Thursday, January 31, 2008

Light Blogging...

...this week for a variety of reasons, none of which need detain us here. However, I do urge you to take a look at this post from Scottish Tory Boy, which leaves Nicol Stephen looking rather silly, after giving his synthetic 'Mr Angry' act another outing at First Minister's Questions.

Also due for a mention is Kezia Dugdale, who is effusive in her praise for Wendy Alexander's performance this week. In all honesty, apart from her from not being completely dreadful this week, I don't see what Labour really have to cheer about. It all seemed pretty ho-hum to me. Maybe it's the equivalent of applauding wildly, just because your team wins a throw-in deep in their own half when they're already 6-0 down... :-)

Friday, January 25, 2008

Re-Stating The Obvious

I’d like to begin by stating something which seems to have been forgotten in much recent discourse on the subject – by accepting an impermissible overseas donation, Wendy Alexander’s leadership campaign broke the law. Period.

The Labour Party line until now has been that Wendy is confident that she will be cleared, not of breaking the law, but of any ‘intentional wrongdoing’. This despite the fact that she can’t be cleared by anyone of any such thing. Either the law is broken or it is not - intent is something which is neither here nor there, except in determining the degree of culpability when judging what, if any, sanction should result.

Being cleared of ‘intentional wrongdoing’ is therefore entirely a subjective and worthless measure. But today, on Good Morning Scotland, we heard key Alexander ally Jackie Baillie MSP go even further, claiming that even if Alexander was not ‘cleared of intentional wrongdoing’, she should still stay in post to try and clear her name. “She would have even more reason to stay and fight for her reputation”, said Baillie, before delivering the killer line: “Wendy has been getting on with the job she was elected to do and I think she should be given the opportunity to do so”. Really, how can you argue with steamroller ‘logic’ like that?

Alexander’s reputation for honesty and personal integrity is proclaimed longest and most loudly by herself and her supporters. Now, I’m sure she is a fine, upstanding person, but citing a reputation, deserved or not, serves no more as a defence than it would as an indictment. It is a diversionary tactic, just as is Baillie’s rather distasteful and demeaning attempt to spread the funding muck of Labour’s own making in the direction of every other party.

From what we do know, at best, Team Wendy unwittingly accepted an impermissible donation, which was returned as soon as this became apparent to them. At worst, a donation was solicited in the full knowledge that it was impermissible, and kept deliberately below the £1,000 reporting threshold so that this information would not become public.

It is for others to assess whether the truth lies closer to the first, the second, or perhaps somewhere in between. No doubt the detail can, and will, be tussled over - the one unmoveable, unbendable, unspinnable fact is that the law was broken and that as the regulated donee, Wendy Alexander bears ultimate responsibility for this.

Looking ahead, if the Electoral Commission decline to report matters to the police, you can be certain that someone, somewhere will make a complaint of their own. However, even if the Procurator Fiscal, after being asked to consider matters, did decide that there was insufficient evidence to mount a prosecution or that further proceedings would not be in the public interest, this still would not represent the end of her difficulties.

Throughout, Team Wendy has been guilty of arrogance, hubris and arguably, a severe lack of attention to detail. While I’m not convinced myself that the law courts are the best place for this sorry saga to end up, with Peter Hain now gone, it’s hard to see how she can stay in post. The first burning timber has fallen…

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

In The Soup

Ouch - bet that hurt.

Best wishes for a speedy recovery, Aileen. I always knew you'd make the consommé politician...

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Going Soft On Independence

One of the main arguments deployed against Scottish independence is loss of influence. Scotland would be trading being part of a big country to be a small country, we are told. Influence in the world is all about willingness to use armed forces; having a permanent seat on the UN security council; having Trident - the implication being it's only the big boys that count when it comes to making friends and influencing people.

On the surface, it's a tricky one to argue against. For centuries, it was the countries which were most successful at mustering power on land and on sea which were best able to secure resources and influence over others. However, with the rise of 20th century nationalism, the decline of the British empire and the rise of the USA, we began to see that it was not necessary to threaten or occupy a country in order to gain access to its resources or influence its people.

We learned that free trade could be mutually beneficial; that countries could expand their influence by working together in alliance. We even began to see that the brute military power of countries with the ability to destroy the planet, brought no guarantee of success even when brought to bear against smaller and supposedly 'inferior' forces. Admittedly, some of our recent leaders may not have learned very much from this, but the lesson was there for those prepared to see it.

Today, the world, as ever, is in flux. As US power wanes, we are heading for a multipolar world. Declining US influence means declining UK influence, at the same time as we see the rise of China and India. It's hard, for me at least, to avoid the conclusion that engaging effectively and winning influence in the world's emerging countries, is going to require a humility and openness for which even a century of steady British decline has failed to prepare our Westminster elites.

Whatever Lyndon B Johnson may have had to say about influence, hearts and minds are seldom won over these days by hard power alone. This is where 'soft power' comes in – the ability to influence others through culture, values and ideology rather than threat, violence or other forms of coercion. Yet for a state which was once described as having lost an empire but had not yet found a role, paradoxically, the UK has actually been remarkably effective post-1945 at building up its soft power around the world.

Respect for British institutions waxes and wanes. However, the institutions which work most effectively overseas are often not the traditional outlets of diplomacy, but those such as the BBC World Service and the British Council. While refusals to accept the limitations of hard power - such as the Iraq misadventure - alongside Labour's blatant attacks on the independence of the BBC, have helped undermine British standing in the world, the reputation of those institutions endures as a result of being built up over many years and the lives they have touched over that time.

Independence would mean Scotland leaving these institutions behind, at least in their present form. This gives us a tough act to follow in many respects, but that doesn't mean it can't be done. In fact, in many ways, Scotland is already well placed to build up a soft power which reaches the parts that no British institution can.

Firstly, independence would force a fundamental reappraisal for everyone on the British archipelago of who they are and who they want to be, but that is also a process which would demand great honesty. For better or for worse, Scots have had a huge and disproportionate impact on the way our modern world has been shaped. We can't, after all, re-write our history – we're as much a part of the history of the British Empire and recent ill-advised military adventures as our larger neighbours to the south.

Scotland is firmly part of the English speaking world. Nearly 9 out of 10 schoolchildren in the EU learn English, with at least 2 billion people around the world having either full or at least some understanding of the language. Our universities help teach the world, both by bringing students to live in Scotland and through distance learning. People around the globe are as curious about us as we are about them, which gives us a huge potential audience for our cultural output.

We also have the Edinburgh Festival, which has for decades been much, much bigger than the city or even the country which spawned it and gives us a cultural profile which any independent country would envy. Whether its to do with television, film, theatre, music, books or politics, for one glorious month, the world comes to us. As if this embarrassment of riches weren't enough, our three weeks in the sun means that whatever we happen to be thinking, planning, doing economically, socially or culturally in Scotland, is at the same time brought to the attention of the rest of the world.

Blessed may be the peacemakers, but they can through their actions achieve more influence than the warmongers. Previous SNP manifestos have committed the party to the establishment of a Scottish peacekeeping college, as well as a European Peace & Reconciliation Centre. The opportunity to enhance the global diplomatic capital which already exists is there if we wish to take it. None of this can physically stop a tank rolling across a border of course, but by opening minds, building links, by helping people to understand that they each have a stake in the future of each other, such approaches can be far more effective in building peace, security and prosperity than any number of nuclear warheads or Security Council resolutions.

With independence, we won't be starting from year zero. We will have a set of institutions, ideas, outlooks, values and histories which our forbears have built up, and which we ourselves will continue to build upon. Taking the narrative of a small, prosperous, socially-just, peaceful, culturally rich nation which is respectful of difference, democracy and international law, and which has resolved its political status peacefully, could provide no more compelling example to the rest of the world.

With our history, experiences of empire building and retrenchment, centuries-long exposure to industrialisation and 'globalisation', history of immigration and emigration, outlook, culture, philosophical, religious and epistemological traditions, we have a truly unique voice and perspective we can bring to bear. Set alongside our intimate understanding of the Anglosphere, who in reality could argue that Scotland wouldn't be a soft power superpower if she chose to become so?

Laugh if you like. These days, you don't need to be a military giant or even have pretensions of being a military giant to have influence. When it comes to power and influence it's no longer about the size of the dog in the fight - it's the size of the fight in the dog that counts.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Olympic Financial Control? Fallen At The First Hurdle

Some folk may remember that shortly after Christmas, my goat was got by the Labour Party. Specifically, their repeated and tedious claims that the SNP was somehow trying to deprive vulnerable groups of public money, through a reduction in the amount of 'ringfencing' in local government finances.

Never mind that this is also what the Labour Government was doing in England. Never mind that Labour Councillors in Scotland have been queueing up to support the initiative. Homelessness; mental health services; children's services; disabled children and families; Hogmanay celebrations; flood prevention... all at risk from the SNP Barbarians at the gate. Truly, in her desperation to seize the agenda, Wendy Alexander's campaign of scaremongering left no shroud unwaved or ambulance unchased.

How ironic, then, than within the last half hour, Scottish Labour MPs have voted through a measure to divert £675m of further Lottery funding towards the financial black hole that is the London Olympics. Note that that this isn't a hypothetical reallocation of money, but an actual diversion of resources which would otherwise have gone to benefit some of our most needy communities.

Scottish Labour's claim to a monopoly of concern in matters of social justice has always been a complete fraud. Hopefully, it's now there for all to see. And how sad that in backing the government on this matter, the Tories and Lib Dems have elected to hide behind the flimsiest of figleaves - a government 'assurance' that this will be the last raid on Lottery cash to pay for the Olympics.

Hmmm. And the band played believe it if you like...

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sterling Efforts

Another story from the slow, festive news period was the synthetic outrage from the Lib Dems, as they learned that Scottish Bank notes were not legal tender in England. Stop the press! Hold the front page! Lib Dems pick fight with London shock!

You have to wonder where the Lib Dems have been, though. Scottish banknotes have never been ‘legal tender’ - that which is acceptable in settlement of a debt - even in Scotland. In fact, not even Bank of England notes are classed as being ‘legal tender’ in Scotland.

That said, the term ‘legal tender’ doesn’t have any influence over the acceptability or otherwise of bank notes as a means of exchange between interested parties. It really comes down to whether or not you have confidence in being able to redeem the note for its stated value, and therefore continue to enjoy the ‘double coincidence of wants’ which bank notes are supposed to provide.

Everyone has their own horror story to tell about a surly London cabbie refusing to take Scottish notes, many of which I dare say grow a bit in the telling. As it happens, most places in the centre of London are quite happy to take any kind of note you proffer. Vending machines can be a bit temperamental, although that applies every bit as much in my experience to many of those installed in Scotland too.

My only outright refusal to accept Scottish notes came a few months ago from a Polish barman in deepest, darkest Beckenham (Kent commuter land), who complained very obnoxiously about my ‘funny money’. He then became particularly aggressive when I then enquired if his refusal to accept my money meant that the already poured pints in front of me were therefore free. However, with a wee bit of initiative, you can sometimes make it work both ways.

Flying out of Muscat Airport a few years ago, I had a wallet-full of Omani Rials, which I didn’t fancy trying to get changed back in Scotland. The guy at the Bureau de Change obviously recognised my Scottish accent, and knowing the reluctance of some English people to accept Scottish notes, pronounced with regret that the only Sterling notes he had were Clydesdale Bank twenties.

Primed from a few days bargaining in the various Souks, I sucked on my teeth, shook my head and told him that I didn’t get such a good exchange rate for Clydesdale notes when I took them back home. To which he smiled, offered them to me commission free and agreed to round the transaction up in my favour. Sold!

Sure, it’s annoying when Scottish notes get knocked back. Yes, people outside Scotland should be better aware that these are also sterling notes and yes, sometimes we need to be more assertive than we might feel comfortable with to get them accepted. This is hardly a new phenomenon, but it’s going to take more than a publicity-seeking Lib Dem spokesman to ensure Scottish banknotes get the recognition and acceptance they deserve.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

You'll Have Had Your Holidays, Then?

Well, if that was my holiday, I suppose I've had it. It's been great to have some time off, and I dare say I've even managed to use some of it fairly productively: a Christmas seeing a range of aunties, uncles and cousins; a night out with my mate Brian - a friend from school whom scarily I've known for 21 years, but who is seldom around when I am nowadays; a night out in Edinburgh with some old workmates from Scottish Widows; an extended New Year away with SNP friends involving good food, good wine, good chat, good song and the chance to play my fiddle for the first time in months... I even got some of my 'homework' for Westminster done into the bargain.

I'm off back south tomorrow, so I'm spending the morning at my flat in Edinburgh, cleaning up my clutter of the last two weeks to get it ready for a new tenant. I'll go out for the papers in a bit, and maybe try and sneak in a quick couple of pints in the afternoon with Richard the catsitter. Then it'll be time to get my case packed up, and sort out what train I plan to leave on tomorrow morning. Hopefully the journey will be a little bit smoother than last time, but the travel stories haven't been getting any better with the New Year...

Anyway, personal musings and trivia aside, this blog is supposed to be about politics. Since I'm still feeling nice and chilled and full of the spirit of goodwill, I'm not really in the mood for expressing huge enthusiasm for the righteousness of my chosen cause, or for pointing out the folly of all others (give it a couple more days!). Instead, here's an article from the Seattle Times on the state of the (British) union. If you forgive the clumsy metaphor about traffic islands at the start, it's a reasonably astute and fair-minded assessment of where Scotland stands, from a long-time overseas observer.

To see ourselves as others see us indeed. A happy and prosperous 2008 to all.