Sunday, March 18, 2007

SNP and Big Money.

Herald 18/3/07

"Broke", cried the Labour advan that toured the vicinity of the SNP conference in Glasgow - referring to the consequences of breaking up the union. But it could scarcely have been less appropriate to the occasion. For the first time in quarter of a century, the SNP ain"t broke.

The Stagecoach boss, Brian Souter, had just donated half a million to the SNP. Topping Tom Farmer's hundred grand, Sir Sean's bequest and countless smaller donations. It takes the nationalist war chest to 1.3 million - its largest ever.

Liberal hackles rose at the thought of the controversial Brian Souter, alleged homophobe, buying a stake in the new nationalist dawn. But they subsided somewhat when it emerged that Bruce Kent, pacifist intellectual and former CND leader, had also endorsed the SNP.

Quite a combination that. Appealing equally to socially conservative Scotland and left wing anti-nuclear Scotland. And it isn't the only odd couple in the nationalist camp.

The former boss of the Royal Bank, Sir George Mathewson has been rubbing shoulders, metaphorically at least, with the former leader of Red Clydeside, Jimmy Reid of UCS. Then there is Tory historian Michael Fry and comedian Hardeep Singh Kohli all marching in Alex's army, even if they are hearing rather different tunes.

The SNP are congratulating themselves for their pre-election conference, as well they might. It went like a dream. However, nationalists are very good at dreaming and the nightmare now is that it will all end in bitter disillusion. Disappointment is practically written into the SNP DNA.

No one knows this better than Alex Salmond, the SNP leader who has lived the dream and lived the nightmare - too often. Perhaps this was why his conference speech yesterday was so low key, solemn even. No one storms a barn better than Salmond but yesterday he was not in the busines of raising rafters. It was as if he was trying to calm down his party, dampen expectations, ease back on the emotional accelerator.

The nationalists have put in an extraordinary performance recently, but as with the Scottish football team this usually means that defeat is just around the corner. So will it be any different this time?

Well, let's not ignore the obvious fact that, whatever happens in May, the nationalists have been getting their campaigning act together. Their professionalisn brings to mind nothing so much as Labour in the mid nineties. Then, Tony Blair's team seemed to score public relations coups on a daily basis. Businessmen and celebrities praised them.

The news agenda seemed to dance to their tune, as the Tory government collapsed in sleaze, incompetence and division. They seemed were driving the events rather than responding to them - just like the SNP now.

Much of this is down to timing and astute staff work. Brian Souter has always supported the SNP and Mathewson has had nationalist sympathies also. If they had made their announcements six months ago, it would have raised little comment.

But using the former RBS boss to upstage the Tony Blair showed astute planning.
And the Prime Minister played into the SNP hands by attacking Scotland's favourite businessman by name

Similarly, the SNP got the maximkum bang from the Souter buck by keeping quiet about his donation until conference time. This meant they could manage the controversy that inevitably followed.

This kind of media management doesn't happen by accident. It takes leadership and vision and some creative energy.

So the SNP have a leader, the staff, the money and the timing. They even have the opinon polls, with Professor John Curtice - the oracle of British psephology - saying that they will beat Labour and become the largest party in the May election with around 45 seats to Labour's 42.

The SNP only returned 28 MSPs in 2003, so that would truly be an unbelievable performance, nearly doubling their representation in parliament. It implies that they are capable of winning constituencies in Glasgow - which they have never done in the past outside Govan. People in West Central Scotland are notorious for voting for non human primates provided they sport a red rosette.

It also suggests they can get win large numbers of constituency seats in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and points north. Now, I'm not saying this is impossible, but it would require the SNP returning votes by the truckload after two elections in which they have done the reverse.

In the 2005 general election was worse than 2003 and they were knocked into third place by the Liberal Democrats. And it was the LibDems, not the SNP, who won Dunfermline and West Fife last year - the noughties equivalent of the '88 Govan by-election.

So there is amountain to climb, and Alex Salmond is going to have to become the Ranolph Ffeinnes of Scottish politics if the SNP is to get to the top.

His policy agenda for the first hundred days sounded attractive enough - smaller class sizes, more nurses, local income tax etc.. But it hasn't been tested in an actual campaign yet. And the three pence rise in income tax to pay for council services has already taken some hostile fire.

And then of course, even if the SNP get the votes, they still don't get the government. They will have to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats which might shatter the nationalist family. The first thing that would have to go would be the referendum on independence.

Granted, this may not be the problem it appears to be. Rather like taxation powers for the Scottish parliament - which once threatened the devolution consensus - it may be possible to find a way of fixing the referendum issue in parliament.

After all, the SNP are only demanding a commitment in principle from the LibDems to a test of opinion on the constitution within four years. This doesn't mean it will necessarily happen within four years.

. The SNP will publish their white paper, and draft referendum bill, in the first hundred days. But before any legislation goes before the Scottish Parliament, it has to be agreed by the parties as represented on the parliamentary bureau, which determines the business of the house. The SNP don't have control of this body.

The Liberal Democrats and the SNP may not be able to agree the form of the bill that is to be put. The Liberal Democrats may want, for example, a federal alternative to be placed on the ballot paper, which the SNP would reject. If no agreement is reached, the SNP can't force matters, because it would not have an overall majority of MSPs in the parliament.

The fact that the SNP will inevitably be a minority in the parliament might hold the key to resolving the referendum conundrum. Then again, it might not. The fundamentalists have been very quiet in the party of late, but they haven't gone away. The spectre of betrayal could reemerge if Salmond appears to be content to run a devolved parliament on its own terms, and not as a battering ram against the Brits.

So it could still end badly. However, the SNP have been making the political weather; they have cash in the bank; Jack McConnell is nowhere to be seen. This is their best shot, they better take i

So, is Scotland worth it?

Sunday Herald 25/3/05

So, is it worth the hassle? What can we learn from the experiences of the hundred or so small nations that have gained independence in the last Century or so?

Well the first lesson is that every independence struggle is unique. From the amicable separation between Norway and Sweden in 1905, to the troubled birth of Europe's newest nation, Montenegro - formerly a part of war-torn Yugoslavia - which secured independence only last year, the process of independence is always shaped by the particular circumstances of the times.

However, we can make a couple of generalisations about becoming independence. First, it is never an easy option and, second, that the liberated nations generally flourish in the longer term.

Look at all those small Baltic countries, Latvia Estonia Lithuania, which emerged from the former Soviet Union in 1991, and which are now among the most dynamic economies of Europe. They are intoxicated by autonomy and scarily self-confident. But that's perhaps hardly surprising after half a century of Soviet oppression.

Ireland's economy doubled in the 1990s as it took full advantage of its independent status in Europe to reverse two centuries of economic decline and population loss. The Celtic Tiger is the country the SNP always look to when making the case for secession. However, no one ever said it was easy..

It took a bloody civil war in the 1920s before Ireland was able to leave the United Kingdom, and historians argue to this day whether or not the people of the Republic really wanted independence. Many were content with a devolved status within the UK and the Irish people were appalled by the Easter Rising in 1916.

Under the nationalist President, Eamonn de Valera, in the '30s Ireland lapsed into theocratic isolation and economic decline which was to last for forty years. Ireland's economic transformation is a very recent phenomenon, and largely down to membership of the EU. However, there is no doubt that having become their own nation, the Irish would never turn the clock back.

Nor would tiny Iceland, which won independence, peacefully, in 1944 and enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world. It is making huge strides in developing its vast reserves of renewable energy and plans to become the world's first fossil fuel-free economy based on hydrogen.

Now it may be that Iceland would have developed similarly had it remained under Danish jurisdiction, but most Icelanders believe that if they hadn't gone their own way they would still be living on puffins.

There is no doubt that national self-confidence plays a big part in successful nation-building. Rustic, frozen,Norway was regarded with amused contempt by the sophisticated Swedes, until Norway went its own way and discovered oil. It is now one of the most advanced civilisations on the planet, and poised to progress beyond petroleum and into renewable energy.

Norway's oil fund has provided unprecedented security to this small cold nation on the remote fringes of Europe and allowed it to plan its economic future. By comparison, what happened to Scotland's oil is a stark lesson in how not to benefit from a natural resource.

The most peaceful example example of separation in modern time was probably the "Velvet Divorce" between the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. The Czechs, the dominant partner in the the old Czechoslovakia, resented handing financial subsidies to the poorer Slovaks. Shades of the Barnett Formula and Scotland's alleged dependency culture. Relations between the two provinces became increasingly fractious.

In the end, separation happened almost by accident, and without a clear majority of either population being in favour of divorce, according to opinion polls at the time. There was no referendum, and independence arose out of a failed attempt to create a looser federal Czechoslovakia.

Both sides decided that independence was the only coherent solution. The new countries have lived happily apart ever since. And since the break-up, "backward" Slovakia has consistently returned higher economic growth rates than the "advanced" Czech Republic.

Of course, divorce is rarely velvet, in marriage or nation-building. The disintegration of former Yugoslavia into Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and ultimately Montenegro involved ethnic cleansing and civil war. Nationalism showed its dark side in the Balkans with communal violence and poisonous racial and religious divisions. The fate of would be Chechnya is also a grim lesson in the cost of secession - though we can hardly blame the Chechen nationalists for the violence inflicted upon them by Russia.

And where there isn't civil war, there is often regional tension. The instability in the Canadian province of Quebec in the 1970's and 80's as it sought independence is often held up as a warning to Scotland. English-speaking companies left Montreal in droves when the nationalists won political influence. A series of inconclusive referendums, or "neverendums" followed which has, to this day, failed to resolve the national status of Quebec within the Canadian federation. Ironically, the Quebec nationalists are now more influential in the Federal government in Ottawa than they are in Quebec.

Which only goes to show that there is no royal road to national self-determination. However, what is clear is that more and more countries are taking it. Fifty years ago, when the European Union had its origins, no one predicted that it would lead to the growth of smaller nations. But from Ireland to the Baltic, it is small nations that seem to be taking best advantage of European integration.

The very existence of Europe allows small countries to feel more secure, more free to do their own thing, without the fear of aggressive larger countries trying to take them over or bully them.

And Scotland? Well, my own view is that Scotland will, rather like the Spanish province of Catalonia, achieve greater autonomy over the years, but will stop short of a formal declaration of national independence. Scotland already is a nation in its own right, and now that it has its own parliament, it is simply a matter of acquiring the powers necessary to secure Scotland's economic and social objectives.

It will, if you like, be Scotland's unique contribution to the science of self-determinatio

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Trident - Why is no one taking it seriously?

Last week, Tony Blair only secured the renewal of Trident because the Conservatives supported him. A total of 95 Labour MPs were unwilling to support their own Prime Minister on an issue of paramount national security. It was the largest defence rebellion in Labour history.

That this went by largely unemarked outside the Westminster village is an indication of how seriously things have deteriorated in the dog days of Tony Blair.

There was a time, not that long ago, when it would have been unthinkable for a Labour leader to rely on Tory votes in this way. Failure to carry the Parliamentary Labour Party would have been a confidence issue, a possible resignation issue.

Not any more. Instead we had the Labour chairwoman Hazel Blears, the crazy frogette, popping up to congratulate the Prime Minister for winning "a majority of Labour backbenchers" - as if it was perfectly normal for the PM to fail to win the backing of his own MPs.

The contagion of conscience has even spread to that most loyal of groups, the Scottish Labour MPs. Fifteen of them rebelled on the Trident vote, including the chancellor's chum, Nigel Griffiths, who resigned as deputy leader of the house.

The departure of the unnaturally ambitious Griffiths' led to speculation about Gordon Brown's private views on Trident renewal. Would the pocket rocket have taken such a drastic step - which nevertheless helps his prospects in his tight marginal Edinburgh South constituency - if there hadn't been just a hint that Brown might be prepared to forgive this act of conscience and employ Griffiths in future? Only he knows.

And we may never find out, because the way things are going, Gordon Brown is unlikely to make it to Number Ten. It's too early to say Tories have won an election that is more than two years away. But what we can say is that, if Labour go on like this, they have certainly lost it.

The Cameron Conservatives have been returning their best polling figures since 1992. This could become habit forming. There is no law that says that people cannot start voting Tory again, in England at least.

Tony Blair has done Brown and Labour a huge disservice by allowing Cameron to get his feet under the table at Westminster. The new Tory leader has grown visibly in stature and authority while the Prime Minister's has drained away.

Last week was another bad one for Labour as the Olympic costs tripled, Sir Hayden Phillips called for a cap on election donations from unions and Cameron's hair style upstaged the Climate Change Bill. A bad Blair day, that

A collapse of Labour support in the Scottish elections in May could be the beginning of the end for Labour in the UK. The party has been piling up the negatives as if determined to alienate as many Scottish voters as possible. Trident is another nail in the coffin.

Renewal of the submarines, which will be based on the Clyde, was rejected by a clear majority of Scottish MPs - something the SNP will not let Labour forget. As we report today, one poll suggests that two thirds of Scots believe it is unacceptable to stationTrident here given the opposition of the Scottish MPs

The Blairites want to blame Brown for any Scottish disaster, and the Brownites want to blame Blair - but they are both likely to get a kicking. Labour's electoral credibility will be the first casualty. Following the Trident vote, there is nothing now to stop the dissidents from dissing the party establishment.

It's not that long ago that rebellion on such a key issue as national security would have led to disciplinary action against errant Labour MPs. Or at least a severe spanking from the whips. Not any more.

Trident shows that Labour MPs can now exercise their consciences without fear of the consequences. That loss of fear is immensely significant. The systems of party discipline and authority which defined New Labour Labour in the early years of this administration have broken down.

Remember the 'pager clones'? They're gone the way of the electronic messaging device after which they were named. Labour MPs don't give a toss any more, and are increasingly becoming an opposition within their own government. Brown be warned.

Meanwhile Tony Blair is becoming a government leader-in-exile, relying on Conservative votes in parliament to impose policies, from university funding to defence, which his own party oppose. It's a weird reversal of roles.

The PM is so close ideologically to the Tories on education, Iraq, nuclear power, Trident, terrorism, attitudes to the White House, public services etc..that there is almost a defacto coalition operating in Westminster. You could hear it in David Cameron's' voice last week in the Commons.

The Tory leader, increasingly performs the role of deputy Prime Minister and chief whip. Cameron is there to echo the pronouncements of the PM on the great issues of state, and to ensure that he gets his way in parliamentary divisions by delivering votes.

You wonder why Tony Blair doesn't cross the floor and be done with it. If you were a conspiracy theorist, which of course I am not, you might have wondered wither Tony Blair has been a kind of Tory mole all along. It's difficult to see how be could have made his departure more protracted and damaging to Labour if he'd tried.

Will Brown be able to put the party back together again? Restore discipline, provide vision and leadership? Inspire and enthuse a party which has lost the will to govern if not the will to live? Possible, but it's beginning to look like lost cause. British voters don't favour divided parties. A house divided is a house defeated.

The chancellor of course is a towering intellect and one of the greatest politicians of his age, as he'll no doubt demonstrate in his last ever Budget this week. But is looking old and tired. He has compromised himself on many of the key issues that are causing his party to disintegrate - like Trident which he supported.

On issues such as defence, Brown is going to have to find some way of addressing the moral revulsion at the renewal of this system.

My own view is that Brown may, in future, try to restore moral legitimacy by seeking to decommission Trident as part of the 2010 round of nuclear non-proliferation talks. I see no evidence that Brown is interested in nuclear weapons for their own sake. Since there are no targets for this Cold War weapon system, designed to cause massive civilian casualties, it would be a logical step to stop sending the boats to sea.

This could be used as an inducement to other countries to disarm. I can't help thinking that Brown would like to take a moral lead on nuclear disarmament, if he ever gets the chance.

But then, what do I know. No one can see in to the mind of Broon - a brooding enigma wrapped in a mystery. As on so many issues, the nuclear cards are held very close to the chancellor's chest. There is now a very real possibility now that they will stay there, and Brown will take his secrets to the political grave-yard.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Thank Tony for the Constitution

Tony Blair has unwittingly done more to reshape and improve British Democracy than any Prime Minister in the last century. And no, I'm not joking.

A reuctant revolutionary, Blair was never interested in constitutional politics. But he was responsible for setting up the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly which have transformed the unitary British state by creating rival seats of authority. Now, in spite of himself, he is doing it again with the House of Lords.

Last week, MPs effectively voted to abolish the Upper House as it has existed since the days of Oliver Cromwell, and replace it with an elected chamber. The huge vote for a wholly or largely elected Lords means that the status quo and half way houses are now effectively dead.

It might not feel like it, but this is a great moment
In parliamentary history. British democracy will never be the same again. Handled correctly, Lords reform could leave the British constitution more coherent and better balanced - addressing the anomalies of what the former PM John Major last week called "one-sided devolution"

The Lords will resist its own extinction, of course, and this week will vote down the proposal of an elected chamber. This will provoke a constitutional confrontation with the House of Commons. However, it is a battle the Lords cannot win. Now that the democratic genie is out of the bottle, it will be impossible to put it back.

And we have Tony Blair to thank for its liberation, since it was the scandal over cash-for-peerages that made reform of the House of Lords -inevitable. The system whereby Peers are appointed by the Prime Ministers, has been irretrievably discredited.

Even if there are no prosecutions following the cash-for-honours inquiry (and now that Lord Levy's chums are saying he is only being pursued because he is a Jew the police may be reluctant to lay charges) the system is widely regarded as corrupt.

The only way to ensure that members of parliament have democratic legitimacy is to submit them to open election There has been much tosh uttered about how election will mean that "mere politicians" will populate the Lords instead of scientists, captains of industry, academics and people of merit.

Would that it were. Where are all these high calibre individuals? Last time I looked along the red benches I saw lots of ex cabinet ministers, former MPs who'd been egregiously loyal, retired civil servants and military top brass. Then there were the cronies, like the PM's legal chum Lord Falconer, the odd celebrity like Melvyn Bragg and businessmen who have paid large amounts of money to either the Labour Party or the Tories.

If successive governments had indeed filled the Lords with people of merit and intellect who could bring their expertise to bear on the issues of the day, then this argument might stack up. But they haven't been doing that. The parties have been appointing life peers, not to create independence and diversity, but essentially to preserve their power bases and reward their own people.

The fact that the Lords has been showing commendable independence of mind on civil liberties issues and anti-terror legislation is largely because its members, being older, have fewer career ambitions and less to lose than MPs. They listen more to their consciences than to the party whips.
They would be even more independent if they had a mandate from the people.

But wouldn't an elected upper house create a parliamentary doppelganger - another elected chamber which would rival the House of Commons? Well, yes hopefully. And what's wrong with that?

I don't understand why the separation of powers - the key principle informing the United States constitution - gets such a bad press here. In Washington, the Senate and the House of Representatives are expected to conflict, and to represent different interests. They are often led by different political parties. There is no reason why a similar system of checks and balances should not work here.

It is a question of ensuring that the divisions of responsibility make sense and that the members of the respective houses do indeed represent different interests. . In the USA the Senate essentially represents the different states of the union and are elected on a regional basis - 2 from each state. Elected for six year terms, Senators vet all Presidential appointments, oversee the constitution, treaties and issues of foreign policy.

The Senate also acts as a brake on the excesses of the House of Representatives, which is elected on a population basis and deals with all legislation involving revenue.

Now, that's not a bad starting point for a new Westminster. It's not all that different to the present arrangement under which the House of Commons
deals with the day to day legislation and has ultimate power over money bills and the Lords takes the longer view. Election would simply lend these chambers greater authority and legitimacy in performing their different but complementary duties.

And there is good reason for the reformed upper house to take a more territorial perspective. Tony Blair's other constitutional revolution, devolution, turned Britain into a multinational state, with parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. English regions like the North East feel left out, even though they rejected the idea of regional parliaments.

What better way to resolve this than to entrench a regional dimension in a new Lords? Turn it into something like the US Senate, elected from the nations and regions. In such a forum, issues like the Barnett Formula and the West Lothian Question could be dealt with.

If the Commons passed English bills on the strength of the votes of Scottish MPs, the legislation could be reviewed in the Senate. England would have a kind of parliament in the form of a bloc of senators in the New Lords. This would be a much better idea than withdrawing voting rights from Scottish MPs in the Commons which would destroy the unitary principle.

The Senate could even be given powers over reserved legislation, to avoid the West Lothian Question-in-reverse. Broadcasting, drugs and abortion come to mind.

Shortly before he died, Donald Dewar called for the Lords to become a revising chamber for the Scottish Parliament.
The late First Minister was worried about the sheer volume of legislation coming out of Holyrood. That some of it might be badly drafted or even contradictory . A regionally-elected Senate would be able to devote time to reviewing Scottish legislation. All Holyrood Acts have to be ratified by Westinster anyway.

A Senate could also be elected under proportional representation. The would temper the inherent unfairness of the first-past-the-post-system in the Commons that gives the PM an artificially inflated majority. Th e Senators should be elected for longer terms, say 7 years, so that they take a longer view.

I don't want to get carried away by constitutional speculation here. We don't want the Scottish Parliament to be eclipsed by a new, all-powerful Westminster Senate. But there is clearly a role for an elected upper chamber in the new, improved British constitution. And here is the chance to invent it.

Things have to change anyway, following Tony Blair's elective dictatorship. Here is Brown'schance to make an early mark on history. A really Big Idea for the man who said that restoring authority to parliament is his priority.

History has a knack of delivering the right thing at the right time for the wrong reasons. The last thing Tony Blair wanted was an elected Lords and a new British constitution. But it looks as if that is what he is going to get.

And it's all his own work too.