Category Archives: Constitutional corner

Scotland’s White Paper will offer more than making do

It really does feel like the night before Christmas. I’m not sure if I’ll sleep tonight. And if that makes folk titter, tough.

There’s no doubt that like the bounty Santa brings, there will be some boring detail in the independence White Paper tomorrow. Because it aims to set out a route map to full, sovereign nationhood, there are bound to be sections which are the equivalent of socks and satsumas. Dull and unimaginative but needed.

If we’re really lucky, there will be a few surprises. Things we forgot to put on the list but stuff we’re delighted to find made their way in there anyway.

The problem with anticipation is the nagging fear that the reality won’t live up to the expectation. There’s so much riding on this plan, what if it’s one great big disappointment? Yet, only the Scrooges at Better Together surely will find nothing in it to please them.

It’s important to acknowledge the sweat and tears, the late nights, the energy, enthusiasm and the commitment, of all who have had a hand in shaping this tome’s content, tone and style. I don’t have to read it to know that their efforts deserve acclaim. Backroom boys and girls, many of whom have worked behind the scenes for years, step forward – for once – into the limelight and take a bow.

It would be wonderful if the White Paper starts with a declaration, an opening statement of intent which spikes the senses and sends shivers down the spine. Which speaks to us as we are now and calls on us to commit to a different future.

It would have to go some to match the Radical Declaration of Independence (read it over at Bella Caledonia). I hope some bright spark thought to record David Hayman reciting it, for that would be worth hearing, again and again. It’s a pitch perfect summation of many of our dreams and hopes for what independence might – could – deliver for Scotland.

And while I agree with John Finnie MSP, that its arc is inclusive rather than exclusive, aiming to speak to all and not just some, I would have liked to see a focus on future generations. If I could put one thing above all others on my Santa list for the White Paper, it is that it sets out what independence might achieve for children. The ones born now and those still to come.

Let me explain. Like many independence supporters, I am both Braveheart and Borgen, as David Torrance would have it. At the age of seven, I was in Margaret Ewing (then Bain)’s kitchen the morning after her 22 vote victory in East Dunbartonshire. I remember midge-infested Glentrool rallies, being crooned to in Gaelic by Donnie Stewart. I used to sneak down to listen to the political arguments which waged long into the night in my parents’ house, fuelled by passion and whisky in equal measure. My formative years were spent being infused with existential nationalism. I grew up with independence woven into my DNA.

The early 1980s were doldrum years for the SNP, when the party was mired in a mess of its own making. So, I flirted, subscribing to the New Statesman, Red Wedge and class consciousness. If it was a Saturday, we marched, often barely aware of what protest and why.

But then came the poll tax and suddenly, the SNP rediscovered its rationale. Can pay, won’t pay. More protests, rallies and marches, this time with a Scottish purpose to the fore. Every cut – to manufacturing, to students, to communities – seemed to slash at Scotland’s soul. History might not bear it out, but it’s how we felt at the time, that Scotland was singled out for special treatment.

In 1991, my first son was born and it really did all make sense. The existential pushed aside by the utilitarian. The goal of a better and different Scotland not for me, but for him. Did I want him to grow up in a Scotland like this? Where education and employment opportunities were subject to the whims of the Westminster roulette wheel?

We lived then in a village with 70% unemployment, victim to a creamery closure which removed at a stroke the dignity of work for whole households. Yet, that village in adversity, found its sense of community and its communitarian roots. Everyone looked out for each other. Everyone made different possible by focusing on more than making do. That experience offered a glimmer of a brighter future. Of what might be possible.

And that experience sparked in me an undimmed desire to do better by my own bairns and all of Scotland’s bairns. The boy I had is now a man and still we are yet to arrive. The wee one is nearly no longer a boy. And still we journey.

But tomorrow sees the publication of a plan, in which reside all our hopes, fears and desires. And for those who doubt – still – if Scotland has indeed got what it takes, think on this. In a land of plenty – relative plenty, if you like – how can it be that our children have so little?

Don’t take my word for it, listen to the OECD. In 2009, it published an overview of children’s well-being in 30 countries. None excelled, but some did far better than others. In six key areas – material and educational well being, health and safety, housing and environment, risky behaviours and quality of school life – only Sweden and Iceland scored higher than average on five, while Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Finland did so on four. The UK? Higher than average in one, quality of school of life; lower than average in another, risky behaviours; and pretty dismal in all others. Only fifteenth out of 30 on housing, 20th on health and safety and 22nd on educational well-being.

We live in a wealthy, highly developed state, rich in resources, yet we are out classed by much smaller nations with less wealth and fewer resources on how we nurture the next generation. How can it possibly be worse than this? Is this what we want for our children?

No matter if you gave up on hope a long time ago, read the White Paper and think not what independence might achieve for you, but what it might offer for your children and your grandchildren.

You might be happy with making do, but with the chance to change almost within reach, why would you wish it for them?

Deliver votes, then we can talk

As usual, I managed to get myself into a little twitter bother yesterday. I was trying to be wry and failed.

I was sorry not to be able to attend the Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow yesterday. The speaker line-up was impressive and clearly the volunteers behind RIC had put huge efforts into organising the conference. There were new voices and folks too and mindful of some of the barriers to participation, the offer of a crèche. All good.

But I can’t have been the only person to have been bemused at a conference theme of failure, hope and transformation looking at options for a new economy and new democracy, with lots of the usual kind of polemicising about social injustice and inequality, all delivered from the comfort of one of Glasgow’s most exclusive hotels.

Oh I know it’s hard to find conference venues to accommodate 1000 people that don’t make the eyes water at the expense. But they do exist, and not in the commercial sector either. Surely if the future is co-operative, fairer and modelled on co-production and inclusion, then how and where you make the pitch counts?

Few of the people yesterday’s conference signalled its concern about – the poor, the disengaged, the missing million whose votes will be so important in the referendum – would contemplate stepping over the threshold of the Marriott hotel. It’s not the kind of place they’d feel comfortable in, never mind afford a room in. That’s what decades of conditioning and ghettoisation do for you.

So despite the clarion conference call being that the referendum needs poor people to vote, I doubt if many of the views expressed yesterday actually came from anyone marginalised and dispossessed. So far, so familiar and so typically patriarchal.

But it’s a small point. The real issue I have with yesterday’s gathering is that it was aimed at and spoke to and with (with a few exceptions) people who are already voting yes. When the 1000 or so folk there might have been better deployed, each of them, getting out there and talking to a few persuadables. The more we hing thegither the more comfortable the better togethers become. Much as it would have been a pleasant way to while away a Saturday, contemplating the future with like-minded folk, I decided to spend it doing something slightly more productive instead.

Indubitably, some who were there are folk who live, breathe and sleep yes. They are – like the diverse, cross- and non- political membership of Women for Independence – out at meetings, out leafleting, out blethering with and listening to voters, at every opportunity.

But here’s the rub. Those attendees are mostly in the SNP.

A lot of them have been doing this for more years than they care to remember. It’s become a way of life. And they are the activist stalwarts who have helped put the SNP into government, not once but twice, and whose efforts have helped get us to this juncture. They have and they do deliver votes. It’s them and their insatiable appetite for one more leaflet run who scare the pants off the yoonyinists, not the creators and conspirators consumed by the cottage industry of ideas that’s sprung up around the referendum.

This cottage industry, made up of the rainbow parts of the Yes coalition, dominated the panels yesterday, and its foremost proponents are inevitably to be found on the platforms at countless Yes meetings all over the country. That’ll be the meetings elected SNP MSPs can barely get a seat at, never mind an opportunity to speak. Even when they are being held in their constituencies.

So what we are getting as a result is a skewed vision of what an independent Scotland might offer, at least in the early days. The reality that is about to be revealed in the 670 page White Paper on Tuesday doesn’t get a look in. The politics which dominated yesterday’s conference is not of a type shared by a majority of Scots. If it was then maybe the Scottish Greens and the SSP might have garnered more than 100,000 votes between them in the election in 2011.

Most Scots don’t want a class conflict, they don’t feel oppressed, they dislike the thought of breaking anyone’s rule and they’re indifferent to the prospect of structural change. And I’m not just referring to the rich. For all that the radicals purport to envision the future, they are awfy fond of harking back to a mythologised, largely ideological past. One that many Scots don’t recognise in their present. Such talk might be inspirational – and often it is – but it speaks to a small number of people who already believe it. And guess what? Their votes are largely in the bag.

Little of what was on the smorgasbord yesterday will feature in the Scottish Government’s plan for independence. As Dennis Canavan rightly pointed out, “It’s the only realistic route map on the table that we have towards independence.”

And if we want to get there at all, everyone needs to get out of the meetings and conferences, to put on hold imagining the future, and just get round the doors and on to the phones. As the SNP, supported by a new army of previously apolitical foot soldiers whose sole aspiration and belief is in independence, is doing and has done.

A little less conversation and a whole lot more action is what’s needed. And if the Greens, the SSP and the unaligned darlings of the left in this debate can deliver their share of yes votes, then we can talk.

“Ding Dong” is still the Song of the Clyde – politically at least

Two contrasting opinion pieces on all things Clyde-built this morning. Euan McColm takes Nicola Sturgeon to task, suggesting that her assertion that post-independence, of course Clyde ship builders could still make frigates for the Royal Navy, was rash and unfounded. “Sturgeon’s handling of this issue began so well. But today her argument is destroyed and her personal credibility damaged by that trade union attack. I wonder how she’ll get out of this one. I don’t see an obvious route.” Ouch. In fact, more than ouch, for McColm seems to think this might well be a hit which sinks the good ship Sturgeon.

And then we have Kevin McKenna in the Guardian denouncing the behaviour of Unionist politicians who used the job losses at Govan and Scotstoun to foretell impending doom if Scotland votes yes next September. “Last week in Scotland showed that there are still many in our midst who loathe and fear their own kind. There are those, including Davidson, Robertson and Carmichael, whose hatred and fear of independence is such that they would punish their own country by destroying part of its industrial infrastructure.” More ouch, this time for those on the No side.

So, which opinion is right?

There is no doubt that talking in certainties when the future of Scottish shipbuilding is anything but, is dangerous: why politicians persist in it is a puzzle.

What’s also a puzzle is that despite apparently spending the last twelve months squaring off the difficult questions about life post-UK, someone in the SNP inner circle forgot to include the defence manufacturing industry. Angus Robertson’s Powerpoint presentation at a fringe meeting ahead of last year’s great NATO debate at SNP conference – and indeed the motion setting out what a post-independence defence function would look like – should have addressed all this.  Perhaps it did and we’ve all forgotten. That’s what happens when you allow carefully crafted policy to be hijacked by a totem issue.

Also perplexing is why those what lead the rest of us yay-sayers persist in shaping the future of an independent Scotland around our continuing relationship with rUK. It instantly allows those who’d rather we stayed whole to rebut any claims about how that relationship might be founded; they, after all, as the larger partner reckon they hold more of the cards – and how does that sound familiar?

Yet, earlier in the week, Nicola Sturgeon was quite brilliant in holding up the Norwegian example as one that might provide a blueprint for Clyde shipbuilding post independence. Far from gaffing as Euan McColm suggests, I thought the Deputy First Minister was first class standing in at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday. She expressed sympathy for jobs lost, including at Portsmouth, and relief at those saved; she brought Johann Lamont into the conversation, talking of what they shared as neighbouring MSPs; she highlighted the Norway example – again; and she called out the UK Government for daring to suggest that if Scotland votes yes, the Clyde won’t get to build those frigates after all, by quoting the UK Defence Secretary’s musings on collaboration with Australia on future defence procurement contracts. A vital contextual matter which Euan McColm conveniently ignores in his opinion piece.

In fact, the one criticism I would have of the Cabinet Secretary for Capital and Infrastructure’s handling of this situation this week is that she hasn’t fully exploited the failure of UK elected representatives for Govan and Scotstoun to do anything to diversify the order book and create a sustainable future for those workers.  Could someone, somewhere please ask Ian Davidson what exactly is it that he has done for those shipyards as the MP for the area for 21 years, other than appear like Banquo’s ghost whenever there’s bad news?

I share Kevin McKenna’s distaste for the behaviour of UK politicians this week:  if anyone has treated Scotland’s shipyards like a political football, it’s them.  And I’d also call out the GMB Official John Dolan for talking down the prospects for work post-independence.

In a week in which GMB Scotland declared its support for a No vote in the independence referendum, based on a series of consultative meetings but no workforce ballot, his remarks have surely to be qualified politically. After all, he’s speaking as a paid official of that union, not as an elected office-bearer from the workforce to either GMB Scotland’s regional council or indeed, its manufacturing branch. If, as he says, he’s speaking up for the workers, where’s his critique of successive Labour and Tory UK Governments which have allowed the prospects of Govan and Scotstoun to wither to the extent that their very future hangs on orders for two frigates that are still at least two years off having a rivet bolted on to them?

The crux of the matter boils down to this: who do Scots and indeed, the Clyde shipyard workers, families and communities trust to speak up for them and stand up for their interests more? An SNP Scottish Government or a Conservative-Liberal Democrat UK coalition government or even, Labour opposition politicians?  The polls all suggest the former but such is the fear-mongering going on in the referendum debate, the Scottish Government and its Ministers have been pushed onto the defensive again. This despite the evidence plain for all to see that a once mighty industry and workforce has been allowed to wither away almost to nothing by the failure of UK Governments to generate a blueprint for a sustainable future.

They need to find a way to stop this happening. There are no certainties for Govan and Scotstoun either in the UK or as part of an independent Scotland. There are only opportunities, possibilities and yes, threats and challenges. The SNP has already pointed out the positive example of Norway’s thriving and vibrant shipbuilding industry as one which could be mirrored here with a Yes vote.  Now put the ball back in the UK parties’ court:  beyond two frigates, what else has the UK got to offer the Clyde?  And what is it that Labour would do differently if elected in 2015?


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