Category Archives: Constitutional corner

Malcolm Chisholm’s killer question

Observing the opening gambits of the Yes and No camps in the New Year is fascinating. Who and what is shaping the narratives? Where are the central threads? What insight might we glean from speeches on strategy and tactics? Who is laying a breadcrumb trail on the nature of the debate to come?

Looking at speeches made and articles written by big beasts on both sides in the last week, they appear to share a common focus: Labour.

Despite recent Scottish election results, Scotland is predominantly a Labour-leaning country. More people identify themselves with Labour than any other party, though those old hegemonies in terms of party politics are weakening. Folk increasingly are prepared to switch their votes around according to circumstance and consequence, in electoral terms. But in the battle for votes in the referendum, those who would still identify themselves as predominantly Labour voters form a significant constituency. The focus on all things Labour would suggest that private polling in both camps indicates it’s soft in terms of yes/no intentions. For yes, these votes are persuadable; for no, these votes must be shored up.

Hence, we’ve had an appeal from Nicola Sturgeon to Labour supporters to discard party jackets. And a riposte from Anas Sarwar in his adjunct to Gordon Brown’s speech in Fife last week. He said: “There are those whose talents lie in re-writing history, where for them airbrushing the successes of the Labour movement across the UK is an everyday ambition. Quite happy to say in one breath that the UK has never helped to achieve social justice then on the other saying we need independence to protect the NHS and the Welfare State. Institutions thought up by, created by and delivered by the Labour movement right across the UK. And there is a reason for that. It’s a deliberate attempt to con Labour voters into thinking that no change, or no good, can ever come through a Union between Scotland and the rest of the UK and that only a vote for independence can bring change. Well, they’re wrong.”

Sarwar’s theme is continued by Jim Murphy in his essay for Scotland on Sunday today. Urging Scotland to change governments, not passports, Murphy suggests that one of the central arguments proposed by those arguing for independence is that voting yes allows Scotland to rid itself of Tory governments forever. His thrust, though, is that we can change governments without constitutional reform and achieve the Scotland we want. “What holds us back has never been the United Kingdom, it has only ever been the type of government in the United Kingdom. But they’ve always been chucked out; as Cameron and Clegg’s coalition can be just months after the referendum. The things that Scots have demanded – jobs, homes, devolution, a health service and so much more – have always been delivered by ambitious Labour governments. And those achievements have been irreversible.”

We’ll return to the historical revisionism in both statements, but clearly Labour thinks it’s on to something. And there’s a kernel of truth in all this. Yes Scotland and the SNP in particular, have and continue to highlight the impact of this Conservative led government on the lives of ordinary Scots to appeal to undecideds. And at various points, they have explicitly suggested that voting yes allows Scotland to divest itself of the risk of governments we did not vote for imposing its values on us anyway.

Which is why Malcolm Chisholm asked what I reckon is a killer question for Yes at First Minister’s Questions this week. “Given that the First Minister’s whole referendum strategy is based on having a Tory Government in London, how will he scare the Scottish people when they are faced with the prospect of a Labour Government that will boost employment, freeze energy prices and provide the resources for a massive expansion of childcare?”

Leaving aside the hyperbole, the question amounts to this: if, as polls are beginning to suggest, it appears that Labour will win the next UK General Election and not the Conservatives, what then? If the threat of continued Conservative rule is weakened the closer we get to the referendum, how will Yes respond?

It is a crucial question for the yes camp and clearly one which they have begun to wake up to. Labour is still leading in UK polls; it’s not a dramatic lead but a consistent one, and would be enough to deliver at least a minority Labour government. Overtures are already being made to the Liberal Democrats about the possibility of working together in coalition.

There are ways to address this. The Scottish people are not fools but pointing up the shockingly arrogant and misleading revisionism currently being bandied about by leading Labour figures needs to happen. I’m no torch bearer for the Liberals but as a historian, I’m affronted that their role in delivering key planks of our welfare state – state pensions for one – is being airbrushed. Scottish Labour’s track record on social housing also bears repeating, ad nauseam.

And as some of the rebuttal statements already suggest, seeds of doubt need to be sown as to whether things, particularly on welfare reform and economic policy, would be any better in the short and medium term under a UK Labour government.

But if Yes is to successfully shift this narrative, its chief proponents might need to make the ultimate sacrifice and discard their own party clothes. Effectively it comes down to positing that Labour’s charm offensive is entirely self-seeking. Labour wants Scotland to vote no in order to vote Labour into power in 2015. But how to counter that? By suggesting that by voting yes in 2015, Scotland can vote for the Labour Party it wants – or at least the sort of old Labour values many still hold dear – in 2016.

Taking such an approach will be discomfiting to many in the SNP, particularly those elected representatives, activists and supporters who are as capable of displaying as irrational hatred of all things Labour, as many in Labour demonstrate towards the SNP.

But it might be a necessary evil. The question is can they do it, if the need arises? For so many years, cause and party have been intertwined but if needs must, will the SNP be prepared to separate its loyalties and argue that only independence offers Scotland the opportunity to vote for the sort of Labour government and values many still identify with? In short, if required to do so, will the party be able and willing to put cause first?

*I apologise for the lack of italics and more especially, links in recent posts. I am blogging currently from the wordpress app on the iPad and cutting and pasting from articles and inserting links is clunky and beyond my limited skills. The speeches and articles referred to above are all readily searchable.

Pincer movement

It’s only the first week of the new year and already there’s good news for the yes campaign.

Another “senior Labour figure” has come out. No matter how hard they try to keep them under lock and key and far from the public gaze, they are managing to find a way out. And it takes balls to do it, to look the movement they’ve belonged to all their days in the eye and decide to break cover. To declare that they will be voting in September for Scotland to become independent.

Officially, Labour will shrug its shoulders and suggest that these are yesterday’s men and their views matter not a jot. But they do matter. To date, we’ve had a former Lord Provost of Glasgow, Alex Mosson, a former leader of Strathclyde Regional council and President of COSLA, Sir Charles Gray, and now. a former Leader of Lothian Regional Council, John Mulvey, all declare that they will be voting yes. These are big beasts in old Labour circles. Their willingness to make such public declarations of support for independence matters too. For they signal a shift in the air and in the ranks.

The yes campaign needs to chip away at the bedrock of Labour support, to persuade more of them to follow its lead and not Better Together’s, if it is to have a hope of turning around the polls and closing the gap in voting intentions. It matters too that it is members of the old Labour guard who are coming out. The staunchest section of the population stubbornly clinging to the old ties that bind are those aged over 55. They need role models, politicians they’ve known all their voting lives and whose views they respect, to persuade them otherwise.

It’s fair to say that Yes has the far left and the new left pretty sewn up. But their votes are not enough, nor are they particularly representative of the population at large. They also need the old left to come on board; for more of the votes that Labour used to weigh in certain parts of the country to journey from no to undecided to persuadable to yes.

But the campaign also needs the right-of-centre, or centre-right, sections of the electorate to vote yes. For Conservatives and conservatives to drop the unionist part of their beliefs and choose independence too. The launch of Wealthy Nation at the end of the auld year was just as important at this latest Labour declaration. It might make for uncomfortable bedfellows for some on the yes side but folk need to get – as the SNP always has done – that this is about more than them, that all votes count and more are needed.

The crucial coalition is around voting for independence; how we all envision what an independent Scotland might look like and achieve comes second. Once we’ve arrived, we can de-couple and form new alignments shaped around our quite different visions and views of what we want our country to be. The key, at this stage, is for us all simply to agree that independence offers the best hope of better and different.

And if we have to hold our noses in order to rub along in our movement, so be it. Working together in pursuit of a common goal doesn’t mean we have to put each other on the Christmas card list. This is something which Better Together appears to have grasped more readily than those on the yes side, though whether the public front translates into a workable and working movement on the ground is less convincing.

This is what Yes Scotland needs to focus on, gathering all these disparate groupings, sectors and individuals into a cohesive, campaigning whole. It can be done and if we are to succeed on 18 September, it must be done. The signs of a pincer movement on both the left and right of Scottish politics are promising.

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?

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