Sunday, 28 September 2014

"Together we can"...what?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Labour has, at least since the early Blair years, been synonymous with vacuous slogans.

"Britain deserves better" wasn't too bad - it was obvious what they were referring to. But what about the excruciating "hardworking Britain better off", "a future fair for all" and the ridiculous "forward not back"?

Their current one is an absolute corker. Delegates at their Manchester conference were confronted with the latest exercise in spectacular vapidity - "together we can".

Which naturally raises more questions than it does answer: together we can what? Destroy the economy? Launch illegal wars? Pretend to have working class friends? Dance with unicorns? It means nothing, and as the adopted slogan leading into a General Election it is so banal as to be rendered meaningless.

Even Barack Obama's "Yes we can!" slogan had the benefit of a background message of hope. Labour, on the other hand, are struggling from something of a self-inflicted identity crisis that this attempt at cultivating fake togetherness highlights rather than remedies.

"Together we can" is so inept I fear for the future career of the advertising exec who thought it was a good idea. It's slightly more sane than the notion of using young labrador bondage in the bathroom as a sales point for Andrex, but unlikely to be anything like as successful (it's a bit difficult to sell Ed Miliband as cute, or Ed Balls as cuddly). The "Labour's plan for Britain's future" might have been more credible if they had produced anything resembling a plan - they're still tying themselves up over how to deal with the Scottish devolution question.

Perhaps Labour needs to realise that politics isn't showbusiness. No-one is terribly impressed with people who claim to be sufficiently equipped to run the country finding new ways to be seen as out of touch, or just plain stupid.

Labour aren't able to express their ideas convincingly - some might cruelly suggest that is because they have none - but I would argue this is a product of the style over substance school of Blair, Mandelson et al. It is not that they lack ideas as such, but have forgotten how to communicate them in a way that is believable and authentic. Perhaps the empty slogans also demonstrate a party that is perhaps not ideologically vacuous, but one that is deeply uncomfortable with itself to the point it is scared of what it might say.

Labour's current problems are legion and well-documented. However, democracy demands a strong opposition and I can take no joy from their current predicament: the principal beneficiaries of ineffective Labour messages are likely to be UKIP and the Conservatives.

Perhaps this is not only Labour's problem, but one for all professionalised policitians. A lack of authenticity is obvious, compounded by the fear of speaking one's mind. And so refuge is found in glib, meaningless and uncreative slogans that are hoped will resonate with a public blindly assumed to find such soundbites appealing.

Labour not only needs to find its voice, but its soul. It needs to be more original, more genuine and speak with conviction. It has to realise quickly that vapid slogans are no substitute for a well-communicated message.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

After the referendum - which way forward?

It’s now over a week since Scotland voted No – a verdict which raises far more questions about Scotland’s future than it answers.

I’ve been trying to make sense of the confusing web of information and misinformation that has been communicated within the media and by the representatives of political parties. What is apparent is that there is no broad consensus among the Westminster parties, no acceptance of the “devo max” being proclaimed as an inevitability by many sections of the media, no long-term view and no real idea of how to deal with the “English question”. In fact, the latter hasn’t even been adequately defined other than in the cynical language of David Cameron. 

Lessons from the referendum
Before I consider the question of how to move forward from the referendum – both the result and the two-year long debate – it’s vital to consider what we’ve learned from that campaign. Firstly, Scotland is more divided than many imagined, and such divisions cannot simply be wished away. The nature of Scotland’s politics was shown to be fractious, tribalistic and at times surprisingly intolerant. Secondly, the result was closer than many expected; indeed, only a few months ago the No campaign would have considered a 55-45 victory as a defeat rather than something to be greeted with either relief or celebration. This can hardly be accepted as an approval of the status quo and suggests that there is an appetite not only for change, but a desire that such change be far-reaching and radical. Thirdly, the real winner was democracy – with a huge 85% turnout and hundreds of thousands of activists energised and inspired by their involvement in such a significant national conversation.  Fourthly, the intervention of Gordon Brown and his promise of a timetable for change certainly ensured that the result was not closer and may even have prevented a Yes vote. Brown may well have saved the Union, but Scottish voters will not respond positively to any attempt to backtrack on that promise – something the Labour Party must bear in mind. Fifthly, a common theme in the national conversation on Scotland’s future was the lack of trust in politicians and the political establishments.

Labour's predicament
There can be no escaping the reality that the pledge for further powers was made in some panic, which explains the chaotic and ill-conceived nature of what has followed. Most significantly, Brown and Darling’s keenness to avoid a Yes vote at apparently any cost allowed them to be outmanoeuvred by Cameron, who has cynically calculated an opportunity to play the English card with success. It could easily be Labour’s undoing: they, unlike the Tories, have everything to lose by selling Scotland short. Labour has somehow managed to find themselves on the losing side: in spite of being the foremost voice within Better Together, they now find themselves between the proverbial rock and hard place. Do they dishonour a pledge they made without consideration of its ramifications, or do they accept the possibility of being in office but unable to govern? Business as usual is not an option, but neither is putting the genie back into the bottle. The conversation now needs to be had. A powerful and persuasive Yes campaign in Scotland has done what no amount of Liberal Democrat constitutional navel-gazing has ever accomplished – it’s had Westminster frightened. And it’s put both the D-word (devolution) and the all important F-word (federalism) onto the political agenda. 

The situation provides opportunities, but it is difficult to see how Scottish Labour is in any kind of position to respond positively. Paralysed by self-interest, they are unable to deliver on the public expectation to facilitate change without compromising their electoral ambitions. And yet the electoral possibilities are nil if they fail to. Labour’s predicament is entirely of their own making: Better Together was always an uneasy alliance but Labour have been strategically weak, easily outfoxed by the Prime Minister at crucial moments and unable to dictate the political discourse.

Conservative cynicism
My criticism of Labour does not indicate any kind of support for the Conservatives’ position, articulated by Cameron and his Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. The Tories have been nakedly partisan, pouncing on the West Lothian Question they have virtually ignored for decades to force Labour into a corner. No doubt, the spectre of UKIP also features in the thinking that produces arguments such as the potential for “an English backlash” if Scottish MPs can force “socialist policies” on the rest of the UK. Not only is this kind of language from Grayling intemperate, it smashes the illusion of a united front into the water. Given the Tories have been at pains to undermine the evils of SNP nationalism, it is disappointing that immediately after the referendum result many senior Conservatives have retreated into the familiar haven of English nationalism. One down-side to their virtual disappearance in Scotland (at least in relation to Westminster representation) is that they have nothing to lose by doing so. 

Given the standoff between Labour and the Conservatives, and with Gordon Brown stating that his timetable will be adhered to irrespective of any Commons vote, it is little wonder that the SNP have been able to capitalise on the uncertainty, attracting several thousand new members and overtaking the Liberal Democrats in terms of membership. For Alex Salmond to claim that Scottish voters have been “tricked” is premature – only time will tell – but Paddy Ashown, speaking with Dermot Murnaghan, was correct when he deemed that "there is something very close to a national citizens revolt against Westminster – it may be that the Scottish revolt, near revolution, may go away but I rather doubt it listening to Mr Salmond earlier on and his, in my view, entirely justifiable anger.” There is unquestionably a genuine anger, which must be recognised and responded to. Failure to do so will only serve the interests of the Scottish National Party.

SNP opportunity
The SNP has its own issues currently, following the resignation of Alex Salmond as leader and First Minister. But it is being strengthened by the doubts surrounding the may forward, suggestions of backtracking and unwillingness to deliver on the part of Labour and the Conservatives, the uneasy peace between the pro-Union parties and the strong appetite for change. What is clear is that the SNP must be part of the “solution”. They must be engaged with, their input obtained. The fact that 1.6 million people voted in support of independence not only demonstrates the effectiveness of the Yes campaign, but of the influence the SNP wields. Nicola Sturgeon has already intimated her willingness to work collaboratively to ensure further devolution for Scotland. Not only is this necessary for any effective settlement, it is also wise from a strategic perspective with scope for exploiting divisions between and within the pro-Union parties. No doubt the SNP’s opponents will be wary of this, but any lasting settlement for Scotland must necessarily involve them. 

The Liberal Democrats
There are opportunities for the SNP, but there are also opportunities for the Liberal Democrats. Gordon Brown was quite incorrect to consider his proposals as resembling either “Home Rule” or “federalism”, but what he has succeeded in doing as getting those Lib Dem concepts back on the political agenda. 

The Liberal Democrats yesterday appointed Michael Moore and Tavish Scott to the devolution commission. Moore has already demonstrated his innate reasonableness and ability to work with all parties, including the SNP and would appear to be an ideal representative in the forthcoming discussions; Scott, on the other hand, is a more unusual choice. He is naturally more combative and is notably antipathetic towards the SNP. Such aversion is unlikely to aid constructive dialogue. However, he has been a consistent advocate of decentralisation and of federalism within Scotland. If Moore and Scott form an unlikely double act, it is not necessarily an unworkable one. Both are strongly supportive of both devolution and federalism, both need little reminder of the appetite for significant reform and neither are likely to be distracted from their purpose by either the Tories’ cynical attempts at playing the English card or Labour’s descent into self-destruction.

Indeed, the opportunities for the Liberal Democrats go beyond merely championing their case for federalism. As Michael Moore stated while the counting was still underway last week, there is a need for healing in Scottish politics. Indeed there is, and it is clearly something that the Conservative and Labour parties are ill-equipped to deliver. There is the potential for the party to help facilitate a conversation that will calm tensions, heal wounds and confront the divisive rationale behind what was often a fraught and ill-tempered battle. It can only be done in collaboration with the SNP, but there is a chance for the Lib Dems to bring Scottish politics forward in the aftermath of the vote, championing again a pluralistic society, challenging division and seeking the kinds of changes Scottish voters want to see.

The case for federalism
What the Liberal Democrats cannot do is assume that the case for federalism is so strong that it makes itself. Neither can they take their former better together partners on trust. It is time to promote the cause of federalism as never before, as the window of opportunity is both narrow and temporary. However, former allegiances and rivalries must be cast aside – the most likely ally in the pursuit of federalism is neither the indecisive Labour Party nor the self-preservationist Conservatives, but the Scottish National Party. 

While the long-overdue “English question” has now also been given consideration, increasing the potential for something resembling a federalist settlement, the debate cannot be allowed to be framed by the Tories’ demands. As Nick Clegg has argued, “the vested interests in the two old parties can conspire to block reform...we cannot allow an exciting new chapter of empowerment and constitutional renewal to be held hostage yet again by a Labour and Tory pre-election standoff... the issue of English votes they could jeopardise the Union they purport to defend. Surely we haven't fought to save our Union in a vote north of the border, only to see it balkanised in Westminster? Unless they're careful, the Conservatives may end up turning their back on Scotland, while Labour ignores England: a recipe for stalemate when we should we working across political divides to renew our creaking constitution from top to toe."

The question of legacy 
And so, what will the legacy of the Scottish referendum be? The usual protagonists seeking to gain party-political advantage and the inevitable disappointment of a fudged compromise, offering little more than tinkering around the edges? Or will we actually have, if not federalism, at least something approaching the type of progressive change the referendum result demands?

Part of the difficulty is Brown’s ridiculous timetable, which was always optimistic and designed to fit Westminster priorities rather than address the substantive issues. Lasting change cannot and will not be delivered by the self-interested conforming to the demands of self-set timescales. Neither can it come from pledges made in the heat of a referendum debate, without having consulted either parliament or cabinet. In fact, I’m probably one of the few Scots who does not wish to hold the three party leaders to their pledge – I’d prefer them to rip it up and start again, offering us something better and more meaningful.

The way forward

It is absolutely vital to overturn the Tories' flawed logic and separate the issue of further Scottish devolution from the wider matters of federalism and UK constitutional reform. The timetable announced by Brown, however hurried, must address only the immediate matter of extending Scottish devolution. It has been utterly shameful of the Conservatives to link the promise of further powers for Scotland to the issue of English democratic reform. The promise to deliver for Scotland should not depend on reaching agreement for "English votes for English laws". That is not to diminish the need for a conversation on English matters, but that should be distinct from that we are having on devolving more power to Holyrood.

After a final recommendation from the devolution committee has made made and agreed, then must we turn our attention to "the English question" - or, rather, the question of UK devolution. Of course, as a Liberal Democrat I’m going to passionately defend and promote the federalist cause. That is not the most obvious outcome, admittedly. But the process is, in many ways, of equal if not greater importance. Rushing into major reform of English government without either a constitution or popular participation is as foolish as rushing headstrong into independence – what is required is a period of reflective and engaging public consultation. The result of the referendum has been interpreted in many ways, but to suggest it is a mandate for party-appointed politicians to determine our future behind closed doors is absurd. Not only is it non-democratic, it fails to take into account the lessons from the referendum I mentioned previously. What is needed is for people from across the political spectrum, from civic society, voluntary organisations and charities to come together to facilitate a real debate on Britain’s future in which all those with an interest can participate and endorse. Such far-reaching change cannot come from a political elite.

There is a need for real democracy to be seen to be active. Will the devolution commission have the courage to appoint a UK Constitutional Convention? If they do, it could stimulate a debate similar to that we have witnessed in Scotland recently, but without the antagonism...a conversation that can inspire in a way that no election campaign ever has. It would also constitute the best opportunity yet for real federalism.

I doubt this will happen, however, owing to the fears of Labour and the Conservatives. But it is something that Liberal Democrats (and possibly the Greens and SNP) should promote.  The alternative is a controversial and underwhelming settlement, framed by the interests of the Labour and Conservative parties. The mechanism is vital not only to get the result we want, but to have the democratic conversation that Scotland – and the UK – so urgently needs. 

Certainly the immediate priority is to work with all parties (and the SNP in particular) to secure the best possible deal for Scotland, while allowing for something more dynamic to consider the complex issue of how the governance of the UK is to be reformed thereafter. 

Putting the referendum lessons to good use
Coming back to my initial points regarding the referendum lessons, how do we heal Scotland’s divisions? How do we deliver radical change? How do we ensure that democracy wins out? How do we avoid any political backtracking? And how do we deal with the lack of trust in politicians?

The answer for me is obvious. It’s a constitutional convention, with a considered and respectful public conversation. It represents the best chance for real change and the best chance for the Liberal Democrats. 
The devolution commission is the product of a panicked pledge and an unwillingness to engage with the issue prior to the referendum. We must now work with it, but we now owe it to the country to do things better. There are huge opportunities for the Liberal Democrats to be the main winners from the referendum, but if we fail to deliver anything other than a few “further powers” not only will we have missed the best opportunity in over a century to bring Home Rule to Scotland, we will have surrendered entirely our credibility. It's time to tear up the familiar script and start again.

The road ahead is fraught with risks – but they’re risks that must be taken if federalism is to become reality. The question is: do we have the courage to take them?

Iain McKenzie MP "sacked" for voting against ISIL military intervention

Iain McKenzie MP: an unlikely rebel
The Labour MP for Inverclyde, Iain McKenzie, has - according to reports on the ITV and BBC websites - been relieved of his duties as parliamentary aide to shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker.

The justification for his removal from his former post appears to be his decision to vote against military intervention in Iraq.

Mr McKenzie so far has maintained a silence on the matter, but what is clear is that he is no natural "rebel" and that he voted according to his conscience.

The decision to sack him says more about the Labour Party and its requirement for rigid and unquestioning obedience than it does about Mr McKenzie. I expressed some of my own thoughts on the potential intervention two days ago, but while I would have voted the same way as my MP I am more than aware this is a complicated matter and I would not expect MPs to leave their consciences, principles or their individuality behind when they entered the voting lobby.

No doubt Labour will argue that war votes are not an issue of conscience for ministers or their aides. This is an absurd logic: what could be more of an issue of conscience than a decision with the potential to cost thousands of lives?

I am sorry that Mr McKenzie has been treated in this way, but I am pleased he found himself able to vote in the way he believed was right while probably being aware of what the consequences would be. He has earned my respect, and hopefully also that of many other constituents.

On the other hand, the Labour Party I was once a member of deserves nothing other than disdain. It is a party in which individuality is dangerous and morality must conform to the dictates of a rigid orthodoxy.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Why I don't agree with Nick on ISIL

While not being too pleased with an e-mail I received today from the Scottish Liberal Democrats, promoting something purporting to be an engagement with members on the referendum campaign, a further communique from Nick Clegg arrived this evening that was more troubling.

On the subject of ISIL, the leader sent out the following e-mail to the party membership:

Dear Andrew,
On Friday Parliament is to be recalled to debate Britain joining the coalition of nations who have launched air strikes against the ISIL terrorist organisation in Iraq.

Liberal Democrat MPs will be supporting Britain joining this coalition for three reasons. Firstly, the threat from ISIL to Britain has already been made clear by the sickening sight of British hostages being executed on television. Secondly, unlike the 2003 war in Iraq this intervention is legal - we are responding to a direct request for help from the legitimate Government of Iraq and Parliament will vote before any action is taken. Thirdly, we’re acting as part of a broad coalition of countries, including many Arab countries, to deal with a real and immediate threat.

I know that given our party’s history this will evoke strong feelings. Earlier, I recorded an interview for broadcasters in which I explained why we were supporting this action. You will see some of this on the news this evening but I wanted party members to see the interview in full.

This is obviously a developing situation and I will be in touch with you again over the coming days.

Thank you,

Nick Clegg

Leader of the Liberal Democrats

The problem with Nick's position - as with that of the Blair government in 2003 - is that it shows a grotesque misunderstanding of the situation in Iraq. It fails to consider ISIL's possible motivations for committing these sickening murders, and may in fact be providing the very response ISIL are seeking. It also fails to recognise the tribal nature of Iraq, the current political situation and the reality of dangerous power struggles emerging between rival factions. The rise of ISIL has as much to do with these power games, and of undermining the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi; it also is a product of the West's inability to deliver anything resembling a peaceful or democratic Iraq in the wake of the 2003 invasion.

Furthermore, it takes the misguided perspective that an enemy of my enemy must be my friend. This is no basis for international military action in the 21st century.

As for the notion that this conflict is legal - I have two points to raise. The first is that Clegg is seeming to suggest that the Liberal Democrats would have supported the 2003 invasion if it had been "legal". (I wouldn't have - there were several reasons why the action was flawed and reckless.)  Secondly, the fact that something is legal does not make it desirable. Thirdly, the existence of a "coalition of countries" does not mean that alternative means of resolving the issue should be overlooked.

It is not that I would rule out any kind of military intervention. There are times when action is necessary, and when a failure to act constitutes a dereliction of duty. But ISIL is not a dictatorial regime; it is not even HAMAS. What Clegg and others do not address is that ISIL is not simply a military operation. It is a political movement, with its roots in key elements of Iraqi society, that is far more interested in prompting Turkey into responses as it is in goading the West. It craves recognition and has been brazenly seeking the kind of retaliation that will lend substance to its propaganda. It is not, as Clegg is suggesting, a threat to the UK - the brutal killings of UK citizens are not aimed at threatening the UK, but provoking it.  It certainly makes so sense to me to commit to military intervention in Iraq on the basis of gruesome murders of British citizens in Syria.

The question of how is as crucial as the issue of why. Attention should also be given to the potential ramifications of any action, including how to build a less divided Iraq in the aftermath.

A "coalition" is no substitute for a United Nations Resolution. There are appropriate international bodies that cannot continue to be shown disdain. "Coalitions" of Arab countries with vested interests - and human rights records ISIL would be proud of - should not be sided with uncritically. I am not suggesting doing nothing, but action must be based on an understanding of political and military reality that seems somewhat lacking in Clegg's e-mail. Action must be considered, proportionate and planned with potential consequences in mind. 

As it stands, we are risking everything on removing ISIL while adopting a strategy that might actually strengthen their hand. Will intervention be to the benefit of the area's long-term future? Is the strategy realistic? How will it improve the West's standing in the area? How will it work to undo the damage of previous Western interventions?  None of these question shave been addressed.

I'm uneasy about intervention but not necessarily opposed. I remain to be convinced. E-mails such as this - providing little detail, demonstrating limited understanding of the many issues at the heart of ISIL's emergence and depending upon perceived threats to the UK for its argument - anger me because they seek to justify a position without giving any adequate answers to the multitude of questions people like myself have.

On the positive side, at least Clegg does invite responses. He's showing a willingness to engage with members, and that is appreciated. However, if you're going to make a case for military action, it has to be a bit more sophisticated than "they're bad" and "they represent a threat to the UK".

£20 to "have my say" on the referendum campaign? No thanks.

I've had a couple of e-mail from the party today that have made me rather irate.

The first is from the Scottish Lib Dems, who have invited me to "a Members’ Forum ... at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Glasgow. This special event will be open to all members and gives everybody the opportunity to have their say on the referendum campaign, its outcome and the future. Similar events held after elections in the past have had big attendances and have had a real impact on the direction of the party. The Forum will be chaired by Scottish party leader Willie Rennie and will include contributions from Sir Menzies Campbell, Michael Moore and Alistair Carmichael, who will be able to update members on events at a UK level."

The price for this? £20 (a modest £10 for concessions).

In response, if the party is genuinely seeking feedback on the referendum, the campaigns and their ramifications - and if it is being honest in its aim to attract a "big attendance" - the notion of requesting members to pay for the privilege of expressing a view is perhaps self-defeating.

I'd also suggest it is a trifle insulting to the many who have campaigned tirelessly and passionately for over two years. The party needs to conduct an open and democratic conversation, one that is involving and engaging, rather than what is essentially a closed-door fringe event with knobs on. Those people need to be heard, their views, observations and hopes should be taken into consideration - but this is hardly the forum in which open and meaningful dialogue can take place.

No doubt Menzies Campbell, Michael Moore and Alistair Carmichael will be worth listening to, but as an exercise in engagement this is sadly lacking. It is little wonder that the SNP membership has overtaken ours this week - they offer the many activists who have been involved with Yes Scotland, many of whom have been inspired and energised by the previous two years, a new outlet for their political expression, inviting them to share in a new conversation to move Scotland forward; we, on the other hand, hold ticketed member-only events with party grandees.

I won't be going. It's not just the question of the £20 admission charge I struggle with, but the very thinking at the heart of it.

Some have asked me why I take to blogging and social media to make my political points. I think I'll let this e-mail answer that question for me...

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Some thoughts on Alex Salmond's resignation

After being unsuccessful in his struggle to secure Scottish independence, First Minister Alex Salmond has opted to resign as First Minister.

He did not need to do so, but his reasons for resigning are perfectly understandable. He has taken the SNP, and its cause of Scottish nationalism, as far as he can. It is perfectly logical, at a time when the SNP is naturally considering its next steps, to make way for a new leader - with possibly a new way of thinking. Why continue to serve until the next election in 2016, when instead the new leader can be given a chance to bring their own style and vision to the top office in advance of that election?

That said, I am sorry to have seen him resign.

It is not that I like Alex Salmond particularly, although there are many politicians I like less. I find it difficult to tolerate his bombastic approach, his apparent egocentricity, and his obvious arrogance. But, on the other hand, he's somewhat easier to respect. He has been the first Scottish First Minister to be an improvement on his predecessor. There can be no questioning his adherence to his beliefs; neither can he be said to be uninterested in people. He also has charisma, a certain charm, determination, an ability to cultivate popular appeal beyond his party and - what all good politicians require - a sense of humour.

More importantly than all that, he's done more than any other to make Scottish independence a reality. He's also brought credibility to a party for so long on the fringes of Scottish politics. Since taking over the leadership in 1990, Salmond has facilitated the evolution of the SNP from a divided party of four MPs to the prominent force in Scottish politics. Under his leadership, his party smashed an electoral system cynically designed purposely to avoid an SNP majority, and hence the prospect of a referendum. And the outcome of that referendum was that over 1.6 million Scots - or 45% - believed that Scotland should be an independent country.

Far from having failed, this result should be read within the historical context of support for independence being consistently around the 30% mark. For all the limitations of Yes Scotland's strategy, the campaign was able to engage with people and reach out in a way that Better Together could not. Salmond, while not liked by all, was undoubtedly an asset and the way he performed in the second televised debate with Alistair Darling showed his best and his worst: his enormous strengths as a talented communicator were as apparent as his regrettable tendency to seek to diminish his opponents. There can be no denying that Alex Salmond has been an effective leader of the SNP and, in many respects, also an effective First Minister. Without the late intervention from Gordon Brown, and panicked promised of further powers from Westminster, we might also now be considering how he managed to persuade the Scottish voters to back his vision for independence. We are not, of course - but we cannot lose sight of how close this has been.

There have been others who have used Salmond's resignation as an opportunity for political one-upmanship. Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, in a statement that was unnecessarily graceless, stated that "he has exhausted his political purpose." I do not accept this either in fact or in sentiment, although obviously purpose inevitably adapts to changing circumstances. Alex Salmond remains as committed to independence as he ever has been and will surely continue to find a platform for promoting the nationalist dream.

Many will remember Alex Salmond as a man of intense principle and character, while others will see him as a deluded egomaniac interested only in securing his place in history. They are both wrong, of course: he was a genuine believer in the cause of independence and was more pragmatic than some would have us believe.

I will remember him as I believe he deserves to be: as the man who nearly delivered Scottish independence. I'm sure that's not how he'd necessarily have wanted history to remember him, but it's fair and taken into account his enormous achievement in transforming the SNP into a modern political party with a terrifyingly efficient campaigning unit. If the cause of Scottish independence is ever fulfilled, it will inevitably be due to some degree to the achievements of the outgoing First Minister. If his successor is able to achieve even a fraction of what Alex Salmond has, they will have done extraordinarily well.

I wish him well in his political career, which will surely not be coming to an end in the foreseeable future, and hope that he can continue to make the colourful contributions to Scottish politics that have so far characterised his 27 years as a parliamentarian.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The day is finally here...

It’s the day we’ve all been waiting for.

Well, those of us in Scotland at least (and I know a few highly interested English-based observers, too).

It’s referendum day.

Or, as I prefer to call it, democracy day.

It’s a day to decide Scotland’s future.

Of course it won’t all be decided by how we vote. But in voting Yes or No, Scotland will give its politicians a mandate to shape a new future.

Personally, I’m taking a long-term view, and voting in the way I think is in the best interests of Scotland’s future. I want my daughter, in 20 years time, be living in the kind of Scotland I wished I’d been able to live in when I was 22.

That does not mean that the choice is easy - far from it.

Yes, in some respects the only certainty is more uncertainty. We don’t know all the detail of what a Yes vote will mean. We don’t even know what a No vote will deliver.

But the respective campaigns have had two and a half years to get their messages across. Now it’s our turn to make our voices count.

There has been a lot about the independence debate that has been regrettable. It has not always been the dignified and constructive dialogue it could have been. It has sometimes been characterised by negativity, fear, diminishing our opponents, petty tribalism, intolerance of others and disrespectful sniping. It hasn’t always showcased what is good about Scottish politics.

But......why focus on the negative?

Thousands of people have become politically active for the first time.

Scotland has a buzz of expectation about it. 

People are excited, if also apprehensive.

The vast majority of activists on both sides, in spite of what some would like to suggest, have been decent, tolerant, respectful and thoughtful. They have shown they care passionately about our country. Scotland should take great pride in them.

But, most significantly, this is an opportunity.

An enormous opportunity.

An opportunity that I’ve always felt we should have had several years ago.

An opportunity to be part of the most significant date in Scottish history in 307 years.

An opportunity to make our vote count.And, believe me, it will count. This is not a General Election in which the majority of seats are pre-determined by accident of demographics. This is a referendum -and one the polls are telling us is too close to call.

I have never in the last two and a half years ever attempted to persuade anyone to vote one way or another. But I have encouraged people to vote. And I continue to do so.Whatever your views, please vote today. And when we vote, I hope that we all take pride in that vote, knowing that we’re making history. That
we’ve made an important decision for ourselves, for our families, for our communities...for Scotland. Maybe even for the UK, or for Europe (depending on your philosophy!)

We’ve all heard a lot of nonsense in the last couple of years – and not all of it from politicians and campaigners. But we need to focus on the important issue. It’s vital to ensure that the main thing is the main thing. It’s a question not of whether Scotland can be an independent country, but whether it should.

It’s a question of determining the political, social and economic nature of the country we live in.

How should you vote? I'm not going to tell you – I don’t flatter myself that anyone would listen anyway! And, of course, while the question is a simple one, there is no easy answer.

But do something great today.

Cast your ballot. Make a difference. Shape history.

And then, whatever the result, let’s work together to make the best Scotland possible.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Nick Clegg signs a pledge - what could possibly go wrong?

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, along with Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour counterpart Ed Miliband, has signed a pledge to devolve more powers to Holyrood in the event of a “No” vote.

The pledge, which promises "extensive new powers" for Scotland’s Parliament "delivered by the process and to the timetable agreed”, has been described by Better Together as “a vision around which Scotland can unite”. The leaders also affirm that "the UK exists to ensure opportunity and security for all by sharing our resources equitably" and ensures that the Barnett formula will continue to be used to allocate resources.
If it is a vision around which Scotland can unite, then Scottish people must be lacking in aspiration. Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell promised yesterday that “federalism is an arm’s length away”. What this announcement proves is that either Sir Campbell is over-optimistic or that he has incredibly long arms. What this pledge amounts to is a belated announcement of commitment to Scottish devolution, but it lacks both credibility and ambition. 

Better Together has failed to spell out in over two years what its plans were for “further powers”. It has given only the most vague of commitments until this point. It was always something to be put on the backburner, to be talked about only after the independence question had been settled. Consequently, we have been asked to vote no on the basis of nothing more than general promises of reform without any detailed proposals having been put forward. While Better Together have asked Scottish voters to “think hard about what independence will mean for Scotland”, they have omitted to provide any indication of what further devolution will mean in practice.

Until now.  And, quite frankly, it’s not enough.

Some questions have to be answered – most obviously why has it taken until now, two days before the vote, to provide anything resembling a plan? But questions should also be asked about the process that is being committed to: do we want a rushed timetable, a closed-door conversation on our political future that excludes Scottish society, a politician-dominated elite making views on our future and telling us it’s what we want? Or would we prefer an open and engaging conversation, in which public and civic society can play a role, and which can be conducted without acrimony and without the influence of vested interests?

People who have been enthusiastically campaigning for the last two and a half years – often people completely new to politics – deserve better than patronising, and belated, pledges. 

What is called for in the aftermath of the referendum result is some sober reflection on how Scottish political society can work constructively to build a progressive Scotland.  Rushing headlong into devolution would surely be as irresponsible as rushing, unthinkingly, into independence. 

The problem with the pledge is threefold. Firstly, it does not commit to any dialogue with Scottish voters.  It is, in effect, disempowering. Not only will Scottish people not have a democratic say in the outcome of the timetabled negotiations, they will also be unable to inform the thinking behind the proposals. Secondly, the detail revealed so far is spectacularly underwhelming, meaning that those of us hoping for something resembling Menzies Campbell’s Home Rule recommendations are likely to be disappointed. It doesn’t really guarantee very much. Thirdly, the signatories lack any credibility in Scotland.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband’s approval ratings in Scotland are notably poor, their political parties being at best viewed with some suspicion. Nick Clegg’s personal “brand” is viewed with such disdain that it is surprising that he didn’t consider the wisdom of signing pledges in the run-up to a public vote.
Only Better Together could imagine that a pledge signed by Nick Clegg could possibly provide any reassurance to the public. Only Better Together could imagine that the Scottish public trust Clegg, Miliband and Cameron. And only Better Together could imagine that this would be seen as anything other than a desperate tactic.

Do I believe Nick Clegg is committed to devolution? Yes, but he’s never given any commitment to anything approaching federalism. In fairness, however, there can be no denying that the Liberal Democrats are committed to overdue reform - but can the same really be said of the Conservative and Labour parties? Their commitment, such as it is, is borne from political expediency rather than any ideological principle.

What the pledge does not do is state why it should be trusted. The signatories themselves do not lend the pledge much trustworthiness. Furthermore, there can be no escaping that Better Together would have preferred not to have made any kind of promise now and are only doing so on the back of polls suggesting an at one time unthinkably close outcome. If the No campaign had spent the previous two years openly discussing what further devolution might look like, rather than merely suggesting some form of it as a probability, I might well be able to get behind the "vision".

What would be a vision is the establishment of a new UK Constitutional Convention. If I was being offered something of that nature, even now I would be tempted to vote No. But nothing so far-reaching is seriously being considered.  Vote No and our parliament will get a few more powers - if that's what excites you then go for it, but I'd like something a bit more substantive and far-reaching.

As it is, it is not so much a vision as an excuse. It is a reaction rather than a statement. It is disappointing to see committed Liberal Democrats taken in by this, hailing the imminent advent of "federalism" as if it was now a certainty when in truth it is as far away as ever.  If the pledge is intended to convince wavering voters of the opportunities of a "no" vote, it is unlikely to succeed in its purpose - if you want people to believe a promise, it's important to ensure it's the right people doing the promising.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

“More powers” – what can we expect?

Today the Better Together parties have – finally – made an official announcement backing more powers for Holyrood. 

Johann Lamont, Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie made a statement this morning confirming their commitment to unspecified further powers and backing former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s timetable for a process to facilitate change in the event of a “No” vote.

Ms Lamont stated that “the importance of this debate to the people of Scotland is to give them certainty that there will be more powers.” This was echoed by Ms Davidson, who reiterated that “this is the way that Scotland can have what it wants most of all, which is full control and full levers of power over huge swathes of what we do in this country.” There is naturally little to disagree with, but it is difficult to be reassured by such generalised blandishments – especially when they are delivered belatedly and so obviously in response to unfavourable polls. 

The Lib Dems’ Willie Rennie, who - for all his claims to the contrary is not a fellow traveller in the Labour-Tory axis of devolutionary tinkering – clearly longs for something more far-reaching. "All three parties are coming together as this is so important” he said, without the slightest hint of irony following Ed Miliband’s ill-timed intervention last week. "We are going to commit to delivering on more taxation and more welfare, that's the commitment that we are standing here to give - certainty to people in Scotland that they know, if they vote 'No' in September, it will lead to more radical change right across Scotland."

It is difficult not to feel some empathy for Rennie, who clearly aspires to being able to facilitate major constitutional changes. But how “radical” can we expect any changes to be? What specific powers can we expect the pro-Union parties to agree to delegate? Much as Johann Lamont is correct, to a point, in believing that Scottish people desire “certainty” and “more powers”, the truth is more complex. Scots aren’t going to be satisfied with “more powers” if they simply result in minor modifications to the current settlement. Rennie is correct in asserting that Scots actually want something more “radical” – the big question, however, is whether they can deliver it. An almost equally important question for voters is whether Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats can be trusted to deliver it. 

The Liberal Democrats have long favoured a federalist structure for the UK, and should not be satisfied with facilitating merely a different kind of devolution. The Home Rule Commission produced a praiseworthy vision in 2012, providing for increasing the Scottish Parliament’s control over financial powers (including inheritance tax, corporation tax, capital gains tax, and income tax). Significantly, it also considered introducing “partnership powers” to require greater collaboration between Holyrood and Westminster, devolution of new borrowing powers, an overdue replacement to the Barnett Formula and a revised role for the Supreme Court in arbitration. It was not quite the “federalist” programme some, like myself, hoped for – but it was a positive contribution and a useful starting point for discussions on determining the precise shape of a post-referendum Scotland. Its main strength was the recognition that the real issue is not simply one of “powers”, but shaping the kind of Scotland the majority of us would like to live in. 

The difficulty is that the Labour and Conservative parties have shown no indication whatsoever of buying into the Lib Dem vision. They recognise the need to accept the case for further devolution, realising that not to do so would be tantamount to asking “No” voters to support the status quo. They understand, purely from the perspective of political expediency, the need to be perceived as pro-change. But they are not co-travellers on the federalist train. Labour’s Devolution Commission focused predominantly on tax-varying powers and, while there are some welcome commitments to further devolution of welfare, the truth is that it is a very bland document. It reads as though the Committee was determined to take the Fabian mantra of “the inevitability of gradualism” to an illogical extreme. The Conservatives, on the other hand, to their credit consider the benefits of reversing the drift towards centralisation of power and focus on devolution within Scotland. The Tories have produced a document that reads well from the perspective of the committed devolutionist, but it is again too focused on the purely fiscal and fails to advocate the kind of “radicalism” that should appeal to either Liberal Democrats or others who desire a more comprehensive programme of reform.

Given the admittedly moderate ambitions of the Labour and Conservative parties, what then does a promise for “more powers” actually mean? What it does not mean is certainty. Even if, in the event of a “No” vote, work will begin on the new legislation as soon as September 19th, the final proposals will be far from certain until publication some months later. 

What the final proposals might actually be cannot be known at this point, which is unlikely to provide any reassurances to undecided voters. What can be said, with some degree of certainty, is that the final recommendations are more likely to look like the Tory and Labour proposals rather than the Liberal Democrat Home Rule recommendations, or Willie Rennie’s vision for “full fiscal federalism”. Federalism is a non-starter. 

What this announcement actually confirms is that the pro-Union parties are truly terrified. Why make the statement now, with just over way week until polling day? Why, if they were so committed to “further powers”, was a timetable not established over a year ago to confirm collective agreement to a process? The vague references to “powers” otherwise provides nothing of substance. This is simply one more mistake committed by Better Together: after refusing the option of a second question on the ballot form, the parties should have been more pro-active in proposing a mechanism for achieving change, rather than simply making vague gestures. If this announcement had been made in different circumstances earlier in the campaign, it may justifiably have been perceived as a genuine exercise in collaborative working to facilitate reform. As it is, Gordon Brown’s Declaration of Loanhead Miners’ Club looks like a calculated and cynical attempt to counter what now appears to be the very real threat of independence with some familiar Labour realpolitik. It inevitably feels like a bribe, even if it isn’t designed to be.

Better Together’s problem stems from the fact that it did not feel the need to either make a case for the union, or to spell out what its plans might be for devolution. Belatedly it is attempting to offer some degree of certainty but, having remained virtually quiet for over two years, why should anyone listen now? In any case, being asked to trust Brown and Darling on delivering a better economy for Scotland is a little like Vladimir Putin asking the world to trust him on human rights issues. It simply isn’t credible.

As a Liberal Democrat, I would naturally prefer a workable federalist settlement for the UK. If Better Together had promised – or even suggested – the possibility for a UK Constitutional Convention I may have been tempted to vote no. But no such commitment to anything so far-reaching has ever been offered and I am not persuaded by today’s statement, committed as it is to non-commitment. 

The difficulty for many voters is that, irrespective of the result of next week’s referendum, the only certainty is more uncertainty. What independence will mean will inevitably be subject to negotiation; what “further powers” means in practice will be determined by discussions between the pro-union parties. It can be said with some regrettable conviction, however, that they will bear almost no resemblance to the Home Rule Commission’s bold vision. 

The most likely outcome is that “further powers” will mean whatever the Conservative and Labour parties want it to mean. If that’s your vision for Scotland’s future, then vote “No”.

For all the criticisms aimed at Alex Salmond and the SNP, it’s now the Better Together parties who are short on answers.  If only Better Together had been discussing "more powers" for the last two years, rather than the final two weeks.