En solidarité

The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant.

Watching the last few days’ terrible and terrifying events unfold in Paris has been compulsive. The live filming of the siege on Friday seemed like an episode of Spiral, which made a welcome return to our screens last night. The shooting of 10 staff and associates at Charlie Hebdo and two police officers was shocking in its brutality, but also in the mundaneness with which armed terrorists were able to plan and execute such a terrible atrocity. Just like that.

You go to work like you do every other day, but today you don’t come home. Just like that.

The atrocity has prompted some outstanding journalism and leadership from newspapers, in particular. They always do cover such stories best, having the time and the keen sense of purpose with which to craft the right words. But perhaps, because it is the inky fingered lot whose freedom to express, to print all the news that’s fit to print, is so regularly threatened – sometimes by their own inability to adhere to the values of independence and non-bias which they maintain, matter so much – by regulation, by the removal of those rights, through owners’ patronage and personal proclivities; political interference; judicial tinkering.

I’ve read a lot that I’ve liked in Scottish newspapers since Wednesday. We are fortunate to have some fine journalists and writers working in our parts and our media culture would be lacking without them. Bravo et encore.

There has also been reflection and introspection about the nature of rights, the balance to be struck between and among rights and individuals’ right to exercise them.  Put crudely, whose trumps who’s?  The right of journalists and cartoonists to express themselves freely or the right of believers to worship their chosen faith free from intolerance and prejudice?  One thing on which we can all agree – no one has the right to kill anyone else to assert their beliefs over any individual, community or society.

And while it is good to be reminded of the point of human rights and why they are vital and fundamental to the well-being of a country, must it always be through adversity? Who in the UK thinks now that rights don’t matter?  Good. You might want to let your MP know then, as there’s a bill before Westminster proposing to remove our human rights and replace them with a bill of rights that creates a new constitutional framework for the UK. Whether it will allow us to continue to enjoy the same human rights as say, the French is as yet not clear.

Today France and indeed, Europe will come together in a show of solidarity, marking the murders in the way the French know best. By taking to the streets, exercising their collective freedom to assemble peaceably. Indeed, the populace will be aided and abetted in its efforts by the availability of free public transport and cut price travel from outwith Paris. Touché.

I am struck by the differences in how countries and societies display their public grief and demonstrate their shared sense of pain. After 7/7, plucky Britain and London kept calm and carried on.  Everyone back to work, business as usual. How a country mourns publicly after such a catastrophic event which touches everyone directly and indirectly says a lot about its culture and its belief system.

And sometimes it takes a terrible happening to be reminded of what matters in and to a society. Liberté. Fraternité. Égalité.

I’m sure many French people have taken a moment or two this week to reflect on these values and what they mean in a 21st Century country. When your country has touchstone principles as powerful as this, it’s vital to keep them alive. Sadly, it often takes death to remind us to do so. And to remember what matters – truly matters – in our everyday lives. It does no harm for us all to reflect a little.

On some levels, Scotland’s independence referendum attempted to hold a discourse on who we are, what we believe in and where do we want to go.  We all nodded – whatever side of the binary choice you ended up on – in agreement with notions of fairness and greater equality in our society.

In writing Generation Scot Y earlier this year, I analysed what young people in both camps were saying about their referendum choice.  What mattered to them and how were they articulating that.  The choice of language was remarkably similar:  young Yessers talked a lot about better, about fairer, progressive, opportunity, democracy and future, while young No campaigners also talked a lot about opportunities, choice, future, rights and things being better. A common language then, if not purpose at that time.

And at the end of it all, now we are out the other side, where stands Scotland? What has become of all that yearning for better, fairer and opportunity in our future? Can we find away to make the purpose fit the language? And does anyone even want to? We’re One Scotland no doubt but surely it takes more than trite messaging and imagery to make it so.

We may wish to engage in a little schadenfreude and nod to the rise of the right in France and a level of racism, intolerance and prejudice that does not exist in Scotland as reasons why it could never happen here. But France is a much more multi-cultural country than we are: not only was a Muslim police officer gunned down by Islamist extremists, but it was a Muslim employee in a Jewish supermarket who protected other shoppers, including a child. France has its issues but there is also much to learn from a culture which aims to assimilate and adopt a melting-pot approach to immigration and where identities – as they are in so many other countries today – multi-dimensional.

And today, we will watch – yes, in solidarity – as a nation mourns, as a nation gathers to remind itself of its founding principles and of what truly matters to its society, its sense of self and its well-being.  Je suis. Nous sommes.

We – I – will shed a tear and quietly, timidly ask how do we prevent this happening here –  happening anywhere – again. As Dani Garavelli points out in an excellent opinion piece in today’s Scotland on Sunday, “days later, the indefensibility of the attack on Charlie Hebdo remains, but almost everything else is shadows and fog”.

We may wish to call on the wisdom of Robespierre in our search for some answers and a solution.

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We need to talk about Labour

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.

 

 

Focusing on the council tax freeze ignores the need for wider reform

Before we pick apart some of Professor Midwinter’s arguments set out in today’s Scotland on Sunday, first let’s welcome the debate.

It is rare that we have serious – or at least semi-serious – debates about policy in the public domain and this one is a biggy.  While it is framed around the need to consider the affordability of public services and provision in the current landscape of cuts to the Scottish block grant, at its heart is a more fundamental matter.  Should we strive for universal provision or target funding at those who need it most?

In truth, it is the kind of policy area that whets the whistle of Labour much more than the SNP, which has far less of a social policy tradition in its DNA.  Indeed, the party’s approach to policy formulation in this area has always been of less interest to the big brains of the party whose boat is floated by economic stuff.  The party is great at the vision thing on the kind of Scotland we want to be, advocating a distinctly left of centre, socially progressive hue.  Words like fair and common weal and social wage pepper speeches but what is lacking is the intense policymaking and dialogue within party structures to work out what that actually requires a nation to do.

Hence, the attraction of universalism or as some have dismissed it, retail politics. There’s an element of truth in this – why would a party which has successfully campaigned its way into majority government on the back of universal policies tear those up?  Whether the SNP and the Scottish Government is in fact examining the affordability of any of its so-called “free” policies and working out different ways of tailoring the offering is a moot point:  it doesn’t have to, when Labour is doing the heavy lifting for it.  Labour might just find itself advocating, for example, raising qualification for a free bus pass to 65 – as Midwinter suggests – and the SNP deciding to accept the shift reluctantly in public and with some glee in private.

But a point of placement. Let’s not forget that Labour started the craze for universal and free stuff.  Free personal care, free bus travel, free heating systems for older people – all of these were introduced by a Labour-led administration when money was no object. In fact, I recall that Labour-Lib Dem executive resisting attempts to widen energy efficiency measures to the poorest families with young children because the money was needed for rich pensioners to get new heating systems.  And indeed, at Westminster, somewhat bizarrely it was Labour and the left which led the charge against cutting off child benefit for the most wealthy on the basis that it overturned the principle of universality in one of the last benefits to offer it.

So, having welcomed the debate which Labour is having with itself and bringing to our attention, let’s get on with cutting through some of Professor Midwinter’s crap.

Firstly, the charge on the Scottish Government that it has dismantled anti-poverty spending to the tune of £1 billion. To arrive at this figure, Midwinter selects policy and spending programmes which he considers to be anti-poverty and of course, ignores others. But he is right:  the Community Regeneration, Supporting People’s and Fairer Scotland Funds were handed over to local authorities and community planning partnerships to spend. But if they decided not to spend them on tackling poverty, they are to blame for the loss, not the Scottish Government.

And this actually points at a bigger issue. Unlike Labour which ring-fenced every new pot of money for every centrally announced and planned initiative – to the tune of nearly a billion pounds by their end days – the SNP trusted local government when it said it should be freed up from central constraint to deliver “local solutions to local needs”.  If those same local authorities have over the last six years made spending decisions which mean those funds haven’t been targeted at their original purpose, then maybe we need to shine a critical light there.  And work out how to fix that.

Indeed, it would be interesting to know just what councils have spent the money on.  They should be required to justify this, rather than wrongly blaming the Scottish Government for trusting councils to do as they said they would.  And that might well lead to a much broader discourse about whether local authorities as currently structured and populated are fit for purpose.

Secondly, the criticism against free prescriptions policy is unjust – and somewhat disingenuous, given that Labour was at pains to remind the voters of Dunfermline that they supported its introduction. For every well-off person who benefits when they occasionally need a pill or lotion, there are far poorer people who are reliant on whole streams of medication to manage their conditions who used to have to pay out significant parts of largely limited incomes on doing so.

Nicola Sturgeon’s objective on becoming Health Secretary in 2007 was always to introduce free prescriptions for those who need it most – the rules on who qualified had emerged in haphazard fashion so that some people with long term health conditions and disabilities got and some didn’t. But analysis suggested that expanding the qualifying criteria and the means test would actually cost more to administer than actually making all prescriptions free. Professor Midwinter ignores this context completely.

If the bill for free prescriptions is rising, then that is bound to be linked to our ageing population and sick man of Europe tag – entirely separate issues which need different policy solutions.  Keeping people healthier longer ie preventative activity, is actually a keystone for Scottish Government health policy, and more of it is required. Investing in this will bring the overall prescription bill down in the long term.

Finally, there’s the council tax freeze. There is no quibble here that given its longevity, it has meant a substantial saving for better off households and that even proportionately, those on the lowest bandings are not saving as much from the policy as others do.  But it is unhelpful only to quote the savings at the top and the bottom:  I’d imagine UK Labour, given its focus on the “squeezed middle”, would be just as interested in the savings applying for Bands C to E housing where these “hard pressed families” are likely to be living.

And even if they are still not saving as much of their income as those in these highest bandings, the wider picture of who is bearing the brunt of UK cuts and austerity measures needs to be factored in. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has been telling us since 2010, that’s these same “hard pressed families”. Take away the council tax freeze and that would no doubt tip some of these families – with children – over the precipice. What are the wider consequences of this for other public services like housing, social work, health and education?  This kind of modelling has to be done before arriving at the conclusion that the council tax freeze is inherently unfair and now a massive problem.

Looking simply at local authorities’ needs, ‘m afraid I’m not getting how allowing them to raise council tax will add significantly to their spending power. £70 million is the total estimate for a 3% increase at Band D levels across the whole of Scotland, yet the total local government allocation last year was just over £10 billion.  We are talking pennies here in budgetary terms, yet the increasingly shrill calls from some councils to be freed to use their tax powers give the impression that we are talking serious money.  We’re not.  And say, councils are allowed to raise tax and they all choose to do so by say, 3%. It’s a universal, flat rate increase paid by folk in the wee houses as much as the big ones.  Who does such a raise hurt the most?

Moreover, what impact would any council tax rise have on council tax benefit requirements?  Would more people become eligible for benefit? How would that be paid for? Is Scottish Labour remembering that the monies for that pot are now devolved and were only kept at last year’s levels because the Scottish Government reinstated the UK Government’s 10% cut? It is to be hoped that Professor Midwinter’s analysis of the situation is rather more detailed than the simplistic statements in this article suggest.

There is no doubt that the parties are effectively dancing around the pinhead of the council tax freeze to avoid the bigger issue of local tax reform. The SNP parked its commitment on local income tax a long time ago;  no one except the Scottish Greens has investigated the plausibility of a land value tax;  and Scottish Labour appears to have shelved its 2007 manifesto commitment to add new bands to the top of the council tax structure.

Yet, working out how local authorities can be made more accountable for their spending decisions by allowing them to raise more of their own income is a key part surely of this debate.  Professor Midwinter is right – fiscal realism is necessary but we won’t get it if no party is prepared to consider how we create a more sustainable funding base for all public services, including local ones.  Targeting universal and supposedly free services to justify a shift towards means-testing might provide some short-term political answers for Scottish Labour, but it won’t provide effective policy solutions in the long-term.