Friday, August 28, 2009

The Independence Impact - On Everyone Else

SI column time again... this time, considering the impact that Scottish Independence would have on the rest of the UK - the theme of a foray I made down to London last weekend, to address the SNP's London branch alongside some august intellectual company...

We all have our own arguments about what Independence would mean for Scotland. In the SNP, it's rare to find a point of view falling short of it being a good thing in every conceivable respect. However, there's one rather significant side-effect of independence which we often overlook – the impact it would have on our nearest neighbours.

Scotland going her own way requires us to establish the identity of a Scottish state and to obtain international recognition. It's often forgotten amidst the spurious claims of isolation which arise from this that the rest of the UK, or rUK, would find itself in a completely new position as well, with the idea that all continues as before left open to serious challenge.

First of all, let's follow the money, or perhaps even the lack of it. The UK national debt is set to reach £1.4tr over the next five years – something which Scotland will have to take its share of. However, with independence, what remains of the UK will have lost 8.5% of its population and nearly 10% of its tax revenues. It will also lose a large proportion of one of the UK's most obvious economic assets – North Sea oil and gas

Potentially, that is eyebrow raising stuff for the markets, leading to the prospect that rUK credit status may be downgraded. There's no reason why, handled sensibly, this should of itself be a huge problem. However, it carries with it the hint of the prisoners' dilemma – the optimum position is for Scotland and rUK to co-operate and emphasise continuity, but it one side 'defaults', for example, by rehashing previous spats about who subsidises who, it potentially leaves both sides in a poorer position in the eyes of the markets.

The creation of a new tax regime north of the border also creates a dilemma for the rUK Chancellor. As an English speaking country with a well educated population, fully integrated into EU law with good transport links and a well developed market in professional and legal services, Scotland is an attractive place to do business. Every change in the Scottish tax code which gives Scotland a potential advantage will, as with the Irish Government guaranteeing savers deposits in the early days of the banking crisis, put great pressure on the UK Government to follow suit.

But if the economic impact is potentially significant, the military impact is huge. Trident is the UK's main expression of military geo-political power and rUK could certainly afford to maintain son of Trident if it chose. Indeed, it might feel that doing so was necessary to maintain status as a world, rather than a mere regional power. However, rUK would face an immediate difficulty in the event of independence, since the deep water submarine base and armaments depot necessary for its operation would henceforth be based in a foreign country hostile to their presence.

A lack of access to these facilities would be even more debilitating to the integrity of the Trident 'deterrent' than any withdrawal of US support for the system. The facilities at Faslane and Coulport would take years to replace elsewhere, but even then, where could they go? And where would they be welcome? As such, it's not beyond the realms of possibility that independence would also mean the end of an independent UK nuclear deterrent.

Then there is the loss of Scottish service personnel to UK forces. While Scottish Defence Forces would undoubtedly find themselves serving alongside those of rUK from time to time, it is inconceivable that they would be used, as they have been in the recent past, in operations such as those in Iraq. With the UK already stretched, if Scotland's conventional military capabilities were to be lost, rUK would find it impossible to fulfill its present commitments.

All of this would have a diplomatic impact. Nuclear weapons or not, the inevitable consequence of a reduced military capability and ability to deploy it would be a diminished status internationally. At the UN Security Council, it would become increasingly hard to justify continued rUK presence in the permanent 5, particularly when a nuclear armed Indian democracy of 800m sits outside. Although it would be fiercely resisted by the French, pressure may build to have a single European seat, or at the very least expand the number of permanent members.

Then we come to Europe, and votes in the European Parliament and Council of Ministers (CoM). Scotland would see an increase in her number of MEPs, and would for the first time gain representation at CoM level. The impact is on rUK, which given a population loss of 5m, would snap into sharp focus the fact that Germany with a population of 80m would still have the same number of votes as rUK, on 55m.

One solution might be to increase the weight of German votes, although this would likely be unacceptable to the French. Accordingly, the most likely option would be to see a reduction in rUK voting power to the same number of CoM votes as Spain – something which, strange but true, would see Scotland and rUK with a stronger combined influence than the UK at presence.

But how much does this really affect England, Wales and Northern Ireland, rather than a British political class which boasts endlessly of 'special relationships' and 'punching above our weight'? Without Scotland, many of the traditional ties for Northern Irish unionists to the UK become less meaningful. Wales, which frequently looks to Scotland politically, would see that the British state was not indivisible, and may perhaps decide that the 'full national status' accorded to Scotland and advocated by Plaid Cymru is something both attainable and desirable after all.

So whither England, when so much of English identity has been tied up in 'Britishness' for the last 3 centuries? If we Scots seem further down the road to resolving outstanding issues of politics and identity in the world, it's probably because we've been obsessing about it for far longer. England, once de-colonised from the British State, can see a progressive, civic identity emerge, which is able to reflect itself politically and sit comfortably alongside the emerging independence of Scotland and Wales. A nation, hopefully, at ease with itself and its inhabitants, and able to look confidently to the future, without feeling diminished by contrasts with the past.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Megrahi - The Aftermath

Busy week and busy weekend, hence the recent radio silence. However, I can't let the events of the past few days pass without comment.

I remember vividly the night that Pan-Am Flight 103 came down, and like everyone, the horror of that evening lives with me still. In the years which have passed since, I​'ve come to admire the great dignity, persistence and vigour with which representatives of the relatives, particularly Dr Jim Swire, have conducted themselves. However, following Megrahi's diagnosis and prognosis, Kenny MacAskill had 4 choices open to him – just as any Justice Secretary of any party would:

1.Leave Megrahi to die in Greenock Prison.
2.Send him home to Libya under the Prisoner Transfer Agreement negotiated by Tony Blair.
3.Place him in secure custody in a safe house or hospice in Scotland.
4.Grant him compassionate release.

The Scottish Prison Service is not well placed to provide the palliative care which we are told Megrahi now needs. As such, option 1 was not a choice which could be described as humane, compassionate or realistic, at least by any code of ethics or morality with which I'm familiar.

The US Government had made plain its implacable opposition to prisoner transfer – given the UK Government's apparent reluctance to confirm or deny what, if any, understandings were in effect with the Lybian and US Governments regarding this, it easy to see why this was a less attractive option than either 3 or 4.

After seeking guidance from Strathclyde Police, it became clear that a minimum of 48 police officers would have been needed to provide adequate security were Mr Megrahi to leave prison custody but remain in Scotland. This would be impractical enough for any safe house option, but completely inappropriate in the context of a hospice where other patients expect to be able to die with dignity in the company of their closest relatives. As such, it was in my view rightly dismissed, which left compassionate release as the best and most humane option.

With dreary predictability, the charge of naivety has been thrown around liberally, particularly in the aftermath of Megrahi's welcome home. This is self-serving nonsense, for whatever you think of the decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds, the rightness or wrongness of that decision is not affected in any way by the manner in which he was received back in Lybia, however inappropriate we regard that welcome to have been.

I don't envy the position which Kenny MacAskill found himself in. However, genuine naivety is to pretend that any of the other three choice open to him could have been made without consequences. In particular, it would have been na├»ve to allow Megrahi to return to Lybia under the prisoner transfer agreement – the UK Government's favoured option – only perhaps to see the Lybian Government release him themselves. Far better, then, to release him ourselves from his sentence in view of his medical condition and likely life expectancy.

This was not, as some have claimed, about trying to make a play on the international stage. Rather, it was a temporary overlap between the sphere of international relations and the Scottish legal system, the likes of which we will be very unlikely to ever see again under devolution in its present form. It was inevitable that post-devolution, the decision would find its way into the in tray of a Scottish justice minister at some point.

In terms of political response, the muted criticisms from President Obama and Hilary Clinton were to be expected – they could hardly be expected to say nothing, after all. At home, David Cameron succeeded only in further burnishing his credentials as an opportunistic lightweight. From the likes of Tory MP Daniel Kadjinsky, on Radio Scotland yesterday evening, we hear nothing of greater lasting substance than the plaintive ululations of a post-asteroid dinosaur, not long for Scottish political ecology. And from the other main party leaders in Holyrood, in the words of yesterday's Scotsman editorial [no recent friend of the SNP administration], we saw accusations of opposition “behaviour which was less to do with principle and was more influenced by party political point scoring.”

As squabbles go, it's been all very Scottish – depressingly so - but domestic opinion appears to be hardening in favour of MacAskill's decision – something which I'll bet has only been quickened by some of the less temperate responses we've seen to date. Pride isn't a word I'm wont to use in this case. However, I'm certainly pleased that expedience was rejected in favour of principle, and that we have a justice system in Scotland that whatever its flaws, recognises that justice differs from vengeance, and which can rise above our baser instincts to leave room for compassion, even to those who have shown none for their victims.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

S&I Elsewhere - waleshome.org

I have a new article up on the excellent waleshome.org site. Please go and take a look.

Beginning To Take Notice

Sat 15 Aug 2009 By Richard Thomson

For as long as anyone can remember, the devolution debate in Wales has been towed along by developments in Scotland. But that is changing, and Wales might now set the pace of reform...


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Murphy's Flaw

Another SI article. What is the point of the Secretary of State these days, except to get in the way? And with his 'activist' approach, will Jim Murphy set an example to any incoming Tory government, thereby marking him out as the midwife of independence?


For students of post-devolution politics, the position of Secretary of State for Scotland is something of a conundrum. With Ministers now accountable to a Scottish Parliament, does Scotland need a territorial minister in the Cabinet any longer? More to the point, if the position didn't already exist, would anyone now bother to invent it?

In days past, the Scottish Secretary was the de-facto Prime Minister of Scotland – the Governor-General minus the feather-plumed hat. With devolution, Scottish Office staff were transferred to the Scottish Executive, leaving the Secretary of State without an empire and in search of a role. It created a political impotence which has been reflected in the chest-beating we've seen from Dover House ever since.

As time progressed it became obvious how little of the role was left. Helen Liddell famously found the position so undemanding that she had time to take French lessons. Alastair Darling and Douglas Alexander held the job alongside the Transport brief, while Des Brown juggled it with Defence. It is only with the accession of Jim Murphy that the position has again been given Cabinet status.

Constitutionally, Murphy's job is to represent Scotland in the Cabinet and to administer the block grant, topslicing the costs of his Scotland Office before passing the rest on to St Andrews House. Yet despite this diminished role, the size of the department has increased dramatically since 1999. From having just 20 employees in 2000, it now has over 60 today, and a budget which has ballooned from £3.7m in 1999 to £7.2m in 2009.

His department has issued just over 100 press releases since the start of the year, mostly welcoming initiatives taken by other departments, or announcing that he had appeared in Parliament to fulfill his responsibilities. Yet if this seems languid, it still marks him out as hyperactive in contrast to his recent predecessors.

While the propaganda machine might be in full flow, the more important functions seem to fall by the wayside. Not a peep was heard when the Chancellor imposed his recent increase in spirit duties. £1bn of Westminster cuts are obscured with spurious attacks on the SNP for poor macroeconomic outcomes in Scotland over which the Scottish Government, through Labour's own design, has little control anyway. The role he's created seems to be that of Labour PR man, rather than any kind of useful ally for the Scottish interest at Westminster.

With their Joint Ministerial Committees and 'compacts', Labour quite sensibly envisaged that direct links between Scottish and Whitehall Ministers would be the norm. Even as these structures fell into abeyance through the use of informal party networks, no significant liaison role was ever envisaged for the Secretary of State. Yet it is in this role that Murphy tries to portray himself as the great conciliator, inevitably in the context of mediating between an exasperated Whitehall and a supposedly fight-picking SNP Government.

Recently, he presented himself as having brokered a meeting between John Swinney and the Treasury over how a replacement Forth Bridge might be funded, despite the meeting having been arranged without his help. While others got on with working out how the bridge might be funded, Jim was busy spinning glory for himself from an inconclusive outcome while casting slights on the Scottish Government for the supposed shortcomings in its approach.

It's a tactic best described as pouring oil on troubled waters before trying to set fire to it. If he was a footballer, he'd be the one constantly pulling your jersey, before throwing himself to the ground in theatrical agony and complaining to the referee that he didn't get a free kick for his troubles. Which takes us to the heart of his new role – that of effective leader of the opposition in Scotland.

Labour in Holyrood has been utterly inept since the SNP's 2007 victory, with successive leaders failing to land a glove on a popular administration. It's debatable whether the next Labour First Minister is even elected yet to Holyrood. Lacking anyone with the talent to discomfit an assured SNP, it's fallen to Murphy to try and take up the job.

Even though he gets a free run from a press corps bored with a narrative of SNP success, he's running out of time, since his position depends not on Labour's performance in Scotland, but rather its performance UK-wide. Even if he holds his seat at the general election, unless Gordon Brown can effect a Lazarus-style political resurrection, it'll likely be David Cameron who appoints the next Secretary of State for Scotland. While Labour's ultra-unionists might not be too dismayed at that prospect, it's still a dangerous tack. For through his approach, Murphy has paved the way for an activist Conservative Scottish Secretary, with all that would entail for the remaining legitimacy of the UK.

Under the current settlement, election results mean that whether we like it or not, Labour has a certain legitimacy in Scotland over matters reserved, although this is not something that will transfer to an incoming Conservative administration. Just imagine, if you will, a Conservative Scottish Secretary trying to pull the same tricks, over matters reserved and devolved, in the face of likely stout cross-party Scottish opposition to a Conservative government at Westminster.

It's not difficult to see happening, at least for a time, nor is it difficult to imagine the likely response from Scottish voters. With Margaret Thatcher described as the midwife of devolution, how ironic it would be if in trying to bolster his party and the union, Murphy's example were to trigger the events which led to a yes vote in a future independence referendum.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

On The Buses

It's not often you'll find me linking to something in the Daily Mail, but this Craig Brown piece is just too good to miss:

Hold on tight, it's Gordon Brown the coach driver

Every summer, I like to board a coach and set off on a sunshine tour. This summer, when I arrived at the coach, I was surprised to find that no-one had yet boarded. The queue of holidaymakers was growing increasingly irate with the driver. 'If I did not think I was the right person to be driving this coach,' the driver was saying, 'I would not be sitting here holding the steering wheel.'

Oddly enough, his voice seemed familiar. 'I have the focus, the energy and the determination to drive this bus. I have never forgotten my father teaching me to change gears, to signal clearly and always to do the right thing. I want to put something back into this bus. This is who I am.'

One of the passengers standing outside then asked him through the window where he would be going. 'I believe in coaches,' he replied. 'I believe in roads. And I believe in driving coaches along roads.' At that moment, it suddenly struck me who he was.

Read the rest here.

H/T - Mediawatch