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Monday, 27 July 2015

Talking to the clenched fist

A response to Ewan Gurr of The Trussell Trust writing in The Herald on Sunday 26 July 2015.

I will not call Ewan Gurr stupid. And if he is an idealist then I will not criticise him for that. It is a sad reflection on the politics of the British state that calling someone an idealist might be considered an insult.

I will, however, call Ewan Gurr naive. He is naive to imagine David Mundell might listen to him or be influenced by his accounts of the impact of austerity fetishism on real people. He is naive to imagine that there can be meaningful dialogue with the administration Mundell represents.

Ewan Gurr is naive to suppose that the ruling elites can be made to care by any appeal to normal human empathy. The story of Suzanne will not touch these people as it evidently does Mr Gurr. Such tales leave them cold. Even if they actually heard what was being said, they are incapable of relating to hardship and distress. And even if some vestige of humanity remained which allowed the faintest glimmer of fellow feeling to glow in the foetid murk where once resided a human soul, the ember would be instantly doused as a sign of deplorable weakness and betrayal of the cause.

The cult of austerity is a rigid, heartless ideology. To the limited extent that they might see it at all, the adherents of this cult see the suffering of others as, alternatively, a misfortune entirely of their own making, or a "price worth paying" for what they absolutely believe to be a "greater good". Their programme involves nothing less than a forced reordering of society such that the fate of Suzanne will not be exceptional as economic and political power increasingly accrues to the elites who are the true and sole clients of the likes of Mundell.

What we are witnessing is the unabashed use of imposed poverty as an instrument of policy. People are being made poor in order that they will be neutralised as a possible threat to the power of those who are, in the eyes of Mundell and his ilk, the only ones deserving of power or capable of exercising it responsibly. With the responsible exercise of power being defined as that which serves those who exercise power.

Ewan Gurr needs to realise that the likes of Mundell cannot be talked out of the circularity of their own self-justification. Like a religious creed, the cult of austerity is entirely self-rationalising and impervious to reasoning which references anything that is external to its own reality.

I don't doubt that, in inviting David Mundell to open a foodbank, Mr Gurr's intentions were entirely honourable. They were also completely and utterly futile. The conditions which necessitate foodbanks will not be addressed by talking, however earnestly and passionately, to those who regard those conditions as inevitable, necessary and desirable. Those conditions will only be addressed by removing the likes of Mundell from power - while we still can.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Reasons to be cheerful

This article was first published on Friday 3 July in The Scottish Independent

In the early hours of the morning of 19 September 2014, I was at one of the referendum count centres where I watched as people who had spent the previous two years loudly and repeatedly proclaiming their credentials as "proud Scots" cheered the humiliation of the country they claimed to love.

Of course, from their own perspective they were doing no such thing. They were celebrating variously a tribal victory over a political opponent; the defeat of dangerous democratic dissent; and/or the triumph of British nationalism. Mostly, they were just relieved that they had succeeded in preserving the old order and the old ways. The structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state had been challenged by a popular grass-roots movement, and that challenge had been seen off. The ruling elites remained in place. Established power was undiminished. Everybody could get back to business as usual.

That's not quite how it was to turn out. But it would be some time before I came to realise that the British establishment may have won the vote, but the people of Scotland were to take all the prizes. At the time, I witnessed only self-proclaimed "real Scots" revelling in the fact that Scotland had declared itself unworthy to be a nation as other nation. I saw only people reacting to the diminishing of Scotland with uninhibited joy.

And I was sickened.

More recently, I read accounts of MPs in the House of Commons cheering the defeat of amendments to the Scotland Bill which would have taken it some way towards honouring the promises by which the No vote was secured. They were openly congratulating themselves on having thwarted the efforts of the vast majority of Scotland's MPs to secure the powers for the Scottish Parliament that were agreed by the Smith Commission.

They were applauding (figuratively, of course) the fact that the democratic will of the people of Scotland counted for nothing against the might of the British state. They were vociferously celebrating the affirmation of Scotland's subordinate status in the UK.

The British establishment has declared its response to the election result which saw the parties of the British establishment all but wiped out in Scotland. The ruling elites have given their answer to the 50% of the people of Scotland who, by voting for the SNP, demanded only that which we were assured was our due as part of the UK. Namely, a powerful parliament in Edinburgh and a strong voice at Westminster.

That answer could be most succinctly expressed in the vernacular. Essentially, it was a curt "No!" to the powers we asked for and a contemptuous "Forget it!" to our demand for simple respect. The British state had declared its position. Its power trumped any "vow". Never mind what was said about Scotland's rightful place in the UK. Henceforth it would be English votes for English laws; English votes for Scottish laws; and no Scottish votes for English laws.

Just as Scotland had been branded inferior in the world by the referendum, so Scotland was to be confirmed as totally subordinate in the UK and, to drive the point home, our democratically elected representatives were to be declared second-class members of the British parliament.

I read about those who had lately professed their "love" for Scotland cheering all of this, and I was sickened.

Then I see the rather more sly and surreptitious pleasure being taken in the plight of Greece. I see the sleekit manner in which people such as Peter Jones in The Scotsman pounce on the situation in Greece, not to condemn the rapacious cabal which has brought Greece to this pass, but to mock Scotland's aspirations and insist that there is no choice other than to submit to the very system which has failed us all so disastrously.

I see how Greece's travails are being gleefully exploited by Europhobes and British nationalists alike, and I am sickened.

If you are desperate enough to seek a silver lining in all of this, consider only that where you see humiliation, insult, wanton disregard for democracy and callous exploitation of the powerless by the powerful, others see an excuse for a party.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The death of decency

English: Charles Kennedy, British politician a...
Charles Kennedy, British politician and former leader of the Liberal Democrats. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I never had much sympathy for Charles Kennedy's politics. But he always struck me as a decent man endowed with great wit, warmth and sincerity. A man who served both his party and his constituents well despite a considerable handicap.

There was an essential genuineness about the man, and a strength of character which helped him deal with his alcohol problems in a way that commanded sympathy and respect.

These qualities may explain why he always seemed so uncomfortable and out of place with the grindingly negative and endlessly nasty anti-independence campaign. It just wasn't Charles Kennedy's kind of politics.

Given his undoubted talents, abilities and personal qualities, not to mention the tragedy of his untimely demise, it is all the more disturbing to find hard-line unionists seizing on the occasion and manner of Kennedy's death as an opportunity to vent their mindless hatred of the Scottish National Party.


This is but one example of the politics of obsessive, vitriolic hate being expressed in a few callous keystrokes and with varying levels of spittle-flecked vehemence by unionists in the wake of Charles Kennedy's death.

There is a great sickness at the heart of the unionist cause. A rancid rottenness at its core. A bitter, bilious, British nationalist fanaticism has arisen which regards any obscenity as fully justified in defence of the British state. They won the referendum, but lost the country and have since been obliged to watch as those they supposed they had defeated were awarded all the prizes by Scotland's voters. 

Their resentment is implacable. All intellect is crippled by it. Rationality is abandoned in favour of base emotion. Propriety is forsaken for a revelry of petulant anger.

Some of the decency in British politics died with Charles Kennedy. Whatever remained has been killed by the cretins who have laid claim to his newly deceased body, declaring it the moral high ground while using it as a vantage point from which to spit venom at their political rivals.

Monday, 1 June 2015

The new devolution

What a strange demand from Ruth Davidson. In one breath she boasts that her bosses in London are graciously giving the Scottish Parliament sweeping new tax powers, in the next she demands that the SNP make a solemn undertaking never to use those powers.

It all seems a bit crazy and contradictory, until you realise that the whole devolution process has undergone a significant shift in emphasis and purpose. It used to be that the endless constitutional tinkering was intended to fend off the electoral threat of the SNP by putting on a token show of addressing the aspirations of Scotland's people. Now, devolution is all about laying fiscal and political traps for what is presumed will be, for the foreseeable future, an SNP Scottish Government. The whole process has become an exercise in anti-SNP manipulation.

The aim is to force the administration to do things that will make it unpopular with the electorate. Essentially, the UK Government is set upon waging a campaign to undermine the Scottish Parliament in the hope of eroding popular support for the SNP and getting Holyrood back under the control of the British parties.

Of course, this campaign is all but certain to be be damaging to Scotland's economy. In order to be effective, such a campaign must impact negatively on large numbers of people in Scotland so as to provoke widespread dissatisfaction. It is, in essence, an anti-Scottish campaign.

Ruth Davidson's odd demand that the SNP promise never to use the new tax powers is just a foretaste of what is to come. The so-called "powers" being handed to the Scottish Parliament are a poisoned chalice. The Scottish Government will be attacked if it uses these "powers", and however it uses them. It will be attacked even more viciously if it rejects the "powers", or doesn't use them. Devolution is now entirely about contriving opportunities to attack the Scottish Government.

All of which creates some complex problems for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. Which is hardly surprising given that this was the intention. With his Commons majority and less than token resistance from British Labour, David Cameron has moved from regarding Scotland as a nuisance to be placated to treating Scotland as an enemy to be subdued. But it may not be politic for Sturgeon to respond in similar vein. She and her team have an increasingly complex political maze to negotiate.

Personally, I have no doubt that they are up to the task. But, in the face of the nefarious machinations of the UK Government, those of us who recognise what is going on must all be resolute in our support for the First Minister and our democratically elected representatives at both Holyrood and Westminster. They are there for us. We must be there for them.

Monday, 25 May 2015

A smear backfires

English: Alistair Carmichael MP addressing a L...
Alistair Carmichael MP (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Having listened to Alistair Carmichael's defence in the matter of what I suppose we must grit our teeth and call #MemoGate, I am even more convinced than ever that he should resign immediately. Unbelievably, Carmichael is now insisting that we should simply ignore his despicable behaviour and focus instead on some unspecified things he may have done for his constituents in the past.

Even more incredibly, he is trying to portray the SNP as the villain of the piece!

Carmichael's conduct has been, and continues to be, appalling. But the fact that his party refuses to take any action against him is totally inexplicable. They have voluntarily chosen that the whole party should be tainted by Carmichael's offences. We have to assume that this was Willie Rennie's decision, not least because it is backed up by his personal plea that Carmichael be given a "second chance". Such poor judgement must call into question Rennie's fitness as leader.

Rennie has foolishly put himself in the firing line of a scandal which is already threatening to embroil Carmichael's successor as Scottish Secretary, David Mundell as more and more people ask how he could possibly have been unaware of what his then boss was up to. After all, it's not as if Carmichael was acting in a particularly clandestine manner. One of the more shocking aspects of this whole affair has been the casual attitude to deliberate smears and brazen lies displayed by the main players, and the fact that Carmichael believed he could act as he did with impunity, doubtless believing that he would be protected by the British establishment.

Carmichael's apologists will, of course, bleat about a "witch-hunt". I would remind them that their man is being condemned for cause. And very good cause, at that. This is in no way similar to, for example, the way Stewart Stevenson MSP was hounded from office as Transport Minister when he was absolutely blameless just so the British parties at Holyrood and their friends in the British media could claim a scalp.

Carmichael has to go because he did something - in fact, several things - which even he has admitted would require his resignation. Which almost certainly means that the LibDems will be wiped out in Scotland.

Mundell may well have to step down as Scottish Secretary if he cannot offer a satisfactory account of his own part in the affair, thereby creating another constitutional crisis as the Tory UK Government is forced to try and find someone else for the position. Or abolish the office of Scottish Secretary altogether.

And Willie Rennie is, at the very least, weakened as leader by his craven defence of the indefensible.

I wonder if Carmichael still thinks his attempt to smear Nicola Sturgeon was such a wizard wheeze.

But there is more. Recall that the memo at the centre of this affair was actually fourth-hand as it derived from a telephone conversation about a telephone conversation about an account of a conversation given by someone who was not actually a party to the conversation at the heart of the matter, but merely a witness to it.

It is perfectly legitimate to ask why the second of these telephone calls was made. And who gave the instruction for the call to be made. And for what purpose.

Given the events currently under discussion, and the general behaviour of the British parties, it is only natural to be suspicious of everything they do. It does not seem beyond the bounds of credibility that the telephone call to the person who had made the telephone call to the French Consul General was a fishing expedition looking for something which could be spun into a bit of anti-SNP propaganda. Indeed, I suggested as much when the smear attempt against Nicola Sturgeon first surfaced.

There may be a great deal more to this than has hitherto come to light. One person who may know more is Simon Johnson, the Telegraph journalist who was complicit in the original smear attempt. So far, he has escaped the kind of scrutiny that he deserves.

We know for a fact that Johnson simply didn't bother to seek a response from any of the principals in the story. That he has kept his job after such a grievous dereliction of professional standards is a telling comment on how low the British media has sunk. But little or nothing has been said about what questions he asked of his source at the Scotland Office.

Scurrilous journalists also tend also to be cowardly. Johnson would have sought assurances that his arse was covered. It is difficult to believe he wouldn't question the provenance of the story? What questions did he ask? What was he told that convinced him he would not put himself at risk by running the story? Did an experienced political journalist fail to even suspect a smear attempt? Did he just not care?

One way or another, we have not heard the last of this.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Inexorable forces

Labour's railing against David Cameron for supposedly "playing to English nationalism" is rather silly. It highlights their complete failure to recognise the new political reality in the UK. After all, what else was Cameron to do? While he would surely deny it with all the contrived vehemence he might muster, Cameron was implicitly accepting the fact that the political cultures in Scotland and England have now diverged to the extent that it is all but impossible for a political party to meaningfully address the electorates in both with a consistent, coherent message. Cameron merely opted to tailor his message to the voters who would actually decide the election. I repeat, what else was he supposed to do?

British Labour in Scotland also recognised the need for a message tailored to Scotland's distinctive culture. This was clear from Jim Murphy's desperate and often comical efforts to portray himself as the real leader of a real party able to make real policy independent of the bosses in London. He convinced precisely nobody who wasn't inclined by dumb tribalism to be persuaded.

While Cameron simply wrote Scotland off in order to deliver a consistent and coherent message to voters in England (or those parts of England which matter for electoral purposes), Murphy went a bit crazy. Then a bit crazier. His attempts to pretend that he was making policy while not straying too far from the British Labour Party line resulted in a message that was the very opposite of consistent and coherent. At times, it descended into gibberish. At other times he took the pretence of autonomy too far and was promptly slapped down by his bosses. And he made the whole thing worse by turning himself into a circus act performing his buffoonery for the inexplicably entranced media. 

The essential point in all of this is the increasing distinctiveness of Scotland's political culture. The "One Nation" factions in the British parties will still try to deny this even in the face of the decisive redrawing of the political geography of the UK in the recent election. But the direction of travel is entirely towards increasing divergence. And it is an accelerating process. Because England (if progressives there will forgive the generalisation) is moving in one direction at least as rapidly as Scotland is moving in the other. The sum of the speeds has reached escape velocity. The two political cultures have separated past the point of no return.

Everything that happens from here on simply adds momentum to a process which leads ultimately to a formal ending of the now defunct political union and the opening of an opportunity to forge a new relationship between Scotland and England. Cameron's pursuit of English votes for English laws (EVEL); trade unions having different affiliations north and south of the border; increasingly different policy agendas being followed by the two governments; further constitutional tinkering creating more anomalies to irk Englanders while failing to satisfy Scotland's aspirations; the demise of British Labour in Scotland in favour of a genuine Scottish Labour Party; all of these things and more will be seen by future historians as both cause and effect of Scotland moving towards independence.

The nature of the Tories' election campaign was very largely dictated by this process of political divergence between Scotland and England. British Labour's campaign in Scotland dealt rather more ineptly with the same irresistible historical forces. One suspects that at least a few of the more perspicacious minds in the unionist camp must have sensed which way the wind is blowing. Will they continue a Cnutian resistance? Or will they recognise the need to start managing the process of unravelling an archaic and dysfunctional political union?

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Another suicide note

People hoping for British Labour in Scotland to deserve a revival will read Richard Baker's offering over at Labour Hame and despair. Baker evinces all the follies and fallacies which have brought the pretendy wee "Scottish Labour Party" to where it now finds itself - languishing in the remaindered bin of Scottish politics.
In the first place, he imagines that there is a "Scottish Labour Party" to be saved. He stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the true subordinate status of British Labour in Scotland. Not a good start for somebody supposedly seeking a way out of its travails.
We'll gloss over the bit where Baker tries to present Jim Murphy as a unifying figure on the assumption that it is a regrettably discordant attempt at humour.
Of more significance is his attempt to portray the superficial, trivial changes to British Labour in Scotland's "constitution" as if they were profound and meaningful. I have news for Richard Baker. Adding the word "patriotic" served only to make you look more like Better Together and so remind people of your shameful alliance with the Tories in a truly despicable campaign to deny the sovereignty of Scotland's people. There is planet-weight unintended and unfunny irony in your use of that word that does not elude others as it evidently does yourself.
The reason for adopting the word "patriotic" is also based on one of the follies and fallacies that I referred to earlier. Richard Baker displays the complete failure to understand the nature of his nemesis when he contemptuously, and erroneously, dismisses the SNP as being "most comfortable" in the territory of national identity rather than progress. I have another bit of news for Richard Baker. The SNP didn't win the trust of half the electorate by waving a saltire. Or by banging on about how "patriotic" they are. I could explain at length how and why that trust was won. But I'll settle for two words which, I think, sum up the SNP's approach and their appeal to voters - principled pragmatism.
But the greatest obstacle of all to Richard Baker being the one to discover a path to redemption for British Labour in Scotland is his fervent British nationalism. His main argument against British Labour in Scotland taking the logical first step on the road to becoming electable is that becoming a genuine Scottish Labour Party would involve sacrificing its status as part of the British establishment.
Avoiding any concessions to the distinctness Scotland's of Scotland's political culture takes precedence over even considerations of political survival. The voters have sent British Labour in Scotland an unmistakeable message which says that there is a new political reality in Scotland. Richard Baker responds with the dumb denial that has characterised British Labour in Scotland ever since the SNP's first Holyrood administration and despite the message being repeated ever more forcibly in 2011 and again last week.
If British Labour in Scotland are listening as intently as they constantly assure us they are, how have they managed to miss that message from the electorate? When the political map of the UK slaps them in eye with the blindingly obvious fact of massive political divergence between Scotland and the rest of the UK, how can they remain so stubbornly oblivious?
If Richard Baker is speaking for British Labour in Scotland then we might as well give up on them completely. They are beyond rehabilitation.