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

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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.

 

 

 

Peeling the Bill Walker onion

There are so many layers to the Bill Walker story, it’s like peeling an onion.

Of course, he should never have been a parliamentary candidate, never mind an MSP. But somehow he got through. That should give the SNP and the other political parties pause to consider the rigour of their selection procedures, so that they might be certain that they do all they can to minimise the risk of future Bill Walkers. Given what we know now about his behaviour and refusal to accept responsibility for his actions, a modicum of value-based interviewing, of setting up scenarios to test the approach and attitude of aspiring parliamentarians would surely have found him out. A little less focus on the party credentials of putative candidates and a dollop more on the person and their characteristics before them might result in quite different people coming forward and being chosen to stand.

There are suggestions that some folk in the SNP knew about him much earlier than when he came to the attention of the Sunday Herald and subsequently, the police. There’s already an indication that journalists intend to pursue this line of enquiry, as well they might. The Sunday Herald’s Tom Gordon is already on to it, though his twitter- and door-stepping of someone who had just lost their mother was unedifying. I’m not sure Bernstein would have approved.

But if it is to avoid a witch-hunt led by the slavering political pack, roared on by opportunist opposition MSPs, the SNP needs to take ownership of the situation. The party needs to announce an internal inquiry, investigate every nook and cranny, uncover every layer of who knew what and when. And be seen to do so.

At the very least, it owes the women whom Bill Walker abused physically and emotionally, one while still in her teens, an explanation. The party does not need to lay bare its findings for media edification but if it finds itself wanting, to own up and say what it is doing to change that. And put the onus back on other parties to do likewise: after all, they all have their own bodies they’d like to remain buried.

We must not allow the media to become Witchfinder General as a result of the Bill Walker situation.  Unless we want the parliamentary equivalent of the Stepford Wives. Because Holyrood comprises people, there are bound to be others with stuff in their past, they’d rather we all didn’t know. They are, after all, just like the rest of us. Many of us have life experiences we work hard to forget but those experiences tend to make us who we are, if we have bothered to learn from them.  We are all fallible and gullible;  we can all be vulnerable to the most venal of emotions and actions and actually, we need a legislature which reflects life’s rich tapestry. The alternative is too awful;  indeed, many of us already bemoan just how many professional politicians with no experience of life outside the party presently occupy the parliamentary benches here and in that other place.

The issue is whether there are some like Bill Walker in denial about their current behaviour.  Had the man showed any remorse and responsibility for his actions, had he talked openly about his abusive nature and what he had done since – anger management classes, mediation, therapy – to control his behaviour and create different relationships, had he even pled guilty and spared his abused ex-wives the pain and trauma of having to relive their experience in open court, then our reaction might have been different.  Yet, right to the last, he has continued to blame others for his actions: he is resigning not because he is a convicted abuser of women and children but because the media onslaught made it impossible to continue.

His offensive behaviour continues in the present and he has no place in parliament.  Just as there might well be others whose antics in their personal life run contrary to the grain of public policy and what society has deemed to be acceptable.  Clearly this is tricky territory but the parties are duty bound to have a long hard look at their current crop of parliamentarians and assure themselves – and us – that there are no more Bill Walkers in their midst.  Not for what they might have done before and atoned for, but for what they are doing presently.

That might sound and seem harsh but the Scottish Parliament too requires to provide for anyone struggling with demons. Does it offer a confidential counselling service which MSPs might use?  Does it acknowledge that it has a duty of care to members and their staff?  Is there even a whistle-blowing service for staff who because of the nature of their work might uncover stuff about their bosses they don’t know what to do with and might not feel able to share with their parties?

What duty of care does the Scottish Parliament recognise to Bill Walker’s staff? They will lose their jobs from this;  chances are, given his refusal to acknowledge wrong-doing, that he wasn’t the most pleasant of bosses to work for. He possibly verbally abused and bullied them. Is someone somewhere offering and providing them with support if they need it?

The same applies to the women who bravely came forward to relive their experiences in court, to see justice done. Those who work in this sphere know from what women and children tell them, that the experience of giving evidence in court can be like being abused all over again. Until court proceedings are concluded, there is a sense of life on hold and afterwards, they are all too often left on their own to pick up the pieces. That’s where organisations like Scottish Women’s Aid and the Rape Crisis Centre come in – one hopes that someone has put the women involved in touch with them.

There is always the potential for good to come from a terrible situation like this.  We haven’t had a focus on domestic abuse and violence in the home for a while. It’s there or thereabouts but in recent years, Holyrood has got rather good at congratulating itself at how well we address and respond to this social ill. Yet, the statistics suggest we’re not doing nearly enough. Cases are rising, and worryingly, there are increasing numbers of young people affected, but convictions remain stubbornly low.  A parliamentary inquiry seems timely to explore the issues, what we are doing and what we might want to do differently.

There is great work out there focusing on prevention, to encourage the next generation in particular, to form healthier relationships – it would be good to showcase this and ensure that it is adequately resourced. But as with alcohol, there’s a need for Scotland to tell itself a few home truths, and that is that there are far too many families across the spectrum in Scotland where violence – in deed and discourse – is the norm.  Until we are prepared to acknowledge collectively that we have a problem, we are still far from finding a solution.

In the meantime, there’s a by-election to be prepared for. For the anoraks, the jockeying has already begun with speculation over who might be candidates. There is a suggestion that Labour will field an all-woman shortlist and at least one woman’s name is circulating as a possible SNP contender. Who knows, might the Lib Dems tempt Sarah Teather to come northwards?

Already some are agreed that it would make for a powerful symbol for all the candidates in this contest to be women. And already, this suggestion has been met with the tedious response that the candidates should be the best people for the job.  Just as Bill Walker clearly was, then.

But this by-election allows our political system to say something meaningful to the people of Dunfermline in particular and to Scotland more generally, that there is no place for violent abusers in our Parliament or indeed, anywhere in our society,  but plenty of room for more strong, impressive women. Indeed, some of us are even prepared to campaign across party lines to achieve such an outcome.