29 September 2014


An aftermath of scones. The butter pat monstered, jam jars emptied, coffees slurped and plates lightly speckled with crumbs and the odd stray sultana making a bid for freedom: two days before the referendum. 

The conversation around the table takes an earnest turn, as Agnes dabs her mouth daintily and Mary executes the backsliding currant with extreme prejudice.  They are, I'd guess, some kind of church party, a regular coffee morning, who have been demolishing scones together in these parts for more than a decade. Today, the conversation is all about the referendum, and like a great many of the older cohort of society, the tone is almost uniformly skeptical.

"Did you hear about that- about the social media?" (Quotation marks in the original.) "Oh aye," another blue riser adds, with the piteous attitude of the commiserating gossip, on hearing that Magrit from up the close has been struck down with alopecia. "Seems anybody who speaks up  - anyone who is voting No - gets shouted down." "Oh aye," the chorus goes up. The grey heads nod as one. "It's a disgrace," one adds with feeling, taking a sour pull at a cold coffee.

None are, you might hazard, mustard keen pioneers in the digital revolution.  I'm sure Agnes rustles up a cracking Victoria sponge, but I doubt she tweets her way vigorously through the Great British Bake Off (#GBBO), slating Paul Hollywood for being a pompous doughball who has confused the art of bashing up a decent enriched dough with brain surgery. But they all nod gravely, uniform if unempirical in their sense that the referendum is an altogether disagreeable process, producing monsters.

"Did you see them up there? Last weekend. They were all out, up there."  "Oh, aye. I saw that, aye."  A reference to the corner of Queen's Park in the Southside, which over the course of the weekend had sprouted a clutch of cheery and unself-conscious Yes-voters, with kids and dogs and flags and fiddles. The church circle didn't really approve. "What were they up to, anyway?" 

"I just walked by," one adds, with glorious sangfroid. I'm sure she toddled past, unnoticed, with majestic disdain. From the firm set of her upper lip, and the fizz of pride with which she related her great cold march by, she clearly felt it was some kind of triumph for personal dignity over the mob. "They were in town and all. George Square," another chips in. More nods of quiet disapproval. Though none of the ladies quite said it, the unspoken phrase making a scene hovered about these overheard remarks.

As it happened, I'd spent about 20 civilised minutes the previous day talking to one of these church ladies, and clearly hadn't prospered. She was anxious about Romanians, liked Poles, but went in fear of the Tories and felt exhausted by the Labour Party. She gave us a fair crack of the whip, but I dare say she voted No along with her coffee circle.

More than ever, I'm confirmed in the thought that the referendum has revealed - in a generationally differentiated way - a Scottish discomfort with public political disagreement and a more overtly expressive and visible approach to the performance of politics. Some time ago, I questioned that familiar but "hackneyed account of Scotland sees us as a belligerent, in-your-face nation, at home in a habitat of conflict. A flyting tribe of impatient Groundskeeper Willies, bubbling over with antipathies, irreverent, thrawn and not feart to fall into controversy." The referendum result blows this fond thought to bits. There was something to the silent majority.

Older folk will have voted No for a number of reasons, but if my coffee morning was anything to go by, the aesthetics of politics, and generational differences, may have played a significant part in that.  It is all a bit late now. But it is a little referendum crumb, a tiny window into the part of Scottish society who most decisively rejected the idea of self-government.  While those in George Square felt galvanised, full of energy, comradely and celebratory - these ladies surveyed these uncharacteristically lively displays of politics -- and found it disturbing.

They didn't see the "carnival of democracy" warmer spirits have identified, but the unfamiliar, disagreeable outburst of symbols, activity, declarations, politics in the public realm. I'm sure they hadn't the nearest foggiest clue what was or was not happening online, and happens everywhere where folk with strong opinions have access to a keyboard and the internet - but they felt quietly besieged in Scotland by an alien and unwelcome approach to politics.

For them, Jim Murphy's egg was emblematic of a much deeper, more shapeless sense of unease about the whole process, the enthusiasm, the vitality. The bottom line: they didn't like it. Didn't like the occupation of public space. Didn't like the big, overwhelmingly ruly Yes assemblies. Didn't like the flags and the badges and the signs. Didn't like a politics that wasn't quiet, and orderly, and unenthused, and conducted discreetly only in the secure privacy of the voting booth.

They reminded me a bit of folk like Kenneth Roy, who in feebler moments seem to long for the 1950s and the happy days when the guid folk kept their heads down, and in quiet unison voted Labour for the Glasgow Corporation. Where you knew where you were, and the young folk had the decency to wear the plain flat browns and caps of their elders, and not cut up rough. 

As a youngish man, still clinging to the edges of his youth, this strikes me as the gloomy, unambitious politics of nostalgia. I don't doubt it is sincere. It was certainly conclusive. The church party felt it keenly over the wreckages of their scones and voted according to their own lights. But it is the politics of managed decline, a politics of the kirk minister and the Sunday Post, a colourless politics of conformity, and apathy and deference, which relegates the political to the private sphere, fenced in from ordinary life, unsympathetic, unambitious -- and deeply, deeply uninspiring.

28 September 2014

Red lines

It is time for clear, and perhaps counter-intuitive, constitutional thinking. The SNP have nominated John Swinney and Linda Fabiani to the Smith process to hammer out the post-referendum devosomething deal with the Tories, Liberals, and Labour Party. They'll have to apply themselves to a broad gamut of legal and political issues. Much of that conversation will focus, inevitably, on the distribution of competencies between Westminster and Holyrood around taxation and social security. 

Much of the debate hitherto has focussed on current UK taxation and welfare schemes. We've not been talking about new, potential approaches to tax and welfare very much, but who controls the schemes we already have. Who has the final say over housing benefit levels and entitlements? Who sets attendance allowance? Bartering over the specifics is important - but I wanted to flag up one key concession which (a) ought to be uncontroversial and (b) which, to my mind, the SNP team should treat as a red line in this negotiation: building more flexibility into the Scotland Act in the field of social security. The position as it stands is a wee bit tricky: brace yourself for the Law Bit.

The Scotland Act 1998: Holyrood's (very) limited say over social security

Head F of Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act makes a very broad reservation of powers to Westminster in the field of social security, with certain exceptions. Remember, the Scottish Parliament cannot legally pass legislation which "relates to a reserved matter". If Holyrood produced an Act of Parliament, purporting to abolish the Westminster legislation which consolidated social security entitlements into a universal credit, or to vary the rate of incapacity benefit paid in Scotland, it'd be no law at all, beyond Holyrood's "legislative competence," and struck down by the courts. And fair enough, to some extent, so long as core UK benefits remain centralised. 

But the social security restrictions written into the Scotland Act go much further than only preventing Holyrood meddling in Westminster's powers: it blocks the Scottish Parliament from introducing its own, distinct, social security schemes. Winning that flexibility is critical in the Smith process. 

Say the Scottish Government wanted to invest public money into a new welfare scheme to provide financial assistance to some sub-set of the public which they felt have fallen through the cracks of the UK system, or who they believe are getting an raw deal from the UK social security system. Say, for example, Scottish Ministers felt that disabled people should be entitled to an extra £2 a week - a supplementary Scottish disability rate - above and beyond the penurious incapacity benefit shelled out by the central government. Could it be done? As things stand, the answer is a resounding No.

Under the current devolution legislation, any such scheme, however desirable, would be illegal. We'd be toddling up the road to the Court of Session, only to be told that ye cannae do that, quick as you like. The Scottish Parliament can run its own prescriptions charging policy, and abolish university fees, but it isn't allowed either (1) to supplement centrally-devised levels of UK social security, or (2) to authorise new schemes of public spending for targeted welfare purposes, according to political priorities and perceptions of need. Why not? If the Scottish Parliament wants to use its limited budget in this way, what argument of principle if there to prevent them?

Why not give Holyrood greater flexibility in welfare?

In contrast with, for example, devolving incapacity benefit wholesale, introducing additional flexibility to add to but not to subtract from welfare spending in Scotland sits entirely comfortably alongside the Labour party's "pooling and sharing" conception of what the Union is for. You'd be entitled to the same UK minimum levels of social security in Carlisle and Carluke, but the Scottish Parliament would be able to identify and enact different spending priorities insofar as their budget allowed and their priorities dictated.

Such a scheme wouldn't undermine the social contract between workers north and south of the border, it wouldn't powderkeg the "sharing union" which so animates Labour's Devolution Commission report. It wouldn't represent a race to the bottom in welfare, but potentially, a mechanism to encourage fairer settlements in social security spending across the UK. What's not to like? If the Scottish Parliament wants to supplement levels of UK benefits, that could be disbursed using existing systems. If MSPs want to create a new scheme, they'd have to soak up the cost of its administration. Those are challenges, practical challenges, but hardly insuperable.

The only route I can see for Labour to object to this additional flexibility would be the jealous and thoroughly pointless insistence that such questions are for Westminster alone. But as Labour's own limited plans to devolve housing benefit and attendance allowance concede, social security schemes are not and should not only fall within the UK parliament's purview. The screws have already fallen out of that ramshackle argument. 

Critically, there are also some signs that this reform could carry the balance of opinion in the Smith process. The Conservative Strathclyde Commission half-recognised that the status quo of the Scotland Act was unnecessarily prescriptive in the welfare field, noting that the current:

"... strict reservation of social security schemes to Westminster is rather rigid. It may be that a better approach would be for the Scottish Parliament to have the power to supplement existing welfare benefits legislated for at the UK level. Everyone in the UK – wherever they live – should be entitled to at least the social security provided for in UK legislation at Westminster. But, if the Scottish Parliament were to take the view that, from its own resources, the UK entitlement should be supplemented in Scotland, it may be that Holyrood ought to be able to legislate accordingly." (pp. 16 - 17)

It's important to be vigilant about the gap separating (a) the Strathclyde Commission's limited endorsement of the idea of Holyrood  supplementing benefits and (b) giving Holyrood the more general green light to work up its own Scottish social security schemes, distinct from central UK welfare measures. Swinney and Fabiani should be agitating for both in the course of the debates presided over by Lord Smith of Kelvin.  

In practice, public spending restraint will clearly put a cap on how much good Holyrood would realistically be able to do with this new flexibility in the short to medium term - but that's a debate for the future. It is a question of governance, not policy. In principle, the case for greater Scottish welfare flexibility is unanswerable. As the SNP pulls together its constructive response to the post-referendum future, building on the lukewarm Strathclyde Commission recommendations, loosening the ties that bind here must be a major priority.

25 September 2014

The party of Scottish self-government

"Absolutely no one will run the affairs of this country better than the people who live and work in Scotland." 

The words are Alex Salmond's, but the sentiment resonated throughout the Yes campaign. We lost on the 18th of September. Scotland will not be an independent country any time soon. But as we take stock, and the SNP doubles in size with inflocking new members, reassembling its leadership around Nicola Sturgeon, it seems to me that we should pin this statement to the wall in bold, bright letters. In black and gold, if you like.

"Absolutely no one will run the affairs of this country better than the people who live and work in Scotland." 

That cause endures. It is not a statement of principle for an independent state alone: it is the red blood of the argument for Scottish devolution within the United Kingdom. During the referendum, in proprietorial mode, the Labour Party would occasionally trot out the line that the SNP don't believe in devolution, keen to erect a wall of fire between aspirations for a separate Scottish sovereignty and the demand for greater autonomy within the United Kingdom. In one, very limited sense, they were right. Independence is, in some important respects, categorically different to devolution of power within a larger state. In international law, states are a distinct sort of entity. They do things which a region within a greater polity - forgive the term - cannot do. States sit at tables which Scotland will not now be invited to. That's beyond dispute.

But this pettifogger's distinction obscures more than it illuminates. The broader claim that seeking greater Scottish self-government has no connection to ideas of independence -- that's poppycock. Anybody who has been paying attention during the last two years cannot but have detected the overlapping logics of devolution and independence. The connecting tissue of the two arguments is a belief in greater self-determination. The difference, really, is one of degree. Certainly, full-fat home rule is different from the semi-skimmed version now available to us, but the idea that the pro-indy bod has nothing in common with the devo-thusiastic has the distinct ring of pish to it.

It is now up to the SNP to be the party of Scottish self-government, making the case for the greatest level of Scottish autonomy within the United Kingdom. Marco is absolutely right. Put all talk of future referendums from your mind. Give it a rest. That battle is over for the foreseeable future. We must win the peace declared by the two million people who voted to remain in Britain last Thursday.

We must be constructive but critical, ambitious but realistic, holding the covenanted people of the No campaign to their undertakings with ferocious tenacity. After the sapping ennui, the activity. We don't have the time to mope or to stand still. And we must take heart. In many respects, we remain in a remarkably strong position for a defeated campaign. And for this, we have the fretful temporising of our opponents to thank.

There are some times in negotiations when it pays to hold back and allow your opponents to show their hands. This isn't one of those times. The territory of aspiration for greater Scottish self-government, the gap between the promises of the Better Together parties and the impression they allowed to be cultivated, is up for the claiming -- but only if we're speedy. The initiative is there to be seized -- if we're quick. Will we get everything we want? Not a snowball's chance in hell. But better for the Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats to dance to our tune, than to wait for them to fluff the melody.

This commitment is not at odds with the logic of the Yes campaign, but simply its application to our new circumstances. The case for Scottish independence was not rooted in national identity, but in the virtues of national self-government. It was not a case from romantic feeling, but of practical concerns of democratic control of our affairs. It was an argument not for separateness, but for finding new, more satisfactory ways to work together in these islands to realise the political aspirations of the Scottish people. The people have chosen to continue that work within the United Kingdom, and they are never wrong.

That work may initially be contemplated by Nationalists with little enthusiasm, and with a good deal of pessimism about Westminster's willingness and capacity to transform itself. But this founding axiom - maximising Scottish self-government - can carry us through and structure our engagements with this process. It is even a moderately exciting thought. As Nicola recognised in her statement launching her leadership bid yesterday, we can be disappointed, but we must not be discouraged. There's no good in us hanging back, waiting to be foiled, bathing passively in the embalming fluid of low expectations, met.

Smooth equivocations to the contrary, in the dying days of the No campaign, its movers and shakers gave out the distinct impression that Scotland could expect significantly enhanced autonomy if independence was rejected. Devo-max. Devo-super-max. Real home rule. Almost federalism. Everything short of the key functions which the UK needs to exist. Much greater autonomy or an end to the Union, went up the cry.

On any register, this patter was calculated to leave the impression that there would be a significant advance on the proposals set out by the Tory, Liberal Democrat and Labour devolution commissions. Now that independence is safely defeated, the sleekit are attempting to reverse ferret, and to insist that these modest proposals were always the be all and the end all of their devo-something offers. 

That won't do. They know it won't do. Britannia, once again, finds herself between Scylla and Charybdis. Remarkably, the No parties have worked themselves into a position where they may well deliver on their plans for enhancing Holyrood's powers, but where they are more or less predestined to disappoint not just the Yes voting 45%, but the wider community who believe in "significantly enhanced" Scottish autonomy within the Union. As political achievements go, it is a beezer.  Mugged by the sea monster and kicked in the teeth by the scowling beast of the rocks. That's our opportunity. 

So, in these negotiations, let's use Gordon Brown's criterion. He told us that we could expect the maximum devolution compatible with continuing Union. Cameron and Miliband gave him the nod.  Let's take them at their word. In discussing the new settlement, the critical question cannot be "why should that power be devolved?" but "why should this power be reserved to Westminster?" Let's go through schedule 5 of the Scotland Act. Foreign affairs, currency, defence, imports and exports, immigration and extradition - sure, they must remain at the Westminster level. But misuse of drugs? Control of the Crown estate? Firearms? Elections? Equal opportunities? Elections? Insolvency? Energy? Embryology and the cutting edge of medical research? Are they the glue holding the state together? I struggle to see it.

Applying Brown's test, where no reasoned or compelling case can be made for a power's retention, going to the heart of the Union, the power should be devolved. That's our opening gambit. In some areas, the SNP has a snowball's chance in hell of achieving consensus. This, it should frankly be admitted, is the key limitation of the all-together-now structure set up under Robert Smith by the Prime Minister.

And to be franker, our key problems is the stubborn dunce in the room, wearing the big red jacket. What if the best consensus capable of being formed excludes the Labour Party? Which value do you privilege? Are we to proceed at the pace of the slowest student in the class? Must we dawdle as we wait for the Labour Party to recover any kind of ambition for Scotland or coherent idea of why it supports devolution? Will the parties formerly known as Better Together privilege their own coherence, and a united front, or aspire to the greatest level of self-government possible?

In the current atmosphere, it is difficult to say for sure. Smarter sorts in the Labour Party might regard it as a kind of relief: a rare opportunity to pry themselves from off the wretched hook they spiked themselves on with their pitiful and incoherent devolution plans. Nobody will even gloat about it.  But we owe it to ourselves, and all those across this country who voted for greater autonomy, to bash on, undiscouraged. 

Any process which involves the Labour Party will almost certainly not achieve anything like "extensive" new autonomy for Scotland in welfare and social security. Their instrumental case for the Union, and (largely unconvincing) disavowal of British nationalism sets Labour precisely at odds with any such devolution of power. That before we've factored in the universalising ambition behind Iain Duncan Smith's consolidated UK universal credit, which makes hiving off particular strands of social security particularly challenging. To my mind, the Strathclyde Commission proposals represents the minimum floor beneath which the Better Together parties cannot fall without ratting on their vows. But they must be encouraged to go further. 

The challenge for the Westminster parties is to explain to the Scottish people why, in the fields of tax, welfare and social matters, they're better placed to take these choices, to explain why the Union's life depends on excluding them from the Scottish Parliament's sway. But Scotland expects, vows have been uttered, and the SNP has a good answer: "Absolutely no one will run the affairs of this country better than the people who live and work in Scotland." 

Prove us wrong.

22 September 2014

Marco Biagi: "a chance to reflect and renew..."

In a break from normal peaty service, as we orientate ourselves out of the fug of melancholy towards a new and more purposeful direction, a guest post from SNP MSP, Marco Biagi, on the party's future direction, its opportunities and its challenges. 

An acquaintance on the SNP committee that decides the annual party conference agenda once assured me there was a branch in some unnamed part of Scotland who every year without fail submitted a resolution calling for all party policy to be deleted in favour of simply standing on a platform of independence.

It is an eccentric idea that has presumably filled many a recycling bin. What is the best model for the delivery of NHS community care? Independence. How do we decide the priorities in the education budget between further and higher education? Independence. Should the police be routinely armed? Independence. You can believe as I do that independence would be a tremendous benefit to Scotland and its governance, while still disagreeing with my views on all of these.

Being in a parliament requires a unifying philosophy; a set of principles that you can apply to whatever issues emerge and which provide guidance on how to address them. Broadly speaking it is that set of principles that determines votes. Votes are cast based not on hours of agonised examination bent over the intricate detail of manifestos but the impression of a party more generally. A serious party must rally around more than one issue, even if that one issue is as far-reaching a proposal as Scottish independence.

The Scottish Socialist Party and the fully paid-up worshippers at the altar of Ayn Rand over at the Wealthy Nation blog both support independence but beyond that agree only on how to spell it. The Greens also put forward a particular view of independence, with a republicanism, independent currency and petroscepticism that was a sharp contrast in particular to the SNP government’s resolutely social democratic White Paper. For the SNP there was a time and a place for ‘independence-nothing-else’, and it was the 1960s. Those days are past now.

It is no surprise that Yes parties disagree on how an independent Scotland should be governed. The No parties disagree on how a devolved Scotland should be governed. And the Yes parties disagree on how a devolved Scotland should be governed too. Often passionately. We are not the same, and we should not pretend to be.

Nor should we pretend to be anything but supporters of independence. Some parties defeated in the crucible of public opinion shed the policies they feel held them back. Like Labour in the Blair era they can lose the best of themselves. Independence is an idea that was presented not in the complicated morass of an election but sitting alone on a ballot paper. When those papers went into the box more were marked No than Yes. I voted Yes, but I recognise Scotland didn't. I wish Scotland had; I wish Scotland will.

We live in a Scottish political era however that will come to be defined by the referendum result. Like being stuck in quicksand, if the undoubtedly ongoing energy of the Yes movement is now used to flail against the reality of our situation we will sink still further. Insulting the 55% is a sure way of turning them into the 65% - or more. And calling the referendum rigged – as online petitions already do – is to invite comparisons to American ‘birthers’ who insist against all evidence that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is ineligible for the Presidency. Stop.

If instead we await an opportunity, one will come along. That doesn't mean ignoring the opportunity when it presents itself, nor failing to prepare for that opportunity so we are ready when it comes. We must be as active in the years after the referendum as in the long years before it.

Lesley Riddoch and Robin McAlpine have both written very eloquently of ways to harness and perpetuate the movement. We need to create networks, build institutions, establish forums and above all continue to dare to dream. All of this extra-parliamentary energy is exciting and inspiring. It will help keep the national question alive. It may well mean the result is different next time.

The Yes movement can therefore – perhaps already does and still will – fill the role that that obscure branch of the SNP wanted the party to play. But in the SNP to function we also have to be the proponents of a particular worldview, able to sketch what an independent Scotland should look like. Those of us in the SNP with seats in Parliament still have the NHS, education, policing and the rest to govern. Any who take seats at Westminster in May will have to do likewise for reserved areas. Such a view can inform and guide the decisions we take with the limited powers we have, as well as giving the public a clear idea of what we are. The alternative to having a worldview is simply to bend back and forward in the breeze of expediency.

In the later stages of the Yes campaign there was an atmosphere I've never felt before. Perhaps it was just the haze of the unseasonably warm air but in the final week Edinburgh seemed almost Mediterranean in its political enthusiasm. Ashcroft polling suggests two undecideds were going for Yes to every one that went for No in the referendum’s closing stages. The message had by then even at its most mainstream transformed into one that was wider than the constitution – Yes became more compassionate, more proudly anti-establishment and more unapologetically visionary than the standard fare of contemporary election campaigns. Unified though we were by independence, what almost brought Scotland over were the wider ideals of what that independence offered.

It was genuinely exciting. Today the SNP is not the same party we were before September 18th. Our founding principle did not carry the day, but we were at the heart of a campaign like nothing before. In the days afterward our membership has expanded beyond all recognition and is now larger than all three No parties combined. We now have a leadership election that will be a coronation of a single outstanding candidate, but that still affords us a chance to reflect and renew, and be sure we embody those wider, inspirational ideals. We must now bring them to Holyrood and to Westminster.

19 September 2014

Under the low sky

The wiser angels of my nature counselled against blogging today. Like a great many folk in the country this morning, I find myself slurped into an overwhelming mire of despondency and disappointment by last night's result. Intellectually, I can celebrate the remarkable franchise which the Scottish people exercised yesterday. The people are never wrong, and by Christ, they did our democracy proud, turning out in their droves, to make their decision. 

But my soul smarts today. The atmosphere here feels heavy. Glasgow has pulled on a coat of cloud, and under that sunless, airless atmosphere, folk toddle on, with clay feet. Today, it feels like we're living under a low sky. You share knowing, desolate smiles to break the heart. Walk slowly. Take heavy breaths. Order another pint. As I type, the bar's attention is fixed on Alex Salmond's resignation on rolling news. Nobody cheers, but almost everybody watches.

I thought I was reconciled to the outcome. I was wrong. For the last couple of days, my hunch has been that we'd lose, and lose bigger than the final polls predicted. So it proved. When the first Clackmannanshire vote came in, it was like opening a coffin lid. I'd been sceptical for some time about our chances of carrying the day, or coming close, till that final, remarkable couple of weeks. It seemed to me that this referendum was to some extent a premature, unexpected confrontation between Scottish nationalism and its long-kindled ambitions. But to lose was -- ghastly, and the superficial lessons bleak.

The campaign for Scottish independence was, without question, optimistic, but it was premised on an essential pessimism about the United Kingdom, how it is governed, and its susceptibility to radical change. Scotland having voted against independence, and voted against self-government, we're forced to confront that pessimism. Or, I suppose, gloomily to abandon ourselves to it. That can't be right. Nor can it be right to snark and smoulder too long at our fellow citizens for the choices they have made. The deed is done. 

A measure of frustration with the decisions of our friends, family and neighbours is understandable, and would have been understandable whatever the outcome yesterday. The "people have spoken, the bastards" is an understandable quip of the moment, a flash of feeling, but precisely the wrong spirit for tomorrow, and the day after that. I stand by the spirit of mutual understanding and consideration I expressed earlier in the week. To the victors, I'd commend the exercise of that empathy which I advocated on Monday. This is going to take us a little time. 

Scottish independence would, doubtless, have been complicated, but we're all of us going to have to contend with a different kind of complexity within the United Kingdom, to make the best of this, however much it grieves those of us who hoped for a different, and at least in some senses, more straightforward outcome. For the pessimists - for folk like me - reconciling oneself to that, to its straightjackets and obvious limitations, is not going to be straightforward. But we have it within us, and owe it to ourselves, to try our best. As Kevin Williamson wrote over at Bella this morning, trying your best is no bad thing, even or perhaps especially, if life doesn't work out quite how you hope.

Today isn't a day when longer perspectives come easily. I applaud anyone who finds it in themselves to be sanguine and composed. I don't. Not yet. But it'll come. In Glasgow today, all I can see is the low sky. Tomorrow, I hope to be able to pick out brighter specks against that gloomy background.  It'll come.

17 September 2014

Last Call...

Who now has anything new or useful left to say? Not me, I'm afraid. I envy those of you who have retained any kind of eloquence for a great last word before polling day. 

As the rejected aftermath of failed first drafts on my floor attests, it is a terrible temptation, making your last call on a campaign as long, complex, and multi-coloured as this, to write insufferably. Too pompous, too breathless, too conscious of the significance of your subject to really do it any kind of justice.

You sit there, and you think "And now, for the inspirational bit." And then you wait, you twiddle thumbs and slurp coffee, and consider an overwrought passage or a blank page. It isn't that there aren't rousing things to be said, both for Yes and No, but they've all been said. Today, I won't try to inspire or persuade you. Whatever you do on Thursday, do what you think best. 

After a week of frayed nerves and gathering hypertension, a calm, mulish resignation has set in. I'm reconciled to the result, come what may. For me, Thursday's vote comes down to this: responsibility, self-government, democracy. A sense that folk in Scotland can and should see themselves as active citizens, with a stake in politics, recognising the many deep-seated challenges which face us, but doing our best to try to change them, while preserving what is worthwhile. Other folk see things differently, and have faith about what we can still be achieved within the Union. I've always tried to respect that, while making the case for self-determination and self-government.

I am conscious that we will have experienced different campaigns. There's no straightforward story to tell about this collective experience. For some it has a good-natured pleasure and a welcome challenge, for others something harder, less instructive and less fulfilling.

Speaking only for my part, it has been a unremitting privilege. I've had great craic, have met splendid folk, thought a lot and learned a lot. I've made what I hope will prove lasting friendships on both sides of the question, been given surreal opportunities, and above all, a splendid subject to write about. What aspiring scribbler could hope for more? Yesterday, I turned 28 years of age. Tomorrow, I'll cast a vote for independence in a referendum which four generations of my family have been agitating for, and which I never thought, in my lifetime, I'd see. These have been interesting times, in the best of senses.

I wasn't happy with Monday's piece when I published it, but reading it back with a little distance, I came close to capturing my somewhat complex feelings in this final, fretful furlong. It is important to bear in mind common ground, empathy, and compassion in the coming hours and days. It remains important to keep the heid, to keep perspective, and not to let any stray, hard words touch you, wherever they emanate from. 

I've always been keen on Machiavelli's view that our liberties are best preserved by a noisy and self-assertive people, rather than a cowed and complaisant one. Ordered conflict isn't the death of politics, but its essence. Disagreement may superficially seem an unharmonic thing, but in order to have any kind of meaningful conversation, you must share an accepted, underlying code. It seems to me that for the great part, this country, which has long been a stranger to this kind of process, has done its best.

W H Auden's Musée des Beaux Arts is explicitly about suffering, tragedy, and its commonplaceness. It has kept popping into my head this week. In the Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the golden boy falls from the sky - plop - and the world trudges on, tilling fields, unpicking nets, in a half dwam. "The expensive delicate ship that must have seen something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on." 

Tomorrow is not a day of suffering or of tragedy, but for most, a day full of ordinary business and concerns. Off to work, dawdling in supermarket aisles, refilling the car, preparing dinner for the kids, nipping into the pub for a swift half on the way home. Some of us will stand outside polling stations, knocking up doors, making our cases in the campaign's final hours. And for a few minutes, in the nooks and corners of that ordinary day, using the simple technology of paper and pen, four million people will take a long-anticipated decision on Scotland's future.

It is the ordinariness and the extraordinariness of that, its "human position", which most strikes me today.

16 September 2014

Gramsci's dictum

This morning, the Herald come out against independence, arguing that a federated Britain, with greater Scottish autonomy, is the precondition for its endorsement of continuing Union. They conclude:
"Substantive autonomy for Scotland's parliament and government could unify Scotland. Such autonomy is not merely an aspiration: it is a demand."
In its critique of the Yes campaign, the paper notes that:
"Antonio Gramsci, the Italian philosopher and politician, famously advocated pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. The Yes campaign, understandably, has emphasised the latter but effectively ignored the former."
The newspaper's case is characteristically lucid, reflecting some of the ambivalences I was blogging about yesterday. But given the state of the Westminster debate on "more powers", and the precariousness of the editorial's own reasoning on this question, you've got to wonder whose intellect is insufficiently pessimistic. Cutting to the heart of it all, the paper today endorses a No vote on the basis that Scotland must secure a form of devolution which nobody is offering, and which nobody in UK politics has ever shown any willingness to part with. Now that's what I call optimism of the will.

Let's survey the evidence. Nobody, not a single political party in this country, is offering, has offered, or shows any coherent willingness to embrace the kind of reform the Herald say is the precondition of their backing for the Union. Labour, the Tories, the Liberal Democrats - every one has been given umpteen opportunities to realise a more extensive devolution. Between 2009 and 2012, the great grey federalist hope, Gordon Brown, and his Downing Street successor, knocked back almost every Scottish Government proposal to elaborate Holyrood's economic powers and authority over social security and welfare.

No crown estate revenues, no allocation of oil revenues, no corporation tax, limited income tax powers, no pensions, no minimum wage, no housing benefit, no jobseekers allowance, no disability benefits. Some borrowing powers and the ability to ban airguns is all very well, but it was hardly a radical endorsement of Scottish autonomy. These gentlemen were in high office. They had the parliamentary draftsmen at their beck and call, to deliver a bolder autonomy to Scotland. They were invited to do so. They declined. So what's changed in a couple of years? All three Westminster parties had their chance, had multiple chances, and at every turn, all three have chosen to cut minimalist deals, preserving Westminster's prerogatives, leaving the centre of British politics unreformed.  

Perhaps they've had a change of heart? If so, they've kept the news gey quiet. In the course of this campaign, all three parties scurried off to their libraries and redoubts and came back with platforms for greater devolution. But all produced platforms which are still more readily described by what they refuse to devolve to Holyrood than the powers Westminster is willing to part with.

Still bugger all in the way of welfare autonomy, and a still undisclosed, unagreed degree of flexibility in the collection of income tax. And that's more or less your lot. The Institute for Government produced this vividly illustrative chart, comparing the balance between devolved spending and devolved revenue control in all of the scenarios currently under discussion. The discrepancy between the parties' offers and maximalist devolution should be particularly noted.

And then there are the practical considerations. Even the family magazine of the Conservative establishment report that Cameron's unruly band of backbenchers aren't happy with the idea that their status quo has been "swept away" without so much as a by your leave, and can be expected to cut up rough.

The Labour Party's case for the union has, if anything, amplified their "one nation"  rhetoric, placing critical emphasis on the idea of British uniformity in social provision. Their instrumental case for a No vote is, in essence, having the same benefit entitlements in Carlisle as you do in Cumnock. Against that background, without junking a half decade of rhetoric and thinking, it is difficult to see how Labour could ever coherently endorse the "much greater fiscal devolution and powers of decision-making in areas such as welfare" which, in the Herald view, is the precondition for folk considering a No vote. 

Without a radical transformation of attitude for which there is no evidence, and with no detailed or categorical commitment in these panicked last weeks of the campaign, all the evidence suggests that both key parties in Westminster remain inveterately opposed to shelling out anything approaching the kind of autonomy the Herald demands. Minimum bribe level: one turnip. Vote No.

And it is apparently the Yes campaign which has failed to observe Gramsci's dictum? Fetch Sancho Panza and a mule: the naive federalists of the Herald, Guardian and the Scotsman have a few remaining windmills to tilt at. I can understand the frustration, the sense that a better Britain ought to be possible, capable of accommodating Scottish aspirations for greater autonomy.

But but for the nervous gestures, the manipulative and hollow trick of rechristening bloodless Calman-plus plans "devo-max", and hastily drawing up a timetable to realise these very, very limited new autonomies, none of this has any credibility. A federated United Kingdom is a plan without a constituency, without a committed political proponent, without any depth of support across much of Britain, running contrary to the declared instincts of politicians from both big London parties, faced with a dizzying array of rhubarbing and powerful dissenters on both the Labour and the Tory benches.

 Whur's yer pessimism of the intellect noo? 

15 September 2014

The faltering Old Music...

It is all getting a bit fraught. It was always going to, but you can feel it, the pot simmering as we get close. It has never been more important for folk on all sides to keep the heid, but also, perhaps, to remember a human faculty which has sometimes been neglected in this process and is most at risk in its dying days: empathy. 

Put away the caricaturist’s sketch. Don’t be tempted by the grand generalisation. Yes or No, win or lose, in the course of this campaign I've met countless good people of goodwill on both sides, explaining the world as best they understand it, balancing complex values, doing what they think best.

We've got to keep hold of that, as the temperature rises, and our perspective wobbles. If there is one lesson of the narrowing polls, it is that the boundaries between us are porous. This isn't a moment in which you're going to hear a lot of ambivalence articulated on the airwaves and on telly, but many of the folk I've met, out and about this weekend, embody this swithering sense precisely: even those who've made up their minds to vote Yes and No.

“The independence referendum: my journey into indecision.” The confessional has arguably become the characteristic genre of referendum literature as we hurtle down the slope towards Thursday’s final big decision. In a religious sense, confession is an opportunity to own up to your weaknesses. In Scottish politics, however, this superabundance of confessions characteristically explain unexpected conclusions, often reached by Damascene routes, often in convoluted archaeologies of self, unearthing surprising discoveries and ambivalent feelings. They have more in common with the psychiatrist’s couch than the cleric’s box. Most of these confessions are written with a certain sense of surprise about their contents. This appeals to me.

In the street last week, I bumped into an acquaintance, a lady from a working class background in Leeds who has, with considerable reluctance and surprise, finally hopped into the Yes column: someone who never imagined that she’d participate in a vote on Scottish self-determination, never mind endorsing it. In Glasgow, I encountered the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson, in newsboy’s jaikit, dishing out free copies of his magazine, calling on Scots to reject independence. The gaucheness and sincerity of the scene made me feel quite fond of him, despite our political differences. It’s a funny old referendum.

The poll, in a public sense, represents an attempt at a major conversation about public and political goods in Scotland and the UK. But for many folk, it has been a public process driving a personal dialogue – and private process of clarification – about their own feelings, commitments and priorities. If there is one lesson to be taken from the Guardian’s recent polling, the two campaigns have to a great extent talked past one another, peddling their preferred frames of political reference. 

For many, I know this has sometimes felt like hard, uncertain digger’s work, trowelling away in the murk, slowly clearing away the sediment, till you strike home hard on a point, till you snag on something solid. I’ve seen these processes at work in my own family, all Yessers, but the sense of conviction has undoubtedly intensified, as the day approaches. I’m reluctant to describe this as being radicalised, given the problematic freight that term now carries, but it represents a gradual and unexpected realisation about what your political priorities are and the intensity of your feelings about them. 

Clarified may be a better way of putting it. My friends have swithered. Like most folk’s friendship circles, there are sceptical folk inclined to vote Yes and No, hardened proponents and opponents of independence, whether on grounds of identity or politics or perceived economics. But the referendum process has undoubtedly focussed minds, the doing of it gradually illuminating what folk care about, and why.

Many have found themselves swayed towards independence, quietly, despite themselves, by the character of the campaign and the quality of its arguments. The No campaign and its new wave of advocates are still talking about Scots needing to “wake up”. They allege that the impulse to vote Yes is an expression of “anti-politics” rather than clear-sighted understanding, that it is rooted in a flip or childish reaction, rather than a well-considered conviction, born of political self-education, consciousness of the risks, challenges and opportunities of independence. That's not my experience.

And most of us are large enough to contain multitudes, to see some of the logic and feeling on the other side, and share in some of their ideas and affections. Massie gets this precisely right in his recent affirmation of his intention to vote against independence on the 18th, surprised by how much Britain means to him, moved by sentiments sloshing around, unclarified once, once undetected, suspected perhaps, but never brought out full out into the open – until now.

Yes, it is also about perceptions of risk and opportunities, political, economic and social, about doability and desirability. But without sounding too much like an economist, in reaching a decision, for most folk, it is about which compromise to strike. Yes, I feel a bit British, but how do I want to be governed? Is there any realistic chance of realising the politics I want to see within the current constitutional set up? Sure, the way the UK works at the moment is dismal, but I want to stay part of it, somehow. Shouldn’t we give it another chance? I don’t want to be governed by the Tories, but is an independent Scotland going to be able to pay its way? Which sets of values and concerns should I privilege, come the day? For some folk, one or other of these views with have a diamond hardness. Over the weekend, I met another old soldier who was a British patriot to his bootstraps, and not to be persuaded. I didn't try. But most folk I encounter see far more shades of grey.

It may be difficult to detect in Better Together’s final deluge of negativity, attempting to relitigate the tried and tested question of whether an independent Scotland is even viable economically, but this commonness gives me great hope for us after the millions of ballots are assembled and counted on the night of the 18th of September. Much has been made about the referendum’s divisive and polarising effects. Some folk, notably the Scottish Labour Party, have felt this more keenly than most. I'm sure it has been difficult for some. But for me, the lesson of the last few years is that most of us have much in common, but we divide sharply on the means by which these common concerns should be addressed.

Although we will make a binary choice on Thursday, it is an incomplete story. Much distinguishes the many folk endorsing independence both tepidly and enthusiastically, and much unites those who will find themselves voting Yes and No on the 18th of September. For me, to vote No is unthinkable, and as a consequence, in a funny way, only thinkable. Unlike many folk, over the last four years, I’ve made no real constitutional journey. Because my ballot was cast in principle long ago, and I’d never seriously consider voting against independence, this campaign has been an opportunity, more than anything else, to consider the boundaries of this conviction. To try to work out why, beyond the rhetoric and the sloganising, the slick cases and the accepted terminology, I feel like I must etch an X in the Yes box on Thursday. 

And here, my heresies begin. As I have written before on the blog, I have a weight of family inheritance on the independence question. My ancient old great-grandfather pulled our family into the SNP from the party’s origins. The loyalty stuck. My granny went to her grave with an SNP symbol on the order of service. But that’s an ambivalent inheritance, and by no means a binding one. The dead have no say in tomorrow, however honourable or sincere their political feelings were, however much we benefit from their forgotten agitation and effort. We must make our own choices, today.

Intellectually, I'm sympathetic to the achievement of a multi-national state. The old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, even the Union: the principle that folk with different identities can cooperate strikes me as an attractive one, and a principle perhaps worth preserving. Some folk on my side of the constitutional fence argue that the “natural” state of a nation is independence, as if the stitchwork of the United Kingdom was Dr Frankenstein’s work: I disagree. There is nothing natural or inevitable about nations, or the desirability of their independence. Yes, Britain is a muddle, but I'm yet to hear a persuasive indictment of that muddlement, which doesn't amount to a Jetsonist tendency to laud some vague "modernity" for Scotland. I can't endorse independence on that prospectus.

We build nations. They are socially constructed. I don’t mean that in the flippant way in which the phrase is often used – that nations are a delusion, an illusion which sensible people have no truck with – but in the sense that we build and sustain them through social action and cognition: they don’t spring from our flesh and blood. We imagine them into life, generating their boundaries, porous or otherwise. They can do good and bad things, and all have brighter and darker sides and potential.

Some folk on the No side have argued that Scottish nationalism is a unique pathology, pushing the country along the road to authoritarian government and heaven knows what. This too is codswallop, elegantly nailed by Fintan O’Toole last week. The Yes campaign is normal, in the narrow sense that it articulates a basic, respectable desire for self-government and responsibility, a desire rooted in an idea of democratic decision-making and political self-organisation. It respects the fact that political ideologies are important, and can (and perhaps ought to) diverge, and those divergence could and (perhaps) should be given institutional expression.

This insight is also the kernel of the 1980s Claim of Right. The Yes campaign may amplify its logic further than some proponents of Scottish devolution are comfortable with, but the arguments for independence are cognate with those agitating for greater powers for Scottish democratic institutions. Yes voters take them a stage further – no quibbles from me on that score – but they spring from a similar place in principle. Yet in this campaign, the Labour Party have, very unsystematically, been laying political powderkegs beneath their own increasingly incoherent thinking on devolution. Indeed, the party have been stoking up a rich store of political problems which will outlast the result, come what may next week, but it has been striking how vigorously its key proponents have junked and scorned thinking central to the devolution project.

In their rush to toss around damning epithets, the No campaign often miss out the positive potential of nationalism’s Janus faces, playing the lawyer’s trick of relabeling that positive dimension “British patriotism”, and sinking the potentially unattractive dimensions of British nationalism into the permafrost of the unconscious. I have friends who are thoroughgoing anti-nationalists who reject any political thinking premised on nationalist concepts. I respect the coherence of that. What I cannot respect, however, is the refusal to reckon with what has become the No campaign’s primary positive case for the Union – British nationalism.

Some folk will think that messy combination of identities is worth preserving. In some ways, it appeals to me too – though I’ve never really felt British, and like my Irish pals, seemed to get on fine during the many years I lived in England being a plain Scotsman from the already-near-abroad, without sharing Westminster government and all that entails. But disguising this British nationalism as a sort of internationalism-in-one-country lacks any credibility. It is a neat trick, to conflate the multi-stranded identity Massie articulates with internationalism, but it isn’t a convincing one. It tries to get out of the conceptual bind which anyone making nationalist arguments ought to face up to: all nationalisms are integrative and disintegrative, premised both on inclusion and an exclusion. That’s unavoidable. For the selective anti-nationalists, Britishness is only redemptive and civic, while Scot Nattery represents only the bum end of nationalist thinking. 

As the force has gone out of the Labour-dominated Better Together campaign's instrumental case for the Union, this is what we're left with: with talk of foreigners. For me, a vote for independence isn't a vote against complexity, but for a different kind of complexity. It isn't about separatism but finding new, more functional, more satisfactory ways to work together. It isn't about a hard, self-contained conception of sovereignty, but about refashioning those valuable bonds and ties between us, on a more equal footing.

I've come to realise that I support independence with some regrets. Part of me wishes Britain was reformable and rescueable, but I'm profoundly pessimistic. It is, no doubt, an overstatement to say that its capacity to reinvent itself is "spent", but the omens don't look good. A radical renovation of the UK from the inside would put me in a sticky place, but there are few serious indications that such a transformation is attainable or desired without independence.

While you can understand the longing lying behind the Guardian and Scotland on Sunday editorials against independence last week, they have an deep air of unreality, preferring the magic primrose path to candyfloss castle, to any serious engagement with the realistically attainable and the possible.  Federalism is not an idea whose time has come, but a proposition without advocates, without support, with shallow political roots in a moment of panic.

It was difficult to explain, to English friends in Oxford, that it was nothing personal – quite the opposite. Alex Massie is happy to have that inchoate, beguiling feeling of muddled togetherness trump concerns about how Scotland and the UK is governed, and which parts of our society it serves. I am not, but I can understand where he’s coming from. In voting Yes, and voting No, we’re striking a different compromise.

The porousness of the boundary between the two has both confused and put the fear of God up Westminster, but it shouldn’t be surprising to folk who’ve been paying attention to this process in recent years. The two choices aren’t a million miles apart, but the either/or nature of the poll doesn’t admit of such subtleties. In these last few days of this campaign, we shouldn’t be overwhelmed by that simplicity, and forget the wider commonalities of sentiment and aspiration which this referendum has identified.

I can’t in good conscience say that sacrifices won’t have to be made if we vote Yes (and by some folk more than others). Part of me will feel profoundly sad for folk like Chris Deerin, Adam Tomkins and other articulate proponents of Union, if Scotland does vote Yes next week. No legerdemain about Britain being a geographical concept can or should soften the initial blow. We Nationalists should at least reckon with, and recognise that.

The other day, when YouGov first reported a Yes lead, I was on the cusp of texting a Unionist pal telling him to “chin up” before realising how misplaced and odd that sentiment would be. The text went unset.  Yes, the idea of Britain isn’t exhausted by our shared political institutions, but nor is it entirely separable in the way some advocates of independence have suggested. The concept of the social union expresses an important and credible sense of how much we have in common with the other nations of Britain, and how little that is imperilled by independence.

But we need to reckon with the loss some of our citizens will feel. Nothing in that loss inhibits me for a moment, from urging folk to support independence for a better kind of democracy, winning the powers to tack our own course and set our own priorities, a responsible state and a politics capable of reflecting our ideals. The people will speak on that question, and have ample opportunity, if they wish, to strike a different compromise between their competing values. 

I never thought we would win this referendum. In my gloomier moments, I wondered if we’d even come close. Now and then, there have been flashes of optimism, as the No campaign let golden opportunities fly by, neglected critical lines of argument, even when the first clutch of Yes posters sprouted in windows across the south side of Glasgow. Silly, I know, but that visible sense of political comeradeship affords a wee lift. My pessimism throughout the campaign has been pretty overwhelming. To burst into the final, fretful week more or less eeksy-peaksy always struck me as improbable, yet here we are. We can do it. That's thrilling, and it is anxiety-pinching.

I’ve spent much of my life in institutions and environments, where support for Scottish independence was unthinkable, even ridiculous, a minority pursuit easily and unsympathetically caricatured. I know some folk on the No side are smarting right now, gripped by a sense of mortal dread. In that bewilderment, as the old certainties collapse, hard things will be said. Don't take them to heart. They're understandable.

But it isn’t our fault that the old music isn’t what it once was. It isn’t our fault that you’ve struggled to make the old sang shine, and all too frequently, can only remember a few attenuated bars. Nobody’s been stopping you from making that case; nobody has silenced you. You’ve clearly found your own authentic voice difficult to find, but that’s your problem, nor ours. I’m sorry you feel this way, but I tell you this: things aren’t as gloomy as you think they are, folk aren't nearly so far apart.

10 September 2014

Two European Futures

There are many strands of contemporary UK policy which are, in their own ways, dismaying. One of the more underexposed in the independence debate is the frequently irrational spirit of anxiety gripping Westminster and Fleet Street about all things European. At times, it has shades of a persecution complex. Underlined by Douglas Carswell's defection to UKIP from the Tories last week, it has an obvious and ongoing European Union manifestation, but also touches on European human rights norms, and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. 

These issues cannot be tucked away behind a safe little firewall from the constitutional debate in Scotland, to be considered at a later date. The No campaign has made much of the risks and uncertainties of an independent Scotland's EU accession. They have focussed not only on timeline and terms of an independent Scotland joining the other 28 member states: they couldn't resist overplaying their hand, recklessly drawing attention to their own weakest spot. Against almost all of the evidence and reasonable commentary, for months, Better Together have been stirring up the idea that Scotland would be pitched out of the EU into the north Atlantic cold. The game, it seems, continues with reports of their activists dishonestly telling Polish voters that their families would be uprooted if Scotland votes Yes next week.  

But a moment's consideration will tell you that this is a political boomerang for the No campaign, bedevilled by its own rich superabundance of risks and uncertainties about the United Kingdom's continued participation in the European Union and its legal recognition of your basic civil and political rights. In a piece for the Journal today - "Damned lies and bogus statistics..." -  I take a look at the facts and figures, lies and fictions, which currently dominate the UK airwaves and David Cameron's cabinet, on Britain's participation in these modest international schemes to provide some human rights remedy, some modest protection for your privacy rights, your liberty, your right to be free of torture, and not to be exposed to flagrant injustice or inhuman and degrading treatment.

It is a grim reminder of how precisely we are supposed to be Better Together. It isn't the whole story, certainly, but it is an important, urgent part of the wider UK picture. Amid the tempest of dross, there have been some wonderfully sensitive and nuanced pieces of writing in recent days from those who intend to vote No, with Chris Deerin and Alex Massie standing out for me, and I imagine, for others. I don't share their convictions on the constitution, or sense of British identity, but you can admire the graciousness of the prose and the evident thoughtfulness undergirding it. David Cameron asked a choice audience today not to "break his heart." That the campaign must have an emotional dimension always seemed to me entirely proper.

But we can't let these compelling night thoughts on the union sunset distract us from the real bother which a No vote drags us into, unavoidably. If we vote against independence on the 18th of September, there is every possibility that Scotland is going to crash out of the ECHR, on the basis of a fairy tale. And to adapt Tam Dalyell, we find ourselves set, by the raging fever gripping UK politics, on a motorway, with fewer and fewer turnoffs and exits, to a future outside of the European Union, whatever Scots might think either way.

Tossed into the steaming cauldron of the House of Commons, it makes for a potent combination: a witch's brew of misplaced anxieties, madcap delusions of victimhood, and an imperviousness to pretty simple facts. With independence and continuing union, there are opportunities and risks, costs and benefits. If you are inclined to weigh the stability of the status quo against the uncertainties of independence, put aside that misconception now. If you value the judicial protection of your fundamental rights, if you think that the European Convention represents a small, embattled achievement rather than the cartoonish abomination which the inner circle of Cameron's cabinet see, Scotland's place in the Union looks like the riskier option by far.  All you need do is vote yes to dispel the fairy tale.

Read the full piece here.

9 September 2014

Devo-Max? Devo-Won't..

As a lawyer, you get used to the plasticity of language and anxiety about definitions. What do we mean by that precisely? How are you using that term? They're always important questions, as there's always somebody trying to make the slipperiness of language work to their advantage. 

Yesterday, I argued that the tin-ear of the new wave of advocates for continuing union represents a potential problem for the No campaign. These nervous blow-ins don't know their audience, don't understand and haven't been following the referendum debate, and are likely to mis-pitch their arguments. Enter Boris Johnson, stage right, with a bizarre cri de coeur in the Telegraph yesterday, replete with disturbing "English rose complexion" digressions, to prove the point.  The Mayor of London's article isn't seriously pitched to persuade anyone of anything: it is just an anguished shriek.

But this morning, we see the other, rosier side of the complacent neglect of the referendum campaign for Better Together: the belated reappearance of the language of "devo max". Columnists and commentators across the UK airwaves and papers are tossing around the claim that if we vote against separation, "devo max" is to be our concession prize. Characteristically, few of the folk using this term hazard to define it, and most seem unaware of much of the detail of the diffuse Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat proposals for further devolution which has been percolating quietly for months through the debate north of the border.  Too quietly, perhaps, for Better Together to get much good out of them, but percolating none the less.

If they had attended to this detail, however, they'd soon recognise that Scotland is being offered nothing like the accepted definitions of "devo max". Professor Paul Cairney of the University of Stirling blew this conflation to bits months ago. Whether or not you think independence or further devolution is desirable, this is simply a statement of fact. It is time the UK media, trying to get their bearings, caught up and mastered the language. Take this definition, used by the What Scotland Thinks glossary, as being uncontroversial:

"This term has become short hand for the idea that the Scottish Parliament should become responsible for nearly all of Scotland’s domestic affairs, including taxation and welfare benefits, while foreign affairs and defence would remain the responsibility of the UK government."

Over-spun as a radical federalist break on Sunday, in fact, what seems to be on the table is simple a rushed, implausible timetable to realise the lowest common denominator consensus between the three Westminster parties for more powers. Short version: what we're being offered is the expedited chance to realise Labour's crap devolution proposals, and no real opportunity to improve them. Be still my throbbing pancreas. I'm yet to meet a Labour member willing seriously to defend the proposals of their party's botched, incoherent, nakedly partisan devolution commission. 

An up-not-down income tax policy which even its party leader cannot explain, unassailable resistance to any devolution of corporation tax, and no allocated share of oil revenues. Don't get me wrong: there are reasoned, reasonable arguments against devolving some of these issues, from a Labour standpoint, but the report, in its totality, was an unmitigated disaster precipitated by complacency, a lack of ambition, and tawdry internal compromise. Whatever this is, "devo max" it ain't.

But a critical thread running through the document, not always consistently, is the idea that shared social security systems, shared social and economic entitlements, is the glue holding the Union together. The unemployed or disabled person in Tayvallich and Tyneside can expect the same level of support from the state, whichever part of the UK they call home. Unless it upends its thinking entirely, and rats on a key pillar of its referendum rhetoric, Labour cannot support welfare devolution in any serious way. 

In his senior statesman bit yesterday, Gordon Brown put welfare first in his list of new powers which Holyrood might gain. But what precisely are Labour and the Tories proposing? How is the universal credit to be untangled? Start with an easy one. Unemployment benefit? Nope. Disability entitlements? No, not those either. Pensions? Don't be daft. Minimum wage? You must be kidding. Pool and share. Pool and share.

The greater welfare powers we're promised are ... well, is ... housing benefit. And inconveniently, that too has been folded into the universal credit project. We're assured that it can be pried out of Iain Duncan Smith's universal credit system, but nobody seems quite clear how. Oh, and attendance allowance. And that's it. Important decisions which touch many people's lives, without question, but if you think controlling housing benefit even begins to approach "devo max" as it has conventionally been understood, you've come up the Clyde in a banana boat.

8 September 2014

Tackety boot Unionism

“What Scots have got to realise is this isn’t a general election.” “This is one poll, but people in Scotland have to recognise that this is forever, the break up of Britain.” “I wonder if that’s really sunk in.” “I don’t think they’ve fully understood the implications of this.” Etcetera, etcetera. Over the last couple of days, the UK media has crackled with sentences of this kind as, as the Daily Mash put it, the UK media rouse themselves to the fact that “Scotland having some sort of referendum, apparently.” What a difference a poll makes. 

Cue a jungle column of political explorers, wending their way north from London, to prognosticate on the future of the Union and the chances of victory. In their train, we can also apparently expect a band of UK “heavyweights”, in the political patois, to press home the case against independence. Both enterprises, the commentary and the campaigning, are fraught with a kind of peril. On the media side, some pieces of writing have been much better than others. Folk like Paul Mason have shown a real interest and sensitivity to their subject. Others rather less so, like the pith-helmeted imperial anthropologists, who gain a superficial knowledge of their subjects, and trump off to pen the authoritative tome, shot through with their own problematic assumptions and cultural blind spots. 

The strange inarticulacy of the rash of tin-eared UK paper reviews and columns on Scotland tells its own story. Do you think, after three years, anybody with half a brain in this country is in danger of conflating the referendum with a general election? Do you think anybody earnestly considering putting their cross in the Yes box can’t countenance the idea that independence means independence? Why assume, on the basis of no real information on the poll, that for the Yes campaign to have run Better Together close means that the punters are nitwits who haven’t been applying themselves in a serious-minded, considered way to the range of alternatives, facts, arguments and uncertainties which have been presented to them? “I know nothing much about the referendum, but if you are inclined to vote Yes, you must have neglected the homework that I’ve… um… never done on the subject.” 

This is a reheated version of an auld sang we’ve heard many times before. Independence is bonkers and unthinkable, and if close to a majority of folk living in Scotland are willing to countenance it, they must either be in the grip of a childish and petulant “anti-politics sentiment”, have been beguiled by that mischievous peddler of villainy, Alex Salmond, or have failed really to understand what they’ve been asked. All of which might be more impressive, had the incredulous scribbler composing it shown any interest or sensitivity to the Scottish question these last many years, or a decent level of respect for the intelligence and responsibility of the public. 

Casting the Scottish electorate as ignorant saps is just another way of avoiding the interesting and significant implications of the referendum for the whole of the UK, whether Yes or No carry the day. It is an expression of a serious lack of self-reflection and self-analysis which has characterised the astonishing complacency and indifference with which the referendum has elicited in the circles of convention British power. In more prosaic terms, it also presents significant potential hazards for Better Together, in making their case in the final ten days of the campaign. I wrote this during the first big Union wobble of the campaign. If anything, it is truer this morning than it was back in May. 

Crumbling certainties confuse and they upset. And the No campaign across the UK doesn't have the luxury of much time to recalibrate its emotional and intellectual resources. The imaginative gap, alluded to by both Massie and Rifkind, separating the Westminster-dominated politics and the debate in Scotland, remains one of the Yes campaign's most significant structural advantages. 

The best advocates always understand their audience, its quirks and assumptions and reactions. They know which levers to pull, which switches to turn and which to leave well alone. Now and then, the talented amateur may get lucky, but it is a risky business. For the increasingly-anxious political actor, steeped in London-centric politics and hoping to have an impact on how Scots vote in September, the prevailing disunities within the UK make the job that much harder. For Better Together's supporters, they can but hope that none of their fretful, tinkering amateurs presses any big red buttons before September. 

The good news for the No campaign is that the United Kingdom has finally woken up to the Scottish problem: that’s also the bad news. In the wake of yesterday’s panic, many, many more people will be hovering around the big red buttons of the campaign, wanting "to do their bit," but deaf to the years and months of conversations and arguments which have gone before. 

If you can’t begin understand your opponent, can’t empathise with where they’re coming from, you are hobbled from the get-go. Tackety boot unionism is the last thing Better Together need at this stage of the campaign, but if the last few days are anything to go by, our late constitutional visitors and observers have few resources of experience to make an informed, sensitive case to an informed, sensitive public. Like yesterday's collapsing federalism shtick, the late renewed interest in Scotland is at best a mixed blessing for the No campaign, and potentially a whole new petard to be hoist by.