16 September 2014

Gramsci's dictum

This morning, the Herald come out against independence, arguing that a federated Britain, with greater Scottish autonomy, is the precondition for its endorsement of continuing Union. They conclude:
"Substantive autonomy for Scotland's parliament and government could unify Scotland. Such autonomy is not merely an aspiration: it is a demand."
In its critique of the Yes campaign, the paper notes that:
"Antonio Gramsci, the Italian philosopher and politician, famously advocated pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. The Yes campaign, understandably, has emphasised the latter but effectively ignored the former."
The newspaper's case is characteristically lucid, reflecting some of the ambivalences I was blogging about yesterday. But given the state of the Westminster debate on "more powers", and the precariousness of the editorial's own reasoning on this question, you've got to wonder whose intellect is insufficiently pessimistic. Cutting to the heart of it all, the paper today endorses a No vote on the basis that Scotland must secure a form of devolution which nobody is offering, and which nobody in UK politics has ever shown any willingness to part with. Now that's what I call optimism of the will.

Let's survey the evidence. Nobody, not a single political party in this country, is offering, has offered, or shows any coherent willingness to embrace the kind of reform the Herald say is the precondition of their backing for the Union. Labour, the Tories, the Liberal Democrats - every one has been given umpteen opportunities to realise a more extensive devolution. Between 2009 and 2012, the great grey federalist hope, Gordon Brown, and his Downing Street successor, knocked back almost every Scottish Government proposal to elaborate Holyrood's economic powers and authority over social security and welfare.

No crown estate revenues, no allocation of oil revenues, no corporation tax, limited income tax powers, no pensions, no minimum wage, no housing benefit, no jobseekers allowance, no disability benefits. Some borrowing powers and the ability to ban airguns is all very well, but it was hardly a radical endorsement of Scottish autonomy. These gentlemen were in high office. They had the parliamentary draftsmen at their beck and call, to deliver a bolder autonomy to Scotland. They were invited to do so. They declined. So what's changed in a couple of years? All three Westminster parties had their chance, had multiple chances, and at every turn, all three have chosen to cut minimalist deals, preserving Westminster's prerogatives, leaving the centre of British politics unreformed.  

Perhaps they've had a change of heart? If so, they've kept the news gey quiet. In the course of this campaign, all three parties scurried off to their libraries and redoubts and came back with platforms for greater devolution. But all produced platforms which are still more readily described by what they refuse to devolve to Holyrood than the powers Westminster is willing to part with.

Still bugger all in the way of welfare autonomy, and a still undisclosed, unagreed degree of flexibility in the collection of income tax. And that's more or less your lot. The Institute for Government produced this vividly illustrative chart, comparing the balance between devolved spending and devolved revenue control in all of the scenarios currently under discussion. The discrepancy between the parties' offers and maximalist devolution should be particularly noted.



And then there are the practical considerations. Even the family magazine of the Conservative establishment report that Cameron's unruly band of backbenchers aren't happy with the idea that their status quo has been "swept away" without so much as a by your leave, and can be expected to cut up rough.

The Labour Party's case for the union has, if anything, amplified their "one nation"  rhetoric, placing critical emphasis on the idea of British uniformity in social provision. Their instrumental case for a No vote is, in essence, having the same benefit entitlements in Carlisle as you do in Cumnock. Against that background, without junking a half decade of rhetoric and thinking, it is difficult to see how Labour could ever coherently endorse the "much greater fiscal devolution and powers of decision-making in areas such as welfare" which, in the Herald view, is the precondition for folk considering a No vote. 

Without a radical transformation of attitude for which there is no evidence, and with no detailed or categorical commitment in these panicked last weeks of the campaign, all the evidence suggests that both key parties in Westminster remain inveterately opposed to shelling out anything approaching the kind of autonomy the Herald demands. Minimum bribe level: one turnip. Vote No.

And it is apparently the Yes campaign which has failed to observe Gramsci's dictum? Fetch Sancho Panza and a mule: the naive federalists of the Herald, Guardian and the Scotsman have a few remaining windmills to tilt at. I can understand the frustration, the sense that a better Britain ought to be possible, capable of accommodating Scottish aspirations for greater autonomy.

But but for the nervous gestures, the manipulative and hollow trick of rechristening bloodless Calman-plus plans "devo-max", and hastily drawing up a timetable to realise these very, very limited new autonomies, none of this has any credibility. A federated United Kingdom is a plan without a constituency, without a committed political proponent, without any depth of support across much of Britain, running contrary to the declared instincts of politicians from both big London parties, faced with a dizzying array of rhubarbing and powerful dissenters on both the Labour and the Tory benches.

 Whur's yer pessimism of the intellect noo? 

15 September 2014

The faltering Old Music...

It is all getting a bit fraught. It was always going to, but you can feel it, the pot simmering as we get close. It has never been more important for folk on all sides to keep the heid, but also, perhaps, to remember a human faculty which has sometimes been neglected in this process and is most at risk in its dying days: empathy. 

Put away the caricaturist’s sketch. Don’t be tempted by the grand generalisation. Yes or No, win or lose, in the course of this campaign I've met countless good people of goodwill on both sides, explaining the world as best they understand it, balancing complex values, doing what they think best.

We've got to keep hold of that, as the temperature rises, and our perspective wobbles. If there is one lesson of the narrowing polls, it is that the boundaries between us are porous. This isn't a moment in which you're going to hear a lot of ambivalence articulated on the airwaves and on telly, but many of the folk I've met, out and about this weekend, embody this swithering sense precisely: even those who've made up their minds to vote Yes and No.

“The independence referendum: my journey into indecision.” The confessional has arguably become the characteristic genre of referendum literature as we hurtle down the slope towards Thursday’s final big decision. In a religious sense, confession is an opportunity to own up to your weaknesses. In Scottish politics, however, this superabundance of confessions characteristically explain unexpected conclusions, often reached by Damascene routes, often in convoluted archaeologies of self, unearthing surprising discoveries and ambivalent feelings. They have more in common with the psychiatrist’s couch than the cleric’s box. Most of these confessions are written with a certain sense of surprise about their contents. This appeals to me.

In the street last week, I bumped into an acquaintance, a lady from a working class background in Leeds who has, with considerable reluctance and surprise, finally hopped into the Yes column: someone who never imagined that she’d participate in a vote on Scottish self-determination, never mind endorsing it. In Glasgow, I encountered the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson, in newsboy’s jaikit, dishing out free copies of his magazine, calling on Scots to reject independence. The gaucheness and sincerity of the scene made me feel quite fond of him, despite our political differences. It’s a funny old referendum.

The poll, in a public sense, represents an attempt at a major conversation about public and political goods in Scotland and the UK. But for many folk, it has been a public process driving a personal dialogue – and private process of clarification – about their own feelings, commitments and priorities. If there is one lesson to be taken from the Guardian’s recent polling, the two campaigns have to a great extent talked past one another, peddling their preferred frames of political reference. 

For many, I know this has sometimes felt like hard, uncertain digger’s work, trowelling away in the murk, slowly clearing away the sediment, till you strike home hard on a point, till you snag on something solid. I’ve seen these processes at work in my own family, all Yessers, but the sense of conviction has undoubtedly intensified, as the day approaches. I’m reluctant to describe this as being radicalised, given the problematic freight that term now carries, but it represents a gradual and unexpected realisation about what your political priorities are and the intensity of your feelings about them. 

Clarified may be a better way of putting it. My friends have swithered. Like most folk’s friendship circles, there are sceptical folk inclined to vote Yes and No, hardened proponents and opponents of independence, whether on grounds of identity or politics or perceived economics. But the referendum process has undoubtedly focussed minds, the doing of it gradually illuminating what folk care about, and why.

Many have found themselves swayed towards independence, quietly, despite themselves, by the character of the campaign and the quality of its arguments. The No campaign and its new wave of advocates are still talking about Scots needing to “wake up”. They allege that the impulse to vote Yes is an expression of “anti-politics” rather than clear-sighted understanding, that it is rooted in a flip or childish reaction, rather than a well-considered conviction, born of political self-education, consciousness of the risks, challenges and opportunities of independence. That's not my experience.

And most of us are large enough to contain multitudes, to see some of the logic and feeling on the other side, and share in some of their ideas and affections. Massie gets this precisely right in his recent affirmation of his intention to vote against independence on the 18th, surprised by how much Britain means to him, moved by sentiments sloshing around, unclarified once, once undetected, suspected perhaps, but never brought out full out into the open – until now.

Yes, it is also about perceptions of risk and opportunities, political, economic and social, about doability and desirability. But without sounding too much like an economist, in reaching a decision, for most folk, it is about which compromise to strike. Yes, I feel a bit British, but how do I want to be governed? Is there any realistic chance of realising the politics I want to see within the current constitutional set up? Sure, the way the UK works at the moment is dismal, but I want to stay part of it, somehow. Shouldn’t we give it another chance? I don’t want to be governed by the Tories, but is an independent Scotland going to be able to pay its way? Which sets of values and concerns should I privilege, come the day? For some folk, one or other of these views with have a diamond hardness. Over the weekend, I met another old soldier who was a British patriot to his bootstraps, and not to be persuaded. I didn't try. But most folk I encounter see far more shades of grey.

It may be difficult to detect in Better Together’s final deluge of negativity, attempting to relitigate the tried and tested question of whether an independent Scotland is even viable economically, but this commonness gives me great hope for us after the millions of ballots are assembled and counted on the night of the 18th of September. Much has been made about the referendum’s divisive and polarising effects. Some folk, notably the Scottish Labour Party, have felt this more keenly than most. I'm sure it has been difficult for some. But for me, the lesson of the last few years is that most of us have much in common, but we divide sharply on the means by which these common concerns should be addressed.

Although we will make a binary choice on Thursday, it is an incomplete story. Much distinguishes the many folk endorsing independence both tepidly and enthusiastically, and much unites those who will find themselves voting Yes and No on the 18th of September. For me, to vote No is unthinkable, and as a consequence, in a funny way, only thinkable. Unlike many folk, over the last four years, I’ve made no real constitutional journey. Because my ballot was cast in principle long ago, and I’d never seriously consider voting against independence, this campaign has been an opportunity, more than anything else, to consider the boundaries of this conviction. To try to work out why, beyond the rhetoric and the sloganising, the slick cases and the accepted terminology, I feel like I must etch an X in the Yes box on Thursday. 

And here, my heresies begin. As I have written before on the blog, I have a weight of family inheritance on the independence question. My ancient old great-grandfather pulled our family into the SNP from the party’s origins. The loyalty stuck. My granny went to her grave with an SNP symbol on the order of service. But that’s an ambivalent inheritance, and by no means a binding one. The dead have no say in tomorrow, however honourable or sincere their political feelings were, however much we benefit from their forgotten agitation and effort. We must make our own choices, today.

Intellectually, I'm sympathetic to the achievement of a multi-national state. The old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, even the Union: the principle that folk with different identities can cooperate strikes me as an attractive one, and a principle perhaps worth preserving. Some folk on my side of the constitutional fence argue that the “natural” state of a nation is independence, as if the stitchwork of the United Kingdom was Dr Frankenstein’s work: I disagree. There is nothing natural or inevitable about nations, or the desirability of their independence. Yes, Britain is a muddle, but I'm yet to hear a persuasive indictment of that muddlement, which doesn't amount to a Jetsonist tendency to laud some vague "modernity" for Scotland. I can't endorse independence on that prospectus.

We build nations. They are socially constructed. I don’t mean that in the flippant way in which the phrase is often used – that nations are a delusion, an illusion which sensible people have no truck with – but in the sense that we build and sustain them through social action and cognition: they don’t spring from our flesh and blood. We imagine them into life, generating their boundaries, porous or otherwise. They can do good and bad things, and all have brighter and darker sides and potential.

Some folk on the No side have argued that Scottish nationalism is a unique pathology, pushing the country along the road to authoritarian government and heaven knows what. This too is codswallop, elegantly nailed by Fintan O’Toole last week. The Yes campaign is normal, in the narrow sense that it articulates a basic, respectable desire for self-government and responsibility, a desire rooted in an idea of democratic decision-making and political self-organisation. It respects the fact that political ideologies are important, and can (and perhaps ought to) diverge, and those divergence could and (perhaps) should be given institutional expression.

This insight is also the kernel of the 1980s Claim of Right. The Yes campaign may amplify its logic further than some proponents of Scottish devolution are comfortable with, but the arguments for independence are cognate with those agitating for greater powers for Scottish democratic institutions. Yes voters take them a stage further – no quibbles from me on that score – but they spring from a similar place in principle. Yet in this campaign, the Labour Party have, very unsystematically, been laying political powderkegs beneath their own increasingly incoherent thinking on devolution. Indeed, the party have been stoking up a rich store of political problems which will outlast the result, come what may next week, but it has been striking how vigorously its key proponents have junked and scorned thinking central to the devolution project.

In their rush to toss around damning epithets, the No campaign often miss out the positive potential of nationalism’s Janus faces, playing the lawyer’s trick of relabeling that positive dimension “British patriotism”, and sinking the potentially unattractive dimensions of British nationalism into the permafrost of the unconscious. I have friends who are thoroughgoing anti-nationalists who reject any political thinking premised on nationalist concepts. I respect the coherence of that. What I cannot respect, however, is the refusal to reckon with what has become the No campaign’s primary positive case for the Union – British nationalism.

Some folk will think that messy combination of identities is worth preserving. In some ways, it appeals to me too – though I’ve never really felt British, and like my Irish pals, seemed to get on fine during the many years I lived in England being a plain Scotsman from the already-near-abroad, without sharing Westminster government and all that entails. But disguising this British nationalism as a sort of internationalism-in-one-country lacks any credibility. It is a neat trick, to conflate the multi-stranded identity Massie articulates with internationalism, but it isn’t a convincing one. It tries to get out of the conceptual bind which anyone making nationalist arguments ought to face up to: all nationalisms are integrative and disintegrative, premised both on inclusion and an exclusion. That’s unavoidable. For the selective anti-nationalists, Britishness is only redemptive and civic, while Scot Nattery represents only the bum end of nationalist thinking. 

As the force has gone out of the Labour-dominated Better Together campaign's instrumental case for the Union, this is what we're left with: with talk of foreigners. For me, a vote for independence isn't a vote against complexity, but for a different kind of complexity. It isn't about separatism but finding new, more functional, more satisfactory ways to work together. It isn't about a hard, self-contained conception of sovereignty, but about refashioning those valuable bonds and ties between us, on a more equal footing.

I've come to realise that I support independence with some regrets. Part of me wishes Britain was reformable and rescueable, but I'm profoundly pessimistic. It is, no doubt, an overstatement to say that its capacity to reinvent itself is "spent", but the omens don't look good. A radical renovation of the UK from the inside would put me in a sticky place, but there are few serious indications that such a transformation is attainable or desired without independence.

While you can understand the longing lying behind the Guardian and Scotland on Sunday editorials against independence last week, they have an deep air of unreality, preferring the magic primrose path to candyfloss castle, to any serious engagement with the realistically attainable and the possible.  Federalism is not an idea whose time has come, but a proposition without advocates, without support, with shallow political roots in a moment of panic.

It was difficult to explain, to English friends in Oxford, that it was nothing personal – quite the opposite. Alex Massie is happy to have that inchoate, beguiling feeling of muddled togetherness trump concerns about how Scotland and the UK is governed, and which parts of our society it serves. I am not, but I can understand where he’s coming from. In voting Yes, and voting No, we’re striking a different compromise.

The porousness of the boundary between the two has both confused and put the fear of God up Westminster, but it shouldn’t be surprising to folk who’ve been paying attention to this process in recent years. The two choices aren’t a million miles apart, but the either/or nature of the poll doesn’t admit of such subtleties. In these last few days of this campaign, we shouldn’t be overwhelmed by that simplicity, and forget the wider commonalities of sentiment and aspiration which this referendum has identified.

I can’t in good conscience say that sacrifices won’t have to be made if we vote Yes (and by some folk more than others). Part of me will feel profoundly sad for folk like Chris Deerin, Adam Tomkins and other articulate proponents of Union, if Scotland does vote Yes next week. No legerdemain about Britain being a geographical concept can or should soften the initial blow. We Nationalists should at least reckon with, and recognise that.

The other day, when YouGov first reported a Yes lead, I was on the cusp of texting a Unionist pal telling him to “chin up” before realising how misplaced and odd that sentiment would be. The text went unset.  Yes, the idea of Britain isn’t exhausted by our shared political institutions, but nor is it entirely separable in the way some advocates of independence have suggested. The concept of the social union expresses an important and credible sense of how much we have in common with the other nations of Britain, and how little that is imperilled by independence.

But we need to reckon with the loss some of our citizens will feel. Nothing in that loss inhibits me for a moment, from urging folk to support independence for a better kind of democracy, winning the powers to tack our own course and set our own priorities, a responsible state and a politics capable of reflecting our ideals. The people will speak on that question, and have ample opportunity, if they wish, to strike a different compromise between their competing values. 

I never thought we would win this referendum. In my gloomier moments, I wondered if we’d even come close. Now and then, there have been flashes of optimism, as the No campaign let golden opportunities fly by, neglected critical lines of argument, even when the first clutch of Yes posters sprouted in windows across the south side of Glasgow. Silly, I know, but that visible sense of political comeradeship affords a wee lift. My pessimism throughout the campaign has been pretty overwhelming. To burst into the final, fretful week more or less eeksy-peaksy always struck me as improbable, yet here we are. We can do it. That's thrilling, and it is anxiety-pinching.

I’ve spent much of my life in institutions and environments, where support for Scottish independence was unthinkable, even ridiculous, a minority pursuit easily and unsympathetically caricatured. I know some folk on the No side are smarting right now, gripped by a sense of mortal dread. In that bewilderment, as the old certainties collapse, hard things will be said. Don't take them to heart. They're understandable.

But it isn’t our fault that the old music isn’t what it once was. It isn’t our fault that you’ve struggled to make the old sang shine, and all too frequently, can only remember a few attenuated bars. Nobody’s been stopping you from making that case; nobody has silenced you. You’ve clearly found your own authentic voice difficult to find, but that’s your problem, nor ours. I’m sorry you feel this way, but I tell you this: things aren’t as gloomy as you think they are, folk aren't nearly so far apart.

10 September 2014

Two European Futures

There are many strands of contemporary UK policy which are, in their own ways, dismaying. One of the more underexposed in the independence debate is the frequently irrational spirit of anxiety gripping Westminster and Fleet Street about all things European. At times, it has shades of a persecution complex. Underlined by Douglas Carswell's defection to UKIP from the Tories last week, it has an obvious and ongoing European Union manifestation, but also touches on European human rights norms, and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. 

These issues cannot be tucked away behind a safe little firewall from the constitutional debate in Scotland, to be considered at a later date. The No campaign has made much of the risks and uncertainties of an independent Scotland's EU accession. They have focussed not only on timeline and terms of an independent Scotland joining the other 28 member states: they couldn't resist overplaying their hand, recklessly drawing attention to their own weakest spot. Against almost all of the evidence and reasonable commentary, for months, Better Together have been stirring up the idea that Scotland would be pitched out of the EU into the north Atlantic cold. The game, it seems, continues with reports of their activists dishonestly telling Polish voters that their families would be uprooted if Scotland votes Yes next week.  

But a moment's consideration will tell you that this is a political boomerang for the No campaign, bedevilled by its own rich superabundance of risks and uncertainties about the United Kingdom's continued participation in the European Union and its legal recognition of your basic civil and political rights. In a piece for the Journal today - "Damned lies and bogus statistics..." -  I take a look at the facts and figures, lies and fictions, which currently dominate the UK airwaves and David Cameron's cabinet, on Britain's participation in these modest international schemes to provide some human rights remedy, some modest protection for your privacy rights, your liberty, your right to be free of torture, and not to be exposed to flagrant injustice or inhuman and degrading treatment.

It is a grim reminder of how precisely we are supposed to be Better Together. It isn't the whole story, certainly, but it is an important, urgent part of the wider UK picture. Amid the tempest of dross, there have been some wonderfully sensitive and nuanced pieces of writing in recent days from those who intend to vote No, with Chris Deerin and Alex Massie standing out for me, and I imagine, for others. I don't share their convictions on the constitution, or sense of British identity, but you can admire the graciousness of the prose and the evident thoughtfulness undergirding it. David Cameron asked a choice audience today not to "break his heart." That the campaign must have an emotional dimension always seemed to me entirely proper.

But we can't let these compelling night thoughts on the union sunset distract us from the real bother which a No vote drags us into, unavoidably. If we vote against independence on the 18th of September, there is every possibility that Scotland is going to crash out of the ECHR, on the basis of a fairy tale. And to adapt Tam Dalyell, we find ourselves set, by the raging fever gripping UK politics, on a motorway, with fewer and fewer turnoffs and exits, to a future outside of the European Union, whatever Scots might think either way.

Tossed into the steaming cauldron of the House of Commons, it makes for a potent combination: a witch's brew of misplaced anxieties, madcap delusions of victimhood, and an imperviousness to pretty simple facts. With independence and continuing union, there are opportunities and risks, costs and benefits. If you are inclined to weigh the stability of the status quo against the uncertainties of independence, put aside that misconception now. If you value the judicial protection of your fundamental rights, if you think that the European Convention represents a small, embattled achievement rather than the cartoonish abomination which the inner circle of Cameron's cabinet see, Scotland's place in the Union looks like the riskier option by far.  All you need do is vote yes to dispel the fairy tale.

Read the full piece here.

9 September 2014

Devo-Max? Devo-Won't..

As a lawyer, you get used to the plasticity of language and anxiety about definitions. What do we mean by that precisely? How are you using that term? They're always important questions, as there's always somebody trying to make the slipperiness of language work to their advantage. 

Yesterday, I argued that the tin-ear of the new wave of advocates for continuing union represents a potential problem for the No campaign. These nervous blow-ins don't know their audience, don't understand and haven't been following the referendum debate, and are likely to mis-pitch their arguments. Enter Boris Johnson, stage right, with a bizarre cri de coeur in the Telegraph yesterday, replete with disturbing "English rose complexion" digressions, to prove the point.  The Mayor of London's article isn't seriously pitched to persuade anyone of anything: it is just an anguished shriek.

But this morning, we see the other, rosier side of the complacent neglect of the referendum campaign for Better Together: the belated reappearance of the language of "devo max". Columnists and commentators across the UK airwaves and papers are tossing around the claim that if we vote against separation, "devo max" is to be our concession prize. Characteristically, few of the folk using this term hazard to define it, and most seem unaware of much of the detail of the diffuse Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat proposals for further devolution which has been percolating quietly for months through the debate north of the border.  Too quietly, perhaps, for Better Together to get much good out of them, but percolating none the less.

If they had attended to this detail, however, they'd soon recognise that Scotland is being offered nothing like the accepted definitions of "devo max". Professor Paul Cairney of the University of Stirling blew this conflation to bits months ago. Whether or not you think independence or further devolution is desirable, this is simply a statement of fact. It is time the UK media, trying to get their bearings, caught up and mastered the language. Take this definition, used by the What Scotland Thinks glossary, as being uncontroversial:

"This term has become short hand for the idea that the Scottish Parliament should become responsible 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."

Over-spun as a radical federalist break on Sunday, in fact, what seems to be on the table is simple a rushed, implausible timetable to realise the lowest common denominator consensus between the three Westminster parties for more powers. Short version: what we're being offered is the expedited chance to realise Labour's crap devolution proposals, and no real opportunity to improve them. Be still my throbbing pancreas. I'm yet to meet a Labour member willing seriously to defend the proposals of their party's botched, incoherent, nakedly partisan devolution commission. 

An up-not-down income tax policy which even its party leader cannot explain, unassailable resistance to any devolution of corporation tax, and no allocated share of oil revenues. Don't get me wrong: there are reasoned, reasonable arguments against devolving some of these issues, from a Labour standpoint, but the report, in its totality, was an unmitigated disaster precipitated by complacency, a lack of ambition, and tawdry internal compromise. Whatever this is, "devo max" it ain't.

But a critical thread running through the document, not always consistently, is the idea that shared social security systems, shared social and economic entitlements, is the glue holding the Union together. The unemployed or disabled person in Tayvallich and Tyneside can expect the same level of support from the state, whichever part of the UK they call home. Unless it upends its thinking entirely, and rats on a key pillar of its referendum rhetoric, Labour cannot support welfare devolution in any serious way. 

In his senior statesman bit yesterday, Gordon Brown put welfare first in his list of new powers which Holyrood might gain. But what precisely are Labour and the Tories proposing? How is the universal credit to be untangled? Start with an easy one. Unemployment benefit? Nope. Disability entitlements? No, not those either. Pensions? Don't be daft. Minimum wage? You must be kidding. Pool and share. Pool and share.

The greater welfare powers we're promised are ... well, is ... housing benefit. And inconveniently, that too has been folded into the universal credit project. We're assured that it can be pried out of Iain Duncan Smith's universal credit system, but nobody seems quite clear how. Oh, and attendance allowance. And that's it. Important decisions which touch many people's lives, without question, but if you think controlling housing benefit even begins to approach "devo max" as it has conventionally been understood, you've come up the Clyde in a banana boat.

8 September 2014

Tackety boot Unionism

“What Scots have got to realise is this isn’t a general election.” “This is one poll, but people in Scotland have to recognise that this is forever, the break up of Britain.” “I wonder if that’s really sunk in.” “I don’t think they’ve fully understood the implications of this.” Etcetera, etcetera. Over the last couple of days, the UK media has crackled with sentences of this kind as, as the Daily Mash put it, the UK media rouse themselves to the fact that “Scotland having some sort of referendum, apparently.” What a difference a poll makes. 

Cue a jungle column of political explorers, wending their way north from London, to prognosticate on the future of the Union and the chances of victory. In their train, we can also apparently expect a band of UK “heavyweights”, in the political patois, to press home the case against independence. Both enterprises, the commentary and the campaigning, are fraught with a kind of peril. On the media side, some pieces of writing have been much better than others. Folk like Paul Mason have shown a real interest and sensitivity to their subject. Others rather less so, like the pith-helmeted imperial anthropologists, who gain a superficial knowledge of their subjects, and trump off to pen the authoritative tome, shot through with their own problematic assumptions and cultural blind spots. 

The strange inarticulacy of the rash of tin-eared UK paper reviews and columns on Scotland tells its own story. Do you think, after three years, anybody with half a brain in this country is in danger of conflating the referendum with a general election? Do you think anybody earnestly considering putting their cross in the Yes box can’t countenance the idea that independence means independence? Why assume, on the basis of no real information on the poll, that for the Yes campaign to have run Better Together close means that the punters are nitwits who haven’t been applying themselves in a serious-minded, considered way to the range of alternatives, facts, arguments and uncertainties which have been presented to them? “I know nothing much about the referendum, but if you are inclined to vote Yes, you must have neglected the homework that I’ve… um… never done on the subject.” 

This is a reheated version of an auld sang we’ve heard many times before. Independence is bonkers and unthinkable, and if close to a majority of folk living in Scotland are willing to countenance it, they must either be in the grip of a childish and petulant “anti-politics sentiment”, have been beguiled by that mischievous peddler of villainy, Alex Salmond, or have failed really to understand what they’ve been asked. All of which might be more impressive, had the incredulous scribbler composing it shown any interest or sensitivity to the Scottish question these last many years, or a decent level of respect for the intelligence and responsibility of the public. 

Casting the Scottish electorate as ignorant saps is just another way of avoiding the interesting and significant implications of the referendum for the whole of the UK, whether Yes or No carry the day. It is an expression of a serious lack of self-reflection and self-analysis which has characterised the astonishing complacency and indifference with which the referendum has elicited in the circles of convention British power. In more prosaic terms, it also presents significant potential hazards for Better Together, in making their case in the final ten days of the campaign. I wrote this during the first big Union wobble of the campaign. If anything, it is truer this morning than it was back in May. 

Crumbling certainties confuse and they upset. And the No campaign across the UK doesn't have the luxury of much time to recalibrate its emotional and intellectual resources. The imaginative gap, alluded to by both Massie and Rifkind, separating the Westminster-dominated politics and the debate in Scotland, remains one of the Yes campaign's most significant structural advantages. 

The best advocates always understand their audience, its quirks and assumptions and reactions. They know which levers to pull, which switches to turn and which to leave well alone. Now and then, the talented amateur may get lucky, but it is a risky business. For the increasingly-anxious political actor, steeped in London-centric politics and hoping to have an impact on how Scots vote in September, the prevailing disunities within the UK make the job that much harder. For Better Together's supporters, they can but hope that none of their fretful, tinkering amateurs presses any big red buttons before September. 

The good news for the No campaign is that the United Kingdom has finally woken up to the Scottish problem: that’s also the bad news. In the wake of yesterday’s panic, many, many more people will be hovering around the big red buttons of the campaign, wanting "to do their bit," but deaf to the years and months of conversations and arguments which have gone before. 

If you can’t begin understand your opponent, can’t empathise with where they’re coming from, you are hobbled from the get-go. Tackety boot unionism is the last thing Better Together need at this stage of the campaign, but if the last few days are anything to go by, our late constitutional visitors and observers have few resources of experience to make an informed, sensitive case to an informed, sensitive public. Like yesterday's collapsing federalism shtick, the late renewed interest in Scotland is at best a mixed blessing for the No campaign, and potentially a whole new petard to be hoist by.

7 September 2014

A bout of the Ol' Gils

"Please, have the new powers we explicitly ruled out extending to you just a few months back, and wouldn't give you as recently as 2012." According to the Observer this morning, that, in a nutshell, is the wizard scheme which has been concocted to make safe the Union. George Osborne was on the telly this morning, making the same case. "You will see," he said, "in the next few days a plan of action to give more powers to Scotland. More tax powers, more spending powers, more plans for powers over the welfare state." So much, so vague.

Better Together's misuse of its potentially powerful devosomething arguments has been amongst the most curious, and perhaps ill-judged, phenomena of this lengthy campaign.  Months ago, all the talk was of the swithering middle, whose strong first preference was for greater powers for the Scottish Parliament. 

These people, begging for a excuse to vote No, have heard next to nothing from the No campaign on these issues for months. Darling came to that critical debating platform with ammunition to wound Salmond on currency, but his magazine was bare on more devolution. Not only couldn't Darling explain anything about any of the Better Together party's devo-plans with any coherence, ("... um ... road tax..."), the opportunity to exercise greater autonomy within the Union formed a peripheral part of his rhetoric, rather than being front and centre throughout. He gave the distinct impression that he'd rather be talking about other things.

Better Together need no advice from me, bur this was madness. Labour and the Tories didn't repair to their devo yurts to think about addition powers for the craic of it, and they certainly didn't do so out of systematic and coherent ideological commitment to a stronger Holyrood. Their object was nakedly strategic from the get-go: how do we pitch a devo offer which could transform a No vote into a positive opportunity for additional powers? How do we reshape the negative into a positive case for the Union, which will meet most voters where they are: keen on greater autonomy, not convinced by independence? This shouldn't have been a high bar to leap over.  But they've only now just started their run up.

Many folk are, understandably, unclear about the boundaries between devolved and reserved powers. That lack of clarity could be readily exploited, to suggest that greater autonomy was being offered than was actually the case. And when people want to believe something is true, want to believe that more autonomy is a real possibility, that desire easily fudges the detail. The No campaign was pushing on an open door. Or, could have been pushing on it, but has unaccountably failed to do so with any energy or conviction -- till now. 

From a Yes perspective, there are key limitations of the Conservative and Labour devolution proposals which we haven't yet nailed. In part, this reflects the No campaign's voiceless devo-agenda. If they aren't talking about it, choosing to fight their battles on the territory of change vs the status quo, that suits us fine. But now the pips squeak, the issues come back into focus. Careless claims continue to slosh around that some sort of "devo max" forms the Westminster consensus. This simply isn't true. Neither of the new schemes promoted by the two big parties comes close to the generally accepted definitions of devo-max

It remains unclear from the Chancellor's Shelley Levine impression this morning to what extent Osborne's fretful last minute flurry of promises represents any meaningful advance on the Tory and Labour proposals floated earlier this year. But the methodology is crackers. This has been a long campaign. The parties took their time, took evidence, deliberated -- and came up with nothing approaching the panicked wheeze which they seem to hope to roll out in the next week. Now, if the Observer is to be believed, all of that work is to be upended in the referendum's febrile final days.

Their purposeful and reflective consideration ruled out the devolution of most taxation, almost all welfare decision-making - and all of that is, apparently, to alter. This despite the fact that the Labour Party has made the shared provision of (some) social security a key plank of its case for the Union, and has firmly rejected any proposals for Scotland's welfare system to enjoy any autonomy from the Westminster agenda again and again. Darling underscored the theme again in the last debate. Is he to be gazumped? Can Labour really have any credibility, or will, to endorse substantial welfare devolution which it has set its face against consistently for the duration of the campaign? Good luck with that one. They're only hints, but if, as Osborne says, his colleagues want to extend Holyrood's "power over the welfare state," I can't see how Labour could coherently support it. This is meant to be a united platform to save the Union. It also has a great deal of potential to blow new rifts in Better Together's façade of uniformity.

The No campaign's real credibility gap on more powers doesn't derive from 1979, but from the behaviour and choices of its composite parts in 2012, 2013 and 2014. When they were putting together the Scotland Act 2012, rounding off the Calman Commission process, the UK government tinkered with the groups proposals, enacting some ideas, rejecting others, and going further in the devolution of some areas.  The Scottish Government pitched for a range of additional powers to be included, and were mostly knocked back by this UK Government. So what's changed since 2012, to convince you that actually, the SNP had a point all along? Answer came there none.
 
Any gap between the last-ditch temptations of next week and the devo-offers of the Tories and Labour pose the obvious, even more uncomfortable question for Johann Lamont and her colleagues: what has changed between March and September of this year, to convince you that your lukewarm prospectus for more devolution was wrong? The arguments haven't changed. The practical and political challenges are largely unaltered. Squirm out of that one, if you can. It is an impossible, embarrassing bind, and a measure of the anxiety gripping some quarters this morning, as misplaced complacency finally dissolves into blind panic. In life, it's important not just to get things right, to get them right at the right time.

You had your chance. You blew it.

1 September 2014

Carebear Unionism


"We stand here in Glasgow tonight, some 300 years after the commissioners of Scotland and England gathered, to forge the Union which we now call home. As history has taught us, it was a marriage not of love perhaps, but as our Union has gained wrinkles and generations, our people prospering and weathering hard times together, that love has grown. We have become a family. We may not always agree - few families do - but we stand by one another, through thick and thin. 

Ours is a complex history, marked by its glories and its disgraces, its black days and its quiet successes. Much has changed since Britain painted the map red, much for the better. The past shrinks from us, but all around us, we see its inheritances. Together, we built the National Health Service, devoted to the principle that nobody - nobody - should be abandoned alone to the scourge of ill-health. I will defend that principle to my last breath. If we turn our eyes upwards, in the great cities of this country, we see the wages of Empire in bricks and mortar, often unjustly gained, but a permanent, standing reminder of our past. We should not try - we cannot - avoid or ignore our shared history. But we can always do better. Tomorrow, and the day after, we must always strive to do better.

I understand, many of us are not happy with the status quo. I am not happy with the status quo. But we can do better, not just for Scotland, but for all of the people in these islands. Many Scots want more self-government within the Union, want to take more of the big choices about their lives. I share that conviction, and will strive with every sinew of my being to ensure that the parliament of this country has the powers it needs to transform this country for the better. To foster work - good jobs - for our struggling children, who have suffered more than anyone in these hard times. To end the scourge of poverty. To clear the shelves and slam shut the foodbank door, and ensure that every family, every child in this country, can sleep soundly, bellies full, in dignity.  

The SNP say that Britain's ability to re-invent itself is spent. I can't share that pessimism. Devolution, human rights, democracy: our history shows us that united, we can change the world -- if there are people to  fight for it. Scots: stand and fight with me. Fight for a better, more just, fairer Union. The project we begin together on the 18th of September can sweep this country, from coast to coast, transforming lives, blasting open the doors of opportunity, reshaping and remoulding this country into a more perfect union. As he speaks tonight, there is much in Alex Salmond's vision of independence which I agree with. Many are values that, as a Labour politician, I share. But what I cannot share is his pessimism, his lack of ambition for this country. I haven't given up on our friends and neighbours in England and Wales and Northern Ireland - and neither should you.

Many of you will look at Britain as you see it today and think, we are on the wrong path. I share your passions. Let us strive together, here. Let us win the greater victory, not only for people in Glasgow, but for ordinary people across this country, in Manchester, Cardiff, Belfast. We are a rich nation, our people industrious, trying to live well, making the best future possible for their children, and ensuring dignity in old age for all those who have worked hard for what they've got.  Don't be pessimistic about that strength. This Union, this family of nations, this historic achievement: it is not lightly to be given away. I ask you to vote No, not for our past, but for our future. I ask you to vote No, not out of fear of independence, but out of ambition for what we can do together. Together, we can make this country better. It's time to link hands, not to say farewell. It's time to show faith in all of our citizens. Don't squander this opportunity. Vote No for a bolder future. Vote No for a Better Union."

This, give or take, was the sort of thing I was expecting Alistair Darling to say a week ago. Britain is a great country, a historic achievement - and it should be put away with a little dignity. I sat, waiting for Darling to find his lyricism, to remember a few verses of the auld sang that made the whole enterprise worthwhile. Answer came there none. Given a privileged platform before the nation, afforded an opportunity for the final word on why Scots should vote No on September the 18th, Darling fluffed it. He had no music in his soul for the Union, just a jabby array of gripes and unstrategically over-detailed indictments. Since the meltdown, however, a curious turn has taken over the No campaign: they seem to have given up on arguments. 

Jim Murphy is doing his darnedest to promote the idea that no reasoned argument is possible in Scotland - a laughable and transparent proposition, but again, one that says "there's no point debating this question." Today's thoughtful and detailed demotion of the Yes campaign took the form of a new poster campaign, transforming the case for the Union into sub-motherhood-and-apple-pie banalities, with the message: "we love our kids, we're saying no thanks" and "I love my family, I'm saying no thanks." Quite what affection for your weans has to do with how you vote, I haven't the foggiest, but this kind of brainless candyfloss campaigning says, "dinna fash about the detail, facts or arguments: if you love love, vote No." It is about as subtle as being brained by a Care Bear.

And under the cereal bowls and the dodgy gender politics, their #PatronisingBTLady ad is essentially a hymn to disengaged politics. Johann Lamont said that the advertisement is grand, because she's met folk like #PatronisingBTLady. I don't doubt it. So have I. But that's hardly the point. For all of their faults, and for all of my lack of native affection for the Better Together crew, they are clearly folk who believe in the process and meaningfulness of politics. They are interested in political ideas, interested in evidence, interested in argument. They believe - in a way I can't share - that there is a conclusive and reasoned argument to be made for voting No. But in their efforts to shore up their leaky campaign, they resort to none of these powerful tools. They don't even try to persuade you that you are Better Together in the Union, don't even try to persuade you that a Yes vote is risky.

Instead, we get the political advertising equivalent of pill popping. Undecided? Wavering? Why not just check out intellectually? Isn't it all awfully boring, complicated and disagreeable? Vote No to end your grief, without guilt. You love your weans don't you? I love my children too. Vote No. Your frontal lobes tenderised yet? Give that haverer another lick of the teddy. Get those braincells good and idle. For folk engaged in politics to produce such an advertisement, and to try to exploit them for a cause they believe in, is monstrous, dismal, and beyond cynical. If you can't win the argument? Just give up. Cry "Oh look, a squirrel."

This is the way Britannia (might) end: not with the bang it deserved, but a whimper.