Sunday, 31 December 2017

2017: The End of The Third Way

At the start of May this year, many of the Anglo-centric punderati were lauding the rise of the French politician Emanuel Macron, and his election as French President. With very little to zero self awareness, the consensus was that what we needed here in the UK was the emergence of a similar ‘Centrist’ style party and politician. May also saw the twentieth anniversary of, well... the Macron thing happening here. If I’ve pointed out before that the political landscape is now turning against ‘Centraism’ (another new name), Neo-Liberalism or Third Way Politics, then this was the year that this became obvious to... well, even the dumbest of Progress winger.

While the year began as it ended, with Theresa May in Downing Street. That security of tenancy has become weaker with there now a real possibility of a Corbyn or Corbyn minded government entering Downing Street if this government falls apart. The Civil War within the Labour Party between the ‘moderate’ Progress and the ‘hard’ left Momentum is still ongoing, but is not getting the media exposure it was. The difference between then and now is that election.

Before the election was called, I’d felt that May would not go to the country. She had just sent the letter which triggered Article 50, she had a small but working majority. In short, her timetable would not have the time or space to fight an election. When she called the election, a lot of those pundits rushed to predict 100+ seat majorities for May. I didn’t, partly because it didn’t feel like a 100+ majority election, partly because cut and run elections have a history of not going to plan for the party which call them and partly because May was no Thatcher or MacMillan. Having said that, I still thought a comfortable majority for May would be the outcome. However that was before the most disastrous Conservative election campaign in living memory. The true turning point of the election and the year was the unveiling of the so called ‘Death Tax’, and the subsequent u-turn which drove a coach and horses through “Strong and Stable”. It was this which caused the Tories polling to fall.

The other thing which cost them the election was the much, much better than expected Labour campaign. The deliberately ambiguous but politically astute stance on single market membership, the policy on tuition fees and the promotion of workers’ rights all contributed to Labour’s biggest vote since 2001. For all of this though, Labour still lost. The infighting and the high media profile of Progress wing MP’s banging the anti-Corbyn drum is a part of that, but perhaps more exposure should be shone on Scottish Labour and their reticence to campaign on the Corbyn manifesto. That the Corbyn bounce came late to Scotland could explain why the SNP held off Scottish Labour in 7 seats by a margin of under 2%.

Yet, for all that May and the Conservatives have had a bad year, she is still there in Downing Street. Fear of a Corbyn government is only half of the reason, the other half being that there is not one candidate that looks even like a potential Prime Minister in waiting. Rudd looks the most capable, but is a risk thanks to potential questions about financial probity in her past and her majority in her Hastings & Rye seat being 346. Hammond has too many enemies, while Gove & Johnston should be damaged goods. I did think that had she a bad conference, she’d be gone by now. Well, she did... but the party still rallied around her, for the reasons outlined above. I now think that she’ll be safe for the foreseeable future, or at least until the divorce with the EU is finalised.

If there was a climate in this country for ‘Centraist’ politics, both Labour and the Tories would not have vacated the centre ground (and seen electoral dividends in doing so). We wouldn’t have seen the fall we have seen in support for the SNP (which we will come to in a minute). But most of all, we would not be seeing the Lib Dem’s essentially on life support. They may have gained four seats in June, with three of them gains from the SNP, but their vote share dropped again. This is in spite of their policy for a second referendum on the EU, this one on the divorce terms, gaining praise among pro-EU commentators. The problem with that is that the likes of the “Sage of Twickenham” and other pro-EU politicians use the comparison of buying a house rather than that of a divorce.

Cable’s installation as Lib Dem leader following their election disappointment (which saw their previous leader Nick Clegg lose his seat) hinted at Progress level desperation among the Orange Book wing of the Lib Dem’s. What was apparently needed was someone to steady the ship and not make gaffs about homosexuality as Faron did. The problem for the Lib Dem’s though is that people remember the coalition, who felt that a vote for the Lib Dems was not a vote for the Tories.

The SNP’s problem this year is rooted in their desire for a second Independence referendum and the lack of policy formation out with that target. Since the first Independence referendum, they had moved to the right on key issues, notably on taxation. The performance of Scottish public services began to cause concern among SNP ministers, with the Tory charge that the SNP were neglecting “the day job” hitting home. The SNP’s problem wasn’t that they were neglecting the day job as such, but there was not enough ‘grip’ on the day job, hence the issues with Police Scotland, education and the NHS.

The election campaign also highlighted that the First Minister is not actually that astute a political strategist; we saw this in several ways. Sturgeon’s high profile in the campaign, for a campaign where she wasn’t standing, invited questions on her government’s performance to be an election issue rather than highlighting her MP’s and their achievements. While the loss of seats, especially those in the North East, could be attributed to Sturgeon’s tying of Independence to EU membership. Scotland’s North East coast was the most eurosceptic part of Scotland in the EU referendum, with Moray seeing the closest vote with 22 votes in it. Remember, because the SNP seem not to have, that 36% of SNP voters in 2015 also voted to leave the EU.

In the past few months though, the SNP seem to have shown signs of recognising the signs and formulated policies. They are talking about tax rises and investment and a publically owned energy company. They’ve also put talk of so called ‘Indyref 2’ on the back burner. This move is a smart move; however the policy announcements are not. The SNP might recover their political standing in 2018. However, in another example of Sturgeon’s poor political strategy, these policies should have been in the 2016 Holyrood manifesto when the SNP had the political space rather than when the SNP look behind the Corbyn led curve.

As 2018 looms into view then, the big questions then are thus; will May survive (I think she’ll still be in Downing Street this time next year)? Will we have a second Independence referendum (I don’t see that happening, and possibly not in 2019 either)? And will we have a satisfactory divorce from the European Union (Hmmmm)?

Before we find out, may I wish you a happy new year and see you in 2018.

Monday, 11 December 2017

The One About The UK City Of Culture

Thursday, 6:30pm, The Library Bar: It is the day that the next UK City of Culture is announced, with Paisley up against Coventry, Sunderland, Stoke-On-Trent and Swansea for the honour of succeeding Derry/Londonderry and Hull in hosting this event. The Library Bar is filling up with some of Paisley’s finest... well some of those that hadn’t been invited to the big shindig up the road at the UWS.

The past couple of days had seen some tension, but it is now palpable with moments away from the announcement. The announcement is live on television, but there is no speeches congratulating the final five or any ceremony. No the announcement is made on BBC One’s ‘The One Show’, a not very good attempt to recreate the BBC’s ‘magazine’ show from the 70’s and early 80’s, Nationwide. With that comes the feeling that this announcement isn’t exactly the centrepiece of the show... and so it proves.

When the announcement is made, it comes as such an anticlimax that you had to pinch yourself that they’d made it before asking yourself ‘did he just say Coventry’, or if you were out of earshot and caught by surprise (and let’s be honest, The One Show handled the thing like SPOTY handles Scottish Football) ‘what did he say?’. What that anti-climatic feeling did do though was act as a buffer, cushioning the disappointment. When that disappointment came, it was tempered with a sober realisation and didn’t come as crushing. I am of course speaking for myself, and probably quite a few people in that pub. At the UWS shindig and in Hull (where the announcement was made), feelings may have been sharper and the sense of disappointment more immediate and raw.

Of course, congratulations should be given to Coventry. Like Paisley, an area struggling to re-define itself in the age of Globalisation with a cultural heritage. The birthplace of Phillip Larkin, Lee Child and the home of Two Tone records – the first successful ‘Indie’ record label (even if distribution was, I think, done through Chrysalis) and conversely the first ‘Indie’ number ones (The Special’s “To Much Too Young” in February 1980, followed by the iconic “Ghost Town” 15 months later). It is a city which is as deserving of the award as we would have been.

Paisley 2021's Jean Cameron hands over the final City of Culture bid
document, 29 September 2017

Sunday, 9pm: On the Thursday night, I had put up a post on social media, congratulating Coventry but also paying tribute to the Paisley 2021 team and also saying that a lot of the things happening in Paisley (the plans for the “Baker Street” cultural quarter, the Spree, the Mod) were all things happening independently of the bid – these were not things contingent on the success of the bid. With 72 hours hindsight, there’s nothing which has changed that view. If anything, the mindset that is now showing is the mindset of it being a setback but not the end of the world. That mindset can only be commended.

The only thing which is bothering me is the question at the root of Thursday night. Why did we lose? In what way was Coventry’s bid superior to our bid? Did they have a better bid, or did we do something to lose it? Or were we the victim of outside forces? Like with UK cities now being expelled from bidding for the European Capital of Culture, did our bid fall foul of the power play between the governments in Westminster and Holyrood?

My own view, as someone with zero experience of bidding for arts & cultural events, is that this was a bid that was not lost by us. The bid team, led by the effervescent Jean Cameron, have created a buzz around a town that not that long ago was a backwater and a joke. I remember vividly my former partner bemoaning the fact that there was nothing in Paisley and that it was dying on its backside, so remembering Paisley at a low point is relatively recent history.

It may have been Derek MacKay who bid (successfully) to bring the MOD to Paisley and it may have been his (Labour) successor Mark McMillan who sanctioned the setting up of the inaugural Spree festival (which ran concurrently with that MOD in October 2013). It was certainly under McMillan that Renfrewshire Council decided to bid forthe City of Culture. Both figures are people who I have criticised on these pages in the past. But here, they deserve praise as both the MOD and the Spree can with some justification be seen as the starting point of Paisley’s comeback.

However, returning to the bid. To my untrained eye, I don’t think there’s very much else the bid could have done. From the art installation ‘Pride of lions’ to the dispatch of the final bid there has been a gently choreographed building of a buzz around the bid. Yet whilst the things happening in Paisley were independent of the bid and it’s success, they were stimulated by the bid. I am sure that in the fullness of time the DCMS team tasked with making this decision will explain their decision, I do hope they do.

In the meantime, plans are rightly continuing within Paisley with new events and plans being announced on Twitter alongside the hash-tag #ourjourneycontinues. For all that Thursday was a disappointment, that Paisley, City of Culture has a ring to it and that the Paisley 2021 bid team deserve every bit of credit going their way. It only represents the end of the first chapter in Paisley’s revitalisation, nothing more.

Monday, 13 November 2017

The Day Today

When someone becomes an ex-leader, there are normally two ways things can go. There is the back seat driver route, favoured by Thatcher and Blair. Most leaders though tend to follow the line unwittingly defined by John Major when he left Downing Street for the last time as PM in May 1997. “When the curtain falls it is best to leave the stage”.

There is, of course, now the third way, the way which Alex Salmond is now pioneering which rejects the concept of the ‘elder statesman’.

We have seen Mr Salmond again in the news this week, having signed up to produce and front a political chat show for the notorious (in UK media circles anyway) news ‘organisation’ Russia Today. For some people this has not gone down very well. By all accounts, the First Minister herself is not said to be happy about this. The critics do have a point.

Of sorts.

For someone who professes to be a democrat and to wish to uphold democratic values, it is not a good look to be providing content for a news organisation whose reputation is of essentially a 21st century Pravda. The charge against Russia Today is that they are essentially the mouthpiece of Putin and his government. While it is true that Salmond’s moves are disdainful, the phrase about glasshouses and stones comes to mind. Various Westminster MP’s have appeared on Russia Today as talking heads, most recently the ‘Sage of Twickenham’ Vince Cable. If Russia Today was that bad, shouldn’t they have declined their invites? Similarly there is little mention of Jeremy Corbyn’s appearances on various middle eastern news channels (he apparently has a slot on Iranian news).

Any mention of news channels dressing up fake news brings to mind another news channel, one rarely mentioned either by critics of Russia Today or by supporters of Salmond (who see this as another excuse to indulge in the tiresome sport of BBC bashing). Fox News before it was pulled from our screens by its parent company was recently charged with two counts of biased reporting. With this in mind, and the fact that Fox was the network that claimed that Birmingham was ‘a no go area for non-Muslims’, then you do wonder where the (equally deserved) brickbats are for regular UK based Fox contributors and general Trump/TEA Party sympathisers like the MEP’s Daniel Hannan and, err... Nigel Farage.

The thing that most people commenting on Salmond’s career turn have missed is that Alex Salmond doesn’t really care what people think. I’m not sure he wants to be that kind of elder statesman like (god preserve us) Paddy Ashdown or John Major. Certainly Salmond’s ego would never ever allow him to all but disappear from public view like his predecessors in Bute House, Jack McConnell and Henry McLeish, have done (save from the occasional appearance). Salmond, for better or for worse, still thinks he has an active part to play in the discourse of this country. It explains his behaviour relating to accepting the offer to provide content to Russia Today (an outlet substantially more ‘favourable’ to the concept of Scottish Independence than any UK based broadcaster) and it explains his bid to be put onto the board of Johnston Press, the owners of the Edinburgh newspaper ‘The Scotsman’.

If Salmond genuinely wanted to be a grandee in the style of Winnie Ewing, then his reputation as a serious figure in that mould would have been damaged long before this episode with Russia Today. Granted, he became an MP again after sparking a feud with Nick Robinson at the end of the Independence Referendum campaign and by continuing to play the BBC Bias card (whereas in truth, the real instance of BBC bias has been against Corbyn and his Momentum acolytes, it is a lot more blatant than any perceived ‘anti-SNP’ bias).

I think that the moment that guaranteed that Salmond’s career as a serious political figure was over was the series of shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. Serious political figures do not diminish themselves and turn themselves into vaudevillian entertainers. And serious political figures do not make bad, vaguely sexist, jokes that even Bruce Forsyth would have baulked at making. Yet Salmond seems not to have learned the lessons of history by pressing ahead with his no holds barred show. The only other leader to have tried a career in television after leaving office was Harold Wilson, who had a very short stint hosting “Friday Night, Saturday Morning” in the autumn of 1979. From the clips I’d seen (I think when BBC 2 did it’s TV Hell night in the mid 90’s) it wasn’t that great and also showed us the first visible sign of Wilson’s Alzheimer’s.

Wilson’s reputation took a knock, but partly due to us better understanding Alzheimer’s now, and partly because of a general reappraisal of Wilson’s time in Downing Street (if you’ve seen Steve Richard’s “Leadership Reflections” monologues – which I reference when talking about the political space to hold Indyref 2 – then the Wilson programme is fascinating in that respect) his reputation is recovering. Unlike Wilson, Salmond commands respect across his party. His issue is that he is seen as a divisive figure across the political spectrum. His deft handling of the first administration is all but forgotten.

The assumption across the mac-commentariat was that Salmond would retire and become some sort of avuncular elder statesman figure. Think a Scottish Tony Benn. If that was the case, they’ve underestimated Salmond’s ego and its capacity to override any political pragmatism he may have by showing a liking for growing older disgracefully.  Alongside the shows, the chatshow is a vehicle for Salmond's ego in the face of unfinished business, nothing more.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Waiting For Momentum

Nothing perhaps tells us more about the reduced circumstances of ‘Scottish’ Labour than the fact that the current leadership election is firmly background noise to other, bigger issues which are dominating the news. With sex-pestery dominating the headlines (and please please, can we not call it sleaze even if it’s called that with more justification here than during the 1990’s) this is an election battle coming to a conclusion in the next week or so.

As I’d pinpointed when Dugdale resigned, the favourite is Labour’s current health spokesman Anas Sarwar. There was a point in September when his campaign looked terminally holed under the line when revelations surfaced about the family business he held shares in. In short, a millionaire owner of a business which did not pay its workers the minimum wage was not a good look for a prospective leader of a party committed to workers rights and a equalitarian agenda. Alongside the question of sending his children to a fee paying school – a question which dogged Blair in his early days as Labour leader and it also led to Harman leaving the shadow cabinet – this painted Sarwar’s campaign as a doomed campaign.

There is also the suspicion that there are also people who have signed up to become members to just vote for Sarwar, with the insinuation that these are Scots-Asians who are influenced by the Sarwar’s standing in their own community. It’s not as if there are people signing up just to vote for Leonard, are there... err...

As it happens Sarwar’s campaign has been far from doomed. In the television debates between the two men, Sarwar has bested Leonard in all of them. He has put his ideas across very well and in one of the debates went on the attack over Leonard’s (perceived) non-commitment to keep Scotland in the single market. In sharp contrast, the supposed ‘Corbynista’ candidate, Richard Leonard, has looked leaden footed and rather slow witted. The only really difference between the two candidates is essentially how both have performed, and that in itself is somewhat disappointing.

Part of the reason for the similarity in the two is Sarwar’s adoption of Corbyn style taxation policies – he promises to put taxes up for the wealthy whilst cutting it for low paid workers. There are parts of this which is appealing and worthy of debate. It has also provoked the response from the SNP that they are the true progressive party of Scotland (any response should make the point that they refused to be this radical when they had the opportunity to be so in 2016, therefore the SNP’s rediscovery of a revolutionary zeal should be seen with the timid & conservative 2016 manifesto in mind). The other SNP announcement is to... err... preannounce an intention to have a debate on taxation with the SNP minded to put taxes up.

The other reason is that I’d suspect, as I pointed out earlier when Dugdale resigned, that the timing of Dugdale’s departure unintentionally hindered the pro-Momentum branch of Scottish Labour. If there was a plot to oust Dugdale, I’d suspect that they were not ready or prepared for a leadership battle this autumn. If they were, we wouldn’t have seen so much focus on tax policy, which brings me to my point.

Given that both Sarwar and Leonard have focused so much on tax increases, there is shockingly little thought on why taxes need to go up. Two years ago, when I responded to Chris Deering’s “Scotland Has Gone Mad” piece, I made the point that both the SNP & Scottish Labour had retreated towards a lazy form of Social Democracy where indiscriminate tax rises are somehow seen as “Socialist”. As if to prove my point, Dugdale’s flagship policy at last years Holyrood election was a rise in taxes because “it was the progressive thing to do”. Sadly both Sarwar and Leonard have fallen straight into this trap.

That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be a debate about taxation, especially with those new taxation toys that are Holyrood bound. There is a gaping hole here though, public service reforms. The sort of reforms that it now looks like the SNP is not interested in making, eschewing that for the prize of Independence. It’s a pity as I suspect that their timidity quite possibly cost them votes in 2016. From Scottish Labour’s point of view, the reforms they should be thinking big about are schools and the NHS.

Schools, because the Curriculum for Excellence does not look like it is working. Michael Russell’s reforms is still proving cumbersome for teachers to facilitate properly while there have been several reports highlighting the falling standards of Scottish education. While with Health there are the failures to reach targets. Locally though there are concerns about the management at the arms length Greater Glasgow Health Board and their high profile decision to close the Children’s ward at Paisley’s Royal Alexandria Hospital. The truth is though that this proposal is the tip of the iceberg as far as GGHB’s management of the RAH has been concerned. There have been a number of services that have been downgraded at the RAH, some of them have been down to the new Southern General hospital in Glasgow’s south-side being given preferential treatment for services.

If the SNP have botched reform of Education, then this is ripe to be put right. Health is also ripe for reform. It is here where there should be a focus not in pouring resources indiscriminately in but on a SWOT analysis of what needs fixing and how it can be fixed. Given that any time I’ve been in the RAH the frontline staff have been nothing other than excellent, I’d start with management and Health Board structures. Democratise the health boards, cut back on representation from the ‘professional board member’ classes and in the ranks of NHS managers and go from there.

It is not just in the promised radical policies that we are still waiting for Momentum, but in the kind of firebrand leadership needed to facilitate those policies and that kind of politics. Instead the candidate of the left in this election is not unlike Corbyn himself, okay at speeches but with question marks over his abilities as a leader. Sarwar might be continuity Dugdale – with all the baggage over Independence and a closeness to the pro-Blair Progress that these bring – but in spite of the disastrous start to his campaign he still looks like the marginal favourite to win. Just.

Monday, 2 October 2017

How Long Has May Got Left in Downing Street?

A couple of weeks ago, the Independent’s John Rentoul tweeted that he thought that of the two main Party leaders, May would last longer than Corbyn. Rather surprisingly, I can see circumstances where this could happen.

If this parliament lasts for the full term, I can see some sort of succession planning kick in, in around three years time. Labour would therefore be fighting the next election with a younger, more telegenic and nimble footed prospective prime minister that is also Corbyn minded (Rayner & Thornberry being the two most likely successors at this moment). On the other hand the Tories still have May, and that is their problem.

When Cameron resigned and May took over, my thought was that May would be an upgrade on Cameron. She was, I’d reasoned, someone who would not take unnecessary risks and would understand the need for a return to consensus politics.  In short, she was an upgrade on Cameron. Instead May’s reputation disappeared over the course of a badly run and badly argued election campaign. In any other times, May would have been forced to resign as PM and a successor would have been installed, someone able to command the confidence of the house. What last year’s leadership election showed was that the list of leadership hopefuls looked like a rather threadbare list, it is possibly for this reason that May has not been forced out.

Instead of forcing out May, the Tories are I think waiting for someone to emerge who they feel can adequately lead the party and appeal to the country. Some of those talked of are either back benchers (Rees-Mogg junior) or junior ministers (Raab), it is surprising how much of the so called big beasts are being ignored and that “jumping a generation” is now back in vogue, given the last time the Tories jumped a generation we got Cameron. The exception to looking at younger leaders being Boris ‘Boom Boom’ Johnston, but then again he has been somewhat on manoeuvres.

It would of course be all well and good if May recognised the new diminished position that she and her party find themselves in. Instead, May still believes the ‘Strong & Stable’ mantra which made her a figure of fun in the spring. She and her party still hanker after being the party to provide “the firm smack of government” as they did in the 80’s. When they had 100 odd seat majorities and had the political space to do so. Indeed the Thatcher that the Tories hanker after only emerged between the Falklands and the 1983 Election – the start of her imperial phase. She was a more cautious PM when she ‘only’ had a majority of 44, even if her radical monetarist policies were still being implemented.

Perceived wisdom in the aftermath of the election was that May would see out the EU divorce proceedings before stepping aside. However, against the spirit of her speech to her backbenchers the week after the election, May has since said repeatedly that she intends to serve a full term and fight the next election, much to the horror of the Tory party strategists and some in her party. This brings us to the question posed in the title and the importance of this week.

May’s position is that she is essentially living month to month as PM, she is as close to borrowed time as she can possibly get. If she has a good conference and gives a good speech on Wednesday then it gives her some space to carry on. Some. And certainly not a licence to act as if five years is a certainty (which it most certainly is not). However, politically, she needs to be contrite and show that she is adapting to the changed political landscape. She also needs to deal with Boris, but a politically smart operator would have dealt with him already and not given him carte blanche to do what he pleased as he pleased. Of course, it’s possible that Boris’ aim is to be sacked and therefore to avoid being blamed for bringing down May. “He who wields the knife never becomes leader” and all that. “Friends of Boris” (if he has any after his various affairs and is not some made up pseudonym for Boris) would be failing in their duty to let Boris know that maybe it’s too late for that and that any rugby balls that pop out of the scrum certainly won’t be falling at his feet.

If the week goes badly for May, she’ll be gone by Christmas. Simple as. This is the party which took 24 days to oust its most successful leader of the 20th Century and PM for 11 years. Once they turn against May, she won’t be around for long. If she is gone within the next couple of months, I’d expect David Davis to be the successful stop Boris candidate, and successful in stopping Boris. This is the new reality for the Tories, the fragility of May’s position. Her cold curtness surprisingly makes you pine for Cameron’s ‘sunlit upland’s’ guff.

The new reality for May is that she is the PM in the most precarious position since James Callaghan in the late 70’s. The big difference is that Callaghan only had to worry about Commons votes (his party only became bitterly divided after election defeat). May also has to navigate a party still angry at throwing away a 12 seat majority, unconvinced of her performance as leader but not convinced of the alternatives. It is remarkable that the party are still minded to leave May in her position. This week will be the first major test of that balance since the Election. By the end of this week we will be in a better position to answer the question posed in the title of this blog.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Most Dangerous Phrase in UK Politics

You know that there are phrases which reveal something about a persons thinking – a laziness even when some sort of conventional wisdom is dispensed by several commentators at the one time. However since the election, we’ve seen a response to that result which can be summed up in one phrase. It’s a phrase that can be justified as being the most dangerous phrase in UK politics at this moment.

One more push.

It’s a phrase that Labour leftists and Corbynistas have used in their conversations about what to do next. That is that all that Labour need to do is to make one more push and Corbyn will be the next (or next but one if the Tories change leader before the next Election) occupant of Downing Street. It is tempting to see UK politics through that particular prism, as notably Rebecca Long-Bailey (pictured left, with Corbyn & McDonnell) did at the weekend. It would also be an incorrect and potentially damaging prospectus.

Here in Scotland, we have seen the damage that such a complacent view can do. I barely need to remind you of the outcome of the Independence referendum of September 2014. Rather than see the outcome of a loss by 10.6% as simply a defeat, supporters of Independence... indeed the SNP hierarchy as a whole saw the result and the gains made as a reason to carry on with their arguments. The logic here is that if the arguments stacked up for 44 odd % of the country then all that’s needed is to keep with those arguments.

Of course things haven’t quite worked out that way. The SNP’s refusal to look at the defeat in 2014 to see what lessons can be learned smacks of arrogance. The thing that looks to have done for Independence though (at least in the short to medium term anyway) has been the SNP’s continued bad handling of EU relations. In rushing to put Independence on to a virtual table in the aftermath of the EU referendum, the SNP hierarchy may have been listening to what their supporters within the social media bubble had been saying, but out in the real world it was a move which looks with each passing day like a catastrophic tactical blunder.

Labour, on the other hand, are in a slightly different place from the SNP and Yes Scotland. For one thing, their loss could not be attributed to issues with policy, the performance of their leader or the economy. The thing that very likely cost them votes in June would be the 18 month civil war within Labour between the party’s left wing and it’s pro-Blair Progress group. At a Progress fringe meeting, the right wing Scottish Labour spokesperson Jackie Baillie made the point that “We lost the general election against the most shambolic Tory campaign I’ve ever seen – we can’t get away from that” without acknowledging the role that Progress minded MP’s played in undermining the public perception of their leader. Or for that matter the shambolic Scottish Labour election campaign which completely ignored Corbyn’s policies in favour of promoting, to borrow a phrase, ‘local champions’ and for trying to out Tory the Tories on the constitution. It is therefore somewhat dispiriting to see both candidates for Scottish Labour leader make this mistake. Again.

If the momentum (ho ho!) is with Labour, then that does not make them automatic shoo-ins at the next election. For one thing there are policy area’s that need tightened up. I’m not certain that O’Donnell’s grasp of the economy is as tight as it needs to be. I think Labour’s Brexit strategy has the look of being cobbled together by committee and should be a much sturdier compromise between retaining trade links, protecting freedom of movement and ensuring we leave the EU and it’s centralising undemocratic tendencies. I also think Diane Abbott needs to step up to the plate a bit more and show us all that she is a capable Home Secretary in waiting.

There is one policy area where there is a lot of work needing to be done – Scotland. It was Labour politicians (Progress wingers mind, but still...) who thwarted attempts by the SNP to fully devolve Benefits to Holyrood during the Smith Commission negotiations and it was Progress wing Labour MP’s who voted down SNP amendments during the resulting Scotland Act’s passage through the HOC. For Corbyn to say that Holyrood has all the powers that the SNP asked for is an out and out lie.

There are criticisms that can be made of the SNP government, their timid policymaking, their lack of grip in the act of government and their fiscal conservatism – Sturgeon may talk the talk but so far she’s not walking the walk. Instead the criticisms that Scottish Labour and Corbyn are making are as the SNP as facilitators of Tory austerity. This is an argument that does not stand up to scrutiny.

Why Labour are attacking the SNP lies with the results of June’s election and the SNP’s own collapse, which itself handed Scottish Labour a way back. Of the 64 seats Labour need to win, 18 are SNP held. Seven of those seats are highly vulnerable, with swings needed of under 1% to take those super marginal’s. My own MP, Mhari Black, is vulnerable at a swing of just over 3% while the winning line, the seat that would (if Labour take all the other 63 seats) put Corbyn into Downing Street would be Lisa Cameron’s East Kilbride, Strathaven & Lesmahagow seat. The swing needed for that to happen is the entirely achievable 3.5% (in sharp contrast, the Tories need 8 seats, and a swing of 0.25% to regain a working majority). It is why Labour need to frankly get better arguments and why the right candidate in the current leadership election for Scottish Labour needs to emerge and why it is now time for Scottish Labour to stop obsessing about an event (Indyref 2) that will not be happening any time soon. Scottish Labour’s leadership election is subject I will be returning to.

Momentum & Corbynism is a by-product of the collapse of The Third Way. However as the example of the last “mass movement” of UK politics showed, a failure is still a failure and issues will need to be re-examined and adjustments made. If the Tories are not to get away with their mismanagement then Labour simply cannot afford to make the same mistake that the “Yes” movement and the SNP made and carry on in the mistaken belief that ‘one more push’ will see ‘us’ over the line.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The Party Who’s Moment Has Passed

18th... 19th September. I’m sure I should be blogging about something, hmmmm.

I’m certainly not going to write about Independence, there is nothing else that can be said at the moment about a movement which seems intent on fighting an unwinnable fight, the Tommy Sheridan tribute parade at the weekend changes precisely nothing. If the SNP think that belittling ‘No’ supporters (hint: A key rule in politics is to not belittle potential voters, even if you disagree with their decision the last time) and that 62% of Scots voted to sign up to Jean Claude Junker’s vision of a United States of Europe 15 months ago will lead to an Independent Scotland, then they’re seriously up faeces valley.

Instead of that, or Wales (because I’m not Welsh so don’t really have a viable perspective on their assembly referendum 20 years ago) I’m going to talk about this small party on the brink of political oblivion. It’s the Lib Dem’s conference this week and while it feels like a lifetime ago, it was only two and a bit years ago they were in government. They did have a small but modest recovery in June’s election with a net gain of four seats from 2015. Their problem though is that their moment has now gone and that they don’t really know where to go next.

In the 90’s under Ashdown they presented themselves as a liberal centre ground party, but that was before Blair & New Labour came along and defined ‘Centraism’ in a post Thatcherite political landscape. When Charles Kennedy succeeded Ashdown, he pursued a policy of equidistance from both parties. This policy and New Labour’s movement to the right made the Lib Dem’s appear to be the most left wing of all the main parties. There were rumours that this turn of events did not go down well with Ashdown and his friends that were still in the party at the time.

By the time Kennedy was forced out of the Lib Dem leadership, there was an alternative viewpoint to the Kennedy ‘SDP’ line being formulated. These views and ideas coalesced around the so called Orange Book – a book of essays and think pieces advocating a Lib Dem version of Third way neo-liberalism edited by David Laws and featuring pieces by newly elected MP’s Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg. In this respect, a coalition between a Lib Dem party led by an Orange Booker, such as Clegg, and the Blair influenced Cameron & Osborne should have looked like a highly likely prospect in the event of a hung parliament. And so that passed.

The problem for the Lib Dem’s is that thanks to those Orange Bookers, their moment in the sun passed with very little in the way of influence. There are two policies that they can point at with justification as being Lib Dem policies, but they are intrinsically Tory minded policies. The first is the policy of raising the tax threshold at the bottom of the wage structure – cutting taxes being a Conservative aspiration. The other Tory aspiration is the cutting of regulation therefore the reforms to Pension regulations fits nicely into that narrative. Other than that, their reputation is of being doormat’s in the face of Tory attacks on.

Fast forward to the election of 2017 and we see that the Lib Dem’s have a very real problem. Since they lost almost 50 seats in the 2015 election, there has been a cleaving of the political landscape. Labour has hit the reset button – to much resistance from their own Neo-Liberal wing –and are in the process of re-emerging as a party of the left once more. The Tories are also in the process of resetting themselves as a party of the right, with the issue of leadership a piece in their jigsaw still to be placed (among other pieces still in the box). The Lib Dem’s remain as a resolutely pro-EU pro-Centre ground party at a time when both standpoints are not popular.

You would have thought that the Lib Dem’s pledge for a second EU referendum, to ratify the terms of divorce would have proved to be a popular policy given that just under half of the country voted to remain within the EU. Apparently not if the small increases in seats is anything to go by. Indeed, any examination of the seats gained would leave us to wonder what would have happened to the Lib Dem’s if they weren’t the beneficiaries of the SNP’s own poor campaign. As a result, a campaign which saw net gains (but below what was clearly expected) saw the Lib Dem’s force out their own leader within a week of the June election.

Farron’s replacement is the man formally known as the Sage of Twickenham, Vince Cable (above). The man who keeps telling us he saw the financial crash coming, even though those in the know (like for example, my ex) saw it coming as well. It’s just they didn’t have media profile or a natty line in juxtaposing Mr Bean and Stalin within witty repartee. For a politician who is intent in recasting himself as a keeper of the liberal flame, he has a hell of a lot of work to do to rebuild his own reputation. Never mind his party’s fortunes.

As the Business Secretary, he caved in to the Taxpayers Alliance’s campaign to scrap the consumer regulator, Consumer Focus, and sanctioned the scrapping of the act which gave it the statutory powers it had, dumping them on the near charity Citizens Advice Bureau. Cable also sanctioned the across the board slashing of regulations, including building and health & safety regulations. Many on the left and some Lib Dem’s tried to pin the scrapping of regulations which (it is alleged) led to the Grenfell fire on Sajid Javed. In truth it was Cable which sanctioned this.

With both Labour and the Tories looking to reset themselves and so called ‘centralists’ on both sides looking to set up a new party entirely rather than swap parties, the Lib Dem’s look more and more lost and irrelevant. Cable and Willie Rennie’s claims that power for them is around the corner would be laughable if it wasn’t made seriously. Clegg might have taken the Lib Dem’s into power, but as they gather in Bournemouth this week that decision to sup with the devil looks more and more like a turning point in the history of the Liberal Democrats.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Devolution Britain At 20

We seem to be going through a phase at the moment where we are seeing all sorts of nostalgia for 1997. A couple of weeks ago we saw various reminiscences of the most famous drink driving car crash in history, while last week BBC Parliament repeated 1997’s other so called ‘JFK’ moment. Including the moment that has given it’s name to all subsequent high profile electoral casualties at the moment of defeat – the Portillo moment. We have also seen people revisit, thanks to an appearance at Glastonbury in June, Radiohead’s critically acclaimed/criminally overrated (delete where appropriate) album from that year.
Blair, Dewar and McConnell greet pro-devolution supporters in Edinburgh's Parliament
Square, post result: Friday 12 September 1997

One moment that seems to have evaded the nostalgists, except for viewers in Scotland (of course), is the moment where devolution began to be made flesh. Twenty years on from those twin referendum’s it is forgotten how controversial they were. But then again, there is an awful lot that is forgotten about the development of what became the Scottish Parliament.

Labour were of course, late converters to the Devolution cause. Seeing it more as something to stymie the rise in support for the SNP in the aftermath of the two General Elections in 1974, Labour then put together and proposed assemblies in Wales and Scotland. Both were put to their respective electorates in the winter of 1979, but with the campaign taking place among the backdrop of the so called ‘Winter of Discontent’ it’s debatable if the climate was conducive to a positive outcome. As a result the Welsh proposals were dismissed by their electorate. The Scottish assembly won by 51.6% to 48.6%. However thanks to a key intervention by the Islington (Labour) MP George Cunningham who successfully got his motion passed (on of all days, Burns Night 1978) stating that if less than 40% of the electorate voted yes then this ‘Scotland Act’ should be brought back to parliament for repeal. At 63.8% turnout, that 51.6% vote looked more like a third of the Scottish electorate and failed the 40% rule. The ensuing arguments brought about the fall of the Callaghan government within four weeks of the Assembly referendum and a resulting General Election which provided Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives with a 44 seat majority.

As Thatcher’s brand of Friedman/Hayek inspired Monetarism became more and more toxic here in Scotland, devolution gradually came back into fashion. A cross party, cross society, constitutional convention was set up in the late 80’s. The only people who did not contribute was the Scottish Tories, who instantly set their face against devolution, and the SNP, who at that point did not see a roadmap to Independence through devolution. It is strange to remember that the SNP spent most of the 80’s and 90’s disdainfully dismissing devolution. When Labour eventually won, and it became clear that there would be a referendum campaign, the SNP were wise to set aside their misgivings and campaign for a Scottish parliament.

Ah, the referendum. As the late Donald Dewar observed, the Scottish Parliament had become the settled will of the Scottish people by the time Blair had succeeded the late John Smith. It was therefore a shock and a surprise to see that Blair intended to hold twin referendums on both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. As Blair pointed out in his book though, this was a tactic designed to make the passage through parliament easier, not to thwart the desires of the Scottish People – “As the legislation to devolve trundled through Westminster, I knew the only way we could avoid the trap that previous governments had fallen into was to negate the possibility of the legislation being sabotaged by the House of Lords... The tactic was obvious: get the people to say yes, then the lords could not say no.”

At the time though, this tactic went above some people as it became rather controversial and somewhat set the template of Blair’s opinion of us. Being Scottish, going to school here and being brought up here, Blair felt like an alien in his own country, thanks in no small thanks to our own inferiority sensibility, or as he put it our chipiness. The other thought I had at the time was that this was Labour laying to rest some ghosts from 1979. In the event, Blair’s election in the May of 1997 meant that there would be significant changes to the UK constitution and that those twin referendum were now pencilled in for the 11th and the 18th September 1997.

If memory serves, it was all too obvious that we would vote for a Scottish Parliament. There were two areas where there was some doubt. The second question on the ballot paper was on whether the parliament should have tax varying powers. Pre-Indyref and pre-Calman, the original proposals were that the tax raising powers only extended to 3% difference either way. There was doubt over whether this proposal would gain approval from the Scottish electorate. The other doubt being that campaigning was essentially curtailed for a week thanks to the death of Diana in that aforementioned accident. We’ve since had campaigning curtailed by the death of Jo Cox and terrorist incidents in Manchester and London but this was the first time that campaigning was suspended in this way. The worry was whether and how would this impact on voting. In the end we shouldn’t have worried.

Scottish Devolution Referendum, 11 September 1997
Should there be A Scottish Parliament?1,775,045 (74.3%)614,200 (25.7%)
Should the Scottish Parliament have tax varying powers?1,512,889 (63.5%)870,263 (36.5%)
Turnout 60.43%

Now, looking back at that referendum, there are two thoughts that occur. The first is that while we wouldn’t want to get rid of the Scottish Parliament, there is an element of disappointment about the Scottish Parliament as a radical transformative force. Say what you like about Scottish Labour (and I’d generally agree with you) but at least they can point at some sort of legacy. Donald Dewar scrapped Clause 28, in the teeth of vicious opposition from home-grown religious fundamentalists. Henry McLeish brought in Free Care for the Elderly, in the teeth of opposition from his own party. The longest lasting of Labour’s three First Ministers, Jack McConnell brought in the smoking ban. However both Scottish Labour and the SNP have looked to protect and manage public services, but not looked at ways of making them better. Meanwhile the SNP ducked out of reforming local authority financing because, firstly they couldn’t make Local Income Tax work and then lost faith in that policy.

This of course is the frustrating thing about the SNP. Among all of our parties, their values have the highest ambition, national self determination. Yet as we found out during the Independence referendum campaign they didn’t really articulate very well what they would do differently – save for some corporation tax cuts and giving power away to Brussels and to Threadneedle Street. The really interesting and radical policy manoeuvres came from The Common Weal and Radical Independence Groups. Organisations that the SNP hierarchy would only touch with a long stick and the SNP supporting Macblogosphere have recently started to try to discredit. Now that Independence is in the long grass (until it becomes feasible and winnable), the SNP have started to do what they should have been doing two years ago, and kitefly desirable policies. On the one hand it is to be welcomed that there will be new Social Security powers to tackle inequality, free care and childcare will be extended. On the other while record investment is needed in the NHS, surely we should be looking at NHS reform & reorganisation to see if the NHS can be run better. If anything, the running sore which is GGHB’s treatment of the RAH is proof that the NHS is something that needs to be looked at, not treated as a sacred cow.

The people who should be looking back with interest at events 20 years ago are the current occupants of Bute House. As I’ve said previously and in previous posts, Indyref 2 is simply not winnable at this moment. Three years is still fresh in the memory and in most people’s minds nothing has really changed. Yes the First Minister and her supporters talk of material change having taken place last June, in the minds of most voters however this material change has not happened. The second thought that occurs is that the SNP really should be aiming to take inspiration and emulate what the campaign for a Scottish Parliament achieved twenty years ago. Independence as the settled will of the Scottish People, and on those percentage points, should be the target.

How they do that is really for the SNP to decide. Here though it’s worth reiterating some thoughts I’ve had both here and on twitter. It should be a broad campaign, not afraid to make contradictory left wing and right wing arguments. The SNP should not be front and centre of the campaign (James MacKenzie first made this point in the aftermath of the first Independence referendum & it’s something I completely agree with). Some right wing endorsements for Independence might not be a bad thing (is Michael Fry seriously the only right wing person in Scotland who supports Independence?). The arguments (from whichever wing) should be completely and utterly bombproof and in particular the economic argument. Though if there is anything that can be learned from the EU referendum it is that dry economic figures can be trumped (apologies for the use of that phrase) by making the link to people’s real lives. Maybe pro-Independence campaigners could use graphs and charts. After all, it seems to work for Kevin Hague...

More than Blair’s victory and the death of Diana, the twin referendums here and in Wales (followed by the Good Friday agreement) did more to change the UK than those two previous events. It has changed us, I may be disappointed at Holyrood, but that’s the failings of Holyrood politicians. It has also changed England as it has somehow become easier for the London based media to not cover events here with the nadir being McConnell’s win in 2003 garnering very little coverage in the network news. SNP victories seem to gather much more interest (can’t think why...) while coverage of the Independence referendum merely showed how ignorant the London based media were of events here. For as long as we remain within the UK, Holyrood should remain a part of the political architecture of this country and be allowed to evolve and thrive. Any attempts to remove or neuter Holyrood would therefore be akin to playing with fireworks in a garage forecourt. Be warned Teresa May.

Monday, 4 September 2017

No Job For A Novice

In among all of the heartfelt tributes to Dugdale, even from her political enemies, there were two observations missing. It is perhaps true that the leadership was foisted upon the young Dugdale or at the very least she took on the challenge of winning the leadership and then the job itself perhaps reluctantly. This does not excuse however what a poor leader she was and that her stunning inexperience shone at every opportunity.

Attacking Corbyn, ‘SNPBad-ism’, and adopting a hard line Unionist tack in the three elections she was leader all showed a leader not experienced enough to develop her own ideas. With Corbyn, it would have been prudent to have stayed silent on the subject and not claim he was unelectable (or at the very least abstain from doing your political enemies job for them, a task the Progress wingers seemed unable to resist doing when it came to Corbyn). On attacking the SNP, there should (as I pointed out at the time) have been policy ideas designed to ensure the attacks on the SNP were not just for the sake of attacks on the SNP. On the issue of a second Independence referendum, I’m just simply not convinced that there are that many votes on the left in out-Torying the Tories on this policy. It is noticeable however that the surge in votes from the SNP to Labour came when the First Minister herself said that Indyref 2 would not be an issue in that election.

That’s not to say she was poor all of the time, indeed arguably she was a harbinger of Labour’s wider left turn with her call for tax increases during the 2016 Holyrood elections. The problem with that call was that thanks to the evolving devolution settlements, tax increases were across the board and not targeted at higher earners. The policy workaround of a tax rebate fell apart under scrutiny as it was found to be unlawful. This policy was Dugdale’s big missed opportunity, and a missed opportunity for the country as a whole to debate taxation as the resultant campaign played out with the SNP successfully (as it turned out) making the argument that they were standing up for Scottish tax payers.

Mind you, maybe those criticisms are harsh. After all a lot of the left/Labour people I’ve spoken to think warmly towards her. A colleague in work said he wasn’t surprised she’d gone, her best friend had died and she’d had her private life publicised in the newspapers, it was no surprise that this had affected her. It’s somewhat telling that, as someone more leftwing than me, he did say that he rather liked her. With those circumstances in mind and the fact that “Scottish” Labour looks in much better health than it did in the aftermath of the 2015 Election near wipe-out, perhaps those criticisms are harsh. Then we remember that one of the other members of the intake from the 2011 Holyrood elections was another young female politician who also became a party leader and that two posts ago I was talking about as possibly the next first minister. Perhaps it’s better for you dear reader to judge if comparisons between Dugdale and Ruth Davidson are entirely fair.

The second observation missing is that Scottish Labour is, to all intents and purposes, still run by ‘Progress wing’ people. All the talk by London based commentators seems to have missed this in the aftermath of Corbyn’s mini tour of Scottish ‘super-marginal’s’. The (mis) calculation being made being that Corbyn’s visit followed by Dugdale’s departure must mean some sort of putsch. While it is true that there is now a growing ‘Momentum’ presence within Scottish Labour, Dugdale’s resignation has deprived them of the time to get their respective ducks into line. Rather inadvertently, Dugdale has ensured a ‘continuity Progress’ candidate will be her successor.

The hot favourite therefore will be the former Glasgow Central MP and current List MSP and Health spokesperson Anas Sarwar. He was Deputy Leader to Johann Lamont during the Independence referendum campaign, he was one of the people shredded by the SNP’s then Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon during Scotland Tonight’s referendum debates during the 2013/14 period. It remains to be seen if his debating skills have improved. That he will be the next leader probably won’t be in doubt, given he was seen at Corbyn’s rallies pressing the flesh, shoehorned Corbyn’s name into his Sunday Mail piece at every opportunity and may pitch himself as the unity candidate. Whether he should be the next leader is another question entirely.

Apart from being shredded by Alex Salmond’s anointed successor, Sarwar I suspect will simply repeat many of the mistakes of the Dugdale months. The top of that list would be a reaffirming of strident opposition to a second Independence referendum (in spite of the prospect of said referendum disappearing quicker than the EU’s ‘diplomatic face’). Of course, as Sarwar is a key architect of ‘SNPBad’ then we would have that back. I’d suspect that as a Progress winger, some of Dugdale’s well intentioned but doubtless knee jerk left wing policy moves will be for the bin too, which would be an opportunity not taken as the SNP might be quite vulnerable there since they’ve moved to a fiscally right wing position.

So far Sarwar has not declared his candidature. At this moment the only runner and rider in this contest is the party’s economy spokesperson Richard Leonard. One of the 2016 intake at Holyrood, Leonard’s background is from the unions and he is firmly on the left of the party. I must admit that I don’t think I’ve seen him before either on television or heard him on the radio so I can’t really tell if he’d be any good or not. It is however very pleasing that the left will have a dog in this fight.

When Dugdale was elected, I wrote that she was the most inexperienced person to have taken on such a high profile job. That Labour have recovered their position is not something I think you can ascribe as her legacy (indeed Scottish Labour’s vote increase in June was only the second election since 1997 where Labour’s vote went up in Scotland, the other election being 2010). Any legacy I suppose would begin and end with stopping the rot. With the glimpses of sympathies towards Scottish independence and her relationship with an SNP MSP, for the first time the story of a resignation may not just play out into the succession battlefield but what happens next with Ms Dugdale.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Holocaust, Climate Change, GERS?

Of all the things which lost the last Independence Referendum for the SNP, the thing near the top of the list would have been the SNP’s failure to win the economic argument.  Anything that the SNP said or planned to say was instantly obscured by their nonsensical policy of adopting the English Pound as currency.  So far, things are altogether different.

If you got past the currency issue, the SNP tended to promise all things to all people.  They offered Scandinavian style social and public service policies, which would be built not on high direct taxation (like the Scandinavians do) but on an Anglo-American model of low direct and corporate taxation.  The people driving Salmond’s vision of Irish levels of corporation tax was the pro-business Business For Scotland.  The high profile members during the referendum, namely Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp and Michelle Thomson, put forward visions of an independent Scotland reliant on low business taxes.  In other words, they were disciples of the cult of Laffer – Arthur Laffer’s theory is that there is a point where increasing tax rates will become counter productive has been replaced by a theory that lower tax rates will somehow bring higher tax revenues.

The claims that Business For Scotland made might have been feasible claims, but without any workings on show, they looked outlandish.  Although Business for Scotland were mostly up against the might of the pro-Union parties, it was the blogger Kevin Hague, and his methodical posts outlining how and why Independence could (potentially) not work and debunking BFS which, essentially torpedoed BFS’ credibility.  So much so that, I do believe that the vestiges of BFS’s credibility can still be located somewhere down the back of Hague’s sofa.  Hague’s posts, particularly on the GERS figures, made him a cause celebre among the London centric Progress supporting elites.  Personally, I thought Hague’s posts to be the benchmark for the economic debate we should be having, even if I disagreed with his conclusions that a £9 billion black hole in the finances (at that point) meant that we couldn’t be independent – my own thoughts being that the deficit would only be the jumping off point and that dealing with the fiscal black hole should be an election issue in the first Scottish General election.  After all, there are smaller independent countries with less advantages than Scotland would have that have made a successful go of being independent.

With great irony, another critic of the Scottish Government’s fixation on low Corporation Taxes in the belief that they generate wealth was one Richard Murphy.  A long time campaigner for fair taxation and the closure of tax loopholes, Murphy began writing a series of posts in relation to the Tax Gap – the shortfall between tax expected and tax collected and received by HMRC.  One of Murphy’s arguments has been with HMRC, who have been slow to provide accurate numbers or had obfuscated Murphy’s attempts to find out what the exact size of the Tax Gap was.  Several years ago, Murphy estimated that the tax gap could be as high as £119.4 billion, of late HMRC have claimed that they have the tax gap under control.  Murphy remains sceptical and has continued to question the competency and the veracity of HMRC.

Surprisingly, the tax gap issue did not cross into the referendum debate.  At a time when HMRC prepared figures were being used by the Scottish Government and then fed into arguments over whether Scotland could afford to become independent, it was somewhat strange to see widespread acceptance of those figures at a point when HMRC were being accused of not being effective enough in gathering tax and spinning figures to hide the extent of the problem.  After all, if the £119.4 billion figure, which HMRC refused to confirm only saying the true figure was lower, is close to the truth then it would impact on the GERS figures.  This means that Scotland’s tax take could potentially be a lot healthier.

That Murphy then has a reputation for challenging HMRC’s figures should not have been a shock to pro-Union campaigners.  What is surprising is that the intervention in relation to the GERS figures came from Murphy himself.  Granted, it would have taken the mother and father of all reverse ferrets for the Scottish Government, however both the wider “Yes” supporting community and Business for Scotland should have made this argument.  In the wake of Murphy’s posts on GERS, both groups look to be spectators in an argument they should be in the thick of.

That intervention in the spring had essentially lit the fuse on the economic debate ahead of an at that point likely second Independence referendum.  Murphy’s posts make two arguments, continuing the tax gap argument over HMRC’s poor data gathering into specific country-by-country data that is the GERS figures themselves and by highlighting that the GERS figures themselves are “estimates”.

Yip, you read that right.  HMRC’s figure gathering does not extend to accurate figures on region/country by region/country tax receipts so all figures are estimates.

Of course, Hague does have a point that most economists produce estimates and forecasts.  The problem is that the forecast debt/deficit for Scotland on day one of Independence is not reported as forecasts or estimates.  Hague’s produced figures are reported and circulated as cold sober fact.  The pro-Union politicians talk up those figures as fact.  Pro-union journalists, including friends of Hague in the national media (yes, you Nick Cohen and you John Rentoul), talk of a profligate Scottish government running up a debt in the billions as if the Scottish Government had those powers...  with those figures as fact.  Indeed, there is something of a cottage industry surrounding these factually reported estimates that it is often forgotten that alongside the figures being estimates that economists are not the one homogenous group thinking the same thoughts.  They have different thoughts and different opinions.  As an example, Monetarism still divides opinion, though not as much as it did when it formed the economic centrepieces of the nascient Thatcher and Regan administrations.

That fact seems to have evaded Hague as any time the ‘estimates’ line is raised with him on Twitter, he deliberately attempts to denigrate Murphy’s work and smugly shows off the people who agree with him without any attempt at discourse.  On Murphy’s more pertinent point, if there was no tax gap then how does Hague explain away the conduct of one Dave Hartnett.  Consultant at Deloitte, former Permanent Secretary of Tax at HMRC and the person responsible for HMRC’s notorious sweetheart deals with such companies as Vodaphone.  HMRC not being fit for purpose regarding cracking down on tax avoidance has been a regular fixture of the pages of Private Eye for years, and yet Hague and his increasingly Wings-esque union jack brandishing supporters seem oblivious to this and HMRC’s other failings while they trumpet statistical estimates as cast iron fact in a fashion that Stuart Campbell would be proud of.

I had started this post in April and had thought of the title at the time as Hague had taken to calling pro-Independence supporters “GERS deniers”.  A couple of weeks ago, during a spat with your’s truly, he went as far as drawing parallels with climate change sceptics, holocaust deniers and GERS sceptics. Instead of discourse, Hague attempt’s to lure people into a cut’s versus tax argument.  All very Osbornesque, intolerant and deeply petulant.

The problem with Hague’s tax versus spend argument is that the question of what you’d cut, a favourite question among pro-union econo.. coment... bloggers, is a simplistic one.  Independence means the opportunity to start afresh and raise revenue that would be to the benefit of the Scottish people and not be tied to the structures of the UK’s tax architecture.  Looking at how we gather money in, it must surely be in the interests of Independence supporters to look at ways of raising living standards as a whole and raise the income tax take purely through higher wages and generating jobs rather than glib 'We could all have had a bar of gold if we were independent' thinkpieces from MacIntyre-Kemp.  After 10 years of stagnant wage growth, an average wage of £27,820 seems a tad small (even if this is just above the UK average).  Of course the other area that could be looked at could be some form of land tax system.  Of which the Scottish Greens no doubt have several thoughts on that subject.

Much like everything else in Scottish politics, this debate is deeply coloured by the debate on Independence where everything is either right or wrong depending on where you sit on the great divide.  While we do not need Hague’s penchant for hallucinogenic graphs to tell us that Independence would be a bumpy ride at the start – and for that matter the SNP & BFS’s disingenuousness on this subject only feeds the cult of Hague.  We surely should have known before Murphy’s spring intervention that HMRC as a tax gathering and tax reporting organisation is simply not fit for purpose.  What Murphy has successfully done therefore is to create reasonable doubt surrounding the GERS figures.  Something the combined forces of the SNP and Business for Scotland failed to do in 2014.