Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The Bad Tactics of Indyref II

Refererendum’s eh. 

We’ve now had quite a few of them where we can pick up traits and rules.  Yip they can be divisive, but the most successful ones, and there are only two that fall into this category, can also re-enforce what Donald Dewar called “The settled will” of a nation.  The second one being the one Dewar used that description on, the second Scottish devolution referendum 20 years ago this September.  The first being the first EU referendum way back to just before I was born.

The revamp of Reporting Scotland takes an unexpected turn...
With that in mind, you’d be thinking that those people with pro-Independence views would be looking to try and play the long game.  Reach out and try and build a cross party consensus on the issue of independence whilst developing a loose narrative about how an Independent Scotland will work – a narrative flexible enough to have a left wing as well as a right wing spin.  We have seen a stirring of the economic debate which we didn’t quite see last time with the cross platform debate between Kevin Hague and the fair tax campaigner Richard Murphy (More on that later I think…) but it feels like there is undue haste put on things.

That speed is entirely down to the First Minister’s preferred timetable for a second Independence Referendum.  This timetable is designed entirely to ensure a smooth passage between the UK’s membership of the EU and (the SNP hope) a newly Independent Scotland’s membership of the EU.  There are several big problems with this plan, though I’d suspect that the EU might not be the biggest problem (they have a reputation for breaking their own rules if it suits them – witness Greece, Italy, Portugal… etc’s entry to the Euro club at inception without meeting all of the, supposedly necessary, convergence criteria).  No, Sturgeon’s biggest problem will be winning the referendum, especially if it is tied to the question of EU membership.

The problem which the SNP haven’t even broached is the estimated 36% of their voters which voted to leave the EU in last years EU Referendum.  Those voters…  indeed all of the million plus people who voted to leave the EU, have been talked down or airbrushed from the SNP’s “dragged out of the EU against our will” rhetoric.  It smacks of bad politics that the SNP, and in particular Sturgeon, has risked alienating this constituency in the rush to a second referendum. Possible evidence for this has been that there has been no bounce for Independence in the polls in the aftermath of the EU vote.  This alienation could also explain why we are split on the question of whether there should be a second referendum and if so, when?  Alongside the other reasons why having an Independence Referendum in the autumn on 2018 would be an extraordinarily bad idea.  Holding one predicated on an issue that would split your ‘core’ vote would be the big reason for not holding one at that point.

That’s not to say that those other reasons are not important.  That Sturgeon and the SNP seem to be prospering in spite of the lack of people who are outraged at “Scotland being dragged out of the EU… against it’s will” or that it looks highly likely that we will see Yes Scotland 2 as the campaign weapon of choice are important in their own right.  It’s just that the decision to go on an issue that splits Independence voters along similar lines to the way Scotland itself split last June does look like suicidal political tactics.  Coupled with the other reasons, you would pretty much write off any chance of successful referendum win this side of the UK’s divorce from the EU being finalised.  Then again, I did say that for the SNP to successfully argue that the EU referendum was a material change then they did need a pro-EU vote in Scotland of at least 65%.  At 62% (or if you’re Stephen Gethins, two thirds of Scottish voters), that vote is too small a foundation and has so far proven to be a flimsy pretext for a referendum.

If you were Theresa May and you really wanted to secure the Union for a generation, ideally you would ‘engineer’ a referendum as quickly as possible.  Give Sturgeon what she wants, a referendum in the Autumn of 2018.  At that point the Independence Campaign will still be slightly unorganised, the arguments rushed, and perhaps just slightly off guard.  The big problem with that scenario is the conservative, cautious nature of May.  Like Brown, when he became nervous over Wendy Alexander’s bravado over the possibility of a referendum 10 years ago, May will recoil over a snap referendum which will eventually come in conditions much more favourable to Sturgeon.

Instead of rushing into a second referendum, the SNP need to come up with a plan different to the one which lost in 2014.  They need to work on uniting the country behind a vision of a better Scotland rather than the ‘over enthusiastic’ argumentative style which Yes fundamentalists are very guilty of.  That means continuing with the long game, which means consistent rebuttals that an Independent Scotland would be too wee & poor.  It needs to be a long game firstly because as I earlier point out a quick referendum will lead to defeat and secondly because I think there will be better examples of ‘material change’, or certainly examples that will have a bigger impact on the Scottish electorate than the EU referendum.  If the UK’s divorce from the EU turns sour, if May’s proposed Grand Repeal Act proves not to represent Scottish interests or if May follows through and has a manifesto pledge to scrap the ECHR from English/Scots law.  These are the known examples that could go down badly with a Scottish electorate and unite them behind the idea of Independence, but not if the SNP persist in standing up for Scotland by not talking to the 1 million Eurosceptic voters or the 2 million pro-UK voters.

When I wrote in 2012 that Scotland would vote to remain within the UK, it was because the flaws within the Independence argument were becoming self evident.  Arguably, had Osborne not made his notorious ‘sermon on the pound’ speech then Better Together could arguably have had a bigger lead – as it was that speech which precipitated the fall in the pro-UK’s poll ratings.  Even before this referendum has started, the same issues remain alongside other issues, possibly related to Sturgeon’s impulsiveness. She may not see it that way, but May’s continued stonewalling of Sturgeon’s demands for a second referendum hands Sturgeon and the SNP an advantage.  Only if they recognise it and use the time to sort out the issues with their arguments.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Forgetting The Elephant In The Room

This time a couple of weeks ago, the Westminster village was full of rumour and speculation concerning debates supposedly happening about whether the Prime Minister should go to the country before the date stipulated on the Fixed terms Act.  William Hague then penned a piece calling for an early election, whilst BBC Scotland’s num… ah, sorry, ‘flagship current affairs phone in’ show “Call Kaye” debated the issue.  After the week May had last week, it was somewhat surprising to see the issue crop up in yesterday’s Sunday Politics show.  By now, you’ll have guessed that there’s something of a roadblock to this plan.

The closest precedent to the predicament May is in -
Harold MacMillan after his General Election win, October 1959
The Fixed Terms Act didn’t just give the UK the concept of fixed terms for Westminster elections (even if there’s some debate over whether it should have been 5 year terms) but also changed the terms of any future vote of no confidence.  This means that a simple +1 majority no longer counts as a vote of no confidence and therefore makes it more difficult for May to engineer a vote.  For May this would be a pity as I’d suspect that if she wanted a big stonking Commons majority then the optimum time for getting that will be the next 6 or so months. If she’s living off the mandate won by Cameron when the bells ring in 2018, then the chances of a big majority start to erode.

Having said that, I’m not sure an election this year figures largely in May’s plans anyway.  By the looks of things, May’s timetable will be full until the divorce from the EU is completed.  The sending of the letter triggering Article 50 will in effect mean no early election and for that matter no second Independence referendum until divorce with the EU has been finalised.  I would think that if May does want an early election, then the earliest she will go for will be spring 2019 with an election campaign centred on the supposed “Great Repeal Bill” and the rumoured scrapping of ECHR – a much better ‘material change’ than the European Referendum result is proving to be surely.  Other than that temptation, I’d think she’d stick with the date stipulated in the Fixed Terms Act, namely May 7 2020.

We might be in uncharted territory, however May’s predicament is not entirely without precedent.  In the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, Anthony Eden resigned 19 months into his only term as PM.  His successor, Harold MacMillan (above), did not seek a fresh mandate straight away waiting until the autumn of 1959, 2 and a half years into his premiership, before going to the country.  MacMillan won on the famous “You’ve Never Had It So Good” slogan, winning the Conservative’s first post war landslide election win with a majority of 100.

It is Brexit then, which is driving May’s timetable, rather than the Fixed Terms Act.  However both of those situations have deprived us of the parlour game once beloved of political hacks – name the election date.  Harold Wilson was a master of picking election dates, with the exception of picking the date of his third election as Labour leader.  Rather than wait until the autumn, Wilson chose to go to the country in June 1970 and lost to Heath.  When Heath decided to go to the country, it was on a ‘Who governs’ slogan…  and stumbled into a hung parliament in February 1974.  That election called in the winter of 1974 was the last truly ‘snap’ election as every election since the following October election has been called at 4 year intervals at least.  There is a school of thought that had Cameron not set up the Fixed Terms Act (as part of the coalition deal with the Lib Dems), he possibly could have called another, snap, election at some point in 2011 or 2012.

For all the talk about a snap election, it is surprising how little the Fixed term Act has entered people’s calculations.  This has removed the temptation of a ‘snap’ election for May, though the divorce proceedings with the EU are probably the main reason we can rule out snap elections in May, June or September this year.  Thanks to May’s timetable – which does not involve a Scottish Independence referendum either – then the earliest that Theresa May will be going to the country will be late spring 2019. I fully expect May to go to the country on the Fixed Term stipulated date, and not receive the huge majority that the polls think she’d get if she’d got an election this year.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

It's Deja Vu All Over Again

Regular readers of this blog will know that the previous referendums this country have organised were announced quite out of the blue and resulted in proposed posts being spiked.  That tradition has continued as this week, I’d planned to bring you reasons why Theresa May will wait until 2019 (at the earliest) to call that much speculated General Election.  So, thanks Nicola Sturgeon for sparing the country that…

There is only one conceivable angle where announcing the intention to hold a second Independence referendum now works, that is if you are signalling your intention that an Independent Scotland becomes a fully paid up member of the EU, bypassing the will of the electorate.  Therefore it is obvious that Independence will be tied to membership of the EU.  The problem with that of course is that of the people who voted for the SNP in 2015, 36% (according to Michael Ashcroft’s post EU Referendum polling) voted against their own party’s line.  I’d imagine that those people who have seen the Scottish Government, via EU directives, put key ferry services out to tender and the UK Government, as part of the Lisbon Treaty, privatise the Royal Mail, will baulk at Blair Jenkins description of the choice between a “Social Democratic Scotland within the EU” versus “a right wing Tory Brexit Britain”.

Other than that, calling this referendum makes no sense whatsoever at all.  Average polling is still roughly where the 2014 referendum left us, the expected bounce post EU Referendum has only happened in the minds of fevered activists and James “Scotland goes Pop” Kelly.  When she was elected as SNP leader, Sturgeon said she’d only hold a referendum if polling suggested consistent leads for Independence, so why hold one now when you’re still behind and there is clearly no ‘settled will’ for a second Independence referendum at the moment?

The other issue facing the Neo-Yessers is that the SNP have not shown any signs of coming to terms with how they lost in 2014.  That they were battered over currency masks how poor the economic case was prosecuted with oil both a bonus and the bedrock of an Independent Scotland’s finances.  Yet, even if the so called figures have deteriorated and are less favorable, the pro-Independence side’s task still remains the same – to show that an Independent Scotland can work.  The £15bn deficit is only a jumping off point after all.  Whoever is making the economic case (it shouldn’t be the terminally awful Business For Scotland, with their outlandish claims last time around) should be putting forward viable reasons how an Independent Scotland could work.  For tips on how to prosecute an economic case, perhaps they should be looking at Kevin Hague’s blog for tips.  I don’t agree with what he says, but he did show up Business for Scotland three years ago.

Of course, if the figures for Scotland have deteriorated, the case for Independence has not improved therefore the case for remaining within the Union must have improved, right?  Ummm, actually the case has remained the same... the attractiveness of remaining within the UK though is another matter.  Forgetting Brexit, we’ve seen a sharp right turn from the UK government and a rapid disintegration of something called British values from high profile politicians, the commentariat and other sundry media figures.  Casual racism is now mainstream, while respect has all but disappeared from public forums.  True, some of the sneering started during the first Independence Referendum, but since then Westminster has gone full Farage.

Whilst Theresa May’s cack handed handling of the EU referendum – essentially she’s going to argue for cliff edge Brexit when she could easily have sat back and let the EU push for it making them look like the bad guy’s – has precipitated a second Independence referendum that was avoidable at this moment. It was Cameron with his victory speech, moments after the ink was dry on the first Independence referendum, tying English votes for English laws to further powers for Holyrood, which all but ensured that there would be a second Independence vote.  And it was the Westminster village’s misreading of the referendum result – seeing an issue closed when the better interpretation would be of a couple needing marriage counselling – which has seen the London-centric commentariat adopt a gradually more sneering stance towards Scotland.

Of course, the pro-Independence supporters are excited and the pro-Indy fundamentalists are over the moon at sticking it to the hated ‘Yoons’.  However you should ask yourself one simple question.  Should you hold a referendum when you are all but certain of winning it – like Harold Wilson did in 1975 and Blair did in 1997.  Or do you hold it when you’re not certain of victory – like Callaghan did in 1979 with the Scottish Assembly vote and like Sturgeon’s predecessor did in 2014.  And shouldn’t you hold a referendum when all of your arguments are utterly bombproof, which was Cameron’s big failing last year?  It seems like an awfully big gamble from the First Minister, a bigger one if it’s tied to EU membership.  Unless the government insist on a vote after the UK exits the EU (which, coincidentally I think would help the SNP) then I think this referendum will be doomed to failure.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Poisoning The Wells Of Scottish Politics

I had kind of glossed over Sadiq Khan’s speech last week hadn’t I…  Ah well, it’s not as if it’s caused any controversy or anything like that…

The thing about both the Khan and the Corbyn speeches are that they make the classic English Lefty mistake of conflating Nationalism with the Scottish desire for national self determination.  Sure he’d toned down his comments from those heavily trailed in Saturday’s Daily Record, an act that makes me suspicious that Scottish Labour (in particular Anas Sarwar) had a hand in the deliberate ramping up of the anti-SNP rhetoric.

Someone who did notice the (over?) reaction towards the London Mayor’s comments was the Stirling University researcher Claire Heuchan, who penned a piece in the Guardian in support of Khan.  She’s also supporter of Better Together, but that in no way should disqualify you from having a view on Scotland – at a time when Independence supporters need to win over… er… No voters from 2014.  You can filter those views accordingly but to dismiss them out of hand is simply not democratic.  On that basis, while I don’t agree with everything in this piece, it does raise questions about how the case for Independence redux is being prosecuted by the more hardline pro-Independence supporters and the direction of travel for those pro-Indy fundamentalists.  Those questions only grew louder in the wake of the vitriol aimed at Heuchan for her article, raising the issue further that those pro-Independence fundamentalists are taking their behavioural cues from the great farting euphemism across the pond.

Heuchan’s piece argued that there was an inherently racist streak within the SNP, identifying this not along ethnic or colour lines but Scotland versus England lines.  It is a fascinating argument, one which has it’s roots on the SNP’s use of the performance of English public services to show how well the Scottish services are performing.  It is here I agree with Heuchan, with her attack on the SNP’s assertion that Scottish values are better than English values. “The mythos of Scotland as a friendly, compassionate country is maintained with fervour – like any other fairytale, it needs heroes and villains.”.  Sure, the Scottish sensibility is different from England and we are more in favour of public services.  But that sensibility is becoming arrogant.  We saw that in the first Independence referendum when the then Referendum secretary kept on linking the idea of Euroscepticism to right wing Tories, airbrushing Tony Benn, Peter Shore & half the Wilson & Callaghan cabinet’s out of the story.

However that assertion is ultimately one which doesn’t really stack up, notwithstanding Alec Salmond’s old quote about England gaining a friendly neighbour rather than a surly lodger.  That’s not to say that Scottish society isn’t a racist society, I think we’re much better at deluding ourselves that we’re not – given that a lot of it is simply laughed off as ‘banter’ or something old people say as my family said when my now late Gran used to talk about… shall we say… going to the shops.  I should also point out that as a white male, I’m not exactly in a position to be any sort of authority on Racism.  Any prejudice I’ve experienced certainly can’t be attributed to the colour of my skin.  In this respect, Heuchan’s views carry more weight than mine.  My hands are up and I’m nowhere near anything resembling high ground, so to speak.

I think where Heuchan’s piece hits the mark – and I’m not sure whether this was the intention or not – but it identifies in a between the lines kind of a way a creeping intolerance within some, maybe a large minority though I’d be guessing how many if I’m honest, within the pro-Independence fundamentalists of different views.

The quote which identifies this flaw best is where Heuchan says “There is a hermetic streak to Scottish nationalism…”.  The drive towards a second Independence referendum is being driven by people within the bubble, and in the virtual world, by the Cybernats convinced that just one more push will deliver Independence regardless of real world conditions and the criticisms of…  well… non believers.  The rest of that sentence goes on to say that Scottish Nationalism is “…small and inward looking despite the SNP’s talk of a global Scotland, that persists without reason”.  I’m not sure this is a piece attacking the SNP or the concept of an Independent Scotland per se, but more a piece on a certain type of Independence supporter – the Indy Fundamentalist.  Or if you’d prefer, one of Wings chimps.

Scratch beneath the surface and there’s something else.  Something that rings that bit truer than the racism story.  That of a growing intolerance of people speaking out against Independence & the SNP, especially when she speaks of the SNP outrage at Khan. “Predictably, SNP politicians and supporters alike were outraged. How dare anyone question their vision of a progressive Scotland?”  The idea that Scotland is not as progressive as we think we are permeates the piece.  Interestingly enough, this narrative has gained currency with the criticism of the article itself, with the aforementioned Indy Fundamentalists not taking the piece very well.

Rather too predictably, according to the Guardian, Wings was true to himself and fired off some abusive tweets.  As I’m blocked, presumably for not being remotely sycophantic enough, I can’t tell you what they said. Heuchan didn’t mention Wings by name, but among the criticisms, his name is in the background.  The intolerance of anyone who puts forward a viewpoint at odds with the SNP/Yes world view, tick.  Thin skinned (“small & inward looking”), tick.  “persists without reason”, well you can thank all those SNP politicians for re-tweeting without looking at what he says for that, but yeah tick. 

Looking at the reaction on Twitter, you see the same thing happening again and again.  Criticism followed by outrage without any real reading of the criticism, just because someone dares to criticise the firmly held SNP orthodoxy.  The criticisms and rebuttals are now turning nasty.  In the real world, like on-line there’s a ‘them and us’ culture.  There’s a bitterness which, if it is not checked threatens to undermine the whole SNP vision of a different Scotland being possible.  I’ve seen a small bit of that criticism myself, for daring to be a non supporter of the European Union, yet I know that the criticism I’ve received is nothing compared to the outright abuse Heuchan and others have received.  The fact that such a divisive and abusive figure is at the heart of the pro-Indy fundamentalists campaigns somewhat drives a coach and horses through Sturgeon’s desire for ‘One Scotland, Many Cultures’, after all you can’t really advocate a nice cuddly inclusive Scotland when pretty much most of your party’s hierarchy supports and re-tweet's (on a regular basis) a supporter with known misogynistic and homophobic views.

Campbell was at it again this weekend.  Having got his troop of supporters to run Heuchan off of twitter, he tweeted about Oliver Mundell.  If it wasn’t for the fact that Campbell already has publicly questionable views on Chelsea Manning among others, he’d maybe have a questionable case for sending an ‘anti-Tory’ tweet.  Instead, it’s just another stain on the case for Independence.

Heuchan’s piece asks us to talk about racism, but in another level challenges us to look at ourselves and ask if we really are the open, non judgemental progressives that we shout about on a regular basis.  It is somewhat telling that ‘some’ of the Indy Fundamentalists failed this test straight away.  If Sturgeon and the SNP are really serious about Independence and a fair inclusive Scotland, then they need to sort out their own Bath based little man Trump problem.