Tag Archives: Scotland

Where We Are Now. (Or Why We Still Need The Labour Party in Scotland – Heaven Help Us).

9 Feb

I don’t really like politics and, as a rule, I’m wary of people who do.

On the other hand, I have little patience with people who ‘don’t do politics’.

That’s because, while I don’t like politics, I do recognise that politics matters and the reason for that is because when things go wrong in politics, people get hurt and when politicians are allowed to operate without proper scrutiny, you can guarantee that things will go wrong.

So there we are.

Political engagement is necessary in the same way that locking your front door and guarding the PIN for your bankcard is necessary.

And, of course in political terms, we’re having some interesting times in Scotland at the moment. Not perhaps quite as interesting as they were during the Independence Referendum campaign, but they’re still interesting.

There’s been a lot of comment about the aftermath of the referendum and, in particular the peculiar ironies of the respective prospects for Labour and the SNP.

Put very simply, and just in case there’s someone out there who hasn’t noticed, the SNP should be in the doldrums because the Scottish electorate (in their collective wisdom) rejected independence, and Labour should be doing very well. As it is, however, all the available evidence suggests that it’s the SNP who’re doing well while Labour is in the doldrums. More than that, some polls suggest that Labour may be facing a complete disaster in the forthcoming election.

Reactions to this oddity vary from elation, on the part of some SNP supporters, to perplexed indignation on the part of a good few unionists. And not all of those perplexed indignant unionists are Labour supporters.

Now, I’d have to say that I have no great love of the Labour Party.

Having lived my whole life in West Central Scotland I think I can claim to have seen the worst of Labour. I’ve seen Labour dominated local authorities behave with callous arrogance towards the people who voted them into power and I’ve watched local democracy being reduced to petty vicious squabbles between different factions of the Labour Party. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed the spectacle and I don’t think any of it has been healthy for democracy or for the people of Scotland.

Having said that, I don’t think this malaise was due to some peculiarity of the Labour Party as opposed to any other party, I think it’s the inevitable consequence of any party staying in power for too long.

This is why I think that, in the longer term, the most significant even in Scottish politics since Devolution wasn’t the Independence Referendum, I think it was the replacement of the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition with, firstly and SNP minority administration and then by an SNP majority.

Obviously, it was this event that allowed the referendum to take place in the first place and the general consensus seems to be that, whatever the referendum result, the campaign itself brought a huge number of people into politics who would otherwise have been disengaged and, therefore, disenfranchised.

(As an aside, I would mention that, while many of us think this was a good thing, there are some career politicians, notably Jim Murphy in a recent interview, who still like to present the referendum as being nothing more than a distraction. The theory seems to be that Scottish independence was nothing more than a vanity project on the part of the SNP in general and Alex Salmond in particular. I would have thought that the 84% turnout would have been pretty conclusive evidence against this theory, but apparently not.)

The significance of this change of administration, for m, isn’t so much about the wonders of an SNP government, although in general and with some grumbles on various issues I do think the SNP have done reasonably well in

government, it’s far more to do with removing Labour from power.

The response of the Labour Party to this loss of power has not been intelligent. Firstly we were treated to the unedifying spectacle of Wendy Alexander trailing down to the Labour Party Conference in order to, in so many words, apologise for the Scottish Electorate having failed to follow the established script by not voting Labour.

(It’s tempting to describe this behaviour as ‘sheep-like’, but whenever you’re appalled by the votes cast by the electorate; you have to consider the available alternatives. Back in the eighties the re-election of Thatcher was described by at least one American commentator in terms of an exercise in masochism, but this simply ignored that fact that for much of the eighties the Labour Party was divided and shambolic and totally incapable of inspiring any degree of confidence in anyone but their most partisan supporters. Similarly the past 70 years or so of Labour rule in Scotland has partly been due to the lack of a viable alternative. The SNP, until the advent of the Scottish Parliament, was little more than a pressure group, much like the Liberals in the rest of the UK, who could cause the odd by-election upset but not form a government).

This particular incident might not have mattered too much if Labour had shown any recognition that there was a reason why they were voted out of government. (And it’s worth noting that in the 2007 election that resulted in the SNP minority government the Lib Dem vote held up quite well, it was the Labour vote that fell away).

Of course, we’ve heard all the usual platitudes from Labour politicians about ‘listening to the Scottish people’ and addressing the ‘real’ issues. (As opposed to what? Addressing the ‘unreal’ issues, presumably those that the people who beat them in the election are addressing).

What we haven’t seen is any lessening in the Labour Party’s collective sense of ownership of Scotland. Essentially the Labour Party in Scotland still seems to see itself as the ‘natural party of government’ in Scotland (in much the same way as the Conservatives have tended to see themselves in the UK as a whole).

This is not healthy. It’s not healthy for the Labour Party and it’s not healthy for Scottish politics more generally.

The reason it’s unhealthy is very simple. It effectively denies the Scottish electorate a viable alternative to the SNP as a party of government.

Essentially the position is this.

If Labour regains power in Scotland as things stand, they will simply assume that the past few years in opposition were just some inexplicable glitch that they can now ignore. It will, in short, be back to politics as usual so far as they’re concerned.

To me, and I think to anyone who really gives a damn’ about Scotland, as opposed to blindly following the interests of any one party at the expense of Scotland and the people of Scotland, this is not acceptable.

So for me, Labour is unelectable. And they will continue to be until they accept on a profound level that they are simply one of a number of options available to the voters. And, more to the point (and here’s the really important bit) that they have to work for the Scottish people in order to earn the power they’re given. (This is something all politicians will claim to believe, but few really believe if they can only get themselves elected into a safe enough seat).

But if Labour is unelectable, then in practice the SNP is the only option as a governing party. (My natural sympathies are actually with the Green Party, but at the moment but it would be rank folly to suggest that they’re likely to form a government in the foreseeable future).

If there is no viable alternative to the SNP then they will continue to be re-elected until they become every bit as corrupt and arrogant as the Labour Party has become.

For me that would be a tragedy.

That’s because it seems to me that the worst thing that can happen to the voters in any given constituency is to become a safe seat for anyone. The only politician worth a damn’ is the politician who’s in office, but who sees a real prospect of being voted out of office. Where a politician, or party, sees no prospect of being elected, or where they’re in power and see no prospect of ever being voted out of office, they’re in a position to take the voters for granted. This inevitably leads to self indulgent navel gazing, infighting and all the other nasty habits we’ve seen in Labour (and the Conservatives) in Scotland for years.

Labour must, therefore, learn humility. (Which, in my opinion, they won’t under Jim Murphy’s leadership). For their own good and, more importantly, for the good of Scotland, and even more importantly for the good of the people of Scotland.

All the polls seem to indicate that Labour will face a disaster at the next election.

Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s what they need. But, even for someone like me who has no great love of the Labour Party, it would be a disaster if Labour was wiped out in Scotland just as comprehensively and (apparently) as permanently as the Conservatives have been.


Scottish Independence (What’s the point?)

14 Jan

One of the interesting features of the reaction of most English people to the creation of the Scottish Parliament was that it was not one of hostility or resentment, as much as it seemed to be one of puzzlement.

This would have been due to the fact that the debate around devolution that was going on in Scotland was one of those things that the UK media didn’t pick up on.  Because the UK media tend to be based in and around London, events aren’t happening in and around London have to be pretty dramatic to make the headlines.

 So when it was suddenly announced that it was ‘the settled will of the Scottish people’ that there should be a Scottish parliament it would have come as a bit of a surprise for anyone who doesn’t live in, or regularly visit, Scotland. (Awareness of the devolution debate would have been greater in Wales, Northern Ireland and even Cornwall, due to their own ongoing debates about what their relationship with the rest of the UK should be).

And now here we go again, Scottish Independence is back on the UK political agenda and I expect it’s come as a bolt out of the blue for the majority of the non Scottish people in the UK.

So maybe it’s a good time for someone to offer a few comments on why constitutional reform of the UK might not be such a bad idea.

First, let’s get rid of a few idiotic misconceptions.

1/ The fallacy that the English can be blamed for all Scotland’s woes. (Some Scots do believe this. We have a word for them, ie ‘numpty’)

As a matter of fact, anyone who has a passing acquaintance with Scottish history knows perfectly well that many of Scotland’s ills, past and present have been inflicted self-inflicted.

2/ Scottish Nationalism is based on anti-English sentiment.

Alex Salmond (MSP and leader of the SNP) has been quite emphatic in rejecting anti-Englishness as a basis for Scottish Nationalism and any kind of Scottish Identity. (I’m not necessarily in Mr Salmond’s fan club, he seems to me like a walking definition of the Scots term ‘sleekit’, and I’m really not sure I’d want to buy a second-hand car from the guy. Having said that, I do agree with him on this, and one or two other points).

3/ Scottish Nationalism will inevitably lead to a ‘Balkanisation’ of the UK.

I’m not even sure what this is supposed to mean, but if the idea is that the UK will collapse into intercommunal violence in the way that the former Yugoslavia, then this is patently absurd. There was an extraordinary depth of hatred between the different communities in the former Yugoslavia that had been held in check by Tito for decades and was then stirred up by a bunch of irresponsible, self-seeking scumbags. (We have irresponsible, self-seeking scumbags aplenty in the UK, but not that same depth of hatred).

4/ The day after Independence Scotland will immediately transform into the land of milk and honey.

Obviously absurd. My best guess is that the first few years after independence will be a hard slog. I’ll come back to that later.

5/ Scotland will necessarily be better governed by Scots than it ever could by any English people.

Even a brief reference to Scottish History will demonstrate that Scotland was not always well-governed by Scots, nor has it necessarily been badly governed due to any inherent failing in the English. As a matter of fact Scots have always participated in the Westminster parliament following the Act of Union and there are times when Scots have been disproportionately well represented at the highest levels of government.

So having rejected a certain amount of nonsense, maybe it’s time to move on and get to the point.

Essentially the reason I’m in favour of Scottish Independence doesn’t really have much to do with Scottish Nationalism. It has nothing to do with any claims to special virtue on the part of Scots, or even Scotland, nor does it have anything to do with any complaints about England, or the English people.

The real reason for wanting constitutional reform is that the constitutional arrangements for the UK, as they stand at present, are a miserable, inefficient, undemocratic mess and I can see no prospect for reform from within.

The Westminster parliament was essentially created by Edward I (Longshanks, the Hammer of the Scots etc). He was not a democrat by any means, and what he wanted was a device that would give his revenue raising measures a veneer of consultation. (He was very successful in this, unlike his French counterpart).

The Westminster parliament has moved on since then, it’s been tweaked about over the centuries by a succession of (mostly non-democratic) leaders to suit their own interests.

Oliver Cromwell was a case in point, he was a great supporter of the concept of the sovereignty of parliament provided parliament was doing what he wanted. At other times he was perfectly capable of using his soldiers to exclude parliamentarians who might oppose his wishes or even dissolving parliament altogether and ruling by dictat when that suited him.

So much for history (and not everyone is going to agree with what little history I’ve referred to here).

The real question isn’t ‘how did we get the parliament we’ve got?’ it’s ‘is this parliament conducive to the good governance of the UK?’.

I think the answer to that question is ‘no’.

Let me explain why.

We talk about the sovereignty of parliament. I have reservations about the proposition that parliament really is sovereign in the UK, (more on that later) but even if it is, the question is ‘should it be?’

My answer to this question would also be ‘no’.

In a democracy the only locus for sovereignty lies with the people. If sovereignty lies with parliament then you have an oilgarchy, not a democracy. (You may feel that oligarchy is okay, but I would prefer a democracy, I agree with Winston Churchill, it’s the worst form of government except for all the others).

In any case does sovereignty really lie with parliament in the UK?

I don’t think sit does. Not fully, at any rate.

Let me refer you to the concept of ‘crown priviledge’. And odd term to use in a parliamentary democracy, I know, but the UK is less of a parliamentary democracy than a constitutional monarchy. But it’s a constitutional monarchy where the power of the sovereign have been delegated to the Prime Minister (Hence the term ‘crown priviledge’. In effect, the Prime Minister has the privileges of the crown delegated to him).

This point probably seemed academic for long enough because the UK was governed for decades (generations even) in line with the convention of ‘Government by consensus’. (IE even if the Prime Minister could implement a particular policy, he would refrain from doing so unless there was a consensus in the country in favour of doing so).

Baroness Thatcher as Prime Minister put a coach and horses through this, amongst other conventions, and demonstrated quite how little power to oppose Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition really has. (Opinions differ, to put it mildly, as to whether or not this was a good thing).

As ever Tony Blair was quick to exploit the work of others, and in this case take it further. Thatcher maintained a facade of ‘Cabinet Government’, even if she made sure that her cabinet was composed of people who would roll over and submit to whatever she wanted, while Blair further eroded any notion of collective decision-making by calling individual ministers into 10 Downing Street and telling them what to do from the cosy vantage point of his sofa.

You may feel that all this  furniture based talk of cabinets and sofas is a bit tedious, so let me boil it down to a simple fact.

In the run up to the invasion of Iraq it became apparent that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom had the legal power to declare war on his own initiative without let or hindrance from any other human being.

(Gordon Brown talked about reducing this power, but I honestly don’t know whether or not anything came of this).

The fact that Tony Blair would have been foolish to the point of committing political suicide if he had, in fact, declared war off his own bat is beside the point. No single person should ever be allowed this degree of power in any civilised country.

At about this time, comedian and political agitator (I mean this as a sincere compliment), Mark Thomas asked for information as to the full  extent of the powers that could potentially by wielded by the Prime Minister under crown Privilege. He was told by the relevant authorities that they couldn’t tell him. The powers were effectively so extensive that they could not be defined.

Experts in constitutional lore and parliamentary procedures (of whom I am definitely not one) could doubtless provide examples ad nauseam of all the convoluted, involuted and downright absurd customs and practices that bedevil our lawmaking system. I am not qualified to do this and (I suspect much to everyone’s relief) I will not wade through the pointless tedium of making any such attempt. I don’t think it’s necessary. I think my point is made.

Only a fool would invent the system of government we now have and it only exists due to a long series of tweaks to an institution that was never designed to be democratic in the first place.

I don’t believe that our current (unwritten) constitutional arrangements are capable of reform, and I see no political will to even try. There are too many vested interests and too many fustian old clown who claim that, because we’ve been doing things a certain way for as long as anyone can remember, it would be an unforgivable crime against God and nature to make any change now.

So the only real chance to get my country and my people out from under the dead weight of the Westminster Parliament is independence (Or some system of devolution that is the same as independence in all but name). This isn’t to say that I don’t care about what happens to people out with Scotland, it’s just that, as I’ve indicated above, I see no prospect for reform of the UK as it currently exists and I don’t want to make any attempt to tell people in England, Wales or Northern Ireland what they should do in their part of the UK.

I don’t believe that an independent Scotland would have an easy ride from day one (as I’ve indicated above), but I do believe that independence might give Scotland, and more to the point the Scots, exactly the kind of firm boot up the backside that, collectively, we need.

I accept that the public sector in Scotland is far too big as a proportion of the economy. This isn’t due to anything inherent in ‘the Scottish character’ (If there is such a thing). It’s the result of a policy conducted for decades by governments of all persuasions to boost the public sector as a sop to Scots in compensation for the decline in the industries that used to make up our private sector. (I don’t ascribe this to any malice on the part of Westminster politicians, quite the opposite. I accept that it was well-intentioned, but it has left us with a structural economic problem).

I like to think that if we achieve independence in Scotland, maybe it would help pave the way for others in the UK to follow suit. Maybe that might lead to the Westminster parliament, and all that goes with it, fading away into history. If and when that happens, I might even be in favour of reconstituting the UK, only this time under a properly democratic, representative and transparent system of government. (Far fetched, I know. It’s practically science fiction, but the first step is eminently possible if the Scots people don’t ‘bottle it’ in an independence referendum).

In conclusion, Tony Benn once described the UK system of government as an ‘elected dictatorship’.

I find myself in the surreal and disorienting position of agreeing with him.