31 October 2014

Ca' canny...

As Massie says, the results of yesterday's Ipsos-MORI poll are remarkable, with Labour polling at a grisly 23% to the SNP's 52% going into the General Election. The Tories languish on 10%, and the Liberals, 6%. Grim tidings for the beleaguered Liberal Democrats, hoping to hold on to some of their eleven Scottish seats. Worse for Ed Miliband, who can ill afford to lose bastions on its northward front. 

The poll doubtless has some significance. The next General Election campaign certainly represents an opportunity for the Nationalists to make gains, particularly if we see a differential rise in activism and enthusiasm and turnout amongst the disappointed minority who voted Yes on the 18th of September. But if your attention is fixed on Holyrood, it is easy to forget just how badly the SNP has done in recent Westminster general elections. But here are a few sobering facts we shouldn't allow ourselves to forget in the current ferment. 

The SNP hit its high watermark in Westminster support in the October election of 1974, winning 11 seats. Since, it has never exceeded six MPs. In 2005 and 2010, the SNP were the third party in Scotland,  in terms of seats won, We pipped the Liberal Democrats in the popular vote in 1997, 2001 and 2010 but lagged behind in seats. God bless first past the post. But that was more than a decade ago. The two most recent UK polls put the Nationalists in the vice, squeezed between Labour, the Liberals and the Tories. 

Despite BBC documentaries, asking why Scotland didn't vote for the Tories, in 2010 the SNP polled just 78,500 more votes nationally than David Cameron's party. Labour members were returned to Westminster with thumping majorities, but so were many Liberal Democrats in their enclaves. Take a few big names. Michael Moore won Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk with 45.5% of the vote, some 5,675 ahead of his nearest, Conservative competitor. Wee Danny Alexander took Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey with over 19,000 votes.

But what should disturb the attentive Nationalist more is how we far down the pecking order we fall - even in areas in which we are in contention for, and even win, in Holyrood elections.  The Scottish and UK parliamentary orders do not nearly graft onto one another. The constituency boundaries have, in many cases, diverged. But a few examples from the Liberal Democratic periphery should hammer home the point. Take Danny Alexander, up in the Highlands. The Liberal Democrats may have won the day with 40% of the vote - but in 2010, his nearest competitor was not the SNP, but the Labour Party, who won 10,407 votes to the Nationalists' 8,803. The point is made even more brutally by considering the constituency in which I grew up: Argyll and Bute.

A Liberal seat throughout my childhood, represented by the late Ray Michie and now by the near-invisible Alan Reid, after a 1997 surge, the SNP actually came fourth in the constituency in 2001, 2005, and 2010, behind the Liberals, the Tories and Labour. Compare and contrast with the constituency's preferences in recent Holyrood elections. Lib Dem George Lyon was turfed out by the SNP's Jim Mather in 2007. Mike Russell held it in 2011 with over 50% of the vote. The divergence in voting behaviour is striking, and in general elections, not to our advantage. 

Are these challenges insuperable? Most certainly not. But they are formidable, and should be treated and understood as formidable. The Labour wipe-out promised by yesterday's poll is unlikely to appear. There are gains to be made, and constituencies to fight -- but matching or narrowly exceeding the party's all-time high of eleven seats in 1974 would be a great result. We shouldn't lose sight of that, and the low base - both in terms of votes and seats - from which we spring.

It is essential that the SNP begins to clamp down on the overrunning expectations of sweeping Labour from its Scottish constituencies and running the map after 2015. Take this morning's bad headlines for Ed Miliband, enjoy a partisan chortle, but don't believe the hype. There's a gathering risk here of mismanaging expectations to the extent that even a good result for the SNP in the general election looks like a failure, or worse, a public reckoning for Nationalist hubris.

That's not a story Nicola will want to foster at this early stage in her leadership. We should learn the lesson of the over-spun local election campaign in Glasgow in 2012. While the leadership was telling the press that Labour's grip on the city looked precarious, on the ground, Labour were working like mad - in the last ditch - and the Nationalist campaign never had the same level of resources, focus, or enthusiasm. The results speak for themselves. Labour retained its majority in the city chambers, and justly gloated about the over-inflated expectations which had been stoked up. "SNP juggernaut grinds to halt." Etcetera, etcetera. We saw similar missteps in managing expectations in the 2008 Glenrothes by-election. It is a temptation which must be resisted going into 2015 too. 

Keep the heid. Consider the data. Ca' canny.

30 October 2014

Murphy expects: Ritual disembowelment?


Just a short and grubby blog today. With the news that Jim Murphy intends to enter the Scottish Labour leadership fray comes the intelligence that, according to the Guardian:
"Some senior colleagues believe that a Labour MSP who plans to retire in May 2016 from a safe Labour seat could be persuaded to stand down earlier and allow a byelection to take place on the same day as the general election in 2015."
Other newscasters are also reporting that Murphy himself seems to have raised the idea of a 2015 by-election in a Holyrood constituency in launching his campaign. The expection, presumably, that one of his more lumpen and loyal colleagues will helpfully commit political harakiri, sweeping the lugubrious Jim to Scottish office and allowing him to put questions to Nicola Sturgeon every Thursday going into the 2016 election. 

All I can say is: good luck with that one, Jim. Under Schedule 2 of the Scottish Parliamentary Pensions Act 2009, MSPs demitting office are entitled to substantial resettlement grants if they serve as sitting MSPs at parliament's dissolution but are not returned by the grateful electoral. And here's the nasty snag. If you demit office before your term as MSP is through, you forgo this payment. You "resettle" yourself through resignation, and must fend for yourself financially. Bill Walker won't have got a penny. 

And we're not talking about small beans, here. The rate of an MSP's grant is at least half their salary - and more if they've put in long service, where the formula is their years of service in the parliament divided by twelve and multiplied by 100. To pluck one example entirely at random, take Ken MacIntosh.

First elected in 1999, MacIntosh will have sat in Holyrood for 17 years by the end of the parliament's 2016 term. If the Eastwood MSP prostrated himself on Murphy's altar, and took one for the team, he'd be forgoing 141.6% of his annual MSP's salary in a generous payoff - about, what? - £80.000? Even the meanest Labour numpty, despatched to the Scottish Parliament accidentally in 2011, is entitled at least £29,000 - but only if they go into the 2016 Holyrood election still in office. What a wizard scheme. What noble sacrifice. 

So the question is this. Which Labour MSP is daft or loyal enough to let Jim Murphy pick their pocket of several thousand pounds for an early by-election?

Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his resettlement grant for his leader, as they say...

27 October 2014

Lost: Labour's love


I can understand those of you who feel a significant measure of cynicism about the Smith Commission process and its capacity to deliver meaningful new autonomy for Scottish institutions. I'm cultivating pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will. There are real gains to be secured here, but they will only be won by the deft application of political pressure, exploitation of our opponents' anxieties, and some cold-hearted lawyering.

It won't be an uplifting process. It can't really be participative. Given the tight timetable, the body is doomed to be dominated by the political parties, and in particular, by the aftermath of the Better Together coalition. That coalition is committed to delivering devosomething only, and nothing like the maximalist vision of autonomy articulated in the Scottish Government's submission to it.

The trick will be bridging that gap - to the advantage of the vision articulated by Nicola Sturgeon. The signs are not without promise on this score. The Vow stoked higher expectations, and seemed to suggest a commitment to more thoroughgoing change. The Tories have since characterised their proposals as a "floor not a ceiling." The Liberal Democrats have historically wanted to further than their allies, towards a federal Britain. Labour ... well, we'll come onto Labour in a minute.

These are green shoots, to be cultivated. But I can understand also why many folk approach that task without enthusiasm. The vernacular dominated many people's experiences of the referendum campaign. Folk got involved, felt emboldened. It was accessible, engaging, even exciting. Technical discussions about how Schedule 4 of the Scotland Act might be amended to extend Holyrood's social security authority while preserving Westminster's reserved prerogatives -- well, they light no bonfires in the soul.

The devolution debate can seem a colourless, lifeless thing by contrast to the lively days of late September. But the detail of what the Commission agrees will be of profound significance for how this country is governed, and what the Scottish Government and Parliament can and cannot do. If the case for independence was about achieving powers for a purpose, we cannot, credibly, be indifferent to an opportunity to redistribute those powers across the United Kingdom. If the case for self-government was rooted in a desire for greater self-government, we cannot treat an opportunity to achieve greater self-government like a sideshow. We may fail to secure what we want, but we cannot afford to be or to seem to be indifferent to the difficult questions which will animate Lord Smith and his fellow commissioners from the SNP, Labour, Green, Tory and Liberal Democrat parties.

If the wheeze is going to go anywhere, and achieve anything, it needs constructive suggestions from those of us who agitated in favour of independence before the 18th of September.  To that end, and with my academic hat on, today I sent this submission to Lord Smith, focussing on two areas which have already been highlighted on the blog: (a) securing greater autonomy for Holyrood in the field of social security and (b) giving permanent recognition in the Scotland Bill to the basic democratic principles, expressed in the referendum process, and accepted by the UK government.

This submission focuses more on the doable than the desirable, and offers a few detailed ideas about how these proposals could be realised in a new Scotland Bill. I caution you now. It isn't interesting, or uplifting. Ian Smart was complimentary earlier, in describing it as "very boring and very interesting at the same time." I hope so. It is practical-minded, narrow, focussed. There is no great rhetoric in it, or a smouldering first-principles case for maximum autonomy. The Scottish Government has already made that case effectively. Hopefully these more limited, and more achievable plans, can contribute usefully towards the discussion.

Heaven knows, the Commission could do with a helping hand. This weekend's developments shuffled another wild card into Lord Smith of Kelvin's deck. Behind the Brownite waffle, the "home rule" rhetoric and and the invocation of federalism, Labour are in a directionless mess. Nimble as ever, the party decided to submit their widely derided and watered-down proposals to the Commission entirely unamended last month. No updates, no restatement of more ambitious plans, zip.

While there are noises off, encouraging the party to embrace a more substantial platform of powers, it is far from clear who is calling the shots, or is to be persuaded, if Labour is to be coaxed into a bolder offer over the next thirty days. With the implosion of what might politely be described as Johann Lamont's "leadership" of the Scottish party, and the outbreak of internal factionalism, denials, turf wars and recrimination in Labour's ranks, it is far from clear who might be coordinating the party's response, or who is giving the party's two delegates to Smith - Iain Gray MSP and Gregg McClymont MP - their marching orders.  Nobody seems terrifically sure.

Labour hope to appoint a new leader by the 13th of December. The interregnum continues till then, under that hefty visionary and elder statesman, Anas Sarwar. On the current timetable, the Smith Commission hopes to cut a deal by the end of November: two weeks before the next chieftain takes over the stone bonnet and the flogging stool.

Perhaps the Eds hold the whip hand till then, as usual. Perhaps Sarwar. Perhaps any number of competing grey eminences, scheming for influence and power, behind the scenes, Will any of these people feel emboldened - or even entitled - to depart from or to elaborate on the party's lukewarm offer of last year? It is an open question. If the party looked vulnerable to stumbling blindly into a bear trap before Johann's ill-tempered departure, now without a leader, and without a plan, in their headless disarray, the pitch of the Labour Party's engagement with the Smith Commission is anybody's guess.

Will they retrench, stubborn and oppositional, clinging onto Westminster's welfare prerogatives for grim death? Will the nasty surprise of Lamont's departure focus minds on a more fundamental rethink? Can those of us advocating a more substantial level of autonomy be able to take advantage of their bewilderment, to railroad the reluctant?

There are everywhere snares and pitfalls -- and opportunities all too easily missed in the melee. I imagine it is difficult to focus on the detail of radical constitutional change when your footsoldiers are busy forming a circular firing squad. It is difficult to be strategic when your leadership decapitates itself, without even a credible puppet dauphin to plonk on the throne. Worse, in the very midst of a politically sensitive, time-pressured and internally fraught process. Every crisis is also an opportunity, as they say. But it remains to be seen which of Labour's warring tribes - the one keen on more devolution, the other deeply sceptical - owns that opportunity.

But Johann has lobbed a primed grenade - plop - straight into the septic tank. Take cover, comrades. The blowback won't be pretty.

26 October 2014

Angela Constance: "the SNP has to be large-hearted..."

And last but not least, after blogs from Keith Brown and Stewart Hosie earlier in the week, Angela Constance has composed this third and final peaty pitch for the SNP depute leadership position, on her ideas and vision for the party's post #indyref future. Here's what Angela has to say. For SNP members and interested observers both, I hope all three pieces have opened an interesting and constructive additional window into the three would-be deputies to Nicola Sturgeon. 

Much of the focus during the campaign to elect the SNP Depute Leader has been on how we should approach the 2015 election. I’m delighted to be offered this opportunity to explain my view more fully.

The first question to answer is: who is the ‘we’ in “how we should approach the 2015 election”?

For me this is fundamental. Politics in Scotland has been transformed from a minority sport, led by a small number of parties with, to varying degrees, centralised policy-making processes, to a mass participation sport, being driven forward by self-motivated, and until after the Referendum, largely unaffiliated people. 

Although many of those people have joined a political party in the aftermath, it would be a mistake for any of them to expect new members to simply fit into the style of politics they have traditionally pursued. These new members have been inspired by the Yes movement and its approach to politics and they are looking for a way to progress that movement. It would be a huge lost opportunity if, in welcoming these new members, the SNP did not change some of its practices to meet their aspirations.

So my vision of the SNP – my definition of ‘we’, if you like – is a mass membership party, which I intend to help mould into a mass participation party, whose conscience is the wider Yes movement.

The SNP must now think more in terms of leading a wider movement than monopolising it; it must consider the aspirations of a much wider community than it has previously. That wider Yes movement wants the co-operation and spirit of the Referendum campaign to be maintained. There is much to be considered for the longer term (seewww.angelafordeputy.scot for more) but in the immediate term, I believe the 2015 Westminster election gives us the perfect opportunity to do just that.

It would be very easy to be seduced by current UK poll subsamples showing the SNP comfortably ahead of Labour in Scotland. But we have been in a similar position many times in advance of Westminster elections. The Labour Party in Scotland excels at winning Westminster seats; their leadership travails demonstrate just how ruthlessly they pursue this; nothing, absolutely nothing, matters more to Labour than gaining power in London. If we do not somehow decouple the election in Scotland from the rest of the UK, our vote will be squeezed, as it always has been in the past, as the contest becomes a choice of which London party would be least worst in Government.

While I believe the SNP could win the popular vote in Scotland by ploughing a lone furrow, I have doubts that the margin of victory would result in any transformative shift in the relative number of MPs Labour and the SNP win. We have to think much more creatively.

By standing as part of a ‘Yes Alliance’ we will be making a bold statement that this election is not business as usual in Scotland. It will be a statement that this election is, for Scotland, about something greater than party politics and who forms a London Government. It gives a platform upon which the decoupling of the elections in Scotland and the rest of the UK can occur.

While the term ‘Yes Alliance’ is firmly embedded in our consciousness it is not entirely helpful. It accurately describes the long-term, strategic objective of keeping the Yes movement together and sustaining what has been built in the last two years. But it also gives the impression that we are simply attempting a re-run of the Referendum and that perception will be used (and is already being used) as artillery against us.

This can be countered by arguing that the tactical objective of ‘Yes Alliance’ MPs will be to secure the best possible settlement from Westminster. After all, who should the Scottish people trust to deliver for them; Unionist MPs bound to their London Whips and therefore compromised when a coalition agreement with UKIP requires Scotland’s aspirations to be set aside? Or ‘Yes Alliance’ MPs, with no allegiance to any potential party of Government in London and therefore able under whatever circumstances arise to press Scotland’s case to the fullest.

But there should be no stepping off the gas in the fight for Independence. Firstly, of course, because that is our purpose. But secondly because we know that if there is no real prospect of Independence then there will be absolutely no motivation for Westminster to devolve anything to Holyrood. If we can articulate this case, which was proved beyond any doubt by the final panic-ridden days of the Referendum, then we will have established the platform to continue to present the case for Independence while also acting as guarantors of the vow made to Scotland.

But this needs to be done properly. If we stand divided we will fall. If we start divided, we won’t get to our feet in the first place. In my view, any candidate that stands as part of the ‘Yes Alliance’ must stand under the same banner. This means sacrificing the primacy of the SNP, Green, SSP or whatever other label on the ballot paper. In my view ‘Yes Alliance’ may be the wrong identity for that banner. This can wait for another day though; the important thing is to get the various parties and individuals making up the Yes movement to sign up in principal.

The SNP has a huge responsibility in creating this alliance. Being by far the largest partner, we have a duty to lead. But this should not be confused with a mandate to monopolise. All partners and their members must be involved in determining the practicalities of how this alliance will work, such as the selection of candidates. But what a great problem to have; ensuring the involvement of so many committed Independence supporters.

It is clear to me that Westminster, in the context of a Scottish Parliament, can never be more than a tactical tool for the Independence movement. And our tactic for next year must be to drive as much power as we can from Westminster to Holyrood.

To do that we must unseat as many Unionist MPs from Scotland as possible and replace them with MPs who will not compromise their aspirations for Scotland, regardless of what Government emerges.

To do that we must decouple the Scottish element of the 2015 election from the election in the rest of the UK and press the argument that only ‘Yes Alliance’ candidates can be trusted to deliver maximum powers to Scotland.

To do that we have to establish a completely different premise to the standard party politics which will dominate the debate south of the border and which, if we don’t, will drown out anything that happens in Scotland.

To do that we have to field a single slate of candidates, calling on all the talents of the Yes movement and representing all demographics as equitably as possible.

To do that we have to embrace the new political reality of post-Referendum Scotland; the SNP has to be large-hearted enough to put short-term, narrow party interest to the side for the sake of what is best for Scotland in the immediate term and what is best for our cause in the long term.

Angela Constance MSP

21 October 2014

Stewart Hosie: "Our New Scotland – The Next Step…"

Like many folk in the party, I remain undecided about which of the three candidates for Deputy Leader of the SNP I should support. How do their visions differ? What are they all about? Having a wee platform here, I thought I'd take the opportunity to ask all three to write me up to 1,000 words on the thinking behind their bids to replace Nicola Sturgeon. Newspapers only have so much space. On telly and on radio, one has next to no time to say anything at all. On blogs, we can afford to be a bit more leisurely and considered. On Monday, we heard from Transport Minister, Keith Brown MSP. Today, it is Dundee East MP, Stewart Hosie's turn, to make his pitch.

The Labour Party in Scotland is in meltdown.

That’s an unusual way to start an article, but as we approach the next challenge the SNP and the wider Independence movement faces - it is important - because that next challenge is the 2015 General Election.

This should not, in my view, be a re-run of the referendum. Instead it is the Scottish people’s opportunity to hold Westminster’s ‘feet to the fire’ and force them to fulfil their promises.

So remember what they told us. “We’re going to be, within a year or two, as close to a federal state as you can be.” (Gordon Brown, 14 August 2014). Which, sounds very similar to the pledge (or vow) made by the Prime Minister. “If we get a No vote …, that will trigger a major, unprecedented programme of devolution with additional powers for the Scottish Parliament.” (David Cameron, 15 September 2014)

But the proposals published so far by the UK parties neither meet the public demand for “devo-max” or the expectations raised during the referendum campaign. 

Their proposals would devolve barely 30% of Scotland’s revenue base, or to put that another way, less than half the funding requirements of the Scottish Parliament. These are not “extensive new powers”, that is not “federalism”. Rather those are extremely modest proposals and likely to disappoint not just the 1.6 million who voted Yes, but the large number of those who voted No in order to secure substantial new powers.

The only way to make unionism sit up and take heed – and to secure substantial new powers – is to elect the largest number of Independence supporting MPs to Westminster ever. While we may win seats from the Lib Dems, and they deserve to lose them, our primary opponents in most seats in Scotland are Labour. That is why their all too public collapse is important. That and the fact their devolution offering is even weaker than the Tories. So far, so self evident. The question is how do we win these seats?

In my view, it hinges on keeping the Yes Movement together to campaign for Independence supporting MPs and for more powers while at all times making the case for Independence. And in arguing for real maximum devolution (everything bar defence and foreign affairs), we would reach out not just to those who voted Yes, but 25% of those who voted No expecting substantial new powers for Scotland

I am certain that the best way to make sure Westminster delivers will be to return the largest ever number of Independence supporting MPs to Westminster. I’m equally certain that many of the wonderful, talented people who emerged through the Independence campaign will contest the next election. But The SNP will be the engine of the campaign and with over 80,000 members it will be a turbo charged one. However, the wider Independence movement can provide further fuel and momentum to that campaign. 

In practice that means looking at ways of working beyond party interests to maximise the participation of those who campaigned and voted for a better Scotland by offering them an opportunity to campaign and vote again for change at next year’s General Election. I have no doubt that the SNP can and will send the largest ever number of SNP MPs to Westminster at next year’s general election, but if we build a Yes Alliance, there is an opportunity to do even more than that.

What is clear is that whether we campaign on a joint platform of maximum powers for Scotland, or select candidates from the range of hugely talented people who emerged through the referendum campaign, the SNP should show the same willingness to work with individuals and organisations to make sure the largest number of Independence supporting MPs is delivered to Westminster next May. 

By turning the strong desire for change into votes for change next year the Scottish people can sweep aside the vested interests of the Westminster old guard. This will deliver the best chance of substantial new powers for Scotland.

It is for agreement as to how formal or informal such cooperation would be, but what a powerful alliance we could deliver to stand up for Scotland. Of course any broad campaign will require approval from not just the SNP but many of the other parties and organisations involved in Yes but it is important that we begin build that alliance now to deliver for Scotland.

2015 is just the next step for Scotland. There will be many, many miles to walk to Independence after that. But it is an important step in a very important year. I believe I have the skills and experience to help offer some leadership over this period, which is why I have put myself forward as a candidate for Depute Leader of the SNP.

All the hopes and dreams we have for a richer, fairer, greener, more socially just society need Scotland’s people to take the next step and demand more powers. Let’s make sure the Independence Movement is united and sure-footed as we campaign, together, to take this most important next step.

Stewart Hosie MP

20 October 2014

Keith Brown: "Stands Scotland where it did?"


Today, I bring you the first in what I hope will be a series of guest posts from the three contenders to replace Nicola Sturgeon as Deputy Leader of the SNP. I'm open minded about that contest, and persuadable, so wanted to provide an open platform to each of the candidates to articulate their visions and set out their values. First up, Keith Brown MSP makes his case....

L'Ecosse est-elle restée fidèle à elle-même?

Well, you can't start a guest post on Lallands Peat Worrier without a spot of French, can you? Stands Scotland where it did?

Scotland did not die; we did not collapse in September and we did not lift ourselves above the ordinary and soar in the clouds of independence. We stood, instead, in the full glare of the world spotlight and decided 'not yet'. They turned the spotlight off and we looked to ourselves again and defied explanation. The Yes campaign, defeated, gathered its strength and got back to its feet within hours. 

In days the membership of the independence parties rose exponentially, the Greens reaching 6,000, the SNP surpassing 80,000. Post referendum Yes demonstrations collected food for those less fortunate, showing the solidarity and social communion that elevated the Yes campaign. We're told we should accept the result, revel in the record electoral registration and marvel at the 85% turnout. Alternatively, we're told that the 45% should fight again, that the 55% were lied to and believed it, and that one last push takes us where we need to go.

I don't hang my coat on either side of that argument, I've got more hope and more ambition for my country than that - tempered with a bit of realism. We watched our country rise to the biggest democratic challenge that any nation can face and our achievement was not the registration or the turnout, and it was neither the 45% nor the 55%. We showed that political debate could be better than the skinking fare that jaups in Westminster luggies; we showed that political debate - the biggest political debate - could be conducted well and with good humour for the most part. 

We showed that the people can own the debate, that they can claim it as their own and that politicians can be and must be a part of the people's debate rather than thinking that they can rule without consent and participation, that somehow they are above the people. Scotland showed that politics can, in that time honoured phrase, be of the people, for the people and by the people. 

That is our achievement; we have raised politics to the level of the people and the greatest failure we could ever have is to let it fall back and become, once again, a playground for the rich, the ignorant and the uncaring. Westminster retains the right to govern, for now, but it cannot dictate how Scotland does politics. Indeed, it the task of all of us, to make sure it doesn't. Survival of the fittest may be how evolution works but society should aspire to something better.

We don't do that by fixating on the past, we do that by inventing the future. We have to look at what we can do now, argue in the Smith Commission for the powers to do what we need to do in the near future, and keep agitating for independence. So we have to prioritise and plan and keep dreaming. We have to be realistic about what we can do but never settle for thinking that it's all that should be done or all we can ever do. Let's keep lifting our eyes so we can see further, make sure we always believe in the strength of people and their imagination, and make sure we trust each other. We need government brave enough to dream and smart enough to face reality, a party hard enough to stand up in the face of the storm and flexible enough to change in the face of changing facts, and a movement still imagining a better future but working for a better present.

So while we dream of eliminating poverty and the need for food banks; while we work to improve education and campaign to get rid of nuclear weapons, what else falls to us to do? Scotland faces debilitating welfare cuts, indifferent economic management and an assault on human rights by the UK Government - including the undercutting of equalities legislation. and a Westminster elite, acting with unfamiliar alacrity to demonstrate that it has 'done Scotland'. Business as usual means looking forward to tax and welfare violence from the UK Government

We've seen John Swinney move to ease the pain of the Bedroom Tax - he can't change the benefits system, though, and that's the problem. We can spend Scottish Government money on one chase after another but there will come a time when we can't. At some point we have to start asking what else we cut to keep mending the wounds caused by Westminster - health? Education? Local Government? 

If we don't control the benefits system we can't change how they work and if we don't control tax we can't find the money to control the benefits system. We need to be able to control both systems just to get some sense of decency back. We don't have those powers now and the chances of the Smith Commission delivering them are fairly low; we'll need independence for that.

We need to be able to get people off of benefits, too - by creating jobs. Bringing forward the capital investment programme brought jobs to our communities but while we're constricted by Westminster rules on borrowing and spending that's a limited bounty. If we can't change the rules around employment we can't make a real difference to job creation, though; that needs independence.

Equality legislation suffers the same problems - someone will be saying that we can't have different laws governing equality here than in the rest of the UK. There won't be any rationale offered for that - just an assertion - but it will be taken to be true. There's no real reason at all why Scotland can't have control of equality, of basic human rights, but it will be 'too difficult' to manage or deliver. The real reason will be that it's too hard for Westminster to let go of anything they hold - any power they have they will seek to keep.

If you want an example of how there is a disconnect between Scotland's powers and the powers we need there's a perfect example in a decision I had to make recently. I'm Transport Minister and had to award the Scotrail franchise; I could award the contract to a public sector company but not a Scottish public sector company - it's illegal for us to own our own railway service. We've got some power over the railway provision but not all of it. I think that the deal I managed to get shows that we do what we can with what we have to get Scotland the best deal possible but the fact that we can't set the basic terms for making the deal points to the real flaw of devolution - you may appear to have power but if someone else has control over the framework you have no real power.

So we'll continue to work with the powers we have and we'll argue in the Smith Commission for the additional powers we need to improve the lives of Scots across the board but we cannot let it lie there. Devolution is the management of power, not the possession of it and that is simply not good enough for Scotland - it never has been. We have to reinvigorate the SNP and the larger campaign that the SNP is part of; we have to be part of a society that refuses to allow the poor to starve and stands up for all of our fellow citizens; we have to be part of a movement that refuses to lie down and allow nuclear weapons to be housed in our waters.

We have to govern well with the best interests of Scotland at heart and that means looking outwards and finding ways to improve the services we offer, we must never be content with how our NHS works, or our education system, or our Justice system. There will always be something that can be done to improve them and we have to look for that; in our newly expanded party membership there will be people who have expertise in all kinds of different areas and we should tap into that and the connections that they have. 

Our policy-making should be owned by our members and I want to give it back with regional policy forums, an online policy discussion site, regular National Assemblies and more open policy formulation. We have to have confidence in our members and in our activists and they have to have confidence in what they're doing. I want to set up training sessions and provide support material for our organisers, activists and local office-bearers. We have to build a party that is connected to every aspect of Scots society and reaches out internationally and that takes work.

Never again should Westminster feel that it can take Scotland for granted, either; we have to continue to agitate for more power to be devolved but we'll also have to continue to campaign to rid our country of nuclear weapons, to have our voice heard internationally, to encourage, social justice, fairness and equality. Independence remains the goal, remains the one major change which will give us the tools to really improve Scotland, and we have to keep working towards it.

Independence will come when the people of Scotland say it does and a new referendum will be called when the time is right because a referendum is the only way in which we can be sure that the people are with us in making that change. In the meantime we have to keep on persuading people, we have to speak to the 55% who said No, find out why they weren't persuaded and work to change their minds. We have to keep making the case for independence, keep campaigning to make Scotland a better nation, and keep working as if we live in the early days of that better nation.

Govern well now, improve Scotland as we can, but reach for the stars. A beacon of hope and aspiration shone across this land and it's our job to keep it lit; it's our duty to plan a better future and build a better present. I want to be a part of that and I can help organise towards it; that's why I want to be Depute Leader of the SNP - our task is not yet done - and I hope you'll join me on that journey.

Keith Brown MSP

19 October 2014

Scottish Labour: in the beartrap?

A question of low, cynical politics: what happens to the Smith Commission on enhanced devolution if and when Labour drags its feet? What do the Liberals and the Tories do? In Westminster's recent debate on English votes for English laws - oh, and #devosomething for Scotland - William Hague told the Commons:

"The enactment of what we are all talking about on Scottish devolution is of course after the general election. Draft legislation in January, a bill to be introduced whoever wins the general election in May. So that is to be enacted at the beginning of the next parliament. I believe that we can, the country can reach a decision."

A guileless reading of this comment suggests that the UK government is committed to "constructive cross-party working" - which is really to say, getting Labour onside with whatever the Smith Commission comes up with. The Greens and the SNP can go hang. The critical question is: who might hold the keys to Downing Street? The possibility - even the likelihood - of a hung parliament being elected in 2015 significantly complicates this question. But it also opens up opportunities for political mischief - if the coalition parties prove sufficiently Machiavellian and are willing to play fast and loose and ruggedly political with the constitution. 

There was a certain sinister grace to the way in which, after the referendum result, Cameron drew a dagger on the Labour Party. Osborne's fingerprints were all over it. The quid pro quo for enhanced Scottish autonomy? English votes for English laws. By hook or by crook, Labour looked buggered. Which of these unpalatable choices would sir prefer? 

If Labour ratted on additional autonomy for Scotland to save its Westminster skin, Miliband's 35% strategy would be bust by ructions in his Scottish heartlands. If not, and the party endorsed the idea of constricting the voting rights of its Scottish MPs, there is a real possibility of Labour being in government but not in power when it comes to the English domestic agenda of health, education and so on. Alternatively, as recent weeks have seen, Labour could choose to box itself in on the issue, stammering out unconvincing accounts of why their representatives from Glasgow should be allowed to impose their preferences on tuition fees and models of health service delivery on the English people. Quite the predicament.

Hague's conciliatory comments might suggest that Cameron's unanticipated backstab was a rare lapse in the consensual tone which will predominate in the discussion of more devolution for Scotland. I'm not so sure. If we take Hague seriously, then the Smith Commission would have to settle on whatever lowest common denominator the reluctant representatives of the People's Party are willing to agree. But what if Hague's comments are not the innocent, good faith commitment they seem, but a canny bit of expectations management, anticipating another blow of the stiletto to an unsuspecting Labour's soft underbelly?

If Labour's willingness to endorse additional autonomy for Holyrood falls significantly short of the level the Liberal Democrats and the Tories are willing to accept, they are presented with a clear political opportunity to sideline the Labour Party, to sow discord internally, and to imperil the base strategy which seems Miliband's best hope of seizing back power. And with a general election pending, why not take it? Labour's submission to Lord Smith goes no further than their Devolution Commission. Complacent as ever, Labour's scheme seems to be to huddle behind the guarantee that the Commission is a cross-party process, sheltering the party from its own lack of ambition, secure in the belief that they must be kept on side, come what may. This may prove a serious political misjudgment.

If I was a Tory, pondering the general election, I'd have mischief on my mind. At present, I'd be quietly cultivating the idea that this cross-party coalition would deliver. You've got to keep your options open, after all. It might come off. Perhaps the Labour negotiators will be willing and able to advance from their pre-referendum position, only too happy to use the escape hatch of the Smith Commission process to flee from and forget their bungling past plans for enhanced autonomy. But if Labour lives down to expectations, participating in a grudging spirit of mendicancy and paucity of ambition, there's a political bear trap ready to be sprung, and few reasons for the Tories and the Liberals not to spring it.

If the outward show is anything to go by, the governing voices in Labour seem to think a lowest common denominator deal will cut it. But what if the Tories and the Liberals take a different tack? What if, instead of scurrying to whatever squishy middle Labour is willing to occupy, they sideline the People's Party entirely, collapsing the all-party Smith Commission and endorsing a newer, more radical vision of Scottish autonomy which excludes Labour and denounces them for a nest of  useless fearties?

If this was to work politically, they'd have to make the collapse of the Smith Commission look like Labour's fault, and justify it on the grounds that Labour lacked ambition for Scotland. A summary survey of the newspapers this morning suggests that this is a story which many folk would be only too willing to accept and believe. You can imagine David Cameron's speech, delivered in Edinburgh, more in sorrow than in anger, gleefully appropriating Labour's devolution vocabulary and giving them another dose of Osborne's dagger:

"We entered this process in good faith. As the record shows, we always hoped and believed that a common sense deal could be struck which would reflect the aspirations of the Scottish people, and which all of us, every UK political party, could endorse. I made a solemn vow. I promised the Scottish people that we'd get this done, and I will keep faith with them.  
It would be a dereliction of duty on my part, to allow the Labour Party's lack of ambition and vision to stand in the way of honouring our promises to the Scottish people.   
It is with some regret, therefore, that I today announce that it has not been possible to include the Labour Party in our radical plans for Scottish Home Rule. We want to see a powerhouse Scottish Parliament, responsible for what she earns, able to take big decisions about public services and welfare. Labour, by contrast, want a second-rate assembly with powers not fit for Scotland's place in the United Kingdom in the 21st century. That is not acceptable to us, and I believe, is not acceptable to Scotland. 
At every turn, Labour as blocked good ideas for Scotland, and good ideas for the United Kingdom. Because of their lack of vision, and their lack of faith in the Scottish people's capacity for greater self-government within the United Kingdom, we had to leave them behind. Scotland and Britain expect more than this discredited, clapped-out Labour Party is able or willing to offer them. 
But we are not disheartened. Our plans go further, are bolder. We are ambitious for Scotland, and for the United Kingdom. And if we are re-elected in 2015, we will give Scotland the powers she needs. Part of this country, but able to set her own priorities. Part of Britain, but with real home rule." 

Cue hilarious turmoil in Labour's back yard in Scotland, as the "party of devolution" is well and truly trolled. Do the Tories stand directly to benefit in terms of additional seats and MPs? Probably not. But Labour's campaign in Scotland in 2015 is already shaping up to face formidable difficulties. Things don't have to go calamitously badly for Ed Miliband in Scotland to put his position in Westminster at risk.

If Labour hopes to run the general election as a base strategy + alienated Liberal Democrats, anything the Tories can do to disrupt and imperil Labour's base of support looks worth doing. If they support the devolution schemes anyway, why not try to squeeze partisan political benefit from it and screw over your opponents at the same time? I know what I'd do.

If Labour prove reluctant and unambitious negotiators in the Smith process, there's obvious space for a counter-intuitive Tory strategy here, and a golden chance to fling a lit firecracker into the powder magazine of the Scottish Labour Party. Don't be shocked if they take it.