31 December 2014

Have a very peaty New Year!

Admissible tipples include: Benriach, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Caol Ila, a fag and a jeroboam of Glayva - or the Big Peat. Alternatively, pop your artisanal hand-shaped "durty" burger in a blender along with its charcoal mayonnaise, blackened gherkins and scorched molasses relish -- and quaff with just a tincture of pineappleade and a liberal dusting of bisto granules.

Guaranteed to evoke sense-memories of the effluent pipe and the savour of the nicotine-clouded howff. As ever when worrying peat, approach with caution, exercise sound judgement, and always have an exit strategy. Think, What Would Tom Weir do? Either that, or chuck the lot and have a gin and tonic instead. The quinine keeps the fever at bay. Hogmanay essentials.

Although I've been largely mute this December - I think I caught my statutory #indyref slump late after the activities and diversions of September and October - 2014 has been a stimulating and sometimes difficult year. It was also one marked by kindness, struggles, setbacks, successes and happy accidents. A year like any other, I suppose.  Like many folk of my generation, I spent a chunk of 2014 wrestling with the frustrations of unemployment, hopes raised and dashed. Again and again. And repeat, sometimes seemingly ad infinitum.

Nature's blessed me with an essentially cheery disposition - but the chance to scribble here was a nourishing outlet during these tricky months, and helped to keep me sane and lift any flagging spirits. Many of you dug into your pockets to support my wee crowdfunder at the lee end of the summer, and I'm eternally grateful for your generosity and your contributions. Happily, I've now secured a more permanent means of keeping myself in stockings and gin -- a great relief -- but for me, the referendum campaign was backlit and coloured by a these personal challenges.

Although saddened by the outcome on the 19th of September, I was not surprised. This poll was always - arguably - a premature confrontation between Scottish Nationalism and its ambitions. If it has achieved one thing, it has planted the formerly crankish-seeming case for independence firmly in the mainstream of Scottish life. That has never happened before. Its roots won't be easily pried loose.

Taking a longer, generational perspective is also a source of some comfort. As I blogged about at the tail end of the summer, both my grandmother, and her father, believed in Scottish independence, and both went to their graves with their aspiration unrealised. Since the result, those I've found most stricken by it were those newer converts who thought victory was assured. Tough leathery old Nats, by contrast, seem to have greater reserves of fortitude to draw upon. For many who lived through the difficult days of the 1980s and 1990s, defeat, and not triumph, is the old friend and familiar. 2014 is etched in beside a rich and varied catalogues of Nationalist setbacks and false dawns. And what does the future hold? Who the hell knows.

At the moment, I find myself feeling a bit saturated by politics. Mired in it. Energy sapped. I'm sure I'll bounce back. The referendum has left us with a series of bad-tempered binaries in our public debate which I'm not sure I'm entirely comfortable with. Barely a day seems to pass at the moment without serious issues being hijacked, and their kernel of their importance overlooked in a wild and whirling exchange of words.

When the sickness of ebola, and the sudden, unexpected descent of tragedy in Glasgow, is analysed ungenerously through the cracked prism of the referendum and the political antipathies it has generated - I don't know what folk think they are achieving. Hatred rots the soul, and often as not, the brain too. I don't really want Scotland to have a thundering, charmless, unreflexive, unempathetic, and cartoonish civil war politics. We deserve better.

So for 2015, let's aspire, all of us, to emit little less heat, and a little more light. Many thanks for your attention and consideration these last twelve months. Have a grand, well-peated Hogmanay, one and all. Lang may your lums reek.

3 December 2014

Civil War Politics

When I was naught but a nipper, Old Man Tickell once caused a fight in a pub in Kerry with what he thought was an innocuous question. Always interested in the politics and history of the Republic, he guilelessly asked one of the friendly locals, "what's the difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael these days anyway? Ideologically, what separates them?" Cue one mighty stramash, as the punters around him fell out, and fell out dramatically, about what distinguished Ireland's two biggest parties ideologically.

The cynical answer might be: not a lot. But the orthodox answer is a historical one, rooted in the bloody, divisive and unnecessary experience of the Irish Civil War. The great houses of Fianna Fáil fell in behind Eamon De Valera, and the principle of an Irish republic. Fine Gael represented those who struggled for the Irish Free State, gradualism, and the awkward compromise Michael Collins struck with Lloyd George in London in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. The Free State may have won the war, but under the premierships of the scheming and reactionary Eamon de Valera, Sean Lemass, Jack Lynch, and the odious and greed-rotted Charles J Haughey, the Fianna Fáil machine crushed all before it for decades -- until 2011

Just as Scottish Labour was swept out to sea, the Soldiers of Destiny found themselves kicked into the soup by the Irish people, outraged and disgusted by the recklessness, incompetence and corruption of the Cowan government, and the poisoned legacy of profligacy, incompetence and mismanagement which  the cute hoors of Bertie Ahern's cabinet had abandoned the country to.

To the British political anorak, peeking across the Irish sea, the idea of structuring contemporary politics along civil war lines, rather than political ideology, seems bizarre. All of our large political parties are coalitions of opinion - a spectrum within which compromises must be struck - but organising your contemporary political struggles according to whether your great-grandfather favoured De Valera or Collins seems bonkers. It obscures, rather than illuminating, the key schisms dividing political points of view. 

But in Scotland, increasingly, I wonder if we aren't drifting quietly towards our own - peaceful - sort of civil war politics, with the splits and divisions of the 2014 referendum running deep, papering over the more significant political splits which untie and divide the country. Alex Massie has the droll but slightly horrifying gag that the electoral battle between Labour and the SNP is to decide "who gets to be Scotland's Fianna Fáil." I begin to suspect that this is truer now than it was before the September poll.

And if any figure is likely to reinforce this tendency, and to root it deep, it is Jim Murphy. The smoothest and most media-savvy of Scottish Labour's leadership candidates he may be, but Murphy is also the one most identified with the referendum, and most likely to alienate those who took a different view on the 18th of September. He has made much of his intention, if elected, to unite the country. In many ways, Murphy is uniquely incapable, of the three, of doing so. The memory of those Irn Bru crates won't fade soon.

And art is already anticipating politics. In Stanley Odd's Son I Voted Yes, we look forward to the kind of inter-generational political conversations and expectations which have been the stuff of Ireland's civil war legacy. "My da' was a Yes voter," you can imagine a proud wean explaining to his wee pal, who remembers in turn that his parents voted No. And dimly, in the future, anticipate a fight in some rural pub on this side of the Irish channel, the compliment of history repaid, as an inquiring Irish visitor to our shores enquires: "Can you tell me what the difference between the SNP and Labour is anyway?"

"Well," I'd say, "back in the referendum of 2014..."

2 December 2014

A party of government of women, by women, for women

The first woman was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates on the 13th of July 1923. Margaret Kidd KC, as she would become in 1948, was also the first Sheriff Principal in the land, appointed in the borders in 1960. For many years, Kidd ploughed a lonely furrow for the sisterhood at the Scottish Bar. The second woman, former Scottish Express journalist Isabel Sinclair, did not join Kidd until 1949 - some twenty-six years later. By 1985, the year before I was born, only thirty-one women had been admitted to the Faculty in its entire history. 

The daughter of the Unionist MP, Kidd was a lady of conservative temperament, despite her path-breaking career. It was said that she insisted being addressed as "my lord" on the bench - a practice which would make the most unbashable advocate of the present day cringe. Sinclair was a different character. Bolshier, more colourful than Kidd, she insisted on being addressed as "My Lady" when she became Scotland's first female sheriff-substitute. 

It was not, perhaps, the most radical blow for gender equality ever struck. It lacked the panache of the late Clarissa Dickson-Wright who, as a young barrister, gate-crashed a male-only gathering of her peers wearing a bear costume. But it marked the normalisation of women's participation in the legal profession and in judicial roles. It was finally time to let Portia be Portia

In politics, Margaret Thatcher didn't exactly ask her ministers to address her as "my lord", but her premiership echoed Kidd's legal career. Never entirely "one of the boys", but the solitary woman making her way. Conservative by impulses, comfortable amongst men, and largely uninterested in extending a helping hand to other women to aid them to surmount the ladder she climbed. You sometimes encounter similar views amongst the new generations of young lawyers and politicians, who wrinkle their noses at the idea that feminism has any contemporary resonance, and who baulk at making a big thing about gender politics.  

A couple of years ago, when I lived down south, I met a new-minted Conservative MP. Elected to the Commons in 2010, she was adamant that she would do everything in her power to resist being seen as in gendered terms, as a woman politician. I asked her an open question about the experience of the notoriously male-dominated lower house.  I was struck by what she said, and loosely paraphrase from memory. 

"When I was elected, I knew I didn't want to be associated with any of the usual soft, women's issues. Childcare. Domestic abuse. That kind of thing. I put in for the tough economic committees. For home affairs: crime, terrorism, prisons, drugs. That sort of thing." For her, the personal was not political. To talk about gender in politics was embarrassing, not emancipatory. It was to lose sight of the person. 

When it became clear that Nicola would replace Alex Salmond as First Minister, I wondered how she'd play this, as play it she must. Would she, like the young Tory parliamentarian, seek to soft-pedal the significance of her gender? Would she too flee from an explicitly gendered policy agenda? What was striking - even startling - about the tenor of Nicola's opening statements in post was the explicit, powerful, front and centre emphasis she placed on gender justice, equality and the empowerment of women.  

The glass ceiling, shattered. A gender-balanced cabinet, appointed. And a strong message sent "to girls and young women - indeed, to all women - across our land. There should be no limit to your ambition or what you can achieve." In an affecting moment, Sturgeon gestured towards the gallery in Holyrood, to a small, blonde, smiling face.

"My niece, who is in the public gallery today, with her brother and her cousins, is 8 years old. She doesn’t yet know about the gender pay gap or under-representation or the barriers, like high childcare costs, that make it so hard for so many women to work and pursue careers. My fervent hope is that she never will - that by the time she is a young woman, she will have no need to know about any of these issues because they will have been consigned to history. If - during my tenure as First Minister - I can play a part in making that so, for my niece and for every other little girl in this country, I will be very happy indeed."

You can't imagine Maggie saying that.  The force of the message reached even Chris Deerin, a father of daughters and not the SNP's most devoted fan, in a lovely piece.  Much was made over the referendum campaign of the gender gap in support for independence. But such the gender gap is not new, and is not limited to the referendum campaign. The SNP too has historically struggled to win the support of women. 

On the constituency ballot in 2007, 41% of men supported the SNP, compared to only 32% of women voters. On the list, 35% of men voted for the SNP, but only 27% of women.  The polling evidence from 2011 is inconsistent, but suggest that the party managed to bear down on the gap, to win its historical majority in Holyrood. 

The whys and wherefores of this gap has been the topic of considerable speculation but little study. Was it Alex Salmond? There's really not an awful lot of evidence that it was. Certainly, Salmond was less popular amongst women than men, but still recorded positive ratings from Scotland's women folk. Something else? Mitchell and Bennie concluded that fewer women backed the SNP because fewer women backed independence. QED. 

On Nicola's appointment, and since, the Scottish press have been much exercised by the question: will she lead the SNP in "a lurch to the left"? More interesting, it seems to me, is her clear intention to 
find a new formula for a successful, gendered Nationalism. The lessons of the 2014 campaign are categorical. Scotland will never - ever - achieve its independence unless more women can be persuaded that a better future awaits them in an independent country. That will be long, hard work. And work worth doing, independence or no. 

The new First Minister has a rare opportunity: to transform the SNP into a party of government of women, by women, for women. All power to her. 

1 December 2014

The "pooling and sharing" Union's last throw of the dice?

What is the Union for? We can't really make sense of Thursday's Smith Commission without considering this question. For many and most of those who voted in favour of independence last September, the Union is a ball and chain. Not a harmonious "family of nations" undertaking a joint enterprise together in shared institutions, but a dysfunctional form of politics, reactionary, lopsided, its institutions governing against the grain of the majority of Scots. 

That isn't rich loam from which to grow a new, optimistic account of what the British state and its institutions are for, capable of preserving the unity of the state in the longer run. The SNP were always going to be suspect negotiating partners for the pro-union parties, as they know - or ought to have known - that once they're out of the door, they're inevitably going to slate your proposals as a failure of nerve, and if they think they can get away with it, as a shameful failure to live up to your promises. There's no surprise that the seeds cast by Lord Smith fell on stony ground with the Nationalists.  

Nothing will prevent the political point-scoring, but entering into a long disquisition about whether "the Vow" was honoured or broken seems to me entirely pointless. The extensiveness of the new powers is largely in the eye of the beholder. Given these pessimistic starting points, your average Nationalist will struggle to see the Smith Commission report as anything more than a shill, mistrustful of Scottish self-government or "continued Westminster rule", in the First Minister's phrase. And Nicola is in one sense, dead right. 

For all of the panicked focus in the rest of the United Kingdom of the end of the Union as we know it, the Smith proposals are, essentially, a conservative restatement of the idea that the Union must do things and be seen to do things. Big things. It cannot be an empty vessel within which an autonomous Scotland is contained, and set at liberty to pursue its own priorities. A disinterested lender of last resort, or an organiser of armies and navies with no real interest or say in the domestic affairs of Scots. It must be a state with a purpose, with a mission. To characterise this as an unprincipled "fudge" is fundamentally to misunderstand the political thinking undergirding it. 

For Smith, the Union cannot be conceived a loose confederation of mutually uninterested parties, pursuing their own distinct political priorities. There must be Union dividends. It must pay you back in cold, hard cash. It is a single market in which the worker must be at liberty to float freely, and in which the worker can expect the same minimum wage whether she labours in Cumbria or in Aberdeen. Where her pension is paid from the same pot as her cousin in Kent. A union which builds homes, sustains communities, builds ships, heats pensioners. A Union which secures your fealty, not out of fellow feeling, or a dim sense of identity, but by keeping hold of the purse strings. By keeping significant parts of the doing of British government in hand. 

You may no longer work for state-owned corporations. Ravenscraig may have closed. But the Union justifies its existence by being a force in the life of every person in this country, more and less happily, more and less forcibly. Bugger the abstract calculations: Unionism must remain a matter of self-interest. The UK parliament and government must be felt to be a force in the land. Key political struggles must continue to be fought across the United Kingdom map. You may not agree with that. I don't agree with that. But by no means is it a dishonourable or self-evidently daft account of what it means to be part of a Union state. 

We find echoes of it in each and every other federated and confederal system in the world, where the central government finds itself under pressure to justify its existence and its political legitimacy. It isn't a UK pathology. It doesn't represent chronic mistrust of the Scottish people's capacity for self government. It's just how things work in a negotiated constitutional system, balancing the coherence of the state against demands for autonomy. It may be messy, it may not be the form of devolution I would have adopted, but it isn't an outrage and a scandal. 

Disappointed critics of the plans were given to ask, why can't Scotland decide these questions? Look at all the things we can't do. It is a scandal. But to put the Unionist case at its highest, this critique rests on a fundamental misapprehension. Certainly, Holyrood has no power to vary the universal credit, but via its Members of the Westminster Parliament, Scots have a powerful (if minority) say in how these basic UK-wide benefits should be shaped. 

It is one thing to complain about what the UK parties do once in office, and of the policy consensus dominating them. It is quite another to say that you exercise no power whatever over this decision-making. Smith turns essentially on defining what questions should be subject to co-decision across the United Kingdom in the Westminster parliament. You can argue that this exposes us to bad decisions. You may contend that Holyrood would make a better job of it, and better reflect the democratic aspirations of people living in Scotland. I sympathise. But co-decision making was always on the Smith agenda. Remember Gramsci's dictum: "devo-max" was never on offer. 

In this respect Smith is - essentially - a Calman Plus package, reflecting many of the same principles and approaches which leant the 2012 Scotland Act its finickiness and caution.  It entirely chimes with a key section of the Vow, in which the three Westminster party leaders set out a vision of the United Kingdom which "exists to ensure opportunity and security for all by sharing our resources equitably across all four nations to secure the defence, prosperity and welfare of every citizen." 

Some months ago, Alistair Darling observed that most of the low-hanging fruit of devolution had already been gathered. The obvious competencies had been harvested in the Calman process, and in dribs and drabs before and since. Smith represents a slightly bolder rattling of the boughs, dislodging shoogly issues such as the Crown Estate and a general welfare power, but otherwise leaving the golden apples of significant powers over welfare and taxation unplucked.

This should surprise nobody. The key break on the radicalism of the Smith Commission was always likely to be the instrumental vision of the Union, most associated with Labour, but endorsed by Annabel Goldie last week. One nation. Pool and share. Pool and share. Smith faced a simple choice: honour this vision of the United Kingdom, or junk it in favour of a bolder idea of Scottish autonomy, relinquishing key reserved competencies (and arguably, breaking with the spirit of the famous pledge in the Daily Record). 

It was never likely to happen and it is surprising that some folk persuaded themselves that anything like the Scottish Government's proposals were likely to materialise. That isn't to say that  some of the Smith proposals won't have positive effects if enacted. They are, however, positive effects and the elimination of paradoxes and uselessly constraints which will be appreciated by sad-hearted constitutional obsessives like me, but risk going unnoticed by the wider Scottish punterdom. If enacted, after Smith, the Scotland Act may be a more satisfactory statute. I doubt, however, whether the vision it articulates has the force or simplicity to nip desires for greater autonomy in the bud.  

Much has been made over the weekend of the Smith Commission heralding the beginning - or perhaps the acceleration - of an ever-looser Union. (The "F" word - federalism is being tossed carelessly about: handle with care.) Massie argues that Anglo-Scots relations have become increasingly "contractual" in nature. That may be so - but for me, the Smith Commission's findings stand precisely at odds with that logic: they don't confirm or promote it. Although the tax proposals have soaked up a good deal of ink, the bigger story for me is Smith's conservatism on the welfare state: preserving the universal credit and jealously retaining responsibility for the minimum wage. 

Smith represents the maximum devolution possible, without fundamentally reshaping the United Kingdom, and ditching the "pooling and sharing" Unionism which was the lifeblood of Labour's argument against independence. The final package isn't a repudiation of these principles, but a last-ditch defence of them. What some critics have slated as the Commission's grudging minimalism can be seen in another way -- its proposals represent a stout insistence that the Union must work for Scots and be seen to work for them. It cannot be the label, tying together a loose confederation
One of the propaganda coups of the long referendum campaign was when Alex Salmond lured David Cameron to Edinburgh. The photographers and cameramen might have been filming an international visit. Cameron didn't look like a Prime Minister on the north most corner of his own patch, but a visiting dignitary in a strange land. The SNP's pitch to the Smith Commission essentially asked the UK to internalise this vision of how Scotland should function within the Union: as the constitutional near abroad. Smith declined. And in declining, Smith represents the end of the road for the post 1998, tinkering vision of devolution which leaves the centre of British politics fundamentally unreformed. 

I keep coming back to Tom Nairn's analysis of the devolution push of the 1960s and 1970s. It remains germane today:

"There was no real belief in a new partnership of peoples. And in fact, such a partnership - in other words, genuine "transfer of power" from the old state - was never conceivable without the most radical reform of the centre itself. To give effective power away meant examining, and changing, the basis of power itself: the Constitution, the myth-source of sovereignty, and all that it depends upon. The whole British political system had to be altered. There has been no serious question of doing this, for the sake of the Scots, the Welsh and the Ulstermen. The only political party which advocates it is the one permanently removed from power, the Liberal Party. Unable to contemplate radical reform of the centre (since its whole modern history has been built on avoiding it) London government has blundered empirically into using the usual tactic of graduated response. One commentary after another has explored the self-contradictory nature of the proposals, their liability to generate conflict and escalation of nationalist sentiment and demands."

Lord Smith's proposals represents the last roll of the dice for the pooling and sharing vision of the Union. To be candid, I think they've made a fatal error. If the purpose of these proposals was to answer and dissipate Scottish demands for self-government, and in the long run lock Scotland into a more satisfactory constitutional settlement, they have failed. Calman Plus proposals could never achieve that. Lack of control over key areas of taxation and social security will remain the Union's running sore.  

Half a century on, there remains no real belief of a new partnership of peoples. The small-mindness and exhausting partisan snark of the post-Smith fallout underlined that fact. There is no new Unionism. No visionary, zesty endorsement of home rule. There is only the defensive crouch and the possessive gleam in either eye, the grim determination to give the old "pooling and sharing" conception of the Union one last heave, one last chance. The Union must die so the Labour Party can live. 

In time, the Smith Commissioners may come to lament their caution.