Sunday, June 21, 2009

Oldmeldrum Sports

I spent yesterday afternoon at the Oldmeldrum Sports, a venerable North East institution. The first event was held in 1930, originally to raise money to buy cocoa for local children! Nowadays, the charitable works extend considerably further afield.

The most famous man in Scotland, pictured alongside the local MSP...

Thursday, June 18, 2009

IF, as Calman recommends, the Scottish Government is granted the right to vary speed limits, I hope it's only by plus or minus 3mph.

Richard Lucas


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Compass - No Turning Back

I was in London last weekend to take part in the Compass 'No Turning back' conference. It came about through Mark Perryman – the driving force behind the 'Breaking Up Britain' book to which I contributed a chapter recently. Although not eligible to be a member of Compass thanks to my SNP affiliations, I nonetheless was invited along to take part in a fringe event to discuss some of the themes of the book.

I've been guilty in the past of harbouring something of an ambivalent attitude towards the 'metro-left' as I've termed it previously. Partly, that's down to my viewing politics from a primarily Scottish rather than a Westminster perspective. Partly, its down to the lazy assumptions made by some about the 'reactionary' nature of the SNP. It's also partly down to the assumption that 2 party politics is the norm, and that all the faults of the country are down to the other lot – a contention which in my view becomes hard to sustain if you happen to live in a place where Labour has been the effective establishment for half a century.

Although most of the delegates were either Labour, ex-Labour or unaffiliated 'progressives', there was an impressive array of 'dissidents' there, including Adam Price MP from Plaid Cymru, Caroline Lucas from the English Green Party, along with representatives from Sinn Fein and Respect. Coming right after Labour's drubbing at the Euro elections, it was a commendable display of political ecumenicism, matched only by what can be best described as a determination to seize a new agenda for the broad left in what might be the final 11 months of this Labour government.

With some early preconceptions confounded and complimentary copies of the Guardian and New Statesman in hand, off I went to the first session. The speeches from Billy Hayes, Harriet Harman, John Hilary, Caroline Lucas and Neal Lawson were enjoyably passionate, although it was a bit odd from the perspective of a relative outsider to hear the contention advanced that you could in fact fit a Rizla between the future spending plans of the Labour and Conservative parties.

Our Fringe session, 'No Turning Back on Devolution', attracted in the region of about 40 of the 1,000 delegates. In addition to Mark and myself, there was Professor Arthur Aughey from the University of Ulster; John Osmond of the Institute of Welsh Affairs; Sean Oliver, Sinn Fein's Director of European Affairs; and an impressive one-time Labour PPC, Rupa Huq, whom it must be recorded indulged in some quite shameless buttering up of Pat Kane, who himself took part in proceedings from the floor.

My own contribution was based on the theme of how the SNP had approached government, and how this fed into moves towards independence. With the theme of performance in the Euro elections a popular one for discussion, perhaps unsurprisingly, I began with some thoughts on how the SNP had managed to hold and arguably increase its base of support since May 2007 – something which can be put down to a few factors:

  • The SNP Government is perceived as being a competent manager of Scottish affairs. Ministers are seen as accessible and have likable public persona's. This has won a fair amount of goodwill and support in business, the civil service, the professions and the third sector – much of which was sceptical before not only about independence, but arguably about devolution itself.

  • Voters like the policies being put in place. Proper funding of free personal care, the ending of back-end tuition fees, the lack of marketisation in the NHS, the promotion of not for profit alternatives to PFI, opposition to ID cards, Trident and Nuclear Power, alongside freezing council tax and business rates, have been instrumental in garnering support from across the political spectrum.
  • People like the 'breath of fresh air' factor of a party other than Labour running Scotland's affairs, and actually quite like the fact that the government lacks the majority to always get its own way.

  • Much of it can also be put down to a 'normalisation' of politics in Scotland. Previously, the SNP had been viewed as somehow illegitimate in many quarters. However, the party's very presence in Government had done much to exorcise this. There are budgets which self-evidently do balance and ministers who quite obviously manage to work happily with Whitehall – the sky has emphatically not fallen in, which leaves a lot of people's previous rhetoric looking rather foolish.

When it comes to a referendum, the SNP continues to make the democratic argument for a vote liberated from party politics. While this had been accepted by Wendy Alexander, Labour had now retreated. However, who was to know what the attitude would be in 12 months time. Although there was no referendum majority in Holyrood, a majority outside Holyrood supported a referendum regardless as to how they'd vote given the chance. Support was also finely balanced between those intending to vote 'yes' and those intending to vote 'no'. Again, regardless as to preference, a majority expected Scotland to become independent in their lifetime. This wouldn't deliver independence in itself, but was perhaps an indication as to the overall direction of travel.

While Calman was likely to recommend more powers, it would need Westminster to deliver. With such a short time left to run in the present Parliament, this would likely rumble up to the Holyrood elections in 2011 and through a referendum vote in Holyrood. This meant that everything was building to further devolution and a crunch decision on whether or not the voters should have their say on full independence.

However, even if Calman's recommendations were implemented before the Westminster election, it still couldn't prevent the election of a Conservative government if that were to be the way the polls went south of the border. In that event, the choice at a 2010 referendum or a 2011 Holyrood election would be between a Cameron government and all that might entail, or the chance to build a progressive, nuclear free and self-governing Scotland. For a lot of left-inclined voters, the prospect of independence could become quite a tempting choice.

And so expired my 5 minutes. Although it's familiar territory to anyone in Scotland, these aren't issues which get aired very often south of the border, and it was fantastic to get the chance to air them and to be open to question and challenge. A disproportionate number of those who argue for England to be governed differently define themselves by opposition to the EU, to immigration or the welfare state. If we are to achieve a new but importantly amicable constitutional settlement between Scotland and the rest of the UK, these are discussions which need to take place, and involve a lot more people.

Big thanks to Mark Perryman for making it all happen, and I look forward to getting the chance to do it all again with him at the SNP's London Branch meeting in August!

P.S. Soundbite of the day has to go to Caroline Lucas: “Tony Blair's big tent is well and truly over. Now we need a campsite of smaller tents."

Sunday, June 14, 2009

More London

Been down for the Compass conference, of which maybe more later. In the meantime...

Monday, June 08, 2009

The Euro Political Map

Last night was a late one for a Sunday, what with staying up for the Euro Elections and all. I'm really pleased to see the SNP topping the Scottish vote, although there's more than a twinge of regret that we didn't get Dr Aileen McLeod elected. Just another 5% would have done it, but nevertheless, the overall result goes to show that 2007 was no flash in the pan.

For Labour, it's the individual stories that are probably more damaging than the overall result: losing the popular vote in all but 3 Scottish council areas; beaten into 3rd place in the English popular vote; coming behind the Conservatives in Wales; finishing behind Mebyon Kernow in Cornwall; and (sadly) what became the story of the night - the BNP picking up a seat in the North west and another in Yorkshire and the Humber.

Anyway, numbers are all very well in charting an election, but here's how people voted in Scotland by local authority:

Incredibly, that's 3 Labour (they 'won' Fife by only 205 votes!), 3 Lib Dem, 4 Tory including East Renfrewshire (where the SNP came a close 2nd to push labour into 3rd - bye, Jim) and 22 SNP.

In Aberdeenshire, the SNP topped the poll comfortably (35%) with the Conservatives second (23%) and the Lib Dems trailing some way behind in third (14.5%). The SNP vote is up over 10% on 2004, with the Lib Dems down over 4%.

That's a 7.5% swing from Lib Dem to SNP since last time - a figure which given their poor showing last time in Banff & Buchan, is going to be even larger when applied to Gordon [declaring an interest...] and to West Aberdeenshire. Again, this suggests that our advances here in 2007 are not only solid, but are being built on.

The results from Aberdeen City were every bit as encouraging for the SNP:

Given that the Gordon Westminster seat has a fair chunk of Aberdeen North in it including Dyce and Bridge of Don, from my perspective, it's all good.

All told, it's hard to see any positives for Gordon Brown in this. As one backbencher said last night, their choice seems to be instant death in an election led by a new leader, or a slow death next June with Brown. Who'd want to take over if that were to be their fate?

Monday, June 01, 2009

Move Over, Darling

Apologies for the corny headline* – I just felt that while it's a gag that's been overused in the past, it's one we're about to see a fair bit of once the dust settles from the European Elections.

Alastair Darling is most high profile MP to date to be caught up in the firestorm over expenses. While the details of his claims needn't detain us here, let's have a quick look at the politics of the situation.

The member for Edinburgh South West (or Pentlands in old money) has, or rather had, a reputation as the safest pair of hands in the Labour Cabinet. While John Reid was the 'enforcer' of choice throughout the Blair years, it was Darling who was left to smooth ruffled feathers in departments and restore a bit of stability where previously there had been uproar.

Never ostentatious or attention seeking in manner, it was his advocate's mastery of the brief which was his strongest asset. Always ready to disarm an attack with a seemingly credible diversion, his could be made to sound like the voice of sweet reason. While John Reid was described once as having the knack for making any old cobblers sound plausible, Darling was the one who could sidetrack you into submission or spike your guns. Many a Conservative shadow was left bemused and befuddled by his deft footwork and seeming ability to dodge any political bullet headed his way.

Always close to Gordon Brown (they had both been around Edinburgh Labour politics for many years before either was elected), he was the natural choice to take over as Chancellor when Brown was elevated to the Premiership. He would even have been an outside bet to take over were Brown to have fallen under the proverbial number 38 bus. However, with the credit crunch and global crisis (it started in America, dontcha' know?), his star has been looking decidedly tarnished of late.

Of course, this isn't entirely fair. If the UK finds itself in straightened circumstances, it surely has a bit to do with the man who was Chancellor for a decade before him – for which step forward one Gordon Brown. As Chancellor, Brown made his own fiscal rules and bent them to suit, cutting down critics with staccato sten-gun volleys of statistics, aided by the covering fire of hear hears from braying backbenchers, most of whom, truth be told, didn't really have a clue what was going on at the Treasury. Nor did those backbenchers particularly care. Everything was fine – it must be true because Gordon says so. Record employment, stable finances, no more boom and bust, lowest mortgage rates for however many years blah blah blah... just so long as all the other parties were being held at bay, it was all good.

Except now they are not being held at bay. If the polls are to be believed, Labour faces a hammering at Thursday's Euro poll as voters seek to exact revenge on the government for the poor state of the economy and to show their disapproval for the expenses scandal. Brown has let it be known in advance that he will not step down as Prime Minister if the results are bad and, being realistic, it's hard to see who in Labour at Westminster might wish to step up to the plate in any case. Labour missed their chance to replace him last Autumn – with capital being made about his being a Prime Minister without the personal mandate of a general election victory, the prospects of Labour offering the country a second 'unelected' PM are slim. As such, the parliamentary infantry will remain bedraggled and demoralised by the prospect of almost certain defeat next year, while those in the bunker stay convinced that the non-existent battalions being pushed around their maps can be steeled once more to 'win the fight for Britain's Future'.

So, if Brown is to stay on, how does he convince us that there can be a new beginning under his watch? How can he show 'courage' and 'leadership' over expenses, while trying to make a symbolic break with the political past of which he is so much a part? More to the point, upon whom can he prevail to partake in a political 'Rite of Spring' to make the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good, in the hope that his blood fertilises the soil for a bountiful harvest nest year? Just as Norman Lamont served this purpose for John Major, step forward (or down) Alistair Darling.

It's a dirty business sometimes, and Lamont was hardly a placid presence for Major following his dismissal. As Jeremy Thorpe said of MacMillan after the 'night of the long knives': “Greater love hath no man than this – that he lay down his friends for his life.”

*UPDATE: Actually, I'm no longer sorry at all. Newsnight has just used a bit of 'Move Over Darling' as background music, with Paxo making use of the Thorpe quote in his link. If it's good enough for the BBC...