Sunday, 4 December 2016

Nobody has a clue

For the entirety of my adult life, somebody has had a clue. By somebody, I mean one or other of our major political Parties. And by a clue, I mean a clear way forward, even if you don't personally agree with it.

The fag end of the 1974-79 Labour Government didn't have a clue, but Mrs Thatcher did. The fag end of the long Tory supremacy which followed didn't have a clue, but Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did, Yet when Brown finally inherited not only the Premiership but the financial crash, it was clear that having weathered the latter, he didn't have much of a clue as to the way forward either. Although the odd centre right coalition that followed at least sort of had. I might even grudgingly conclude that until September 2014 the SNP in power in Scotland at least had a little  bit of a clue, even if the proposed solution, Independence, was pretty clueless.

Today, nobody has a clue.

The Government kind of treats Brexit as if it was some sort of natural disaster, rather than an event the Tory Party's own hubris as to the state of public opinion brought about. It's not that we, the public, are left to guess as to whether they seek a hard or soft Brexit. It's increasingly clear that they genuinely don't know themselves. And even if they called it one way or another? What would be the consequence? They don't have a clue.

As to my own Party? Well, even if you write off the bizarre Corbynista view that people are voting for far right racist Parties because the centre left isn't left enough, you are still left (sic) with the question of what our line would be if possessed with less deranged leadership. It can't be the case that we write off the leavers as irredeemable racists. Even if that was true, which it isn't, who would that leave to vote us into power? So what would be our line if, by some act of God, Corbyn was swept away and replaced with........well whoever? Dan Jarvis, Yvette Cooper, Keir Starmer, Liz Kendall or even, as a less deluded Corbynista, Clive Lewis? As I wrote in an earlier blog you simply can't reconcile that part of our our historic electoral coalition which says "Refugees welcome" with that different part which demands "Local Houses for local people". No-one can. And in the absence of being able to do that? We don't have a clue.

And so to the Lib Dems. I was well pleased they won in Richmond Park. But so what? Come a big election they might well peel off "liberal" voters from us. And indeed probably even pro European voters from the Tories. But can they win from an effectively standing start, never mind the tribal antipathy their call from 2010 to 2015 still evokes in certain quarters? Patently not. And if they can't win? They haven't got a clue either.

I was impressed by the insight of Blair's New Statesman interview. on the importance of the centre. I say that as someone who was never his greatest fan to start with who still regards the Iraq War as a colossal strategic error. Nonetheless,  his kind of mildly left of centre politics is clearly as good as it is ever going to get in the UK. Even then, his electoral triumphs came about in specific circumstance. Seventeen years of Tory Government leading to a willingness on the part of the electorate to tolerate almost anything else while the scars of 1992 had finally persuaded my own Party to sign up for that "almost anything else".

But how does the Centre get to go before the electorate now, today, in 2016 or 2017 or even 2020?There is certainly a movement out there that is signed up for cultural liberalism and a pro European future. Chukka Umunna is in it. and Anna Soubry. And Nicky Morgan and Liz Kendall.  And indeed obviously Nick Clegg and, now, Sarah Olney. It even includes Caroline Lucas on its left flank and George Osborne on its right.

But so what? We live in a democracy. What matters are elections. And Movements don't win elections, Parties do. And under first past the post, Movements, unless they capture a Party, have no way into the game. Even Momentum get that.

And how do we get out of that situation? Nobody, as Blair himself kind of conceded, has a clue.

And so to Scotland. There is clearly no majority for the economic and cultural suicide that would be independence. But how, politically, do the rest of  to come to terms with that? It's increasingly clear the Nats don't have a clue about what to do about this dilemma. But, equally, the rest of us have no idea either as to what to do in response. My Party doesn't just agree with the Tories on the fundamentals of constitution, we also agree with them that there is much wrong with Scottish public services. But that's as far as it goes. When it comes to solutions we are miles apart. Just as nationalism is a philosophy with no traditional left/right ideological dimension, neither is unionism,  So it is not just the Government of Scotland that is in a condition of policy stasis, it is the opposition as well. And the solution to that is? Nobody has a clue.

And that's even before we turn to world events. What to do about not just Syria but the wider Middle East? Nobody has got a clue. Turkey? Not a clue. North Korea? Not a clue. The refugee crisis? Not a clue. Putin? Not a clue. Trump? Not a clue.

So, bring on 2017. Where nobody has a clue.

It is said that politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Here's hoping. But how might that vacuum be filled? I haven't got a clue.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Past is never the Answer

They call it the rustbelt for a reason.

Just before the EU Referendum I wrote a blog, Voting against Now, in which I sought to explain the anger that was driving Brexit among, particularly, white working class communities.

I wrote then.

"If you look at those areas of “the Country” which voted Yes and are looking like voting Leave, they share one thing in common. A legitimate feeling that while “elsewhere” prospers, their own location and indeed personal circumstances do not.

And that is, for the avoidance of doubt, a legitimate feeling. The affluence of the “white working class” is at best getting no better, following a period, starting after the war and continuing until perhaps thirty years ago, when a year to year improvement in circumstance, marginal but noticeable, was expected as the natural order of things. Just as, with the benefit of hindsight, that improvement happened marginally but noticeably, it equally ceased to happen marginally. But it is certainly noticeable now. And to compound the resentment of that experience, the relative affluence of others in our society has, over that same thirty year period, visibly improved; whether catching up from behind in relation to the general circumstance of ethnic minorities and “immigrants” or pulling further away in front in relation to a distant metropolitan elite.

And overwhelmingly, those standing still, or sometimes worse, are people who used to “produce” things. All sorts of things from coal brought to the surface to iron turned into steel; from tiny buttons to ocean going ships and things of all sorts and sizes in between. Different things in different places but with a common culture. Industrial work that often depended on brawn rather than brain but which nonetheless, for the long post war boom, had more or less guaranteed availability. Work which brought with it honest reward that fuelled a local service economy: shops, cinemas, social clubs, that was visibly there not as an end in itself but rather as support to allow the primary “producing” purpose of the place to function.

In many, many places this world has gone. It hasn’t changed or modernised. It has just disappeared. The same things are (generally) still produced, obviously, but they are not produced here. They are produced in India or China or wherever. Produced by different producers, working in harsher conditions and crucially at a much lesser level of personal reward. 

And what’s left, too often, is little more than the service economy that once enjoyed only a support role. As Shirley Williams famously described it, an economy based on people selling hamburgers to each other."

All of this could just as easily be applied to the events across the USA this past week. Or, actually, not across the USA, for it should never be lost sight of that Hillary actually won the popular vote, but rather across a handful of large but ultimately critical midwestern states.

Now, the immediate reaction to this is that we must find some way of reconnecting with these voters and, of course, in a democracy, building a winning electoral coalition is what the whole business of politics is about.

But the problem for the left is that in many areas conceding what is demanded simply isn't economically possible. while in others, to concede it would cease to make us "the left" at all.

To deal with each of these in turn, globalisation might be halted or at least slowed isn't going away. The BRIC countries, Brazil, Russia, India and China aren't going back to their previous existence of isolated or essentially agrarian economies, neither willing or capable of competing with the west in advanced manufacturing. And the MINT countries, Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey are only one of many acronyms for other countries not far behind on a fast track to development.

What is the answer proposed anyway? Import controls and a decline in world trade leading to higher prices and drastically reduced growth? Greater international rivalry for resources that could only too easily slip into something worse? Really? Is that how the dog is to be wagged by the tail? And anyway, even if this was all undertaken, would this make this discontented section of the electorate happy? No, for none of it would ever recreate, in world terms, the advantage they once enjoyed. You might as well fight a British General Election on a promise of returning us to being the workshop of the world while Britannia once more ruled the waves. Getting elected on such a manifesto wouldn't ever, conceivably, make it happen. That will be the ultimate lesson of Brexit where many seem to have believed they could vote for just that. Similarly, no amount of shouting about making America great again will ever make it as great as it once was. For the world has moved on.

But, of course, this is almost as nothing as the second element of being "left behind" it is suggested we must appease, the anger of native born white men. How can the left ever "understand" that without ceasing to be a left at all. If you asked anybody on the left, anywhere in the world, what their basic belief is then they would start with greater equality. Equality between the sexes, equality between the races, thanks to many brave modern pioneers, equality between those of different sexual orientations or physical abilities. And, yes, equality between all those contributing to our communities, no matter where they were born. It is not accidental that the most long lasting achievements of UK Labour Governments include, right at the very top, The Sexual Offences Act 1967, The Equal Pay Act 1970, The Race Relations Act 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. There can be no compromise on any of this. Our side is correct in our world view and anybody on the other side isn't just otherwise minded. They are wrong. When Labour notoriously lost Smethwick in 1964,  Harold Wilson didn't try to "understand" why we'd lost the white working class vote, he described the racist winner as a "Parliamentary leper". He was right to do so.

So, if progressive opinion, is to rebuild a winning electoral coalition perhaps we need to move away from the assumption that we start with a class based politics and instead look to a politics which divides between those who want history to continue to go forward and those under the delusion that somehow voting for "a flag" can turn somehow turn it back.

Of course, in the US, the Democrats have been here before, most noticeably when they decided that the tolerance of racial segregation was a price they could no longer pay in order to hold on to the "solid South". They built a new coalition then and in a nation which, no matter what Trump does, will continue to be ever more diverse, they'll can do so again.

Perhaps in the UK we need a similar rebuilding exercise with regard to our own progressive coalition.

I finish with one of Obama's favourite quotes from Dr. King. "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." That didn't change last Tuesday.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Immediate Extract.

After nearly a year, the Independence Camp outside the Scottish Parliament has finally gone. It has been an eyesore throughout but, tellingly, the residents were too typical of a section of their rank and file for any elected SNP politician to feel able to say a single critical word about it. For its entire duration.

It was nonetheless removed at the instigation of that rather obscure institution, the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body, on which the SNP is quite properly represented. And from whose actions, as far as we know, they didn't dissent. So, it is fair to assume that the saner wing of the Nats also got that this sort of thing does their own cause no favours. Even if, for internal Party reasons, they were too scared to say so publicly.

But here is an interesting question? Why did the removal take so long? And here is the interesting answer. It didn't need to.

When Lord Turnbull granted the order for eviction on 28th July he also granted an order for "immediate extract"*. The legal significance of this is simple. The camp could have been removed at any point after 28th July notwithstanding any appeal being outstanding.

I only realised this** when having a look at the Inner House*** decision on the appeal when they reaffirmed that grant of immediate extract. And that is turn is why the Campers could be removed last Friday despite their stated intention to appeal further to the Supreme Court****.

It is thus far from clear why this wasn't then done back in July or early August.

But in some ways that's not the point. The public and the members of the Scottish Parliament itself were left under the impression that the camp had to be put up with until the appeal process was concluded. It's not even clear that members of the SPCB themselves knew the true position. If they did, it certainly doesn't appear in any of their published Minutes.

So, the Corporate Body allowed the Camp to  remain for three months longer than they were legally required to. Without the Parliament being told. While causing  the continued use of  public money on contesting an appeal which, had they already been removed, you do wonder if the campers would have persisted with.

As I say, somebody might want to investigate why. That's all.


*Immediate extract is only ever granted if requested by the petitioning party and specifically so that they can act even if there is an appeal. Indeed, asking for it almost implies that  you anticipate a potential appeal.

**In the original version of this blog I said I didn't think Lord Turnbull's 28/7 judgement was on line but I've since been directed to it by @bbcphilipsim This doesn't mention the immediate extract however so that must have been pronounced at the advising. It was definitely granted however as it's referred to in the Inner House decision.

***For non-lawyers, the Inner House is our highest domestic civil appeal court.

**** This is actually going nowhere as it requires leave of either the lower or the higher court. Which they'll never get. That's not however relevant to my central point.

Saturday, 22 October 2016


Apparently the Nats want another Referendum. Which they are entitled in their own mind to have because of a rather vague statement in their 2016 Scottish Parliament Manifesto. An election at which they actually lost their absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament. I know.

The one good thing is that their White Paper last week conceded that, in order to have a Referendum, they would need constitutional authority from the UK Parliament, Scotland having voted to remain in the UK as recently as two years ago.

It would, nonetheless, we are told. be an "outrage" for this to be denied.

But clearly a denial, giving cause for yet more gripe and grievance, is precisely what they are hoping for. And I kind of get that. The "success" of the Easter Rising was a result of a British reaction in its aftermath. If the rebels had simply been sentenced to imprisonment for the duration of hostilities then one suspects subsequent history might have been very different.

Lessons thus have to be learned.

So what options are available to our "other" Government beyond straight denial?

Well, firstly there is the questions of mandate.

Had the SNP been up for another Referendum they could simply have stated in their 2016 Manifesto: "If re-elected we will hold another Independence Referendum".

Even I wouldn't deny that in such circumstance the UK Government would have to have conceded to this demand.

But of course they didn't.

So, perhaps, the opening position of the UK Government should be that if any Party (or combination of Parties) secures a Holyrood majority on such a platform then "of course" a Referendum could be held.

The procedure for this is quite simple. Nicola resigns on a point of principle, and assuming no-one else can secure a plurality of votes to become First Minister within 28 days, then a fresh Scottish Parliament Election would follow (s.46 of the 1998 Act). Alternatively a two thirds majority of the Scottish Parliament could simply vote for a dissolution to see if that is what the country wanted (s.3). Ruth would undoubtedly vote for such an election. So would the volunteer if she was told to.

So, Section 30 powers might be granted from Westminster, perhaps even in perpetuity, to any Holyrood First Minister elected on such a clear platform to hold an Independence Referendum. Within, obviously, a fixed period for the introduction of Referendum legislation after such a hypothetical election victory. Over to Nicola to see if she could secure it.

But there is another option. In 2014, Scotland voted by Local Authority area.

Now, had the flag eaters done 6% better in 2014, that would have given them victory. But it would still have left large parts of Scotland dragged out of the UK against their will. The Borders voted 67% No. Dumfries and Galloway 66%. East Lothian 62%. South Ayrshire 58%. Edinburgh 61%. Only when you get to South Lanarkshire 55% and Fife 55% would a 6% gain have given the Nats a narrow victory.

So, perhaps the price of a Section 30 should be that we vote again on this basis but with only those Local Authority districts voting to form an independent Scotland becoming part of it?

The Nats would surely have no problem with this? "Free" Scotland would surely immediately become a social democratic nirvana, with austerity abolished and the population hugely enhanced by the talents of the refugees welcome to flock there from all over the world? The Brains could sleep easy in their beds while the long term unemployed could stay in bed all day without worrying about their giros arriving as expected. At least until the money ran out. In time, the rest of the country would inevitably see the sense of this arrangement. Surely? The only problem meanwhile might be other Scots demanding entry to "Free" Scotland. But, following the example of the German Democratic Republic, walls could inevitably be built until other local referendums were held and the entire volk re-united in a spirit of amity.

Now, and this is he sad bit. In-between, the UK would really need to be contiguous. So the poor souls in the North East (Aberdeenshire 60% No: Aberdeen City 59%) might just have to suck it up. For on that 6% swing there is a Nationalist firewall around the Forth. Hard luck folks. If the worst came to the worst, maybe you'd perhaps have to consider joining Orkney and Shetland and fu.....going away to join Norway.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Empress has no clothes.

You may have noticed that I've not been doing much blogging lately. Partly it is simply that I've been very busy at my work but it's also that I've just been very depressed about the state of the world with no desire to depress myself further by putting why down on paper.

But the events of the past few days prompt me to say something about the state of Scotland's polity.

Much has been written about post truth politics but in Scotland it seems to me that we are drifting into post reality political reporting. It obviously suits political journalists to talk up the prospect of a second independence referendum, it's story, but that should not be at the expense of pointing out the absurdity of the proposition on offer.

That proposition is simply this. If the UK Government proceeds with a hard brexit then a second referendum will/may be called so that Scotland can remain in the EU. But no it can't. For simple reasons of timing.

Mrs May has indicated the intention to trigger Article 50 next Spring. Now, that might not happen then, I readily concede that*, but since the cause for this second referendum is apparently to be that triggering then, even if it is delayed, my observations as to what follows still stand but only at a later date. So let's take the Prime Minister and indeed the First Minister at their stated intent.

Article 50 is triggered and Nicola decides immediately and without waiting for the detail to go for a second poll. For the sake of the argument to follow, both of these things happen in March 2017, meaning the UK is to leave the EU in March 2019.

Well, first of all Nicola would have to get legal authority for a second vote in the form of a s.30 order passed at both Holyrood and Westminster. We know what this involves because we've been through the process as recently as 2012. The Scottish Government conceded the need for a s.30 on 25th January 2012. The UK Government had indicated a willingness to consider such a request earlier that same month. At the time there was a genuine desire on both sides to reach a deal but, nonetheless, it took until 15th October for the deed to be done. Crucially, it was done largely on the terms the nationalists wanted, chiefly I suspect because our side thought there was little real prospect of us losing and just wanted to get on with it. This time that deal will not nearly as readily be done as I suspect there will be real issues over the question and the franchise and the timing. To posit but a few, if Yes/No was inappropriate as the Brexit choice then would it still be acceptable in a future independence referendum? If the choice now involved a hard border (an inevitable consequence of a Scotland in/ UK (hard) out of the EU) then shouldn't Scots living in England get a vote, given that this would inevitably impact on their right to remain and work in the residual UK? Should EU citizens in Scotland still get a vote as they did in 2014?

I say this just to indicate that, even if the UK Government is willing, the s.30 process will not be a dawdle. But let's concede that it will take no longer than 2012, So that there is a section 30 by January 2018. Then we need an Act of the Scottish Parliament. The 2013 Act was introduced on 21st March 2013 and became law on 18th December 2013. Now, the delay in introduction might be shortened this time but the Parliamentary time is dictated by the Parliament's established procedures so it is difficult to see legislation before the the end of 2017. But in some ways that doesn't matter because this being Scotland, the vote would need to await the better weather (sic) anyway. So not before May 2018.

And then in the event the flag-eaters won? Well, Scotland would not become independent immediately but remain in the UK until the "details" had been sorted out The September 2014 vote anticipated "Independence day" being in March 2016, a timescale many even on the Yes side thought to be hopelessly optimistic, but let's just apply that same nineteen month period to a May 2018 vote. Independence in January 2020. Until when we'd still be part of the UK. And have left the EU nine months before.

So there is simply no timescale that allows Scotland to vote to remain in the EU. We could certainly vote in anticipation of (attempting) to join once independence was a reality but that is as good as it could possibly get.

Now, neither Nicola nor the people round about her are stupid. They know all of the above as readily as I do. They have nonetheless attempted a gigantic confidence trick both on their own rank and file and, more importantly, on the electorate.

My question is this however. Why have the press fallen for this? Why haven't they pointed out that the Empress Nicola has no clothes? Over to you, ladies and gentlemen.

Important postscript! I've just realised I've actually given the Nats an entire year! The earliest there could even be legislation is December 2018 and a referendum the Spring of  2019! By which time we'd already have left.

*For what it's worth I think the Courts will rule that the Government requires a parliamentary vote before triggering article 50.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

A journey

One of the best things about blogging is that you don't have to work to a deadline in the way that those who write for a living inevitably do.

If you are contracted to write a Thursday newspaper column then it is highly unlikely (!) that your editor would welcome an approach that "it is not quite finished, could it appear on Friday instead"? Similarly, writers of longer narratives, fictional or non fictional, still have deadlines to meet to satisfy the requirements of pre booked printers or seasonal publication.

And even among those of us who write professionally but only secondarily to another function, there are equal deadlines. In my trade, dates by which writs must be drafted,  warranted and served to avoid a statutory time limit. Dates thereafter by which documents: Defences; Lists of Witnesses; Notices to Admit must be lodged for fear of the client's case otherwise going by default.

Never mind the even tighter deadline of a profession, at the sharp end, still largely conducted orally. You can only ever ask a witness a question while they are actually in the witness box. Stories are legion of adverse judicial decisions premised on questions that witnesses ought, sometimes needed, to be asked but which the lawyer engaged thought of or re-remembered only too late. Or, worse still, which the lawyer only appreciated should have been asked when they got the judgement. The deadline had gone.

But that's my day job.

Blogging's only deadline is when you press the "Publish" button. Then it's too late to recant. But if the blog is never finished, if the Publish button is never pressed? Who ever knows what you might have been going to say? Unless it's Wikileaks, I suppose, but I don't think it's very likely they'll be remotely interested in hacking into my "drafts" folder.

However, because there is no deadline, there is a distinct advantage to blogging. So long as, by the time you finally finish, your topic is still.....topical, you can take as long as you like to write it. When it is finally published your audience will be none the wiser whether it was written over three hours or three months.

Unless you confess that yourself. Which I readily do here. For this is a blog which started off weeks past to reach one conclusion and in the end has reached more or less the complete opposite.

It's about Brexit.

A month or so ago, I started to write a blog, "this" blog I suppose, on that topic.. Focussed on the Greek Referendum of May 2015. You may recollect that event. The Greeks had elected a populist left wing Syriza Government on the completely false premise that they could expand Greece's already wholly unsustainable levels of public debt and yet remain in the Euro. The EU, essentially the Germans, had demurred and had said to the demagogues in the Greek Government that they couldn't have their cake and eat it. There was a deal that involved cutting public expenditure (and embracing much more economic reform that Syriza had been elected expressly vowing to oppose) while remaining in the Eurozone. Or there was a departure from the Eurozone. These were the only options.

But the Greek Government deluded, if not themselves then certainly their electorate, that they had a third option. They would have a referendum! Which they did. And in which, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Greeks voted for the Germans to pay their pensions.

You will recall this didn't end well. The Greek banks were immediately forced to close their doors. People couldn't get access to even their Greek Pensions, never mind the turbo charged German ones they had voted for. It was made clear that either the Greek Government capitulated or their cashline machines would re-open only with Drachmas coming out. At a grossly devalued value to the Euros originally deposited. Within a fortnight, the Greeks had been forced to sign up to a much worse deal than had been on offer before their "game changing" Referendum. Their Government had learned that this wasn't a game.

And when I started to write this blog three weeks ago I intended to reach the same conclusions about our own referendum June past. That people had been offered a false option of retaining the advantages of membership of the European Single Market while shrugging off the downside (as seen by many) of free movement of people. That in reality we had voted for an outcome that was no more on offer to us than, a year past in May, a different outcome had been on offer to the Greeks. And once the dust had settled our referendum vote would have been no more decisive than theirs

Except that in the interim three things have happened. Well, three have happened and a fourth has perhaps been realised by me.

The first is the polling that was done on public opinion post Brexit on the relative desirability of each option in a free movement/single market trade off. Here it is.

No surprise? Well, actually, it was not so much a surprise to me as a wake up call. And promoting perhaps a very grudging nod to, of all people, Nigel Farage. For Farage is probably entitled to the credit, if that's the right word, for realising that the road to victory for the Leavers was not through the esoteric subject of Westminster Legislative Supremacy or even through the Brussels waste and bureaucracy so beloved Boris Johnson in an earlier incarnation. Rather, Farage saw that success for his cause would lie through the way in which the existing EU impacted on the everyday lives of ordinary working class people; through unrestricted (essentially) East European immigration. Which they perceived as responsible for restricting employment opportunities, undercutting wages and overloading public services in education, health and, perhaps above all, social housing.

Now I can rehearse, indeed have advanced, all the counter arguments. I won't bore you with them again.

Except perhaps we weren't dealing just with appeals to the head. Appeals to the gut featured as well. In much the same way as it had been while arguing different nationalists to a standstill on economic realities in September 2014, there was always a fall back for them. In 2014 it was "I don't care, I just want my country to be 'normal', even if that involves living in a cave". In 2016 it was: "I don't care, I just don't want all these people who are not English/Welsh/Scottish living here."

(The numbers might be a bit smaller in Scotland but anybody denying the sentiment here as well is deluding themself.)

And, do you know, I kind of understood that argument in 2014, even if I didn't respect the willingness to lie to others to bring it about. If you think a flag is important then you think a flag is important. But,anyway, whether I understood it or not is not the issue. What I had to understand is that it was there. In the minds of an awful lot of people, even if not thankfully a majority. And thus you had either defeat it or accommodate it. In one referendum we defeated it. In the second we didn't. And, regrettably, we have to concede to the victor the spoils. At least for the moment.

The second thing that has happened is the Owen Smith campaign. What might, in a different reality, have been the post referendum line of "my" wing of the Labour Party. Smith started off thinking that his ace card was that Party members were overwhelmingly horrified at Brexit and that Corbyn's "lukewarm" support for Remain might thus give Smith a useful internal advantage. I'm not writing here about the Party leadership campaign in general, just about this aspect of the Smith campaign. He thus started off saying that Labour should seek a re-run of the referendum and/or, if we hadn't left the EU by the next General Election, campaign then on proposing to ignore the referendum result. The problem is that this wheeze simply did not compute when it encountered the wider electorate. They regarded it as an insult to their democratic vote just cast and indeed almost amounting to an attack on their intelligence. It became increasingly clear that it almost invited Labour Leavers to take their General Election vote elsewhere. Indeed that it was just as toxic to them as anything that might be proposed on the wilder fringes of Corbynism.

And the third thing that has happened is a single Commons exchange involving David Davis. Like everybody else on the losing side I have enjoyed the mocking question: "Yes, Brexit might mean Brexit but what exactly does Brexit mean?"

But when Davis was asked that very question in real life he answered simply: "It means Britain is going to leave the European Union."

And, at least for the moment, he is right. There is, at least for now, no buyer's remorse. There is no point in fantasies of "uniting the 48%". It is still a minority. And, anyway, who's  to say that such a development might not just impel the 52% to unite in their own way?

So, in summary, Labour strategy (no laughing up the back) must start by trying to get the best Brexit deal possible. If the British people want free trade without free movement then we must at least explore that possibility. I know, I know, that for the moment there are those at the highest level within the EU stating in black and white terms that there could never be such a deal but there are other voices too. And much the same, until recently, was being said to Switzerland but, very interestingly, it is not being said now.

For that leads me on to my realisation. Or perhaps more precisely, my recollection. Britain is not Greece. Britain is not even just any other member of the EU. It is its second largest Country both in terms of population and GDP. It is also the fifth largest economy in the world. Free trade between the EU and the UK is very much to the advantage of both. And any preferential treatment in the right to live and work here will always be a prize worth having. For while Britain will always need immigrants we do not need them necessarily from Europe. While it is no accident that free movement between the UK and central and eastern Europe has been almost entirely one way.

Equally, it is not as if the UK is a stranger to bespoke deals, even while within the EU. From the rebate to Schengen to, most noticeably of all, the Euro, the advantages of free trade with the UK has already trumped "ever closer union".

How this can/could be done already has its theorists. Recently both Professors  Tomkins  and Gallagher have weighed with contributions from differing sides of the left/right divide.

But, and here is another thought. The Scottish Referendum ended with an outcome not on the table when that process began. Might not the EU referendum have a similar outcome? For the main argument by the Remainers was never about free movement. For some, overwhelmingly white middle class people (like me), planning to retire abroad, it was an undoubted incidental benefit, but for many others it was no more than a price worth paying without having any great attachment to the principle itself.

However the main argument for the Leavers?  Here I come back to the "credit" I gave to Mr Farage earlier on. If free movement was really the key reason to leave and we might no longer have free movement? Then the arguments for retaining a top table seat where decisions are made and not simply coming to terms with their aftermath comes back into play. So, reach a deal on free movement and then, only then, there might be a case for a second referendum.

But be in no doubt, if Labour remains committed ideally to continuing membership of the EU then a deal on free movement is an essential starting point. Don't ask me, ask the electorate. Or just ask Owen Smith.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Legacy of History

While I was away I read Robert Tombs masterwork "The English and their History". It has a number of themes but one of them undoubtedly is that, whether by coincidence or otherwise, the Union between England and Scotland was shortly thereafter followed by an unprecedented growth of what was to become the largest empire the world has ever seen.

The British Empire (for it never was and never will be called anything else) like any other great historical event had both its good and bad elements. When it was bad, most notoriously in its role in the transatlantic slave trade, it could be very bad indeed but equally, when it was good, most noticeably in its ultimate elimination of that trade not just within its boundaries but across the world, its power could be employed for great and good purpose.

And any suggestion that this was not an enterprise in which the Scots were fully engaged is nonsense. It was, I think, the nationalist historian Michael Fry who tellingly observed that the English conquered an Empire but the Scots actually ran it. There is some truth in that but we did our fair share of fighting too. Through the long "Second Hundred Years War" against France (as Tombs borrows the description) from the Heights of Abraham to the Scots Greys at Waterloo, Scottish troops were in the front of the action. As they were through the long imperial adventure of the 19th Century and throughout the long 20th Century departures which followed. Right up to Mad Mitch and the Argyll's in Aden, "Scotland the Brave" was never far away on any battlefield.

But, of course, the Empire is now in the past, fought over only for its reputation among historians of differing modern political persuasions. It has left a worldwide cultural legacy but most obviously a legacy here on the island from which it sprang.

But it also, and this is important, has left a continuing legacy on the modern economy of the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom is commonly understood to have four constituent parts: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. But in economic terms that's not actually true. In economic terms the country has five parts. The first three certainly, but more properly the final, largest, part should be divided into "Greater London" and "The rest of England".

I'm prompted to these thoughts not just by Professor Tombs' history but by a nagging unhappiness as to how last weeks GERS figures have been reported. It is certainly the case that Scotland's public spending is substantially subsidised by "elsewhere" and that an inevitable consequence of Independence would be a significant fall in living standards. But the economic reductionism of my own side's response has left me slightly uneasy. For there were two nationalist kickbacks to this. The first, the usual zoomer element who don't believe the figures published by their own nationalist government, can be treated with the contempt they deserve. But there was a second,more cerebral argument trying  to plant a tape worm in the gut of the Scottish polity. A worm we must be careful not to let flourish. "Alright, maybe we would be a bit worse off, but we would have the dignity of not living on handouts."

However, by that logic everywhere in the UK, not just us and the Welsh in the Northern Irish, but everywhere in England outwith London as well is "living on handouts".

For London, for all it is the Nation's capital, is in reality a thing apart from the nation. It is a world city, only truly rivalled in economic activity by New York and Hong Kong and boasting a cultural., architectural, historical and, yes, political legacy that puts even these other two contenders to shame. But this is not the only legacy that London enjoys. For although politically and militarily the British Empire is over, economically it still has a centre, a remaining imperial capital in a post imperial age. A centre that remains at the heart of commerce, trade, finance, simply influence, across a far wider reach than these small islands alone.  And it has a population to match, more than 50% born to at least one foreign born parent. It is a wonderful, vibrant, diverse place.

There are few people in the developed world who would not wish, given the opportunity, to visit it and many, many more, across the whole world, who have no higher ambition than but to actually live there.

But more importantly still, as that direct legacy of Empire, the post imperial capital generates wealth out of all proportion to even its substantial population. Much, much more than anywhere else in the country. And that wealth is then shared not just by those who live in London but across the country to which London itself belongs. For, and let this sink in, one pound in five earned in London, through the operation of taxation, is then spent elsewhere in the UK. But actually, that is as it should be. For, as I say, it is to the departed British Empire that London owes its modern pre-eminence.

Now, none of this is to say that this great wealth could not be more evenly distributed, across the UK or even within London itself. It certainly could and should be. Nor is it to say that such a concentration of wealth in one part of the country alone is a good thing. It certainly isn't, something recognised but never yet successfully overcome by government's of different political persuasions since at least the end of last war. Nor is it even, dare I say it, to say that, as GERS highlights, Scotland should continue, even within the UK, to be entitled to greater public spending than, frankly, more deprived parts of the country.

But it is to say this. It is not Londoners alone who are responsible for their great city's prosperity today. It is all of us. So the capital's great wealth being distributed across the Nation it belongs to is not on any view a subsidy. It is simply the benefit of being in a United Kingdom. And the legacy of history.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Winter is coming.

And so, I'm back. Umbria was, as always, Umbria. Great scenery, great food, great art, great time. Last Saturday I was once again in Orvieto, home of arguably Italy's greatest cathedral, Luca Signorelli's masterwork and, that aside, one of my most favourite restaurants.

But then? I flew home. That is done now.

Summer is over and the long echoes of the British Autumn are about to begin.

The Last Night of the Proms; the first night of Strictly; the September weekend; Halloween; Bonfire Night; Armistice Day. Each will come round with their usual inevitability as the leaves turn red, and then brown and then disappear altogether. And, in the west of Scotland at least, as the constant, four season, rain gets steadily colder until turning to sleet.

Until, equally inevitably, there will be Christmas and beyond that a new renewal.

And then plans for the new year.

But, in between, there will still be life.

And, in political terms, I suspect this will actually prove to be quite boring.

We have just had three years of politics unprecedented in my lifetime.

The Independence Referendum was, on any view, an event. As was not so much the General Election as the decision of the Labour Party to implode, perhaps abolish itself  entirely, in its aftermath. And then we had the Brexit vote. Let's be honest, not something anybody politically engaged, including most Brexiters, ever thought would ever actually happen.

But things can't carry on like this. A bit like Euro2016, watching two games every night, then at least one, then at least a few remaining high stakes contests......eventually there is the final. And it's over. No matter how much you might wish it could's over. Equally, mornings no longer will come with a Gold Rush from Rio but with the latest report on childhood obesity or on the problem of pension mis-selling. It's over.

And in the same way the last three years are over. Despite the obvious advantage to be gained, Mrs May seems resolved that my own Party's current travails will not be solved by her in the form of an early election. Despite all her huffing and puffing, Nicola is equally not inclined to the kamikaze mission that would be a second referendum. If Labour does split, which I still think improbable, it won't be this year. Brexit might mean Brexit but not quite yet.

So, politics are about to become boring. Normal. Tory.

Maybe, for a while, that is not a bad thing.

Sunday, 31 July 2016


Yesterday, up to 5000 people marched through Glasgow waving flags in support of Scottish Independence. Which is of course not about flags.

Still, no harm to them, what people get up to in their spare time is a matter for them. Personally, I had a barbecue.

And I am in no doubt that there are many other people who were more inclined to my own sort of Summer recreation who, nonetheless, asked the question again, would vote in a referendum for Independence. Very many more.

The problem is that even very many more still isn't enough.

I did actually think that the Brexit vote might shift Scottish public opinion a bit, at least for a time. At least until it became obvious what "Scotland in/England out" would mean in practice: a devalued "independent" currency and a hard border. Actually, I think that underlying opinion has moved a bit. Some europhile No voters have given Independence a second look. Equally however, some Nats motivated by hatred of the English appear (surprise, surprise) to be no more friendly to any other sort of "foreigner".  Indeed, faced with a binary choice in that regard they would apparently opt to keep the devil they know.

But despite that (wee) bit underlying moving about the baseline figure remains about the same as it has since September 2014. A significant and consistent majority for maintaining the British union.

Now, what hasn't perhaps been given enough thought is what this means for the future of Scottish politics.

It has become accepted wisdom that the SNP would not risk another referendum unless they thought they would win. What if that is never?

There is a kind of assumption that the Nats could nonetheless remain a "competent" government and continue to enjoy an electoral advantage from being both that and "Scotland's Party".

But, actually, "Scotland", at least without the prospect of Independence, is not a political philosophy.

So far the belief that that dream is not dead has managed to obscure this. It is that as much as any underlying objective that requires Nicola to flag up the possibility of another vote at every possible opportunity. But that strategy only has so much mileage. If, as it appears, the Nats hope that Brexit would be a gamechanger, or that Trident renewal would be a gamechanger, or at least that something would be a gamechanger proves to be illusory, what happens next?

Well, to paraphrase Harold McMillan, events will happen.

We were promised at the election that closing the attainment gap in education was to be the number one priority of Nicola's renewed (of sorts) mandate. The problem is that it is one thing to recognise change is needed, it is another altogether to actually decide what that change should be, let alone bring it about. At some point change requires somebody to be offended, for any status quo has its beneficiaries. And change in Education will require quite a lot of those with an interest in the status quo to suffer that offence: the teaching unions, Local Authorities, who knows possibly even some parents.

So far, since 2007, as they attempted to hold their fragile "Yes Coalition" together, the SNP have been anxious to avoid any offence to anybody. The price of that has been complete stasis in public policy making. You would genuinely struggle to think of any bold initiatives in any of the devolved areas of responsibility. And these devolved areas of responsibility are about to get much much wider.

I give but one current example, the rail strike. For the last month, members of the RMT have been engaged in industrial action over plans to remove guards from many commuter services. The travelling public are increasingly furious about the disruption to their daily lives while the unions are increasingly furious over management's unwillingness to negotiate. But this is not a nil sum game. If the unions win, fares will go up. If they lose then ultimately fewer people will work on the railways and, as they would have it at least, the travelling public will be less safe. So, what is the view of the Scottish Government? No idea. The silence from the transport minister has been deafening. For to express a view would offend somebody. Except that, slowly, that silence is actually beginning to offend everybody. Or at least everybody paying attention. As a lot more will be once the holiday season ends.

And that's the problem with current SNP strategy. It is not just nature that abhors a vacuum, so does politics. We have already seen this to a degree in the way that, in an attempt to install a proper opposition, May past, the electorate pushed Labour aside in favour of the Ruth Davidson Party.

At a certain point even those who might still wish for Independence will conclude that, if it's not, however regrettably, going to happen, Government has to be about more than just sitting about doing as little as possible in the hope that one day opinion on the National question might actually experience the hoped for gamechanger.

And yet if something, anything, is to be done by the SNP Government? Just consider the current SNP deputy leadership contest. Do the candidates agree with each other about just about anything other than independence? Yet each seems to have their own discreet group of supporters believing that the view of their candidate alone represent the "true" opinion of the SNP. It'll take more than the talents of, even, Nicola to maintain the unity of this heterogeneous group while driving it in in any particular policy direction. Don't hold your breath for the attainment gap to be closed any time soon.

And with that I'm off on holiday. Actually I am flying out from Prestwick. Currently, in an attempt to avoid another decision bound to give offence, my departure place is being subsidised by the Scottish Government to the extent of £17 million per annum. That's another area where a decision is going, one day, to be need to be made. Just so long as it's not before next Saturday. I would be offended.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

I will survive?

The weird thing about Corbyn's continued limpet like attachment to the Party leadership is that it is difficult to see where it sees itself going.

Bevan's maxim "Never underestimate the passion for unity" still has considerable traction, indeed it is effectively Owen Smith's entire campaign strategy. But, equally, we cannot expect that that passion to be shared by those Johnny come lately "conditional" members and supporters who Corbyn has undoubtedly already rallied to his tattered flag.

So Corbyn's survival is a very real possibility. But to what end?

There is no way back for the 172 resignees. They could not possibly remain collectively on the back benches and then face their local electorate come a General Election in the position of encouraging confidence in a candidate for Prime Minister despite having publicly declared no confidence in the same person's inability to be (even) Leader of the Opposition. That is of course assuming they hadn't been reselected in the meantime.

The Party would inevitably split. In a much more significant way than in 1981.

And that split would start with many more advantages than the "Gang of Four" had then. Not just in the number of Labour MPs it would take with it.

Tribal voting is much less of a factor thirty five years on. In 1979, as Labour lost, 36.9% of the electorate still voted Labour. In 2015 that figure was a mere 29%. But, just as significantly, in 2015, the Tories actually WON the election with a smaller proportion of the the electorate than that which had led Labour to defeat (by a margin) in 1979. There are a lot of unattached voters out there and Scotland shows that even life long loyalty can prove to be anything but given the right set of circumstance.

Money is also much less of an issue. Labour in 1981 retained a considerable advantage over any pretender to the title of, at least, principal opposition through the guaranteed income from the Trade Union link. Since then, not only has Trade Union money declined as Trade Unionism itself has declined but Party funding has also moved more generally on, not just in relation to the relative importance of "Short money" but also in the willingness of well to do individuals to intervene, for philanthropic motivation or otherwise, in the political process.

And there is even a "cause" in the way the SDP never really had a cause except by way of a general disgruntlement with the Labour Party. That cause is Europe and more broadly an embrace of, rather than a retreat from, the modern world. If not the EU precisely then certainly the EEA or, better still, the "special associate" status being discussed in some German quarters.

You can see such a project, embracing the Lib Dems, and dependent on the right surrounding circumstances and leadership, getting to 30%. Not enough to win but probably enough to finish off Labour.

But, oddly, that's not really my point.

For my point is, to go back to where I started, what would the prospects for RLabour (to borrow an adapted phraseology from the Scottish Independence campaign)?

We would still have assets. Firstly, and not unimportantly, the brand. The brand means quite a lot to some people, me included. It might be ridiculous, sentimental or whatever but I'd find it quite difficult but to vote anything but Labour. You can relatively easily see Tony Blair or Kezia Dugdale endorsing the new Party project I outline. As the former famously said, to his one time reassurance of the wider electorate, he wasn't born into this Party, he chose it. The latter, at best, only ever had it as a second choice. But Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown and so many, many, less prominent others now serving as Party Officers, local Councillors or even (just) humble door knockers ? They were born into our Party. They would find it very difficult to belong to any other.

And secondly, it is undeniable that to a certain constituency: public sector trade unionists; that part of the very poor who are politically engaged at all; young people legitimately motivated by generational inequality, Corbynism has a genuine appeal. A Coalition of the Angry as I have previously described it. The 18% who expressed the preference for Corbyn over May as Prime Minister in the recent poll are presumably these people. Even stripping out those faced with having to make a binary choice and those who simply don't know that much about him, there is probably still a core Labour/Corbyn vote concentrated in what remains of our heartlands, South Wales, South Yorkshire, The North East, Lancashire, the industrial Midlands, Inner London. Assuming at least that UKIP don't point the anger of the coalition of the angry in an entirely different direction, as they undoubtedly partially did on 23rd June past.

But lets again return to where I started. Suppose Labour somehow scrapes vote to "victory" over any new initiative? So what?  We might have won the battle for the minor places but Mrs May's carefully centrally positioned Tories would still be holding up the Gold medal and belting out the National Anthem.

And eventually, if not after the 2020 General Election, then after the 2025 one, or at least the 2030 one, Labour would either finally die or realise that we need to track back towards the centre in order to win. And that no number of rallies or marches was sufficient consolation for failing to do so.

So I finish with the question I started with. What, even in his own terms, is the point of Corbyn surviving?

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Salmond for the Prosecution

I wrote in my last blog on Friday about how angry I am with the result of the European Referendum.

A lot of people are. And are looking for a solution, any solution.

David Lammy MP even suggested Parliament should just ignore the referendum altogether! I'm not quite sure that would mean for our Party's prospects in the North of England.

Elsewhere, three million people have signed a petition calling for a re-vote. Except seventeen million people actually voted to leave and the only polling done since indicates that they are overwhelmingly happy with what they have achieved. I'm in no doubt that, in time, we will see buyer's remorse but that time is not yet.

Thousands of others are desperately off to try and get an Irish (EU) passport but it's not clear where they actually propose to live.

All we need now is a Euro camp in Parliament Square full of zoomers invoking the intervention of Jesus and the Queen. While blaming the whole thing on Murray Tosh.

This is all nonsense. I am in no doubt we need to work to reverse or at least mitigate the result last Thursday but this is not something that will be achieved overnight and depends on a number of other factors: the immediate response of the 27 other EU members; the result of the Tory leadership (de facto Prime Ministerial) election;  the fall out of the instant challenge to Corbyn, whichever way it goes; the result of what appears now to be almost certain 2016 General Election and, if that doesn't reverse last Thursday by itself, any negotiations that then take take place between the EU and the UK in its aftermath.

But I just want to say something about the other immediate angry response we have seen to the vote, one particular to Scotland, that in response we should declare independence (via a second independence referendum) so that Scotland could remain in the EU at the price of leaving the UK.

This is understandable, because anger is understandable, but it is nonsense. Because by the time of any such vote, the consequence of such a cutting off one's nose to spite one's face would be a lot more apparent than they are in the current febrile atmosphere.

I could list any number of reasons for this but I'll choose just one, currency. Say what you like about Alex Salmond but he is not a stupid man.

I am in no doubt that he understood that for Scotland to actually operate a different economic policy from our own much larger neighbour we would need to have a different currency which could trade at a differential value on the world's currenc exchanges.

But in 2014 he didn't offer that, instead he proposed a currency union with England. This was improbable then, something that Salmond himself has since admitted. On any view however, now it would be impossible. A currency union from within the EU with a country outwith the EU? It is inconceivable that this would be acceptable to either Brussels or London.

So, we would be left with only one option*, our own currency. An independently issued, central bank backed, convertible currency is an absolute sine qua non of EU membership as, if you consider it for a moment, you will appreciate that it is required for the stability of a single market.  That currency, the Pound Scots, might be declared on creation to be intended to be worth the same as the Pound Sterling but it wouldn't be. Because, in the absence of a reciprocal arrangement, convertible currencies are not worth what their governments declare them to be. The key is in the word convertible. Governments might produce the "goods" (The Pounds or whatever) but they don't own the shop, let alone control the customers.

And these markets would immediately place a shadow value on this Scottish currency,indicating not exactly what it was worth (because it would not yet exist) but rather what it would be worth when eventually placed on sale.

And that value would inevitably be significantly less than the Pound Sterling.

Why? Because the key element in pricing any national currency is the size of the national fiscal deficit. And, as a percentage of GDP, Scotland's deficit is significantly higher than that of England, even before the boost the latter would get from losing its obligation towards subsidising Scotland. That is based not on my opinion but on the annual GERS figures produced by the Scottish Government.

And there is no politically acceptable solution to this because to continue with that deficit (setting aside for the moment whether any wider EU entry  obligation would permit that) would mean one thing. That anybody paid from the public purse: every public sector worker; every pensioner; every benefit claimant, would know that on Independence Day they would be immediately worse off. On the other hand, if it was announced in advance, to reassure the markets, how the Scottish Government proposed to address the deficit? Then every public sector worker; every pensioner; every benefit claimant would know that on Independence Day they would be immediately worse off. Not just worse off when they went "abroad" but worse off when they tried to purchase any imported item at their corner shop.

And, crucially, that isn't something that would come as an unpleasant surprise after any second referendum vote, it would be known on polling day, because the Scottish currency's shadow value would be known on polling day.

So, maybe people will be so filled with affection for the EU, or resentment of England, that they might still vote for that. For an immediate, significant, cut in their living standards. But I very much doubt that. And my number one witness for that conclusion................? Alex Salmond.

*I haven't addressed the suggestion of immediate Euro entry because it is almost certainly technically impossible but, even if it wasn't, Euro membership requires a target deficit of less than 3%. Scotland's deficit is currently 9.4%, so for that to be possible the spending cuts I refer to would just as certainly have had to have been detailed. Anybody who thinks that might be negotiable should ask the Greeks.

I also haven't mentioned "Sterlingisation" (using Sterling without permission) not just because it was always a farcical proposition but because having one's own currency (or the Euro) is an express requirement of EU membership.

Friday, 24 June 2016

San Giovanni Battista

Excepting days involving personal family loss, today has been the worst day of my entire life.

I just can't quite believe what has happened. I concluded my previous blog by observing that I didn't want to go back to 1971. It appears that a majority of my fellow citizens thought differently.

I've lived long enough to remember the 1975 Referendum,when the political centre rallied together against the fringe on either side to deliver a very different result. When this current process started, I kind of assumed that this time would in the end be the same, except that this time the pincer movement the Leavers might attempt would be so much weaker because in the interim its left wing had lost much of its power, never mind its inclination.

Even when it became apparent during the campaign that this optimism might be misplaced I retained a belief that, even if my own admitted European enthusiasm might not be likely to be widely endorsed, economic "common sense" would still carry the day, much as it had, as a last resort, in September 2014.

So, as the results came in I was seized not just with the disappointment that accompanies any normal electoral reverse but with a real sense of grief. My whole life ambition, reflected, with the occasional reverse, in my whole life experience was being called into doubt. Ambition and experience combined as it seemed towards greater tolerance and co-operation, across domestic society but also across the wider world. In a moment,a result declared from Sunderland, that had experienced an almost certainly permanent set back. The great European project would, at best, go forward without me and, at worst, disintegrate altogether as a result of a process to which I had been an, even unwilling, party. It was as if there had been a vote to reverse the Equal Pay Act, or repeal (what was originally) the Race Relations Act. It was as if s.28 had been reinstated or that we had voted in a referendum to close the Open University because working people should know to know their place.

It was, it is, terrible.

And of course with grief initially comes anger.

Anger at the voters. Angry at them being racist, although patently by no means all of the Leavers were. Angry at them being stupid, although patently by no means all of the Leavers were. Angry at them being selfish, although.....Angry at them being old and comfortable and choosing to deny opportunity to younger generations, although......Angry, yes, at them being English, although actually they were also Welsh and indeed here in Scotland there were almost 40% of them right here among us.

And also anger at the press, except that in the North of England, ultimate Leave heartland, Labour voters mainly read a regional press and/or the Daily Mirror, all of which were relentlessly Remain. Kevin Maguire, the Mirror's chief political correspondent,  is arguably Sunderland's most famous son. Nobody could have argued the Remain case consistently or better. Yet Sunderland voted 60% Leave.

So also anger at the ineptitude of others on my own side, particularly the utterly useless Jez and Kez, engaged not meaningfully against the enemy but in a private competition for the prize of most useless Party leader of any Party, in any Country, at anytime. In the entire history of the recorded world.  But angry also that, inept though Jez was, nobody really thought that, even with Liz Kendall as leader, Barnsley (Barnsley! Residual headquarters of the NUM) would have been transformed from a 70% Leave vote to a populus skipping to the polls singing the Ode to Joy? So anger also at the Labour Party for having lost touch with its own voters,

And anger also against events. The Syrian War that has led so many desperate souls to seek refuge, refuge anywhere, but hamstrung liberal opinion here on the hook of "We're sorry, we'd have you in but our voters won't". But also anger at a European commitment to free movement that anticipated lots of moving about among mutually attractive destinations rather than reaching a common sense conclusion, in certain late accessing countries, that the movement would inevitably be overwhelmingly only one way. And anger that pointing that out would be denounced as "Racist".

And, finally,  anger against a Scottish communality that allowed Nicola to seize the agenda in the aftermath, talking up grievance, as always, without even being asked, never mind answering, the basic questions: "Will you actually have a referendum rather than just a grievance?" "What currency would this hypothetical (substitute) 28th member use?" "What do you think Northern Ireland should do?" or "So, on your argument,  38% of Scottish voters are English racist scum?"

So the public me is angry. But the private me is also sad.

Today, the 24th of June, is the feast day of St. John the Baptist. It is regarded as Midsummers Day in Italy and is a major feast day there, "San Giovanni Battista".

Wee Mo and I always planned to retire to Italy and to one day celebrate the feast day in situ. Had Mo not become ill, we undoubtedly would have . And we would, in that earlier world, have congratulated ourselves that we didn't have to queue up once a quarter, as Mo did when she lived there in the seventies, for a "Permesso di Soggiorno". Or pay, as she had to do then, albeit only in the form of English lessons for his children, to see a local doctor. For we were all EU Citizens now.

And although Mo has gone now, mentally if not physically, Andi, my new companion*, Hungarian born but here twenty years past, long before she was automatically here as an EU citizen, still talks with alarm about the days she didn't have the automatic right to be in the UK. When she worried that, if her first marriage broke up, she might have to leave the country while leaving her children behind. Until at cost and trouble she obtained UK citizenship shortly before, until yesterday, that turned out to be apparently academic. For we we were all EU Citizens now.

And yet she is still told today by her workmates that they are sorry if the vote means that she will have to go "home".

We thought these days were past. Past for good and for well.

I hate. yes that is the word, hate what has happened today as the votes were counted. But I console myself  that there are many others of even mind. Labour people certainly but also Libs and Greens and above all decent Tories. If what has happened can yet be reversed, I'm up for any alliance. Even if it involves the death of my other great love, the Labour Party itself.

*So, what do you call a woman who you love desperately and would marry in an instant, except that you are still married to another woman, who you also love but is now at late stage Alzheimer's disease.  Even German complex nouns would struggle with that. 

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Voting against Now


I wrote this blog in almost its entirety last Wednesday night intending to give it a final once over before publishing it on Thursday evening. Then, at about 1pm on Thursday, the world changed. I then swithered about publishing it at all, not just because of, initially, what would have been the inappropriateness of its timing but later because of some of its content. On reflection however I think it bears up in light of events. Those working class voters intending to vote Leave, with a few very, very small exceptions, are not closet racists. We serve neither our short term or long term interests by suggesting that they are. It doesn't however mean that they are right. But we, the Labour Party, by our past behaviour, should accept our responsibility for their misconception that they might be.

Voting against Now

Much has been written about the similarities between the two referendums although there is one big difference in that, this time, I believe there is a real possibility my side might lose, something I never feared at any point in September 2014. And not just because of the very different polls.

But there is still merit in considering the similarities between the two events.

The coalitions assembled by both Yes and Leave each have three elements.

Two of these were anticipated to be there in advance: firstly those who just don’t like foreigners/English people very much and secondly those who, genuinely not of that first view, have nonetheless a sincere belief that “the Country” (defined as required) would greatly benefit from an alternative constitutional arrangement.

At the start of each referendum the forces of the status quo identified these groups as essentially lost causes but remained confident that their combined ranks would never approach a majority.

But in each case "we" initially, and indeed until dangerously too late, failed to appreciate the third prong of our opponent’s fork. Those who would be voting against "Now”.

If you look at those areas of “the Country” which voted Yes and are looking like voting Leave, they share one thing in common. A legitimate feeling that while “elsewhere” prospers, their own location and indeed personal circumstances do not.

And that is, for the avoidance of doubt, a legitimate feeling. The affluence of the “white working class” is at best getting no better, following a period, starting after the war and continuing until perhaps thirty years ago, when a year to year improvement in circumstance, marginal but noticeable, was expected as the natural order of things. Just as, with the benefit of hindsight, that improvement happened marginally but noticeably, it equally ceased to happen marginally. But it is certainly noticeable now. And to compound the resentment of that experience, the relative affluence of others in our society has, over that same thirty year period, visibly improved; whether catching up from behind in relation to the general circumstance of ethnic minorities and “immigrants” or pulling further away in front in relation to a distant metropolitan elite.

And overwhelmingly, those standing still, or sometimes worse, are people who used to “produce” things. All sorts of things from coal brought to the surface to iron turned into steel; from tiny buttons to ocean going ships and things of all sorts and sizes in between. Different things in different places but with a common culture. Industrial work that often depended on brawn rather than brain but which nonetheless, for the long post war boom, had more or less guaranteed availability. Work which brought with it honest reward that fuelled a local service economy: shops, cinemas, social clubs, that was visibly there not as an end in itself but rather as support to allow the primary “producing” purpose of the place to function.

In many, many places this world has gone. It hasn’t changed or modernised. It has just disappeared. The same things are (generally) stillproduced, obviously, but they are not produced here. They are produced in India or China or wherever. Produced by different producers, working in harsher conditions and crucially at a much lesser level of personal reward.

And what’s left, too often, is little more than the service economy that once enjoyed only a support role. As Shirley Williams famously described it, an economy based on people selling hamburgers to each other.

Now, of course, that’s not the whole economy of the country. We have a vast knowledge economy that has largely replaced in our GDP what the producing of real, visible things once provided. But that knowledge economy is not open to all, only to those intellectually equal to it. Often, even then, not open in the place where its participants themselves were born. Indeed not just the place where they were born but the place where their parents, and their grandparents and their great- great grandparents had been born. Where, ideally they would have liked their own children to be born.

So local communities lose their brightest and best while those left behind curse the circumstance that prevents them from doing precisely that themselves. For as local people leave, "others" arrive to fill the vacuum. In many cases of necessity, for every community needs young people to renew itself at all. But, for the avoidance of doubt, it is not necessary to buy into the patent fiction that these incomers have driven out the established population to nonetheless regret that they have replaced them at all.

And that all leads, in the minds of those "local people" left behind, to one conclusion. That there is something the matter with Now. 

With both referendums that has posed a particular problem for my Party. At general elections for almost the whole of my life Labour has had two distinctive messages to the two parts of our own electoral coalition. To "traditional" Labour voters we have been against Now. Now has been portrayed as the sole creation of the "evil Tories", who closed their factories, shut their pits and devalued the worth of honest labour.

There was no more bizarre example of this as when Jeremy Corbyn during his leadership campaign, if only briefly, suggested to a South Wales audience, that a Government led by him might re-open the coalfields! Why? A return to pneumoconiosis, industrial deafness, percussion white finger? Early death for those who survived the a lifetime of such working conditions and sudden death before that for random others? A life without daylight whose workforce had but a single ambition for their families, that they would not need to follow them down the pit? But was Jeremy decried for this suggestion? No, he was cheered to the echo. Because it was what his audience wanted to hear. For closing the pits was regarded by them as the greatest crime ever of the "evil Tories", conveniently forgetting that Tony Benn had closed more pits than Margaret Thatcher ever did. Not because he was "evil Tony" but rather because it was an industry close to the end of its natural life, not least because of the human cost it involved. It is one thing to criticise how it was done, a criticism I readily share, it is another to maintain that what was done was ultimately anything other than inevitable.

That's not (for once) a criticism by me of the Party leader but rather a caution against nostalgia clouding recollection, as much on the left as by those proudly owning up to being Conservatives.

For to the other part of the Labour coalition we condemn these self same "evil Tories", these self same Conservatives, as not being to blame for Now but rather for being not Now enough. Insufficiently modern. Unwilling to accept ethnic diversity; sexual diversity; meritocracy. Not willing to confront demographic necessity. The Tories are not, as we say to that first group of supporters, responsible for the state of the modern world but instead, we say to this second group, they are insufficiently welcoming of it!

Now, in microcosm, this costs us no more than the winning of general elections, for that part of the electorate not tribally attached to either big Party see through our contradictions. But by nonetheless keeping on board those who,for diametrically opposed reasons, would "never vote Tory" we survive these conventional contests as a substantial minority, albeit, if that's all we've got, an inevitable minority nonetheless. While the "evil Tories" work, in their evil way, to constantly reduce the numbers of those who would "never" vote for them.

But, anyway,  referendums sweep all that, "normal" election calculation away. While Labour's own internal dichotomies are inevitably exposed. As they were in Scotland and as they might be in England over the next week. Those who are against Now and those who believe we are not Now enough simply cannot possibly be corralled together in such a context. Put bluntly, with the best will in the world, the "Refugees welcome" section of our support cannot possibly be reconciled with the "Local houses for local people" element. And in attempting to do so we only end up alienating both. Particularly when, as has inevitably proved the case in both referendums, our opponents are free to portray themselves as all things to all men because, being in the field only for one single purpose, they have no track history to defend and can happily disown elements of their own side that does not suit what "they" believe "they" are voting for. Not least the barely disguised fascist element that undoubtedly exists on the fringes, at the very least, of both the Yes and Leave "movements".

So from the perspective of somebody who has been all their life a Labour tribalist, things look pretty bleak. But perhaps, just perhaps, from the point of view of somebody who believes in the cause of progress, there might nonetheless be a glimmer of light.

For I'm for Now. Now isn't just ignoring racial difference but positively embracing it. Now involves my nephew being more likely to marry a man from Berlin than a woman from Bellshill (or a woman from anywhere to be honest). Now is an improved concern for the environmental consequences of all our behaviour. Now is more kids going to university than ever before, even in Scotland. Now is life expectancy being, with every year of my own life, ever longer for those around me and Now also means far greater dignity, financial or otherwise, in old age. Now is the treatment of those with disabilities, even under the evil Tories, being better than at any time in history. Now is better food, eating out or eating in. Now is more diverse cultural experience on the stage or in the street: Now is ever cheaper and easier holidays. Mundanely, Monday to Sunday, Now is an ever greater diversity of choice on the telly. Actually, Now is an ever greater diversity of choice in just about every aspect of life.


"Joy was it in that morn to be alive but to be young was very heaven!"

Certainly, let us concede that there is much wrong with the availability to everyone of Now but let's stop pretending that there will ever be a majority for going back to Then. Let's instead work to spread the benefits of Now more comprehensively. As socialists, to strive for that by the traditional means, in opposition, of organisation and, in power, of legislation. To work to ensure that Now leaves nobody drowning in its wake, not by throwing some existing passengers overboard but instead by ensuring through dignity, security and due reward of labour, of whatever sort, that there is room on board for every willing passenger. Even if that does mean smaller first class cabins to provide more comfortable accommodation in steerage.

The great socialist writer, R.H. Tawney famously wrote that for the left, if there is to be a golden age, it will always lie not in the past but in the future. Let us embrace that sentiment.

I don't want next Thursday to go back to 1971, even if that was possible. Any more than, eighteen months back, I wanted to go back to 1707.

And, in the end you know, excepting a very very few, nobody else really does either. So let's work for that to be reflected in the result on 23rd June 2016 as decisively as it ultimately was on 18th September 2014.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

San Luigi dei Francesi

                                                                                   The calling of St Matthew. Caravaggio. San Luigi dei Francesi, Roma.

San Luigi dei Francesi is one of my very favourite churches in Rome.

Situated between Piazza Navona and the Parliament building it has, by virtue of that latter circumstance, also the advantage of being close to my very favourite restaurant in all of Rome. Of which perhaps I'll say a little more later.

San Luigi, you will gather from its name, is the French church in Rome. It is mainly visited on the tourist trail by reason of its three great Caravaggios, featuring scenes from the life of St Matthew. But to nip in and out just for the Caravaggios would be a tragedy. For its interior is, since its completion at the end of the sixteenth century, a miniature history of the French nationals once resident in the (now) Italian capital.

The completion of the church itself starts that story, benefiting from the personal patronage of Catherine de' Medici, widow of one King of France, mother of three others and mother-in-law of a fourth.

Inside the pillars of the church, the walls and even any unused space in the side chapels boast barely an empty piece of wall, such are the plaques and funerary monuments to the countless famous Frenchmen who at one time worshipped in the church, often dying in the eternal city.

You could spend a day, more, just reading these and placing the departed faithful referred to within the context of the events of their time.

But for the modern visitor the most moving plaques bear more recent dates. Countless bearing little more than a name, a rank and a date of death, the latter at an age seldom stretching beyond a thirtieth birthday. And beyond that, a simple encomium, "TuĂ© en Italie pour La Liberation de France". Killed in Italy for the freedom of France.

You forget the role the free French played in the Italian campaign during the Second World War but in 1943 and 44 they fought alongside us and the Americans and, more famously in British legend, the Poles in the long slog up the peninsula. And, as the plaques in San Luigi testify, died alongside us as well.

The Italian campaign saw as much fighting and misery as anywhere else on the "Western front". And as much brutality, it can now with the passage of time be confessed, not least from the French colonial troops deployed in that campaign.

But had the church a conscious existence, that brutality would have been no stranger the the stones of San Luigi. Its patroness, Catherine de' Medici, was of course mired in the Wars of Religion. But her departure from the scene was marked by nothing approaching peace. Through the transitional events of the Thirty years war, still, even including 1914-45, regarded by the Germans themselves as the single greatest calamity to befall their nation, the focus only shifted from confessional disputes to those involving nation states in the constant warring for supremacy that bedevilled the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Now, we British have been sheltered from much of this, the last land battle here was in 1746, but by the time of the culmination of this gory history, this isolation of our civilian population was no more. In the horrific clash of competing nationalisms and ideologies that saw the deaths marked in San Luigi's memorial plaques, and so many, many more deaths, our civilian population could die in their own beds in London, or Coventry or Clydebank just as readily as continental Europe's  peasantry had once been at the random disposal of any marching army or mercenary band.

And then it stopped. There has not been a war in Western Europe for seventy one years.

And I defy anyone not to concede that the European Union has been central to that great achievement. It is no accident that the genesis of the EEC came from the desire to create a joint German and French "Steel and Coal" Community that would make war between its participants practically impossible. Or that the greatest British advocates of  membership were commonly those  who had seen the reality of war close up. Or that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the central European countries who queued up to join saw membership not just as a road to prosperity but as a passport to continued peace.

It has been said that those who defended the British Union in the Scottish referendum were too blind to legitimate criticism of it. There is a degree of truth to that. No "UK OK" sticker was ever displayed by me. For the UK is far from OK, particularly for those at the bottom. And there are certainly many legitimate criticisms of the EU: Its excessive bureaucracy and the waste that goes with it; the lack of transparency, indeed democracy, in much of its decision making; the lack of compassion or exception when it comes to its economic prescriptions. These things are all true and even the most Europhilic, such as myself, need to make that concession. You vote In not because of these things but despite them. And in the belief that they can change. Indeed that continued British membership makes them more likely to change.

But it has also been said that the Scottish Referendum was won by too much appealing to heart over head. Indeed that victory in that manner explains the continuing bitterness on the losing side in its aftermath. We might have had the better prose but they had all the poetry. And there is also a degree of truth in that.

It would be a mistake to repeat that error over the next six weeks. To allow the narrative to become "a proud island nation making its own distinctive way in the world" head to head with little more than "that's all very well but house prices will fall."

The European Union was and remains a great enterprise and its greatest achievement is peace. And there is no greater achievement than that for any political arrangement.

But it's not just peace through bureaucracy. It is peace through love. If you visit San Luigi you encounter visitors of all and every European nationality. The older visitors are polite to each other and to the surroundings, perhaps boldly venturing a few words of mutual appreciation of the vista in another's language. But the younger ones....they are a very babble of conversation. Proud of their own country, often wearing its football colours, but no more reserved about speaking to those of differing nationalities than would a Glaswegian hesitate to speak to a Dundonian. These kids are European.  And indeed we Brits can be proud that their lingua franca is almost invariably English.

I'm not for walking away from that or, worse still, starting a wider crisis of confidence in the European institutions the end product of which would inevitably be be far from certain,

So I'm voting in, not blind to the flaws but nonetheless with a song in my heart. An ode to joy.

And that's that. In my minds eye I'm now off for lunch in the Trattoria Dal Cavalier Gino, just round the corner in the Vicolo Rosini. Antipasto di verdure; fettucine con cinghiale; ossobuco (to die for); seasonal veg; pannacotta; litro di vino rosso (compulsory); acqua gassata; coffee and an Averna.

Take cash. Despite being next to the Parliament and filled with deputati, it's a strictly cash only establishment. In Italy, there are some things even the EU will never change.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Yes we Khan?

We have just had a distinctively Scottish Election.

The results are the results but, be in no doubt, it was won and lost in Scotland.

Neither of the two main UK Party leaders did more than barely set foot here. For the same reason. Their presence was not regarded as being helpful to their own side.

And I doubt any but the most blinkered of Corbynistas would disagree with that, although they might also pause to reflect that, if that was the view here (and in Wales), then where exactly in the country is it that Jeremy is believed to be a vote winner?

For it certainly wasn't in London, where Sadiq Khan spent the last month of the campaign not just declining Corbyn's "help" but publicly rejecting it.

But, more interestingly still, that worked.

By framing the campaign as being solely who was best for governing London and specifically rejecting the idea that it had anything to do with endorsing a patently useless national operation, Sadiq triumphed. And was then free to observe that, ideally, his campaign should have been capable of drawing strength from the Party leader, but it hadn't, and he had instead won despite, rather than because, of him.

That last point might as easily apply to Scotland without for a moment suggesting Corbyn as the reason we lost. Because he wasn't.

The day when Scottish elections can be won or lost on UK issues (pace Labour's infamous opening line to our 2011 Manifesto "Now that the Tories are back.....) are over. If indeed, post devolution, they ever existed. In a Holyrood election we might be helped by a better UK operation but we will never win on its strength alone.

The question is however, can such an approach work with other elections?

Local Government elections have, in recent times, been too often seen as little more than big opinion polls on events taking place elsewhere.

And in some parts of Scotland, where boundaries are drawn on the basis of little more than cotermininity and putting everybody somewhere, that might indeed be true. Who honestly has ever owed affiliation to North Lanarkshire (particularly those of us living there without being in Lanarkshire at all) and the same undoubtedly applies to any number of other of Michael Forsyth's, mid-nineties, Macedonian creations.

But the cities, where there is a city authority, are different.

Long before they were in the position of national pre-eminence they now enjoy, the SNP built a power base in Dundee that was at least as much based on being Dundee Nationalists as Scottish Nationalists. In 2012, Aberdeen distinctly bucked the national trend by throwing out an existing local administration of particular ineptitude and returning Labour, as much to the surprise of the Party in the rest of the country as to anybody else

And of course, that same year, Glasgow famously defied Salmond's premature predictions of triumph to preserve Labour in power.

Now today, the assumption is that this was just putting off the inevitable, particularly following the nationalist advances in our greatest city in the aftermath of its unexpected Yes vote. Mind you, before Thursday the same people were inclined to think independence was inevitable.

But, for what it is worth, if the local government election in Glasgow, becomes a "Scottish" election, a bit of which happens to be taking place in Glasgow, then it is difficult to see past that outcome. And that will undoubtedly be how the Nats will wish to frame it. Even if they, this time, won't be stupid enough to announce, through their local leader, that they principally wish to take the City Council "as a stepping stone to independence."

So Labour's strategy must be to frame the 2017 election as the exact opposite. A Glasgow election where you vote on what will be best for the city.

And if we can do this then there remains all to play for.

For then we have a number of advantages, not least as a backwash of the SNP's own more recent successes which have transmogrified most of their better and more experienced local government troops into MPs or MSPs.

But above all we have Frank McAveety. I should declare an interest here as he is one of my oldest and dearest comrades. But, despite his long association with the Home Rule cause, (he was, with me, one of the founders of Scottish Labour Action as long back as 1987) I don't really believe that his heart was ever entirely at or in Holyrood. The job he enjoyed most was leading the City of Glasgow Council before 1999 and, on losing his Holyrood seat in 2011, it was getting that job back that motivated him much more than any real attempt to return to the elliptical chamber.

Sure, that might have involved a bit of deployment of the dark arts (this is Glasgow Labour politics after all) but, now that he is there, he enjoys the confidence of the local Party in a way neither of his predecessors experienced and has a clear vision for the way the city should go forward.

But above all, he is seen as somebody who will stand up for Glasgow in a way no "Yes Nicola, no Nicola, three bags full Nicola" alternative will ever do. Whether that is over the disgraceful financial settlement visited on the city (and local government more generally) by the SNP or the Scottish Government's steady erosion of power away from all local representatives or indeed over our governing Party's continued determination to shut the City's warship yards.

So, as in 2012, this needs to be a Glasgow Labour appeal. And it needs to be made clear to leaders from London or Edinburgh that their "help" is not required, unless asked for. (By which time, barring changes in personnel in the interim,  Hell will have frozen over).

Will it work? I make no guarantee of that, for Glasgow has many virtues but it doesn't have a flag. It is certainly however, under the hapless Kez and Jez tag team, the only show in town.

Just ask Sadiq Khan.

Or indeed Jackie Baillie.