Monday, May 24, 2010

A Mandate To Oppose

Over the past few weeks, I've found myself at odds with an argument being put forward by some folk with whom I usually agree. It concerns the 'mandate', or lack of one, which the LibCon coalition has in Scotland, and whether or not pointing out their lack of majority support constitutes a 'grudge and grievance' agenda better suited to the 1980's.

Wherever you stood politically the 80's was an eventful time, with the sense of great issues of principle being tussled over at home and abroad. For those able to adapt to the dramatic social change, the personal possibilities seemed limitless as old orthodoxies, for better or worse, were torn down. With the ending of the Cold War and the redrawing of the European map, it seemed that a new age of self-determination, liberated from the stifling power politics of the post-war period, was set to be ushered in.

Culturally, Scotland flowered in opposition to the Tories. Denied devolution in 1979 by the unwillingness of a weak Labour government to take on its backbenchers, the home rule cause was galvanised and emboldened, with the sense of there being a different Scottish polity taking hold across the unionist/nationalist divide. With the argument being advanced, even by staunch unionists that the Scottish people were sovereign, the idea of the Tories, by then reduced to 11 seats out of 72 holding no mandate to govern Scotland, took hold in the popular imagination.

To say that the present situation in Scotland is not like the 1980's, as Gerry Hassan has done several times since the election, is certainly accurate, if a bit of a straw man. Circumstances for the moment are quite different – for one, Scotland now has her parliament and seems increasingly at ease with herself, in contrast to the brittle assertions of difference once used as a common currency by Scotland's social democratic left.

The second difference is that the current Prime Minister gives the impression of being a far more emollient character than Margaret Thatcher, who managed systematically to irritate and ultimately alienate white collar 'middle Scotland'. Thirdly, and crucially if you are to believe those disparaging the no mandate argument in its newly resurrected form, the Tories are in coalition with the Lib Dems, who following the election have a combined total of Westminster seats and votes double that of the SNP.

This is true, although why the SNP should be chosen here as the yardstick by which legitimacy is measured is beyond me. However, whether in votes or seats, the Lib/Con coalition falls well short of a majority on both counts. Leaving aside the discomfort which a number of Lib Dem voters must be feeling at their party's shotgun marriage with the Tories, the parties combined still have only one more MP than did Margaret Thatcher at the height of her crisis of legitimacy in Scotland, following the 1987 'Doomsday' election.

Another reason why this argument is bunk is that while the SNP was allowed by parliament to form a Government, if it wants to legislate, it still has to gain the support of a majority of parliamentarians elected within Scotland under a proportional system. Compare and contrast with the LibCons, who have gained their ability to govern Scotland solely through the combined strength of their First-Past-The-Post performance in England.

There is also a fourth dissimilarity which is not being spoken about, but which makes all the difference right now. Simply, the new LibCon government hasn't yet had a chance to do anything unpopular, and most people will for the moment be inclined to give them benefit of the doubt. It's only when the effects of controversial decisions – such as the impending and well-trailed spending cuts – begin to manifest themselves that people will start to question the wisdom of the government, and the level of support it has for its agenda.

If the new LibCon government is shrewd, it will live up to the rhetoric of its self-proclaimed 'respect' agenda by behaving consensually and recognising the limitations of its Scottish mandate. In what are being trailed as some early 'wins' for this approach, it is being hinted that progress might be made on releasing the £180m from the Fossil Fuels levy to Scotland, and on granting borrowing powers to Holyrood. Evidently, a nationalist 'grudge and grievance' agenda can become an agenda of 'respect' when carried out by a unionist!

So, the mandate issue, just like the funding issue, is one which is very much alive and lurking away in the undergrowth, however much some might like to assert otherwise. However, where they are on to something is in identifying that an obsession over the matter right now would look premature, and runs the risk of making anyone who uses the argument too forcibly look peevish and out of touch.

There is a further risk, which is in fairness nailed very effectively by Hassan. Throughout the 80's and indeed the 90's, home-rulers of all stripes seemed far better at defining themselves by what they were against policy-wise rather than in terms of what they were for - something which arguably left us with a hangover of unrealistic expectation when we finally got our parliament. If we approach the new Westminster government solely in terms of the comfortable slogans of yesteryear, we run the very real risk of repeating that mistake, and slowing the progress to independence in consequence.

With that said, the mandate argument still deserves to be made and heard as a corrective to aspects of the of the Lib Con administration's agenda, and could very well prove to be a useful restraint on the untrammeled power of a Westminster Government. That’s something which Scots of all persuasions might become grateful for in the not too distant future – whether they voted for the coalition parties or not.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Peering In From Outside

Oh, goody. From The Times:
Coalition creates 100 peers with Lords deal

David Cameron and Nick Clegg will create more than 100 peers to ensure that controversial legislation gets through Parliament.

The coalition government has agreed to reshape the House of Lords, which is currently dominated by Labour, to be “reflective of the vote” at the general election. That saw the Tories and the Liberal Democrats together get 59 per cent.

None of Labour’s 211 existing peers can be removed, so the coalition must appoint dozens of its own to rebalance the upper chamber. Lib Dem estimates suggest that the number of Tory peers would need to rise from 186 to 263 and Lib Dem peers from 72 to 167.

Here's a better idea, guys. Instead of more jobs for the boys and snouts in troughs, how about scrapping the Lords entirely, or if you really must keep it, making the place elected instead? So like, y'know, voters get to decide who we want in a 2nd chamber, rather than having it stuffed full of other people's cronies?

The Lib Dems would be likely to reach into local government for some appointments. Party donors could be rewarded, although the Lib Dems have ruled out putting any with non-dom tax status in the second chamber.

That's a shame. Lord Brown of Absentia has a certain ring to it, don't you think?

Friday, May 14, 2010

What A Difference 2 Years Makes

Not that there's anything wrong with pragmatism and being able to sink your differences, but this makes me chuckle:

At the Lib Dems' 2008 spring conference, Nick Clegg said: "The day before I was elected leader, Mr Cameron suggested we join them. He talked about a 'progressive alliance'. This talk of alliances comes up a lot, doesn't it? Everyone wants to be in our gang. So I want to make something very clear today. Will I ever join a Conservative government? No." Nick Clegg is now deputy to Prime Minister David Cameron.

H/T: The First Post

Thursday, May 13, 2010

One Week On

This time last week, I was contemplating a shower and a change of shirt before heading out to the Gordon Constituency count at the AECC. Not by that stage in the expectation of winning, since I'd been feeling for a couple of weeks that despite our formidable local campaign and the strong support we were getting, things had just swung too far away from us nationally for us to be able to pull it off.

The TV debates and their total domination of the news agenda for 3 weeks saw admirably to that, as did the unfathomable determination of the media to puff up the Lib Dems, and in Scotland, a tendency approaching the pathological to portray the SNP as little more than marginal grievance-mongers. In the event, the Lib Dems fell back, and the best you can say for their campaign is that they more or less held onto the ground they won in 2005. Meanwhile, in spite of the obstacles put in front of us, the SNP held what it had won in 2005, and regained second place in the national share of the vote.

Only winners and outgoing MP's were due to make post-declaration speeches at the Aberdeen count. As soon as the first few ballot boxes had confirmed my suspicions as to how things were going to turn out, I sought an opportunity to congratulate Malcolm Bruce in person before the declaration. When the opportunity presented itself it wasn't a difficult thing to do, as I have always had a certain regard for him as a politician, and on the many occasions where our paths crossed during this long, long campaign, we've always got on very well. I even had occasion to write a press release for him a few months ago, but that's perhaps a tale best kept for another time!

In the event, while we didn't win in Gordon, we recorded a strong result. Despite not taking the support we'd hoped from the Conservative and Labour candidates, both of whose support held static, the chunk we took out of the Lib Dem vote saw us jump from fourth to second place. In the event, it was the highest ever vote for the SNP in the seat for Westminster, both in total and in the percentage share of the vote. It was the 2nd largest anti-Lib Dem swing in Scotland – 7.6% in favour of the SNP. It also saw Malcolm Bruce re-elected with 36% - his lowest ever share of the vote in the seat – taking his majority from 11,026 over Labour to 6,748 over the SNP.

And so, when the result finally came in at just before 5 in the morning, the curtain came down on what has been, for me at any rate, a life changing couple of years or so. The curtain has also come down on Gordon Brown, who in the event, left office with great dignity. His departure was inevitable, even if his party's departure from government was entirely its own doing, leaving us with a coalition which few in Scotland would have countenanced before, far less wanted afterwards.

Despite the Conservatives sub-contracting Scotland out to their new Lib Dem partners, this coalition has only one more seat than had Margaret Thatcher after the 1987 'Doomsday' election. And before anyone starts throwing Gerry Hassan's latest nugget of wisdom at me about this not being the 1980's, the point is intended to be illustrative.

We are not – yet – embarked on a course of cuts which are 'deeper and tougher' than anything managed by Margaret Thatcher. While we're not going to see the negligent and vandalistic industrial devastation of the 1980s being bankrolled by our own resources, there is an enormous risk that in their mutual desire for cuts in capital spending and to continue with wasteful items such as a replacement for Trident, our shiny new Con Dem nation will see recovery snuffed out and opportunities for future growth squandered. There really is no sense of recognition from either party that Britain's inexorable post-Empire decline has left it an over-centralised and hyper-indebted mid-ranking European power with creaking infrastructure, which suffers from a dangerous overreliance on the City of London, and labouring under an exaggerated sense of its own significance in the world, which it is no longer capable of underwriting, whether economically, militarily or diplomatically.

Despite promises of respect for Scotland and further powers for Holyrood, the new coalition will be judged in deed and not word. In that spirit, it would do well to recognise the limitations of its 'mandate', and seek to govern in its areas of responsibility with the same spirit of consensus-building as has marked the past 3 years of minority SNP Government in Edinburgh.

No party, least of all Labour and certainly not the SNP, has a monopoly on good ideas and legitimacy to govern. With that said, while wishing the new government no harm, I can't help but wonder how the election might have gone in Scotland had people known that Labour would fail their voters by refusing point blank to work with other parties, and that the Lib Dems were prepared not just to support the Tories, but to join them in Government.

Perhaps more to the point, how will this play at the next Holyrood elections? We've less than a year to go to find out...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

“We Will Not Soil Our Hands”

The more observant amongst you may have noticed by now that I’m not a Labour voter. There’s a number of reasons why this is the case, only some of which relate to a tendency since childhood to be suspicious of anything purporting to represent a majority view.

In common with most Labour members, I’m no socialist and never have been, although I’m certainly happy to be described in most respects as a social democrat. There are many individuals in the Labour party whom I admire. In fact, despite my suspicion for him as an individual, I found much to support in what Tony Blair’s Labour government did in its early years.

I was also firmly on the gradualist wing of my party when such distinctions still mattered. All things being equal, then, I could probably have found myself sitting fairly comfortably in the Labour Party, making steady progress on home rule, if only I’d been prepared to ignore that troublesome itch for independence. But then, all things aren’t equal here, and never have been.

From my perspective, there’s a deeply unattractive insularity about the party, which comes from being entrenched in swathes of governance over many years and being able to distribute patronage, thanks to an unrepresentative voting system. With binary simplicity, there are 2 core electoral messages and two only – Vote Labour to get the Tories out, or vote Labour to keep the Tories out. Sophisticated or inspiring it most certainly is not.

This tribalism reached a particularly low point in the late 1970’s, when a young rising Labour star by the name of Helen Liddell, in her capacity as Scottish General Secretary, declared that Labour ‘would not soil our hands’ by working with the nationalists in trying to deliver a ‘Yes’ vote in the 1979 devolution referendum. While Liddell is long departed from the shores of Scottish politics and not much missed, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in hearing more than a faint echo of her words in the statement made this morning by Douglas Alexander, putting paid to the notion of a ‘progressive’ alliance involving the SNP at Westminster.

"I can assure you”, yipped Alexander to the BBC, “I have had no contact with the SNP, nor has the chancellor, the Scottish Secretary or the Prime Minister because there are fundamental differences between the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party. Personally, I can't envisage circumstances in which we would enter into agreement with the Scottish National Party."

Alexander aside, the writing looks to be on the wall for a progressive alliance anyway, not least because of the reluctance of Labour MPs to sit down with the Lib Dems or concede any more than the Tories on electoral reform. However, for a party which still bangs on about the manner of their losing power in 1979, the hypocrisy is astounding. Everyone else can be criticised for working with the hated Tories, but now Labour itself refuses to work with anyone else, ensuring a Tory government by default.

In consequence, the Lib Dems seem set to roll out the welcome carpet in Downing Street for David Cameron, which will be reddened in ample time for his arrival by the blood from the PLPs bout of mass hari-kari. While the Lib Dems will have a rough time explaining that pact to their Scottish members, should it transpire, Labour should reflect whether it really dislikes the SNP so much that it is prepared to surrender Scotland and power to the Tories without so much as a whimper.