Saturday, 31 December 2016

2016 And All That...

So, this time last year. I’d made the point about economic crisis and the links to the fringes of politics gaining traction.  I’d listed examples, Daesh, Syrzia, Podemos & Corbyn.  Those people had decidedly mixed years but the two other examples had a huge year.  Farage and Trump.

If you could claim with depressing justification that Nigel Farage was the UK’s person of the year, then the undoubted loser of the year would be the man who started the year in Downing Street.  David Cameron (right) possibly thought that he could pull off the same trick Harold Wilson pulled in the mid 1970’s with an in-out EU referendum predicated on mildly superficial changes to our relationship with the EU.  That this was a calculation which was not the one which blew up in his face and, essentially, lost him the referendum and his job as Prime Minister tells you how badly the EU Referendum was handled.

The big reason the UK voted to leave, and that Cameron is now…  ah, what’s that phrase again… actively seeking employment… is entirely down to losing the economic argument.  When sundry Political commentators marvelled at Cameron’s devastating use of ‘Project Fear’ in the 2014 Independence Referendum and the following years Westminster Election, they failed to read the small print and to see that those results occurred in spite of ‘Project Fear’.  If Milliband & Co had successfully turned the tables on Cameron by planting the seeds about Cameron’s (possible) preferred coalition partners, then Cameron certainly wouldn’t have a majority.  As for the Indyref, the pro-Union Better Together conceded 25% to the pro-Independence Yes Scotland, thanks in no small part to ‘Project Fear’.  Given the poll lead conceded between Spring 2012 and Autumn 2014, you’d have thought that supposedly smart political operators like Cameron & Osborne would have used different, better, tactics. 

Which is precisely what didn’t happen…

We got Project Fear II…  and that was the problem.  Cameron, Osborne and Co may have bombarded us with statistics and figures which told a story.  On the ground and on what Obama dubbed Main Street, those arguments did not ring true.  Leaving the EU would apparently cost £4500.00 per person.  Fine, but most people don’t earn that in a month thanks to stagnating wages, thanks to our economy not shaking off fully the effects of recession.  This coupled with the perception that Freedom of Movement/Immigration was playing a part in suppressing living standards in this country deeply undermined the Osborne narrative.  This is why the pro-EU side lost the economic argument, therefore the referendum.

The UKIP argument of conflating Immigration with Freedom of Movement was the argument which won the day for the Brexiteers.  Yet had the pro-EU campaigners stood up to UKIP’s anti-immigration rhetoric or even set out to comprehensively dismantle their arguments… as they should have, things would have been a whole lot different.  As a result, even so called ‘progressives’, like the Progress Wing of Labour, now disown multi-cultural Britain.  If Farage is UK Politics person of the year, then his success is entirely down to the collective failure of supposedly middle ground politicians.  This is a pattern which repeated itself across the Atlantic as Trump defeated the flawed candidacy of Hilary Clinton.

The other thing which links both Trump & Farage is that both come from the rebranded revival in Fascist politics, given a Hollywood style PR rebrand as the Alt-Right in the US.  Given that the US is a country always suspicious of left wing values anyway, you can only see the likes of Briebart getting further traction and more influence…  not a good thing.

In amongst the wreckage and fall out from the events surrounding the 23 June, it’s easy to forget that other events happened.  Completely understandable in the case of May’s Holyrood election as an SNP campaign that never got out of second gear won a historic third term in office.  For someone previously thought of as a resolutely left wing character, Nicola Sturgeon’s campaign and subsequent time in Bute House has seen a slight shift to the right.

We have seen the dropping of the SNP’s flagship policy from 2007 pledging to replace the Council Tax, with a pledge to reform the Council Tax.  We have also seen Sturgeon rule out adopting a 50% tax rate when the Smith Commission proposals come into force.   Both policy changes arguably mark a shift towards a less progressive taxation regime.  That’s not to say that the SNP have completely abandoned a centre left perspective/world view.  The policy on Baby Boxes is a fine policy, and the SNP were the only party in the whole of the UK to stand up for Immigration during the EU Referendum.  However, with the controversy over the recent budget and the poor performance of Scotrail, there is the beginning of the sense that the curse of the third term is beginning to set in.  That’s before we mention the SNP’s response to the EU referendum result, using this as a ‘material change’ trigger to a second EU referendum.  I’d said before that I don’t think that this will be the issue that sparks the move towards Independence that the SNP are looking for, and polling shows that.  Theresa May’s rumoured policy regarding the UK’s leaving of the European Court of Human Rights will be another matter.

The backdrop of division and acrimony continued throughout 2016, and thanks to the EU Referendum, deepened.  How this will play out in the key elections due in France & Germany remains to be seen, with the outcome of both having a direct influence on what kind of Brexit we will receive. Here there will be council elections, with all of the Scottish Councils up for grabs.  The big questions for 2017 will be: Will May go for an early election? Will Corbyn survive the year as Labour Leader? If Article 50 is triggered in the Spring, what is Sturgeon’s response? Will Labour split?  And what will happen to UKIP?

Before we find out, may I wish you all a Happy New Year and see you in 2017 for this blog’s tenth anniversary.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Overplaying Your Hand

In recent months, the SNP have apparently been engaging in a listening exercise.  There have apparently been events with members of the SNP listening and engaging with non SNP members in an attempt to argue the case for Independence.  There has also been an online survey as well, one where there has been speculation about the results ever seeing the light of day.  Both the survey and the concurrent listening exercise come to mind in a week where two poll’s were published showing that support for Independence has dropped to below the ‘hallowed’45% achieved in the September 2014 referendum. 

The First Minister with the EU's chief negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt
Whilst pro-Union supporters like Hague and company would like to think that this is the result of pro-Independence supporters coming to their senses and understanding that an Independent Scotland would be bankrupt thanks to the huge deficit (and for fans of that kind of fiction, there’s another piece of that ilk in the Spectator this week), I suspect that there’s something else going on.  I think that people have not taken kindly to the First Minister’s interpretation of ‘material change’ and application of that to a result where only 62% voted to remain.

Why pro-Unionist supporters are wrong in that it’s the economy at play here is two fold.  Firstly, anyone who believes in Independence will understand that the deficit will be there but that we Scot’s will decide in the maiden Scottish General Election how our economic affairs are to be managed, deficit or not.  Whilst Hague does us all a service in flagging up the state of the Scottish economy, the conclusion I take is not that we can’t but that we should and that radical surgery is required.  Surgery that some shirk from.  The second reason is that the pro-Union parties haven’t changed their tactics regarding the constitution.  Their tactics are to flag up the cons with Independence, relentlessly and in an utterly negative fashion.  ‘Project Fear’ is still alive and well and has kind of mutated into ‘SNP Bad’.  Of course, there are criticisms that you can make of the current SNP administration, most of them surrounding their timid and conservative policy prospectus. But to criticise for the sake of it, with no thought to any constructive form is politically dumb.  The sort of political dumbness that Scottish Labour have attempted to make into an art form, which explains why they’ve been eclipsed by the shameless bandwagon jumping Ruth Davidson Party.  If I could turn back time indeed…  The only set of tactics that have changed since the Holyrood elections have been those of the SNP.

While the SNP did have a good EU Referendum, and history has shown how wise it was for them not to take part in the official ‘Remain’ campaign, they have since June somewhat overplayed their hand.  As I’ve said before, when you consider how embarrassingly poor and offensive the official Leave campaign was, then 62% seems rather low.  At the time I thought that the pro-EU vote needed to be at the very least 65% for the SNP to have any credibility when it came to claiming a material change. I think that 62% is made up of genuine EU enthusiasts and also people who voted against both the Leave vision of ‘Brexit’ as well as the campaign itself.  Those people may be Eurosceptic but unable to vote for such a right wing campaign – hardly “being ripped out of the EU against our will”.  If anyone wonders why Eurosceptic’s would vote to remain, have a look at both Owen Jones and Paul Mason’s pieces this year – both are opposed to the European Union’s current direction of travel and both advocated hold your nose and vote remain.

While the SNP have continued to talk up the likely prospect of a second Independence referendum, the pretext for that shows that they have failed to learn their lessons from the first Independence referendum.  Up till Osborne gave us the infamous “Sermon on the Pound” (© Iain McWhirter), the SNP and Yes Scotland were being battered over those currency plans and their plans to ‘retain Scotland’s membership of the EU’.  Those two policy pronouncements from the SNP led to people like myself wondering what the point of Independence was then if we would be handing power back to the Bank of England and the EU.  The pro-Independence supporters that are vocal about wanting rid of Westminster rule appear ignorant of the by-product of Salmond & Swinney’s ‘back of a fag packet’ Sterlingzone proposals.  A Fiscal Pact would have ensued with the Bank of England having a degree of control over an Independent Scotland with the core aim ensuring the value of Sterling and making sure an Independent Scotland kept within spending and borrowing targets.

Not that the EU were showing signs of being interested in bringing us straight into the EU, with both Barroso and Rompuy both parroting the line that Scotland would have to wait in line to apply for EU membership and that being good little Europeans would not be sufficient. At the time I’d though that there would have been three countries that would have blocked I-Scotland’s application.  Had we voted for Independence, we would have left the EU, having just voted to split from a country with its name on the various treaties with the EU.  In this respect, the Better Together campaign were entirely correct in their synopsis of Yes Scotland’s arguments – it’s just that the form of works they choose has now become a hostage to fortune thanks to that EU referendum result.

There are some pro-Independence supporters though for whom exit from the EU was an attractive prospect.  If Independence could be though of as ‘Taking back control’, then doing so outside of the sphere of influence of the EU would be Independence Max – with full control over policy areas such as agriculture, fisheries, and the economy. Let’s not forget that the Michael Ashcroft post EU Referendum poll showed that 35% of SNP voters voted against their parties’ line by voting to leave the EU.  Maybe some of those voters did it tactically to sabotage the Union.  The voters that genuinely are Eurosceptic must be exasperated at the SNP’s constant cheerleading of a project increasingly pro-Thatcherite in it’s policymaking.  It was the EU (alongside the ECB) which forced Greece to sell off it’s publicly owned assets at knock down price.  Alternatively known as ‘making Greece TTIP compliant’.  It’s also the EU, through the Lisbon Treaty, which seeks liberalisation of markets previously closed off to publicly owned companies.  The SNP seem content to toe the party line when it comes to outsourcing, but go quiet when re-nationalisation comes up.  Like with the current hot topic, Scotland’s railways.

In looking at what has happened to both sides of the constitutional debate, it is only the post EU Referendum tactical change from the SNP which can account for the drop in support for Independence. Sturgeon’s misguided belief that only pro-Union Little Englanders back Brexit looks more and more like beliefs that have clouded her judgment at best, and at worst forced a tactical blunder that pleases only the pro-Unionists.  By tying the question of Independence to membership of the EU, the SNP have backed into a cul-de-sac on an issue that only the one eyed pro-Indy supporters back wholeheartedly.  The SNP hierarchy have unnecessarily caused a split in the ranks of pro-Independence supporters and with the use straight away of the threat to hold a second referendum, the SNP have unnecessarily played their only card too early and in the face of a democratic result that has gone against the SNP’s own wishes.  If a second Independence referendum is lost, Sturgeon’s reaction to the Brexit vote might be seen as the moment that kept Scotland in the Great British bosom.