Monday, November 27, 2006

Ten years after independence

. It's now ten years since the repeal of the Act of Union between Scotland and England. At times, it looked as if the two countries would never learn to live together in harmony again. But things have been looking up recently. Iain Macwhirter reflects on the turbulent years since Scotland went its own way. ....

Looking back, the amazing thing is that it lasted as long as it did. The 300 year old Union between Scotland and England was only ever a marriage of convenience. The Scots got access to the British Empire, and proceeded to do extremely well out of it. But with the passing of Empire, and the coming of Europe, the ties that bind had loosened.
But what no one expected was that a Scottish Prime Minister would be preside over the break up of Britain. Before he entered Number Ten, Gordon Brown was almost comically keen to insist on his Britishness, even f insisting that his favourite sporting moment was a goal against Scotland by Paul Gascoigne.
But the clamour from English MPs - Tory and Labour - over the West Lothian Question, became too great to ignore. His weakened coalition government was forced to accept the exclusion of Scottish MPs from votes on English legislation in the House of Commons. It was called the Great Caledonian Lock Out.
The resulting cuts in Scottish public spending after the scrapping of the Barnett Formula, and the demand for citizenship tests for Scots living in London, went down like a bucket of cold porridge. Inflamed by a wave of anti-Scottish articles in the London-based tabloids, the Scottish Parliament turned into a hotbed of nationalist agitation. The First Minister, Alex Salmond, demanded the repatriation of oil revenues and threatened to seize control of excise duties. His coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats withdrew all their elected members from the House of Lords. No one quite knew why.
For a while it seemed as if the nightmare really could happen. There were ugly scenes outside the Scottish Parliament as Union Jacks were torched and Scots were beaten up in the Oxford St. riots. People seriously began to wonder if former Britain might turn into former Yugoslavia. When the Scottish Parliament passed a motion demanding the removal of Trident missiles from the Clyde, retired generals were talking about military action in Scotland to maintain the defence of the realm.
But then, as so often in British history, people started taking a long hard look at themselves - and their own absurdity. The comedian Billy Connelly joined comics from across the UK in the “Who do we think we are?” tour sending up the pettiness of the narrow nationalists who seemed to be dominating the debate over the repeal of the Act of Union.
England realised that there was a lot to lose from giving up Scotland. Scottish water exports to overheated England had become a lot more valuable even than oil used to be before global warming. Now, Scotland has the 25% of Europe’s renewable energy sources, and Scottish windmills and tidal turbines are providing much of the electricity for London.
For their part, the Scots were far too canny to want to to to all the expense of setting up their own currency, foreign service, social security and army. Nowadays every Scottish MSP seems to accept Alex Salmond’s idea of “Independence in the UK” (the great oxymoron as the fundamentalists called it) and the new cross-border institutions of the Anglo Scottish Agreement. Scots who only the day before yesterday were calling for an independent republic of Scotia were singing “God save the King” during Charles the Third’s recent tour of Scotland.
Don’t get me wrong. Scotland is very different today. Inequalities of wealth and income are much lower than in England because of higher personal taxation, even though Scotland has some of the lowest business taxes in Europe. Insulated from City bonuses, Scotland escaped the great house price crash that almost destroyed the English economy in the twenty-one tens. But the costs of free student education, free care for the elderly, free heroin for registered addicts is a huge burden on the Scottish exchequer. But living on handouts from London was never a dignified way to live, and the Scottish Parliament now takes itself and its legislation a lot more seriously.
Scots still complain of course - it’s our national pastime. But now they complain more about the failings of their own government and not London. The ending of the Union turned out to be the start of a new partnership. With Scotland and England living apart together - except, of course, on the football pitch.

. . . .

Trident is still wrong.

You’ll have had your debate. It took about an hour on Thursday for the decision to be taken by the UK Cabinet to replace Trident. The consultation will be an empty one, taking place over the Christmas holiday season, and the vote in the New Year will be a formality.
Faced with a fait accompli, Labour MPs will mostly come into line after threats from the government whips of the dire electoral consequences of slipping back into unilateralism. The assumption is that the British public will never vote for a party which leaves the nation defenceless. That in a dangerous world, people will expect the government to maintain nuclear security.
Most Labour MPs I know dislike Trident. But the party’s electoral psychology is still locked in the 1980s, like the generals who always fight the last war. The memory of their former leader Michael Foot’s crushing defeat in 1983 still haunts Labour. Never again.
So, Britain will spend between £25 and £70bn on a new and useless generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to destroy most of the major cities in the former Warsaw Pact. Countries with which we are now at peace.
There is no known target for these missiles. They are purely symbolic - an affirmation of British national status. There to ensure that we don’t walk naked into conference chambers; have seat at the top table of the UN Security Council; don’t let the French become the only nuclear country in Europe. Trident is a bit like a codpiece - a macho decoration, intended to indicate potency, but which merely conceals the diminutive size of our moral credibility.
Of course, you’ve heard all these arguments before. Old story; let’s hear something new. We are all just a little bored by the whole debate about Trident - I am myself. It seems to revive every few months, but never really get anywhere. Which is exactly how the government wants it to be.
When the vote comes, we will be told that the issue has been examined exhaustively over the last eighteen months. Which it emphatically has not been. This has been a one-sided debate, in which the opponents of renewal have been fighting shadows because there has been no clear proposal on the table. Just hints and steers.
At one stage it was thought possible that the government might just extend the life of the existing Trident system beyond 2025, and further reduce the number of missiles deployed. This looked an attractive option to some Labour anti-nukes since it would allow the government to retain the nuclear deterrent, and yet meet the spirit as well as the letter of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty.
That agreement requires nations not only to work towards nuclear disarmament, but to refrain from developing new weapons systems and to take practical steps to reduce existing nuclear capability. Britain has quietly reduced the number of warheads in the Trident system by 50% over the last decade .
There was a hope that Gordon Brown, who is no great nuclear enthusiast, might continue this policy - keep the existing boats and allow Trident to rust in peace. That as Prime Minister, he might take up the challenge laid down by the former Labour foreign secretary Robin Cook, who shortly before he died called on the government to: “Find the courage to let Trident be the end of Britain’s futile and costly obsession with nuclear-weapon status”.
Brown read the eulogy at Cook’s funeral. But it looks unlikely now that he will follow his logic and use the Trident renewal process to effectively ‘decommission’ the system. The hints we are now getting about next month’s White Paper is that the government is going to go for a new system, with new missiles - perhaps with fewer warheads which could be more precisely targeted. This would be, in the eyes of many international lawyers, a material breach of the Non Proliferation Treaty because it increases the likelihood of a first strike.
The disaster in Iraq seems to have increased the attractions for the Prime Minister of a shiny new Trident. After all, Britain will somehow have to compensate for the lost of international prestige that could follow defeat by a few thousand insurgents and Islamist fanatics. This is not the time to show weakness, we will be told.
Britain must be strong to face the challenges of a dangerous new world. It is up to those who would ditch Trident to prove that they will never be needed - that will be the line.
But that, of course, is impossible. You cannot base defence policy on hypothetical enemies. It is up to governments to assess the current risk and devise a security system that is appropriate to the times, not speculate about some future revival of superpower rivalry.
We keep being told that Britain faces a wholly new threat to national security in the shape of global terrorism. But we are developing a weapons system which is even more unsuited to the challenge posed by al Qaeda than invading arbitrary countries like Iraq. Or are we going to fire Trident missiles at Sadr City. Or Leeds, where the 7/7 bombers hailed from?
Renewing Trident will not only be a waste of money, it will increase the risk of nuclear proliferation. Britain’s decision will have immense international resonance. It will rob the West of any moral authority on the issue of disarmament and undo all the achievements of the last twenty years of multilateral negotiations. It will simply be impossible to lecture other countries, like Iran, against developing their own nuclear weapons while we are renewing our own.
So, it is replacing Trident, rather than dumping it, that will make the world a much more dangerous place. It is depressing that the government is apparently incapable of seeing this - as if Labour has forgotten everything it has said about nuclear weapons over the last twenty five years. Curiously, it took the First Minister, Jack McConnell, to remind them that Labour’s policy is supposed to be to use Trident as a bargaining chip in multilateral negotiations on disarmament.
McConnell, was laughed at in September when he originally proposed using Trident in talks with countries like Iran to prevent them developing their own nuclear deterrent - but events have vindicated him. With the Iraq Study Group, suddenly everyone is talking about talking to Iran.
It is very difficult to foresee the future of international relations.
But the one thing that we can be sure of is this: that if no one takes a lead on disarmament, the world will see more and more countries acquiring nuclear weapons. And eventually, someone, somewhere, will use them.

Good speech. But Blair gets it wrong on the SNP

When Tony Blair told the Labour conference in Oban that: “In this election there are only two possible outcomes: a Scottish Nationalist Party Government or a Labour one” he was talking nonsense, pure and unalloyed. Everyone knows that this is not the choice facing Scotland. Holyrood is condemned to coalition, and no party is ever likely to win an absolute majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament.
The SNP intend to go to the nation in May, not on ‘independence tomorrow’, but on ‘time for a change’. And times have changed, but Labour’s political approach has not. The Prime Minister’s speech, for all its eloquence, could have been delivered word for word in 1999 - in fact, I think parts of it were.
It was essentially the same old message that “Divorce is an expensive business”. Which it may be. But the May 2007 elections are not really about independence. Scotland has moved on.
In 1999, raising fears about the cost of separation made sense. Those were the first elections to the first Scottish parliament in nearly 300 years and there were real fears that the SNP could turn it into a battering ram for separatism. That it could “do the double” and turn devolution into independence in one go. But in the eight long years since then, people have been able to see how a parliament of minorities actually works. Or in some instances doesn’t.
This means that there is a double lock on independence. First, the SNP - if it wants to enter government - will have to form a coalition with a unionist party like the Liberal Democrats. The second lock is the referendum on independence, which the SNP say they will insist upon legislating for in the first hundred days if they are the largest party after May.
My own view is that this policy could turn out to be a millstone for the nationalists. There’s very little prospect of them winning it, for a start. The constitution is a reserved matter, and Prime Minister Brown (should it be he) would, I believe, try to seize control of events by staging a multi-choice referendum on his terms and at the least propitious moment for the SNP.
However, looking purely at the forthcoming May Holyrood campaign, the clear message that will go out to the Scottish voter is that a vote for the SNP is not a vote for independence tomorrow. To say, as Tony Blair did, that and SNP win would “plunge Scotland into a constitutional nightmare” is empty scaremongering.
The SNP would have to prove itself in office, running a competent devolved administration, before Scotland would ever consider “moving to the next level” as Alex Salmond puts it. This lowers the constitutional stakes. It allows people to consider lending their support to Alex Salmond - if only for a change of face in Bute House.
And rather a lot of voters seem to be keen on a change of tenancy. Alex Salmond’s personal popularity has rarely been higher, with YouGov in April suggesting that nearly twice as many people think he will make a better First Minister than Jack McConnell.
Mind you, the opinion polls are not particularly helpful right now. Last week, the same polling organisation, YouGov had the nationalists seven points ahead of Labour in one poll (commissioned by the SNP) and yet had them level pegging with Labour in a similar poll conducted for the Daily Telegraph. Polling organisations have an uncanny knack of delivering the results the client wants.
However, few doubt that there has been a trend toward the nationalists and towards independence - whatever that now means - over the last few months. SNP MSPs who had been privately sceptical about the opinion poll figures earlier in the year are now saying that they think there is a real groundswell taking place. That the Scottish voters have turned a corner and are now prepared to give the SNP a chance.
Even some senior Labour MSPs have been wondering if 2007 might not be rather a good moment for Scotland to experience the reality of life under the nationalists. The present administration has little dynamism left, as revealed by Jack McConnell’s election pledges yesterday. Vague promises about education and the Forth Bridge don’t capture the imagination. Moreover, Labour ministers are acutely conscious that the days of high spending are coming to an end and that budgets could become very tight in the next four years.
If the SNP took over - in an unstable alliance with the Greens and the Liberal Democrats - Scotland’s first SNP-led administration could collapse under cuts and confusion. Soon the voters might be looking back on the Labour years with nostalgia. Well, that’s the theory.
The curious thing is that with such indifferent leadership, the Scottish Parliament has achieved as much as it has over the years, the smoking ban being the most recent example of assertive legislation. Jack McConnell is not getting the credit for this, in part because of hostility to Labour in the UK and because people are fed up with the lacklustre administration he has been leading, which has all the charisma of a medium sized Scottish council.
The Prime Minister doesn’t help with his talk of constitutional apocalypse. The reality is that the SNP will enter government eventually - that’s the logic of democracy. Labour would do better to take them on as legitimate rivals rather than constitutional wreckers.

Now everyone wants to cut orporation tax

The First Minister, Jack McConnell, is in trouble again with our old friend “Government Source”. Mr Source says that the FM “blundered” when he appeared to call for the Scottish Parliament to be given power over corporation tax, as is being proposed for the devolved Stormont government in Northern Ireland. McConnell is accused of giving comfort to the nationalist enemy by suggesting that Holyrood should have more tax powers.
Mr Source no doubt wanted McConnell’s other offences against the UK state to be taken into account, including the FM’s objection to dawn raids on asylum seekers, his unhelpful remarks about Trident and nuclear power and of course his support for that team in the World Cup which shall remain nameless but which began with two T’s.
So, let’s suppose that Mr Source - who could of course be anybody from Number Ten to a Scottish Labour backbencher with a grudge against McConnell - is not a million miles away from the Treasury and the Godfather of Scottish politics, Gordon Brown. What exactly is he saying? That Scotland should not benefit from any commercial incentives which are being considered for other regions of the UK?
That’s all McConnell asked for at First Minister’s Question Time on Thursday; he didn’t actually call for more powers. And, really, what else could he say? He has to be seen to fight Scotland’s corner after all.
Under the St Andrews Agreement on NI government, the deadline for which expires on Friday, there has been a cross-party demand for some form of compensation for the “Dundalk Effect”. This refers the way Irish border towns like Dundalk are sucking jobs and business out of Northern Ireland. The Republic now has some of the highest wage and growth rates in Europe.
A report from the independent Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland (ERINI) last week said that halving the 30% rate of corporation tax in NI would double economic growth in the province and create 180,000 jobs. It was commissioned by the Industrial Task Force under the former Ulster Bank chairman, Sir George Quigley. The CBI in Northern Ireland support the move and even the Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, agrees with the plan to harmonise business taxes north and south.
It’s thought that Tony Blair agrees too - what better way to bring the North and South closer together. The PM is anxious for a settlement in Northern Ireland to be part of his “legacy”, and time is short. However, the Chancellor baulked at the idea of cutting corporation tax in NI because of the likelihood that Scotland would say ‘me too’.
The Scottish economy has many similarities with Northern Ireland’s: low growth, a large public sector, a shrinking and ageing population and a loss of skilled labour and capital to higher-waged economies. If it hadn’t been for the influx of 20,000 Polish workers since 2004, the Scottish economy would be flat-lining.
Of course, the proximity of the Republic is a special factor in Northern Ireland, with higher profits just a stone’s throw away. However, you could equally say that proximity to England has a negative effect here. The Scottish economy is deformed by the immense pull of the South East. That’s where all the government contracts go, where business goes, where all the good jobs are. London is a world financial centre and the billions in bonuses distributed every year go straight into the South East economy.
This is a vicious circle which has to be broken, and there could be an opportunity here to break it. The deal on the table this week does not formally involve a different rate of corporation tax in the province. The 30% rate would remain in Northern Ireland just as it does in the rest of the country. Instead the first 60% of company profits would be zero-rated to mitigate the impact of the low rate in the Republic. Crucially, it would NOT require any new powers for Holyrood if replicated in Scotland.
Tax talk may sound dry and technical, but it is of crucial political importance. Doubling economic growth in Scotland, as the ERINI indicates is possible, could transform Scotland over a couple of decades. There is no natural law that says Scotland has to be in the economic slow lane.
A rational economic policy should anyway seek to discourage the over centralisation of the British economy, which has serious environmental and social costs, such as congestion and house price inflation in London. Britain is too bottom heavy. There’s nothing inherently nationalist about using tax to rebalance economic geography.
Of course it would mean a loss of revenue, equivalent, according to the First Minister, to #1.4 billion a year if Scotland had the Northern Ireland deal. But the ERINI report claims that any losses to the Exchequer would be made up within six years as a result of the increase in business activity. Low business formation has been the bane of the Scottish economy. If the government is serious about promoting enterprise, here is the way to do it.
It’s better than state handouts, after all. The tax reduction could be part of a reformed Barnet Formula. And since it needn’t involve new tax powers to Holyrood it would shoot the SNP fox at the May election. Hitherto, the corporation tax issue has been the preserve of the SNP, but it doesn’t have to be. Promoting business in Scotland isn’t only of benefit to Scottish nationalism; but not promoting business certainly could be.

Clunker Brown

“However much you dance around the ring, at some point you’ll come within reach of a big clunking fist” jeered Tony Blair during the Queen’s Speech debate last week. The “dancer” is of course the Tory leader, David Cameron; the “clunker”, we assume, is Gordon Brown, now Blair’s anointed successor.
The remark told us all we need to know about the PM’s real views on what kind of fist Gordon Brown would make of the leadership. The image is of a great, lumbering brute who would stumble around the ring until one of his hay-makers finally made contact and laid the opposition out. More George Foreman than Muhammad Ali. Well, you couldn’t see the Chancellor floating like a butterfly, could you?
Mind you all these boxing metaphors are themselves desperately clunking and cliched. I can’t understand why New Labour - which is so astute about image - doesn’t see that the macho political imagery they increasingly use plays straight into the hands of the Conservatives.
During the Queen’s Speech debate, Tony Blair mocked Cameron for being soft on crime and terror: “Hope’s not built on talking about 'sunshine'”, he said,”any more than antisocial behaviour is combated by, quotes, ‘love’”. But talking about love and sunshine is exactly what the Cameroon Tories want to be accused of.
They are fed up being the “nasty party”. David Cameron’s mission has been to moderate the Tory image, to make them seem like a party that cares as well as condemns; that is capable of understanding as well as meting out punishment. Labour is helping them make this essential programmatic change.
Every time the Home Secretary, John Reid, opens his mouth to sneer at the idea of “hugging a hoodie”, he is worth a few thousand more votes for the Tories - mainly from women. The voters may say that they are worried about crime, and even in a state of fear about terrorism, but that doesn’t mean they want to turn the clock back to the 1980s.
Others have pointed out the similarities between Tony Blair’s final Queen’s Speech performance last week and the last great Dispatch Box appearance by Margaret Thatcher in November 1990. I was there, and I remember the huge emotion as she turned to her own front bench and declared “You know, I’m enjoying this!”, to the very ministers who had just brought her down in a cabinet coup. Blair displayed the same parliamentary chutzpah.
This goes down well with the hacks. But there’s no evidence that a modern electorate would relish a return of Thatcherite social conservatism. The Prime Minister is making the mistake of assuming that because it goes down well with the Sun and the Daily Mail, hard talk wins votes. If it did, the Tories would never have lost office.
If being tough on immigrants, terrorists and hoodies was the key to winning elections, why didn’t Michael Howard win the last one? The Conservatives under their last three leaders - Howard, Duncan Smith, Hague - tried to modernise, but each time ended up going to the country on the old platform of law and order, race and tax - and they failed miserably every time. Essentially, this is because they have unable to convince enough of us that they have, indeed, changed.
It was Michael Portillo who first told the Conservatives back in 1998 what they didn’t want to hear. That they would have to learn how to be tolerant and show that they ‘care’ - about sexual minorities, the underprivileged, the young offender. In David Cameron, the Tories have the first leader who has got Portillo’s message.
And that’s why we may hear a lot more about love and sunshine, especially after Gordon Brown takes over. “It is seldom difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman and a ray of sunshine.”, as PG Wodehouse famously put it. The Conservatives think that there is an air of gloom and glower about the Chancellor which could be his undoing. They may be right.
Cameron is an advertising man by trade and understands that people often vote on emotional rather than rational grounds. They support political personalities they feel comfortable with. Americans famously voted for George W. Bush because he won the “would-you-share-a-drink-with-him” test. Unfortunately, he didn’t pass the “would-you-go-to -war-with-him” test.
Tony Blair used to be a master of the soft sell, the halting, “honest kind of a guy” who seemed so agreeable and chappish. Women liked him precisely because he wasn’t a thumping clunker like most Labour politicians. Unfortunately, he turned out to have rather more serious failings, such as a proclivity to invade countries for the wrong reasons.
Gordon Brown , sitting there with his crumpled face and his beetle brow, looks anything but congenial. As it happens, he is a very agreeable person to share a pint with, but in public the Chancellor is often stiff and unrelaxed. His delivery at the Dispatch Box is unrelenting. He defeats opponents by overwhelming intellectual force, tying them in contradictions and then burying them under fact after fact.
There’s no way that the Tories can take on Brown over the economy - he has destroyed shadow chancellors at the rate of nearly one a year since Labour took office. But what the Tories can do is suggest that, while Brown might be the man you want in charge of the nation’s finances, he may not be the man you want in Number Ten.
Brown’s is not the face of middle England; at least not as it likes to see itself. Too austere, too threatening. Then there is all that stuff about him being “delusional”, “a control freak”, “unable to listen” , according to former ministerial colleagues like Charles Clarke and David Blunkett. The voters don’t want someone in charge of the country who doesn’t listen, or has “psychological flaws”.
Brown even makes me uncomfortable. His first reaction on hearing of the acquittal of Nick Griffin of the BNP was to say that the law needed to be changed. That was a telling insight into his psychology of government. If someone disagrees with you, you don’t listen and reflect; you change the law to make them agree.
Without debate Brown has announced that he intends to replace Trident, accept 90 day detention without trial, introduce ID cards, opt for more nuclear power stations. Last week he declared he was going to set up an entirely new apparatus to tackle terrorism - a kind of ministry of fear- in which he would be in complete control. This is just a little sinister.
The instinct of the government since 9/11 has been to curb the very civil liberties we are supposed to be fighting for, and Brown appears to be content to continue. New Labour’s authoritarianism worked politically because Blair always seemed such a reasonable guy, even as he did unreasonable things. Like suspend habeas corpus, introduce detention without charge, mislead the nation over WMD.
Labour think that fear will make us vote for them. But they may be making a very big mistake. People don’t want fear, they want hope. Sounds corny and shallow, but that is what motivates people turn out in the rain to polling booths.
David Cameron may sound wimpish and soft the Commons bear pit, but the people listening outside will be getting the message that he really is different from all previous Conservative leaders. If Gordon Brown is going to have a chance of winning the next general election, he should listen up and lighten up. Faced with a ray of sunshine or a clunker, I know who I would prefer.

So now we talk to Iran and Syria?

Somebody help me. I’ve lost the place. One minute Tony Blair is asking Syria and Iran to help broker a peace deal in Iraq; the next, he’s attacking them for supporting the very Iraqi insurgents who are killing British soldiers there.
The Prime Minister really has to make up his mind. Are we still at war with the “arc of extremism” as he used to describe Syria and Iran - or are they now among the good guys?
Of course, it’s good to talk. But what next? Do we invite al Qaeda and the Taleban to join the “push for peace” in Afghanistan?
Number Ten claims credit for encouraging the US Iraq Study Group (aka the Iraq Scarper Group) to look to Iraq’s neighbours to help stabilise the country and allow foreign forces to leave. The PM was reportedly eager to talk up his plan for “regionalising” the Iraq problem during his video-call to the ISG yesterday.
But in his Guildhall speech the previous evening Tony Blair had condemned Iran and Syria as countries where “the roots of global terrorism are to be found”. Iran has been aiding the Iraqi Shia militias, one of which seized a hundred people at the Baghdad research institute yesterday. Iran almost certainly provided the explosives that destroyed the British patrol boat, and four servicemen, in the Shatt al-Arab on Sunday. Iran was also heavily involved in arming and training the Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon who recently rained rockets on Israel.
Syria, a nasty dictatorship which tortures its citizens, has also been up to its neck in “state-sponsored terrorism”. It was forced to retreat from Lebanon after being fingered for the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri in 2005. Syria has been providing a safe haven for insurgents from neighbouring Iraq, and helping arm Islamist groups across the Middle East.
So, how can America and Britain possibly contemplate inviting Iran and Syria to the table in deciding the future of Iraq? It would be like America inviting Germany and Italy - the original “axis” powers - to help decide the future of Europe in 1940.
And then of course, there is Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The last time I looked, President Bush was refusing to rule out military action against President Ahmedinijad if he didn’t stop his uranium enrichment programme. Which he didn’t. This means America is threatening to go to war with one of the Iraq peacemakers. It’s a funny old world.
Yet, next month, the Iraq Study Group is expected to call for a regional conference which give Iran and Syria immense influence in the Middle East. If reports are correct, they will be offered a restoration of diplomatic relations provided they cease being terrorist sponsors in Iraq and allow an orderly disengagement by America. The noises from Tehran and Damascus yesterday were positive about regional talks which is hardly surprising. I’m sure President Ahmedinejad would be only too happy to participate in any process that involved the departure of US troops, because that would mean Iran had won. It would allow him to portray himself across the Middle East as the Muslim who saw off the Americans.
It’s time to face up to the reality of America’s defeat in Iraq - for that is what we are looking at. The greatest military power on earth has been unable to quell a revolt by - on the US military’s own estimates - fewer than 20,000 insurgents. The myth of American military supremacy is shattered; global hegemony revealed as a neo con fantasy.After a fatal mistake in after 2001, when the Republican neo Conservatives opted to settle an old score with Saddam instead of running Bin Laden to ground, America has lost the world’s affection and respect.
Washington wants to extricate itself from the quagmire as soon as decently possible. It has signalled to the world that ‘enough is enough’ and that, as the neo Conservative Richard Perle put it, there is little to be served by remaining in a country which is determined to go to war with itself. “We did our best” he says, to light a beacon for democracy in the middle east - but there are simply too many people in the region determined to snuff it.
But talk of beacons is more than a little tasteless when the entire country of Iraq is demonstrably in flames. And it is America and Britain who ignited the conflagration with our illegal invasion of a country that posed no military threat in pursuit of WMD that wasn’t there.
The noises from Washington about “phased withdrawal” have made the security situation in Iraq even worse, as the insurgents see the humiliation of the Great Crusader as within their grasp. The violence in Iraq is out of control. The numbers of car and roadside bombs has doubled since 2004. Multiple-fatality bombings are up from 20 a month in 2004 to 57 in June 2006 - according to the Multinational Force’s own figures. A hundred people a day are dying, the vast majority of them Iraqi civilians.
\ After criminality on this scale, it’ll be a long time before anyone can take America seriously as the ‘world’s policeman’. Its influence and prestige will be hugely diminished We can expect a proliferation of nuclear weapons, throughout the Middle East, if Iran is allowed to go nuclear following North Korea’s lead.
Israel will find itself under repeated attacks from an invigorated Hezbollah in the Lebanon and a revived Hamas in Gaza. The resolve of the Taleban and al Qaeda will be made all the greater in Afghanistan.
International terrorism will become immeasurably worse as Iraq turns into a training camp for jihadists. The streets of Britain will remain unsafe as Islamists take the war, as they see it, home to the British mainland. The security services are increasingly worried about a nuclear atrocity somewhere in the UK.
All this may sound rather apocalyptic, but it is had to overestimate the sheer magnitude of this crisis. The calamity of Iraq will have an impact far beyond the Middle East and will affect each an every one of us eventually.
Readers of this column will know that while I have been intensely critical of the Republican leadership in the US, I have always regarded America itself as a force for freedom in the world. It’s humiliation in Iraq will have terrible consequences - perhaps the worst being that the Western liberal democratic model will now be regarded in large parts of the world as a front for neo-imperialism.
America is now roughly where the Russians were in Afghanistan shortly before the Soviet Empire collapsed. For the second time in only twenty five years, a superpower has come to grief in the face of militant Islam. The real clash of civilisations, I fear, starts here.

MSPs and their mortgages

Last week, as a result of disclosures in this paper, the Scottish Parliament agreed to review the system of living allowances which has permitted MSPs to make large gains on the Edinburgh property market at public expense. None of the MSPs involved had done broken any rules, or acted improperly.

And that is precisely the problem. Making tens of thousands of pounds in capital gains on property, tax free, is considered just a normal part of middle class life. Is it their fault that property prices are daft? It’s just funny money anyway, isn’t it? Not as if anyone handed them tens of thousands of pounds in used notes.

Well, I’m afraid it is real money, and if any of those parliamentary property magnates were to find themselves in the position of a first time buyer in Scotland, average age 35, then they would realise that there's nothing funny about it. When a house says it is worth £300,000 on the estate agents schedule, it means exactly that.

Now, I’m not trying to hound MSPs. They inherited a system from Westminster, where MPs have been building property empires on the basis of their living allowances for many years. What I am more concerned about is the way that property ownership conditions their approach to public policy. We have all been corrupted by the property market.

The Burt Report on replacing the council tax was rejected out of hand by the Scottish Executive last week because it would involve the top 35% of property owners paying a bit more. Instead of a clumsy and regressive council tax based on anachronistic 'bandings' that haven’t been properly revalued for 15 years, owner-occupiers would start to pay local tax on the basis of the real value of the property. Shock! Horror!

The First Minister, Jack McConnell, simply dismissed the Burt findings at FMQs as if they was the ravings of the loony left. But Sir Peter Burt is no Tommy Sheridan. He is the former head of the Royal Bank of Scotland. His committee was set up by the Scottish Executive and spent two years studying the problem from all angles.

Sir Peter was treated appallingly by ministers, with his report leaked and rejected even before he was allowed to explain the reasoning behind it. This will make public figures much less willing to accept these tasks in future.

The reason that Jack McConnell felt there was no need to justify his rejection of Burt is this: to most middle class people in Scotland - the ones who tend to vote in elections - the idea that they are sitting on massive untaxed capital gains is anathema. They just don’t see it that way. And this fiscal myopia afflicts politicians of all parties in the Scottish Parliament.

I mean, the very idea of poor me having to pay £3,500 a year for my house in Kelvinside just because it has tripled in value in the last ten years... This is the kind of perverse reasoning that left Labour - supposedly the party of the underdog - prepared to continue with a system in which the poorer households subsidise the richer ones.

For let’s be clear: that is exactly what is happening under the council tax bands as they exist at present. Burt warned that trying to manipulate the bandings to reflect changes in property values would also provoke outrage from the middle classes.

Now, it is probably true, as the SNP say, that local income tax could be more progressive. Since it is based on income, this is, by definition, the best way to ensure that a tax is based on ability to pay. However, there is a strong argument against putting too much of the burden onto one form of taxation, quite apart from the problem of two-earner households and the likely growth of tax avoidance schemes.

The size of your house is a pretty good indication of overall wealth, and council services - lighting roads etc - are mostly related to property. Property tax is fair because capital gains on houses are not taxed by the state. They are harder to evade, because houses can’t be relocated offshore, and they can sensibly be raised locally. Local income tax is really a contradiction in terms because it would inevitably fall to the centralised Revenue to collect it.

But property taxes aren’t just fair, they encourage the most efficient use of housing space, by discouraging people from living in houses that are far too large for their needs. Right now, we desperately need to release space for a generation that cannot afford any kind of home at all. Yet, we have half a million ageing baby boomers, sitting in large houses they don’t need, but which have turned into cash machines they won't sell.

Of course, there is the problem of the older person living in a large house on a small income. But if they had a large bank-balance, they would be expected to pay tax on the earnings it yields. Why should a house be any different? There are numerous ways in which equity can be withdrawn to pay for tax, or later though a deferred fund.

And what if prices fall? Well, then people would pay less - obviously. The problem is that we all pretend to ourselves that the value of our houses isn’t real money, and that somehow we should be allowed, like the MSPs on the allowances scam, to keep tens, even hundreds of thousands of pounds of unearned income without paying any tax on it. There is only one word for that: greed. And that isn’t the basis of a fair taxation.

Hanging's too good for him


Look, I too am also opposed to the death penalty. But sometimes even I wonder if there should be an exception made. For Tony Blair.
After all, there we were last week condemning Saddam Hussein for causing the deaths of tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, when our own Prime Minister has also been responsible for the deaths of tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians.

Okay, I’m not serious. Hanging’s too good for him. It would be much better to see the PM arraigned before a war crimes tribunal in the Hague; brought to book for illegal war, based on deception and the wilful distortion of intelligence reports. Oh, and let’s see Alistair Campbell and Lord Hutton in there too, as accessories after the fact.

Come, you say, I shouldn’t make invidious comparisons. Tony Blair is a democratically elected leader of a mature parliamentary democracy, and Saddam was a bloody tyrant who ruled by fear. But I’m not entirely sure that the dead in the mortuaries of Baghdad are all that bothered about the distinction. Or rather their families, because the dead of course don’t talk back.

But others talk on their behalf. We are now being warned of 1600 Islamist terrorists at large in Britain determined to blow us all up in retribution for what has happened. The head of M15, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller (why do British spooks always have such daft names?) didn’t spell it out, but many of these individuals will be British citizens. The threat she assured us will “last a generation”.

I seem to remember Tony Blair once talking about the “blood price” we will have to pay for supporting the Americans and I think we can now begin to see what he meant. The first instalment was paid in the form of 121 British soldiers lives. The second was 56 killed in the London Tube bombings in July 1995. The next may be very much larger. It’s only a matter of time because we are the prime target of every jihadist on the planet.

Why? Firstly, because we were the only country to back the US invastion unconditionally. Secondly, because we are a lot easier to get at than America. This crowded little island on the edge of mainland Europe is easy to infiltrate. We have a large Muslim population, and a hundred thousands people travel, quite legitimately, between here and Pakistan every year. All the terrorists need to do is to convert a handful of them - young impressionable men with more courage than sense - and you have the next London bombing.

How many will have been turned just by the acquittal of Nick Griffin of the BNP? Personally, I don’t believe that what he said about Islam was an incitement to racial hatred. But the sight of a jubilant British racist on the television screens condemning the Muslim religion will fuel the anger of young men in places like Forest Gate, where they say there is one law for Muslims and another for whites.

Soon, if the PM has his way, it will b e possible for those young Muslims to be locked away for the equivalent of a six month sentence without any charge. Merely on suspicion of being terrorist suspects. The resentment among Muslims over measures like ninety day detention will become increasingly vocal and possibly violent, poisoning race relations and spreading fear among the whites. Meanwhile, the Islamist web-sites will continue to pump out images of murdered children from Baghdad to Beit Hanoun, fuelling the sense of Muslim grievance.

There is a horrible inevitability to all this. It was what so many of us predicted would happen when the PM took us into this crazy military adventure. That it would inflame the Muslim world, reduce Iraq to civil war, provide a recruiting sergeant for international terrorism and bring it home.

Britain was used by the US Republicans as a human shield - to guard the fiction that America wasn’t acting alone and in defiance of international opinion. Tony Blair led us into Iraq, willingly, unquestioningly. And even now, as America “changes course” following the collapse of the Republicans in Congress, we are still sitting there, stupidly, waiting to be told what to do. Sitting ducks in someone else’s war.

In all coverage of the Iraq issue in America since the Congressional elections, have you heard anyone mention Britain? Has Tony Blair been called to the White House to discuss the exit strategy? Is Condoleezza Rice shuttling back and forth across the Atlantic keeping Britain up to speed? No . Not even a “Yo Blair!”. All the British PM gets is a conference call to Senator Baker’s Iraq Study Group.

The interests of the United Kingdom come so far down the priority list in the State Department, that we might as well be the Marsh Arabs in 1991. Collateral damage in America’s war with “international terror”.

Of course, we will hear Churchillian nonsense from Tony Blair about how it has fallen to us to stand against this modern menace, as we stood alone in the Battle of Britain. Ministers like John Reid repeatedly compare Islamist terrorism to Nazism in World War 11. But Hitler wasn’t born in Bradford, and Churchill would never have been stupid enough to invade a Muslim country by mistake.

Tony Blair’s only hope for posterity is that the next domestic terrorist atrocity will provide some kind of perverse vindication of his rhetoric. That he will be able to say: “There, told you so.” Only I begin seriously to doubt that he will get away with playing that trick again. The British people have moved on. They see what is happening in America, and they rightly wonder what we are supposed now to be fighting for.

Last week, I asked where parliament stood. Well, the SNP have tabled an imaginative motion on the Queen’s Speech demanding that the government make a full statement of its strategy on Iraq. About time. This is based on a Liberal motion tabled in 1923, the last time we occupied Iraq, and all credit to Alex Salmond for keeping up the pressure, even if Labour loyalists disown it.

The peace of these islands has been placed in jeopardy as a direct result of our supporting an unjust war in which Britain had no strategic interest. Iraq was America’s obsession; indeed; George W. Bush’s obsession. It diverted effort from the pursuit of Bin Laden and the Taleban into the destruction of a Muslim country which had nothing whatever to do with 9/11.

And as we wait for the ignominious withdrawal, consider this: our own intelligence agencies are now warning us, in effect, that if there is to be another 9/11, the chances are that it will be in Britain, not America. That’s the real death penalty.

Waiting for Gordo

Where is Gordon? What is he doing? The SNP are continuing their climb up the Scottish opinion polls, now leading Labour by 32% to 30% in the latest Mori survey. 51% of Scots told the same poll that they supported independence. But Gordon Brown, the Godfather of Scottish Labour politics, seem to be doing precious little about it.

Everyone expects the Chancellor to come wading in to the debate on separation, as he has done in the past, subjecting the SNP ‘independence budget’ to rigorous scrutiny. But so far, his contribution to saving the UK has been confined to putting Adam Smith’s head on British bank-notes. And that was counter-productive. After all, said nationalists, the fact that it is called the “Bank of England” kind of says all you need to know about Scotland’s subordinate status.

The debate about fiscal autonomy continues to attract commentators from the right as well as the nationalist left. Sir Ian Vallance, the former head of BT has talked favourably about tax powers for Holyrood, as more recently has Crawford Beveridge, the former chief executive of Scottish Enterprise. The Scottish press is fascinated by the whole question of autonomy, and Labour’s unionist case is in danger of going by default.

Of course, the 2007 Holyrood election campaign hasn’t begun yet, and it could be that Brown is just keeping his powder dry. Labour people fully expect that their slogan from 1999, “Divorce is an Expensive Business”, will serve them well once more. That Scottish voters will be scared back into the Union.

Only it may not be so easy this time.The Scottish voters have moved on. The debates about financial powers for the Holyrood, have had an impact on public opinion. Autonomy is becoming respectable.

Much has changed since 1998/99 - the Labour government for a start. Eight years ago, Labour was very much in command in Westminster, with Tony Blair dominating the political landscape. Now, the same Labour administration looks tired, divided, sleazy. And Gordon Brown isn’t the force he was.

The Scottish Parliament has been in existence now for eight years and is now part of the constitutional landscape. Measures like free care or the smoking ban show that Holyrood can make a difference. It is easier to sell the idea of progressing, as it were, to the next level. Or ‘Holyrood 2.0’ as it’s being called.

Moreover, voters perhaps understand better than in 1999 that a vote for the SNP doesn’t necessarily mean independence the day after tomorrow. This is a parliament of minorities and there is no prospect of the SNP winning absolute control. Even if it were to return as the biggest party - highly unlikely given the spread of nationalist votes - the SNP would have to form a coalition. Then there would be a referendum on independence.

So, Labour should beware of complacency. Scots may be looking for a bit of action in their politics. The sheer dullness of the Scottish Executive has been a profound disappointment. When he’s on form, Jack McConnell looks a reasonable leader. But he is surrounded by crowd of faceless nonentities in his Cabinet. At least the SNP have a decent leader, in Alex Salmond, and a few sparky personalities, like the parliamentary leader, Nicola Sturgeon.

I’m not saying that the SNP are going to make a breakthrough in May. But there is every possibility of them doing well, of even surprising themselves. Nationalism tends to come in ten year cycles, and the tenth anniversary of the 1997 devolution referendum, could be a good year.

Have they heard of Stern in the Scottish Executive?

8/11/06 Typical. You wait forever for a fast rail link to Edinburgh and then three come along at once. In fact, as the Herald reported yesterday, there could be four different ways of getting to the Capital from Glasgow. Yes, it’s election time again, and the bribing is easy.

The centrepiece is a new “express” service through Shotts or Airdie or possibly both, which would link through to Glasgow Airport. In addition, the electrification of the existing Queen St. to Edinburgh Waverley line would create, if not a bullet train, then possibly a sling-shot, linked through Edinburgh airport. Then there is the old route through Carstairs and Motherwell which everyone forgets about. Suddenly the commuter is spoilt for choice.

Now, it is good to see the Scottish Executive parties getting excited about rail developments - however, I’m not entirely sure this is all about rail. The new and up-graded routes seem to have rather a lot to do with justifying the cost of fast rail links to Glasgow and Edinburgh airports respectively. Both links are very costly, and currently before parliament. The Edinburgh airlink will cost £600m in order to promote the least environmentally-friendly form of transport known - air travel. Sir Nick Stern would not be impressed.

Morover, the talk of new rail routes doesn’t seem wholly credible when so much of the future Scottish transport budget is to be spent on a new Forth road bridge - or two road bridges if you read some reports. Labour is promising a new billion pound Fife crossing even before the reports on what went wrong with the existing one are completed. They’re not due until May, but Jack McConnell wants action now for the manifesto.

Funny, but I seem to remember that last February, when the Chancellor was demanding action on the Forth bridge on the eve of the Dunfermline by-election he was told that there are procedures that have to be gone through, guidelines, consultation, due process etc. I’m sure Gordon will be pleased that things have loosened up so much.

Now, putting to one side the argument that a new Forth road bridge(s) will only increase road traffic, and therefore render the new crossing obsolete as soon as it is built, there are other questions that need to be answered. Why did the existing road bridge rust away in only 42 years, when other suspension bridges last twice as long? Look at San Francisco, where the Golden Gate Bridge, opened in1937, has just been refitted and is good for decades yet.

Clearly, excessive use was part of the Forth bridge’s problem. Yet we learn that Jack McConnell is also talking about scrapping tolls on the bridge, which will make traffic on it grow even faster. So, much for the Transport Secretary, Alastair Darling’s conversion to “pay-as-you-go” road pricing, which he announced in June.

The last thing that seems to be taken into account is the impact on the environment. Yet, like the airport rail links, the Forth bridge thinking is pre-Stern, and based on the old assumptions about the growth of vehicle and air transport. Assumptions which the government itself has said are unwarranted. In fact, are a threat to civilization itself.

The Stern report was supposed to mark a new era in policy by putting numbers to the cost of global warming and showing that there is no economic alternative to curbing fossil fuel use. Yet BAA is forecasting that passengers at Glasgow Airport will increase from 8 million to 24 million by 2030, which is why it wants the new fast rail link connecting it through Glasgow Central to Edinburgh. Edinburgh Airport is planning for 26 million.

Is this sustainable? No. Either you ignore the Stern report altogether, or you accept what the man says says, in which case air transport on this scale is doomed. The bills for the Edinburgh and Glasgow airport links are going through the Scottish Parliament right now. But Holyrood is gripped by a kind of transport schizophrenia. As soon as they enter the committee room MSPs forget everything they have been saying about climate change.

The transport policy of Scotland is still dominated by the needs of air and road. The M74 extension, the Aberdeen by-pass and numerous other roads projects. Even the SNP, who oppose the Edinburgh air link want to spend most of the money on roads.

Now, I understand the problem faced by politicians. It’s easy for columnists like me to point out the contradictions and expect them to save the planet and boost the Scottish economy at the same time. They have been relentlessly lobbied by business interests who tell them that Edinburgh’s growth will be curbed if there isn’t a fast airport link,that Glasgow’s revival depends on more roads.

But politicians can’t have it both ways. Are they saying that they disagree with the government’s own assessment of the future of oil burning? Do they have some miraculous new fuel which is going to make flying environmentally sustainable? Are we all going to be driving electric cars? Or when they talk about the environment, are they simply mouthing empty platitudes?

Because if they mean what they say, then governments are going to have to learn to say no. No to the air lobby groups who seem to have such a stranglehold on UK transport policy. No, to the roads lobby which continues to demand that the public purse pays for the environmental damage caused by the internal combustion engine. No to commuters who seem to believe they have a natural right to travel to work in mobile living rooms with one occupant.

It has also to learn to say no to advisers like Sir Rod Eddington, whose forthcoming review into UK transport policy has reportedly rejected a fast rail link between Scotland and London. He claims that this would be a waste of money which could better be spent on improved links between northern English cities like Manchester and Liverpool.

This means that Scotland will remain cut off from the 3,000 mile network of fast rail links which is transforming the economy, and geography, of Europe. Eddington clearly sees the future of domestic travel in terms of roads and air. More lorries blocking the M6; more businessmen flying from Edinburgh to London.

But if the Scottish Executive is serious about sustainable transport, and about linking the Scottish economy to the engine room of the South East of England and thence Europe, then it should be demanding - not requesting, demanding - a new fast rail service to England. And it should be building fast rail routes in central Scotland in their own right, and not as feeders for airports.

The parties talk green but they act on the obsolete “project and provide” assumptions of high-carbon transport. I say again: Stern has made them all these assumptions unsafe. The Executive is planning to spend billions on building bridges for a level of car usage which it knows to be unsustainable, and on airport links which it knows are already environmentally redundant. Is that responsible government?

The nationalist advance continues

The extraordinary revival of the Scottish National Party continues. The SNP has been marching up the opinion polls for the last six months and in the latest MORI/Scotsman poll is ahead of Labour by 32 to 30. More significantly, a majority of Scots - 51% - told the polling organisation that they support independence.

It’s back to the future. Back to the arguments about whether an independent Scotland would get automatic entry to the EU; about the future of Scotland’s Oil. There’s even been a row over nuclear waste and independence, with the First Minister, Jack McConnell, warning that if Scotland went its own way, England might refuse to take the waste form Scottish nuclear power stations to the proposed national repository at Sellafield. A kind of “Waste Lothian Question”.

The Scottish press is going through one of its nationalistic phases. You can hardly open a paper without reading of some prominent figure talking up independence - from the leader of Scotland’s Roman Catholic community, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, to Tom Farmer, boss of Kwikfit, who has gifted the SNP £100,000.

Prominent businessmen like Sir Ian Vallance, the former head of BT and Crawford Beveridge, former chief executive of Scottish Enterprise, have been calling for the Scottish parliament to be given greater financial autonomy. The argument is that by having to raise, through taxation, the money they spend, Scottish politicians might become more responsible legislators. At present, the Scottish Executive gets an annual block grant from Westminster, currently worth £25bn.

It’s all very lively, and given the blogs plenty to post about. The only people who don’t seem to be getting carried away with all this is the Scottish National Party itself. It’s response has been muted. The SNP leader Alex Salmond isn’t measuring the curtains in Bute House, and nor is the party booking its seat at the UN. MSPs aren’t predicting national liberation from the English yoke. Most of them are reluctant to talk of the possibility of an imminent breakrhough. This is a far cry from the over-the-top, “cry freedom” character of previous SNP upswings.

So, what’s going on? Well, for one thing, the SNP has to recognise that, if the polls are right, it has not been promoting the independence message very effectively. If 51% of Scots want it, why do only 32% say they’ll vote for the Scottish National Party?

The SNP know from bitter experience that people mean different things by “independence” when they talk to opinion pollsters. Some people think Scotland is already effectively independent because of the existence of the Scottish parliament in Holyrood. Others say they they support independence because they are Scottish patriots - but not all small “n” nationalists want to set up customs posts at the border or set up a separate Scottish central bank.

The other reason the SNP are not counting any constitutional chickens is that the political debate hasn’t really been engaged yet. Labour in Scotland is preocupied with internal matters: the leadership row, Iraq and the loss of its activists.

The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has yet to open his account. In 1999, the last time the SNP was scoring this high in the polls, ~Brown wieghed in with a devastating campaign assault on the economics of independence under the slogan “Divorce is an expensive business”.

Labour picked apart the SNP budget for independence, claiming that there would be a four billion budget deficit, deep spending cuts, flight of businesses, and general economic chaos if Scotland went off on its own. Scots got the message.
IN 1999 the Scottish press was militantly pro-unionists and savaged the SNP at every turn. The coverage was so malign that the chief executive of the SNP, Mike Russell, in desperation, set up a rival newspaper financed by campaign funds to try to get a word in. To little avail.

So, it’s hardly surprising that the SNP are cautious. Indeed, we are in a situation where the Scottish press, eight years on, seems rather more optimistic about the prospects for independence than the Scottish National Party. Papers like the Scotsman - which was militantly unionist under its previous publisher, the Thatcherite Andrew Neill - is now much more relaxed about nationalism, and seems genuinely enthusiastic about winning greater powers for the parliament. The Sunday Times, also, has turned out to be pro-autonomy, and mass papers like the Sun actually support the SNP.

The whole debate about the constitution has changed in the last eight years. It could be that voters in Scotland no longer fear independence in the way they did. They realise that, in a parliament of minorities, the SNP is never going to be in a position to rule alone. It will only ever be in coalition with other parties like the Liberal Democrats, who support federalism, but not independence.

If the SNP manages not to get too caught up in the metaphysics of independence, it could do very well in the forthcoming elections in May. It will be Labour’s job to keep the focus on the destructive dynamics of separatism. They are expert at doing precisely that. But with less than six months to go, they’re leaving it very late.

Why is Westminster leaving it to the SNP to take on Blair?

5/11/05 Do we live in a democracy? I only ask. Of course, we elect people to parliaments - three of them, if you include the Scottish and European parliaments. But what do our elected members do when they get there, apart from harvest expenses?

Last week, the House of Commons asked for an inquiry into the greatest foreign policy disaster in fifty years, Iraq, and then voted by a margin of 25 not to have one. Parliament hasn’t debated this issue for three years.

In that time, three thousand British and American servicemen have died along with several hundred thousand Iraqi civilians. It is a scandal of the greatest possible magnitude and yet parliament seems incapable of doing anything about it.

The Speaker, Michael Martin’s, pedantic ruling about David Cameron not asking the PM about the next leader of the Labour party, said it all. That this obscure procedural issue dominated the week’s business in the House just underlined parliament’s pointlessness. This is a parliament whose who’s function is to fawn. To validate rulers, rather than challenge them.

Yet one of the key roles of any elected assembly is surely to defend the freedoms of the people against over-mightly rulers. Well, last week, he Information Commissioner for England, Richard Thomas, warned that we are becoming a surveillance society. There is now one CCTV camera for ever 14 people. It’s like setting up a television station for every three households, except that there’s only one viewer: the state. What are MPs doing about that?

The police arc compiling a DNA database without any debate about the matter in parliament, let alone any vote. The National Health services is dumping ever more sensitive, and inevitably unreliable, material into the lap of officialdom. The intensive vetting of individuals before they can work with children is hastening the collapse of voluntary associations.

This intrusion is underpinned by legislation allegedly to protect us from terrorism which further restricts liberty. The government will table yet another bill this autumn, to introduce ninety day detention without trial and to put yet more restrictions on freedom of speech.

We are creating a society in which people are afraid to speak their minds in case they are arrested for glorifying terrorism, promoting racial or religious hatred, or indirectly inciting illegality by, for example, reciting the names of the dead in Iraq within a mile of Parliament. But I hear precious few parliamentary voices raised against this.

If parliament cannot defend liberties, protect us from unwarranted state intrusion and refuses to hold the government to account for mendaciously and illegal warmaking, you really have to ask what MPs think they are there for.

It’s as if there is a total exclusion zone around Westminster, and democracy is kept well out of it. In the parliamentary compound, legislators are held captive by an autocratic government which has long since lost the right to govern. Yet, unlike prisonsers in Guantanamo, MPs could do something about it. They are elected by the people, not the government, and could if they chose, challenge its authority. But too many are content to be willing clones.

Of course, we are promised that things will be different under “Gordon”. The Chancellor has, we are assured, seen off challengers and will now be returned as Prime Minister unopposed. Rejoice! rejoice! An end to the Blair tyranny. But does no one see the grim irony in this impending coronation? That we are about to acquire a new Prime Minister without any democratic processes being involved whatever. No election; no debate. It’s more like North Korea. Gordon Brown has intimidated or bought off his rivals - except for the hopeless left wing MP John McDonnell - and will be installed in Number Ten by a kind of laying on of hands.

If we’re lucky, the voters might be invited to endorse the Labour monarch in an election which will be held sometime in the next three to four years. This election will be staged at Gordon’s pleasure, at a time of his own choosing, before which he will shamelessly bribe the electorate with tax cuts and eye-catching spending projects which will be shelved as soon as he takes office.

We are told that Gordon Brown will also seek to reform the constitution, possibly with a bill of rights, and that he will seek to restore trust and respect for parliamentary democracy. Well, all I can say is that he hasn’t made a very promising start. Anyone who believes that Gordon Brown will extend liberty and curb the authoritarian excesses of the executive branch of government, is either naive or blind.

Now, I have a considerable respect for the Chancellor’s intellect and even his vision. Gordon Brown has been an accomplished Treasury minister, perhaps the greatest this century, but he has achieved his ends by ruthless centralised control, as ministers like Charles Clarke and David Blunkett have testified. Does it seem likely that Gordon Brown is going to abandon the habits of a lifetime and loosen the corsets of constraint? Hardly.

There is a serious danger that Brown will be even more centralising and authoritarian than his predecessor. He will take over in less propitious circumstances, for a start, with Labour collapsing in the polls. Facing revolt from the North by Scottish nationalists, and revolt in the south from English nationalists who believe Brown has no right to be Prime Minister because he is Scottish.

Brown has already made a series of key decisions without bothering about parliament or even his own party. He dropped a line into his Mansion House speech in June about going ahead with a new generation of Trident nuclear submarines, even though this would likely breach the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. Needless to say, there has been no vote about it in parliament.

He also short-circuited any debate about the new generation of nuclear power stations when he added the three little words “including new nuclear” into an article on energy policy in the Times in the summer. Political journalists have been reduced to latter day Kremlinologists; having to scan and deconstruct ministerial statements to divine what the government intends to do next.

The Chancellor has also said he supports the war in Iraq, saying during the 2005 election that he would have “done exactly the same” as Tony Blair. Does this sound like someone who is going to have a light touch in government? Who is going to restore parliamentary accountability? Bridge the gulf between the executive and legislature? Revive parliamentary scrutiny? Protect our liberties from the encroachment by the state?

Brown also announced out of the blue that he supported his predecessor’s 90 day detention without charge for terrorist suspects, a measure which overturns a thousand years of freedom from unjust arrest. Which introduces effective punishment without trial - the equivalent of a six month sentence with remission - for people who just happen to catch the eye of PC plod.

Of course, it isn’t all bad. David Cameron wants us to hug each other and make nice. But we could also do with some righteous anger in parliament right now to ensure that Brown doesn’t continue the old ways. It isn’t about individuals; it is about the will of MPs to honour their job descriptions. They are elected by us to fight our corner. Instead they are hiding in it.

The SNP are due for an upswing.

5/11/06 The SNP are top o’ the polls. A nation once again! Scotland is echoing to the cries of jubilant nationalists, eagerly anticipating liberation from the English yoke.

Except that it isn’t. The nationalist aren’t crying freedom. There has been a marked absence of triumphalism in SNP ranks over the recent opinion polls, despite their showing a steadily growth in support for independence - 51% according to Mori last week . According to the same poll, the SNP is pulling ahead of Labour - now 32% to 30% - in the race for the 2007 Scottish elections.

But it’s not so much Scots wha’ hae’ as the silence of the lambs. Speaking to nationalist MSPs recently, I have not detected any great surge of emotion or anticipation. They talk up their prospects to us hacks, of course, but they certainly aren’t counting their chickens.

Call it maturity, call it realism, call it , even, defeatism, but my impression is that the nationalists don’t believe they are on the brink of an historic breakthrough. Which, paradoxically, means that, for the first time, they could be. Perhaps the SNP has finally come of age.

Certainly, this is very unlike 1998/9, the last time the SNP had a comparable election year lead. In the hectic months running up to the first Scottish parliamentary elections, the nationalists really thought they were on their way. That there was a chance of turning the devolved Scottish parliament into a national legislature in one go.

The opinion polls - similar to today’s - were supported by a widespread feeling of excitement among Scots, especially younger voters. There seemed like an unstoppable momentum building behind the SNP.

Came to nothing, of course. 1999 was a terrible experience for the nationalists, a shock from which they have yet to recover. It wasn’t so much the result - they won 35 seats on nearly 30% of the vote - as the character of the campaign. The Scottish press, on its very worst behaviour, displayed a ruthless and undemocratic bias against the SNP. It led the nationalists to blow much of their campaign cash on producing an alternative newspaper for the duration.

That savage demolition made many SNP activists wonder if it was possible for the party to win any election when the “unionist press” were so agin them. Even today, there is a caution, bordering on paranoia, about the state of the nation’s media. This has led to the curious spectacle of the Scottish press actually sounding more bullish about independence than the nationalists themselves.

You can’t open a paper without seeing some prominent figure talking up independence, like Cardinal Keith O”brien., or calling for more financial autonomy, like Crawford Beveridge the former boss of Scottish Enterprise. More power to Holyrood is a good story - and the Scottish press is keen to tell it. The Scotsman has changed dramatically following the departure of its devosceptic publisher Andrew Neill and is now politically neutral.

Much else has changed since 1998/99 - the Labour government for a start. Eight years ago, Labour was very much in command in Westminster, with Tony Blair dominating the political landscape. Now, the same Labour administration looks tired, divided, sleazy. The Iraq war is a running sore; cash-for-peerages a deepening scandal. The war of succession, between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, has not only damaged Labour politically, it has made the government look stupid.

And Gordon Brown isn’t the force he was. Of course, the Chancellor, remains a formidable operator, and his lieutenants in Scotland fully expect him to wade into the nationalists again, as he did in 1999, scattering all before him as he demolishes the SNP economic policy with a barrage of statistics. “Divorce is an expensive business” as his amanuensis, the Labour MP Douglas Alexander, put it.

Will history repeat itself? Do nationalist economics make any more sense now than they did in 1999. Well, in absolute terms, perhaps not. Since independence is hypothetical, it is very hard to be precise about the numbers. It’s anyone’s guess what Scotland’s share of the national debt would be, for example.

But it may not be so easy for Labour to scare people with separatism this time round. The Scottish voters have moved on. The debates about autonomy, about fiscal powers, have had an impact on public opinion, have made autonomy respectable.

As has the very existence of the Scottish Parliament. People can see that self-government is not such a daft idea, after all. That it can make a difference - whether on free care or the smoking ban. It is easier to sell the idea of progressing, as it were, to the next stage.

Moreover, voters understand better now than in 1999 that a vote for the SNP doesn’t mean independence tomorrow. This is a parliament of minorities and there is zero prospect of the SNP winning absolute control. Even if they come out top, they would have to form a coalition, and even then there would be a referendum before Scotland sued for separation.

I also think the Scots may be looking for a bit of excitement in their politics. The sheer dullness of the Scottish Executive has been a profound disappointment. When he’s on form, Jack McConnell can just about rise to the job, but he is surrounded by the most dismal crowd of faceless nonentities in a nation . At least the SNP have a leader, in Alex Salmond, and a few lively characters, like Nicola Sturgeon.

I’m not saying that the SNP are going to make a breakthrough in May. But there is every possibility of them doing well, of even surprising themselves. Scottish nationalism, as veteran Jim Sillars always said, comes in ten year cycles. By my watch, they are due an upswing.