31 May 2013

Fulsome prison blues...

Is there any way for the SNP to backtrack on the issue of prisoner voting in the independence referendum, and save face? In this weekend's Observer, Kevin McKenna laid into the Scottish Government's proposals to disenfranchise those in jail, arguing that "if there's any justice, prisoners must get the vote" in the referendum. McKenna's interpretation is that Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP are just feart of the tabloid blowback. Left to their own devices, he suggests, they'd extend the franchise those convicted and behind bars.

"The nationalists want the rest of us to overcome our fear of the unknown and help them to create a better and more just society in an independent Scotland. Yet by denying this basic human right to Scotland's prisoners, they are petrified of backing their own instincts. That makes them both dishonest and craven.  Winston Churchill, as home secretary, said: "The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the unfailing tests of the civilisation of a country." One hundred and three years later, his words are convicting Nicola Sturgeon and her scared party."

But is this credible, that the party (or at least its leadership) isn't really agin the notion of incarcerated folk exercising the franchise? A trawl through the official record of parliament and the press indicates that Sturgeon has been circumspect about commenting on the issue, and ferreting around surfaces nothing from her past record.  In her contribution to the parliamentary debate earlier this month, however, Sturgeon staked out a categorical opposition to prisoner voting in all circumstances, saying "personally, I do not believe that prisoners should have the right to vote in elections". 

"On principle, I believe, as all members do, in active engagement and participation in democracy—that is why I want 16 and 17-year-olds to vote—but I also have a strong belief in the balance between rights and responsibilities. That is partly why I take the view that I do on prisoner voting. I believe that, when an individual commits a crime and is sentenced to a custodial sentence, because the judge considers that the severity of the crime or the circumstances of the case merit such a sentence, the individual loses several rights that the rest of us take for granted, including the right to vote for the period for which they are incarcerated."

This is not, I'd suggest, a position amenable to reverse-ferreting. By contrast with his Deputy, Alex Salmond's attitudes on the issue have been aired before.  He told Holyrood, back in 2010:

"I know that the Liberals are understandably keen on the European Court of Human Rights and the European convention on human rights. However, I cannot believe that, back in 1997 when there was blanket signing up to the ECHR, those of us who argued very strongly that human rights should be observed across the European continent thought that one of the key issues would be to give convicted prisoners the right to vote. For most people, that does not seem to be what we would consider to be an important human right."

In Holyrood this month, Labour MSPs Helen Eadie and former polisman, Graeme Pearson, indicated that they are sympathetic to the idea of giving at least some prisoners the vote. By contrast, not a single SNP MSP spoke up in favour of the idea. Linda Fabiani suggested that for the Liberal Democrats to put the Scottish "Government under pressure" on the issue was only illegitimate "flip-flopping", while SNP MSP Richard Lyle did a passable impression of a reactionary Tory backwoodsman, suggesting that to support enfranchising any prisoners was the equivalent of suggesting "that prisoners should decide their own sentences"Other SNP MSPs expressed similar sentiments. Bruce Crawford said:

"The basic principle behind that is that someone forfeits the right to vote once they have been incarcerated in a penal institution as a result of committing a crime. That is a pretty simple principle to get hold of."

While George Adam parroted your basic social contract theory, contending that:

"... individuals who have committed a crime have broken their pact with society, so I do not agree that they should have the opportunity to vote in the referendum"

Contra McKenna, this cup hardly overfloweth with suppressed enthusiasm for enfranchising lags serving short or long spells in the clink. I dare say some of the mute SNP MSPs might be more sympathetic, but can be expected, as usual, to keep their party discipline, unwilling to embarrass the government in public, and unlikely to dissent in the final vote. Sturgeon surely knew what she was about, setting out the government's categorical opposition to the idea of the participation of incarcerated convicts in our democratic process. Patrick Harvie played it cannily, clearly pitching for a limited compromise, arguing that only prisoners serving less than six months should be entitled to vote.  Even so, even that modest advance stands a snowball's chance in hell of making it onto the statute.

Kevin McKenna suggests that this is "craven and dishonest" politics. If the evidence from SNP parliamentarians is anything to go by, it is neither, unfortunately. 

28 May 2013

The shamrock and the thistle?

Why is Ireland missing from the current independence debate? Can the concept of Britishness be effectively co-opted by independence supporters? How can the Scottish Greens contribute to the referendum campaign, and more widely, how can the party pull itself out of its political rut in Scotland?

Just a couple of the issues which came up on this week's edition of the For A' That podcast.  This week we were joined by Peter McColl.  Peter is a Green Party supporter and Rector of the University of Edinburgh.  We also discussed the news that the BBC will be ploughing £5,000,000 into their coverage of the independence debate. Good news, and a way of restoring the flagging fortunes of BBC political programming, or a tricky maneuver for the public broadcasting corporation, committed to promoting the idea of the unity of the British people? We also took a brief look at the outcome of the recent General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and its recognition of gay clergy.

You can listen to the show right here, snap up our RSS feed, via iTunes or download the show for future consumption.

23 May 2013

Not Scandinavia, but Ireland...

In a column in last weekend's Scotland on Sunday, former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson returned to a familiar theme, arguing that "British identity is key to debate on independence."   

Andrew worries that "fewer than one in ten Scots with a “strong sense of British identity” back independence".  What is to be done? Andrew's answer is that the Nationalists should cunningly hijack British identity, and rearticulate it in a form more amenable to our constitutional ambitions.

"... the SNP and the Yes Campaign have just over a year to communicate cleverly that Britishness is about much, much more than the functions of state government. Indeed, who the government is and what it does is the least important aspect of Britishness and most urgent to reform. The familial, cultural, social and economic ties that bind will endure and strengthen when the politics is taken out of the equation."

But is it really a question of "cleverly" articulating a new, non-state account of British identity, as Wilson contends? I'm not so sure. As I tracked in a post here some time ago, nationalist politicians have been using the language of a "social union" after independence for a good while now. The idea that Britishness and this "social union" can and should be used interchangeably, seems a more recent development in pro-independence rhetoric. And for me, one of the least convincing.  

On BBC Question Time a while back, the SNP MSP Alex Neil told the audience that "I am an Ayrshireman, I am a Scot and I feel British and European as well." Now, I've no window into the Health Secretary's heart. A cherished sense of Britishness may warm his cockles.  If so, little of that heat communicated itself in his answer. His Britannic protestations looked strained, and hollow, altogether too pleased with themselves. Some independence supporters may feel profoundly British, but I doubt most prominent Nationalists do, and for them to pretend to do so looks decidedly shifty, and decidedly not convincing.

SNP MP Pete Wishart has been at the forefront of the argument that we should think about Britishness in geographical, super-state terms, detachable from national governments, and independent from the question of whether Scotland sends parliamentarians to Westminster.  As is so often the case at the moment, Pete offers us Nordic models in justification.   

"Britishness is as much about geography as it is about identity and history. Coming from Perth in the northern part of the island of Greater Britain I am as much British as someone from Stockholm is Scandinavian."

This argument has a superficial allure to it. Scots won't lose Britishness if we vote yes. Fear not fellow citizens! We'd be just like those friendly folks lining the fjords of Sweden, and of Norway and Denmark. But what do most folk know about shared Scandinavian solidarity and identity? Bugger all. How does the reference connect up to Scots' lived experiences? Not to any significant extent. So why the devil should we think that recasting Britishness in terms of an alien concept of regional identity of which most folk know nothing is going to do the trick? 

Wilson's choice of words is significant. Such a strategy is "clever", but I think, too clever by half, and unlikely to make much sense to your average Scot, with hazy British sympathies, and at most a couple of days in Stockholm, or a couple of episodes of the Killing under their belts. 

By making Britishness the answer to Yes Scotland's campaigning problems, Wilson's argument conflates two points. As he diagnoses, rightly, if the referendum resolves itself into a question of "do you feel British?", the SNP are stuffed. On the Better Together side, we've heard Ed Miliband's identity-driven British nationalist case for the Union.  According to the Labour leader, the referendum turns on the question of identity, his message to Scottish voters: Feel British? Vote No.  Independence supporters must resist this framing of the question.  Hitherto, they have done so by focussing on independence as a constitutional, civic and political issue, about powers, not identities.  The question before voters is not whether they feel British, but whether they want Scotland's democratic institutions to make key political decisions about their public services, their wars, their social security and taxation. 

One of the surprises of the Better Together campaign hitherto has been the absence of the full-scale sentimental British nationalist campaign promised by Miliband's intervention. You could do it marvellously. Twinkle-eyed Corby grannies, born in Dumbarton but long in the south, surrounded by a giggling knot of grandchildren, and ideally, with a son and daughter living on both sides of the Tweed, whose laughing children sound an untroubled mixter-maxter of accents. The young couple, one Fifer, one Londoner, who met at university in Edinburgh, and settled down, all invested in the idea that the noble goal of a multi-national state is worth preserving, all arguing we're "better together", as the saying has it. And so on, and so on.  

It might be an idea for Yes Scotland to get their retaliation in first, and to shoot a counter-intuitive ad with similar characters on both sides of the border endorsing independence, relaxed about the implications for their families and relationships. For Yes campaign to make the case for companionable Britishness, however, would be madness, and do Better Together's identity politics for them.

As many of you will know, since 2009, I have lived in the south east of England. I don't feel British to any significant extent. I enjoy warm and convivial relationships with my friends, neighbours and colleagues in Oxfordshire, unencumbered by any requirement that we share some defined regional supra-identity. I get along without Britishness quite happily. More and more, I've been wondering if independence supporters, tickled by the novelty of Scandinavian parallels, and the cul de sac of reclaiming Britishness from the British state, are neglecting the more obvious, more helpful contemporary example of the Republic of Ireland in talking about social, family and commercial bonds, after independence.

English-speaking, sharing a land-border and abiding historical ties, you'll find few people who seriously think, in Johann Lamont's ugly phrase, of the denizens of Tipperary or Cork as "foreigners" in the United Kingdom today. As is well known, Irish nationals enjoy a number of rights under UK law, including the ability to vote in our elections, free movement and immigration rights (above and beyond the rights of EU nationals in this respect).  For most folk in Great Britain, the Irish are betwixt and between, resisting the straightforward binary of the Self and the Other.  From my experiences in England, they are not significantly different from Scots in this respect, despite my Irish friends' "separate" government in Dublin, and "our" shared parliament in Westminster.

Identities don't belong to states. The Irish lesson shows us, in concrete terms most people in our country will understand, that our shared bonds in these islands won't break up if Britain breaks up.  We don't need any mediating concept of Britishness to make this happen, to maintain the to-and-fro of immigration and emigration, wandering carelessly over lightly-drawn borders, comfortably befriending, loving, working and belonging.  I don't need any pseudo Britto-Nordic construct to feel that my Irish friends here in England aren't the "foreigners" Johann Lamont would have them be. 

21 May 2013

The Football Act: ending the shame of turnip on turnip violence.

Opinionated amateur horticulturalists, second-rate pie-sellers, brash turnip impresarios, and grinchly ticket-collectors, beware.  In Glasgow Sheriff Court last week, Sheriff Reid handed down an opinion on the interpretation of our old friend, Holyrood's Offensive Behaviour at Football (etc) Act of 2012

The case involved six characters, charged with forming a disorderly knot in the concourse of Glasgow Central Station. Five of the six admitted that, earlier that day, they'd attended the match between Ayr United and Hibernian football clubs, and travelled back to Glasgow by train from Ayr, with a view to cutting east, back home to Edinburgh.

According to the Sheriff's narration of the Crown's evidence, in the station, the group encountered a group of Rangers fans (and perhaps a smattering of Chelsea supporters), with whom the Crown allege the six gentlemen fell into disorderly confrontation.  No match involving Rangers had been staged that weekend, and none of the Rangers fans which the Crown argue were involved seem to have attended any match involving Ayr, Hibs, or anyone else that day. 

All six men were pulled up before the beak, charged with "threatening" behaviour which was likely to incite public disorder and "other behaviour that a reasonable person would be likely to consider offensive", the indictment alleging that "on the public concourse of a railway station form part of disorderly crowd, fight, gesticulate, throw missiles, challenge the lieges to fight and place the lieges in a state of fear and alarm." 

But did this behaviour, if proved, really "relate" to the regulated football match earlier that day between Ayr and Hibs? Their briefs argued not.  Section 2(2)(b)(iii) of the Football Act is explicit. "Offensive" behaviour isn't just criminalised on the terraces.  The legislation also extends to behaviour "on a journey to or from the regulated football match", by air, land or sea.  Oh.  And to any premises (save for a home say, or other cosy domestic spot) where a football match was televised, and presumably, to the journeys to and from those public houses.

The defence lawyers contended that there had to be a more substantial link between the regulated football match involved and the offensive or threatening behaviour criminalised under the new law. Sheriff Reid disagreed, and explaining his reasoning, offered this vivid assessment of the broad gamut of the new law.

[54] ...  a supporter within a football stadium during a regulated football match may become embroiled in a violent altercation with a pie seller. The dispute may have nothing to do with football or the match. It may relate to the quality of the pie. On both a literal and a purposive interpretation of the [Football] 2012 Act, the behaviour of both the supporter and the pie seller would fall within the ambit of the statutory offence. Likewise, a supporter on a return train journey home from a match may become offensive towards a ticket inspector. The argument may have nothing to do with football or the match. It may relate to an alleged unpaid fare. On both a literal and a purposive interpretation of the 2012 Act, the behaviour of the supporter would fall within the ambit of the statutory offence.
Or the amateur horticulturalists, returning to their hotel from a visit to the Ayr Flower Show, who are drawn into a fight with fellow guests who are watching a live televised football match in the hotel lounge. The fight may have nothing to do with football or the match. It may relate to the size of turnips. On both a literal and a purposive interpretation of the 2012 Act, the behaviour of all participants would fall within the ambit of the statutory offence. There is no absurdity in these results. It accords with the "overriding priority" (per the Policy Memorandum) of the legislation which is to improve the unacceptable behaviour and attitudes increasingly displayed at, around, or on journeys to and from, regulated football matches, whatever the motivation for the offending behaviour. Parliament has designated "trouble free" zones in the context of regulated football matches - and persons finding themselves, or happening upon others, in such qualifying locations must take particular care to moderate their behaviour accordingly.

The next time you fancy collaring a fellow "commoner gardener" in the hotel lounge, arguing that his prize swede is really a diminutive turnip, think twice. Oh. And be sure to check if Ayr are playing Hibs on the telly first.

19 May 2013

"Naebody's nails can reach the length o' Lunnon..."

The spirit of Sir Walter Scott's Mrs Howden took to the streets of Edinburgh this week, a knot of students taking the opportunity of the Aberdeen Donside by-election to barrack Nigel Farage, with cries of "bawbag" and sundry other irreverent observations on the ideology and policies of UKIP's often-lionised leader. From reports of the event, no peebles were involved, but on episode 25 of the For A' That podcast, Michael, guest Kate Higgins and I lobbed a few projectiles in Nickel Foorage's direction. 

Up second, Michael articulated a nagging doubt: "Should we stop worrying about winning the independence debate, and just get on with winning the referendum?" We mulled over what is missing from the current coverage of the independence campaign. 

That segued seamlessly into a broadly positive discussion of STV's more creative approach to broadcasting about the national debate, in a week where Nicola Sturgeon and Michael Moore went napper-to-napper on an experimental Scotland Tonight special on the economics of independence.  Is this an Americanising development, format-wise? Can these shows really help us deal will the knotty issues of the independence campaign? Is a polarised, point-scoring form of debate really going to assist us, as a nation, to come to an informed conclusion in autumn 2014? More broadly, are STV outperforming the BBC in terms of the originality and creativity of their approach to #indyref broadcasting? 

Tomorrow, I'm speaking to members of the Oxfordshire Green Party on the question, why should progressives support Scottish independence? I took the opportunity to pick Michael and Kate's minds on the arguments they would use, to persuade left-wingers in England and Wales of the virtues of Scottish independence, and the positive impact which constitutional change might have furth of Scotland.  The work of ordinary politics hasn't been superseded by the referendum campaign, however little space in the papers may be given over to the latest reforms introduced by the Scottish Government. Taking the example of the important Victims and Witnesses Bill, Kate argues that important changes are being left out of our national debates, constitutionally overshadowed.

You can lend your ears to their answers here, download the episode via Spreaker, or access it via the comfort of iTunes.  To keep updated with the latest editions of the For A' That podcasts, and Michael's Scottish Independence Podcasts, you can also access our RSS feed here.

14 May 2013

What? What? What?

How many ministers would serve in a "separate" Scottish cabinet? What would they be paid? How much would a first class stamp cost after independence? Those are just a few of the choicer examples of questions which Better Together thinks that independence supporters must answer, and our first topic on this week's edition of the For A' That podcast.  Joining Michael and I on episode number twenty-four, were Doug Daniel, old podcast hand Natalie McGarry, and Ruairidh Waddell.  

In a neat (or fortunate) bit of topicality, we also discussed the emerging Labour campaign for the Union, and Gordon Brown's resurfacing. What impact might a separate Labour campaign have on Better Together, and for that matter, on the campaign for independence? Shifting gear slightly, we also touched on a controversial topic of last week: the conundrum faced by charities in the referendum debate. To end the show, we came back to the topic of Trident nuclear weapons, in a week where Lord Ashcroft revealed that Scots actually "love the bomb".  Er. Or mibbe not.

As usual, you can listen to proceedings right here, or download the episode via spreaker or from iTunes.

13 May 2013

"Surly lodgers turned good neighbours" pay the rent.

An elementary proposition: the first act of a surly lodger turned good neighbour is not to bugger off leaving your share of the rent unpaid.  

One of the Better Together campaign's most boring strategies in this campaign so far has been to play international law and politics off against one another. Any legal uncertainties or ambiguities, particularly in the notoriously ambiguous, compromising political regime of international and European law, are persistently depicted as damaging sources of uncertainty, undermining the pro-independence argument. Where are your cast-iron guarantees? Where's your legal evidence, Mr Salmond, that all will be well and that everything you promise will definitely, unerringly, absolutely come true? 

In order to be effective, this rhetoric is obliged to ignore the reality of contemporary diplomacy, which is marked by negotiation and political accommodation. The European Union is not a court of law, it is not bound over blindly to apply its governing documents, any more than parliament is obliged to leave the statute book unaltered in the United Kingdom.  Public international law isn't some neat book of binding rules, but an evolving and often inconsistent mixter-maxter of precedents and treaties. That is not to say that the laws there are aren't important. The law of the sea, for example, will be critical when it comes to negotiations about the scope of a sovereign Scotland's territorial waters, with significant implications for the north sea sector, the distribution of oil reserves (and of course, the weighty and consequential question of the sovereignty over the strategic isle of Rockall).

If Scotland is to become independent after 2014, negotiations will be critical, and it is in the nature of these bodies of law not to have all of the answers. It is not as if a 300 year old Union disentangles itself every month. That is the best answer, the only real answer, which independence supporters can offer to pro-Union politicians, and their tactical, obtuse refusals to recognise this basic reality.  I recognise that this is frustrating, and doesn't exactly answer the charge of uncertainty.  But it is an uncertainty which cannot be eliminated, so it cannot be avoided

This weekend, we heard in the Sun from our old friend Matt Qvortrup. His "gamechanger" argument, essentially, is that if you examine the precedents of countries breaking up into smaller units, the successor state takes the whole burden of the accumulated national debt, while the "breakaway" state steps onto the world stage, without a single debt blotting her balance book.  As you may recall, the UK government insists as a matter of international law that Scotland would be a new state, and only the rUK would be the successor to the UK's current store of treaties and the like, including Britain's EU membership and its terms. Qvortrup contends that this legal logic hoists them on their own petard, meaning that an independent Scotland could depart in good conscience, without accepting any share of the UK's national debt.  It isn't clear whether Dr Qvortrup considers this primarily an historical or a legal argument, but whatever else it is, it is a thoroughly impractical one.

Understandably, several pro-independence folk saw this as a marvellous opportunity to beat Better Together supporters at their own parlour game. We should avoid the temptation. Scotland "could" break up Britain and accept no share of our accumulated national debt, in the same sense that the EU "could" cold-shoulder an independent Scotland. Could, but probably wont, and shouldn't. 

And that's the critical point. The uncertainties of international law cuts both ways, throwing up uncertainties for both pro-independence campaigners, and those supporting the Union.  Salmond's earlier missteps around an independent Scotland's legal status in the European Union should have taught us that the trick here isn't to ape the dishonest certainties peddled by the UK Government and its supporters. We can't win that game, and more importantly, perhaps, they aren't true.  And, after negotiating a fair distribution of assets and liabilities, a surly lodger turned good neighbour ought to pay his debts.

Talk of post-independence negotiations are important in a couple of senses.  The first, and most obvious, is that any agreement cut with the remaining parts of the United Kingdom will exert significant influence on the sort of independent Scotland we see after a Yes vote, and we have plenty of big-ticket items to discuss, from transitional arrangements, to shared assets and liabilities, security cooperation and citizenship. So much is obvious. 

Secondly, how we talk about those negotiations also important for setting the tone of the campaign and the sort of independence we want to promote. The SNP have gone out of their way to accentuate the positive, to sketch images of friendly future relations with the rUK, sharing a currency, cheerfully cooperating when it is in the national interest, cultivating a social union of like-minded states, with a shared island, and language and traditions. For gradualist nationalists and democrats, the concept of "UDI" elicits cold sweats.  As a serious-minded account of what Scotland can and ought to do if we vote Yes in 2014, Qvortrup's latest intervention on national debt is fantastical and risks leading us down a self-defeating rhetorical gulch.  

Picking your neighbour's pocket isn't a good start to an abiding and friendly social union.  Evident glee at the idea of doing so recalls the bad faith politics of the playground, not the cooperative vision of Scotland the Good Neighbour which the SNP has been pains to cultivate.  

12 May 2013

Sturgeon's Scotland: no "progressive beacon".

Next Tuesday, Holyrood will debate the first stage of the Scottish Government's Bill governing who will be able to vote in the independence referendum. As regular visitors may recall, when it was first published, I was particularly exercised by section three of the draft legislation, which proposes to prohibit Scottish prisoners from voting in the 2014 poll. 

The Referendum Committee's adviser, Professor Stephen Tierney of the University of Edinburgh, produced this brief report on the compatibility of disenfranchising prisoners in the independence referendum with the European Convention on Human Rights. Although airing potential caveats, like the Law Society of Scotland (and yours truly), Tierney concludes that any challenge to this disenfranchisement under Article 3 of Protocol 1 to the European Convention is unlikely to be successful.  

But that isn't the end of the story. Whether or not this proposal is legal, is it right? Is it really in keeping with the best spirit of human rights law, and emblematic of the sort of progressive political values which, we are assured, an independent Scotland will enshrine? When Nicola Sturgeon gave evidence to the Committee on the 28th of March, Green MSP Patrick Harvie questioned her about both the legality and politics of the Scottish Government's proposals, making the reasonable point that:

"Simply saying that there is no legal requirement does not mean that prisoners cannot vote. Does the Deputy First Minister acknowledge that an argument can at least be made that prisoners voting could be seen as part of a rehabilitation process, that there is a moral case in favour of it and that, even if an argument can be made for maintaining a degree of a ban on prisoners voting, that should be for the courts to decide on?"

Nicola largely refused to engage with why the Scottish Government has adopted this position.  Blandly invoking the status quo, Sturgeon (implausibly) denied that the Franchise Bill won't deprive anybody of any rights, as convicted prisoners haven't been able to vote in other elections or referendums anyway.
Tavish Scott: For clarification, are you objecting to the proposal [to grant prisoner the vote] on moral grounds rather than legal grounds?
Nicola Sturgeon: My objection is on the basis that the current situation is that people who commit crimes and are sent to jail do not get to vote. I do not believe that a good case has been made for changing that situation. If people want to vote in the referendum and to ensure that they do not lose the right to vote by being sent to jail, there seems to me to be a pretty simple way of ensuring that that is the case. I would not characterise my position as a moral or legal one—I think that the legal position is absolutely clear. I would characterise it as a practical view on my part and not anything else.

The party's rhetoric around 16 and 17 year olds voting is thrown into sharp relief.  For the young, considerations of practicality and deference to be afforded to status quo of British electoral law are to be dispensed with. For prisoners, the self-same practical considerations and rules of the old dispensation, depriving them of the vote, are taken to be sovereign.  Even if you agree as a matter of principle that convicted prisoners should be disenfranchised, Nicola's emaciated justification for this policy is not terrifically convincing. 

In the Referendum Bill Committee's stage 1 report, published last week, the SNP, Labour and Tory majority of the Committee (excepting the dissenting Tavish Scott and Patrick Harvie), predictably endorsed the Scottish Government's approach to disenfranchising prisoners, rejecting Harvie's proposed amendment to the effect that:

"While noting the evidence received that there is a low chance of a successful legal challenge to the bar on priso ners voting in the referendum, the Committee takes the view that there is a strong argument in principle that the franchise for the referendum should apply the same human rights standards as the ECHR requires for elections to a legislature. The Committee notes that the Scottish Government has suggested, in Scotland's Future: from the Referendum to Independence and a Written Constitution, that human rights should be embedded in Scotland‘s constitution, and does not consider section 3 of the Bill to be in keeping with the spirit of that aspiration.

The Committee seeks clarity from the Scottish Government on the reason in principle why the franchise for the referendum should differ from the franchise for elections, in the event that the UK Parliament brings the electoral franchise into compliance with the ECHR. 

The Committee is persuaded of the view that the referendum offers an opportunity to demonstrate a strong human rights ethos, by allowing prisoners serving sentences of less than six months to vote."

For what it is worth, I'd be more generous than Patrick and Tavish.  The right to vote ought to be considered a fundamental aspect of citizenship (albeit one whose universality is subject to a range of qualifications and exceptions on grounds of age, mental capacity, and practical details around registration and so on). I cannot see why prison walls should be able to exclude that right, but it is this, and this alone, which the current policy achieves.

Proposals to liberalise our system and to enfranchise prisoners are classically met by an outraged catalogue of villainy and offenders against human decency: Why should murders, paedophiles and rapists get the vote? Yet, under the current dispensation, large numbers of murders, paedophiles and rapists will find their voting rights restored to them - once they've left the prison gates at the end of their sentences, or when released on licence, as all but the most dangerous prisoners will be, in time.  Meanwhile, the policy ensures that all of the minor villains serving even very short spells in jail cannot contribute to our episodic exercises in democracy, outrage ebbs, and childish public feeling is duly assuaged.

I can understand the cynical political calculation undergirding this move by the Scottish Government. On the evidence, the SNP leadership's hostility to prisoners voting may even be sincere. To have done anything else than ape the British policy of disenfranchisement would have been like shoogling a box of irate frogs and prying off the lid, inviting damning tabloid headlines during in a period in which Nationalists will have a bellyful of hostile coverage. As Jamie Maxwell commented a few months ago, however, this is yet more dispiriting evidence of conservatism from the SNP in particular, and from Scottish politicians in general. 

On this issue at least, Sturgeon's vision of Scotland the "progressive beacon" casts a wan, watery light.

9 May 2013

"What is a Republic?"

"My government will continue to make the case for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom." I'm sure the Tory royalists in the House of Lords, always more Bourbon than the Bourbons, squirmed with pleasure as the Queen read this section of her speech in Westminster today.

Although just a technically correct designation of the Westminster government, one can't help but feel that the hand that framed the speech took especial care to ensure this line read my government. Salmond, the ardent royalist swain, has done his dardnest to eliminate the monarchy as a wedge issue in the campaign, but somehow you doubt that she is a natural ally of those of us who favour Scottish independence. The delivery was, as always, bone dry but one might detect a small twinkle in the royal eye. I doubt they appreciated that line in Bute House.

Historical mischief makers like to recall an incident from Maximilien Robespierre's childhood, imputing to it a deep biographical significance. While a student in Paris' Lycée Louis-le-Grand in 1775, the future Incorruptible was selected to offer Latin greetings to the newly-crowned French monarch, Louis XVI. Rain pelting down, the King kept to his carriage, leaving the drookit Robespierre kneeling in the Parisian muck. 

After scant acknowledgement of the schoolboy's Latin peroration, the regal carriage scudded off. Leaving behind it, you imagine, both a sense of anticlimax and of cloying dampness. Over the years, hostile biographers have suggested that Robespierre boxed away this slight in his belly, wreaking his future small-minded vengeance for the humiliation by voting for the death of the French monarch in 1793.  Thanks to Baroness Orczy and Thomas Carlyle and others, posterity has handed down to us a vision of this man as an inveterate republican and a patriotic shortener of kings. Interestingly, however, Robespierre's views on the role of a monarch in a republican constitution were rather more nuanced than the decisive, dividing logic of the guillotine's blade. "What is a republic?", he asked.

"I have been accused, in the midst of the Assembly, of being a republican - too great an honour, for I am not. If I had been accused of being monarchist, I would have been dishonoured, for I am not that either. I would first like to point out that for many people the words "republic" and "monarchy" are entirely without meaning. The word "republic" does not signify any particular form of government, it belongs to any government of free men who have a patrie. Now, one may be free with a monarch, as with a senate. What is the present French constitution? It is a republic with a monarch. It is therefore neither monarchy nor republic, it is both one and the other." Quoted in Marisa Linton "Robespierre's political principles" (1999) in C Hayden and W Doyle (eds) Robespierre, 45.

This all changed after King Louis' monstrously inept attempt to flee the country, culminating in the monarch's execution in Paris after his trial before the French National Convention. When I was somewhat younger, I was more of a razor-edged Republican myself, all for deposing the British monarchy, impatient with its stuffy air of hierarchy - and its various contemptible hangers on, stuffed tabards and sundry gong-seekers, creeps and toadies. The foppery of honours - in particular knighthoods and peerages - still irritate me with the same intensity. I attach similar suspicions to any great state occasions, with their beanpole solemnity and gaudy livery, shuffling processions and feudal atmosphere and eccentric collections of toy soldiers, Grooms of the Stool, Keeper of Her Majesty's Butter Beans. One BBC commentator suggested that today's state opening of Westminster was important because it "reflects our values" as a people. I despair, and in such moments, my inner Jacobin wrecker can re-emerge.

But what is a Republic? As was his usual wont, the Incorruptible was one for searching hearts and minds, concerned with public manners and civic virtue, rather than emphasising ways in which formal political structures determine, or debauch the character of a country. Up to a point, I'd agree. Despite the First Minister's enthusiasm for the House of Windsor, it is undeniable that there is a republican strain in the SNP, much of which is distinctly associated with antipathies towards the British Establishment, of which the Monarchy is taken to be an elbematic character.  Even the wistful, recalling Romanticism of calling Lizzie "Queen of Scots" - a pose first adopted, I think, by David Steel as Presiding Officer at the opening of the Parliament in 1999 and fondly perpetuated since by Salmond and others - cannot efface such cherished hostilities.

Then there are also folk of a more virulently egalitarian strain, whose objections to the monarchy rest, not on a reaction to High Britannic flummery, but the claim that royalty and nobility perpetuates structures of class hierarchy, sustaining a patrician elite.  An elected president cannot make subjects of her people.  At least that's the theory.

I'm conscious, however, that on your travels in Europe, you encounter many monarchical curiosities, many of them dating from the period after Robespierre suffered the complete fracture of his own neck at the hands of Monsieur de Paris, and Napoleon began his European adventures. Take the Netherlands. Their first King was Napoleon's brother, Louis and the monarchy in its current form - with some disruptions - dates from the 1800s. Anyone who has been in the Netherlands in April cannot but remark on the amazing popularity and public display of the Orange-festooned Dutch celebration of their Koninginnedag.  Although one should be cautious about deducing attitudes towards monarchy and its influence on society from this public debauch, the roiling the sea of orange it hardly smacks of a society whose class divisions are exacerbated by the residents of the Koninklijk Paleis in Amsterdam.

A populist monarchy, and a country governed by a republican spirit, need not be incompatible.  For that matter, think of the Scandinavian monarchies, Norway, Denmark and Sweden (although Finland is a Republic, with an elected president). Sweden's furnishes us with one of the most ironic accidents of history. The House of Bernadotte still rules, owing their name to Napoleon's scheming and disgruntled Gascon Marschal Jean-Baptiste, who eventually waged war on his former master. The interest of these examples, in part, is that many Scottish nationalists deeply antipathetic to monarchy would look to Nordic inspiration for their independent Scotland, in particular the egalitarianism and social-democracy often associated with the politics of those nations.

Although events like the Queen's Speech still flash me the scarlet, like Robespierre, I find myself wondering, what is a Republic?

Salmond on the slide?

It's part of the received political wisdom. The claim is that Maximum Eck isn't popular with Scottish women and goes down like a lead balloon with the distaff side.  Like many articles of received wisdom, there's little in the way of evidence supporting the truth of the proposition. As I argued here back in August, if anything, recent political statistics suggest that Alex Salmond is popular amongst Scottish women, but has historically been more popular among Scottish men. That trend may be on the turn.

This morning, the Times and Ipsos-MORI have published a new poll on independence, following on from their last research exercise in February of this year.  Plenty there to get our teeth into, but to aid digestion, I wanted to keep this post short and sweet. In addition to canvassing constitutional attitudes, the pollster posed its now familiar question, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the performance of various leading Scottish and UK politicians? Salmond amongst them. 

So what did today's polling find, and how do today's ratings relate to the historical esteem in which the First Minister has been held? I've knocked together the pollster's findings on Salmond's popularity, going back to the balmy days of November 2009.  Here's what the figures show, with today's findings on the far right of the chart.  As you can see, things have been on the slide for Salmond since the December of 2011, with his popularity among both men and women trending downwards again and again in every poll taken since.

Overall, this works out as a 47% satisfied, 45% dissatisfied and 8% "dunnos" for Alex, down slightly from 50% satisfied, 43% dissatisfied and 7% undecideds in February.  While he still enjoys a net +10 rating among men, for only the second time since February of 2010, Salmond now has a net negative rating amongst women, increasing from February's net -4% rating to today's -7%

That said, it is important to put these figures in perspective.  As the chart shows, the FM is polling about the same level as he was, two years into his first term of office during the SNP's spell as a minority government. Although on a downward trajectory, this trend is hardly unprecedented. His sky-high ratings in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 Holyrood election were never likely to be sustainable. Mid-term, all governments find themselves in the pickle, and it'd be foolish to expect the SNP majority in Holyrood to be any different.

It is also worth bearing in mind that while 36% of the pollsters respondents said they were satisfied with Johann Lamont's stewardship of the Scottish Labour Party, with 31% dissatisfied, a mighty 33% of respondents still haven't the foggiest what to make of her one way or the other.  Interestingly, today's findings confirm that Nicola Sturgeon continues to be rated highly since she was first included in Ipsos-MORI's last effort. No blip, February. Outshining Lamont by a long way in both positive ratings and basic recognition, Sturgeon again also narrowly outperformed her boss in positive ratings, with significantly fewer hostile assessments of her performance in office from Ipsos' respondents.

I''ll be coming back to the pollster's (not terrifically encouraging) findings on independence later. Until then, you can amuse yourself with the full polling tables (including Holyrood election intentions) here.

8 May 2013

Mark McDonald channels the Marquis of Montrose...

Interesting developments this morning in Aberdeen Donside. SNP MSP Mark McDonald has announced this morning that he intends to seek the party's nomination for the constituency seat, vacated by the recent death of the SNP's Brian Adam, in the upcoming by-election. It remains to be seen whether party members will endorse McDonald's candidacy, but if they do, it throws up a few tricky and interesting legal implications under the Scotland Act, and the dual franchise of regional and constituency members of parliament it provides for.  

In 2011, McDonald was elected as a regional member in the North East, ranked fifth of seven places down the SNP list.  Not, you might think, the most promising situation for a young fellow with a family to feed and a political way to make after the next election, subject to the caprice and uncertainty of ranking by the party membership. Aberdeen Donside, by contrast, looks a far more comfortable berth. But there are risks. Section 9 of the Scotland Act governs how vacancies in Holyrood constituencies are to be filled. Subsection six makes plain that in any by-election to fill a constituency seat in the Scottish Parliament:

"A person may not be a candidate at such an election if he is a member of the Parliament or a candidate in another election to fill a vacancy."

The upshot? If he wants to stand in Donside, McDonald will have to resign first. If he does so, another vacancy will open up in the already almost-exhausted SNP list in the North East. Under the Scotland Act, regional vacancies are filled in a different way.  No by-elections here. Instead, to find our replacement have to go back to the party list from the 2011.  The parliamentary seat is allocated to next ranked person on the list.  Where the party list is exhausted, the regional seat sits vacant until the next Holyrood election. The party cannot simply nominate a replacement.  In this case, the beneficiary of McDonald's bravery would be the North East list's last candidate, Christian Allard, seen most lately in this parish as an unsuccessful candidate to be one of the SNP's six nominees to represent Scotland in the European Parliament.

For Mark, the game may be worth the candle. Brian Adam first won Donside in 2003, and held it with increased majorities in the two subsequent elections, topping off at more than 55% of the vote in 2011.  The Labour Party would be his main competitors, and named their candidate this morning, picking Willie Young from amongst the ranks of their Aberdeen City councillors.  Even with these starting advantages, the idea of resigning your seat and running for another can hardly be one anybody would approach without trepidation. In your enthusiasm to acquire a safer seat, you mean lose your political job altogether. If he is nominated to stand, McDonald will have to live by Alex Salmond's favourite motto, from the 1st Marquis of Montrose:

"He either fears his fate too much, Or his deserts are small, That dares not put it to the touch, To win or lose it all."

6 May 2013

"You've gotta accentuate the positive..."

Penny for your groat, sir? Or ought that to be the Scotch dollar, the Caledon doubloon, or the stout old British sterling, etched with the Queen's napper? Like most of the population, and like most politicians if they'd care to admit it, I know sod all about currency policy.  You can usually rely on your front benchers to dignify their rhetoric with at least a superficial veneer of technical knowledge, but often as not, they bear every appearance of clubbing away at each other with borrowed arguments, and winging it.

After a week off due to technical gremlins, the For A' That podcast is back. Joining Michael and I on episode number 23, Stewart Kirkpatrick, who is Head of Digital at the Yes Scotland campaign.  Top of the agenda this week, the recent currency stramash, the Chancellor's intervention, and its political fallout for independence supporters.

On politeness, Michael asks, YesScotland being too nice? By contrast, is the independence debate as a whole proving too ghastly, indicting and disrespectful? Citing a recent piece by Steven Noon, Stewart spoke about Yes Scotland's commitment to sounding positive notes, defending the official campaign's nicely-nicely "optimistic fairydust" approach to persuading Scots of the need for and virtues of independence.

Finally, we touched on the proverbial "rise of UKIP" south of the border in last week's County Council Elections. What , if anything, might the upward march of Nigel Farage and his comrades presage for the UK as a whole, and for the independence debate in Scotland in particular? You can listen hear, or alternatively, download the episode via itunes or from
here. Apologise, otherwise, for the blog silence here of late. The tyrant, Work, has been cracking his goad and the last stages of writing up a doctoral thesis are proving an unforgiving time of it.