Thursday, 18 September 2014

The day is finally here...

It’s the day we’ve all been waiting for.

Well, those of us in Scotland at least (and I know a few highly interested English-based observers, too).

It’s referendum day.

Or, as I prefer to call it, democracy day.

It’s a day to decide Scotland’s future.

Of course it won’t all be decided by how we vote. But in voting Yes or No, Scotland will give its politicians a mandate to shape a new future.

Personally, I’m taking a long-term view, and voting in the way I think is in the best interests of Scotland’s future. I want my daughter, in 20 years time, be living in the kind of Scotland I wished I’d been able to live in when I was 22.

That does not mean that the choice is easy - far from it.

Yes, in some respects the only certainty is more uncertainty. We don’t know all the detail of what a Yes vote will mean. We don’t even know what a No vote will deliver.

But the respective campaigns have had two and a half years to get their messages across. Now it’s our turn to make our voices count.

There has been a lot about the independence debate that has been regrettable. It has not always been the dignified and constructive dialogue it could have been. It has sometimes been characterised by negativity, fear, diminishing our opponents, petty tribalism, intolerance of others and disrespectful sniping. It hasn’t always showcased what is good about Scottish politics.

But......why focus on the negative?

Thousands of people have become politically active for the first time.

Scotland has a buzz of expectation about it. 

People are excited, if also apprehensive.

The vast majority of activists on both sides, in spite of what some would like to suggest, have been decent, tolerant, respectful and thoughtful. They have shown they care passionately about our country. Scotland should take great pride in them.

But, most significantly, this is an opportunity.

An enormous opportunity.

An opportunity that I’ve always felt we should have had several years ago.

An opportunity to be part of the most significant date in Scottish history in 307 years.

An opportunity to make our vote count.And, believe me, it will count. This is not a General Election in which the majority of seats are pre-determined by accident of demographics. This is a referendum -and one the polls are telling us is too close to call.

I have never in the last two and a half years ever attempted to persuade anyone to vote one way or another. But I have encouraged people to vote. And I continue to do so.Whatever your views, please vote today. And when we vote, I hope that we all take pride in that vote, knowing that we’re making history. That
we’ve made an important decision for ourselves, for our families, for our communities...for Scotland. Maybe even for the UK, or for Europe (depending on your philosophy!)

We’ve all heard a lot of nonsense in the last couple of years – and not all of it from politicians and campaigners. But we need to focus on the important issue. It’s vital to ensure that the main thing is the main thing. It’s a question not of whether Scotland can be an independent country, but whether it should.

It’s a question of determining the political, social and economic nature of the country we live in.

How should you vote? I'm not going to tell you – I don’t flatter myself that anyone would listen anyway! And, of course, while the question is a simple one, there is no easy answer.

But do something great today.

Cast your ballot. Make a difference. Shape history.

And then, whatever the result, let’s work together to make the best Scotland possible.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Nick Clegg signs a pledge - what could possibly go wrong?

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, along with Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour counterpart Ed Miliband, has signed a pledge to devolve more powers to Holyrood in the event of a “No” vote.

The pledge, which promises "extensive new powers" for Scotland’s Parliament "delivered by the process and to the timetable agreed”, has been described by Better Together as “a vision around which Scotland can unite”. The leaders also affirm that "the UK exists to ensure opportunity and security for all by sharing our resources equitably" and ensures that the Barnett formula will continue to be used to allocate resources.
If it is a vision around which Scotland can unite, then Scottish people must be lacking in aspiration. Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell promised yesterday that “federalism is an arm’s length away”. What this announcement proves is that either Sir Campbell is over-optimistic or that he has incredibly long arms. What this pledge amounts to is a belated announcement of commitment to Scottish devolution, but it lacks both credibility and ambition. 

Better Together has failed to spell out in over two years what its plans were for “further powers”. It has given only the most vague of commitments until this point. It was always something to be put on the backburner, to be talked about only after the independence question had been settled. Consequently, we have been asked to vote no on the basis of nothing more than general promises of reform without any detailed proposals having been put forward. While Better Together have asked Scottish voters to “think hard about what independence will mean for Scotland”, they have omitted to provide any indication of what further devolution will mean in practice.

Until now.  And, quite frankly, it’s not enough.

Some questions have to be answered – most obviously why has it taken until now, two days before the vote, to provide anything resembling a plan? But questions should also be asked about the process that is being committed to: do we want a rushed timetable, a closed-door conversation on our political future that excludes Scottish society, a politician-dominated elite making views on our future and telling us it’s what we want? Or would we prefer an open and engaging conversation, in which public and civic society can play a role, and which can be conducted without acrimony and without the influence of vested interests?

People who have been enthusiastically campaigning for the last two and a half years – often people completely new to politics – deserve better than patronising, and belated, pledges. 

What is called for in the aftermath of the referendum result is some sober reflection on how Scottish political society can work constructively to build a progressive Scotland.  Rushing headlong into devolution would surely be as irresponsible as rushing, unthinkingly, into independence. 

The problem with the pledge is threefold. Firstly, it does not commit to any dialogue with Scottish voters.  It is, in effect, disempowering. Not only will Scottish people not have a democratic say in the outcome of the timetabled negotiations, they will also be unable to inform the thinking behind the proposals. Secondly, the detail revealed so far is spectacularly underwhelming, meaning that those of us hoping for something resembling Menzies Campbell’s Home Rule recommendations are likely to be disappointed. It doesn’t really guarantee very much. Thirdly, the signatories lack any credibility in Scotland.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband’s approval ratings in Scotland are notably poor, their political parties being at best viewed with some suspicion. Nick Clegg’s personal “brand” is viewed with such disdain that it is surprising that he didn’t consider the wisdom of signing pledges in the run-up to a public vote.
Only Better Together could imagine that a pledge signed by Nick Clegg could possibly provide any reassurance to the public. Only Better Together could imagine that the Scottish public trust Clegg, Miliband and Cameron. And only Better Together could imagine that this would be seen as anything other than a desperate tactic.

Do I believe Nick Clegg is committed to devolution? Yes, but he’s never given any commitment to anything approaching federalism. In fairness, however, there can be no denying that the Liberal Democrats are committed to overdue reform - but can the same really be said of the Conservative and Labour parties? Their commitment, such as it is, is borne from political expediency rather than any ideological principle.

What the pledge does not do is state why it should be trusted. The signatories themselves do not lend the pledge much trustworthiness. Furthermore, there can be no escaping that Better Together would have preferred not to have made any kind of promise now and are only doing so on the back of polls suggesting an at one time unthinkably close outcome. If the No campaign had spent the previous two years openly discussing what further devolution might look like, rather than merely suggesting some form of it as a probability, I might well be able to get behind the "vision".

What would be a vision is the establishment of a new UK Constitutional Convention. If I was being offered something of that nature, even now I would be tempted to vote No. But nothing so far-reaching is seriously being considered.  Vote No and our parliament will get a few more powers - if that's what excites you then go for it, but I'd like something a bit more substantive and far-reaching.

As it is, it is not so much a vision as an excuse. It is a reaction rather than a statement. It is disappointing to see committed Liberal Democrats taken in by this, hailing the imminent advent of "federalism" as if it was now a certainty when in truth it is as far away as ever.  If the pledge is intended to convince wavering voters of the opportunities of a "no" vote, it is unlikely to succeed in its purpose - if you want people to believe a promise, it's important to ensure it's the right people doing the promising.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

“More powers” – what can we expect?

Today the Better Together parties have – finally – made an official announcement backing more powers for Holyrood. 

Johann Lamont, Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie made a statement this morning confirming their commitment to unspecified further powers and backing former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s timetable for a process to facilitate change in the event of a “No” vote.

Ms Lamont stated that “the importance of this debate to the people of Scotland is to give them certainty that there will be more powers.” This was echoed by Ms Davidson, who reiterated that “this is the way that Scotland can have what it wants most of all, which is full control and full levers of power over huge swathes of what we do in this country.” There is naturally little to disagree with, but it is difficult to be reassured by such generalised blandishments – especially when they are delivered belatedly and so obviously in response to unfavourable polls. 

The Lib Dems’ Willie Rennie, who - for all his claims to the contrary is not a fellow traveller in the Labour-Tory axis of devolutionary tinkering – clearly longs for something more far-reaching. "All three parties are coming together as this is so important” he said, without the slightest hint of irony following Ed Miliband’s ill-timed intervention last week. "We are going to commit to delivering on more taxation and more welfare, that's the commitment that we are standing here to give - certainty to people in Scotland that they know, if they vote 'No' in September, it will lead to more radical change right across Scotland."

It is difficult not to feel some empathy for Rennie, who clearly aspires to being able to facilitate major constitutional changes. But how “radical” can we expect any changes to be? What specific powers can we expect the pro-Union parties to agree to delegate? Much as Johann Lamont is correct, to a point, in believing that Scottish people desire “certainty” and “more powers”, the truth is more complex. Scots aren’t going to be satisfied with “more powers” if they simply result in minor modifications to the current settlement. Rennie is correct in asserting that Scots actually want something more “radical” – the big question, however, is whether they can deliver it. An almost equally important question for voters is whether Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats can be trusted to deliver it. 

The Liberal Democrats have long favoured a federalist structure for the UK, and should not be satisfied with facilitating merely a different kind of devolution. The Home Rule Commission produced a praiseworthy vision in 2012, providing for increasing the Scottish Parliament’s control over financial powers (including inheritance tax, corporation tax, capital gains tax, and income tax). Significantly, it also considered introducing “partnership powers” to require greater collaboration between Holyrood and Westminster, devolution of new borrowing powers, an overdue replacement to the Barnett Formula and a revised role for the Supreme Court in arbitration. It was not quite the “federalist” programme some, like myself, hoped for – but it was a positive contribution and a useful starting point for discussions on determining the precise shape of a post-referendum Scotland. Its main strength was the recognition that the real issue is not simply one of “powers”, but shaping the kind of Scotland the majority of us would like to live in. 

The difficulty is that the Labour and Conservative parties have shown no indication whatsoever of buying into the Lib Dem vision. They recognise the need to accept the case for further devolution, realising that not to do so would be tantamount to asking “No” voters to support the status quo. They understand, purely from the perspective of political expediency, the need to be perceived as pro-change. But they are not co-travellers on the federalist train. Labour’s Devolution Commission focused predominantly on tax-varying powers and, while there are some welcome commitments to further devolution of welfare, the truth is that it is a very bland document. It reads as though the Committee was determined to take the Fabian mantra of “the inevitability of gradualism” to an illogical extreme. The Conservatives, on the other hand, to their credit consider the benefits of reversing the drift towards centralisation of power and focus on devolution within Scotland. The Tories have produced a document that reads well from the perspective of the committed devolutionist, but it is again too focused on the purely fiscal and fails to advocate the kind of “radicalism” that should appeal to either Liberal Democrats or others who desire a more comprehensive programme of reform.

Given the admittedly moderate ambitions of the Labour and Conservative parties, what then does a promise for “more powers” actually mean? What it does not mean is certainty. Even if, in the event of a “No” vote, work will begin on the new legislation as soon as September 19th, the final proposals will be far from certain until publication some months later. 

What the final proposals might actually be cannot be known at this point, which is unlikely to provide any reassurances to undecided voters. What can be said, with some degree of certainty, is that the final recommendations are more likely to look like the Tory and Labour proposals rather than the Liberal Democrat Home Rule recommendations, or Willie Rennie’s vision for “full fiscal federalism”. Federalism is a non-starter. 

What this announcement actually confirms is that the pro-Union parties are truly terrified. Why make the statement now, with just over way week until polling day? Why, if they were so committed to “further powers”, was a timetable not established over a year ago to confirm collective agreement to a process? The vague references to “powers” otherwise provides nothing of substance. This is simply one more mistake committed by Better Together: after refusing the option of a second question on the ballot form, the parties should have been more pro-active in proposing a mechanism for achieving change, rather than simply making vague gestures. If this announcement had been made in different circumstances earlier in the campaign, it may justifiably have been perceived as a genuine exercise in collaborative working to facilitate reform. As it is, Gordon Brown’s Declaration of Loanhead Miners’ Club looks like a calculated and cynical attempt to counter what now appears to be the very real threat of independence with some familiar Labour realpolitik. It inevitably feels like a bribe, even if it isn’t designed to be.

Better Together’s problem stems from the fact that it did not feel the need to either make a case for the union, or to spell out what its plans might be for devolution. Belatedly it is attempting to offer some degree of certainty but, having remained virtually quiet for over two years, why should anyone listen now? In any case, being asked to trust Brown and Darling on delivering a better economy for Scotland is a little like Vladimir Putin asking the world to trust him on human rights issues. It simply isn’t credible.

As a Liberal Democrat, I would naturally prefer a workable federalist settlement for the UK. If Better Together had promised – or even suggested – the possibility for a UK Constitutional Convention I may have been tempted to vote no. But no such commitment to anything so far-reaching has ever been offered and I am not persuaded by today’s statement, committed as it is to non-commitment. 

The difficulty for many voters is that, irrespective of the result of next week’s referendum, the only certainty is more uncertainty. What independence will mean will inevitably be subject to negotiation; what “further powers” means in practice will be determined by discussions between the pro-union parties. It can be said with some regrettable conviction, however, that they will bear almost no resemblance to the Home Rule Commission’s bold vision. 

The most likely outcome is that “further powers” will mean whatever the Conservative and Labour parties want it to mean. If that’s your vision for Scotland’s future, then vote “No”.

For all the criticisms aimed at Alex Salmond and the SNP, it’s now the Better Together parties who are short on answers.  If only Better Together had been discussing "more powers" for the last two years, rather than the final two weeks.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Miliband speech shows a leader without a message

Ed Miliband (Photo: Daily Mirror)
Yesterday Labour leader Ed Miliband made an intervention on the Scottish independence question, delivering a stirring speech in Blantyre, the birthplace of Keir Hardie.
Calculating that he needed to assert his leadership in the wake of reports showing that large numbers of traditional Labour supports are likely to vote Yes, Miliband sought to appeal to his party’s core voters, urging them to reject the prospect of independence.
What was immediately noticeable was Miliband’s emphasis on social justice, a theme that has been somewhat lacking in a debate often focused on the currency question, the EU or the politics of personality. For this – and this alone – his contribution should be welcomed. The independence issue is not a mundane question of economics, but has an inescapable human dimension, and Miliband was absolutely correct to place social justice right at the top of his personal priorities. He was also right in calling to end the “Bedroom Tax”, although quite why a No vote would be the surest way of accomplishing this he didn’t say.
But the prominence afforded to social justice matters is virtually the only positive to take from a speech that, for all its dramatic assertions of the value of a No vote, utterly failed to convince. Furthermore, the speech underlines Miliband’s inability to look to the future, confirming his understanding of his party’s identity as being anti-Tory and a natural party of government without providing any kind of progressive vision.
His appeal was unimaginative, and starkly confirmed how little he appreciates the reasons behind the decisions of many Labour supporters to break ranks from the party on independence. Turning on the Tories is guaranteed to bring applause among tribal Labourites – but when they are partners in the Better Together campaign is it wise to oppose your colleagues rather than your opposition? Assuming that normally Labour-sympathetic Scots may be voting Yes purely from the perspective of preventing future Conservative governments ruling Scotland, Miliband resorted to the partisan approach - “If you want real change, if you want a change from this Tory Government, the way to do it, is to vote No and then elect a Labour Government which I believe is going to happen.”
And that, in a nutshell was his message. It wasn’t so much a reason not to vote Yes, but a call to reinforce the stale binary politics of what passes for Westminster parliamentary democracy.  Basically, he was arguing that there is one way forward for Scotland – and that is to vote Labour at every General Election. The message was so glib, so shallow and so patronising that critique is hardly relevant. The reality that, even if all 59 Scottish constituencies returned Labour MPs, Scotland’s bearing on the wider UK result will always be limited seems not to trouble Miliband’s thinking. Neither does he appreciate the various and numerous reasons why many who vote for Labour at General Elections are opting not to listen to the leadership in relation to independence – to suggest that this is exclusively, or even primarily, an act of defying Toryism is wide of the mark.
“People’s antipathy to the Tories is very strong here in Scotland”, Miliband stated, as if it was a new discovery. Indeed it is. However, he would be better advised to reflect on Labour’s current position in Scotland and consider the reasons behind the stunning collapse of support for his party in 2011, and Johann Lamont’s inability to transform Scottish Labour into anything like an efficient campaigning unit.
For party members who believe that voting Labour is the ultimate answer to every question, the speech will have been well-received.  But it is not these people that Miliband needs to convince. The truth is that while many will vote for parties at elections for such tactical reasons as preventing a potential Conservative victory, this referendum is not about party loyalty or tribal affiliation – no matter how much Miliband wishes it was. And there are many people who may have been happy to ordinarily vote Labour but in recent years have seen little on the policy front to convince them that Labour is standing up for their interests.
This was an opportunity for Miliband to project his vision – for both Scotland and his party. He could have chosen to take up the social justice theme more comprehensively and put forward a progressive programme of reform. He could have discussed his own preferences for political and constitutional reform following a No vote (if you’re going to break ranks from Better Together, you might as well provide some substance). But instead he opted to suggest that his vision for Scotland was simply to be a means of providing Labour MPs for Westminster, while his view of his party was as a vehicle for keeping the Tories from power. Miliband is grossly misjudging grassroots Labour activists if he believes they desire nothing more than the pursuit of power at the expense of the Tories: has he no recollection of the Blair years?
Rather than deliver a case for the Union - or even a case for voting No, as they are not necessarily inclusive of each other - all Miliband succeeded in doing was to suggest that Labour continues to take Scottish voters for granted. Arguably more worryingly, in pointing to a Westminster Labour government as the the answer to the Scottish Question - whatever that question is - the Labour leader has reinforced the notion of Holyrood being a second-order interest. Scottish voters, more social democratic by inclination than their English counterparts, are important only to facilitate a Labour government of the UK. Labour's self-confessed complacent reliance on Scottish voters - voters who have in recent years showed an unexpected independence of thought - is not an argument for anything other than for overdue reform of the democratic system.  Perhaps Miliband's most serious error of judgement is to assume that those he is attempting to reach out to want a Labour government in Westminster as badly as he does.

In any analysis, his speech fell far short of providing any kind of satisfactory answer as to why those who value social justice should vote No. I would also suggest it asked the question “what is the point of the Labour Party in Scotland?” without providing any kind of answers – or indeed insights into the kind of post-referendum Scotland Labour would like to create.
Miliband looks increasingly like a leader without a message. It may only be a matter of time before he is a leader without a party.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

In the final two's to positivity!

There are now only two weeks to the all-important independence referendum.
Two weeks.
Two weeks left for Scottish voters to determine our country’s future.
Two weeks for the respective campaigns to make their cases.
In two weeks, two and a half years of campaigning will come to a conclusion and we’ll have a result.
I know how I will vote, and anyone who reads my blog will too. I did change my mind at one point – considering not voting at all on account of the divisive campaigning – but it wouldn’t be in my nature not to exercise my democratic right. And so I will vote Yes, for the reasons I’ve given so many times in relation to democracy, accountability and the inability of the pro-Union parties to provide any reassurances that they’re willing to offer anything post-referendum other than some tinkering to devolution. As a federalist, rather than a devolutionist, they’ve given me no reason to vote no. I can’t embrace the status quo, and I can’t place my hope in Labour and the Tories to give us anything approaching the Lib Dem federalist aspiration.
I have to admit at times I’ve been embarrassed by what has passed for a national conversation. I’ve found much of the campaigning to be patronising, offensively simplistic,  disempowering, jingoistic, intellectually dishonest and – sadly – unhelpfully divisive. There can be no escaping either the negative character of much of the campaigning strategy, or the nastiness and intolerance that has, at times, overshadowed the debate. I hoped in 2011 for a civilised but intense debate that would showcase the very best of Scottish politics and inspire the nation; what we’ve had instead is a regurgitation of the same tired, familiar excuses for arguments with the potentially toxic legacy of a divided Scotland.
There has been much said about this negativity. And rightly so. But we must rise above it. Not only the negative campaigning approaches, but the apathy and fear that these actively create. In the final two weeks, we all need to be focused on what is good about this debate, about each other and about Scotland.
It dismays me to see the press reporting on violent or intolerant behaviour on the part of those who support one side or the other. It particularly disturbs me when an irresponsible media are so keen to stereotype supporters of one side as somehow being less civilised and law-abiding than the other – something not helped by politicians using language such as “nationalist thugs”. The focus on the evils of “cybernationalism” and the intolerance often expressed via twitter have unfairly and unreasonably helped to create a myth that such intolerance is rife in Scotland, that it is supported by the official campaigns, that it is widespread and that it has been the defining character of the debate.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Idiots have always thrown eggs at politicians. People have used twitter to insult others since its inception. Some people are internet trolls. Sadly, there will always be some who are just intolerant and obnoxious.
But I’m not standing for any more of the media’s attempts to diminish the humanity of campaigners (especially on the Yes side) and, indirectly, their attempt to dehumanise Scots more generally. The negativity of campaign organisations has often robustly been challenged, but the media are often oblivious to their own role in perpetuating negativity, and the potentially damaging legacy they are helping to create.
While I’ve been critical of the campaigning, and particularly of Better Together, there is a difference between criticising tactics and painting others as inferior. When one of us is diminished, we all are. The disrespectful way in which - in the last few days alone - campaigning has been carried out is both unnecessary and an affront to democratic conversation.

For example, why is there a need to portray Yes campaigners as being aggressive and intolerant, morally inferior to their No counterparts, and - in the words of Willie Rennie, "thugs"? Why the need to attempt to connect Better Together with someone from the Britannia Party who committed a serious assault in Glasgow last weekend? Why the suggestions that an independent Scotland would, on the basis of alleged misdemeanours on the part of Yes activists, be an illiberal society in which criminality would thrive and freedom of expression limited? Does any of this actually empower the electorate?

And what about some of our own Lib Dem campaigners - the same campaigners who argue the need for "a fair, free and open which none shall be enslaved by...conformity" - who simultaneously refer to those who think differently as "traitors" (in spite of condemning SNP members for using the same language), who describe Yes voters in their own party as "beyond the pale", or suggest that any Liberal Democrat voting Yes must, by nature, be disloyal and illiberal. This has regrettably happened all too often; most upsetting isn't the individual insult but the self-delusion of people who lack the insight to recognise they are suppressing what they purportedly believe in. I'm not suggesting this is typical of the majority, but by the same token we have no right to claim the moral high ground.

The behaviour of the media has at times been contemptible - far more so than that of campaigners. The media represent yet another group who lack the insight to recognise their inherent hypocrisy. 

And yet...while the negativity, the character assassination, the ridiculous stereotyping, the socially irresponsible media, the potential for further dividing society, the toxic language, the intolerance and the reduction of complex arguments to glib simplicities are all very real, focusing on them misses the bigger picture.  Because for every vicious cybernat there are 1,000 decent people on twitter exchanging their views in a frank but respectful way. For every Yes supporter who jeers Jim Murphy, there are countless others who would rather take their message door-to-door, engaging freely with voters in a civilised fashion. For every bombastic, provocative parliamentarian there are thousands of amiable, winsome and deeply human people campaigning on each side - simply hoping to do their best to secure the best possible future for Scotland.

There are so many more positives...not least that we actually have this referendum (I defy even the most ardent unionist to deny the positivity in that). Then there are the sheer number of people who are engaged, and who have been engaged with - there have been far more activists in this campaign that in any recent election in Scotland, far more communities touched, so many more conversations had. And despite the media obsession with the unbecoming behaviour of a tiny minority, for the most part this debate has been conducted respectfully, often in village halls, schools, pubs or people's living rooms - debates that may sometimes be as fierce as they are serious but which, inevitably, are characterised by warmth and deference.

Having looked closer, I don't see what the media are reporting. Or rather, I see more than they do. I'm not buying into the lie that Yes campaigners are a bunch of immoral, thuggish and ignorant bullies. I'm not accepting that No voters are unpatriotic, traitorous or paralysed by fear. What I see are many people doing what they think is in their country's interests, with many others trying to make sense of the complex and sometimes conflicting information to arrive at the right decision. I see people struggling with their consciences because they understand the significance of the vote - only yesterday I heard of an 85 year-old Lib Dem who, for the first time in her life and with a heavy heart, is voting "against" her party. I see young people, voting for the first time, who have developed an infectious desire for political action. I see people living in hope of a better tomorrow. I see people taking pride in how they're voting. I feel a Scotland that is alive in anticipation and expectation. I know I live in an increasingly open, welcoming and inclusive Scotland, rather than one which is as inherently intolerant as some would have us believe

Sure, I don't like Alex Salmond's style. And I agree that Better Together organisationally has been shambolically amateurish. But look beyond them, and you'll see ordinary people making extraordinary contributions. We should show them respect. Our democracy depends on such people.

The campaigning has not been all that it could be. That much is regrettable, and I hope we are all able to live with each other after 18th September given some of the poisonous and divisive rhetoric that has been dishonestly passed off as political discourse. But this referendum is not about the campaign groups. Neither is it about political parties, nor the media. It is about Scottish people, deciding on the future of Scotland.

I hope we can all embrace positivity in the final days before the vote - and, in the immortal words of Bill and Ted - I hope we can all "be excellent to each other". Here's to a final 14 days of exhilarating, energised, impassioned and courteous campaigning!

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Friday, 29 August 2014

Jim Murphy halts speaking tour - a calculated over-reaction?

It has been announced that Labour MP Jim Murphy has cancelled his pro-Union 100 Towns in 100 Days tour of Scotland due to "intimidation".

Murphy has been taking his message around Scottish towns for the last few weeks, in jingositic fashion replacing the traditional soapbox with a Irn Bru crate.

Yesterday, while addressing the public in Kirkcaldy, Murphy was hit by three eggs. A photographer was also threatened, on account of "being English".

This should not be welcome in Scottish politics. Throwing eggs and threatening is hardly the hallmark of a healthy democracy.

Murphy told The Guardian: "What is happening is that the yes campaign is now organising to create a mob atmosphere at our street meetings. It's co-ordinated, it's determined and it's increasingly aggressive. What started as individual passionate nationalists having their say has changed into angry mobs of nationalists coming along and making sure that no one else has their say... instead of undecided voters being encouraged to stop and take part in the debate, those who ask genuine questions are being interrogated by yes campaigners."

It is an inescapable fact that the campaigning has often been less respectful that it could be. One the the first influences in determining my own decision to vote yes was a cartoon from my own party blackening up the First Minister. And we've experienced much worse since then, from both sides - and from none.  it should be pointed out that individuals who feel strongly about issues do not necessarily belong formally to any of the rival campaign organisations.

The scenes yesterday were ugly, that much is true. But uglier still, from the viewpoint of furthering Scottish democracy, has been the attempt by Better Together to suggest that Yes Scotland have co-ordinated such attacks intentionally, and that such tactics demonstrate the undemocratic nature of what Scotland would look like if independent. The smears are no more civilised that the egg-hurling, but the difference is that those making accusations of Yes Scotland, and drawing unreasonable conclusions, are either officials of Better Together or people who I would normally credit with sufficient intelligence to appreciate that the actions of a tiny minority have little relation to the attitudes of the majority. It's disturbing to see some buying into the myth that the idiotic antics of a few are suggestive of the nature of an independent Scotland. (I'd probably point out that, in any case, cultures and societal attitudes are generally not determined by constitutional arrangements, and that the same intolerant persons would still be here regardless of the outcome of the vote.)

We could all look at a picture of the Westboro Baptist Church, with their hate-filled slogans written on poorly constructed banners, and think "stupid Americans" or "typical Christians". But in doing so we would, by resorting to such ridiculous simplicities, miss the bigger picture and the actions of the many in America and within the church who are working to facilitate a more inclusive society. The same is true in Scotland. There have been individuals supporting both Yes Scotland and Better Together who have behaved shamefully, but the respective campaigns (for all the shortcomings I've often documented on this blog) are not actively encouraging mob rule. 

It must be said that this kind of thing is not exactly new to British politics. In the 1992 General Election, John Major took to the streets. Hounded everywhere by Labour supporters (who behaved in much the same way as Murphy's detractors; hecking, shouting over him and generally making a nuisance of themselves) he too was hit by a well-aimed egg. His response, showing courage in the face of intimidation, ("I will not be shouted off the streets") helped win him the 1992 election. Stunts like this are usually counter-productive, and usually only succeed in gaining public sympathy for the target.

Murphy understands this fully, and has the political nous to use it fully to his advantage. For all the talk of police concern for Murphy's safety, the scenes in Kirkcaldy were no worse than previous attacks on politicians - and certainly not as concerning as the attack on John Prescott in Hull in 2001. Are the Yes supporters, for all their noise and bluster, really any worse than the Labour supporting mobs who followed the Tories around in the 1980s and 1990s?

Murphy thrives on conflict and the adversarial. He's a hugely provocative figure. His personal style and outspoken nature means he will always be the kind of politician targeted by mobs. But he's a man of tremendous strength, and the notion that he's the kind of person likely to be intimidated is laughable. He does understand, however, the value of playing the victim and painting his opposition as tolerant of underhand and intimidatory tactics.

It's important to maintain a sense of perspective and not to deduce too much significance from the fact that some people, irrespective of their political tribe, behave disrespectfully towards others. Hecklers have been a common feature of political discourse for centuries and actually are the sign of a healthy and thriving democracy. During the 2011 election campaign, as a candidate for Renfrewshire North and West, I attended a TUC hustings meeting at which there was both a healthy level of interjection and banter from the floor and a regrettable tendency by some to attempt to bully SNP candidate Derek Mackay. I'm not opposed to those who don't share Murphy's views challenging them in the most public of public forums, although there should never be a need for dissent to be expressed in uncivil ways. It appears that lines have been crossed, but to draw unfair conclusions about Yes Scotland and to overstate the security threat is an irresponsible over-reaction - albeit one that has undoubtedly been cynically calculated.

Willie Rennie claims that this shows the need to "stand up to the nationalist thugs". It does not. It shows the need to stand up for a better way of doing politics. He could, and should, have used more temperate language. I have only once experienced seriously thuggish behaviour - when I was my brother's agent in Blackburn in local elections that were essentially an straight BNP v Labour battle. The respective campaigns, and the inevitable animosity (culminating in brawls, allegations of voter intimidation and a ballot box somehow going on fire), were so poisonous as to make the worst cybernat appear positively tolerant by comparison. It does Willie little credit to resort to such loaded statements, when he could very easily have called for calm, reasonable and respectful conduct from all sides.

Hopefully Murphy's tour will continue in a few days' time, when the police accept he isn't being targeted by seasoned terrorists; I also trust that Yes Scotland will distance itself from the extreme behaviour of a few of its more vocal supporters. This action from the Yes camp is, in my view, vitally important to rebut the claims being made by Better Together and Murphy personally. Perhaps then we'll remember Jim Murphy in the same way as Brian Mawhinney, Ed Miliband, John Prescott and David Cameron - just another politician who's had an egg thrown at them.

It could have been worse. At least it wasn't blue paint...