Thursday, 31 December 2015

Would a Sinn Fein election victory really be disastrous for unionism?

Martin McGuinness 2009.jpg
"Martin McGuinness 2009" by Jaqian - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The threat of Martin McGuinness as First Minister has trapped unionists in a self-destructive cycle.

The news from Stormont in 2015 was dominated by the DUP and Sinn Féin finally cobbling together a deal, but in 2016 preparations begin for an Assembly election. 

The two parties concentrated on attacking their smaller rivals, after the announcement of the ‘Fresh Start’ document.   They talk up their shared achievements and claim they’ve taken hard decisions in order to make progress for people in Northern Ireland.
However, the spirit of cooperation is unlikely to last very long, before we’re plunged into another bitter campaign, which will revolve around whether Sinn Féin becomes the largest party in the Assembly.

The threat of Martin McGuinness as Northern Ireland’s First Minister remains the Democratic Unionists’ electoral ‘trump card’.  After Peter Robinson’s retirement, Arlene Foster will be charged with keeping Sinn Fein out of the top job.  The DUP will look to shore up support by claiming it is the only party that can stop Sinn Féin topping the poll.  

It’s an effective tactic, aimed at fending off unionist rivals, but it also encourages negative campaigning and deflects attention away from important issues, which affect voters’ everyday lives. 

Under the original Good Friday Agreement the First Minister was drawn from the largest designation in the Assembly, unionist or nationalist.  In 2006 the St. Andrews Agreement changed the system, so that the largest party at Stormont now has the right to nominate a First Minister.  Opponents complain that the new rules were designed to frighten unionists into voting for the DUP, by raising the possibility that republicans might take a symbolically significant post.

That could be how things work out next year too, but, alternatively, maybe a Sinn Féin win is just the type of shock that politics, and unionism in particular, needs in order to shake it out of its negativity and complacency. 

A recent opinion poll commissioned by the BBC and RTE confirmed that support for Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK is higher than ever before.  Only 13% of people here want to see a United Ireland in the short to medium term.  Majority backing for our current constitutional position, or the alternative of direct rule from Westminster, extends right across the community, among people from both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds. 

In other words, the Union is perfectly safe for the time being, and unionists have no reason to fear for their futures within the UK. 

For the most part, though, unionist politicians reacted to the poll by gloating, rather than asking why their electoral strength doesn’t match the public’s constitutional preference.  The tone unionism sets is still often petulant and defensive, rather than confident and outward-looking.   

If the DUP runs a negative campaign next year, focussed on keeping Martin McGuinness out of the First Minister’s office, and it fails, unionists may be persuaded that a change of strategy or even realignment is necessary.  After all, there are examples of politicians across the unionist parties, and indeed right across the Assembly, who have more in common with each other, than with traditional elements in their own parties.

They aren’t as fixated on cultural, religious or social hang-ups.  They might even recognise, for instance, that same-sex marriage is inevitable, and would rather get on with passing the necessary legislation, rather than allowing that debate to derail other Assembly business repeatedly.  They’d prefer to discuss policies, as opposed to flags or emblems and they’re driven by ambition to succeed in their chosen career, rather than profound attachments to ideology.

In simple terms, the world would not stop turning for unionists if Sinn Féin became the largest party.  Unionism would almost certainly still form the biggest designation in the Assembly, and a majority when it came to important votes.  Unionists would still likely occupy the greater share of Executive posts. 

If a unionist party were to miss out on top spot, it might also prompt some hard-thinking about how to turn wide-spread contentment with the political status quo into votes at the ballot box.  It might get unionism thinking about how it could be more constructive, more confident and extend its appeal to voters who are happy politically to remain within the UK, but still feel culturally Irish. 

It might mean focussing less on ostentatious displays of Britishness, and more on the modern and inclusive aspects of being part of the United Kingdom.  It would certainly involve explaining how Northern Ireland could become an increasingly safe, stable and prosperous place to live. 
Defaulting to a hostile attitude toward things like the GAA and the Irish language would no longer be acceptable.

Perhaps most importantly, unionists couldn’t allow small, symbolic issues to continue to affect a vast, silent majority of people, who are more worried about jobs, services and the futures of their families.  It would mean much less grandstanding over issues like flags or parades, and it might involve some hard conversations with traditional colleagues.  Ultimately, though, it could revive unionism as an electoral force and make Northern Ireland a better place to live.

Neither would the fall-out necessarily affect unionism alone. If Sinn Fein were to become the biggest party, it might cause the SDLP to take a serious look at its future. 

Its leadership contest produced a younger leader, with Colum Eastwood taking over from Alasdair McDonnell, but it focussed on personalities and style, rather than interrogating the party’s underlying philosophy.  The SDLP will still go into the next election emphasising its nationalist credentials and competing with Sinn Féin for the United Ireland vote. 

If the party is still substantially behind its main rival in 2016, it would have reason to reassess that strategy.  Even voters who eventually want to get rid of the border see a United Ireland as a distant, long-term goal.  The SDLP has an opportunity to allow the prevailing mood to shape its message and put nationalism on the back seat, in order to prioritise jobs, health, education and combatting poverty, in Northern Ireland.         

It’s pretty depressing, but almost inevitable, that the Assembly election will be dominated by the identity of the First Minister, rather than debates about everyday issues.  The parties show no sign that they’re prepared to back the legislation needed to appoint joint first ministers, rather than the current system of first minister and deputy first minister.

If Sinn Fein tops the poll, it will be a seismic shock, but ultimately it won’t affect the constitutional position one jot.  With a little vision from rival politicians, it might even force a change in political thinking which would benefit Northern Ireland in the longer term and copper-fasten our place within the UK.  


Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Northern Ireland's past is republicans' new battleground

The story of Northern Ireland’s violent past continues to be redrawn, as the republican movement seeks to cast the British state as an aggressor and campaigns to incriminate soldiers and policemen, while obscuring the deadly role played by the IRA and other terrorists.  It’s a process achieved by describing counter-terrorism and intelligence operations as ‘collusion’ and focussing on the proportionally small number of incidents during the Troubles perpetrated, or allegedly perpetrated, by members of the security forces.

In November, the DUP and Sinn Fein agreed the Fresh Start document at Stormont, following ten weeks of negotiations.  It became easy to forget, after all the ensuing self-congratulations, that the crisis which prompted those talks was created by the IRA’s suspected involvement in a murder and Sinn Fein’s links to its Army Council.

Some passages of the Fresh Start agreement addressed paramilitarism in Northern Ireland, committing resources to fight cross border crime and requiring MLAs to make a hazy promise to ‘rid society of all forms of paramilitary groups’.   However, Sinn Fein pulled off something of a conjuring trick, by switching the focus of negotiations quickly to welfare reform and financial assistance from Westminster.

Progress on 'dealing with the past', which the Stormont House Agreement had made a year previously, was reversed and the new Historical Inquiries Unit (HIU) and Oral History Archive were put on hold indefinitely.  True to form, Sinn Fein blamed the Conservative government, citing its reluctance to reveal details which might compromise national security.

The party continues to portray the state’s reluctance to grant unqualified access to its records as the main obstacle to dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.  Sinn Fein is able to bolster its case using the sentiments of victims’ groups whose focus is, understandably, on the misdeeds of some members of the security forces.  

This emphasis suits perfectly republicans’ narrative.  A democratic government, its soldiers, intelligence officers and policemen can be held to account in a way that shadowy paramilitary organisations cannot.  Sinn Fein can demand full disclosure from the state, secure in the assumption that the IRA will never be required to show similar openness.    

However, it would be wrong to forget that, irrespective of occasional mistakes, misjudgements and misdemeanours, the security forces were motivated, overwhelmingly, by a desire to keep people safe.  The same claim could never be advanced for terrorists. 

Ultimately, the army and police were successful too.  By the latter years of the Troubles, the majority of attempted attacks were being foiled.  Frustrated in their attempts to cause mayhem and riddled with informers, the IRA and other paramilitaries were shepherded down a political path. 

Counter-terrorism involved difficult, murky moral choices, and its practitioners sometimes crossed the line into illegality or downright murder, but its overarching aim was to protect life and property. 

It’s easier to quantify how many lives running an agent like Stakeknife may have cost, rather than how many it saved.  That’s not to say that his activities, and the activities of others like him, didn’t eventually force the single most destructive organisation involved in the Troubles to stop killing and maiming.

The state has a responsibility for its actions and victims have a right to demand the truth about what happened to their loved ones, when state actors are suspected of a role in their deaths.  Someone who has been bereaved because of the actions or omissions of an agent is unlikely to comforted by arguments around the moral compromises of counter-terrorism. The government, though, has a duty not to allow a process aimed at dealing with the legacy of the Troubles to become a means of simplifying and distorting history.

Rewriting the story of the Troubles has become a long-term project for republicans.  It is their contemporary means of pursuing the so-called ‘struggle’ and they’ve had some relative successes.  

The notion that the IRA fought to protect Catholic areas or to deliver human rights, for instance, has gained fairly broad acceptance - outside Northern Ireland at least - though thorough historians of the Provisional movement point out that this narrative whitewashes a campaign of violence which was aimed squarely at driving ‘the Brits’ out of Ireland.

The movement continues its project through focussing on selective elements of the past and pursuing civil actions in court.  Recently eight people who were members of an IRA gang, including the prominent Sinn Fein member, Danny Morrison, received six figure compensation pay-outs, after their convictions for kidnapping an alleged informer were quashed, because the role of the agent Stakeknife in building the prosecution case had not been revealed. 

As the government and the political parties in Northern Ireland struggle to agree ways of tackling the legacy of the Troubles, they bear a responsibility to make sure that the process does not become even more unbalanced.  ‘Dealing with the past’ has to contribute something toward building a positive future.  It cannot be allowed to become permanently a new battleground, through which age-old conflicts are fought.  

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Warplane incident shows Syria has become potential tinderbox

Nato missile system in Turkey.
A multitude of conflicting details, accusations and counter-accusations followed news today that a Russian warplane was shot down, close to the border between Syria and Turkey. 

Russia and Turkey dispute whether the incident took place over Turkish airspace.  There is also some suggestion from the Russian side that the plane was shot down from the ground, rather than the air.  It seems that the aircraft fell inside Syria, possibly about 4km from the border. 

At a press conference, President Putin responded with strong words, accusing Turkey of acting as ‘accomplices of terrorists’.  Meanwhile, Ankara has claimed that Russia violated its airspace and the plane was shot down in accordance with standard practices, after multiple warnings were issued first. 

It’s impossible, so far, to know what happened with any accuracy, but it may be helpful to place the events in a little context.

Firstly, sensitivities around the Turkish / Syrian border are certainly not a new phenomenon.  

Diplomatic tensions have been increasing since Russia started to hit targets in northern Syria and Turkey clearly feels an obligation toward the Turkmen population in the mountain region where today’s incident took place. 

You might remember that further east along the border, when Kobane was under siege toward the end of 2014, the Turks were accused of helping Isis forces, because the town’s defence was conducted mainly by Kurdish fighters.  Ankara is exceptionally distrustful of Kurd militias, which have links to the PKK and its terrorist campaign.    

There is a complex web of allegiances and interests, ethnic, religious and geo-political, spanning the frontier between Syria and Turkey.

The Turks see Isis as a serious regional threat, but they also view Kurdish separatism as an existential danger to their state.  They’re hostile to Assad’s Alawite regime and the schism between Sunni and Shia further complicates Turkey’s attitudes to the Syrian war.     

Aside from its support for Assad, Russia has a particular interest in the northern part of Syria too, because it contains many Russian terrorists who travelled, mainly from the north Caucasus, to wage Jihad in the Middle East.  They include members of Wilayat al-Qawkaz, or Caucasus Province, which is affiliated to Isis, but also fighters from the so-called Caucasus Emirate, which is linked to al-Qaeda and does not recognise the authority of Islamic State.

These two factions reflect a split in north Caucasus Islamism, but they are both fanatical and highly dangerous.  They also hint at the impossibly complex kaleidoscope of Islamist groups now operating in Syria, spanning various grades of extremity and viciousness.

The Russians say that the aircraft downed today was targeting terrorists from Russia.  This seems consistent with the Kremlin’s strategy in Syria so far.

The incident exemplifies how dangerous the situation in the Middle East has become.  A number of countries are engaging in uncoordinated military actions and working to different agendas.  

Meanwhile Islamist groups of various hues have turned swathes of Syria and Iraq into a living hell. 

Left unchecked, the likelihood is that more potentially explosive situations will arise.  

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Freedom of speech, identity and offence

In a 'news analysis' article for Tuesday’s Belfast Telegraph, I examined the tensions which can exist between identity politics and free speech.  It focussed mostly on arguments around gender identity, and speakers being banned from university debates, but it also touched upon the issue of same-sex marriage, which is so topical and incendiary in Northern Ireland.

Maybe the timing of the piece was unfortunate, because there was a lot of anger around on Tuesday morning and justifiably so. 

On Monday, in spite of a majority of MLAs in the Stormont Assembly backing a motion to introduce same-sex marriage here, it was defeated, because the DUP tabled a ‘petition of concern’.   This mechanism requires a majority from both designations in the Assembly to vote in favour of a measure, if it’s to pass.  Petitions of concern were intended to protect minority rights, but they have been used instead as vetoes on any matters which cause disagreement.  

My article got caught up in the ensuing crossfire on social media.  Some commenters thought it apologised for the DUP, a few interpreted it as an endorsement of arguments against same-sex marriage and others reckoned it attacked transgender people.  I got accused of being a ‘fundamentalist’, ‘in hoc to the DUP’ and, most strangely of all, ‘a tool of Zionists’.  All good fun.   

These reactions prompted me to have some rather sniffy and unnecessary thoughts about falling standards of English comprehension.  They also made me want to add some reflections on the nature of freedom of speech and associated modern attitudes.   After all, this ‘right’ is usually still thought to underpin our democracy. 

So here they are:

The right to freedom of speech is not absolute.   I touched upon this in my article, but what does it mean in practice?  Our right to speak freely is curtailed by things like defamation law and ‘hate speech’ legislation.  There are also laws around decency, broadcasting regulations, copyright and a host of other limitations, depending on your preferred mode of expression.  There are all sorts of contentious arguments about the balance between free speech and the law.  However, the point is that restrictions are generally pretty specific.  Yet, the words ‘hate speech’ are often bandied around to criticise a contentious argument, without reference to laws drafted in statute or their interpretation in courts.

      Freedom of speech doesn’t depend upon you agreeing with the argument.  It’s easy to champion free speech for people with whom you agree.  It’s harder to stick up for the principle when you think that the person speaking is wrong, sometimes grievously so.  Or, to turn that around, supporting someone’s freedom to speak certainly does not mean that you endorse their argument.  It doesn’t even mean that you don’t find it ridiculous, hateful or repellent.
      Freedom of speech doesn’t depend upon your approval of the person who is speaking.  Disapproving of someone is not reason enough to deprive them of their right to speak.  So many arguments, about almost any controversial issue, seem to revolve around who is saying something rather than what they are saying.  “So and so shouldn’t get a platform because they are a ‘phobe’, an ‘evangelical’, a ‘fundamentalist’, a ‘bigot’”.  All these descriptions may (or may not) be true, but they are irrelevant to arguments around free speech.  Of course, there is a certain significance to giving someone a platform to speak.  It isn’t always appropriate.  But, at fora like universities and public debates, surely the presumption must be that, if someone isn’t breaking the law by expressing their opinion, then they can be heard and challenged?  And again, being prepared to listen to someone doesn’t imply any kind of approval.    

      Freedom of speech doesn’t mean all opinions are valid.  The concept of freedom of speech does not mean that everyone’s views are equal, or worthwhile, or that anyone is under an obligation to listen.  That’s the sort of misconception that pits doctors against homeopaths in debates about medicine, or scientists against Jeremy Clarkson, discussing climate change.  The flipside of people who want to silence anyone they don’t like, is the ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ brigade.  Yes, you are entitled to your opinion, but the rest of us are equally entitled to point out that it’s worthless, because you don’t know what you’re talking about.  We’re even entitled to point and laugh!

      There is no right not to be offended.  This actually might be the central point.  With more than 1,100 words to flesh out my thoughts and more time, it would’ve been nice to explain what I meant by ‘identity politics’ and the corrosive effect this notion can have.  To be really short: the idea seems to have taken hold that particular groups of people, or individuals within those groups, who define themselves by certain categories – gender, sex, race, nationality, religion, culture and more – get to decide what offends them and the rest of society then has a duty not to give offence.  There’s a very good article in The Times today, by the columnist David Aaronovitch, examining how this works practically.  On certain university campuses student unions are doing ‘risk assessments’ on all potential speakers, in case any students may feel “threatened or unsafe”.  Now, it’s absolutely right to take people’s sensitivities into account and to attempt, insofar as possible, not to cause offence.  However, we can't apply a completely subjective definition of 'offensiveness'.  It is not enough to say that someone has been offended, so therefore someone else has said something offensive.  If discussing ideas and debating issues cause our students to feel ‘threatened and unsafe’, then they should try to become more robust, or stay away from academia!                

Rantier than I’d expected, but it’s good to vent once in a while.  It is my right after all!  Not that anyone is obliged to listen.

Friday, 23 October 2015

New contract forces junior doctors to get militant

Traditionally, medicine is not a particularly militant profession.   However, last Saturday, hundreds of doctors and their supporters were angry enough to congregate outside Belfast City Hall, to protest against a new contract for junior doctors, proposed by the government.

The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is determined to drive through changes he claims are necessary to deliver the ‘seven day NHS’ that Conservatives pledged in their general election manifesto.  The British Medical Association (BMA), which represents doctors across the UK, opposes the new contract, on the grounds that it will compromise patient safety and force its members to work exhaustingly long hours. 

Currently junior doctors are paid at a standard rate for working between 7am and 7pm, on weekdays.  They receive a higher rate of pay, or ‘banding’, when they work nights, weekends or beyond 7pm in the evening. 

Legally, junior doctors can be asked to work up to 91 hours per week, under their current contract, although the average workload over a six month period should comply with the European Working Time Directive, unless they sign an ‘opt out clause’, exempting them from its conditions.  Health trusts, which are responsible for employing doctors and running NHS hospitals, can be penalised if they infringe the rules.

The contract Hunt is proposing would extend basic working hours from 7am to 10pm and add Saturdays.  It would also remove penalties which health trusts face for forcing doctors to work outside their contracted hours.  In addition, a requirement for junior doctors to get a break every four hours would be abolished and replaced by a mandatory twenty minute break every eleven hours.

The government claims that its proposals won’t cut pay or increase hours.  The health secretary points out that the new contract will decrease the maximum number of hours a junior doctor can work during the week from 91 to 72.  However, doctors counter that they often work beyond the terms of their current contract and ask how maximum hours will be enforced, if Trusts don’t face any type of penalty. 

Many medical professionals think hospitals are already operating at the limit.  Frequently there are gaps in rotas, which are filled by asking staff to do extra shifts, or bringing in locum doctors, paid at expensive rates.  Juniors doubt the government’s contention that services can be provided over a longer working week, without requiring them to work longer hours.

Jeremy Hunt’s proposals are for the NHS in England.  The devolved governments in Wales and Scotland say that junior doctors’ contracts in their jurisdictions will not be changed.  However, in Northern Ireland, the situation is much less clear.

Due to ongoing difficulties at Stormont, the DUP health minister, Simon Hamilton, has only just returned to his duties on a permanent basis.  He was one of the ministers involved in weekly resignations and reinstatements, while talks took place about IRA violence. 

Mr Hamilton has not yet indicated whether he intends to implement the new contract for the NHS in Northern Ireland.  In the absence of a clear decision, junior doctors are worried that the health minister will simply follow the example of the Westminster government.  There are even indications of disagreement within Mr Hamilton’s party, as some DUP MLAs responded favourably to the BMA’s overtures, while others were less positive.

Few patients would choose to be treated by a demoralised, exhausted, overworked doctor, who may not have eaten or drunk anything for almost eleven hours, if they were seriously ill in hospital.  Staff say that the NHS is already getting by only because it draws deeply upon copious reserves of their goodwill, as resources are stretched and trainees head abroad for better terms and conditions.  If this contract is imposed it is likely to create a furious reaction, which could result in industrial action and chaos in hospitals.  

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Northern Ireland 'paramilitary assessment' surprises no-one

Over the past six weeks, Northern Ireland’s Executive has not operated properly, even by its own fitful standards.  After revelations that IRA members were involved in a murder in Belfast, and the subsequent resignation of the Ulster Unionists’ only minister, the Democratic Unionists devised a bizarre ‘go slow’ to prove that it was not ‘business as usual’ at Stormont. 

Almost all the DUP's ministers, including the party’s leader and Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, resigned from the Executive.  However, finance minister, Arlene Foster, was nominated to replace Mr Robinson in a temporary capacity, supposedly to prevent nationalist parties from running amok in government.  Meanwhile, the party’s remaining three ministers, whose portfolios include health, enterprise and social development, were continually re-nominated to their positions, from which they then resigned again, on a weekly basis. 

Confusing?  Absolutely.  Inexplicable?  Pretty much.

After weeks of manoeuvres, recriminations and choreography, it became clear that the DUP’s permanent return to the Executive hinged on the contents of a report into paramilitary activity, commissioned by the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers.  Peter Robinson indicated he needed this document, authored by the PSNI and MI5, to confirm the chief constable’s claim that the leadership of the IRA no longer sanctions terrorist attacks or criminality.

Given that the chief constable is the PSNI’s top officer, it was always glaringly obvious that the report’s assessment was unlikely to differ substantially from his own.  Nevertheless, Northern Ireland’s political class awaited its publication eagerly.

Now, after a short delay, their wait is over (PDF).  In the House of Commons this afternoon, Theresa Villiers announced the document’s publication.  Predictably, it contained few surprises.

This ‘assessment’ of paramilitary activity concludes that most of the main paramilitary groups which operated during the Troubles are still in existence.  However, it says none of the organisations are "planning or conducting terrorist attacks".  Members of the paramilitary groups continue to be involved in violence and crime, but their central leaderships, for the most part, seek to temper, rather than direct, these activities.

The section on the Provisional IRA will command closest attention, understandably.  The authors acknowledge that the organisation’s structures, including its ‘Army Council’, still exist, “in much reduced form”.  They believe that local or individual activity takes place “without the knowledge or direction of the leadership”.  The PIRA continues to gather intelligence, it retains “some weapons” and individual members are suspected of crimes, up to and including murder.

None of this information is new or surprising.  However, the document contained more than enough ambiguity to allow the DUP to justify any decision it took.    

Peter Robinson announced that his ministers will resume their full-time duties this afternoon. Given that this report adds little to the chief constable’s assessment of IRA activity, from late August, the public will ask why they were subjected to a month and a half of deserted Assembly debates and a 'ghost Executive’.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Politics is going through an angry, uncivil period

This article is originally from the Belfast Telegraph (9th October 2015).

At the Labour conference last week, the party’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, appealed for a new, ‘kinder’ form of politics.  Seven days later, as Conservatives gathered for their get-together in Manchester, some left-wing protesters refused to heed his call.  Delegates entering the venue were abused, spat at and even pelted with eggs and other missiles. 

The protesters didn’t distinguish between Conservative activists and neutral visitors to the conference either.  BBC Northern Ireland’s political correspondent, Stephen Walker, and even the high profile, hard-left columnist, Owen Jones, were among journalists who experienced the novelty of being described as ‘Tory scum’, as they covered events at Manchester Central.

Politics has always been a tribal business, exciting high passions and strong emotions, but there seems to be a particularly nasty, uncivil tenor to some of the debates currently raging across the UK. 
During the independence referendum in Scotland, the bullying tactics of some ‘Yes’ supporters were highlighted in the media.  ‘Cybernats’, as they became known, hectored people who disagreed with them online, targeting vocal supporters of the Union, like the author JK Rowling, and lingerie tycoon, Michelle Mone, who eventually left Scotland as a result.

Unfortunately, the abuse wasn’t confined to the internet.  Then Labour leader, Jim Murphy, was subjected to vitriolic taunts, describing him as a “traitor”, “scum” and “paedophile”, when he campaigned on Scotland’s high streets.  While Charles Kennedy, the former Liberal Democrat leader, suffered a campaign of intimidation, including finding rubbish strewn across his property, during the weeks running up to his death.  The late politician’s father was convinced he was a victim of bullying by nationalists.

The Scottish referendum sparked a robust conversation, across Scotland, attracting unprecedented numbers of people to get involved in politics, but, at its fringes, a substantial minority of activists seemed determined to demonise anyone who disagreed with them.

The aftermath of the Conservatives’ victory at the General Election prompted another torrent of abuse, as protesters took to the streets to voice their displeasure.  The slurs were mainly verbal but, on the weekend after the results emerged, protesters sprayed “f**k Tory scum”, on a memorial in Whitehall, dedicated to women who fought in the Second World War.       

Many such acts can be attributed to vandals and extremists, but politicians and other prominent people in public life don’t help, if they abuse their opponents and contribute to an atmosphere of hysteria around political issues.

In Northern Ireland we’re used to political figures inflaming emotions to the extent that it arguably contributes to disorder on the streets.  We’ve had allegations of political policing, from either side of our divide, dark mutterings about ‘securocrats’ from republicans and even a prominent MLA holding on to the front of a police Land Rover during trouble in North Belfast.  Provocative leaflets about the removal of the Union Flag at City Hall were distributed by unionists, and attacks on Alliance Party offices followed soon after.  Some of our politicians are masters at stirring up tensions, then denying responsibility if things get violent.

Political rioting and violence is rarer In Great Britain, but incidents do take place.  In London, members of a hard-left, anarchist group pelted the Cereal Killer café, owned by Northern Irish twins Gary and Alan Keery, with paint bombs.  They claimed their attack was a protest against ‘gentrification’.  Meanwhile, far-right groups like Britain First are increasingly active, mounting ‘foot patrols’ and other intimidating demonstrations, directed at immigrants and Muslims.

Political arguments need not stir up violence to become damaging.  It’s enough that they’re often conducted in such a shrill, outraged tone, corroding the substance of debates and encouraging hostility and name-calling.    

Even as Jeremy Corbyn called for respect, at the Labour party conference, Len McCluskey, general secretary of trade union Unite, took to a stage at the same event and claimed that government proposals on strikes are like “what the Nazis did to trade unionists in the concentration camps at Dachau”.  The plan is to require strikers on picket lines to wear armbands for identification.  You don’t need to think the Conservatives’ proposals are right, to recognise that comparing the measure to Nazi persecution is gross hyperbole.

The debate around welfare reform in Northern Ireland has taken place at a similarly shrill pitch.  Rather than discuss calmly the merits or otherwise of the current system, the costs it entails or alternatives to replace it, the Stormont parties often prefer to sling insults at one another.  The opponents of reform bluster about ‘Tory cuts’, rather than setting out their objections in any detail.

The word ‘Tory’ derives from a Gaelic word meaning ‘outlaw’, and originally implied ‘an Irish rebel’ in English.  Ironically, in Northern Ireland in particular, it has returned to its nineteenth century roots as a term of political abuse, as well as a disapproving adjective attached to anything some politicians and campaigners don’t like.  The trade unionist, Bumper Graham, who represents the public sector union NIPSA, caused anger when he told the Nolan Show that he’d gladly put “all the Tories in Northern Ireland who voted in the General Election” onto a bus and send them “back to England”. 

The left-wing doesn’t have a monopoly on malice, though.  The referendum on membership of the European Union, which will be held by 2017, is likely to cause an outbreak of incivility on the political right. 

Much of the rancour is likely to take the form of infighting, as the Conservative Party divides along the fault-lines of ‘in’ or ‘out’.  Many Tory Eurosceptics are inclined to describe their own party colleagues as either ‘sound’ or ‘unsound’, depending on their views on Europe. 

At the same time, the debate around immigration has taken on an increasingly unpleasant colouring, with some politicians implying that people coming to the UK are responsible for poverty and unemployment among longer term residents.

Unfortunately, politics has always entailed an element of nastiness and politicians are necessarily a tough breed.  However, the current high-pitched tone is distorting important issues and encouraging an unpleasant atmosphere, even outside the political bubble.   

No-one should have to suffer abuse or even, potentially, assault, just because they disagree with someone else’s opinions.  Nor is it ok to demonise people because they vote for a particular party or even attend its conferences.

Jeremy Corbyn is right when he says that politics should be ‘kinder’ and that issues should be debated without personal abuse.  It’s up to political leaders like him, not only to set a personal example, but also to persuade colleagues and followers to consistently take a more respectful approach, with less tribalism, less scare-mongering and less name-calling. 

Thursday, 1 October 2015

The SNP: Fiction & Reality (Part 3) by Dr Phil Larkin

Edinburgh IMG 3994 (14732734838).jpg
"Edinburgh IMG 3994 (14732734838)" by Reading Tom from Reading, UK - IMG_3994. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In the final part of his survey of the SNP, Dr Phil Larkin looks at the party's future and concludes by emphasising the importance of Scotland to the rest of the UK.  

The SNP’s Future?
As any military manual will tell you, a salient, or bulge, into enemy territory is a dangerous position for an army to be in, since it can be attacked from three sides. The 56 seats won by the SNP in May constitute just such a salient. Had they won, say, 30-40 seats, it might actually have been better for them, since they could continue to enthuse their core support with the cry that there “is still more work to be done.” A victory of such a resounding nature means that there is only one direction for the SNP’s electoral fortunes to head, namely, southwards. The present UK Government, with its small but workable majority, is not beholden in any way to the SNP, does not require their support, and is unlikely to offer any further devolution measures to Scotland beyond the ones presently being worked out. After that, there will be increasing calls for the Scottish Parliament and Executive to use the tax raising powers they already have if they hate austerity as much as they claim to. Indeed, for a Party who have persistently called for equality of citizenship, and railed so vociferously against austerity, the SNP Administration in Scotland has been curiously loathe to raise income tax: they realise instinctively, as a populist organisation, that this would cost them middle-class support. I suspect that the SNP will also be reluctant to use any future revenue raising power which they may be given by Westminster, for the same reason. So where does this leave the block of 56 SNP MPs? It is true that they can make a lot of noise, and strike plenty of agitated poses, but behind the flummery and hot air, they are essentially impotent. Unlike the Labour opposition, they do not even have the comfort of being able to form a Shadow Cabinet. The SNP would probably prefer Conservative government in Westminster, to demonstrate just how different Scotland is from England, and this is why Salmond helped to shatter Miliband’s chances of victory before the May election by talking up the prospects of a Labour/SNP coalition and asserting that he “would be writing Miliband’s budget for him.” It also explains why Sturgeon has endorsed Corbyn as Labour leader: in effect she is giving him the kiss of death before the English electorate (not that he needs this). However, how long will it be before the slogan “Vote SNP to ensure Tory Victory” gains currency in Labour circles north of the border?

Only by keeping the prospect of a future second referendum “around the next corner” can the Party keep its faithful enthused, and this is exactly what Nicola Sturgeon has been trying to do by sketching out nebulous conditions which would, in her opinion, “trigger” another referendum. The reality is, however, that the prospect of another referendum in the short to medium term terrifies the SNP, since they would be bound to lose it, and their chances of retaining political hegemony after that would plummet. In a perceptive FT article, Janan Ganesh argued that the UK would not leave the EU unless the exit campaign could show that the population would be demonstrably better off outside, a case that they simply cannot make. Ganesh drew parallels between this and the reasons why the Scottish electorate ultimately rejected independence: the majority of Scots were unconvinced that secession from the Union would make their lives any more prosperous or happy. They still remain unconvinced, especially with the example of Greece fresh in peoples’ minds. Yet how long can that core of diehard Scottish nationalists, the backbone of SNP support, who are itching for round two of the independence battle, be assuaged? There is plenty of scope for internal conflict within the SNP, and these splits are bound to come to the fore before too long.

This is why the SNP’s bluff now needs to be called on a number of different levels by the unionist parties. Far from resisting the idea of another independence referendum, unionists should, perhaps in the aftermath of next year’s Holyrood elections, should be saying with one voice, “bring it on!” My guess is that the SNP hierarchy would blanch with fear at such calls, while the more fiery party foot soldiers would be spoiling for the second round. Sturgeon will have a tremendous job on her hands reconciling realism with fervent enthusiasm. Whether she is capable of holding the Party together in these circumstances is anyone’s guess.

It is this author’s unwavering belief that Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader will be disastrous for the Party in electoral terms, yet even disasters can be mitigated. His leadership will allow Labour to call the bluff of the SNP’s left wing. Mhairi Black, the Party’s youngest MP, made an impassioned Bernadette Devlin-type maiden speech in the House of Commons, in which she excoriated the policy of austerity, and explained that she had parted company with the Labour Party because it had ceased to adhere to the ideas of figures like Tony Benn, whose memory she specifically invoked. While this speech was lauded at the time (the House of Commons being a sentimental institution), it left Miss Black open to attack on a number of different fronts. The point that an independent Scotland would be forced to adopt fierce austerity measures has been made above. In addition, she laid out no viable alternative to austerity in the speech, and has not done so since. However, the main charge her speech laid her open to is, with Corbyn (a disciple of Tony Benn) as Labour Leader, and John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor, why does she not simply return to the Labour fold? This author is surprised that the argument has not already been made by any of the unionist parties. Furthermore, Ms Black’s far left credentials are difficult to reconcile with the actions of certain of her SNP colleagues. It was recently disclosed that Michelle Thomson,[1] the SNP’s frontbench business spokeswoman, built up a buy-to-let property portfolio with her husband by buying homes at knocked down prices from families struggling to pay their mortgages. Some of the properties targeted and purchased were local authority homes bought by tenants under the right-to-buy scheme, which is to be banned in Scotland by the SNP next year. While this article does not suggest that Thomson has done anything illegal, her actions stink of hypocrisy: a senior SNP MP who had campaigned against social deprivation looks to have profited handsomely from those who suffered from it. Is Mhairi Black going to condemn Thomson publicly for these actions? I doubt it. The revelations also underscore the reality that the SNP is scarcely a genuinely left-wing party, but rather a catch-all confederacy of different personalities and views bound together with one solitary aim, to end the Union.

As Alan Massie has argued, there may, ironically, be an opportunity now for the Tories to revive in Scotland. They have a very capable leader in the form of Ruth Davidson, whose stature was actually enhanced by the Referendum campaign. She is far too young to be tainted by the nastiness which characterised previous Tory government attitudes towards Scotland, and whether one agrees with her or not, she comes across as an ebullient and engaging personality, just the sort of person the Conservatives need to detoxify their image north of the border. She has spoken convincingly of the chronic need for technical education and an expansion of industrial apprenticeships in Scotland, and suggested creative ways in which a Scottish Parliament might lower income tax to entice wealthy English and other professionals to settle and invest their skills and cash in Scotland, a policy likely to find at least some favour among canny Scots. None of this is to minimise the task that lies ahead of her and her Party. One thing in her favour is that she can characterise the Tories as a Party passionately dedicated to preserving the union, something that Labour under Corbyn will find it much more difficult to do.

The main aim of this article has been to set out the case that there is really much less to the SNP than meets the eye, and that the unionist parties should be more vociferous in declaring that this emperor really does have no clothes. While I do not intend to speculate on how long Corbyn will remain as Labour leader, if he does survive for any length of time in office the Conservatives look set to win the 2020 election. Therefore the task of preserving the Union will fall to them. This will require a level of tact, sympathy, and understanding which Tories have not always demonstrated in the past towards Scotland. There is definitely some truth in the criticism that the “No” campaign during the 2014 Referendum was overly negative (although one can see why they chose to focus on the reality that the SNP could not formulate anything like a convincing economic case for independence). The unionist parties could have formulated a much more positive case for the status quo, demonstrating just to what extent Scotland and the Scots are a huge part of the fabric of life and history in the entire United Kingdom. For instance, Scotland gave birth to the father of modern economic theory, Adam Smith, while James Watt, another Scot, made possible the rapid advancement of the Industrial Revolution with his improvements in steam engine design. William Patterson was the prime mover behind the creation of that most British of institutions, the Bank of England, while Scottish inventions from television, to the telephone, to the ATM, have improved and enriched the lives of millions around the world. More mention could have been made of the political contribution which Scottish statesmen and women have made to the entire nation: one need only consider the number of Scottish Prime Ministers and PMs of Scottish extraction (including Cameron himself) there have been for this to be proved. Scots like Keir Hardie and Ramsay McDonald were instrumental in the creation of the Labour Party. The poems of Robbie Burns, and the novels of Sir Walter Scott are justifiably world famous because, like the plays of Shakespeare, they deal with eternal themes which touch the whole of mankind, and are not confined to the confines of Scotland. Scotland is too precious the rest of the UK for them to be separated from us. It is high time that this was stated more vociferously.

[1] The Sunday Times, 20 September 2015.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The SNP: Fiction & Reality (Part 2) Dr Phil Larkin

In the second part of guest poster Phil Larkin's piece on the SNP, he looks at the party's record in government and the current case for independence.

The SNP: Government and Opposition
It is easy to forget that the SNP has been in government in Scotland since 2007, since they have perfected the art of being in power while simultaneously acting as if they are also the opposition (sometimes to their own decisions). It is also instructive to look at some of the decisions they have made, and measure these against the Party’s self-professed radical left image. The central basis on which the SNP is founded, namely, the theory that “home rule” is better rule, should be relatively easy to test, since it only requires an examination of their record in government. At present, the Teflon quality of the Party seems to make it immune from the reality that their record in government in Scotland has been far from exemplary in many respects.

To begin, the abolition of tuition fees by the SNP in Scotland has served mainly to assist higher income families, rather than ensuring that children from disadvantaged backgrounds can enter higher education. This is demonstrated by the fact that this September more than one in five English students from poor backgrounds will go university, twice the number of poor Scots. A former leading civil servant, Lucy Hunter Blackburn, who assisted in a university study of higher education policy in Scotland concluded that the abolition of fees not only tends to help rich families, but it also reinforces inherited inequalities in wealth. This would not matter quite so much had the SNP Government in Scotland been devoting exponentially more attention and resources to technical education, further education, and apprenticeships, but this is not the case. In fact, since 2007, there are now 30,000 fewer places in further education in Scotland. This stands in stark contrast to the approach of the Westminster Government (and that of the previous Coalition) with its emphasis on creating apprenticeships in technical areas, and its sponsorship of university technical colleges to train new generations of young people skilled in engineering and design. While it is true that there is much work to be done in terms of technical education in England, at least a start has been made. This cannot be said about Scotland, which is an absolute disgrace when one considers that the country was once famous for its great engineers, technicians and inventors. Many Scottish schools, once renowned for their rigour and quality of education are underperforming, and the SNP does not appear to have any strategy to deal with this. Essentially, the Nationalists’ education policy not only favours better off families, but it also means that many educated Scots will opt not to remain in Scotland, but rather move south where there are more opportunities for the bright and ambitious.

The SNP’s policing experiment, which consisted of merging eight discrete constabularies to form one unwieldy force, has become a veritable case study in mismanagement. Not only did the anticipated savings from this venture fail to materialise, but also the huge force has struggled with basic communication and has come under fire for slipshod responses to emergencies. This is epitomised by a notorious incident in July when a man was found dead inside his car near Bannockburn three days after the crash was first reported. His girlfriend, who was found alive, but unconscious, next to him, later died. Had the report been acted on earlier, it is possible that her life could have been spared. Can anyone imagine a UK Home Secretary surviving in office had one of their showpiece reforms produced such a result? The performance of NHS hospitals north of the border have also been below par.

The SNP’s penchant for grand populist measures in the field of land reform has run into difficulties when it comes to detail. The measure referred to here is the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill, which has as its basic aim to allow SNP ministers to force the sale of land to local communities if the owner is deemed to be a barrier to “sustainable development”, and failure to push true such a transaction would be “likely to result in significant harm to that community.” The target of this proposed reform are clearly the great Scottish estates, some owned by aristocrats, and others owned by large land companies and used for purposes such as grouse shooting and deer stalking. While not going into the merits of this aim, Dr Jill Robbie, lecturer in private law at Glasgow University, has stated that the Bill is so vague that it undermines a centuries-old principle of property ownership, and that it is absolutely unclear as to when estates, and whose estates, are to be compulsorily sold to local communities. This attempt at populism has backfired badly.

The Current Case for Scottish Independence
It is a commonplace that the “Yes” campaign failed mainly because they could not construct a credible economic case for independence, and this Achilles heel was, predictably, capitalised upon by the unionist parties. Recent opinion polls have suggested have suggested that support for independence has climbed to over 50 per cent of the electorate. These polls should be taken with a very large pinch of salt. The reason for this assertion is that the legal, economic, and financial picture which prevailed at the time of the time of the referendum has not changed one iota, and looks set to continue well into the future. Prior to the 2014 Referendum, Alex Salmond claimed that he had received legal advice from the government’s law officers that an independent Scotland would automatically inherit the UK’s EU membership and opt-outs, including the opt-out from the single currency. He and his ministers then spent £20,000 of taxpayers’ money resisting a Freedom of Information request to disclose the exact nature of that advice. After losing this prolonged game of cat and mouse, Salmond had to admit that no such legal advice had ever been given. Neither is it likely that the EU will be any more amenable to allowing Scotland automatic inheritance at the time of any future independence referendum. For a start, such a proposal would receive fierce opposition from Spain, which has fought its own battles with Basque and Catalan nationalists over independence for those regions. Since Catalonia and the Basque Country reach into French territory, Scotland may expect opposition from France also. Italy too, with its German speaking population in South Tyrol, would be likely to look askance at any development towards the breakup of the UK. Even if it were desirable for an independent Scotland to enter the Eurozone, it was made clear that this would not be granted automatically either: Scotland would have to go through the normal application process, and then effectively be obliged to join the euro. In any event, given the stagnant rates of growth in the Eurozone, Scottish electors have become cold about the idea of adopting the euro, so it quietly faded from view on the SNP agenda, as did the much vaunted “arc of prosperity” from Norway to Iceland which the Party hierarchy had crowed that an independent Scotland would join, before the onset of the recession.

With the euro having become distasteful to Scottish voters, it speaks volumes for Salmond’s chutzpah that he was able to claim with a straight face before the referendum that in the event of independence, Scotland would then successfully negotiate a currency union with the remainder of the UK, a development which the main unionist parties in Westminster would simply accept without demur, and which would make the Bank of England lender of last resort for Scottish banks. No-one but a politician with a neck of purest brass could make such a claim. On so many levels it is utterly unrealistic to think that such a currency union would be forthcoming, not least because in the event of successful referendum for the SNP, Westminster would simply not be inclined to be magnanimous, and would probably refuse such a suggestion out of hand. If any such currency bargain was struck, one can be sure that it would be a harsh one, favouring Westminster (which would be fighting viciously to guard the interests of the rest of the UK) and ensuring that Scotland would pay its share of the debt to the rest of the UK down to the last penny, and perhaps even more. It is unlikely that an independent Scotland would sign up to such a harsh deal, and would be obliged therefore to adopt the euro.

One hobby horse ridden mercilessly over the years by Scottish nationalists has been that Scotland has never received its fair share of North Sea oil revenue, and in effect was being fleeced by London. However, the fact that Scotland receives considerably more spending per head of population than England under the Barnett Formula became abundantly clear to the English electorate during the pre-Referendum period, exploding one long-standing myth. Remaining with the theme of oil revenue, the SNP hierarchy attempted to play down the absolute centrality of these funds to any independent Scotland, with Salmond declaring that they would be simply a “bonus” to Scottish prosperity. Developments in the international oil market have not played out in favour of the cause of Scottish independence. With the slowdown in the Chinese economy, amongst other factors, cheap oil is presently abundant in the world, selling at $48 per barrel at the time of writing, and this may dip even further if Iranian oil comes on the world markets in significant quantities in the future. For an independent Scotland just to break even, the revenues gained from oil sales would have to rise by several thousand per cent. Goldman Sachs has suggested that this present era of cheap oil could last for the next five years. It is true that oil prices, like any other commodity, can go up as well as down, but to attempt to make a case for independence based on the present situation is surely a political kamikaze mission. On the figures cited above, it has been estimated that an independent Scotland, after paying its share of UK debts, would be some £8 billion worse off annually on secession. So how is this shortfall to me made up? Working on the assumption that an independent Scotland would have to join the Eurozone, it is probable that before long the fledgling nation would have to go on a cap-in-hand mission to the troika (the European Commission, ECB, and IMF) in order to negotiate a substantial loan. In return for this, swingeing cuts in public expenditure would be demanded, making the current austerity policy pursued by Westminster pale into insignificance by comparison. The first policy that would have to be scrapped would be free University tuition. This would be an ironic situation for the SNP to find itself in, given the amount of railing it has done against UK-wide austerity. Furthermore, Scottish voters have already seen this situation play out over this summer on their TV screens in relation to Greece. How likely is it that they will want to see a similar scenario replicated in Scotland?

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The SNP: Fiction & Reality by Phil Larkin

Periodic guest poster, Dr Phil Larkin, has contributed a penetrating overview of the SNP, which I've taken the liberty of splitting into three separate posts.  This is a detailed dissection of the nationalist vision for Scotland and why it isn't tenable.  Today, why the 'commentariat' has lost its mind over Scottish nationalism and why electors in Scotland voted for the SNP.

Queen Elizabeth and Alex Salmond
By Dr Phil Larkin


Every few years, elements of the media and political commentariat seem to lose their power of reason over a particular issue. At present, this issue is the SNP’s victorious 2015 General Election. If some sources are to be believed, the end of the UK is nigh, and the SNP are set to continue from glory to glory until this wondrous event takes place. They are deemed by some commentators to possess a masterful political vision, and have a crystal clear strategy mapped out to achieve this. They are ready, willing, and able both to end the austerity policy and to turn Scotland into a sort of northern Dubai minus the great weather, where all citizens enjoy social and economic equality: a veritable Celtic paradise.

 It is my view that if there is a speck of truth in all of this, it is about the height of it. While it is true that the SNP did score a great victory in May’s election, and probably has sufficient momentum behind it to perform well in next year’s Scottish Parliamentary election, it is the case that the Party is fast approaching the crest of a political hill, and once this is reached, it will be downhill over the course of next five to ten years. In fact, that the Party won so many seats back in May could do it, and the cause of Scottish independence, more long term damage than good. These assertions will be developed in this article. It will also be argued that Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour Party leader does not bode well for the SNP for the short to medium term. In reality, as will be set out below, much of the SNP’s success is based, quite simply, upon the politics of illusion. Nationalism itself is an extremely emotive subject, against which logic and reason often finds it difficult to prevail. Nevertheless, in this article I will attempt to shine a light on this topic.

 Why did Scottish Electors vote SNP?

 “A farmer went out to sow his seed…Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.” Mathew Chapt 13. The Parable of the Sower.

 The build-up to the Scottish Independence referendum on 18 September 2014 was a long one, announced in March 2013, and ample time for both pro- and anti- camps to set out their case. The pro-independence campaign was stretched out over a long period, whereas the “No” campaign was characterised by a sharp burst of activity in the run-up to the referendum. There was some merit in the approach of the “No” camp. The order given to the American troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill was “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”, in other words, don’t act until the opposition has burned itself out and their arguments have become exhausted. In the end, this approach prevailed, with a convincing 55 per cent of the population voting “No” to independence (although they did not reach the 60 per cent that some had hoped for). The result demonstrated clearly that there was no overwhelming desire to break up the United Kingdom among the Scottish electorate, although it was a great political achievement for the SNP to have convinced 45 per cent of voters to opt for independence.

 The drawback to the “No” camp’s low-key tactics to winning the referendum was that it provided the “Yes” campaign, spearheaded by the SNP, with enormous publicity, allowing them to become household names north of the border. This was to have a devastating effect on the Labour Party in the 2015 Election, permitting the SNP to capitalise on the anti-Westminster establishment feeling, and the weariness with austerity politics prevalent in various parts of the UK, and from which UKIP and the Green Party also benefitted. For many years, Scotland has lacked a Labour leader of the stature of Donald Dewar, and the Party’s image was damaged by instances of governmental incompetency, such as the debacle over schools’ examination marking which happened when Henry McLeish was First Minister. The SNP therefore took control of the Scottish Executive in 2007 (although to listen to them sometimes one would not know that they had ever been in government). Furthermore, between 2010 and 2015 the Labour Party in Scotland haemorrhaged members (partly a by-product of Labour’s complacency in Scotland over a period of years), which meant that when the time came for election canvassing there was a chronic shortage of willing volunteers. This author’s brother, who lives in a suburb of Glasgow, said that prior to the 2015 election the only political party representative who actually came to his door was the SNP representative. The momentum behind the SNP thus took on the force of a bandwagon, and many people who would otherwise naturally have voted Labour got caught up in the emotion and clamour of the Nationalists’ campaign. Ed Miliband’s ineffectual leadership of Labour, and the fact that he appeared unconvincing and lacklustre to the Scottish electorate compounded a disastrous campaign for the Party. Yet, I am not entirely convinced that many Scots who eventually voted SNP knew exactly what policies they were voting for, beyond a sort of vague, populist, anti-Westminster-ism. This was demonstrated in a Guardian video made in the run-up to the 2015 Election, when a journalist interviewed a group of young Scots in their late teens/early twenties about their voting intentions. One replied that she was going to vote SNP, stating that their policies were “definitely best for Scotland.” The journalist then casually asked her “which SNP policy in particular do you favour?” She could not answer, and giggled in embarrassment.

 In addition to the populist, anti-austerity element of SNP politics, there is also a strain of another form of nationalism that can be observed. Due to rapid industrialisation during the nineteenth century, Scotland absorbed an enormous number of Irish (mainly Catholic) immigrants, who tended to form separate communities in the larger cities of Scotland, with tensions often existing between the host and immigrant communities. While many of these eventually came to vote Labour (indeed, they formed the backbone of the Labour Party in cities like Glasgow) there were at least some attempts during the referendum campaign to link residual, subconscious feelings of Irish nationalism with Scottish nationalism and the “Yes” campaign. On one BBC news story, an SNP activist from the Republic of Ireland was interviewed. He talked about the struggle which his grandfather had waged for Irish Independence, and hoped to be able to regale his grandchildren with his efforts on behalf of Scottish independence. The historian Tom Devine also comes from this school of thought. Yet to conflate Scottish nationalism with Irish nationalism in this way is mistaken: Scottish nationalism is a very different animal than its Irish counterpart. There is no history of large scale agrarian disorder and violence, or secret societies in Scotland’s history, and neither is Scottish nationalism fuelled by any form of Gaelic or cultural revival. Struggles in Scotland historically have tended to be linked into those prevalent in Britain as a whole, such as Chartism and the trade union movement. A number of times in the past people from an Irish nationalist background (from both north and south) have said to me that they could not understand why Scots did not “fight for their freedom” as the Irish did. Such sentiments do not go much beyond the emotional “Braveheart” school of nationalism, crumble under any sort of close forensic analysis, and those who espouse such views grossly misunderstand the relationship between Scotland and England, and Scotland’s historical place within the United Kingdom.

 The Conservatives have long struggled to find their electoral feet in Scotland, tainted by historical memories of the de-industrialisation policy pursued by the Thatcher Governments during the 1980s, and the decision to use Scotland as a testing ground for the Community Charge (Poll Tax). Scottish Conservatives really do have an uphill struggle on their hands, but, strangely, I do not believe that their task is impossible. More will be said about this below.

The next part of this series will follow tomorrow.  

Monday, 28 September 2015

Cross party think tank proposes 'new Act of Union'

Two recent articles on Three Thousand Versts have expressed concern that the UK’s constitutional issues have been allowed to drift, since the ‘No’ campaign won the Scottish independence referendum.  With that in mind, it was interesting to read a piece in yesterday’s Sunday Times, proposing a new Act of Union. (Free version here):

The article launches a cross-party group called the Constitution Reform Group and carries the signatures of Sir Menzies Campbell, Peter Hain and Robert (Lord) Salisbury, who belong to the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative parties, respectively.  The group, it claims, consists of “retired cabinet ministers, practising politicians, former parliamentary officials and civil servants, lawyers, journalists and academics”.

The authors express concern about the government’s provisions to create ‘English votes for English Laws’ on the basis that they will create two classes of MP in the House of Commons.  Using parliament’s standing orders as a vehicle to effect constitutional change adds to the impenetrability of the UK’s constitution, they say.

‘The bones of the constitution should clear and understandable to any interested citizen, not just legislative anoraks.’

The Constitution Reform Group believes that nationalism’s threat to the UK is current and serious.  It proposes to write a paper on how a new Act of Union might look, in time for elections to the devolved legislatures in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, scheduled for May 2016. 

A more urgent debate on the United Kingdom’s future is certainly needed.  Hopefully this group can make a useful contribution to strengthening the Union against nationalist challenges and repairing bonds between the various nations and regions of the UK.  

Friday, 18 September 2015

Offering more and more autonomy will not fend off nationalists' challenge to the UK.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has warned David Cameron not to ‘disrespect’ the Scottish people’s choice to return 56 SNP MPs at the election last May.

Naturally, Ms. Sturgeon has a selective view of which election results should and should not be respected.  She doesn’t show much regard for the overall outcome of the general election and, just a year after the independence referendum in Scotland, her party is threatening to demand a re-run, so her ‘respect’ doesn’t extend to the 55% of voters who opted to remain within the UK for at least ‘a generation’, either.

The Conservative Party won a narrow majority of seats in the House of Commons in May 2015, but it’s clear that nationalists will offer a rolling challenge to the government’s authority in their nations, throughout this parliament.

In Northern Ireland, for instance, Sinn Féin and the SDLP consistently claim that the Tories have ‘no mandate’ to impose welfare reform.  It doesn’t matter that the parties at Stormont were free to craft their own, alternative welfare bill, so long as the budget balanced.  Nor does it matter that the Executive, insofar as it still exists, could yet agree to allocate money from other departments to pay extra benefits to claimants in Northern Ireland.

Nationalists’ unspoken implication is that the British government has no right to do anything at all which can affect Stormont’s finances detrimentally.  And, given, that Stormont’s finances are determined by the Barnett Formula, which allocates money through a calculation based on the budget at Westminster, that’s the same as saying the British government has no authority to cut spending in the UK, so long as Northern Ireland is part of the Union.

This type of logic doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it is the privilege of the nationalist, who rejects the right of the United Kingdom to exist in the first place.

Nicola Sturgeon is pulling the same trick.  She claims that people in Scotland are entitled to another referendum, if the Conservatives don’t reverse welfare changes and abolish the Trident nuclear submarine programme.  The second demand is fairly extraordinary, given that the Faslane Royal Navy base on the Clyde, which houses the Trident fleet, supports some 4,000 civilian jobs as well as housing 3,000 service personnel and their family members.  But these ultimatums are a movable feast; the content will change with the political landscape.

Nationalists’ philosophy will remain the same. If the government doesn’t give the views of 59 Scottish (or 18 Northern Irish) MPs the same weight as those of 650 overall MPs, it forfeits its authority over those regions.  It makes a nonsense of the UK as an integral political unit but, for nationalists, that is part of the point.

They are within their rights to worry away at constitutional fault-lines, however flimsy the underlying rationale, and their rhetoric doubtless appeals to the chauvinistic streak in the UK’s respective regions.  While they think they can undermine the fabric of the Union, and at the same time voice a populist case against controversial Westminster policies, then that is exactly what they will do.

Nationalists cannot be expected to be fair or responsible when it comes to respecting the political make-up of the whole Kingdom.  They will keep demanding, and they will keep challenging the authority of the Westminster government, whichever guise it takes.

That’s why awarding the devolved regions with ever greater autonomy will not be enough to fend off nationalist threats to the UK indefinitely.  There is every likelihood that, while the SNP is in the ascendency in Scotland, it will continuing asking the same question until it gets the answer it wants.   There has to be a more serious and concentrated focus from the pro-Union side on how bonds, connecting people across our four nations to a common British identity, can be strengthened.

Who makes up the ‘pro-Union side’, now that the Labour party has a leader who supports a United Ireland and says he’s not a unionist, is getting less clear, but that’s for another day.