Read this while you wait for the Smith Commission report

As relevant now as when it was submitted; perhaps more so when listening to the dancing on pinheads going on this morning about which bits of which powers Scotland should be allowed to have.  Jonathan Sher moved from the USA to Scotland 10 years ago and became a UK citizen earlier this year in order to vote Yes in the independence referendum.  This was his personal submission to the Smith Commission. It makes a lot of sense to me.

Dear Lord Smith,

Thank you for accepting this complex, but vital, assignment.

The Herald published three of my personal opinion pieces on the Scottish independence referendum (16 June, 4 July and 15 September), which provide a context for my submission to you today.

As I understand it, your intent is to reflect the will of the Scottish voters accurately in relation to the additional powers that will soon be devolved to Scotland. A majority of voters in last month’s referendum wanted at least ‘Devo Max’, so that is what should be delivered. [Note: I am using ‘Devo Max’ to refer to the powers articulated by the SNP and Scottish Greens in their submissions to your Commission]

What is known is that:

A. 55% of Scottish voters preferred to remain within the United Kingdom, thereby removing independence as one of the current options.

B. 45% of Scottish voters wanted all powers to be vested in the Scottish Parliament.

C. Opinion polls, both before and after the referendum, indicated majority support for at least Devo Max. If even as few as 1 in 10 No voters (5.5% of all voters) were persuaded by leading politicians to think they were voting for Devo Max, then a majority (at least 50.5%) of all Scottish voters made it plain that they want the maximum possible powers to be held by the Scottish Parliament.

D. Given this simple calculation (45% Yes voters, plus at least 5.5% No=Devo Max voters), there seems a moral obligation for you to insist upon an agreement that delivers as full a devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament as is possible without causing the UK to be unable to function successfully.

I am struck by the focus in much of the recent public and media debate on which specific powers should be devolved by Westminster to Holyrood. This seems back-to-front. Shouldn’t the focus be on reaching agreement about which specific powers must be reserved at Westminster for the United Kingdom to function well? Any power not explicitly reserved at the UK level devolves to the Scottish Parliament.

During the referendum debate, the key powers discussed as the defining ones to have a United Kingdom were currency, foreign affairs and the military. There may be a small number of other specific powers necessary for the UK to function successfully, but you are doubtless more aware of them than me.

This referendum was not simply the prelude to the best compromise that can now be brokered among the five political parties at your Commission’s table — based upon their priorities and preferences. In my opinion,  your Commission’s final agreement should embody and honour the expressed desire of a majority of Scotland’s voters to have the maximum possible powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament — a parliament whose existence must become permanent, i.e. one that can neither be abolished nor controlled by Westminster.

In practical terms, any agreement that delivers less than Devo Max would discount the votes of the 45% who voted for all powers to be held by Holyrood – and also discount the votes of all citizens who, while against independence, were voting for the greatest possible devolution of powers to Scotland within the UK.

With appreciation for your consideration,

Dr Jonathan Sher

If I were First Minister…

Oh I know how ridiculous the concept is.  We can agree on that. There are after all, hundreds of reasons why Nicola is and I’m not. I can list more than you can.  But when you’re finished chuckling at the very idea, indulge me.

Because if it was me, I’d kinda have done all that she is doing but I’d be planning more of it. And sometimes a little unwarranted, unsought advice is a good thing.

As the first female First Minister, what to wear and how to look is going to be a thing, no matter how much we want it to be otherwise. So yes, embrace it. Turn it into part of your story, of who you are, what matters to you and how you are going to be. Absolutely champion Scottish designers for clothes and jewellery. Make a point of visiting local shops and crafts when out and about round Scotland. Just don’t do handbags, for obvious reasons.

In fact, become Scotland’s champion in all the things that do matter to you. Turn the role into what you want it to be, think it should be in 21st Century Scotland. Promoting design and local produce could become something you do – pick two of the areas you intend to visit in Scotland in a year, and get Visit Scotland and Scottish Enterprise telt. They should do an expo of all things local for when the Cabinet comes to town. Even better, if some visits could be timed to coincide with local book festivals and you could get to open it or chair something or share your own favourite books or similar. Championing local enterprise, talent and activity while getting to indulge in one of your own passions. You’re allowed to actually enjoy being First Minister, no matter how often the civil servants tell you otherwise.

I’d want to be an accessible First Minister too.  Ra people’s First Minister, that’s what I’d be looking to do. There are things of state that need to be done but get yourself a Depute with whom you can share the stuff that is more duty than pleasure. The Queen has all these Lord Lieutenants littered all over the country. And Deputies. I’d be seeing if some of them couldn’t be more usefully deployed on Scotland duty.

And think about where you do want to spend time and who and how you want to engage with folk. Presenting cups and trophies at sporting fixtures?  Find a Sports Minister who can and will. But pitch up with a wee New Year’s message from the stage of proceedings in Glasgow or Edinburgh. Go to book festivals in the summer. Make a list of what you like doing and tell them that’s what you’d like to be doing, as close to ra people as possible.

Otherwise, keep doing your own tweets. Once a month, walk from Bute House up to St Andrew’s House. Make time to stop and say hello to folk. Once a month too, jump on a bus to do the journey. Get the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh once a month. The security will tell you why you really shouldn’t do it. Tough, it’s their job to figure out how you can do it safely. But also you are entitled to a bit of luxury and some trappings that go with the office. No one (except Paul Hutcheon) expects you to stay in Travel Lodges while you are abroad.  If you are working 18 hour days, you are allowed to have someone drive you home and back again in the morning. And folk to look after you. Running a country is a big job – sell that before the carping starts about what you spend money on or how you do it or spend your time.  Publish your engagements as soon as possible after the fact. Publicise as many as you can beforehand and who is involved and why.

Apparently, you’re not keen on moving into Bute House permanently. Home is after all home. So turn it into ra People’s Palace:  make it accessible and available too. Offer up its facilities on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day for one of the many charities working with homeless people. Do more receptions from it for things you like and want to champion and be open about it.  Get the SpADs to identify a theme day for each month of the year – Mother’s Day (March);  World Aids Day (December); and so on, and turn Bute House into the centre of commemoration, throwing open the doors. And four times a year, fill it with children – an Easter egg hunt;  a Christmas party.  Make sure everyone knows this wee Georgian hoose belongs to them and is shared with the nation.

As for the SpADs, well this is where you have to live the narrative you’re weaving, not just wear it.  If SNP policy now supports 40% of women appointments to boards, then you know what you gotta do. There is a perceived wisdom that no one who wants a life should apply. I’d change that. I’d create a job share part time role for two folk with family or caring responsibilities: their life experience would be well worth it.  And in keeping with the new, even bigger tent approach of the SNP, I’d think about offering a SpAD role to someone outside the SNP.  A Green even. Not that the roles ever were for party folk, it’s just how they’ve been allowed to develop.

The same applies to the Cabinet.  It’s a tough one. You don’t want to tip everyone out for a whole host of reasons but you need to effect enough change to make it your own. To signal even more emphatically that the Salmond Generation has had its time. Apart from yourself of course. But time for you to bring on a new generation of leaders in the SNP by giving them rungs of responsibility. Encourage one or two of the old guard who’ve been warming Cabinet seats since 2007 to jump before pushed.

And of course, 40% women.  I’d also be cultivating a support network of women out there who can be relied upon to have your back when the unnamed sources start their sniping and carping.  As they will.  Because you’re a woman.  And they think that makes you weaker. And fair game. In a way, they’d never dream of doing if it was still Alex Salmond.

You are, after all, entering what has been almost exclusively a man’s world and game.  If it were me, I’d be making the role into what I want it to be, not what I’m told it has to be.

Own it.  Rock it.  Become a 21st Century leader for a 21st Century country.

Just don’t wear those killer heels everyday, you’ll ruin your feet.

Autumn signals politics as usual

Apparently, the Liberal Democrats are still here. Holding their annual conference in Glasgow, this will be their 4th? 5th? day of deliberations.  What on earth have they found to talk about?  How have they managed to find enough delegates to keep it all going?  As images taken on Saturday showed, Women for Independence managed to muster far more women for its event in Perth on Saturday than found their way into the Lib Dem conference hall.

Nick Clegg has already spoken, but he is speaking again.  Oh goody.  This time, he’s talking about mental health provision in the health service, which is a fitting topic worthy of a wider airing.  But as it’s not relevant to a UK wide audience and pertinent only to English voters, you wonder why he couldn’t find a headline subject for his big conference set-piece that mattered to us all.

Perhaps they’ve given up on trying to win Scottish seats at next year’s UK election?  Or maybe they think they are in the bag and holding on to their largely marginal bolt-holes down south has to be the focus. Whatever, they’re proving their obsolescence in Scottish politics all by themselves.

Elsewhere, in the Scottish arena, the day is dominated by Scottish Labour’s call for the Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill to go. The party claims that he has presided over a series of crises in Scottish policing, the latest resulting in a climb down over the routine arming of police on our streets.  The Scottish Government responds with a well thought out cry of rubbish, pointing to MacAskill’s wider track record: crime rates at a 20 year low and record numbers of police employed. Am I the only one to suspect they doth protest just a little too vociferously for the Justice Secretary’s comfort?

The Lib Dems and Tories look set to support Labour’s motion and depending on what the Greens and Independent (formerly SNP) MSPs do with their votes, this could be a tight one.  I’m not sure the left-leaning John Wilson, human rights-focused Jean Urquhart and former Secretary General of the Police Federation, John Finnie can be relied upon to vote for the Justice Secretary but I’m not sure they’ll want to hand the scalp of a Scottish Government minister to the opposition either.

Elsewhere, the franchise for the East coast rail line appears to have been awarded to – shock, horror – foreigners.  This has prompted Laboury types to call for re-nationalisation of the railways or at least, such contracts going to Scottish companies.  This is political chancery at its worst (or best, depending on your viewpoint) given that the ability to do either is somewhat constrained by the constitutional set-up which does not give us powers to fix things like this.  A settlement which Labour was campaigning to keep, only a few short weeks ago.  Natch.

Practically, it will make little difference to the staff in the short term, whose jobs will all transfer to the new franchise holder but that means little in the long term for conditions of employment.  We can expect the RMT to be busy.  Personally, if we cannae have some sort of public ownership of our railway provision (and I’m not sure the old large state model is appropriate in the 21st Century but there are other, not-for-profit alternatives available) then maybe an injection of European efficiency could be a good thing.  I’ve been on Dutch trains:  they’re a darn sight better than ours.

Tomorrow, we get the draft Scottish budget – the first to incorporate some of the new powers wished upon us by Unionists through the Calman Commission.  What difference will landfill tax make to our public purse?  I doubt it will do much to plug the gap created by the several billion being taken out of the block grant by UK austerity measures.  What will be interesting when the cuts that are a-coming, arrive is where the finger of blame will be pointed, not by the politicians, but by the voting public.

There’s a definite sense of being back to the business of politics as usual.  The round of party conferences, high winds, heavy rain and flooding, and the low-hanging, harvest moon dominating the sky all signal the arrival of autumn.  Yet, there’s an undercurrent too of something not ever being quite the same again.

The enthusiasm of Yes supporting folk for politics and in particular, politicking in the community shows no sign of abating; there’s an intriguing deputy leadership debate unfolding in the SNP; each day that passes, the Unionists’ vow seems to offer less of the wow folk were looking for.  The high and the low politics is definitely where all the interesting people are to be found.  The jam in the middle that is spread by Holyrood seems rather thin and unappetising for the moment.

Yet, here too, there are hints of change to come.  Nicola Sturgeon will be setting out her stall as First Minister either before or just after the festive break. Johann Lamont’s backroom team is getting a shake-up with a change of personnel but every time she protests she’s going nowhere suggests even she is beginning not to believe she has staying power.  Ruth Davidson will bask in the glow of approval from Mr and Mrs Cameron a while longer but that won’t necessarily win her party more votes in Scotland next year.

Underneath it all remain big, thorny political issues.  The STV Appeal this week will see a renewed focus on child poverty – expect the politicians to have plenty to add.  Maybe they could all just read this report, out today, about what consigning 1 in 4 of our children to poverty actually means to their life chances. Maybe, we could have a debate on this in Parliament?  Maybe, we could have debates too in every council chamber?  And maybe, we could have politicians uniting to find the solutions, to apply their collective will to put resources in – real resources – to addressing the causes and symptoms of lack and blight in children’s lives.  Or agree to devolve the powers to Scotland that give us a real chance – a fighting chance – of doing different from Westminster, for all our children’s sakes.   A girl can dream. Still.

Aye, we live in interesting political times.  Tumultuous even.  It’s just a shame that one of Scotland’s finest political journalists, Angus MacLeod, is no longer here, with his quizzically owl-ish stare, to help prise them apart, to find the story beneath, to document what was really going on, to unspin the narrative, to apply his trademark wry analysis and humour to it all.  A big shame indeed.