Sunday, 15 May 2016

San Luigi dei Francesi

                                                                                   The calling of St Matthew. Caravaggio. San Luigi dei Francesi, Roma.

San Luigi dei Francesi is one of my very favourite churches in Rome.

Situated between Piazza Navona and the Parliament building it has, by virtue of that latter circumstance, also the advantage of being close to my very favourite restaurant in all of Rome. Of which perhaps I'll say a little more later.

San Luigi, you will gather from its name, is the French church in Rome. It is mainly visited on the tourist trail by reason of its three great Caravaggios, featuring scenes from the life of St Matthew. But to nip in and out just for the Caravaggios would be a tragedy. For its interior is, since its completion at the end of the sixteenth century, a miniature history of the French nationals once resident in the (now) Italian capital.

The completion of the church itself starts that story, benefiting from the personal patronage of Catherine de' Medici, widow of one King of France, mother of three others and mother-in-law of a fourth.

Inside the pillars of the church, the walls and even any unused space in the side chapels boast barely an empty piece of wall, such are the plaques and funerary monuments to the countless famous Frenchmen who at one time worshipped in the church, often dying in the eternal city.

You could spend a day, more, just reading these and placing the departed faithful referred to within the context of the events of their time.

But for the modern visitor the most moving plaques bear more recent dates. Countless bearing little more than a name, a rank and a date of death, the latter at an age seldom stretching beyond a thirtieth birthday. And beyond that, a simple encomium, "TuĂ© en Italie pour La Liberation de France". Killed in Italy for the freedom of France.

You forget the role the free French played in the Italian campaign during the Second World War but in 1943 and 44 they fought alongside us and the Americans and, more famously in British legend, the Poles in the long slog up the peninsula. And, as the plaques in San Luigi testify, died alongside us as well.

The Italian campaign saw as much fighting and misery as anywhere else on the "Western front". And as much brutality, it can now with the passage of time be confessed, not least from the French colonial troops deployed in that campaign.

But had the church a conscious existence, that brutality would have been no stranger the the stones of San Luigi. Its patroness, Catherine de' Medici, was of course mired in the Wars of Religion. But her departure from the scene was marked by nothing approaching peace. Through the transitional events of the Thirty years war, still, even including 1914-45, regarded by the Germans themselves as the single greatest calamity to befall their nation, the focus only shifted from confessional disputes to those involving nation states in the constant warring for supremacy that bedevilled the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Now, we British have been sheltered from much of this, the last land battle here was in 1746, but by the time of the culmination of this gory history, this isolation of our civilian population was no more. In the horrific clash of competing nationalisms and ideologies that saw the deaths marked in San Luigi's memorial plaques, and so many, many more deaths, our civilian population could die in their own beds in London, or Coventry or Clydebank just as readily as continental Europe's  peasantry had once been at the random disposal of any marching army or mercenary band.

And then it stopped. There has not been a war in Western Europe for seventy one years.

And I defy anyone not to concede that the European Union has been central to that great achievement. It is no accident that the genesis of the EEC came from the desire to create a joint German and French "Steel and Coal" Community that would make war between its participants practically impossible. Or that the greatest British advocates of  membership were commonly those  who had seen the reality of war close up. Or that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the central European countries who queued up to join saw membership not just as a road to prosperity but as a passport to continued peace.

It has been said that those who defended the British Union in the Scottish referendum were too blind to legitimate criticism of it. There is a degree of truth to that. No "UK OK" sticker was ever displayed by me. For the UK is far from OK, particularly for those at the bottom. And there are certainly many legitimate criticisms of the EU: Its excessive bureaucracy and the waste that goes with it; the lack of transparency, indeed democracy, in much of its decision making; the lack of compassion or exception when it comes to its economic prescriptions. These things are all true and even the most Europhilic, such as myself, need to make that concession. You vote In not because of these things but despite them. And in the belief that they can change. Indeed that continued British membership makes them more likely to change.

But it has also been said that the Scottish Referendum was won by too much appealing to heart over head. Indeed that victory in that manner explains the continuing bitterness on the losing side in its aftermath. We might have had the better prose but they had all the poetry. And there is also a degree of truth in that.

It would be a mistake to repeat that error over the next six weeks. To allow the narrative to become "a proud island nation making its own distinctive way in the world" head to head with little more than "that's all very well but house prices will fall."

The European Union was and remains a great enterprise and its greatest achievement is peace. And there is no greater achievement than that for any political arrangement.

But it's not just peace through bureaucracy. It is peace through love. If you visit San Luigi you encounter visitors of all and every European nationality. The older visitors are polite to each other and to the surroundings, perhaps boldly venturing a few words of mutual appreciation of the vista in another's language. But the younger ones....they are a very babble of conversation. Proud of their own country, often wearing its football colours, but no more reserved about speaking to those of differing nationalities than would a Glaswegian hesitate to speak to a Dundonian. These kids are European.  And indeed we Brits can be proud that their lingua franca is almost invariably English.

I'm not for walking away from that or, worse still, starting a wider crisis of confidence in the European institutions the end product of which would inevitably be be far from certain,

So I'm voting in, not blind to the flaws but nonetheless with a song in my heart. An ode to joy.

And that's that. In my minds eye I'm now off for lunch in the Trattoria Dal Cavalier Gino, just round the corner in the Vicolo Rosini. Antipasto di verdure; fettucine con cinghiale; ossobuco (to die for); seasonal veg; pannacotta; litro di vino rosso (compulsory); acqua gassata; coffee and an Averna.

Take cash. Despite being next to the Parliament and filled with deputati, it's a strictly cash only establishment. In Italy, there are some things even the EU will never change.






Sunday, 8 May 2016

Yes we Khan?

We have just had a distinctively Scottish Election.

The results are the results but, be in no doubt, it was won and lost in Scotland.

Neither of the two main UK Party leaders did more than barely set foot here. For the same reason. Their presence was not regarded as being helpful to their own side.

And I doubt any but the most blinkered of Corbynistas would disagree with that, although they might also pause to reflect that, if that was the view here (and in Wales), then where exactly in the country is it that Jeremy is believed to be a vote winner?

For it certainly wasn't in London, where Sadiq Khan spent the last month of the campaign not just declining Corbyn's "help" but publicly rejecting it.

But, more interestingly still, that worked.

By framing the campaign as being solely who was best for governing London and specifically rejecting the idea that it had anything to do with endorsing a patently useless national operation, Sadiq triumphed. And was then free to observe that, ideally, his campaign should have been capable of drawing strength from the Party leader, but it hadn't, and he had instead won despite, rather than because, of him.

That last point might as easily apply to Scotland without for a moment suggesting Corbyn as the reason we lost. Because he wasn't.

The day when Scottish elections can be won or lost on UK issues (pace Labour's infamous opening line to our 2011 Manifesto "Now that the Tories are back.....) are over. If indeed, post devolution, they ever existed. In a Holyrood election we might be helped by a better UK operation but we will never win on its strength alone.

The question is however, can such an approach work with other elections?

Local Government elections have, in recent times, been too often seen as little more than big opinion polls on events taking place elsewhere.

And in some parts of Scotland, where boundaries are drawn on the basis of little more than cotermininity and putting everybody somewhere, that might indeed be true. Who honestly has ever owed affiliation to North Lanarkshire (particularly those of us living there without being in Lanarkshire at all) and the same undoubtedly applies to any number of other of Michael Forsyth's, mid-nineties, Macedonian creations.

But the cities, where there is a city authority, are different.

Long before they were in the position of national pre-eminence they now enjoy, the SNP built a power base in Dundee that was at least as much based on being Dundee Nationalists as Scottish Nationalists. In 2012, Aberdeen distinctly bucked the national trend by throwing out an existing local administration of particular ineptitude and returning Labour, as much to the surprise of the Party in the rest of the country as to anybody else

And of course, that same year, Glasgow famously defied Salmond's premature predictions of triumph to preserve Labour in power.

Now today, the assumption is that this was just putting off the inevitable, particularly following the nationalist advances in our greatest city in the aftermath of its unexpected Yes vote. Mind you, before Thursday the same people were inclined to think independence was inevitable.

But, for what it is worth, if the local government election in Glasgow, becomes a "Scottish" election, a bit of which happens to be taking place in Glasgow, then it is difficult to see past that outcome. And that will undoubtedly be how the Nats will wish to frame it. Even if they, this time, won't be stupid enough to announce, through their local leader, that they principally wish to take the City Council "as a stepping stone to independence."

So Labour's strategy must be to frame the 2017 election as the exact opposite. A Glasgow election where you vote on what will be best for the city.

And if we can do this then there remains all to play for.

For then we have a number of advantages, not least as a backwash of the SNP's own more recent successes which have transmogrified most of their better and more experienced local government troops into MPs or MSPs.

But above all we have Frank McAveety. I should declare an interest here as he is one of my oldest and dearest comrades. But, despite his long association with the Home Rule cause, (he was, with me, one of the founders of Scottish Labour Action as long back as 1987) I don't really believe that his heart was ever entirely at or in Holyrood. The job he enjoyed most was leading the City of Glasgow Council before 1999 and, on losing his Holyrood seat in 2011, it was getting that job back that motivated him much more than any real attempt to return to the elliptical chamber.

Sure, that might have involved a bit of deployment of the dark arts (this is Glasgow Labour politics after all) but, now that he is there, he enjoys the confidence of the local Party in a way neither of his predecessors experienced and has a clear vision for the way the city should go forward.

But above all, he is seen as somebody who will stand up for Glasgow in a way no "Yes Nicola, no Nicola, three bags full Nicola" alternative will ever do. Whether that is over the disgraceful financial settlement visited on the city (and local government more generally) by the SNP or the Scottish Government's steady erosion of power away from all local representatives or indeed over our governing Party's continued determination to shut the City's warship yards.

So, as in 2012, this needs to be a Glasgow Labour appeal. And it needs to be made clear to leaders from London or Edinburgh that their "help" is not required, unless asked for. (By which time, barring changes in personnel in the interim,  Hell will have frozen over).

Will it work? I make no guarantee of that, for Glasgow has many virtues but it doesn't have a flag. It is certainly however, under the hapless Kez and Jez tag team, the only show in town.

Just ask Sadiq Khan.

Or indeed Jackie Baillie.



Friday, 6 May 2016

Kez must stay.

You'll have noticed that I didn't do any blogging during the election. As always I voted Labour, although more than in hope than in expectation.

I was however never really in any doubt we'd be third. And given that conclusion I had no desire to undermine my own credibility by mindless cheerleading before a select readership already of pronounced political opinion.

That third place was effectively decided when Kezia Dugdale used her position as deputy leader to fix the rules to restrict the candidates eligible to stand for the leadership after Jim Murphy's defenestration.

The Party, already traumatised, simply lost the plot at at that time, stampeding into an election with ludicrous haste and losing sight of the most essential element of the job description: that the successful candidate for leadership of  the Scottish Labour Party had to be a credible candidate for First Minister. Or at least, that failing, to be a credible candidate for leader of the opposition. Kezia Dugdale was neither.

But the most bizarre thing is that she effectively stood on a platform conceding that. A platform that even attempting to hold constituency seats was a fool's errand; that we were bound to get gubbed; that another SNP overall majority was inevitable and yet that she, Kezia herself, must then, irrespective of the result, be allowed to hing aboot for another five years to have another go. People voted for this. Or at least by the time they thought "Haud oan a minute", Kez's own rules prevented a rethink.

So there was no alternative. Except that nice man Ken McIntosh who had, unfortunately, already been at Holyrood for sixteen years without anybody really noticing.

I abstained.

The problem of course is that thereafter of course, for the wider electorate, there actually was  an alternative. Unfortunately that alternative was outwith the Labour Party.

Five years ago, Murdo Fraser, a prophet before his time, stood for the Tory leadership on the platform of winding up the Party altogether and starting again under a new name as an independent Scottish enterprise of the centre right. I can't remember the name of this proposed vehicle, although the Scottish Unionist Party springs to mind. Anyway, personally, Murdo lost that contest. And yet ultimately his ideas won.

For, over the last eight weeks we saw the emergence of precisely what Murdo proposed. A Scottish political party of the centre right, allied to the "English" Tories but, when required, prepared to distinguish itself, even distance itself, from them. Only it wasn't now called the Scottish Unionist Party. It was called the Ruth Davidson Party. And be in no doubt, it is the Ruth Davidson Party that is now in opposition. As Ruth puts the boot into this minority government over the next five years no-one but the most deluded of cybernats will buy into a line that she acts only at the behest of her "London masters".

Anyway, congratulations to Ruth and commiserations and congratulations at the same time to Murdo.

But my own principal role isn't to comment on the Tories other than in passing. It is to comment on my own Party and our own hapless contestant yesterday, Kezia Dugdale. Before moving on to that however  I would just point out one other "bleeding obvious" point. For the Tories (and indeed the SNP) their leader was up front and central in everything they did. "Ruth for an effective opposition" "Nicola for First Minister" These were messages tailored to win votes, as they did. The problem with "Kezia for.....what?" wasn't just the "what", it was also the "Kezia". The other two were substantial public figures with an established life history. Our woman had been a student and then......had run George Foulkes office.  So instead we just had "Vote Labour.......please". Or phrased our appeal (sic) ...."Vote Labour for higher taxes", although we struggled, to put it mildly, to explain what, other than as a demonstration of public virtue, these higher taxes were actually meant to be for.

But the Ruth/Nicola dichotomy also had a blunter engagement in post referendum Scotland: "Vote Nicola for independence". "Vote Ruth for the Union".

Where however did Labour now stand on the Union? I've made the point repeatedly before but the only reason there ever has been an SNP is that, back in the 1930s, it became clear to people who were then  in, or associated with, the Labour Party, but who believed Scottish Independence was the way forward,  that their views were never going to be acceptable to the vast majority of the Party. So they left and formed a rival Party.

No harm in that, that's democracy. And, who knows, maybe they were right and the Labour Party was wrong? Only time will tell. Although when most recently put to the test, on 18th September 2014, it appears for the moment my own  Party's decision of the 1930s remains vindicated as reflecting majority Scottish opinion to this day.

But that shouldn't be difficult to know, or understand, by someone aspiring to a position of Labour Party leadership. When asked if Labour elected representatives might support independence, for such a person to reply "No. If that's what they think there's another Party for them". Or indeed when asked if they themselves might ever support independence to respond "Never. If I thought that I wouldn't be in the Labour Party."

Yet that is what Kez pointedly refused to do. Albeit to then correct herself on the latter point when confronted by internal outrage. 

I'll be honest, I've always been a bit suspicious about Kezia Dugdale. She emerged explaining that she had no previous Party history: no history of family links; or student political activity; or trade union or other radical cause involvement. This, she explained, was because she had not been interested in politics, indeed hadn't voted at all, until she was twenty three. Yet, when it emerged, during the election campaign, that at almost that same age that she had volunteered for the SNP, her explanation was that she had then, within apparently a few months, not only developed an interest in politics but had begun contemplating it as a career. Although, given the nature of her volunteering, patently not a career necessarily in the Labour ranks.

The best possible interpretation of this is that she at one time decided on "a career in politics" without actually being sure of what the complexion of these politics might be. And that's the best possible explanation.

In my day job you see stories that you think won't stand up to cross-examination. This, I have to say, is one of them.

So, anyway, you'll be surprised at what I say next.

Kez must stay.

Obviously not until the next election. But for the immediate future.

That's not just because an immediate contest would inevitably be coloured by the as yet unresolved matter of whether Corbynism is the way forward for the wider Party, it's also because we should appreciate what we should have appreciated in 2011, 2014 and 2015. That there isn't going to be an election next month.

As indeed, there is not going to be an election for the Scottish Parliament, in this case, for five years. Sure, the Nats don't have an absolute majority but they will always be in a position to pick and mix from the other Parties to support them on a particular issue, either because these Parties actually do support them or because they fear an immediate encounter with the electorate.

So, Labour doesn't need a (this time credible) candidate for First Minister for at least three years.

My own view, in an event, is that the key to a Labour recovery in Scotland doesn't lie in Scotland. UK politics are increasingly presidential. If Labour gets a credible candidate for that "presidential" Prime Minister then Scotland will have a big choice to make. .But at the moment that choice isn't even on the table.

So, given that Kez was so desperate to fix the rules to get into the position of leader, we should let her, having made her bed, then lie on it. And then dispense with her services at a time of our, and not her, choosing.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Plot Summary

For ages I've been writing a book. It is a "caper" tale, set in Vienna and then Venice in the 1880s. It will probably never be finished and even then almost certainly never be published.

But everybody loves a caper, a scam. Assuming the victim (the "mark") has more money than sense, so that you never need feel sorry for them. And then enjoy the tale of their downfall on the way.

Such scams have a certain format. First we have the victim, the "mark" , a man/woman/corporate entity is presented with the opportunity to make silly amounts of money and are ultimately brought down by their own greed.  Then we have the perpetrator, the "principal" who sees and seizes that opportunity.

And then...?

"Marks" are not all stupid. Particularly if they are not individuals but corporate entities. So, in many of these scams there needs to be a third player, a "verifier". A person, or institution, of apparently impeccable integrity and resources who can sign off on the bona fides of the "principal".

 A person. or institution, who, thus vouching for the "principal", engages with the "mark". Giving the "mark" the impression that the "verifier"  themselves are doing business with the "principal". Indeed, suggesting to the "mark" that if he/she/it does do business with the "principal", then in time they, the "mark", might even do (much more) substantial business directly with the "verifier" themselves.

Even then however the "mark", particularly if they are not entirely stupid,  might be suspicious. So they might ask the "verifier" to put something in writing. Which the "verifier" might  readily do. Albeit making sure that, legally, they, the "verifier",  are actually committed to nothing.

So the "mark" goes away happy. Indeed so happy they put out a press release about how happy they are. While the "verifier"? They hope that no-one will notice. But even if they do? Well, actually they can put out a press release confirming they are legally committed to nothing.

And if/when the relationship between the "mark" and the "principal" goes wrong. "Look, we made our uninvolvement clear in a press release at the time!"

But the real question is not about the relationship between the "principal" and the "mark". One knows what they are doing and the other should have known.

No, the real question is why the "verifier" was prepared to vouch for the "principal" in the first place?

Anyway, as I say, my book will probably never be published. Chiefly because it will be unreadable. But hopefully some will grasp what I'm saying in the 4th, 5th and 6th paragraphs above.




Friday, 25 March 2016

Tax

So, we have had the first leaders debate and, to be honest, excepting the unintended light relief provided by David Coburn, I expect even the most hardened of hacks would rather have watched the new series of Line of Duty which was available on the BBC at the same time "except for viewers in Scotland".

All of Scotland's main four Parties are resolutely centrist. Centre left in the shape of Labour, centre right for the Scottish Tories. A wee bit centre left, or maybe just centre in the case of the Lib Dems. As for the SNP, centre left they will protest, centre right we will maintain, and the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

So the differences are marginal and, frankly, some times invented or forced on the Parties by their electoral position.No more so than on fracking. You can bet a pound to a penny that, if Labour was in government and the SNP our main challengers, then "the government" would be keeping its options open while "the opposition", sensing an electoral stick with which to beat them, would be advocating outright opposition.

I'm not persuaded much that any party says will much change opinion over the next six weeks. People like Ruth but she's still a Tory; the Libs are a long long way back; Labour are still in internal disarray and the SNP? Well they'll be not that much different from what a "New Labour" administration would look like except that they'll wave more flags and in some mysterious way "stand up for Scotland". They're not even, at government level, really interested in independence any more. Except as a way to keep their more zoomy members happy. Or at least quiet.

So the idea that an argument about marginal tax rates for 0.3% of the population, 17,000 Additional Rate Income Tax payers earning more than £150,000 in a population of more than five million, is going to prove a decisive one, is, I suspect, an illusory one. If that's actually a view anybody really holds anyway.

Still, we know where Ruth stands. Nobody in Scotland should pay a higher rate of Income Tax at any rate than anybody in England is paying. The Libs, I think, agree with her on the Additional Rate (although not on the Basic Rate. and possibly even then apologies if I've got that wrong). Labour is for putting the Additional Rate up from 45% to 50%.

And then, once again, we come to the SNP.

They agree with Ruth. Not that the Additional Rate should not go up but rather that it should only go up if it also goes up in England. Which, conveniently for them, it isn't going to. Indeed.......I'll come back to the indeed.

Now the "logic" advanced by Nicola for this is that if Additional Rate Tax went up in Scotland in isolation then people would move to England. You might wonder why that would have been any different had we been independent but that's a matter for you. Perhaps then they planned to get Donald Trump to build them a wall. Paid for by Mexico.

But back in the real world where Scotland isn't independent? Actually, and here I might surprise you, Nicola might have a point. Up to a point.

First of all however, let's have a wee look at the figures.

The first thing to accept is that the vast majority of Additional Rate taxpayers would not leave the country for entirely practical reasons.

Earning more than £150,000 doesn't mean you earn a lot more than £150,000. The vast majority of the £17,000 will be in that category. If you earn £200,000 then your net pay after tax and National Insurance is £116,585. £9,715 a month. If the Additional Rate went up to 50% then that net pay would reduce to £114,085. You'd be £208.a month worse off but you'd still have  £9507. to struggle by on. Would you really move house because of that? The price of two decent opera tickets; lunch at a Michelin starred restaurant or half a crate of Brunello di Montalcino? Find another job down south? Expect your spouse to find an equivalently well paid job as well? Relocate your kids; change schools; abandon your friends; find a new golf club; support a new football team?

And that's even assuming you can find such a post. Most of those in the £150,000 to £300,000 band (and I suspect that's all but a few thousand of the 17,000) will be either in the public sector, (or quasi public sector such as consultants, medical and otherwise) or they will be running geographically based SMEs. It's not as easy as you might think to move from running North Lanarkshire Council to running North Yorkshire Council or managing Wilson's pumps in Bathgate to managing Johnston's pipes in Basingstoke. Especially if you, yourself, are the eponymous Wilson in question.

And even then would you save money anyway? If you earn £200K plus you might reasonably expect to live in a house worth £600K plus. The stamp duty alone on such a purchase is more than £20K, never mind other costs, so you'd be eight years before your Income Tax saving even got your Stamp Duty back!

Even look at someone earning £500K paying a 50% rather than a 45% Additional Rate.They'd be losing £1458 a month, not a small sum of money, but still be left with (only) £21506 hitting their bank account on the last Friday of every month. (assuming that's how such people get paid, which somehow I doubt). But their Stamp Duty on their £2,000,000 new house?  £153,750. Nine years to get that back alone.

So Nicola's "It wouldn't bring in any extra money" looks pretty threadbare. Never mind that it leaves the First Minister of Scotland maintaining that large numbers of people would leave her country just to save a few bob, Good luck fighting another referendum with that as a starting premise. Except.

As you look at these figures you do start to realise how much Income Tax is contributed by those on very high earnings. The total current Income Tax paid by someone on £500K per annum is nearly £225K. More every month than many of us earn in a year. The annual Job Seekers Allowance paid to nearly sixty claimants.

And those at the very, very very top, those who earn more than a million pounds per annum? Logically they pay even more.

And this last group, probably no more than a few hundred Scots, if that? They could move. They've probably, indeed almost certainly, already got other houses. And the problem if they move is that the Scottish Exchequer loses not just the marginal tax increase these multi millionaires have avoided but also  the tax they are resigned to paying at existing levels.

But there are two things that might reasonably be done about that.

The first is this. There is no need for the differential to be 5%. That's Labour's figure. But it could be just 1%. Would anybody really move because of that? And even if a few did, could it really be sustained that there would be no net benefit to the Scottish Exchequer? Perhaps that's simply never occurred to Nicola because, as a centrist politician playing a left wing role in pursuit of a flag, she doesn't really believe in increasing tax on higher earners at all? Someone should ask her about it.

The second is more utilitarian and might ultimately be where Scottish Labour policy needs to go. The Smith powers allow the creation of new tax bands. The assumption is that these would be ever higher as you go up the income scale. But in dealing with the super rich you do need to factor in tax competition.So why couldn't there be a band (above £1M?) where the rate reverted to the lower "English Rate"? Indeed why not 1% beneath the English rate? Tax competition works both ways. I can only assume that hasn't occurred to Nicola either.

Because finally I come back to my "indeed" above. It is no secret that George Osborne would like to abolish the Additional Rate altogether so that no-one pays more than 40% Income Tax. By Nicola's argument, that Scottish higher rate taxes must, of necessity, follow English ones, then if and when he does that we'll need to follow suit. And that will take real money out of Scottish public services. Real money.

Nicola's arguments can't prevail. That in the end is a real difference between the political centre left and the political centre. Although I suspect it will never make gripping telly.

Footnote: I am obliged to Iain McWhirter of the Sunday Herald and Mandy Rhodes of Holyrood Magazine for the initial twitter discussion which germinated much of the thinking in this blog.






Sunday, 20 March 2016

Independence Day

Last week, Alex Salmond gave an interview to the Aberdeen Evening Express about his departure from the Scottish Parliament.

Amongst other things he said this: "There would be no black hole in an independent Scotland’s finances because we would not be paying out billions on Trident, high speed rail projects for England and nuclear power stations at Hinkley Point."

This is simply nonsense. I am not remotely interested in the merits or otherwise of the three projects named (although even Eck, I suspect, concedes that an independent Scotland would need electricity from somewhere)  but the idea that Scotland avoiding our share of these costs would somehow cover the annual £15bn hole in an independent Scotland's finances revealed by the latest Scottish Government produced GERS figures is farcical. And yet Mr Salmond said this, not as some angry cybernat engaged in a late night twitter argument, who might genuinely know no better, but in cold sobriety as one of the best informed people in Scotland as to the true potential state of an independent Scotland's balance sheet. He was, to put it simply, lying.

And yet it didn't really matter he was lying. Because in September 2014 we decided Scotland was not going to be independent.

But suppose that vote had gone differently?

On 23rd June we are having another referendum. About leaving an economic a political union we have been in for (only) forty three years. 

If there is an out vote, even the most rabid 'Kipper accepts that we  won't be able to leave immediately. Indeed to the best of my knowledge no-one seriously objects to the minimum two year period set out in the Lisbon Treaty and indeed most "Leavers" are relaxed at the suggestion that in reality it might take a bit longer. The UK and the EU have become significantly integrated since 1972, not just in relation to trade, but in the field of commercial law, environmental policy, farming and fishery regulation and countless others. So disentangling all this will take time. As I say, an accepted minimum of two years.

Yet the UK is already a mature sovereign state. We collect, already, all of our own taxes; we already have our own currency, our own armed forces, our own overseas establishments; our own welfare state, our own provision for issuing every form of official document of citizenship. Indeed we already have our own established independent citizenry.

Yet despite all this, leaving an economic and political union of only forty three years will, it is accepted, take a minimum of two years. 

If Scotland had voted Yes then we were expected to leave a much more integrated union, one that had existed for more than three hundred years, in a period of one year, six months and six days. And not only that, within the same period, set up all the essential apparatus of a modern sovereign state that I list above..

Now some Yessers, most notably Patrick Harvie, suggested before the referendum that this timescale was unrealistic.

But for the SNP hard core it was essential. 

Because it would have been vital for them that Independence was a fait accompli before there was another test of Scottish public opinion.

The Yes vote of 45% had two elements. There are those for whom Independence is a vital task in itself. They do not care what economic devastation it might bring to others, indeed they don't even mind if it brings economic devastation to themselves. They would be nationalists if there had never been a drop of oil in the North Sea and they'll remain nationalists if we never see another penny of oil revenues. They would literally starve for their own flag.

Fair enough.

But that is nothing like 45% of the electorate.

The second element were people who were simply lied to by the first. Those, often those in straightened personal circumstance, who were lead to believe, quite dishonestly, that an independent Scotland would be a land of milk and honey. And who, far from wanting to starve for a flag, felt that they were long overdue some milk and honey. In many cases with some justification. Those who, far from wanting the austerity that independence would have brought, far greater austerity than George Osborne at his worst, were lead to believe that in voting Yes they were getting not just a flag but an "end to austerity".

Now lying in this way doesn't matter if what you have said is not put to the test. That's the obvious conclusion Mr Salmond has reached in his remarks in the Evening Express. But had there been a Yes vote that would have been put to the test. As would the various other consequences of that vote that the Yessers simply dismissed as scaremongering: that the UK Government genuinely wouldn't build warships in a "foreign" shipyard; that the Edinburgh financial institutions would indeed relocate  to be with the vast majority of their customers; that Spain, for internal reasons, would be far from willing to fast track our EU membership; that the USA would not take the loss of their Western Atlantic submarine base with equanimity; that you couldn't have both an open border and a different immigration policy; that in proposing to use a currency issued by the Bank of England, the key was in the name.

So you might expect this second element, nineteen months on, to be pretty pissed off and disinclined to vote for the Party that had so blatantly misled them. Indeed as they contemplated the cuts to their pensions and benefits, soaring unemployment, higher taxes and payment of their public sector wages in a Scottish currency of indeterminate value, you suspect they would have been inclined to take pretty spectacular electoral revenge.

The White Paper solution was to deny that electoral opportunity until it was too late but there is I suspect a fatal flaw in that strategy.. The pace of negotiations wouldn't have been in the sole province of the Scottish Government and Westminster stretching them out a mere six weeks would have left Holyrood high and dry. Bar the nuclear option of cancelling the forthcoming election, which you suspect would just have brought any negotiation about anything to a complete stop.

So here's the irony. A Yes vote would have done immense damage to Scotland: once the warship orders were placed elsewhere they couldn't come back, any more than would have RBS or Standard Life. And any future Scottish Government, in negotiating with the Treasury would have already played their trump card and yet still lost the trick. So I'm glad we got the right result. 

But, even then, if the yessers had won? Nothing would have woken people up more to the economic consequences of independence more than the same people actually voting for it. Once. And Scotland would not have been becoming independent on Thursday.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Boring for Scotland

Courtesy of, of all sources, Newsnet, here is the text of Nicola's speech to SNP Conference

It was received in the hall as if it was the Sermon on the Mount crossed with the Gettysburg Address.

But on the written page what immediately jumps out at you is the lack of substance.

To be fair to the First Minister, the Party Leader of a governing Party, any governing Party, has a tough gig in making a conference speech. Mario Cuomo famously talked of campaigning in poetry but governing in prose. On any view however the best speeches bring an element of poetry with them while inevitably the obligations of office leave mere prose as the dominant vehicle. Even Blair and Cameron, archetypal politicians for whom the occupation of power was/is their very raison d'etre, undoubtedly made their most memorable speeches while still in opposition.

Nonetheless, there is an accepted template for the pre election speech of a governing Party leader. You provide a bit of light relief poking fun at the haplessness of your opponents before turning to the red meat of the disaster their success would be for the country. And Nicola certainly does that.

You then, by convention, outline your achievements of the past four or five years. This is where Nicola's speech starts to depart from type. For what have been the achievements of the past five years? Say what you like about the SNP from 2007 to 2011, they did things. They abolished the graduate endowment and slashed maintenance grants to poorer students; they relieved the fifteen percent of the well to do who paid prescription charges from their obligation to do so; they froze Council Tax; they let Megrahi go.

These might not have been particularly progressive things but they were nonetheless things.

The problem when Nicola came to this bit of the speech is that she had nothing to say. As I say, what has the SNP achieved since 2011? Few, even of the most devoted of Nats, could maintain that health or education provision are better than they were five years ago. At best, they are, arguably, no worse. Sure, the accomplishments of the first term have been banked, but, even there, the Council Tax freeze has now quietly been acknowledged to have been a mistake; the reduced college places for working class students as a consequence of the electorally popular free places at St Andrews and Edinburgh Universities for the sons and daughters of the upper middle classes is......perhaps just better not talked about very much. Particularly by a supposedly social democratic Party. Nonetheless these things are still there. But 2011 to 2016? Well, there was a referendum, which had it resulted differently, would have been a really, really big achievement. Except it didn't result differently. And, to be honest, this is a Party still so upset about that that it would be bad taste to talk about it. Particularly......I'll come back to the particularly.

The final section of an "election" speech delivered by an incumbent is also difficult. More so the long incumbent. There inevitably is an element of "If this is such a good idea why didn't you do it before now?" Generally however this can be got round by announcing that it is a result of "our careful stewarding of resources". Except that Nicola can't claim that while at the same time railing against "evil Tory austerity" for denying her those resources. So although it was enough to bring the faithful to their feet, all we get is a couple of penny ha'penny schemes that I suspect would not be objectionable to Michael Forsyth, never mind Ruth Davidson. And a promise not to raise taxes which any Tory would have enthusiastically applauded. And that was it. No other agenda at all.

As I say, if you don't believe me, read it yourself.

To be fair, there is something to be said for boring but reasonably competent government. Swinney does a good job as Finance Minister. So do a number of other Ministers. The ones who are useless are no more useless than the similarly useless who would occupy at least some office if a different Party was in power.

But, and this is a huge but, people don't join political parties to advocate boring but competent government. If that's what they're into they would join the Civil Service.

Kez is pretty hapless. I didn't need Nicola to tell me that. No more so than when Kez herself enthusiastically announced that she was confident we would be........ second. But, to be honest, if we had thought there was any chance we might win this election she wouldn't have been our candidate to start with. Ruth is in a different league as a politician but she's still a Tory. So the SNP will win this election. Perhaps not with an absolute majority but certainly with a plurality that will make any alternative administration an impossibility.

Labour needs time. But, of necessity, we are going to get time.

For that's the hidden poison pill for the wilder Nats in Nicola's boring speech.

In the Summer, the SNP are going to have some sort of conversation about Independence. Not a second referendum. Not even a precursor to a second referendum. A conversation.

This was a pre election conference. As a political pro I share the irritation of the SNP leadership towards the delegate who wanted it to be occasion for debate.

And as a, hypothetical, nationalist political pro, I would have cheered the idea of this conversation, as a diversion for the herd, as enthusiastically as did the rest of the SECC.

There is an immediate prize for the SNP and that is retaining office. While giving the Labour Party another kicking on the way. Not a small prize. Indeed, if you are now a Minister, or an MSP, or a Spad, or a paid constituency worker, or an wannabee any one of these, a very important prize indeed.

As indeed, next year, there will be the different prize of depriving Labour of our remaining local government fiefdoms. With more, well paid, secondary prizes as a result.

I make no criticism of that. It is how another Party of my acquaintance operated for many years.

But at some point somebody is going to ask "Whatever happened to Independence?" Just as, dare I say, last Summer the Labour Party, in the context of the three terms of Blair landslides nonetheless asked "Whatever happened to socialism?"

The problem is that what is popular with Part activists, of any Party, is seldom what is popular with the general public.

At some point even the currently unimpeachable Nicola will have to face her activists honestly, tell them that Independence is off the agenda because there is no way Scotland would be daft enough to vote for it. Ever. That is the "particularly" that I referred to above. From start to finish, 2011-14 there was but one poll that put them ahead and then they lost. Decisively. Since then, any examination of the detail indicates that even the prospectus that got them to 45% was a hopelessly optimistic one.

It's over.

That was the rationale behind Nicola's promise of a conversation, not a referendum.

At one point she'll have to tell her activists that. Then, if she survives that different "conversation", she'll have to tell the rest of us why she should remain in office nonetheless.

That's when, and only when,  Labour will be back in the game.

Just about my favourite political quotation comes from Ted Heath, on the day Mrs Thatcher fell. He claimed it to be an old Chinese proverb.

"If you wait long enough by the banks of the river, eventually the bodies of your enemies will float by"

Time to do a bit of waiting.