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Saturday, 6 June 2015

"Which one is Acker Bilk?"

In the mid-1980s Acker and his band were playing at a civic reception in the splendid surroundings of the Glasgow City Chambers. I was there as guest of of a director of my company who had some of the unwordly traits of a High Court judge when it came to popular culture. As we danced with our partners past the bandstand where Acker, resplendent in bowler and waistcoat, was playing "Stranger on the Shore", my colleague looked up, then said to me in a loud voice "Which one is Acker Bilk?"

Acker, who could display a merciless and mordant wit on such occasions, was constrained by the clarinet in his mouth, but he looked down with an expression that defied description but said everything, eyebrows raised so far that he almost knocked his bowler hat off.

Acker was a genuine original, as a player and as a human being. The closest parallel to him for me was the American clarinettist Peewee Russell, who played in the same jazz tradition with a unique tone, and had the same ability to cross musical boundaries and elicit respect from musicians of different generations and musical styles. I close with Acker's response to a query on what he thought of Andrew Lloyd Webber - "Superstar? Jesus Christ ..."

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Full fiscal Autonomy - and all that stuff ...

Full fiscal autonomy (FFA) – or as SNP would now have it, full fiscal responsibility (FFR) is now the Westminster unionist politician’s favourite topic with which to bait SNP MPs. In this, they are ably assisted by the media, with The Daily Politics’ Andrew Neil and Jo Coburn acting as straight man/woman to the likes of a sneering, sniggering Michael Forsyth, as in this clip.

It never seems to have entered their heads to have a look at what it means, or more specifically, what it meant in the context of the independence referendum and what it means now in the context of a NO win on  September 18th 2014, the Smith Commission proposals and the SNP’s astonishing electoral triumph in the general election on May 7th 2015.

But why do the hard thinking and the hard work when it’s more fun to assist Westminster unionists - especially failed Scottish politicians who are now unelected Lords - to giggle and gurn, shouting “Cowardy custard! You wanted it in 2011 through to 2014 – you wanted it after The Vow. Had you won the Referendum, you claimed you would have been fully independent on March 24th 2016. Why don’t you want it now, immediately! When do you want it? Tell us, tell us …”

Let me do the work for them – unpaid and unsung as always – offering a service to democracy and to rich media pundits, sundry Lords and politicians, a gift from a simple old Scottish voter, a humble Glesca slum boy – pause to brush away a sentimental tear … (VOICE OFF: “Oh, **** off, Peter!”)


Independence confers full fiscal autonomy automatically – well, it would, wouldn’t it? But what is it?

Had we (the YES component of Scotland’s electorate) won the referendum, it would have come with everything else that full independence brings – full autonomy on every aspect of the governance of Scotland, with all the benefits and risks that independence brings.

The nub of the present argument and the childish Bullingdon Boys farce being enacted in a forum near you hinges on a key question – asked superficially but without any wish to receive a detailed answer. The question is -

What is the difference between full fiscal autonomy as it would have resulted from a YES vote in September 2014 and full fiscal autonomy in the June 2015 context of a historical NO vote and and SNP landslide on May 7th 2015?

What is it? It’s setting and raising our own taxes – all of them – and spending the money thus raised as we see fit.

In the context of the independence referendum - and the context of the Scottish, UK, European and global economy circa Sept 2014 - had we won a YES vote, negotiations – wide-ranging, complex negotiations on every aspect of Scotland independence, including fiscal autonomy would have commenced, with both rUk and Scottish negotiating teams, backed by experts and advisors from the civil service and academia, bargaining on a huge range on inter-locking and inter-dependent issues, defining the nature of the post-independence relationship between Scotland and rUK and, after a heads of agreement was reached in April/May 2016, then devising complex plans to implement that negotiated agreement.

By definition, those plans and their implementation processes (although realistically the Treasury and the Civil Service would have to some degree prepared the ground in parallel with the negotiations) could not have properly started until final agreement was reached in the spring of 2016. The full implementation of the plans would continue for possibly years after Independence Day 24th March 2016.

Of course, bang in the middle of those negotiations, we would have had the general election campaign of April/May 2015, with Parliament prorogued, no government, and major, unpredictable – and a badly predicted(!) outcome.

But we would have dealt with it. After all, countries declare UDI, gain independence by bloody or velvet  revolutions or other means,  still manage to survive - so we’d have been OK, even with the oil price collapse. We’d have had a currency union or we wouldn’t, and then have had our own currency under one of  the Fiscal Commission viable alternative options – plans B,C,D and E of blessed memory – which may well still be relevant after 2016!

What’s different now, in June 2015? Well, even to a boneheaded or disingenuous unionist anxious to make a superficial point, there are three key differences -

1. We lost the Referendum, and FFA would not be implemented in the context of Scotland being an independent nation.

2. It’s not 2011 or even 2014 – the economic situation and the global economy has changed – crude oil price have nosedived, a EU Referendum looms, with Brexit as possibility.

3. The general election result was predicted by no one, and Scotland is a dramatically different place politically than in September 2014.

In other words, Scotland, the UK, Europe and the world have changed, and only fools hang on to plans that events have made out-dated. So what does FFA mean in the June 2015 context?

FFA post-June 2015 – implementation and timeframe

Instead of getting the  block grant (the proportion of our taxes UK deigns to return to us) from the UK Exchequer as at present, the Scottish Parliament would receive all taxation levied in Scotland and be responsible for most of its spending in accordance with its own priorities.

Scotland would pay  to the UK government Scotland's share of the cost of providing defined UK-wide services, including defence spending and conduct of foreign affairs. In other words, it would be Scottish fiscal autonomy, but not full political independence. It would still be controlled by rUK in significant areas.

That would involve a negotiating agenda with significantly different priorities from the same negotiations as part of an independence mandate, as would have been the case in a different outcome to September 18th 2014 – and those negotiations would have had radically different dynamics even if the economic situation, the global economy and the price of crude oil had remained the same or risen.

So even if the new Tory government, with their shaky majority and divided party and confusion over Brexit, human rights and immigration policy, were to offer full fiscal autonomy tomorrow, there would have to be a lengthy period of negotiation about the exact nature of its terms and  implementation.

Of course they have no intention of doing any such thing, and while it’s tempting to call their bluff and say “We’ll have it, right now, thank you ..”, that would be a nonsensical response, and just about as infantile as the wee Laird o’ Drumlean’s schoolboy posturing on Daily Politics today.

So away and birl in yer kilt, Michael Forsyth, and if ye birl fast enough, yer wee heid might wind up in that portion of yer anatomy where it’s best fitted tae be,  oot o’ mischief’s way …

Friday, 22 May 2015

What if ……?

We won a landslide victory, gaining 56 seat out of 59 , almost 95% of the Westminster Scottish seats. The three main unionist parties are each reduced to a token single member in the Commons. This is unprecedented, and the benefits are very tangible indeed.

Westminster benefits of having 56 SNP MPs

Scottish National Party will chair the UK Parliament’s Energy and Climate Change Select Committee and Scottish Affairs Select Committee. However, there were earlier indications that Tories and Labour will attempt to abolish the Scottish Affairs Committee.

The party will be entitled to £6 million over the next Parliament because it took so many seats in the election. It will receive between £1 and £1.2 million from the Treasury each year in what is known as short money.

The GE2015 landslide vote is not a mandate for a referendum” NICOLA

If more than 50% of the electorate voting for a party committed to independence get 94.9% of the seats for their country is not a virtual mandate for independence, what would be?

(I covered some possibilities in my May 1st blog before the election.)

Nicola's argument, quite deliberately, rather dances round this key point, by saying that some very significant event or events - e.g. BREXIT - the exit of UK from the EU - would be required to reactivate the question of a referendum. She rests her assertion on the related facts that 

1) the manifesto did not commit to a referendum and did not make independence a core issue, and

2) a proportion of the electorate voting SNP (unknown) must have included voters who voted NO in the 2014 referendum and still firmly wish to remain part of UK

That group had every right to vote in the belief that, although they were voting for a party whose core long-term objective is independence, the Scottish electorate firmly rejected independence on September 18th 2014 and the SNP accepted that democratic result, and both the former and the current First Ministers had expressed personal views that there would be no referendum in a generation, however one defines that. But those views were personal, albeit widely shared, and they could not bind the people of Scotland, as both Nicola and Alex Salmond have subsequently stated.

NICOLA “The People decide

Although Nicola is right to say that, democratically, the people decide on independence in a referendum, their ability to do so only comes if the independence party they support explicitly commits to independence during the lifetime of the Scottish Parliament - if elected - in their manifesto before the 2016 election. (The People, in practice, decide very little, except at the ballot box, and once in a while, during revolutions!)

In other words, if  Nicola and the Party place such a commitment in the 2016 Holyrood manifesto and win decisively, the aggregate case for an independence referendum would be well-nigh unanswerable.

She won't, because whatever these figure say about a mandate to call a referendum, there is no certainty that she would win. Alex Salmond,  a risk-taker and a gambler, took the political gamble in the 2011 manifesto - and was right to do so. The risk is huge – another NO vote would kill independence aspirations stone dead – or lead to something that no one would care to predict …

We came close to winning. But Nicola is not a political gambler: she will only take carefully judged risks with a high chance of success in the light of the previous failure. She will seek to get more powers, something close to federalism, and will postpone independence till Scotland is independent in all but defence and foreign affairs.

The $64,000 question is - will the SNP’s massive membership permit the Party to exclude such a commitment from the 2016 manifesto or will they pass branch resolutions demanding one?

Nicola's authority and popularity are at their very peak right now, but another mood may develop which, while retaining respect for her and her authority, begins to lose the fan/celebrity awe – a mood in which members are prepared to constructively flex  branch muscles, and democratically question strategy.  That, after all, is how party democracy is supposed to operate.

Will it happen? Who knows? Despite the massive membership, as any Branch Chair or Secretary knows, at any given time only a small minority of members are actively committed to attending branch meetings and influencing branch democracy. But in the SNP, on key decisions, the entire branch can vote online or by post, as for example on the selection of candidates for election.

Additionally and perhaps crucially, there are still campaigning organisations out there committed to independence who are not necessarily SNP supporters or members, e.g. Radical Independence, Common Weal, the Scottish Socialist Party, and party politically unaligned activists and voters, and also supporters and members of nominally unionist parties who nonetheless may support full independence or devomax or federalism within UK.

Depending how event unfold in the next 11 months, and dependent on how Scottish Labourand its ousted MPs – re-group and re-define themselves, all sorts of possibilities exist.

And of course, there are the trades unions, the STUC and campaigning groups within them, not to mention a number of groups who campaigned for YES banner under a variety of identities.

What we have is an unprecedented and varied mass movement - a mass engagement of the Scottish electorate, with its own hydra-headed structure, united by a core desire for political change in Scotland, but with significantly different views of what it should be and how it should be brought about.

Those who wonder how it will behave in the post-referendum, post-GE2015 phase we are in now, in the 11-month lead-up to the 2016 Parliamentary election might find illumination – or cause for alarm – in Eric Hoffer’s unique 1951 book The True Believer

Interesting times …

Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom–Ed or David?

Important message on the continuity of the State during a political hiatus made here. (The role of the State as opposed to the Government is not well understood by the electorate).

But the real insight into the mindset of the bewildered British Establishment comes from The Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, distinguished historian, not a typical member of the British Establishment but assimilated effortlessly by it.

"Specifically, the northerly wind coming from Scotland .. we haven't really caught up with the way that that northerly wind is the weather maker ... It could produce a lot of resentment on the part of the English, who would feel that we are 80% of the country, we have 80% of the economic activity and we have this endless drizzle of complaint from north of the Cheviots."

Although Lord Hennessy puts these words in the mouths of the English electorate, he chose them. One gets the feeling he stopped just short of saying "north of Hadrian's Wall" and that his choice of words, "drizzle of complaint" etc. reflects his view and those of his class.

In response to Marr saying that either Ed Miliband or David Cameron could be the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, he responds

"I find that very difficult to contemplate - but you could be right."

He's astonished that "this most stable of political societies - where you have the occasional domestic row, really -  where liberal capitalism jostled with social democracy as the basis of the electoral contest - would be so complicated that we'd even be contemplating the last Prime Minister of the UK. What have we done to ourselves?"

Lord Hennessy demonstrated by his utter insular bewilderment the dictum, often quoted by Sir Tom Devine, another distinguished historian, that a historian's province is the past, not the present or the future, and that his insular southern bubble view of this disunited kingdom is badly out of date, and has been for a very long time indeed.

Friday, 1 May 2015

SNP 2016 manifesto and a second referendum – that is the question

It’s not on SNP’s agenda, it’s not on Nicola’s agenda, but it’s sure as hell is on the general election debate agenda, because the three main UK party leaders put it there. By using the question of a second Scottish independence referendum as an expedient political football, they have managed to score three own goals -

1. They’ve triggered a UK-wide debate on the independence question, a question that was at best dormant as Scots focused on trying to make UK democracy work for them after the Nationalists after lost the 2014 referendum.

2. They’ve effectively questioned the democratic right of Scots to vote for the party of their choice in a UK election.

3. They’ve catalysed English nationalism, and highlighted the political differences between Scotland and England at the very time they should have been emphasising what unites them.

The 2014 Referendum

The SNP, while reiterating its over-arching objective of independence for Scotland, did not commit to a referendum in its 2007 manifesto. During the four year life of that minority government, despite repeated “bring it on” challenges from Wendy Alexander, Alex Salmond did not set a date for a referendum or call for one, concentrating instead on the high-wire act of running the country as a minority government.

But as the 2011 Holyrood election approached, the strategy changed, and the manifesto included this explicit commitment, if elected, to a referendum bill during the lifetime of the 2011-2016 Parliament, later specified as in the second half of the term.


Now, what determined this decision in go for it? Was it a great, popular demand from Scots for a second referendum? Was it a landslide victory in 2007 conferring legitimacy? Was it the outcome of a consultation exercise with the Scottish electorate?

None of these things.  There was no YES campaign, no dynamic grassroots organisation of activists as yet. The 2007 win was narrow, and had shown the possibility of a nationalist government, a giant step in itself, but not a mandate for independence. The national conversation and consultation was in the future, and the great debate on the second question had yet to come. The will of the Scottish people, now much in the mouths of politicians, was anything but clear.

So the decision to go to the electorate with an explicit manifesto commitment to calling an independence referendum if elected was not driven by “the will of the Scottish people” but by a brave political calculation allied to a wish to make it clear to Scots that, if they voted SNP again. they were voting for a government  that was committed to offering them a legal referendum and a democratic choice over Scotland’s future somewhere around late 2013 to mid-2014. (In the event it was September 2014.)

The landslide victory of 2011 on this manifesto could not be interpreted as a mandate for independence, but it undoubtedly was a mandate to offer the people a democratic choice.

On the face of it, therefore, a similar political calculation could be made in drawing up the 2016 manifesto, with considerably more justification – a huge membership, a powerful grassroots organisation and possibly an unprecedented number of MPs elected to Westminster, an outcome that for years unionists repeatedly accepted would be a definitive expression of the will of the Scottish people because they thought it would never happen.

But Nicola Sturgeon, the most powerful and charismatic popular leader the SNP has ever had, now a national and international political figure, backed by a huge party membership, clearly has no such intent – and explicitly rejects the argument that a large bloc of SNP MPs returned to Westminster on May 8th would constitute an argument for independence or a mandate for a second referendum.

Why is this formidable and popular Nationalist politician adopting such a stance?

The answer lies squarely in the fact that there was a referendum in 2014 and we lost it. The Scottish electorate democratically rejected independence, and crying “We wuz robbed!” doesn’t alter that fact.

Nicola believed in 2014, Alex Salmond believed in 2014, (I believed in 2014!) most independence supporters believed in 2014 and most anti-independence supporters believed in 2014 that this was it – our one big chance for, if not a generation, for a helluva long time.

She recognises that, while nationalists feel a great sense of betrayal over the outcome of the referendum, given the sordid way in which the UK Government, the unionist media and Better Together conducted themselves during the campaign, Scots who voted for the Union – a majority – would feel a great sense of betrayal if they were asked to vote again on the question.

In that context, and the context that the independence movement has achieved more since losing the referendum than they did before it, I think Nicola and the SNP strategists have judged that the gradualism of the movement towards greater self-determination for Scotland is a safer bet than another throw of the dice.

Is she right? Are they right?

My answer is probably yes – and I trust her judgement absolutely over my own limited perspective as a voter.

But – and it’s a big but – I’m not sure that position can hold in the face of events changing at exponential speed: politicians do not control events – they respond dynamically to them.

Let’s get this election over, evaluate the outcome and the UK parties responses to it. Let’s give it a chance to work. Big things are at stake, big immediate issues, Trident renewal, austerity, the desperate need for investment to kick start the economy.

It’s a long, long way from May 2015 to May 2016. We have time on our side, and Nicola on our side. Let her play the ball – she has done it superbly so far, and her best days have still to come.

Vote SNP and put your faith in our party leader and Scotland’s First Minister to do the right thing –because doing the right thing is always the right thing to do!