Tuesday, 31 March 2015

When...Not If? So now the question is "How?"

Well, here we are two days into the elongated Election Campaign, the one everyone is telling us is the most exciting and unpredictable in living memory, and , I don't know about you, but I'm absolutely despairing already of hearing anything I haven't heard many times before. 

Cameron has launched into what is, even for him, an extraordinary impersonation of the School Bully character from Ripping Yarns, sneering at that peculiar foreign looking little tick who is daring to stand for House Captain.  Ed Miliband meanwhile, (who I rather do like and think of as the most genuinely interesting left wing soul Labour has had near the apex of power since...well...since Michael Foot...that other splendid Hampstead intellectual and electoral liability), despairing of being taken seriously even by the Alpha Males of his own Party, searches for an opportunity in the Paxo interview to say, "Hell, yeah, I'm tough enough" which had me behind the sofa hiding from the telly faster than I have since the Cybermen escaped from their plastic Tomb in 1967. 

I think that even the buoyant SNP will struggle to say anything that will take anyone in Scotland by surprise, given the two years of the referendum campaign that happened just the other day. They may well feel that in Scotland they are so secure as not to want to say anything.  They do, after all, have a whole bunch of untried and unpredicatble prospective new MPs to chaperone. Anyway,  I thought it was telling that the most interesting and exploratory things that Nicola Sturgeon talked about on Saturday were the things she was saying to introduce herself and the Party of the wider UK.  Her message of "solidarity" has been predictably rubbished by the usual suspects, even before one gets to talking about Jim Murphy -  who has apparently produced leaflets for East Renfrewshire that omit to mention that he's standing for the Labour Party.

(Sorry, but WHAT is that ABOUT? I can't even begin to imagine the mindset that would so carelessly or deliberately insult his own supporters like that? )

Anyway, all this is the froth floating over what I think might be the real story of this election, at least from a Scottish point of view.  That all the stuff we were shouting at each other about last year is, however temporarily, on the UK agenda.  So I want to react to a couple of thoughtful pieces that have emerged, of late, from the London media bubble.  It does seem that now, for once, what Scotland votes for really matters in the course of a UK election, there is finally some proper thinking being done about what is actually going on, about what the context of what has been happening under the radar of the  Mainstream Media might actually mean.

I don't know if this will last, so I think we need to seize the moment., Remember, it was only that opinion poll that seemed to put YES over the top back in September that occasioned a rush of train tickets for journalists at Euston and King's Cross, and it is only the electoral lassitude of the three main Brit parties that is affording us the rare arithmetical opportunity to signify in British politics, and that Scotland (as such) not mattering is still a default position to which we can very easily return.

(Incidentally, when someone eventually writes the book about all this, we are probably going to need to give the Lib Dems a major vote of thanks for the way in which their naked lust to wriggle their arses in the comfy seats round the big table on the first floor at number 10 led them to make legislation for fixed term parliaments a deal breaker when they decided to give the Tories cover for all but the most ludicrously appalling of their notions of government by the Best Sort of People.  A five year fixed term is going to influence the post election negotiations in ways which we haven't expoerienced before, either in the 70s or 2010. This plus their having commited suicide politically is the really decisive game changer in terms of sheer parliamentary bean counting)

Anyway, Paul Mason and Polly Toynbee, who themselves represent very different wings of the metropolitan left have both written interesting wee essays for the Guardian this week both of which I thoroughly recommend if you haven't already read them.



Of the two, Mason's is the more acute and the less surprising, in that he has written very well on Scotland before, as well as his being a thoroughly good head on matters economic and European.  Polly Toynbee, whose work on social questions has been exemplary for thirty years, and whose loyalty to whatever time serving twerp Labour happen to have lumbered themselves with this time is normally unswerving, strikes a more predictably mournful note.

But both pieces seem to seriously and symptomatically accept (I hope) that the narrative the British establishment on the Left as much as the Right have been telling themselves about what has been happening to the Idea of Britain since the 1970s is not a uniform tale of adjustment to the "realities" of the global marketplace on the one hand, and to the inevitability that Finance Capital for the rich and heroin for the poor on the other.  That the remodelling under Thatcher and accepted under Blair is not the inescapable and uniform recent story of life in the UK.

Both Mason and Toynbee seem now to accept what we've known in our bones here in Scotland since the sixties, since the great run down of British Industrial Policy began with the closures on the Clyde, and the decimation of the economic base of "the regions" gathered pace in the steel mills and the coal mines (well before Margaret Thatcher came along to give it the Coup de Grace, by the way) has radically transformed and skewed the balances of economic and political forces in the UK at a far deeper cultural level than seems to have been apparent from the counting houses where one simply has had to switch one's portfolio of investment around a little bit.. 

Before the Second Worlds War we had an Empire that used to disproportionately employ the sons of the Scottish bourgeoisie just as its workshops and factories employed, rather less comfortably, the sons and daughters of everyone else. The near collapse of industry and Empire in the thirties and forties was held together with the glue of national industrial and employment politics along with the welfare state after the war.  For people of my generation, for every political generation before Blair, the British Deal after the war - that everyone was included and to a degree protected by the aspiration of full employment, of universal health care and education and of protection from the worst ravages of poverty - was what "normality" looked like.  The British State had a role and purpose that was thought of as the maintenance of a minimum standard of decency as the guarantor of social peace. There were always those who doubted this was sustainable, and the edges of the social contract were never entirely unfrayed.  But it took the oil price shock of 1973 to give the likes of Margaret Thatcher and her ideologues the license to tear the social contact up.  They dismantled the whole structure, starting with engineered unemployment and bargain basement de-nationalisation, letting the breezes of the market blow, and vastly enriching their own class and their hangers on in the process, thus normalising a concentration of all political and cultural as well as economic muscle around the financial and stock markets that were to be, from now on, the only true successors of 19th century imperial power. 

The new idea, enthusiastically embraced by Tony Blair and HIS acolytes, was that you could entirely reconfigure the shape of Britain in every way but one.  You could abandon the whole for the part without the people who lived there noticing.  You could remove the industrial and social policies that underpinned the holistic, inclusive Idea of Britain without any impact on what "Britain" meant to the people who lived there. The thought was that politics would be completely unaffected.  That you could substitute borrowing for wages, pfi for public investment, and that the rich would get SO rich that their increased tax receipts would keep politics exactly as it was, that the Great British Consensus would shift to the right, away from the state and towards the Greenspan-esque version of the market as democracy, and that nobody would really notice because we still had the Queen and all her horsey progeny to gawp at. And that even an economic crisis that meant that Capital went "on strike" for a few years - that the markets would no longer pick up the slack of the diminished state - had no implications beyond a need to renew blaming the poor for being screwed so you could screw them a bit more tightly.

Well, it hasn't worked out that way.  Scottish self-assertion (like other things)  is a delayed reaction to the murder of the British State by the rulers of that state. The Break Up of Britain was initiated in Whitehall every bit as much as in Edinburgh. Rather more and rather earlier, in fact. The rise of the SNP is not a cause of that Break Up...it is a symptom.  Ever since the seventies, the assertion of a distinct Scottish political settlement is as a response to the fact that the "British Idea" has become a joke, a posture, the "prestige" of a seat on the UN Security Council Security Council that seems to depend on Nuclear Weapons being kept near my house, and a promise of Socialist Solidarity that has been less than credible for a couple of decades, and when emerging from the sepulchral thrapple of Jolly Jim Murphy is just plain ludicrous.

When David Cameron appeals to us to stay in the name of our Shared Greatness, and Jim Murphy in terms of Shared Solidarity, they both make themselves look ridiculous.  The Empire and its succeeding welfare State are both dead and buried.  And it wasn't us that killed them.  And there is little point in evoking Churchillian metaphors to defend Little England from that Big Bully Alec Salmond when the very first response to the No vote was the incredible short sighted stupidity of the "punishment" of English Votes for English Laws. On grounds of competence as well as principle, the British State is wholly responsible for its own demise.

"We voted to stay with you, you bastards.  Get used to it." becomes the typically emotionally complicated battle cry of the latest trainload of radicals we've sent to Westminster.

We'll see how that works out.  Meanwhile, given that the election campaign isn't going to hold any surprises, let’s start our own surprising conversation about the social values that could underpin a new Britain (not great anymore) as well as a new Scotland. Both Paul Mason and Polly Toynbee, and the progressive opinion in the metropolis for which they stand, are now, I hope and believe, recognising themselves as provincials, that we are ALL provincials.  That new alliances need to take shape across an altered landscape.  That we are all still going to live on the same bit of green turf in the azure sea, but that this Sceptred Isle is going to have to look like a very different place from now on.  And most of all that progressive values are no longer predicated on a unitary condition.  That Union became an illusion in the real world long before Nicola Sturgeon came along.

It is the Labour party for whom this is the hardest lesson.  the Party is itself structured on a Britain that no longer exists and to which it still clings, meaning that it is out foxed and out fought both by the Tories (who don' give a shit about anyone very much including the English - and most Londoners, come to that) and the SNP, who are yet to face the structural challenges that will surely fall upon them very soon.

Now that "independence" or whatever we end up calling it - in any case, fundamental political change is a matter of "when" and not "if", all of us on these islands need to start exploring new models of society and power well beyond mere politics.  And if it really was cultural change in Scotland in the eighties that led us up here to where we seem to be arriving now, then I suspect that it is in the sphere of cultural exchange and ideas that we will find the emerging shapes of the Atlantic Archipelago we all want to live in when the future, long worked and hoped for, comes.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Corleone Maneuver

There's a great scene in Godfather 2 when Al Pacino is sitting behind a desk being insulted by a senator who he needs to "grandfather" a gaming licence for a new Casino.  The senator asks him for his offer.  And Michael, Satanic, smug...offers nothing. He knows he has the real power.

Well, that's just what Labour MPs did yesterday in unattributed gangster-esque briefings to the Westminster Lobby Press yesterday.  To quote this morning's Herald:

A source said that the message had been "unambiguous".
He said: "We can't, of course, physically prevent the SNP voting with us. But we are not going to give them anything for it. What are they going to do? Back the Tories?"

John McTernan actually tweeted this idea yesterday, Alex Massie floated it a blog in the Spectator. Quoting the language of Dirty Harry ; http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2015/03/ed-milibands-question-for-the-snp-do-you-feel-lucky-punks/

And the Godfather party are smugly slapping each other on the back this morning.  They're passing out cigars.   We just wait for them to murder a whore (that's in the movie) or (in Parliament) take some devo max bribe from the Tories...The SNP are trapped.  What are they gonna do? Heh Heh Heh.

Do?  They're going to smile. They just won. 
The Corleone Maneuver is not a masterstroke.  It's a concession.  Labour have just said that it's fine with them if Scotland votes for the SNP.  A Labour vote is unnecessary because the SNP would never bring down a Labour minority government. They have just given up winning an election in Scotland ever again. And made themselves look like surly, sneering thugs in the process.

"Fuck you" they have just said to the Scottish electorate. "Who gives a shit how you vote?  It will make no difference to us!"

After a brief moment of paying attention, they've just stuck their fingers back in their ears.

Hard to know where to start. (Especially as I wrote a blog here a couple of days ago urging sweet reason and civil conversation)

Of course the SNP won't do a deal with the Tories.  They'd have to be insane to even contemplate it, even if the Tories offered them Devo Max with bells and pennants on. Labour have once again totally misread their opponents and the Scottish electorate.  They really think that the SNP are so monomaniacally obsessed with the changing the constitution here and now that in the name of the present they have just handed the SNP the future.  In perpetuity On a plate. They're not the Corleones. They're the Clampetts.

Let's play this out.   The correct response from the SNP is to smile and say nothing. Of COURSE Scotland's vote in the Commons will be with Labour. (If a minority Labour government is elected) Of COURSE they won't bring down that Labour government. But they will push and push Labour to the left...then regretfully shake their heads and say "well, it will have to do" on a Balls Budget...and they'll abstain when Labour cut welfare..and sigh when the Tories and Labour push through Trident replacement together. 

Ah, well if we were only independent, they will say...in gleeful sorrow.

The SNP will smile, say very little, and wait to win. History is only going one way. They can afford to be patient. They'd be idiots not to. 

The only way the Mcternan/Corleone Maneuver works is if time stands still, if the long historical process the referendum was only part of...has stopped. Does it look like it's stopped to you?
Deep down, even on this morning when, I suspect, McTernan's idiotically jaundiced and patronising view of human nature in general and the SNP in particular has made them do something quite as dumb as to concede defeat and insult everyone in Scotland at the same time, Jim and John both know it.

In another borrowing from American culture, in the words of President Bartlett, what's next?

Monday, 16 March 2015

Is Sanity About to Break Out?

As I write, Ed Miliband has just declared that the Labour Party will not enter into a coalition with the SNP.  Given that the SNP took this off the agenda some weeks ago, one might think that this doesn't really matter.  It was shrug towards the obvious, a recognition of reality of the banal variety.

And so it was, probably, but I do think that there is something deeper going in in the silences in between the words.

First, of course, in strict parliamentary terms, no one needs to do a deal with anyone, formal or informal.  As John McTernan has just tweeted, the SNP MPs, however many there are, will have the simple right to vote with or against whatever minority administration is formed...Labour or Tory.
Again, nothing strictly speaking new there.  But in putting things so pragmatically, I think I detect some symptoms of change, real change, in the stance of the Labour Party that might demand a creative response from those of us who voted Yes, and continue to believe that genuine autonomy for Scotland is the best possible start for a renewal of the weary project of democracy in Great Britain. Today there was also an opinion poll which showed that 60% of the UK population now believes that radical constitutional change is coming, like it or not.  So I think it falls upon those of us who wanted such change all along to behave with some generosity and imagination.  It may be that things have changed as profoundly in the last week or so as they did the week before the referendum.

Let's consider the evidence.  It already seems that last week's spectacular display of Jockophobia - from Alan Massie's classical references, to Max Hastings fighting them on the beaches, and from the more down market "wrecking ball and random brown person" pictures in the Sun's two page spread to the James Bond Villain posters the Tories put out about Osama bin Salmond - was smoke and mirrors. It turns out that the most important words spoken about Scotland in this bizarre bifocal UK election were those that Ed Miliband said at the Labour Scotland event the weekend before last.  Sure there was the wee lassie in the tin hat stuff, but from Pained Ed and Creepy Jim, what did we hear last weekend in the vein of Nat Bashing and Border Controls?

Nothing.  Not a thing.  It was like the SNP didn't exist.

Now, it was possible to interpret this silence - and even the repudiation of the coalition that nobody was asking for - as a variant on what has been Scottish Labour's strategy since 2007 - namely, if we pretend the Nats aren't there, maybe they'll go away.  Indeed the sticking your fingers in your ears, shutting your eyes to any semblance of reality and going "LaLaLaLa!" has been, effectively, the noises made in the Westminster village all week.

Nonetheless, Patrick Wintour in this morning's Guardian reported, in advance of Ed's speech...(that is, it is now being allowed to be printed, it is being made known by "reliable" sources..)that the UK Labour Party doesn't really want to continue with the fiction that 30-40 SNP MPs elected by citizens of the UK can just be treated as if they aren't there. So pact or not, acknowledgement of those representatives will be mandatory.


Big of you, we might retort, to acknowledge our existence as voters. . Cynics among us might even think that this outbreak of reality watching is prompted only by the accident of UK electoral arithmetic that finds the UK parties in an apparently immovable  statistical dead heat that shows no signs of shifting.  Skeptics may say that this moment of clarity is only arising because despite the new energy and professionalism that the Murphy/McTernan/McDougall team has undoubtedly brought to the Labour message there is still nobody paying attention to it.

That's as maybe.  The tectonic plates are shifting, and some in the Labour Leadership are at least acting as if they understand that the old games might not work anymore, electorally or otherwise.

No matter where it comes from, i I want to steel myself to believing that a little window is opening up for us here, a window perhaps exemplified by the respectful and welcome piece that Labour's Kezia Dugdale wrote in today's Record defending Hamza Yousaf from the careless, chortling golf club bigotry of David Coburn.

It may be that none of these three are standing for election right now, and that this allows them more room to express themselves, (Indeed, Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie have also done well) But is it too much for me to hope that in this "room"...in this "civility"...there might be the beginnings, just the beginnings of a more constructive atmosphere in which people of good will can discuss the future governance of these islands, whether we call them the Atlantic Isles or not?


I think that if the Labour Party are really showing signs of relinquishing the defensive redoubt they've essentially being occupying for the last eight years, that there needs to be a reciprocal flexibility in the world view and public language of the other side. Not that I've been exactly innocent of tribalism, but again, for sound democratic reasons it may be that in these last few weeks before the election, we should be making ourselves a little psychological room for what's going to happen after the shouting and bawling.

The binary simplicity of Yes and No as alternatives, the crassness of the question, admitted of unquestioning and un-nuanced enthusiasm on one side and negativity on the other.  It also paradoxically allowed us to get past complexities in a way that our new circumstances simply won't allow. It feels to me like it's time for some grown ups to get a room and start talking about how we're actually going to make this work, both in terms of governance, and in terms of a future direction that we can all live with.  I think we can rely on parliamentary arithmetic to shift the Politician's discourse to some constructive engagement, but I think that Civic Scotland...that strange beast whose nature really did fundamentally change in the course of the referendum campaign, needs to screw the nut, as it were, and inform the public conversation with precisely the nuance and precision and bravery that politicians , it being the nature of their trade, avoid.

Labour are abandoning the public demand that the SNP, in  the wake of defeat in the referendum, voluntarily cease to exist. So we, on the Yes side, have to reciprocally concede that the Unionists, who won the referendum, aren't just going to step out of the way of whatever historical juggernaut we think we're driving to a destination we have never quite had to specify.

My over arching point is that what happened last September was that when we became sovereign for those few hours when we could vote on our own collective destiny, we became sovereign forever. Our future became our business.  Irrevocably.  That seems to be the reality that is sinking in to be met by silence in the ranks of the Labour Party and the screaming heebie-jeebies of the UK media. But what we on the Yes side need to accept is that the NO vote, paradoxically, by being a vote at all, meant that in some definitions of the word, we are independent already (in the sense of "not-dependent") and that we got what we wished for....but what we wished for turns out to be wholly unlike what we wished for. The Yes side did not get a mandate for constitutional change.  Rather, the politicians got a mandate for real change that it is taking some time for them to interpret.

And I'd like to state here and now that I think a lot of Jim Murphy's rhetoric about acknowledging the need for change is a serious struggling attempt to cope with this demand.  And that triumphalism on the part of the SNP is a serious misinterpretation of what just happened.  We did not give them a mandate to continue just as they are...the mandate was for a change that we expect them to to take part in.  It is a tearing up of the rules, not just for the Unionism that existed pre-referendum...but for "nationalism" as well.  The challenge to the SNP of their pyrrhic victory is just as serious as is the challenge to Labour.  (To be fair, Nicola Sturgeon too seems sensitive to the shifting new reality)

At the risk of making myself unpopular, I always thought that when Better Together accused us of not just of not being ready for the realities of "independence", but of not really knowing what that WAS...they had a point. I think the reciprocal gesture towards reality on the Yes side is some serious consideration now of dropping the word entirely. What we want, after all, is autonomy...what we want is to enshrine the principle that it is the people of Scotland from whom all political power should proceed.  And that if we choose to pool that autonomy in certain areas with others, then that is a democratic choice that proceeds from Scotland as a political entity.  I don't actually give a bugger what we call it.  The principle of choice proceeding from the individual citizen and grouping of citizens to the appropriate practical and democratic level of governance is what matters...call it nested autonomy, call it what you like.

We are all of us in a new situation and it is not just the ritual responses of the establishment that look tired and tetchy.  For example, the SNP was fully involved in the Smith Commission, and the horse trading involved in coming up with those proposals was entirely to do with a strategic attempt to contain change rather than embrace it and make it work in the interests of the good government of Scotland. And it felt irrelevant, like yesterday trying to pretend it was today.

Having said all this, there are people whose Westminster Kremlinology and electoral algebra I deeply respect who think this is all fluff and gibberish - that the Tories will form the next government as a minority with an informal C &S deal with UKIP and the DUP and those sons of fun, the Lib Dems....  That it's already done and dusted. Well...maybe...but doesn't that increase the obligation on the progressive forces on this island to find a new way to get ourselves together...not as rivals for the political territory, but as allies in the geographical territory that we do still share?

It may well be that the flexibility I'm arguing for is too little too late and will be scorned and that therefore the only way to achieve real change is with a constitutional hammer blow...like another referendum...one day...but I think we need to engage positively in the meantime and act as if we had faith that the recognition that change is inevitable will lead the UK as a whole into pragmatic, friendly conversation.  Anyway...that's for another time. Positivity today!

Right now I think the SNP could do worse than declare now that they are happy to take part in the Constitutional Convention that Labour have proposed.  I think we should look for a model of governance for these islands that might actually work, and I think we should be prepared to abandon pre-conceptions of what that might look like, attempting to derive first principles in a set of ideas on identity and autonomy that come from looking forward into the 21st Century. After all, "independence" was always a condition , for Scotland, that was more wished for than actual.  We are all going to stay living on the same small set of islands no matter what the rhetoric of the nut jobs of Brit-Nattery and Scot-Nattery alike.

We were endlessly declaring on the Yes side, that this wasn't about identity anything so much as it was about defending the values of social democracy in a hostile and difficult world.,  We believed,that Scottish autonomy was the most positive and internationalist way in which we could play a positive part in the struggles of the centuries to come.  Time to act as if we believed it.  Time to act like the grown ups we said we were.  Time to get a room.

Addendum:I wrote this piece, and am catching some shit for it, because it seems to me that if the penny is finally dropping with the Establishment that the status quo in untenable...and their reaction is to have the screaming abdabs in print, then smiling in sweet reason seemed to me the best way to respond. If we take a serious look at what kind of Union might be sustainable in our changed circumstances, this is not because I think such a thing is desirable in itself, or even possible, but because to make the case for "independence" requires eliminating a properly, positively thought through alternative first. The fact that no one is doing that from the NO side (yet) meant I felt it was up to me to make a first stumbling stab at it. We live in a small country where opinion is divided down the middle next door to a big country where the penny is only just dropping that there is some serious stuff to think about I am dead certain that the way forward has to include creating a consensus about the future with both. I don't think the Unionists help by shouts and threats. I really don't think it helps to shout and threaten back.