Shut up? Not until they put up

You can imagine the shock for a valley girl – comprehensively educated, well travelled, reasonably cultured but essentially the product of a rural upbringing – arriving at St Andrew’s University. In my first 1st year French tutorial, I recall vividly how one doyenne from Dollar Academy made me feel. Tossing her waist length hair, crossing and uncrossing her legs, throwing her arms open to emphasise her point, pronouncing confidently on the meaning of the text, the importance of the characters, spending much of the hour talking in French. I shrank visibly and barely said a word.

By the third week, I’d worked out she hadn’t read the novel, her pronunciation was dodgy and she was basically talking shite.

But what she and all the others of her ilk did – and they were aplenty in St Andrews – was exude power.  They lived, talked, socialised and worked (occasionally a few deigned to do so) with a sense of entitlement, with the kind of confidence only money and status can buy.

The reaction by some to the Smith Commission report has rekindled these memories – or more particularly, the attempts to shut us up in its aftermath, have

The outcome of the Smith Commission was inevitable right from its construct. The Unionist parties started from various points on a low bar, while the SNP and Greens were already at ceiling height. That the parties round the table were brought to the middle is testament not just to Robert Smith’s acumen in chairing the process but also in the willingness of the parties and the individuals around that table to reach agreement. The SNP entered those talks knowing it would not get what it wanted which was near as damnit independence and knew that the outcome would be far from what it wanted to achieve. The point of staying the course was to make the case for as much devo as could be agreed, to pull and in some cases, drag the others up the scale.

Its case was aided and supported by large sections of Scottish civic society. Trade unions, anti-poverty campaign groups, disability campaigners, voluntary organisations working with a wide range of community interests.  All those whose work brings them into contact with the impacts of poverty and inequality were quite clear that Scotland needed most or even all revenue-raising and welfare powers. They were listened to much less than the ones who advocated large chunks of it all staying the same.  In short, can’t beat can.

Partly this is to do with where power and resources currently lie. When you are a government department, an official of some years’ experience, with data and information available to you to produce as evidence, it is easy to construct an argument. When you are a campaign group run on people’s donations and grants, with limited access to the resources of power, it is harder to make your case.

Moreover, those who argued for fewer powers to transfer to Scotland have a vested interest in things staying as they are. All that upheaval, all that change, all those known unknowns, as well as the unknown ones, the surprises that would spring, the unintended consequences – you can almost feel some officials and some of those who do very nicely out of the current set-up – shuddering at the thought of it all.

And it is always – as we saw during the referendum campaign – much harder to make a convincing case for change when effectively what is being asked for is a leap into the unknown. You can only surmise and at best, model the results. Moreover, while advocates of much more devo were arguing for powers for a purpose, sometimes the purpose differed.  And even when people were clear what their purpose was – to tackle poverty, reduce inequality – what they were effectively arguing for was potential: the political will to use those powers for an as yet unclear purpose is not a given.

And underneath it all is the ability to make the case for can’t with confidence, the sort of confidence power brings and so, the can’t brigade won the day. What has been delivered – or at least promoted, as we’re far from delivery yet – is more than those who voted yes might have believed would result, but less than it could have, and less than a majority of people in Scotland aspire to.  A small matter of democratic accountability which appears to have been brushed aside.

So now it’s time for you all to shut up. You’ll have had your tea.

John Swinney was thoroughly gracious in his remarks about the report. The SNP welcomes the powers but we’re disappointed that civic Scotland wasn’t listened to and that the powers they propose do not meet our aspirations.  Moaner, whinger, was the retort.

It didn’t take long for them to round on Nicola Sturgeon.  When will she ever stop?  (we are a right wing commentator away from “nagging” or “nippy” being introduced into the lexicon about our new First Minister.)

According to Gordon Brown, our de facto opposition leader even though he didn’t have the inclination to actually get himself elected to the role, it’s time to stop arguing for more powers and to work with what we’ve got.  Eat your cereal, Scotland.

Yet, there is some point to what he says. We must focus some energy on working out what to do with the powers we’ve got, how to use them to their greatest effect. We’ve got the political equivalent of a chicken carcass, can we deliver 2 meals and a pot of stock out of its meagre offerings?

The Scottish Government has shown to good effect what can be done: stamp duty is now land transaction tax and aims to extract more revenue from those who can afford it most.  But it also abdicated any attempt to reform council tax benefit when it was devolved, opting even to keep the administration of it the same, when having 32 local authorities run the same system slightly differently 32 times to apply the benefit is clearly not the most cost-efficient way of doing things.

But as always, this is about power and control. Having succeeded in repelling attempts to effect a complete transfer of power and achieved further success at guarding against real powers shifting from their current locus, now is the time to close down the conversation. This is the establishment doing what it always does best and holding on to what it thinks is rightly its own. Include in that, establishment politicians, establishment business and their well-heeled representative bodies and establishment government departments and officials (however well intentioned they were when they entered the civil service).

So now the establishment thinks it has got away with it again. Except it hasn’t.

Already, others are finding their voice. The devolution of air passenger duty has resulted in calls from North East and West England MPs for measures to support their airports. And there are some also calling for attention to turn now to these regions’ – and others’ – needs for greater control over resources and revenues. The failure to devolve corporation tax to Scotland is far from a done deal when power over the same tax is headed to Northern Ireland. The establishment’s edifice is crumbling and Scotland’s constitutional debate has not just resulted in a political awakening here, but it has encouraged others to be bolder, to ask for more.  As it always had the potential to do and so, it should be.

At all levels of consciousness, this debate is about power, where it lies, who wields it, how it is used and for whose benefit.  And it’s why those who currently have it threw everything they had into the No campaign to make sure they held on to it.  They sense though that their victory could be hollow: Scotland has not retreated to lick its wounds and forget any notion it might have had about taking greater control and responsibility for itself.  We’re still up for it. So now we’re being telt.

But just as I found in those French tutorials many years ago, once you’ve got the measure of them, once you’ve worked out they are all empty confidence, with very little substance behind them, there is no need to cede the ground to them.

Scotland has started to find the establishment out. We’re beginning to understand what this is all about.  Power and control. They have it, we want it.  We have found our political voice.

And they can tell us all they like to shut up but that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Not until they put up.


How low can we go?

It might just be a lunar thing.  Or at least, a mid bleakwinter association.  But I’m feeling low.

Events too have conspired to contribute to my mood.

I have purposely avoided the broadcast media coverage of the horrific events at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown in Connecticut.  I could not bear the way microphones were being thrust into people’s faces, especially traumatised children’s faces, seeking the instant reaction and the right package to keep the news rolling.  On an issue like this – in my view – the printed press beats broadcast hands down.  Yes, there’s some sensationalist front page coverage but also distant, respectful and considered analysis and presentation of the facts.

Which we must all force ourselves to read and to debate.  In a timely move, Kenny MacAskill, the Justice Secretary, has announced moves to curb the availability of air guns by licensing him.  It will take a brave vested interest in light of events in Newtown to oppose this move.

Alongside the debate on gun ownership, surely we must also consider more fully the role violence plays in our lives.  It has an all pervasive presence in the world of entertainment.  At this point, I admit that both my boys had plastic replica gun tat.  The wee chicklet in fact has an arsenal.  I temper my hypocrisy by only buying him wooden stuff from museums – viking axes, shields and the like.   And gave up trying to prevent the inlaws and outlaws buying blasters and the like.  But it’s there all the same.  And I vainly temper my hypocrisy and guilt by encouraging other influences in his life.

And when he and his pals are not on recces out in the garden and nearby streets, he can be found setting out huge war scenarios using plastic soldiers and equipment, some of it even inherited from his brother.  There is a real joy to be had in watching him at this kind of play.  It is meticulous.  It takes over the house.  I find soldiers in position in plants, on the stairs, perched on the TV, hiding below books and on top of speakers.  There is very little role play of actual fighting, it is all in the set up and the planning.  But still….

Even if I banned and binned the lot, I’d struggle to keep him free from violence.  Not when even the age-appropriate video games involve bashing up opponents and beating them by fair means and foul.  When many of the programmes on children’s TV involve humiliating friends at schools or cheating on your team mates.  And when movies, even at PG level, offer wrecks, chases and action, albeit often of the animated type.

We have created a childhood for our children that is brimful of adrenalin, which encourages a dog eat dog mentality, with little room for kindness, empathy and inclusion.  And all of it has to have as much bearing on the adults they become as the availability of weapons and indeed, the influence (benign or otherwise) of adults.

What kind of world do we want to live in?  What do we want to gift our children?  And what role does Scotland want to play in any or all of it?

These are the kind of questions that should surely be at the heart of the national conversation on our constitutional future.

Yet, last night, when all over the world, people were using twitter and other social media to show solidarity with the pain and suffering of bereaved families and a bewildered small, rural American community, there were the Yes and No camp frontlines.  So far buried in their own navel that even a tragedy of this size cannot tempt them from their self-absorption.

Who cares who said what to whom about the EU frankly.  Who cares if the Depute First Minister was on the back foot or the front foot on this issue.   The battle for our hearts and minds is currently being fought out as a point scoring exercise.  It is like playing a game of Scrabble with all contestants tallying their double and triple word scores at the end of the day and determining from the total whether they need to enter the fray the next day by thrusting or parrying.

The current tactics of both camps are built around the worst kind of politics where name-calling, petty insults, finger-pointing, belittling and verbal spats are seen as an acceptable way to conduct the discourse.  It is appalling.

And for some to suggest that just because 20 children and several adults lost their lives in the worst way imaginable means nothing to Scotland and that it’s fine to carry on as before turns my stomach.  Didn’t Scotland welcome the sympathy and tenderness expressed from some very surprising places when the terrible events of Dunblane occurred in 1996?  The eyes of the world were on us then too and the global community was keen to offer a handshake and a hug of comfort when we were struggling to come to terms with what had happened in our midst.  At the very least, we should return the favour.  Or have we lost all ability to work out what matters in our lives and in others?

It would appear that winning the game and the prize has become the all for too many protagonists in both camps.  And the purpose of what constitutional change might be about has been cast aside.   And if this is what people are like now, if this is as low as we can go now, what hope is there for the future?

This inability of Scotland’s body politic to treat politics as more than a game was exposed in cruel reality with the publication of an Audit Scotland report this week that showed despite record investment in health and in the face of commitments – by both our major parties – in recent years to tackle health inequalities, we have failed.  We have and are failing utterly to turn around the lives of those in our midst who need our support and action most.

And if we think things are low now for the most vulnerable in our society, they are about to get a whole lot lower when welfare reform comes to town and its measures start to bite.  Not just the poorest, but the wee bit poor, the nearly poor and thought they were no longer poor too.  Do our politicians have any answers or solutions to offer?  Who knows, for anyone who does cannot be heard above the din and clatter of our daily political and constitutional diet.

There are good people out there working away at crafting policy and practice which aims to change people’s lives.  But they are scarcely noticed.  And they are seen as an irritant and an inconvenient aside to the main course of politics served up daily by our leaders and their followers.

A diet which does not care whether children have been gunned to death.  Which does not pause to consider whether it might happen here – again.  Which ignores the big issues which affect the ability of our people to live decent lives.  And which prefers to use the misery of others only when it suits their own arguments.

It is politics of the lowest form.  And I fear it will get lower still.