Category Archives: Political witterings
The burd’s views on the hot potatoes of the day/week/month
To mark American Independence Day, I’m posting an article from a friend and colleague, Dr Jonathan Sher. The article originally appeared in the Herald which has another great piece from him today. His is a lovely journey to yes and one that makes me smile, at the extraordinary lengths Jonathan has gone to, to participate in our referendum in September.
Americans have form on the issue of declaring independence from the “powers that be” in London.
Despite this, it is not surprising that America’s leaders support the status quo in the UK. They are content with Washington’s dominance of the “special relationship”. Scotland’s best interests are not their priority.
But they have become mine.
While I voted for President Obama, I am going to cast my vote for Scottish independence. In fact, I have become a British citizen to vote Yes. The journey to this decision has surprised even me.
When I moved to Scotland in 2005, I was undecided. Each side has valid points and arguments. I was, and remain, deeply distrustful of nationalism. It has often been used to excuse the inexcusable: racism, xenophobia, dictatorships and violence. However, such abhorrent nationalism has been conspicuously absent among mainstream Yes supporters. Originally, I thought Scottish devolution would transform into a federal UK. Understanding how deeply entrenched the UK’s power and money are in London, this outcome no longer seems feasible.
So, what led to me withdrawing £900 from my (meagre) savings to become one of the millions of Scots with the privilege of voting in September’s referendum?
First, it matters to me that Scottish votes and voices make a difference in what our government does (and does not do) to, for and with us. Secondly, the direction of travel within Scotland towards a more Nordic, egalitarian society has much more appeal than England’s rightward drift toward the American model of inequality with which I am all too familiar.
Scotland’s long-standing inclination towards fairness and progressive politics is part of what attracted me here. For example, Scotland is explicitly beginning to include children’s rights in legislation, policy and practice. That speaks powerfully to me since America is one of only two countries (along with Somalia) rejecting the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Our Children’s Hearings are not perfect but this distinctive Scottish system remains a far better model than the alternatives south of the Border or in the US. Similarly, Scotland’s current determination to improve the NHS, rather than dismantle it, makes good sense.
The impulse toward self-determination is strong everywhere but Scotland has the rare opportunity, with Westminster’s agreement, to achieve a democratic ideal through a fair, non-violent voting process.
Enjoying true self-determination and becoming an increasingly progressive society seem an unlikely outcome if Scotland remains within the UK. Westminster has long bowed reflexively in favour of Washington’s wishes and keeps moving toward a more American society, even when doing so clashes with Scotland’s preferences and interests.
America has numerous wonderful qualities but it is not the model to which Scotland should aspire. Voting Yes opens the door for us to make a different set of choices than Westminster (or Washington) are likely to choose for us. It will enable Scotland consciously and confidently to travel in a fairer, more compassionate and positive direction. The referendum is our opportunity to show the world that we can, and will, turn our inspirational egalitarian rhetoric into reality so that this country can become “the best place to grow up in”.
We can awaken on September 19 to the hard but wonderful work of building an ever-better Scotland. On that happy day, we should take Margo Macdonald’s advice to heart and, with the eyes of the world upon us, put aside the passions of the referendum and act co-operatively to enhance all that unites us as Scots.
Of course, there are uncertainties. But we should remember that America started with a Declaration of Independence, not a guaranteed-to-succeed business plan.
Similarly, Dr Martin Luther King rallied the world with “I have a dream”, not “I have a blueprint”. These are the American precedents that have, to my surprise, ‘Yanked’ me into voting Yes.
Dr Sher is Scotland director of WAVE Trust. He writes in a personal capacity.
If you’ve not read Euan McColm’s piece in today’s Scotland on Sunday, I’d recommend that you do. Though you might want to grab a mug of strong coffee and a pen and paper first.
That’s because he sets out the intricacies of the tangled web of Scottish Labour politics. And how it really is all about them and not about us.
Euan explores Labour’s current inability to get its story across. He concludes that the party needs a new storyteller, one who can not only craft a narrative the electorate will buy, but also sell that narrative to voters coherently and convincingly: “Scottish Labour’s is a tired old story which meanders along, punctured by moments of pathos and unintentional comedy. Anyone who believes that Johann Lamont is going to change that now (after three years in charge) is either mad or deluded. Or both.”
He lays bare the extent and scale of Labour’s problem but fails to highlight the glaringly obvious; that Labour in Scotland is so focused on its own machinations that it cannot see the extent of its problems. The very fact that all this internal manoeuvring and calculating is going on during the most important debate in Scotland’s history shows how far Labour has drifted from its founding principles, values and purpose.
People like Jim Murphy – and even Douglas Alexander and a few others besides – are weighing up the ifs, buts and maybes of outcomes from not only the referendum, but also the 2015 UK election. For Labour it is all about power for individuals and the party: the fate and the future of Scotland and her people are but pawns on the chessboard.
I’ve listened to a fair number of very decent Labour folk try to articulate why Scotland should vote no in September. They sing yesterday’s song, harking to the past and what was achieved particularly in the postwar years. Which is fine and I agree with much of what they say. But this debate isn’t about the past, it’s about the future, Scotland’s future. And on that, their cupboard is largely bare. They have a string of soundbites which sound plausible but which go nowhere. Their arguments fail to frame their opposition to what the independence offer means for families and communities. Let them talk long enough and they disagree with themselves, ending up far from where they began. I’m not even sure they believe what they are saying half the time.
When their devolution-plus proposals are more timid and offer fewer powers being transferred from Westminster to Scotland than the Conservatives, then the game’s a bogey. Their Devolution Commission final report offered less than was touted because it was a shoddy compromise, finalised within a framework of hoping to win the UK election in 2015. What that means is that if Labour is in charge of the UK in the next five years, they’ll be putting precious little Scotland’s way in terms of further devolution. Because if they’re in power, they don’t want to be handing it over to us. It really is that simple.
And if they lose, then MPs hoping for UK Ministerial office start to look elsewhere. After years of ignoring Scotland’s wee pretendy parliament and playing with the big boys, some of them might set their sights on Scottish leadership and the possibility of First Ministerial or other Ministerial office in Scotland. I’m sorry but if Jim Murphy is the answer, then someone, somewhere is asking the wrong question.
Already Labour is working towards winning in 2016: that’s why it has selected most of its parliamentary candidates to run already. Forget the referendum, that’s just a sideshow: the real focus is on regaining what they see as their rightful place in Scottish politics. In power, in control and in charge.
Which is not to say that there are not good and decent Labour people whose hearts and minds are much less calculating than that. Some of them really do believe in the Union. Some of them do believe that what they offer is best for Scotland and her people – the best of both worlds is more than a slogan. I – and many others I know – share common values on fairness and equality in particular. It’s just that those core beliefs are being obscured by naked ambition, particularly at leadership level. And yes, I agree that power is needed to put into effect the policies you believe will change people’s lives.
But what are these exactly? Scotland will get control over housing benefit, the rest will stay at Westminster. It will get all income tax levers but not the ability to cut tax, only raise it. A UK Labour government will stick to the Tory public spending plans – that’s familiar. So the £5 billion cut to Scotland’s block grant, putting at risk key public services will go ahead in the next two years. The freeze on energy prices is good but takes no account of the disproportionate impact of high costs on rural Scotland. Worse, freezing bills for a limited time gives the energy companies a continued opt-out on investing in providing outlying areas with greater choice of cheaper energy. It’s a short term fix.
And in the absence of a positive offer to stay in the Union beyond the notion of family and a shared past and the hint of a Labour government to come, Labour is resorting to the scaremongering tactics so expertly practised by their Tory counterparts in the Better Together coalition. You might not put border controls up but we will, cries Ed Miliband. Thus, he would treat us differently from a completely foreign, neighbouring country across the water. I’ll resign if the Treasury allows a currency union, whines Ed Balls. Who cares, shrugs most of Scotland.
The very fact that Labour is selecting candidates not just for the 2015 UK election but also the 2016 Scottish election tells its own story. The fact that it is having these internal conversations in dark corners about who is best placed to lead the party in Scotland tells us all we need to know about where the party’s priorities lie. And it ain’t with the people of Scotland.
It’s why more and more Labour party members and supporters are not just moving from no to yes but also getting involved in the Yes campaign. They want to talk about the future of us all, not just their party. They want to be part of this exciting, big conversation that individuals, families and communities are having about their future and their country’s future. They want to talk about how best to end child poverty, to protect and nurture our NHS, to raise incomes, to create a fairer society for all.
And that’s a narrative we can all get behind.
Today will see the demolition of one of the last totems of Thatcherism left in Scotland. When right to buy is abolished, gone – at long last – will be the perfidious policy which attempted and nearly succeeded in dismantling our infrastructure of social housing.
It wasn’t wrong then and it isn’t wrong now for people to want to own their own home. What was wrong was the way the policy was constructed: taking houses, built with public money to ensure everyone had access to a decent home, out of public ownership and into private hands at knock down prices, leaving local authorities drowning under a sea of construction debt they could no longer afford to service, never mind begin to pay off.
And which is the government in Scotland to remove this blot from our policy landscape? A Labour one, which had 8 years leading an administration in which to attempt the feat? Labour, that fabled creature which works for the “working people”, which in its time in office built only a handful of council houses and only a handful more of housing association ones? No. An SNP government is what’s done it.
Actually, scratch that. It’s Salmond’s government what’s done it.
Now, readers who’ve been with this blog over the last three years will know that I’m not always our First Minister’s biggest fan. I’ve criticised him here when I’ve felt criticism was due. And like any leader or politician, he has his weaknesses and foibles. He is after all only a man, a person like all the rest of us.
But he also has outstanding strengths. And those are the reasons why he’s been SNP leader not just once, but twice. And also Scotland’s longest-serving First Minister to boot. Nearly half of the Scottish electorate (or at least the half that voted) voted for him and his party in 2011. Clearly, the old guard Labour figures returning to the Scottish fray after decades of plying their trade at Westminster, now besmirching the SNP and what it stands for, trying to take us all back to the 1970s in a political timewarp, appear oblivious to this not inconsequential fact.
The pace of change might have irked many (including me) since 2007, but there is no denying that Alex Salmond has been a radical and reforming First Minister, leading a government which has improved the lot of Scots everywhere. Free prescriptions, free tuition, the council tax freeze, lower class sizes, the abolition of bridge tolls, ambitious climate change targets, laws to protect children from online abuse, to protect our shores and marine life and to better protect women against domestic abuse, and policies to extend childcare provision, to give all children a better start in the first years of their lives and a free school meal until they are eight.
All this and more. That’s what Alex Salmond has done for Scotland as First Minister.
So, when I hear from some in this referendum campaign that they’re not that keen on voting yes (they’re not a definite no either) because they “don’t like that Alex Salmond” or they wonder what “he’s ever done for us” or the mantra “he’s just like all the rest, they never do what they say they will“, I find myself not only wondering why a no vote matters so much to Scottish Labour that they will lie to their own people to achieve it but also in the most unusual position of rushing to Alex Salmond’s defence.
What’s he done for you? Some of that list above has made your and your family’s life better. Didn’t he put all that in the manifestos you voted for? They said they’d abolish prescriptions, maintain the free bus fare scheme, keep the council tax freeze and get rid of tuition fees – hasn’t his party done that?
And then I give a very recent example. This Scottish Government under Alex Salmond’s leadership has kept the wolf of Westminster cuts at the door, carefully managing the money they get every year to limit the cuts and the impact of the recession. Seeing an issue with youth unemployment, Alex Salmond and his government determined that the Tories were not going to get their way in writing off another generation to joblessness, hopelessness and lost life chances. So a Minister for Youth employment was created and funds found to guarantee every young person leaving school in Scotland training, further education or a job even.
And it’s worked. Six months after they left school in 2013, 90% of Scotland’s young people are in positive destinations. That’s more of them in higher or further education, in training or in work. And where they are not yet in these destinations, more of them are actively being supported to find something that suits them. That 90% is the highest ever rate of positive destinations. The SNP is doing better at giving our young people a decent future than previous Labour-Lib Dem administrations – and they were working when we lived in a land of plenty – and doing better than they’re managing in England.
Not bad for a man that doesn’t do anything for folk or apparently doesn’t do what he says he will. And as I also point out to these folk, you don’t have to like a man to respect that he’s the right man at this time to lead our government and to respect that he’s actually pretty good at it.
Why? Because he cares about what happens to the people of Scotland and about making Scotland a better country for us all to live in. And that’s his number one priority. The SNP has made a pretty decent fist of things in challenging circumstances. This has been a government which has been good for Scotland because it has worked for Scotland’s good.
And isn’t what we’ve got a decent starting point in September to take our country forward? Look at what we’ve done with the powers we’ve been given, think what else we could do with all the powers and resources we need and a government focused primarily on what is best for us, our families, our communities?
Ultimately, though, what I tell folk is this.
The vote in September isn’t for Salmond, but for Scotland and for us.
It’s not really even about him either, but about us. All of us.
He won’t be First Minister for ever – he is after all 59. And the point of voting yes in September is that it then gives us – all of us – the chance to always get the governments we vote for. And if we decide that we’ve had enough of the SNP and a better offer comes along, then that is what we can vote for. And get.
And would you really rather vote no and have David Cameron, Ed Miliband or even Johann Lamont in charge?