Tag Archives: Nicola Sturgeon

Undecided Leith

Undecided About ReferendumAt the beginning of October someone tweeted me a link to Yes Edinburgh North & Leith‘s first public meeting, on 3rd October in the Halls on Henderson Street.

Unlike most Yes events, this one was billed explicitly, both in the header and in the text, as for undecided voters – so, unlike with most events organised by Yes Scotland, I felt free to go along. When I got there, about five minutes before the start, I found some Yes activists who’d come anyway were leaving, and people identifying themselves as undecided were being let in on a one-for-one basis (the hall was packed). I got a seat at the front that had been vacated by a Yes voter and was sitting next to two Yes voters who weren’t budging and who didn’t know Leith votes Labour.

Undecided voters in the audience will have the opportunity to ask a top panel – including Nicola Sturgeon and leading human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar – why they should vote Yes on September 18th next year.

Yes LeithThere were four speakers: Nicola Sturgeon for the SNP, Aamer Anwar for Labour – the only speaker who wasn’t a politician, Margo MacDonald – the woman the SNP tried to get rid of in 2003, still being elected as an Independent MSP for the Lothians – and Chas Booth, the Scottish Green councillor for Leith.

I didn’t know how I was going to vote on the 18th of September when I got there, and when I left I still didn’t know, and six weeks later I still don’t know – but I’d been convinced all over again by the event that I’ll have to make up my mind on my own – because nothing the Yes Scotland campaign or the Better Together campaign say is likely to be helpful.

Lesley Riddoch, though herself a solid Yes voter, puts it bluntly:

the thinking Scot does not want to hear “Just say yes” or “Independence is the normal condition for a country” (tell that to the happily and highly devolved Lander of Germany or the federal states of Canada) or “Independence gives us the chance to decide Scotland’s future” (it does, but devolution’s already given us a stack of choices we haven’t had the courage to use) or “Decisions made in Scotland are better than those made in Westminster” (the trams debacle and Holyrood Parliament scandal spring all too quickly to mind).

It’s not that these bald assertions are untrue. They just aren’t enough. Repeating formulaic arguments won’t cut it in this debate. “Heart” supporters of independence are already signed up. The gullible are least likely to vote. The majority of Scots want grown-up, credible reasons to up-end the constitutional arrangements of several lifetimes.

This, none of the speakers provided, though Chas Booth came closest: unsurprisingly, since the Scottish Greens have spent years of party time thinking about how Scotland could do better. And will continue to do so, I have no doubt, whichever way the referendum next September goes.

You can see for yourself what they all said: Yes Leith had organised a video record.

Chas Booth presented independence as the chance to create a better nation in Scotland. He mentioned a Leither who’d come to him for help, and presented a solid case that she was in less trouble than she might have been had she lived in England, because of Scottish legislation that was keeping the more vulnerable better protected.

And then he said: “Decisions that affect Scotland should be made in Scotland.”

Well yes: but why? Decisions that affect Scotland are also made in Westminster, in Brussels, in Strasbourg, in Geneva, in New York, in Vienna. Independence will not get rid of any of those other external-to-Scotland decisionmakers, nor, I assume, would Chas Booth wish it to – except, presumably, OPEC in Vienna.

Margo MacDonald presented the purely nationalist case for independence: fair enough, until the SNP were foolish enough to think they could drop her from the ballot in 2003 and replace her with someone more in the party mould (stale, pale, male….) she was a member of the Scottish National Party.

I will admit that Margo MacDonald put my back up almost immediately by arguing that she didn’t see why people who planned to vote “no” wanted to call themselves Scots. I have called myself Scottish, British, and European for decades: whichever way I vote in 2014 won’t change that.

By the nationalist argument, I mean the argument for voting yes that rests on the idea that things will magically become better because we are Scottish. We have as much capacity to screw things up as any other nation: I don’t believe in arguments that rest on the idea that Scots are kinder or more just or more socially conscious than the English. Nor do I believe that Scots will necessarily keep voting for left-wing governments, just because we mostly have so far.

Aamer Anwar presented the negative case for independence. Perhaps that’s too a negative a way of putting it. Kenny Farquarson calls it the “I’m not a Nat, but – “ I find it strongly compelling, but it is a negative argument, and one based strongly on the current political situation.

David Cameron’s Tory/LibDem coalition are doing a terrible job running the country. The great institutions – the Royal Mail, the BBC, the NHS, the welfare state itself – that might have been a fine argument for a “No” vote, are being destroyed; broken up and sold off. If the Conservatives win in 2015, or even scrape in with the LibDems to support them, the only way Scotland will keep a national mail service or retain our NHS or keep welfare intact is to go independent. That is an honestly compelling argument, but it’s an argument that depends on David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne, and the rest of the sorry crew to make it for Yes Scotland.

Even if Labour wins in 2015, it’s fair to say that Ed Miliband and Rachel Reeves and Ed Balls have none of them convinced me that they intend to try to undo what the Tories and LibDems have done. The argument that we need to take the drastic step of independence merely to ensure we’re rid of the Tories lessens in force the better chance there seems to be of Labour getting in – but it doesn’t go away, because Ed Miliband and the rest of his crew aren’t standing up and committing themselves to ensure the Royal Mail is re-nationalised, the NHS is re-founded, the welfare state is re-formed: still less to undoing the damage done by Tony Blair’s New Labour government.

So, that’s an argument. But, it’s not a good argument. It doesn’t present voting Yes as a positive choice, merely as a desperate manoeuvre to destroy the bridge in order to stymie the pursuing wolves. The wolves are still there, still hungry, still rabid: all we’ve done is cut ourselves off from them while leaving them loose just across the Border, with allies north of the Border.

Are we justified in doing that? If the Conservatives – or the Tories/LibDems – look likely to get into government again in 2015, yes we are: that would be self-preservation. But it doesn’t look likely that they will: so far Labour is well ahead in the polls.

And then Nicola Sturgeon spoke.

Nicola Sturgeon is a good speaker and an admirable politician. She spoke about putting the levers of government into our hands. And primarily because of that, I thought I’d wait til the White Paper came out today to post about the Yes Leith event, because I didn’t want to be told “oh, wait for the SNP to publish Scotland’s Future!” Well, they have, and it confirms what Sturgeon told me in response to my question about these “levers of government”.

The plan from the White Paper, which is much as Nicola Sturgeon described it briefly on that night in October, is that if Scotland votes a definite Yes* in 2014, then on Thursday 26th March 2016 Scotland becomes independent and six weeks later on Thursday 5th May 2016 the first election for a Scottish Parliament will be held, elected under the current system of Regional party lists and constituency first-past-the-post, and this new Parliament will be responsible from Friday 6th May onwards for creating a Constitutional Convention to determine how newly-independent Scotland will be governed.

The next General Election in Scotland after 2016 would be in 2020 if, by that time, the 129 MSPs have decided Scotland will continue to follow the four-yearly general elections laid out in “Scotland’s Parliament: Scotland’s Right”.

The development of a constitutional government for devolved Scotland took seven years to work out, from the initial decision in 1988 to the publication in 1995: and it was not implemented until 1999. If we assume that the Constitutional Convention envisaged by the SNP as being set up some time in 2016 proceeds at about the same pace, probably there will be a Scottish Constitution published for us to think about by 2023 – a year before the second general election of the independent Scotland.

I have said for over a year now, and at this point it’s far too late: the time to think about presenting a Constitution to Scottish voters would have been before the referendum. I think Yes will lose: it will be interesting to see if one of the follow-on effects of a lost Yes vote will be a renewal of interest in developing a Constitution. This would be easier to do across party lines and with real effort to be inclusive, if it were not happening under pressure to get it done in time for a referendum or a general election. (I suspect, supposing Yes were to win, that the Constitutional Convention would be instructed to hurry up and get it done in time for campaigning, well before 2020.)

The Constitution for an independent Scotland would be far more important than any stagey TV “debate” between David Cameron and Alex Salmond. (Which will never happen, because Cameron and his advisers know perfectly well it would win them no votes in Scotland, no matter how well Cameron presented himself and his arguments for voting No.)

North Pole lake

There is the red herring of whether Scotland would be in the EU, the important but not particularly debatable question of what currency Scotland would have, human rights questions – we are not magically less racist or less homophobic or less sexist than other nations – questions about Scotland’s oil and our territorial waters and global warming.

But what was my question to Nicola Sturgeon?

I asked what would change about Scotland’s governance if we voted Yes.

Nicola Sturgeon had said the SNP wanted to “put the levers of government into our hands”. That should mean, if it means anything, that the centralisation of powers to the Parliament in Holyrood would be reversed: a campaign for real local government, for an increase in the number of local authorities, for an end to the practice of instructing local government what their policies will be and forbidding them from raising their own funds from local taxation: an end to siding with billionaires over locals.

We will lose 59 Scottish MPs. The 129 MSPs will find their workload double or triple, as they must do what Westminster MPs do, what they now do, and also are responsible for setting up the Constitutional Convention. Either their funding for personal staff increases, or don’t expect a good response time if you’ve got a problem you want your MSP to help with.

Nothing below that level will change. We will continue a system of local government that is quite literally the least democratic in Europe, until or unless the Scottish Constitutional Convention, appointed by MSPs, proposes a change.

Simon Brookes notes the state of Scottish local democracy today compared to the smaller countries that the SNP are so fond of citing:

Iceland is an extreme case, of course; a nation of proud and independent people with an ancient history of democratic organisation, and strong civil society. But Denmark, with a population roughly equal to Scotland’s, has three times as many local authorities. Norway, with three quarters our population, has 400 more local authorities than Scotland has.

Put it differently: Dumfries and Galloway has three times the population of the average Danish local authority; four times of the average Swedish or Dutch; twelve times the average for Norway; thirty six times the average for Iceland. I said Iceland was an extreme case, didn’t I? Get this. Dumfries and Galloway has eighty four times the population of the average – the average – French commune.

To say this system will continue until further notice is not “putting the levers of government into our hands”: it is ensuring the levers of government stay centralised and far away from us, our only access to them much what it is now: except that we lose 59 MPs at Westminster.

What struck me about the evening at Yes Leith was that even though the evening had been billed as for undecided voters (and I do appreciate the Yes voters who went back out into a cold and rainy night to let those of us undecided have a seat – thank you!) there appeared to be no thought by any of the four speakers or by most of the audience that one could listen to Yes speakers evangelising for independence, and still not be convinced, because nothing new has been said and nothing definite offered, to give me a reason to vote Yes beyond the negative reason “The others are worse”. So, I remain undecided.

Yes Scotland are talking to themselves. They don’t want to hear from the undecided. The same is true of Better Together, but the status quo does have an advantage: it’s Yes Scotland that needed to pay attention to the undecided, and hasn’t and doesn’t.

*Note: I would say for a definite Yes they need a 60% turnout and a clear majority from those who voted. The last time Scottish voters had a 60%+ turnout was for the Scottish devolution referendum in 1997. I know that the SNP got the Tories to agree to a simple Yes/No vote and a simple majority of those who voted, but if turnout for the independence referendum is below 50%, I do believe that’s an answer: not enough people care about the issue for constitutional change. Low turnout is itself an answer, just not one that politicians want.

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Women don’t know anything about poverty, obviously

Scottish Women's Convention manifestoThe Scottish government has appointed four well-off men to advise on poverty issues:

The members of the new expert group are: Darra Singh, a former chief executive of Jobcentre Plus now working for Ernst & Young; Martyn Evans, chief executive of the Carnegie Trust and former head of Citizens Advice Scotland; Douglas Griffin, a former finance director at NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde; and Mike Brewer, a professor of economics at the University of Essex and a research fellow with the respected Institute of Fiscal Studies.

The four, who are expected to make an initial report to ministers by May, will advise on a “fairer welfare system” outside the union.

It is, after all, not the Scottish Government’s fault that Iain Duncan Smith has succeeded in associating his mantra on “fairness” with the reality of making the poor, the sick, the disabled, and the unemployed so much worse off than they need to be.
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One question, two question, three question, four

Today, David Cameron and Alex Salmond meet to decide the terms of the independence referendum. Naturally, they wouldn’t be meeting to “decide” if all the actual decisions hadn’t been worked out already by Michael Moore and Nicola Sturgeon and others, with their civil servants. Alex Salmond and David Cameron

The BBC’s “news” report on the meeting that will take place is a fair sample of the “it is expected” style of thing:

It is expected to allow for a vote in autumn 2014 with a single Yes/No question on Scotland leaving the UK.
The deal will also see 16- and 17-year-olds included in the ballot.
The UK government is expected to grant limited powers for the Scottish Parliament to hold a legal referendum, under a mechanism called Section 30.
The Electoral Commission will play a key role advising on the wording of the question and other issues such as campaign finance.
A possible second question on greater powers has been dropped, while the Scottish government looks to have secured its preferred date.

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Scottish and undecided

Tomorrow, I’m going to an anti-fascist demo. But more of that later.

This morning, in response to the news about David Cameron’s decision to award the BSkyB decision-maker role to Jeremy Hunt (and Hunt then actively misleading Parliament) Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, tweeted:

I’m in agreement with Ben Bradshaw that this is a low point, but the last Minister who repeatedly misled the House of Commons and neither resigned nor was sacked was Tony Blair: he fed the Labour MPs the “dodgy dossier” that somewhat quelled the backbencher rebellion against the Iraq war. As multiple people (myself included) promptly pointed out to him.
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The Tories like the US healthcare system

And Simon Johnson, Scottish Political Editor at the Telegraph, likes a liar. Let me explain.

The Health and Social Care Bill will become law. The Tory love for the US healthcare system is based on its profitability to people like them rather than to its effectiveness. The Health and Social Care Act is intended to increase the NHS costs and decrease services.
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Douglas Alexander and Scottish independence

In May 2011, the SNP won a majority in the Scottish Parliament – a victory that was unprecedented for both party and Parliament.

Douglas Alexander, Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, believes (Independent, 22nd January) this victory came about partly because of a renewed Scottish nationalism but primarily because:

In contrast, Scottish Labour failed to recognise the changed environment that, ironically, it had help to create. [Pretty sure Doug means "had helped" not "had help", though it certainly did have help from SNP, Scottish LibDem, Scottish Greens, and the Scottish Socialist Party] The party was left singing the old hymns and warning of the risks of Thatcherism at a time when these songs were increasingly unfamiliar to a new audience with no personal knowledge of the tunes. In truth, Scottish Labour never felt it needed to be New Labour because arguably that process of modernisation was not needed to defeat the Tories in Scotland, but this complacency, in time, left us vulnerable to attack from a different direction from more nimble opponents.

There are much simpler answers why the Scots tended to vote SNP this time. Part of it may have been due to fed-upness with Labour (which I’ll deal with later), partly it may have been the Westminster brigade arriving in Scotland in April 2011 on a rescue mission, but mostly, I think, it was just that the Liberal Democrats had put a Tory UK government in. Voting for the LibDems was seen as voting Tory, and Scots don’t vote Tory. (Well, not many, and those that do, vote for the real Tory party.)
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David Dimbleby was a member of the Bullingdon Club

David Dimbleby has chaired Question Time since 1994. From the age of 7 until he graduated from Oxford in the early 1960s, he spent his young life in an all-male world of privilege: he went to the Glengorse School in Sussex and to Charterhouse School in Surrey: he went to Christ Church, Oxford, where he was President of the Christ Church JCR, editor of the student magazine, Isis – and a member of the Bullingdon Club, the exclusive society for getting very drunk and riotous for the very wealthy or very aristocratic. From Dimbleby’s background – his great-grandfather Frederick William Dimbleby was one of the Late Victorian press barons – he seems to have got in by the “very wealthy” clause. Whatever he smashed in his student rampages, one may suppose his family paid for it. He acts like a member of the Bullingdon Club. It’s a good thing he’s sober.

On Thursday 12th January 2012, the first Question Time of the year was in London, and kicked off with a question about high-speed rail and then moved into Scottish independence – as with Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister, on the panel, the BBC had evidently guessed it would.

In response to a question from a woman in the audience: “Who would be worse off if the marriage breaks up, England or Scotland?” David Dimbleby gave Kelvin MacKenzie the first response – and let him run except when MacKenzie claimed something so wrong (he said Scottish Labour MPs gave Labour UK governments their majority: Dimbleby politely corrected him). Dimbleby let Kelvin MacKenzie run til he was done: including two brief conversations between Dimbleby and Mackenzie, he allowed the former editor of the The Sun two minutes and 49 seconds to speak and to finish what he was saying.


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I was wrong. The Conservatives really are that inept.

Okay. I was wrong.

When David Cameron declared that he could decide the date of the referendum on independence, claiming that a long delay is “very damaging for Scotland” and having Downing Street announce that a referendum carried out without Westminster backing would “only have advisory status” apparently he genuinely thought that an English Tory Prime Minister would be welcomed as a sort of hero riding to the rescue of the Scots.

Apparently the Conservative Press office genuinely believed that a message like this is conciliatory:

David Cameron will today seek to ban Alex Salmond from holding his referendum on breaking up Britain unless he agrees to a list of Coalition demands.

The Scottish First Minister would be forced to name the date for the vote and be restricted to a clear-cut question on whether Scotland should remain in the United Kingdom. The two men were on a constitutional collision-course last night as Mr Salmond signalled his outright rejection of the Prime Minister’s terms.

It is entirely possible to just not like Alex Salmond very much, and to be unsure of how you’ll vote in a referendum, and never in your life to have voted SNP, and still not care for the English Prime Minister bullshitting about how he’ll “force” the Scottish First Minister to come to heel, and that it will be Westminister, not Holyrood, that decides the date and content of the referendum.

Honestly, I really thought this must be some kind of cunning anti-Union scheme, probably set up by George Osborne, who may be ignorant of basic economics but who reputedly is quite smart and is no fan of the union, being able to do the electoral arithmetic that tells an English Tory that Scottish Labour voters could yet turf them out in 2015. Because it is so obvious to anyone who knows more of Scotland that roughly where to find it on a map, that if you want to get the Scots to vote for independence (currently only 29% of Scots are definitely for, though 53% against says there’s a big “undecided” vote to play for) the way to do it would be just this.

As Mary from Edinburgh said on Call Kaye yesterday morning:

“I’m not for independence at all. I worry that an intervention from Westminster may result in an anti-English kneejerk vote.”

But apparently Cameron genuinely thought that the Scottish people would like him for helping the referendum happen – with a few little conditions of course.

Nicola Sturgeon (BBC Radio 4′s Today) made the point clear: “It’s the attachment of conditions that gives the game away – this is Westminster trying to interfere. Perhaps I should be relaxed about that because the more a Tory government tries to interfere in Scottish democracy then I suspect the greater the support for independence will be, but there is a key issue of democratic principle here.”

I have to say that listening to Professor Tim Luckhurst of Kent University (on Call Kaye) explain that it’s ridiculous to suppose that the Scottish electorate should have the the deciding vote on a separation, and blandly ignore that if the whole of the UK is polled, effectively this gives the English the controlling vote to decide if Scotland ought to be allowed to separate from the UK, was enough to make a nationalist of me if only he’d gone on talking – so I switched off. Aidan O’Neil made this argument in the Guardian last November.

To Professor Luckhurst, apparently, it makes sense that you can’t have a divorce without mutual consent. He’s a professor of journalism, not of family law: apparently he genuinely doesn’t realise that it is entirely possible for a divorce to take place simply because one partner in the relationship has decided to end it.

No grand scheme on the part of the Tories. They just really didn’t see that neither David Cameron nor his party nor his policies are appealling to the Scottish people – and that no matter what a Scot’s support for independence or liking for Alex Salmond, in Scotland we accept that the SNP made clear when they intended to hold a referendum if they won, and they won the elections, and now they’ve got a right to do what they said they’d do. That’s democracy.

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