Category Archives: Constitutional corner
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.
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?
It’s one of Scottish Labour’s most tried, tested and apparently trusted lines. “This SNP lot are so obsessed with independence that they have forgotten about doing the day job of governing Scotland…. They’ve no time for real-time concerns, no inclination to use the powers they have… Scotland is on pause.” The inference is that if they just focused on what we pay them to do, we’d all be a lot better off.
It was used to dismiss this year’s Programme for Government; it is trotted out regularly by Johann Lamont at First Minister Questions; increasingly, it is used when lambasting a perceived failure or weakness or running away from an issue by the Scottish Government; and it’s trotted out lazily by nearly every journalist in the land.
It’s clever politics. It’s a handily crafted soundbite that trips off the tongue. It creates uncertainty about the SNP’s and the Scottish Government’s priorities: Scotland now or Scotland tomorrow. And it’s hard to rebut without sounding defensive.
The Scottish Government is good at pointing to what it is achieving: a balanced budget year on year; economic growth; employment rising and unemployment falling; things still being built, not least new houses, hospitals and schools; less crime, still more police officers; maintaining universal services that people get to feel the benefit of, day in day out – council tax freeze, bus passes, personal care, prescriptions. All of these and more are tangible examples of the Scottish Government getting on with getting on.
But they suggest that the Scottish Government’s best creative days might be behind them, that if not on pause exactly, everything is simply ticking over. Business as usual, which by itself is no mean feat in the current financial climate.
Yet, that would be an unfair analysis. Everywhere you look in Scottish Government and in the Scottish parliamentary timetable, there is evidence of wholesale shift.
There is a clutch of reforming bills heading through the parliamentary process – at indecent haste in some cases. There’s one to change how we deliver health and social care to elderly, adult and child populations who need support, removing artificial barriers over budgets, services and professionals. There’s a bill on regulatory reform which aims to streamline tribunals’ structure and activity; one on procurement which aims to change how public services are planned for, designed and delivered; one on children and young people which, while bitty as charged, will result in significant change in how we make sure more of the next generation get a better start in life. There’s a bill on its way on community empowerment which will enable the transfer of assets from councils to communities. And there’s a bill to give same-sex couples the right to marry – a revolutionary shift in social policy if ever there was one. There are even bills which will change the stewardship of the Burrell collection allowing parts of it to be loaned furth of Scotland and one to enable Edinburgh council to use a park to build a much-needed new school.
Indeed, it’s hard to find a section of the public sector or society that is not currently been turned on its head by Scottish Government activity. Nowhere is this more true than in our justice system, where every part of it is being poked and prodded into the 21st Century. Changes to evidence, to the treatment of victims and witnesses, to courts, to policing, to procedures for jury trials, to the introduction of new offences – and more to come post referendum. It’s a wonder lawyers have any time to do any lawyering what with the need to engage with change on so many fronts.
But such wholesale change creates potential risks and problems for the Scottish Government.
First, little of it is sexy. Given the shoestrings on which journalists operate these days, no one has the time or energy to turn concepts like community empowerment into digestible, bite sized chunks of copy. And political journalism in particular, has degenerated into reporting the spat de jour. One of the reasons Scottish Labour can give the impression that nothing is happening but the referendum is because of a complicit and compliant media. All they want to report, or rather, have resources to report is the referendum. And if they weren’t, well we’d all be criticising them for that omission too.
Second, humans don’t do change very well. And if change is constant then that’s a lot of people discomfited. All those vested interests the minority SNP Government worked so hard to bring on board and keep on side are now being tipped out of their comfy chairs. Funnily enough, many of them – and their unions – don’t like it. They’re bleating loudly and that gives Scottish Labour something to bleat about too. Responding to all this noise takes up time and energy, particularly when the aim is to try and keep it all under wraps: when it does erupt into the media, dampening down the flames also sucks up resources.
Moreover, reform with potential long-term benefits often creates unhelpful short-term consequences. It might make sense to streamline the court estate, so that we have courts which are better placed to deal with the increasingly complex business which passes through them, but closing sleepy hollow courts, no matter how sensible, irks folk. The same applies with police stations. Modern policing on straitened budgets with new and emerging national and international threats requires a different configuration: allowing precious resources to languish in local offices that do nothing other than create a chimera of community policing makes no sense.
But closing anything local upsets local people and for all those who voted SNP for the first time in 2011, this isn’t exactly what they signed up for. It also gifts the opposition a horse – hence Scottish Labour’s home webpage dominated by its campaign to save local police stations.
Which kind of leaves the Scottish Government damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. Drive forward with a multi-reform programme and they are creating the kind of tumult they really do not want before the referendum. So, they are trying to reform quietly. But that then risks giving the impression that all they are doing is keeping a firm hand on the tiller all the way to next September. Suddenly, that mischievous myth of Labour’s making seems to have foundation.
What this delicate balancing act requires is a first class communications strategy, which gets the message out about what the Scottish Government is delivering now, what it is doing with the powers it has to deliver for the future and what it could do if it had all the powers a normal country needs to create the wealthier and fairer society the SNP espouses.
There is no doubt that it’s doing the first bit very well and the last bit at every opportunity. But the bit in the middle? Well, the fact that Labour is still using “Scotland on pause” whenever it can suggests it thinks it’s on to something. Allowing the charge that this is a do-little government to go uncontested might not be the best tactic after all. Not when you’re trying to persuade people to trust that we have what it takes to make a success of independence, nor to feel confident that we can do better, making our own way in the world. The bit about using the powers we have to create a better, brighter future might actually be helpful to the narrative aimed at encouraging more to vote yes.