21 October 2014

Stewart Hosie: "Our New Scotland – The Next Step…"

Like many folk in the party, I remain undecided about which of the three candidates for Deputy Leader of the SNP I should support. How do their visions differ? What are they all about? Having a wee platform here, I thought I'd take the opportunity to ask all three to write me up to 1,000 words on the thinking behind their bids to replace Nicola Sturgeon. Newspapers only have so much space. On telly and on radio, one has next to no time to say anything at all. On blogs, we can afford to be a bit more leisurely and considered. On Monday, we heard from Transport Minister, Keith Brown MSP. Today, it is Dundee East MP, Stewart Hosie's turn, to make his pitch.

The Labour Party in Scotland is in meltdown.

That’s an unusual way to start an article, but as we approach the next challenge the SNP and the wider Independence movement faces - it is important - because that next challenge is the 2015 General Election.

This should not, in my view, be a re-run of the referendum. Instead it is the Scottish people’s opportunity to hold Westminster’s ‘feet to the fire’ and force them to fulfil their promises.

So remember what they told us. “We’re going to be, within a year or two, as close to a federal state as you can be.” (Gordon Brown, 14 August 2014). Which, sounds very similar to the pledge (or vow) made by the Prime Minister. “If we get a No vote …, that will trigger a major, unprecedented programme of devolution with additional powers for the Scottish Parliament.” (David Cameron, 15 September 2014)

But the proposals published so far by the UK parties neither meet the public demand for “devo-max” or the expectations raised during the referendum campaign. 

Their proposals would devolve barely 30% of Scotland’s revenue base, or to put that another way, less than half the funding requirements of the Scottish Parliament. These are not “extensive new powers”, that is not “federalism”. Rather those are extremely modest proposals and likely to disappoint not just the 1.6 million who voted Yes, but the large number of those who voted No in order to secure substantial new powers.

The only way to make unionism sit up and take heed – and to secure substantial new powers – is to elect the largest number of Independence supporting MPs to Westminster ever. While we may win seats from the Lib Dems, and they deserve to lose them, our primary opponents in most seats in Scotland are Labour. That is why their all too public collapse is important. That and the fact their devolution offering is even weaker than the Tories. So far, so self evident. The question is how do we win these seats?

In my view, it hinges on keeping the Yes Movement together to campaign for Independence supporting MPs and for more powers while at all times making the case for Independence. And in arguing for real maximum devolution (everything bar defence and foreign affairs), we would reach out not just to those who voted Yes, but 25% of those who voted No expecting substantial new powers for Scotland

I am certain that the best way to make sure Westminster delivers will be to return the largest ever number of Independence supporting MPs to Westminster. I’m equally certain that many of the wonderful, talented people who emerged through the Independence campaign will contest the next election. But The SNP will be the engine of the campaign and with over 80,000 members it will be a turbo charged one. However, the wider Independence movement can provide further fuel and momentum to that campaign. 

In practice that means looking at ways of working beyond party interests to maximise the participation of those who campaigned and voted for a better Scotland by offering them an opportunity to campaign and vote again for change at next year’s General Election. I have no doubt that the SNP can and will send the largest ever number of SNP MPs to Westminster at next year’s general election, but if we build a Yes Alliance, there is an opportunity to do even more than that.

What is clear is that whether we campaign on a joint platform of maximum powers for Scotland, or select candidates from the range of hugely talented people who emerged through the referendum campaign, the SNP should show the same willingness to work with individuals and organisations to make sure the largest number of Independence supporting MPs is delivered to Westminster next May. 

By turning the strong desire for change into votes for change next year the Scottish people can sweep aside the vested interests of the Westminster old guard. This will deliver the best chance of substantial new powers for Scotland.

It is for agreement as to how formal or informal such cooperation would be, but what a powerful alliance we could deliver to stand up for Scotland. Of course any broad campaign will require approval from not just the SNP but many of the other parties and organisations involved in Yes but it is important that we begin build that alliance now to deliver for Scotland.

2015 is just the next step for Scotland. There will be many, many miles to walk to Independence after that. But it is an important step in a very important year. I believe I have the skills and experience to help offer some leadership over this period, which is why I have put myself forward as a candidate for Depute Leader of the SNP.

All the hopes and dreams we have for a richer, fairer, greener, more socially just society need Scotland’s people to take the next step and demand more powers. Let’s make sure the Independence Movement is united and sure-footed as we campaign, together, to take this most important next step.

Stewart Hosie MP

20 October 2014

Keith Brown: "Stands Scotland where it did?"


Today, I bring you the first in what I hope will be a series of guest posts from the three contenders to replace Nicola Sturgeon as Deputy Leader of the SNP. I'm open minded about that contest, and persuadable, so wanted to provide an open platform to each of the candidates to articulate their visions and set out their values. First up, Keith Brown MSP makes his case....

L'Ecosse est-elle restée fidèle à elle-même?

Well, you can't start a guest post on Lallands Peat Worrier without a spot of French, can you? Stands Scotland where it did?

Scotland did not die; we did not collapse in September and we did not lift ourselves above the ordinary and soar in the clouds of independence. We stood, instead, in the full glare of the world spotlight and decided 'not yet'. They turned the spotlight off and we looked to ourselves again and defied explanation. The Yes campaign, defeated, gathered its strength and got back to its feet within hours. 

In days the membership of the independence parties rose exponentially, the Greens reaching 6,000, the SNP surpassing 80,000. Post referendum Yes demonstrations collected food for those less fortunate, showing the solidarity and social communion that elevated the Yes campaign. We're told we should accept the result, revel in the record electoral registration and marvel at the 85% turnout. Alternatively, we're told that the 45% should fight again, that the 55% were lied to and believed it, and that one last push takes us where we need to go.

I don't hang my coat on either side of that argument, I've got more hope and more ambition for my country than that - tempered with a bit of realism. We watched our country rise to the biggest democratic challenge that any nation can face and our achievement was not the registration or the turnout, and it was neither the 45% nor the 55%. We showed that political debate could be better than the skinking fare that jaups in Westminster luggies; we showed that political debate - the biggest political debate - could be conducted well and with good humour for the most part. 

We showed that the people can own the debate, that they can claim it as their own and that politicians can be and must be a part of the people's debate rather than thinking that they can rule without consent and participation, that somehow they are above the people. Scotland showed that politics can, in that time honoured phrase, be of the people, for the people and by the people. 

That is our achievement; we have raised politics to the level of the people and the greatest failure we could ever have is to let it fall back and become, once again, a playground for the rich, the ignorant and the uncaring. Westminster retains the right to govern, for now, but it cannot dictate how Scotland does politics. Indeed, it the task of all of us, to make sure it doesn't. Survival of the fittest may be how evolution works but society should aspire to something better.

We don't do that by fixating on the past, we do that by inventing the future. We have to look at what we can do now, argue in the Smith Commission for the powers to do what we need to do in the near future, and keep agitating for independence. So we have to prioritise and plan and keep dreaming. We have to be realistic about what we can do but never settle for thinking that it's all that should be done or all we can ever do. Let's keep lifting our eyes so we can see further, make sure we always believe in the strength of people and their imagination, and make sure we trust each other. We need government brave enough to dream and smart enough to face reality, a party hard enough to stand up in the face of the storm and flexible enough to change in the face of changing facts, and a movement still imagining a better future but working for a better present.

So while we dream of eliminating poverty and the need for food banks; while we work to improve education and campaign to get rid of nuclear weapons, what else falls to us to do? Scotland faces debilitating welfare cuts, indifferent economic management and an assault on human rights by the UK Government - including the undercutting of equalities legislation. and a Westminster elite, acting with unfamiliar alacrity to demonstrate that it has 'done Scotland'. Business as usual means looking forward to tax and welfare violence from the UK Government

We've seen John Swinney move to ease the pain of the Bedroom Tax - he can't change the benefits system, though, and that's the problem. We can spend Scottish Government money on one chase after another but there will come a time when we can't. At some point we have to start asking what else we cut to keep mending the wounds caused by Westminster - health? Education? Local Government? 

If we don't control the benefits system we can't change how they work and if we don't control tax we can't find the money to control the benefits system. We need to be able to control both systems just to get some sense of decency back. We don't have those powers now and the chances of the Smith Commission delivering them are fairly low; we'll need independence for that.

We need to be able to get people off of benefits, too - by creating jobs. Bringing forward the capital investment programme brought jobs to our communities but while we're constricted by Westminster rules on borrowing and spending that's a limited bounty. If we can't change the rules around employment we can't make a real difference to job creation, though; that needs independence.

Equality legislation suffers the same problems - someone will be saying that we can't have different laws governing equality here than in the rest of the UK. There won't be any rationale offered for that - just an assertion - but it will be taken to be true. There's no real reason at all why Scotland can't have control of equality, of basic human rights, but it will be 'too difficult' to manage or deliver. The real reason will be that it's too hard for Westminster to let go of anything they hold - any power they have they will seek to keep.

If you want an example of how there is a disconnect between Scotland's powers and the powers we need there's a perfect example in a decision I had to make recently. I'm Transport Minister and had to award the Scotrail franchise; I could award the contract to a public sector company but not a Scottish public sector company - it's illegal for us to own our own railway service. We've got some power over the railway provision but not all of it. I think that the deal I managed to get shows that we do what we can with what we have to get Scotland the best deal possible but the fact that we can't set the basic terms for making the deal points to the real flaw of devolution - you may appear to have power but if someone else has control over the framework you have no real power.

So we'll continue to work with the powers we have and we'll argue in the Smith Commission for the additional powers we need to improve the lives of Scots across the board but we cannot let it lie there. Devolution is the management of power, not the possession of it and that is simply not good enough for Scotland - it never has been. We have to reinvigorate the SNP and the larger campaign that the SNP is part of; we have to be part of a society that refuses to allow the poor to starve and stands up for all of our fellow citizens; we have to be part of a movement that refuses to lie down and allow nuclear weapons to be housed in our waters.

We have to govern well with the best interests of Scotland at heart and that means looking outwards and finding ways to improve the services we offer, we must never be content with how our NHS works, or our education system, or our Justice system. There will always be something that can be done to improve them and we have to look for that; in our newly expanded party membership there will be people who have expertise in all kinds of different areas and we should tap into that and the connections that they have. 

Our policy-making should be owned by our members and I want to give it back with regional policy forums, an online policy discussion site, regular National Assemblies and more open policy formulation. We have to have confidence in our members and in our activists and they have to have confidence in what they're doing. I want to set up training sessions and provide support material for our organisers, activists and local office-bearers. We have to build a party that is connected to every aspect of Scots society and reaches out internationally and that takes work.

Never again should Westminster feel that it can take Scotland for granted, either; we have to continue to agitate for more power to be devolved but we'll also have to continue to campaign to rid our country of nuclear weapons, to have our voice heard internationally, to encourage, social justice, fairness and equality. Independence remains the goal, remains the one major change which will give us the tools to really improve Scotland, and we have to keep working towards it.

Independence will come when the people of Scotland say it does and a new referendum will be called when the time is right because a referendum is the only way in which we can be sure that the people are with us in making that change. In the meantime we have to keep on persuading people, we have to speak to the 55% who said No, find out why they weren't persuaded and work to change their minds. We have to keep making the case for independence, keep campaigning to make Scotland a better nation, and keep working as if we live in the early days of that better nation.

Govern well now, improve Scotland as we can, but reach for the stars. A beacon of hope and aspiration shone across this land and it's our job to keep it lit; it's our duty to plan a better future and build a better present. I want to be a part of that and I can help organise towards it; that's why I want to be Depute Leader of the SNP - our task is not yet done - and I hope you'll join me on that journey.

Keith Brown MSP

19 October 2014

Scottish Labour: in the beartrap?

A question of low, cynical politics: what happens to the Smith Commission on enhanced devolution if and when Labour drags its feet? What do the Liberals and the Tories do? In Westminster's recent debate on English votes for English laws - oh, and #devosomething for Scotland - William Hague told the Commons:

"The enactment of what we are all talking about on Scottish devolution is of course after the general election. Draft legislation in January, a bill to be introduced whoever wins the general election in May. So that is to be enacted at the beginning of the next parliament. I believe that we can, the country can reach a decision."

A guileless reading of this comment suggests that the UK government is committed to "constructive cross-party working" - which is really to say, getting Labour onside with whatever the Smith Commission comes up with. The Greens and the SNP can go hang. The critical question is: who might hold the keys to Downing Street? The possibility - even the likelihood - of a hung parliament being elected in 2015 significantly complicates this question. But it also opens up opportunities for political mischief - if the coalition parties prove sufficiently Machiavellian and are willing to play fast and loose and ruggedly political with the constitution. 

There was a certain sinister grace to the way in which, after the referendum result, Cameron drew a dagger on the Labour Party. Osborne's fingerprints were all over it. The quid pro quo for enhanced Scottish autonomy? English votes for English laws. By hook or by crook, Labour looked buggered. Which of these unpalatable choices would sir prefer? 

If Labour ratted on additional autonomy for Scotland to save its Westminster skin, Miliband's 35% strategy would be bust by ructions in his Scottish heartlands. If not, and the party endorsed the idea of constricting the voting rights of its Scottish MPs, there is a real possibility of Labour being in government but not in power when it comes to the English domestic agenda of health, education and so on. Alternatively, as recent weeks have seen, Labour could choose to box itself in on the issue, stammering out unconvincing accounts of why their representatives from Glasgow should be allowed to impose their preferences on tuition fees and models of health service delivery on the English people. Quite the predicament.

Hague's conciliatory comments might suggest that Cameron's unanticipated backstab was a rare lapse in the consensual tone which will predominate in the discussion of more devolution for Scotland. I'm not so sure. If we take Hague seriously, then the Smith Commission would have to settle on whatever lowest common denominator the reluctant representatives of the People's Party are willing to agree. But what if Hague's comments are not the innocent, good faith commitment they seem, but a canny bit of expectations management, anticipating another blow of the stiletto to an unsuspecting Labour's soft underbelly?

If Labour's willingness to endorse additional autonomy for Holyrood falls significantly short of the level the Liberal Democrats and the Tories are willing to accept, they are presented with a clear political opportunity to sideline the Labour Party, to sow discord internally, and to imperil the base strategy which seems Miliband's best hope of seizing back power. And with a general election pending, why not take it? Labour's submission to Lord Smith goes no further than their Devolution Commission. Complacent as ever, Labour's scheme seems to be to huddle behind the guarantee that the Commission is a cross-party process, sheltering the party from its own lack of ambition, secure in the belief that they must be kept on side, come what may. This may prove a serious political misjudgment.

If I was a Tory, pondering the general election, I'd have mischief on my mind. At present, I'd be quietly cultivating the idea that this cross-party coalition would deliver. You've got to keep your options open, after all. It might come off. Perhaps the Labour negotiators will be willing and able to advance from their pre-referendum position, only too happy to use the escape hatch of the Smith Commission process to flee from and forget their bungling past plans for enhanced autonomy. But if Labour lives down to expectations, participating in a grudging spirit of mendicancy and paucity of ambition, there's a political bear trap ready to be sprung, and few reasons for the Tories and the Liberals not to spring it.

If the outward show is anything to go by, the governing voices in Labour seem to think a lowest common denominator deal will cut it. But what if the Tories and the Liberals take a different tack? What if, instead of scurrying to whatever squishy middle Labour is willing to occupy, they sideline the People's Party entirely, collapsing the all-party Smith Commission and endorsing a newer, more radical vision of Scottish autonomy which excludes Labour and denounces them for a nest of  useless fearties?

If this was to work politically, they'd have to make the collapse of the Smith Commission look like Labour's fault, and justify it on the grounds that Labour lacked ambition for Scotland. A summary survey of the newspapers this morning suggests that this is a story which many folk would be only too willing to accept and believe. You can imagine David Cameron's speech, delivered in Edinburgh, more in sorrow than in anger, gleefully appropriating Labour's devolution vocabulary and giving them another dose of Osborne's dagger:

"We entered this process in good faith. As the record shows, we always hoped and believed that a common sense deal could be struck which would reflect the aspirations of the Scottish people, and which all of us, every UK political party, could endorse. I made a solemn vow. I promised the Scottish people that we'd get this done, and I will keep faith with them.  
It would be a dereliction of duty on my part, to allow the Labour Party's lack of ambition and vision to stand in the way of honouring our promises to the Scottish people.   
It is with some regret, therefore, that I today announce that it has not been possible to include the Labour Party in our radical plans for Scottish Home Rule. We want to see a powerhouse Scottish Parliament, responsible for what she earns, able to take big decisions about public services and welfare. Labour, by contrast, want a second-rate assembly with powers not fit for Scotland's place in the United Kingdom in the 21st century. That is not acceptable to us, and I believe, is not acceptable to Scotland. 
At every turn, Labour as blocked good ideas for Scotland, and good ideas for the United Kingdom. Because of their lack of vision, and their lack of faith in the Scottish people's capacity for greater self-government within the United Kingdom, we had to leave them behind. Scotland and Britain expect more than this discredited, clapped-out Labour Party is able or willing to offer them. 
But we are not disheartened. Our plans go further, are bolder. We are ambitious for Scotland, and for the United Kingdom. And if we are re-elected in 2015, we will give Scotland the powers she needs. Part of this country, but able to set her own priorities. Part of Britain, but with real home rule." 

Cue hilarious turmoil in Labour's back yard in Scotland, as the "party of devolution" is well and truly trolled. Do the Tories stand directly to benefit in terms of additional seats and MPs? Probably not. But Labour's campaign in Scotland in 2015 is already shaping up to face formidable difficulties. Things don't have to go calamitously badly for Ed Miliband in Scotland to put his position in Westminster at risk.

If Labour hopes to run the general election as a base strategy + alienated Liberal Democrats, anything the Tories can do to disrupt and imperil Labour's base of support looks worth doing. If they support the devolution schemes anyway, why not try to squeeze partisan political benefit from it and screw over your opponents at the same time? I know what I'd do.

If Labour prove reluctant and unambitious negotiators in the Smith process, there's obvious space for a counter-intuitive Tory strategy here, and a golden chance to fling a lit firecracker into the powder magazine of the Scottish Labour Party. Don't be shocked if they take it.

12 October 2014

She's not up to it

The Normandy Hotel in Renfrew, before the referendum. The Pakistan Welfare dinner. The Vale of Atholl pipe band have filed out, having smashed out renditions of the Flower of Scotland and the national anthem of Pakistan. The room is thronging with respectably dressed folk, the men abuzz with handshakes and gossip, the kids on their best behaviour, the tables piled high with iced lassi. The minutes tick by slowly.

Proceedings run long, and are punctuated by long breaks during which this conviviality boils over, chairs and tables abandoned. An officious major domo in a red coattee and medal, loosely - and with mounting irritation - structures proceedings with booming passive aggression. When the crowd are finally persuaded to sit, a visually-impaired young man recites a verse from the Koran from memory. We hear a touching remembrance speech from the son of a recently-departed stalwart of the organisation. The Pakistani ambassador reflects on the ties binding Scotland and his country. The room is ecumenical, but chock full of politicians and senior state functionaries of every political hue. 

The top table - indeed the whole room - is crammed with familiar faces. Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon, wee Willie Rennie, Tory Deputy Jackson Carlaw, the Lord Advocate, a deputy chief constable, a smattering of councillors and a wealth of parliamentarians, mainly Labour and SNP. Humza Yousaf glad-hands about wearing a splendid sequinned coat you imagine his mammy bought him. Anas Sarwar works the room like a greased octopus. Almost all of the other politicians - at least those with a sparkle of charisma - do likewise. Nicola moves assiduously from table to table, looking both elegant and appropriate in a pale salmon shalwar kameez. Although perhaps not gregarious by disposition, Sturgeon has diligently acquired the social and political skills. But for the odd flicker of self-consciousness, you'd never guess she felt at all out of place, operating against type.

But look. Up there. On stage. A small, still figure wearing a fixed rictus smile that doesn't quite reach her eyes. You might guess at a sort of loneliness alive in her as, immobile and with searching eyes, she looks out across the babbling mass of sociability. And she doesn't join in. As someone with a thick vein of inadequacy in my own temperament, I recognise the tension which comes from feeling that you ought to do things which don't come entirely naturally or comfortably, when you hesitate, and miss opportunities you know you should take. It is ghastly, paralysing. You feel useless, utterly useless in the pit of your belly.

Her speech is respectable, the delivery workmanlike, if not inspiring. Others catch the mood more deftly. Even Jackson Carlaw, who keeps things short, direct and self-effacing. The sense of the lady's overwhelming shyness is brought home even more powerfully in one of the dinner's many breaks - as enthusiasts waylay Alex Salmond for a blether, or a photograph. He looks in his element, holding court, seemingly inexhaustible. She, by contrast, creeps around the big hotel room ignored, quietly, awkward. As soon as possible, she disappears into the night under a floral umbrella, as the rain begins to fall. I doubt many - maybe any - hands were shaken. The set piece speech was fine, the script written; but pressing the flesh was a terrifying chore which she never really attempted.  

I have an inexplicable soft spot for Johann Lamont. Or maybe it's a misplaced sense of pity. It is easy to like people's harmless vulnerabilities, and she strikes me, first and foremost as a self-conscious sort of person, with a thin skin, and a brittle sense of self underneath it. It's never a pretty thing to see a human personality, pinned to the PR rack, being pulled into strange and unattractive shapes by the perceived demands of the political personality being constructed for them. But with the now-departed Paul Sinclair working the winch and tending to the ropes, the leader of the Labour Party in the Scottish Parliament has been transformed into a ferocious, non-nonsense, belligerent personality, punctuated by long, soothing spells as the invisible woman. 

You can imagine her pulling a cheeky child up short, telling them they'd never amount to anything in life. I'm not saying she did. I hope she didn't. But that is this kind of unlovely, discouraging teacher which Lamont has made her public persona, or been made into. It is difficult to imagine that Johann's teaching career left behind it a wealth of students who can say that she bulldozed through her classes like a knifegrinder – seeing "the dull minds scattering sparks of themselves, becoming razory, becoming useful", as Norman MacCaig once wrote In Praise of a Man. That's an opportunity missed. 

The disastrous thing is, there is no gravitas to any of this. Her latest relaunch speech - wittily described by one of my crueller followers on twitter as "cargo cult Obama" - is an ungrammatical mish-mash of rhetorical tropes and meaningless drivel. Whoever composed it - and part of me fancies this might be from the desk of Lamont herself - seems to think that the essence of uplifting rhetoric is combining the same words in as many different senses in a single sentence as possible. Hence the sub-Blairite payoff: "We can have any number of Scotland Acts - Scotland will improve when Scotland unites and all of Scotland acts and that is the challenge." It is a kind of pastiche of eloquence, to be uttered with feeling, in pert, verbless sentences, but it is emotionally and politically vacuous. 

Much of the recent gossip around the parliament has focussed on Lamont's longevity. Will she survive till 2016? And who could take over from her anyway? She hasn't taken out Jim Murphy at the knees, but after the referendum result, she seems to have acquired a more resolute gleam in either eye. It is as if a small, flattering voice has stolen from somewhere in her skull, "I've seen off Alex Salmond. I can do this. I'll stay.My own sense has always been that it is the function of caretaker leaders to lose elections, (and perhaps to win them, if they get lucky) and Johann hasn't lost her's yet. She hasn't done the job, and cannot, with any credibility, throw in the towel now.

But there are also the bright flashes, and a permanent residual glow, of deep, deep insecurity about the Labour MSP, which I expect to be the focus of increasing attention has 2016 approaches.  Peter Ross's 2013 interview in the Scotland on Sunday with Lamont is required reading, and is - very gently, very intuitively - eviscerating. Peter captures that sense of self-consciousness which I observed in the Normandy Hotel in bright colours, and which goes a long way to explaining some of the other, awkward expressions of Lamont's public persona.  A key passage:

"Perhaps because her self-esteem is so rooted in that old image of herself as the clever girl from the tenements, this criticism seems to nag at her and she comes back to it later on. “The worst thing anybody could call me is stupid.” She understands, I think, how corrosive this sort of criticism can be; how, for people who are a little fragile it can eat away at your guts, your head." 

One expression of this, for me, is Johann's pretentiousness, in the very specific sense of "trying to impress by affecting greater importance or merit than is actually possessed." I know, I know, Lamont's favoured shtick is the plain-speaking, no-nonsense dominie. The suggestion seems improbable and even impertinent, particularly from someone as excessively florid as me, but bear with me. Watch the Labour leader talk about any topic, given room to run. She's a remarkably digressive, and frequently incoherent, speaker. Watch her trying and failing to explain her devolution plans to Gordon Brewer. Watch her performance on telly on referendum night, setting out the main , complex factors informing the vote.  Watch her in any setting, where she has time to develop a point, without a script clutched for grim death to read from. She tanks.

The obvious interpretation of this is simply that her mind is stumbling and unfocussed, her tongue tied and tripping her, but I think that diagnosis misses the more interesting point. Lamont doesn't have the confidence to be simple. Her digressive tendency derives from a generally unsuccessful effort to present herself as master of the brief, in command of the technicalities, able to spring from one topic to the next with elegance and fluency. It springs, in short, from inadequacy and a misplaced effort to make out her sense of self as, in Ross's phrase, "a clever girl from the tenements." It turns every considered answer into a dreary psychodrama. 

The only problem is, Lamont doesn't have the communication skills or the smarts to prosper in the role she's allotted to herself. She isn't the master of the brief, and doesn't have the prowess to pretend otherwise. Ensnared by her inadequacies, she conspires to make herself look considerably dumber and less eloquent than she undoubtedly can be. In trying and failing to be impressive, she leaves a mangled wreckage of loosely strung together words and concepts, exemplified by her statement, during the referendum campaign, that "Scots aren't genetically programmed to make political decisions." What she meant by that remark was that Scottish political inclinations are not inborn or inevitable - but instead served up an eminently quotable suggestion that ye and me are a chromosome or two short of the full governing set. This tendency is only likely to be aggravated as 2016 approaches, and the thin film of her self-esteem stews in the battery acid of a campaign.

Emotionally vulnerable leaders are, all too easily, eaten alive in politics. I say it with no relish whatever. This is an ugly thing to see. But if Johann stays on, and my reading of her is anywhere near right, that is the fate awaiting her as the next Scottish Parliamentary election approaches. If the subtext of the next SNP Holyrood campaign is She's Not Up To It, it is hard not to feel that Lamont's own self-confidence isn't rotted by that self-same, nagging doubt. As a human personality, with all of the vulnerability which comes from that, Johann is going to be crucified, not just politically, but in herself. Part of me feels for the the peeping face at the top table, shyly refusing to descend. The referendum may be won, the Labour leader may feel buoyed, but I wouldn't want a lend of Lamont's shoes for anything. 

6 October 2014

Utter scumbags

The intellectual and political problems with the Tory indictment of the Human Rights Act, the European Convention and the Court of Human Rights are legion. The idea of "Europe's war on British justice", and of a meddling Strasbourg Court, is blown to bits by the data. The UK lost eight cases in the European Court last year. Chris Grayling and Theresa May argue that losing 0.48% of the cases lodged against you represents an illegitimate and hyperactive form of judicial activism. 

I believe that the European Court's jurisdiction represents a modest check on the overwhelming powers of the state to crush the life, liberty and privacy of the individual. It is this government's overreaction to the modesty of the European Convention's protections which makes it so contemptible. The Lord Chancellor's dismal suggestion that only the popular and the agreeable parts of our community should have their qualified rights protected spectacularly misses the point. 

I can accept, politically and philosophically, that there is a serious debate to be had about the desirability of entrenching fundamental rights in law, how far you go, and the extent to which we empower (in our tradition, an unelected and socially and professionally narrow) judiciary to take important political decisions in the absence of a participative democratic process. Reasonable people, to my mind, can reasonably differ on these questions. 

What I cannot accept, however, is the properly grotesque argument which this contemptible, reckless, immoral and intellectually bust Conservative Party is running to justify and explain its human rights plans. In Grayling's thumping rhetoric to the grinning faithful in Birmingham, you do not see a meaningful and serious-minded parliamentary deliberation on the contested understandings of human rights, but an abject and irresponsible failure to engage in any intellectual or morally credible way with fundamental rights ideas.

Can it be right - can it ever be right - to deliver anybody over into circumstances where we reasonable expect they will be tortured, subject to inhuman and degrading treatment or the flagrant denial of justice? According to David Cameron and his party, this should be an option, and Jehovah rot them, those "unelected Euro judges" in Strasbourg are holding up the rendering flights. The interfering so-and-sos. Electric batteries are running down in dank cells, unused, somewhere in the world. The state torturer's rope hangs idle. All because some piffling jurist from Luxembourg believes that it can't be right to deport anyone - even your worst enemy - into the hands of humanity's darkest and most inhumane functionaries. Britain deserves better. We must scrap the Act. 

This isn't a civil and anxious debate about the proper scope of privacy rights, or the right to liberty, but a tantrum, impervious to the facts. It's the work of a smug toddler standing triumphant over a fly he's malevolently depinioned. "Aren't I a clever boy?" he gloats. The moral compass of this Conservative Party is a forgotten aftermath of shards and broken glass, arms bent and buckled. Theresa May tells cheap jokes about cats, glowing with the glib self-image of being the new deputy in town, tough on crime, tough on some undifferentiated, disagreeable them, animated only by brisk and matronly common sense. I can't begin to describe the malevolence, tawdriness and irresponsibility of this attitude.

The brutal reality of the Tories' human rights rhetoric is not that it aims to repatriate the human rights debate, but to liberate the government from elementary principles of fairness, humanity, compassion and justice. What they are proposing isn't just politically disagreeable: it is monstrous. See no evil, hear no evil cannot be a principle of British justice. 

Nobody with any moral sensibility could make the case for deporting folk to places where there is a real risk they will be tortured. Nobody with an ounce of responsible humanity could promote it. But this government, this shallow bunch of irresponsible, gut-gripped eejits don't care. It breaks my heart and burns my blood.

After all, how can the trivial matter of connecting one of your fellow, sentient creatures up to a car battery compare to the overwhelming importance of attracting a few extra UKIP votes in the debatable lands of Essex and Kent? How can the soles of feet, beaten black and blue, measure up to the significance of being able to give a sleek and populist address to your fellow Conservatives at Conference, who cheer like dunderheads, more than drowning out the distant screams? Who gives a damn if some villainous foreigner with disagreeable views finds himself suspended from the ceiling, arms half wrenched from their sockets? 

This is Britain. We have the right to live in freedom from such persons. I'm sure you'll find it in Magna Carta somewhere. Why should we care that we've pitched them into this disaster? After all, it isn't our police, our secret services who are sodomising them with truncheons or connecting up their genitalia to car batteries. Lie back and think of England. Rejoice in the liberties of a freeborn Briton: you've earned them. You're not a gypsy, or a criminal, or someone whose views the central government finds disagreeable. Your right not to be tortured isn't trivial.

Congratulations, comrades. We've finally uncovered Britain's moral mission in the world: to lend a helping political hand to tyrants and torturers in Europe, and the great wild world beyond. To excuse their torture chambers and their mistreatments of their citizens, to align ourselves with the Belarusian tyranny, and the persecutors of Kurds, and the Roma. To embolden, in short, everything most ghastly about illiberal state apparatuses. All for the sake of getting a modest electoral edge over Nigel Farage.
 
These people disgust me. 

We cannot deliver people up to torturers' chains and hooks and shrug, unmoved, and say "it is nothing to me guv'" over the anguished cries of the people - the fellow creatures - we make their victims. Yet this is precisely what David Cameron and his allies now propose, for the sake of a sympathetic response from the eurosceptic tabloids. They chafe against the modest restraints of the European Convention, flinging every cheap jibe and intellectually lazy epithet at the judges of the European Court. They want the liberty to do wrong - horrible, horrible wrong - for the sake of a human rights fairytale and good headlines in the Express. Nothing better expresses the festering rot which gnaws at British politics.

These people are scumbags. Utter, utter scumbags.

4 October 2014

Devolution: Grayling's human rights petard

Joy be. "So at long last, with a Conservative Government after the next election, this country will have a new British Bill of Rights to be passed in our Parliament rooted in our values and as for Labour’s Human Rights Act? We will scrap it, once and for all." 

Earlier this week, the Tories put some flesh on the bare bones of Cameron's commitments in his conference speech, in a document entitled "Protecting human rights in the UK." The document's only reference to the implications of the wheeze for the devolved authorities in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland is the banal observation that:

"We will work with the devolved administrations and legislatures as necessary to make sure there is an effective new settlement across the UK."

English lawyers like Carl Gardner and Mark Elliot have already begun to put the logic of Chris Grayling's madcap scheme to the sword. To some extent submerged in all of this, however, are the implications for Scotland. And here it gets a wee bit complicated. Professor Aileen McHarg has a comprehensive blog on point up on the UK Human Rights blog which surveys the key issues. What follows is a more compressed account, given a more partisan topspin.

A couple of days back, David Maddox published a story on the Scotsman ("Scotland exempt from Tories' Human Rights axe"), which carried a remarkable, clearly edited and utterly incoherent quote from an unnamed Scotland Office spokesman, claiming

"... that human rights legislation is devolved to the Scottish Parliament because it was “built into the 1998 Scotland Act [and] cannot be removed [by Westminster]."
Cue a good deal of misplaced jubilation from folk, keen to see fundamental rights retained in Scots law. Regrettably, the comments attributed to the spokesman, and uncritically printed by Maddox, are credibility-dynamiting rot. They're abject drivel.

Firstly, the Scotland Act is Westminster legislation, and susceptible to amendment or repeal by MPs. To say something is "built into" the Act is neither here nor there. Secondly, the Human Rights Act is categorically not "written into" the Scotland Act. This is a common conflation, but an extremely problematic one. While you won't find human rights listed as a reserved matter in Schedule 5, the Human Rights Act itself appears as a protected enactment in Schedule 4. Short version: human rights are devolved, and Holyrood can pass laws concerning them, but the Scottish parliament is not allowed to repeal or to change the Human Rights Act as is.

As Aileen writes, Scotland is currently subject to two distinct human rights regimes.
The Scotland Act requires Holyrood legislation and Scottish ministers to comply with European Convention rights, but nothing more than that. If legislation or ministerial action violates your fundamental rights, you can traipse off to court and get the offending law or subordinate legislation struck down by the courts. The silence at the heart of the Tory human rights plans about what will become of these devolve protections and constraints is deafening. 

The octopoid Chis Grayling shows no awareness whatever about the devolved dimension, which extends not only to Scotland, but to Wales, and to the Northern Irish Assembly, where the incorporation of human rights formed a core plank of the Good Friday Agreement. All for the sake of a few extra votes in Essex, and the lawful authority to deport people where we reasonable expect them to be tortured, or to be subject to inhuman and degrading treatment, or the flagrant denial of justice.

So much for an ethical foreign policy. The declared aims of the Prime Minister, Theresa May, and the Lord Chancellor are nakedly monstrous and unjust. They make my blood boil. Alyn Smith was right before the referendum: there is bugger all we can do to prevent it within the Union. Not with a Tory government in the grip of a victim-fantasy and strung along by it own fairy tales.

By contrast, the Human Rights Act extends to all public authorities in Scotland. Schools, local government, NHS hospitals. If Westminster abolishes the Human Rights Act, Holyrood and the Scottish Government will remain bound over to observe Convention rights, but Glasgow City Council and the police will be liberated from their obligations to respect freedom of religion and conscience and the privacy and home life of everybody they encounter.

Cue another level of complexity: Sewel motions, or legislative consent motions. Here's where things get politically interesting. As we know, powers devolved are powers retained. Westminster retains the right in law to legislate for devolved matters. In practice, however, that right has been circumscribed by the convention that consent from Holyrood is necessary (a) where Westminster proposes to legislate in a devolved area (for example, the whole-UK civil partnerships legislation of 2004) or (b) where the UK parliament propose to change the scope of the Scottish Parliament's legislative competence (for example, the 2012 Scotland Act, which received the nod from the majority of MSPs).

Under the current convention, the proposed repeal of the Human Rights Act (insofar as it applies in Scotland) and the introduction of any British Bill of Rights proposing a different human rights protection mechanism requires legislative consent from Holyrood. Whichever way you slice it, the refusal of consent looks odds on, either to any Tory plans to (a) eliminate the ECHR provisions from the Scotland Act, or (b) to introduce any new, watered down British Bill of Rights. 

With a Nationalist administration in Edinburgh, these issues take on an additional piquancy. Much more attractive, you might well think, to adopt distinct, Scottish human rights legislation, extending to all public authorities subject to Holyrood's jurisdiction. This approach may be justified, not least, by some of the absurdities of the Bill Grayling has sketched in outline, drubbed by various legal commentators quoted above.

We might even consider folding additional rights into that Scottish legislation which are not to be found in the European Convention. The rights of children, perhaps. We can use our imaginations. As Professor McHarg notes, there is a distinct possibility of fragmentation and complexity here, as both reserved and devolved authorities operate in Scotland and both would be subject to different human rights regimes. On the other hand, let's not make the best the enemy of the good. If Cameron is returned to No. 10 with a majority, "Labour's Human Rights Act" - which was, it should be remembered, supported by newspapers like the Express when it was adopted - will be a dead letter. Far better for the Scottish Parliament to set a different example, however imperfectly.

But one thing's for sure: despite the blithe spirit of indifference animating the Lord Chancellor's fag packet proposals, the fuse has been cut and the taper set to it. The devolved politics of Human Rights Act repeal looks dead set to explode.

1 October 2014

Acknowledge it now

The starting point for the Scottish National Party, going into the Smith Commission on further devolution, must be a maximalist one. We are the party of Scottish self-government. We cannot pretend otherwise. If independence is our first preference, our esto position is the greatest level of autonomy for Scottish institutions which it is possible to be gained within the United Kingdom. 

As Ruth Davidson made clear yesterday, "devo max" as it has conventionally been understood - responsibility for nearly all of Scotland’s domestic affairs, including taxation and welfare benefits, while foreign affairs and defence would remain the responsibility of the UK government - is a non-starter

While this comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the devo-schemes offered in the months before the referendum by the Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat parties, it will come as something of a rude awakening to those moved by the rhetoric and the representations of the "new powers" apparently on offer which saturated the final weeks of the campaign.  

But over and above the narrow party debates and Westminster recriminations on the balance of welfare and tax competencies, the pro-independence minority have particular interests which they we must argue to be privileged in the Smith process. We've got to come down to brass tacks, and quickly. The Greens and the SNP have just over a week to submit their views on more powers to Lord Smith of Kelvin. The rest of us have a little longer. 

I'm sure folk are beavering away behind the scenes, but we also need practical ideas circulating out there, in the ether. If, as Alex Salmond has argued, the custodians and guarantors of further devolution are millions of our active and agitating fellow citizens, those citizens need quickly to master the Scotland Act - at least in outline - to understand what is doable and what is desirable, what is already devolved and which powers Westminster still stubbornly - and sometimes unjustifiably - clings to.

The welfare red lines I suggested last week are one such practical idea for Nationalists. Here's another: we need to seize the opportunity of the Smith Commission to put the legality of any future referendums beyond dispute, and vigorously resist any proposal to entrench the Union along the lines suggested by Jack Straw last week.

Although there was a good deal of nonsense and shadowboxing on the topic back in 2012, as loyal and long-term readers of this blog will recall, without Westminster's 2013 section 30 order under the Scotland Act, the legality of the 2014 referendum hung by a very shoogly legal thread. Calling a referendum was arguably within Holyrood's powers, but no higher than that. Without getting the nod from Westminster, the referendum was vulnerable to legal challenge, the outcome unclear, and risked putting the Presiding Officer - who must certify that Bills fall within the Scottish Parliament's powers - in an impossibly difficult place. 

Even kicking the referendum can several years down the line, with September's defeat, these issues return with a vengeance. If there was an arguable case that the referendum fell within Holyrood's devolved powers before the Edinburgh Agreement process, that case is now much weakened. The UK government imposed a number of restrictions on the 2014 poll. Firstly, they insisted that the referendum should be an either/or affair, a Yes or a No to independence. They also time-limited Holyrood's authority to call such a poll. It lapses on the 31st of December this year. Bottom line: on the current law, future independence referendums called by Holyrood, without securing London's agreement, are now almost certainly unlawful. Jack Straw's wheeze is entirely surplus to requirements. So what are we going to do about it?

From a democratic perspective, this restriction cannot be justified. Future referendums any time soon cannot be a priority and cannot seem like a priority for the Scottish Government and the Scottish National Party. But we have a responsibility to the very substantial minority who voted Yes on the 18th, and to the principle of Scottish self-determination recognised by the 2014 referendum, to ensure that future generations have the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they wish to remain part of the United Kingdom. And to do so lawfully, peacefully and democratically - at the ballot box. There can be no question of changing the rules of the game now. Jim Sillars is dead wrong about that. All we must seek is to give permanence to the basic principles, recognised by the UK government in facilitating the 2014 referendum.

Nor is this special pleading, or an unprecedented or unreasonable recognition of minority sensibility. The first section of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 recognises that "Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll" but "if the wish expressed by a majority in such a poll is that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland, the Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament such proposals to give effect to that wish as may be agreed between Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom and the Government of Ireland." 

The rules governing such a border poll are set out in the first Schedule to the Act, and are not unproblematic in their details - but the basic principle recognised by the legislation is a sound one. If Northern Ireland's right to determine its constitutional destiny within the United Kingdom can be respected and reconciled in law with continuing Union, why not Scotland's? Surely a will to self-determination expressed in an orderly, civic movement has at least as much moral and political authority as the hard and harrowing process in Northern Ireland which culminated in the 1998 settlement.

The case for recognising Scotland's right to self-determination in primary legislation is unanswerable. It isn't good enough to leave the question vulnerable to cynical political manipulation and Machiavellian legal position-taking. Our first priority in the Smith Commission must be securing greater autonomy in tax and welfare to make a real difference to folk's lives. 

But it is crucial not only that Holyrood's powers are extended, but that the democratic principles which flowered in this referendum also endure. Securing the inalienable right of Scots to decide their own political future - giving legal force to the principles articulated in the 1989 Claim of Right - must form part of that. The new Scotland Bill could do worse that incorporating this thought into its first section: "We acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs". 

This is the challenge to the other parties to the Smith Commission: many of you acknowledged it then. Acknowledge it now.