MP was born there; in the late thirties its textile workers gave substantial voluntary support to the textile workers of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. In 1945 we elected Oliver Baldwin, Stanley Baldwin's radical son as our Labour representative and his enforced and protesting departure to the Lords on the death of his father paved the way for Tony Benn twenty years later.

Even as I tentatively entered the political scene in the Seventies, its most important local Union remained the National Union of Dyers, Bleachers and Textile Workers, the organised embodiment of the 30,000 who once worked at the Anchor and Ferguslie Mills.

But, for reasons buried in pre-history geology, Paisley, indeed Renfrewshire was never a mining area.

So when, for work reasons, I moved home to Kilsyth in 1991, I was immediately struck by the extent to which people would talk about "the" strike. Events would be dated as happening before or after the strike. Local Labour politicians judged in relation to their activities during the strike. Above all, there was a sense that, in the aftermath of the strike, a world had been lost forever.

I read recently a well argued blog, with which I personally agree, suggesting that the Left would do well not to be seen to rejoice in the demise of Margaret Thatcher, but I am only too conscious that there are people in this community who, frail old lady that she now is, would happily still strangle her with their own hands.

Why do I say all of this?

On the 30th November we are invited to accept we are to witness an event of similar importance. Only we are not.

The miners strike was about defending a way of life. It was, even in its time, complicated because it was a way of life, working all day in perilous conditions underground, that the miners (and, for once without any sexist connotation, their wives) did not wish for their own children but which was still better than nothing at all. And the alternative offered by the Tories in 1984, was, as it has since proved so often proved to be, nothing at  all.

Now the leaders of next week's strike are men of place and time. For all they enjoy the same first decade of the twenty-first century comforts as the rest of us, they would much rather, in their imagination at least, be organising alongside Lenin at the Smolny Institute; or at least Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones confronting the Motor Companies of the sixties at Halewood and Dagenham; or, best of all, A.J. Cook and Herbert Smith on 1st May 1926.

Only they are not. The majority, probably the overwhelming majority, of white collar managerial workers striking on Wednesday will actually be striking against the Government they voted for, even if their leaders didn't. Voted for in the knowledge that would bring a lot of misery to a lot of people but who wish, nonetheless, to be personally exempted from the consequences of their own actions. And they will be striking to defend pension rights that the remainder of the workforce could only dream about. (Senior Civil servants pensions involve a 24% contribution, on top of income, from ordinary taxpayers, many of whom will not earn £74,000 in five years, let alone one.)

Now, that does not mean they do not mean they are wrong to strike. If I was being threatened with a 3% pay cut and thought I could enlist enough support then I'd be on strike as well. Nor does it mean that they do not have the right to strike, of course they do.

But, for the avoidance of any doubt, the lowest paid in the public sector are unaffected by these changes. So are all those within ten years of retirement.

And if Labour had won in 2010, even the most evil Tory spinmeister would not suggest people would have started dying earlier, which is the real cause of the "problem". Or other than the most dishonest Labour Politician assert that change, of some sort, to public sector pension provision would have been unneccessary.

So let us defend the right of the Unions to get the best deal possible for their members. But let's not pretend their is some sort of "class struggle" going on here. Unless it is a struggle between those in the secure salarariat and the rest of us.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

An Endorsement

I need to start with an explanation.

I was asked to write a guest blog for A Burdz Eye View on the merits of Tom Harris as leader of the Scottish Labour Party and I duly obliged.

In the aftermath of the event, the Burd asked for volunteers to advance the cause of the deputy leadership candidates and, emboldened by the excitement of a much wider audience (Her blog's got SEVENTY SEVEN followers; I didn't know there were that many people in the whole internet) I immediately rushed forward to offer to champion Anas Sarwar, the guy whose clearly going to win anyway. And not just because I didn't want to entirely burn my boats with the future party leadership.

Ah but, implied Ms Higgins, for by now we were on Surname terms, I don't want the world to think that I've only got a few friends in the Labour Party (true though that might be).

I therefor came up with the idea of adopting a pseudonym. Of pretending to be other than I was. I'm surprised none of these other interneters have ever thought of such an idea.

(I know a lot of people think Stephen Noon is Alex Salmond but I've seen them both in the same room. He might however be Kevin Pringle, I haven't ruled that out.)

Anyway, the Burd was obviously outraged at such a suggestion, because I haven't heard a peep from her since.

In the meantime however, I wrote the appropriate enconium. So, here it is.

I chose as my nom de plume Anna Kulischov, who, I am sure you are all aware, was one of the founders of the Italian Socialist Party  Not being dead, a woman, Jewish, Russian, adopted Italian, or medically qualified in any way, I thought this was a pretty deep cover. Obviously not deep enough for the Burd  (not that I'm bitter in any way).

In my initial draft I thought that might give me licence to comment on what an attractive young man Comrade Sarwar is but I've taken that out as unworthy of the learned Doctor. I'm sure it would have formed no part of her considerations as it most certainly forms no part of mine.

So, here we go.

"Sorelle D’Italia,

Le mie scuse per la scrittura in Inglese.

Sometimes, just sometimes, you are persuaded that all of this is not a waste of time.

With the exception of the handful who might join our Party in anticipation that being un membro laboristo del comune (a Labour Cooncillor?) might be the one and only employment for which they are actually qualified, the rest of us join, at least initially, fired with a desire to change society for the better. And join in the hope that we might find leaders to steer us in that direction.

Now, experience is inclined to grind us down. Too many of our  would be leaders are much less well equipped to lead than we are inclined to follow. And too many of us come to accept that this is..... meglio che possiamo sperare (the best we can hope for?).

So we end up with either a hopeless commitment  to a leadership we can’t quite work out how we ever elected, or a forlorn attachment to a choice taken with no regard to electability in any forum external to the Party itself.

But then, just very occasionally, (e chiedo scusa  se il mio inglese e inadeguato) somebody comes along who makes us understand why we joined this Party in the first place.

Anas Sarwar was, with the greatest of respect to him, before the Special Conference on  29th October  perceived in the wider Party as essentially little more than Mohammed Sarwar’s boy.  But in four minutes on that day he transformed that impression.

But, and here I acknowledge il riferimento americano  , in that hall, and on that October day, we realised that change might just have come to Scotland.

We’ve had twelve years of Devolution. But in those twelve years no one has been put forward to lead the nation, from either of our leading Parties, other than the traditional political class.  Not just white, or male, or protestant but essentially mired in the machine politics through which one rises to prominence in Scottish elected office.

That is good enough for our opponents but in our hearts it will never be good enough for us. Labour, sopratutto,  is the Party of those who do not care where people come from, only on where they want to go. And of all the candidates for the leadership and deputy leadership only one person embodies that. As he did to the spontaneous enthusiasm of all of those present in that hall.

Non allontano (I don’t dismiss?)  either the reassuring partisanship of Iain Davidson, or the manifest competence of Lewis McDonald. Such talents have their role to play. Sono entrambi i camerati degni.

Ma  (mi dispiace) but if anybody thought for a moment who might draw a crowd from other than among the ranks of those already converted; who might carry forward to a new century the legacy of those who had gone before; who might say that Labour was not just the Party of a noble past but of an even more heroic future........

Sincero, this is a no contest for the deputy leadership. The only disappointment is that the word deputy appears at all before his nomination.

Rimando la vostra sorella ed la vostra Camerata

Anna Kulischov "

Sunday, 20 November 2011

It's an Outrage!

It is a long time since I was young.

But, when I was, youth involved a vista of limitless opportunity.

When I graduated in the Law, after three years at University, then the norm, it was not a matter of whether I might get a legal apprenticeship, but rather only where.

Today however it routinely takes five years to get even to that starting point and even then this does not actually lead to a job in the law, or at least a job as a lawyer, for almost half of those appropriately qualified.

Now, there is an argument that the Universities are producing too many Law Graduates, and, particularly, far too many holders of the nominally vocational postgraduate Diploma in Legal Practice. I agree with that argument but that still does not explain everything that is going on. Nor does, simply, the recession. Times have been hard (really) for a lot of legal firms, particularly those doing mainly property work, but the "Roll" of those holding practising certificates continues to rise, albeit incrementally.

No, in the legal profession, as in many other professions, there is something more cynical going on.

There is a bubble of the population who have been exceptionally fortunate in their history.

Born in the fifties and early sixties, we escaped the hardships of the immediate post-war years. We  benefited in spades however from the long post war boom built on the efforts of our own immediate elders.

In particular, we enjoyed free higher education and easy entry to professions anxious for new recruits to service the requirements of an ever expanding propertied class.

And we then planned, on the back of ever expanding economies, to take what was on offer and then to retire from our labours at the earliest opportunity. We therefore encouraged the recruitment and training of a new generation to replace us at a time of our choosing. We even avoided, as far as possible, having to finance the training of that replacement class. But we also hedged our bets in the freedom to choose the time that we ourselves would depart the stage, entrenching  security of public, then private, sector employment and, latterly, even establishing "age discrimination" in Statute.

Now, all of this would have been fine (probably) had it not been for the recession. White collar workers would all happily have gone at some point between 55 and 60, looking forward to a (very) long and contented retirement.

The recession however changed all of that. Suddenly our own pensions were some considerable way short of what we had anticipated, whether in private funds of potential public enhancements. And, in the private sector, our capital accounts not quite the nest-egg we had once hoped. So, regrettably, if we wanted to retire in comfort, we would have to work a few years longer. Poor us.

Except we were/are not the real victims here. The real victims were largely people we had never met; those whose training to succeed us we had encouraged but whose services we no longer immediately required.

There is a serious generational issue arising from this recession. Obviously, the recession does not affect all classes equally, but, similarly, it does not affect all ages equally.

One of the things that strikes you about the Occupy protests is the extent to which they are the domain of the young. Now that's not just because its a lot less traumatic to sleep in a tent at 21 than it is at 51. For one of the other things that strikes you is the lack of political focus to the protests . This is not 1968, where ideologues of an older generation sought to channel the anger of youth against the system in some defined way, and, even if rejected, were listened to with respect, while picking up a few individual disciples on the way. For the Occupiers, almost all "middle-aged" opinion is equally dismissed, whether it be the stuffed shirts suggesting they be threatened with soap and water, or the Michael Moore's of this world trying to show much they are "down with the kids".

What the protesters want is fairness, and that fairness is as much from their own elders as it is from "the system".

What the no compulsory redundancy policy in the public sector means, in practice, is that, for a period, under employment will be subsidised. More significantly however, when things do eventually pick up, the first consequence will not be fresh employment but rather the fuller utilisation of those already "on the books".

What opposition to the liberalisation of professional services means is a continued regulatory protection of those already in the fortuitous inside.

Now, I can see the arguments for such an approach. Those already employed will have commitments and obligations arising from that employment. But I can also see how things might look very different if I had never had the benefit of that secure employment in the first place.

The most striking example of all is in the question of the state retirement age. There are apparently so many of us impending retirees that the state can't afford to pay everyone a decent pension at 65. So we'll all have to work till we're 67 or 68. That's all very well, except it is no real saving at all if the price comes as a generation fifty years younger unable to enter the job market in the first place.

So maybe the baby boomers have to face up to the fact that they may have to make some personal sacrifice after all.

Monday, 14 November 2011

A wee bit follow up

I wrote yesterday for Scotland on Sunday about the legislative competence of an Independence referendum being legislated for in the Scottish

I just want to follow that up a little but first to acknowledge the debt I owe to (or intellectual theft I ought to admit from) Love & Garbage here and here and the Peat Worrier here .

There is a commentary on the piece on the Scotland on Sunday site which I want to comment on as it helps me develop my own argument, so I set the comment itself out in full.

One of the advantages of this being my blog is that I can choose to insert my comments to my own best advantage. A bit like St Jerome in another context

"So Ian Smart advised Wendy to "bring it on" even though a referendum was illegal". I didn't say it was illegal. I would never advise anybody to do anything illegal. I'm a lawyer! I said that we were aware of the vires issues but had our own strategy to deal with that if required. The whole point is that apparently the Scottish Government do not have a fall back strategy and don't apparently care.  "He and the team around him was unsure that such a move was within the legislative competence of the devolved parliament. But surely he knew that in 1994 Labour-run Strathclyde Region held a referendum into water privatisation - a policy being put forward by the Tory government of the day at Westminster. This referendum delivered a massive NO vote to the Tory policy and so it was not brought forward in Scotland. A local authority, it seems, has greater power than our current parliament. An opposition party was able to hold a referendum on a specific issue of Government policy and affect change". This was, until recently my own, legal view. I've changed my opinion because of the contrary weight of much more eminent legal views. I can't just ignore that. Neither can the SNP. "You know when a lifelong Labour supporter starts upholding the rule of the Crown in Parliament that something has gone wrong in Labour's ranks. A party that once thought of themselves as socialists are now giving a good impression of being Unionists and Royalists". I wrote this article wearing two hats. I'm not defending the concept of the ultimate authority of the Crown in Parliament, I'm simply pointing out that it will be the Law applied by the Courts, whether I like it or not. "And this before they even choose their leader and their future strategy. Or has it already been chosen for the future incumbent? The notion that the people are sovereign was, of course, brought up by Labour and the Lib Dems in the 1980s in the Claim of Right.  It claimed: "We, gathered as the Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs, and do hereby declare that in all our actions and deliberations their interests shall be paramount." Labour signed up to that. The Lib Dems signed up to that. It seems still a good democratic basis for modern Parliament - that the people are sovereign, not the crown". I agree! The point is not my view but that of Lord Hope and the late Lord Rodger. In my opinion, Whaley v Watson was a huge missed opportunity but one of the reasons it was missed was because Roseanna, then the SNP Justice spokesman welcomed the decision on the basis that she was opposed to any absolute parliamentary sovereignty, Scottish or British. You can't have your cake and eat it "Ian Smart now wants us to believe that Labour have abandoned their principled stance on the sovereignty of the people because that particular democratic stance is a "reserved issue". We've not abandoned it, we just recognise that it is not the view of the Courts and that this won't change without a revolution. And we have never been very keen on revolutions."No more are Labour the party of democratic struggle but are instead an agent of the establishment at Westminster. There must be many in their ranks who find this galling. If the Labour-run Strathclyde region could hold a referendum against the sitting Westminster government's policy on water privatisation; if the Labour party and Lib Dems could sign up to a Claim of Right that said the people were sovereign; then I'm sure we can carry on with our indicative referendum on independence. And the only schism that I see at present is the one the Labour party are feverishly trying to keep down. How long will the supporters of devo-max toe the Unionist line?" This issue has got nothing to do with Devo-Max. Devo-Max would still be Devo; an agreed division of powers between Holyrrood and Westminster. That's one of the reasons why there is no point in having a Devo Max question. It cannot be acheived unilaterally. Unlike, dare I concede it, Independence.  

Why however is any of this important?

The SNP are not an insurrectionist Party, any more than is the Labour Party. They choose to operate within the rule of law. There is therefor no question of them simply firing ahead with a referendum if such an initiative is declared ultra vires. In the absence of proper legal authority they would anyway  be unable to instruct or secure the voluntary co-operation of the thousands of returning officers, polling and counting staff or police officers required to conduct a referendum.

So, if there is no power under the Scotland Act to hold a Referendum. And to be no request to Westminster to amend the 1998 Act or to legislate for a Referendum directly, then there is going to be no Referendum. I think the Scottish Government know that. I repeat, as I have been for months, that this is deliberate.

If they would just concede that publicly: that they can't, no matter how regrettably for them, win an Independence vote or, better still, concede  that, as they clearly almost did when flirting with  Independence-lite, that full  "Independence" is an illusory concept anyway then maybe we could all sit down and discuss possible improvements to Calman. A start might involve the concession by them that you can assign but not devolve VAT under European Union Law and that, in a unitary State,differential Corporation Tax is a non-starter. A starting point for us that a devolved benefits system, on the other hand, would be a meaningful tool of meso-economic policy and has got to be worth looking at.

Both sides are however trapped by their history so I accept that none of that is going to happen. 

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Ordine and Ordini

My hobby is Italian politics.

In the Autumn of 1990, wee Mo and I were on holiday in Piacenza, where she had taught English for two years before we met. There was, at the time, a by-election pending in Paisley, my home town, and I was, in a very machiavellian way, trying to be the Labour Candidate without appearing to be interested in the post. As it transpired, I was not Machiavelli.

I was nonetheless amazed by the reaction of our Italian friends to the possibility that I might become a "Deputato". Hands were shaken, and congratulations offered on my anticipated future. For, to be an elected politician was welcomed by them  not as an opportunity to bring about political change but rather as a certain guarantee of my own personal financial good fortune.

This was of course before the "Mani Puliti" outrage that for, just a moment, seemed to promise a better and cleaner politics. What emerged however was "Forza Italia", under the dominating figure of Silvio Berlusconi, and the offer of the illusion of change.

Since that time however I have taken a recreational interest in Italian Politics. Its more interesting than train-spotting, at least to me.

Italy loves illusion. Berlusconi held himself out as an Italian Thatcher, relentlessly moderrnising the sclerotic Italian Public Sector. In fact he behaved in office as a man as immersed in clientism as any of the worst of the Christian Democrats. The only changes that he would accomplish were those in the interests of his own business interests and those of his closest personal and political allies.

But he carried this off nonetheless not truly because of the ineptitude of the left opposition, or even because of his dominance of the Media, but rather because the Italians bought into the illusion in a sort of mass hysteria or group think that simply did not want to hear the increasing voices inside and outside Italy, insisting that this could not go on forever.

It is regarded as bad taste to make reference to Mussolini when discussing modern Italy. Mussolini was however a much more complex figure than one to be forever condemned (as he ought to be) by the Pact of Steel. But he was always also a master of illusion, indeed self-delusion.

The crowds who mobbed the Piazza Venezia to hail the declaration of war on France in Britain, did so in the genuine but wholly erroneous belief that Italy was equipped to fight that war BECAUSE IT LOOKED LIKE IT WAS.

And, indeed, amongst other things, Italy at the declaration of war boasted a quite beautiful array of capital warships. The problem was that that was all they were; beautiful. There armour plating was wholly inadequate; their crews, although magnificently attired, hopelessly undertrained and undersupplied; and the plan for their strategic deployment totally non-existent. Within 18 months almost all of this fleet lay on the bottom of the Mediterranean.

Italy had been there before of course, throughout the debacle of 1848 and the collapse of 1917. Regrettably no lessons had been learned.

Now we live today in Europe in much more fortunate times. Italian illusions today are exposed not with death but with financial disaster.

It has been clear for as long as anyone can remember that the related factors of a declining birth rate and an ageing population demanded serious reform of the notoriously generous Italian Pension system. Berlusconi himself acknowledged that. But he offered not real change but only the illusion of change. It was also clear for a similar period that a major advanced economy could not tolerate the proportion of economic activity conducted without any form of state supervision or tax collection. Again however, Berlusconi only really even pretended to be doing anything about this, largely for external consumption, while nodding and winking to his many domestic supporters steeped in such activity. And it was clear that the restrictive practices of the "Ordini" were wholly incompatible with either the meritocratic society or the open European Economy that Berlusconi purported to support. But real reform was always just beyond his grasp, postponed "a domani".

This was always, one day, going to end in tears and the Euro was ultimately only the catalyst in that process. But the Euro is also mechanism which will guarantee that the Italian Economy cannot be refloated on a sea of illusion, any more than the Warships on the seabed of the bay of Taranto.

The Italians are in the end serious Europeans. The idea that they will leave the Euro is inconceivable. In the end the neccessary sacrifices will be made as they were in the late Forties and Fifties, leading to the Italian growth rate being the best in Europe in the 1960s.

The irony is that this will almost certainly only be possible under a Government of Technocrats, immune to illusion but believed by the people. The Left is simply in no condition to fulfil that role and, in respect of a significant minority, not even greatly interested in doing so. It is sometimes joked that the British Labour Party prefers opposition to government. In Italy for a significant part of the PD and all of the Rifondazione, that genuinely appears to be the case. It is bizarre however that the Italian people will only be prepared to believe in, and accept, the need for action if they are told it by someone other than politicians. And that the Left would be happier to protest against that action, whatever it is, rather than to have some role in shaping it.

There is at least economic material to work with. Italian private personal debt is much lower than that of the UK and personal savings much higher (an important factor when considering the weathering of of austerity and the ability to raise domestic capital). In value added products such as fashion and design, Italy remains a world leader. The Transport infrastructure is magnificent and even the climate a significant God given economic benefit.

The real tragedy of this is that not that the Italians wont  sort all of this; they will and the good times will return. No, the tragedy is that, unless there is a change in the national character, at some point in the future, in some way as yet unforseen, it will all happen again.

That's the consequence of obsession with the bella figura.

Sunday, 6 November 2011


I blogged a bit back about how speechwriting was a transferrable skill between Parties.

I’m today going to try and see if the same applies to policymaking.

Ruth Davidson has just won a notable victory in the Tory Leadership election but even her supporters concede that her central message was that of a new image for the Tories in Scotland and that her campaign was a bit policy light.

On the back of that I dared myself on Twitter to come up with ten new policy ideas for the Scottish Tories.

Initially I anticipated undertaking this as a bit of a joke: Insisting that a picture of the Queen be displayed in every classroom; offering a state guarantee to Rangers finances; making the speaking of French in public a criminal offence.............that sort of thing.

But actually, as I set about the task, I realised that Scotland needs some new thinking on the right. A clash of ideas is essential in a democracy. And, anyway, there are precious few ideas coming from either the Scottish Government or my own Party.

I start with a number of caveats.

Firstly, I should make clear that most of the policy proposals I make are ones which I personally would vehemently oppose. I don’t therefor urge them on the Tories; indeed I would urge the Country  not  to vote for them if offered. They are mainly evil Tory policies. That’s the point really.

Secondly, I have ranted a bit about the SNP presuming to dictate what the policy of the Scottish Labour Party “ought to be” on the Constitution. So, for the avoidance of any doubt, this is just a bit of whimsy. Parties have the right to decide their own policies.

Thirdly, I have ignored things which any proper Tory Administration would presumably do anyway, such as privatise Scottish Water or reform the NHS on the Lansley Model.

Fourthly, although I tried to stick to devolved matters, there has, I acknowledge, been a little drift.

So, here we go.

1. Scotland has too many politicians. The Scottish Parliament’s 129 was based on there being 72 UK parliamentary Constituencies and enough list members to achieve proportionality. There will soon be  51 UK Constituencies so the numbers at Holyrood should come down to 90 or so. The workload could easily be undertaken by the Parliament sitting more than two and a half days a week and beyond 5 pm when required.

2. Scotland has too many Councils and Councillors. Local Government should be re-organised on broadly  a County (or combination of Counties) basis.  The exceptions would be Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. They should be “City Counties”,   with directly elected Provosts.  The target should be to halve the number of Councils and Councillors in the process.

3. The Council Tax national freeze should be ended. Rather, each four years coinciding with the Council elections in each Local Authority area there should be a local referendum on whether the elected Council could vary the current Council Tax during its four year term.

4. The integrity of the Scottish Education system should be restored. Pass rates at each given grade should be a percentage of those sitting the exam. That’s what employers and Universities want to know. How good the pupil is, not how good their teacher was in passing a bar set by other teachers.

5. The minimum wage should be abolished for graduates. The minimum wage is there to protect the vulnerable from being exploited, not to prevent the well informed from making a “well- informed” decision as to how they might best forward their career.

6. Voluntary redundancy should be made illegal in the public sector. If redundancies are required the public is entitled to keep the most talented and not put up with those who won’t  volunteer as they are largely unemployable elsewhere. Employers must be forced to select on the basis of getting rid of those of least use to the public.

7. Free Broadband should be immediately installed on all Scotrail Inter-City services. Short term this should be paid for by abolishing free bus travel for over sixties still in the Labour Market. Long term it should go on ticket prices.

8. Parents should automatically lose all parental rights in respect of a child who has been in the continuous residential care of a local authority for more than twelve months. Any court proceedings thereafter should start with a strong presumption against the child ever being returned to the Parent.

9. It should be possible for Local Authorities, with the agreement of Government to abolish all planning controls over large geographical areas. Planning delays are inimical to enterprise and an unaffordable luxury in current economic circumstances.

10. The prescription of medicinal heroin should be introduced and become a principal tool in drugs sentencing policy.

So, there we are. Small Government, libertarian, business friendly, guaranteed to give large parts of the Scottish establishment heart-failure. I enjoyed that.