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Anglo and other phobias

I was taken by this piece by the redoubtable Lallands Peat Worrier, in which he ponders the fear of England – or, more precisely, of what England might become without Scotland’s apparent moderating influence – that influences some elements of Unionist thinking, particularly, it seems, among some of England’s more progressive voices:

Unexpectedly, this idea finds enthusiastic proponents amongst some English liberal spirits. After the 2011 Holyrood election results, there was a rash of anxious pieces published in the metropolitan media, expressly incorporating these anxieties. Madeleine Bunting frets over the loss of the civic British identity, contending that “if Scotland goes, all we’ll have left is the Englishness we so despise.” David Mitchell warmed to a similar theme, arguing that “the British will have lost their country.”

One iteration of the solidarity-Scotland-stay-and-keep-voting-Labour argument, reflected recently on twitter by Professor Mary Beard, essentially concludes “Scotland, save us from ourselves.” As a way of persuading the overwhelming majority of voters in England to back the People’s Party, this is terrible politics, but the Unionist mistrust of England undergirding it is striking. On the 18th of September, what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards London to be born?

I have to concede, questions of identity always hit home for me, and this one has hit sufficiently hard that I’ve found myself dusting off the blog once again. Indeed, the layers of dust that have now formed an almost permanent skin around the blog originate from an identity… no, nothing so serious as an identity crisis, but certainly an identity assessment.

My identity – on a national level, at least – has always been muddy: I was born and raised in England and my mother is English. But my father is Scottish, and that has played a major factor, major enough that when I was deciding which university I went to, I didn’t have to think twice: I was always bound for Edinburgh, a decision which created some needle with my father who, having been raised in Paisley and being one of a long line of Rangers fans, would probably have preferred it if I’d gone to Glasgow. But still, Edinburgh felt like home.

So links to Scotland have always been a part of my life, and my family’s life: one of my earliest memories is of me as a toddler, hiding in the hall, away from the noise of the AM radio as my Dad tried to pick up Radio Scotland when Rangers were playing, as he tried to master the exact science of calibrating the dial to the millimetre while practising yoga with the aerial (on one occasion, we found we could get a better signal on the car radio, so we spent a good ten minutes driving up and down the street before Dad realised just how ridiculous this was). With Mum not interested in football, I grew up in a Scotland-supporting, Rangers-supporting house, where we listened to Radio Scotland, read the Daily Record, and took any opportunity we could to watch Scottish television. And so the house remains today.

Of course, as fathers are wont to do, mine wanted to take me to a football match, as his father had done with him, his father before him, and so forth. That said, Dad was realistic enough to grasp that a 400-mile round trip was probably a bit much to ask of a seven-year-old so, one Saturday in late October 1990, he started looking through the fixtures on Ceefax, and found that the nearest team to play at home that day was Wigan Athletic, so off we headed to Springfield Park, where Wigan beat Southend 4-1, and in so doing, entered my life to the extent that these days, I have a case to list the club as my “it’s complicated” on Facebook. What this meant, though I arguably didn’t realise it at the time, was that my identity was now a little more complex: before, I was for all intents and purposes (and despite my Mum being English and despite my Lancastrian accent, though even on that score, I tend to switch into Scots when I’m talking to my Dad) a Scottish child living in England, a second-generation immigrant. Now, there was a part of English life which was a part of my life. I was, I suppose, an Anglo-Scot.

So you’d think, living a cross-border life, with elements of both nations playing a part in who I was, that “Britishness” would come easily to me. That without the Union, I might not even exist, so surely I’d see us as Better Together, right?

Wrong. Whichever side of the border I’ve been on, I’ve sensed the things that make England and Scotland distinct, whether in sport, culture, history or politics. And at no point during my childhood did I ever really develop an English identity. Had the “Tebbit test”, proposed by Norman Tebbit to deport second- and third-generation immigrants who chose to support Pakistan in a test match, actually become a thing, and applied to England-Scotland games, I’d have been stuck on a train and sent north at the first opportunity. Hell, I was even a member of the “Anyone But England” brigade!

Looking back, I think about why that was. I was always the “Different Kid”, the one who stuck out, not quite belonging, Fair enough, I was (and still am) a total geek, but it was more than that. I did things differently, felt things differently. Could it be that my small-n Scottish nationalism (which morphed so very easily into a big N after I arrived in Edinburgh) was, in a way, an early expression of my sexual orientation? Not so much genderqueer (I still don’t identify as that), but nationqueer? Was the Saltire my Rainbow? Obviously, I’d spent my childhood coming out as Scottish, so that gave me plenty of practice as an adult coming out to new friends and co-workers as a gay man.

So why the identity re-assessment? I guess it’s been going on for years under the surface. Firstly, having long since come out to myself, and having had years to shape my own identity and individuality, it’s grown increasingly easier to engage with all aspects of who I am, including my English side. Of course, I do still cheer on occasion if England lose a football game, but that’s probably more likely than not because I’ve sensed a good opportunity to bet on the opposition, and I have to think about which pronoun I use to describe the team when talking with friends, but the fact that I will actually consider using “we” rather than “they” marks some progress.

And there’s a practical element as well: as much as returning to Scotland (and to Edinburgh) has been a big ambition since I graduated and went back home, events have played out differently to my expectations. Firstly, I moved to Berkshire to live and work there for a time, which ended when a homesickness which had festered inside me finally became too much to bear. It wasn’t Scotland I went back to, but Lancashire. Now, I live in Wigan and work in Manchester, and that suits me. Yes, Scotland has a place in my heart and I’m hoping that the people of Scotland will seize the opportunity next month and vote to determine their own future as an independent nation, my role is limited to watching and cheering from the sidelines. The next campaign I physically engage in will be here, as I look to take part in the community where I live. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the battles I fight now will be for Wigan and the North West. Of course they will, my life is here now. And I’m OK with that.

Yet you’ll notice that a local and regional identity comes more naturally than a national one: like those commentators that intrigued LPW, I’m still wary of Englishness. Perhaps it’s the sticker affixed to the lamppost on my way into work, depicting a St George’s Cross and the slogan, “We will have our country back!” Who are ‘we’? Who do ‘we’ want to claim the country back from? The implications are obvious: while Scottish and Welsh nationalism is linked with progressive thinking, English nationalism is more reactionary, a creature of the far right: the English Democrats (and other splinter parties) cast themselves and prospective allies of the SNP and Plaid, but the anti-immigrant, anti-EU rhetoric of the English Democrats jars with that approach. The 2008 London Mayoral campaign to “Chop Jock” and an irredentist campaign in Monmouthshire won’t have endeared English nationalists to their counterparts in Scotland and Wales, and when English Democrat candidate Peter Davies was elected Mayor of Doncaster, one of the first thing he had in his sights was the funding of the local Pride event.

No wonder I’m scared of Englishness! Well, I’m sorry, but England is, and in reality always has been, my country. So many people like me have let it go and allowed its identity to be seized by reactionaries and bigots.

No longer. I will have my new, old country back. Not from the EU, not from immigrants, not from the forces of political correctness,but from those who fly the flag and then presume to select who does and does not belong under it. We all do.

The English Left has surrendered the field. English identity has become the preserve of the Right, while progressives leave it to Scotland to speak for them. As a progressive in England, I would like Scotland to do one last thing for us: claim your freedom and give us ours at the same time. Force the English Left out of its complacency that if Scotland votes for independence or England votes Conservative, then they should simply be allowed an opportunity to correct their error. Force it to wake up and re-assess itself.

England and Englishness are not, in and of themselves, bad things to despise. It is how they are shaped and expressed which is good or bad. And if we do not like what we see, we have two options: we can keep on despising it and hope it goes away by itself, or we can step up and try to change it.

The longer the Union persists, the longer will stick with the first option. We need to stand on our own feet and it’s going to be the sight of Scotland doing just that which will force the issue. That is how, in the end, Scotland will save England from itself.

Tactical Voting in the North West: Just how do you stop extremists?

In my last post I looked at Hope Not Hate’s campaign against UKIP and the BNP. But what would it take for their campaign to be successful?

Let’s look at how the top 6 parties performed in the North West in 2009 (there were a further six parties and an independent on the ballot paper, none of which came anywhere near a seat, so we’ll put them to one side on this occasion):

Conservative – 423,174
Labour – 336,831
UKIP – 261,740
LibDem – 235,639
BNP – 132,194
Green – 127,133

So the first of eight seats went to the Tories. Let’s put D’Hondt to work:

Labour – 336,831
UKIP – 261,740
LibDem – 235,639
Conservative – 423,174 ÷ 2 = 211,587
BNP – 132,194
Green – 127,133

So Labour won the second seat.

UKIP – 261,740
LibDem – 235,639
Conservative – 423,174 ÷ 2 = 211,587
Labour – 336,831 ÷ 2 = 168,415.5
BNP – 132,194
Green – 127,133

This handed the third seat to UKIP:

LibDem – 235,639
Conservative – 423,174 ÷ 2 = 211,587
Labour – 336,831 ÷ 2 = 168,415.5
BNP – 132,194
UKIP – 261,740 ÷ 2 = 130,870
Green – 127,133

It’s worth noting that, with five seats remaining, the calculations applied so far still show the Greens in sixth place, making it impossible for them to win a seat under the D’Hondt formula. But the LibDems did take the fourth seat.

Conservative – 423,174 ÷ 2 = 211,587
Labour – 336,831 ÷ 2 = 168,415.5
BNP – 132,194
UKIP – 261,740 ÷ 2 = 130,870
Green – 127,133
LibDem – 235,639 ÷ 2 = 117,819.5

We could now rule out any possibility of the LibDems gaining any further seats, but the fifth seat did go to the Tories.

Labour – 336,831 ÷ 2 = 168,415.5
Conservative – 423,174 ÷ 3 = 141,058
BNP – 132,194
UKIP – 261,740 ÷ 2 = 130,870
Green – 127,133
LibDem – 235,639 ÷ 2 = 117,819.5

That calculation ruled UKIP out of any further seats, leaving just Labour, the Tories and BNP in contention. The sixth seat went to Labour.

Conservative – 423,174 ÷ 3 = 141,058
BNP – 132,194
UKIP – 261,740 ÷ 2 = 130,870
Green – 127,133
LibDem – 235,639 ÷ 2 = 117,819.5
Labour – 336,831 ÷ 3 = 112,277

With Labour now out of the running, the seventh seat went to the Conservatives.

BNP – 132,194
UKIP – 261,740 ÷ 2 = 130,870
Green – 127,133
LibDem – 235,639 ÷ 2 = 117,819.5
Labour – 336,831 ÷ 3 = 112,277
Conservative – 423,174 ÷ 4 = 105,793.5

And so it was that the eighth seat went to the BNP.

Here’s the rub: Greens point out (rightly) that they were within a whisker of overtaking the BNP: just 5,062 extra votes would have seen them right. But that wasn’t the most efficient way to stop Nick Griffin: just 2,649 votes for UKIP (who would have taken the ninth seat the North West enjoyed in the 2004-2009 Parliament had it still been in place) would have put them ahead of Nick Griffin:

*UKIP – 264,389 ÷ 2 = 132,194.5
BNP – 132,194

Now, if you’re trying to vote against both parties, a Green vote would have made eminent sense. But if you just wanted to be sure of keeping Nick Griffin out of the European Parliament, it turns out that voting UKIP was the best way of doing that – not voting Green! To keep out an extremist, you had to vote for a second slightly less extremist.

Could that work this time? Looking at an average of some of the most recent polls (published this week) we can produce a back-of-the-envelope estimate of the result in the North West (this assumes a Uniform National Swing and turnout staying broadly level on 2009, so this is shaky, but it’s the best we’ve got to go on):

Labour – 530,236
UKIP – 495,548
Conservative – 317,150
LibDem – 137,101
Green – 89,199
BNP – 52,858

So the first seat would, on these figures, go to Labour.

UKIP – 495,548
Conservative – 317,150
Labour – 530,236 ÷ 2 = 265,118
LibDem – 137,101
Green – 89,199
BNP – 52,858

UKIP would take the second seat.

Conservative – 317,150
Labour – 530,236 ÷ 2 = 265,118
UKIP – 495,548 ÷ 2 = 247,774
LibDem – 137,101
Green – 89,199
BNP – 52,858

The Tories would take the third.

Labour – 530,236 ÷ 2 = 265,118
UKIP – 495,548 ÷ 2 = 247,774
Conservative – 317,150 ÷ 2 = 158,575
LibDem – 137,101
Green – 89,199
BNP – 52,858

So with five seats remaining, the BNP are still very much in a distant sixth place – unless no one is admitting to voting BNP to the pollsters, it looks like Hope Not Hate will get their way without any tactical voting and without the need for their campaign. Still, Labour take the fourth seat.

UKIP – 495,548 ÷ 2 = 247,774
Labour – 530,236 ÷ 3 = 176,745.333…
Conservative – 317,150 ÷ 2 = 158,575
LibDem – 137,101
Green – 89,199

If the polling is to be believed (and my little bit of electoral voodoo will in any way reflect reality), then the Greens have peaked too soon, and a tactical vote for them won’t do much good. And Hope Not Hate seem powerless to stop an extra seat for UKIP, who win seat number five.

Labour – 530,236 ÷ 3 = 176,745.333…
UKIP – 495,548 ÷ 3 = 165,182.666…
Conservative – 317,150 ÷ 2 = 158,575
LibDem – 137,101

So it looks like the LibDems have lost their seat. Labour take seat number six, making a gain on 2009.

UKIP – 495,548 ÷ 3 = 165,182.666…
Conservative – 317,150 ÷ 2 = 158,575
LibDem – 137,101
Labour – 530,236 ÷ 4 = 132,559

Labour’s third seat would be their last, and look where seat number seven goes: UKIP. We could go from one UKIP MEP and one BNP MEP to three UKIP MEPs – Hope Not Hate’s twin adversaries end up making a net gain.

Conservative – 317,150 ÷ 2 = 158,575
LibDem – 137,101
Labour – 530,236 ÷ 4 = 132,559
UKIP – 495,548 ÷ 4 = 123,887

The Tories would limp home for seat number eight.

And here’s the problem: it would take 13,216 votes – more than double the number of potential Greens who could have blocked Nick Griffin in 2009 – for the Conservatives to overtake UKIP. Firstly, it’s hard to envisage Hope Not Hate supporters voting Tory, and secondly, all that would do is mean the UKIP third MEP would occupy the eighth North West seat and not the seventh. Likewise, 28,082 extra LibDem voters (more than five times the number of extra Greens needed in 2009) would see them retain their MEP, but that would come at the Tories’ expense, not UKIP’s.

Five years ago, less than 3,000 extra votes for UKIP would have watered down the extremism in the North West’s delegation slightly, or just over 5,000 extra Greens would have counteracted it. In this scenario, for Hope Not Hate to have a prayer of success this time, they may need to get more than 40,000 left wing voters to hold their collective nose and vote for the Coalition parties in a fairly specific proportion. Even if they managed that, they’d have to be careful where that support was moving from: targeting Labour voters would risk them coming behind UKIP: about a fifth of their tactical vote would have to come from people who would have voted for the Greens, the Pirate Party or the Socialist Equality Party (or even No2EU), or people who would otherwise have stayed at home.

And even that would produce an outcome which five years ago, would have been seen as unsatisfactory: two UKIP MEPs in the North West. Hope Not Hate’s campaign can get rid of Nick Griffin, and perhaps activists barely need to lift a finger to do so. That would be good, but with a second UKIP MEP set to replace him, and the likelihood that the best they can do is stop a third UKIP MEP being elected as well. So if they’re to try this again for the 2019 Election, my advice would be that the campaign to roll back the UKIP advance start not in the Spring of 2019, but on 26 May 2014.

But what about how to vote tomorrow? My tactical voting recommendation is simple: given that the electoral process is simple, and entails nothing more than putting a cross in a box (it’s what they do with the votes after they are counted that is not), my advice is to keep it simple, and vote for the party you would most like to win.

Hate Not Hope?

In less than 12 hours, polling will open in the elections to the European Parliament, and aside from the various leaflets through the door, the main interaction I’ve had with campaigners has been on my commute, with Hope Not Hate handing out leaflets at Manchester Victoria yesterday morning, and newspapers outside Wigan Wallgate this evening. Their campaign, at least in the North West, is driven towards seeing Nick Griffin lose his seat in the European Parliament, with the secondary aim of limiting UKIP’s likely gains.

But for me, this poses a problem: with the exception of the Single Transferable Vote used to elect Scotland’s councillors and all of Northern Ireland’s elected representatives with the obvious exception of its MPs, where voters can deny candidates they find particularly abhorrent any preference at all, the electoral systems used in the UK offer no real mechanism to vote against someone, only for them. A vote for Party X is exactly that: one vote for Party X. It is not possible to cast minus one vote for Party Y. Bearing this in mind, I am forced to ask the question: what constructive role can Hope Not Hate possibly play in a campaign?

Hope Not Hate are campaigning for your support, but you will not find them on a ballot paper as they are not a party. Nor are they opting to endorse a party. There is an instruction offered – vote to kick the extremists out – but no guide as to how to do that. And tactical voting in a European election fought on the D’Hondt Formula is a messy business. So again, I have to ask: what constructive role can Hope Not Hate possibly play in a campaign?

Simply attacking UKIP or the BNP is not enough. Simply branding them racist is not enough. Simply not being them is not enough. Hope Not Hate are, ironically, offering plenty of hate for the BNP and UKIP, but they’re not in any position to present an alternative, so offer no hope. They are the reverse of what they claim.

Besides, with the major parties accepting the UKIP/BNP premise that immigration is bad, with a discredited Nick Clegg the only politician to make a fist of defending Europe (the Tories want to offer us either less Europe or no Europe, while Labour have spent the European election campaign talking about everything but Europe and European policy), only to fail to either restore his 2010 magic or even stall the Nigel Farage bandwagon in televised debates, and with the Big Three Westminster parties offering nothing more than to tinker around the edges of a tired status quo, unsatisfactory for many, it’s little wonder that people do listen to the extremists.

Are the voters racist? Maybe, but not necessarily. Are they xenophobic? Maybe, but not necessarily. Is their support a last-gasp action by straight white guys to preserve their privileges in society? Most of the straight white guys who might vote for the BNP or UKIP in areas like the North West weren’t particularly privileged to begin with: Labour took their vote as a given so shifted their policies to cater for the marginals in the South East; the Tories wrote it off, so shifted their policies to defend the marginals; and the LibDems might turn up if they’d come second in the previous election, proffering bar charts with an odd scale on the Y-axis rather than concrete policies as a justification for supporting them. So when, for the first time in a generation, someone wearing a rosette turns up and says, “I’ll sort things out,” while the mainstream parties refuse to even stand in the same room as them where so as to at least challenge their policies, it’s hard not to be tempted.

We shouldn’t need Hope Not Hate. We shouldn’t have anyone telling us how not to vote. We should have parties that have been there from the start, working in all our communities, engaging with the people, making a real effort to make their lives better, and presenting ideas for real change when it’s needed.

Hope Not Hate have been around for ten years. Why did I not see their campaigners when we all – whatever our background – needed more affordable housing? Or when we all needed more and better paid jobs? Our when our public services were being cut? Why, after ten years, have I only seen the Hope Not Hate banner when they needed us to do (or rather, not to do) something, and not at any point when they could have put their name to (or even been the ones to organise) campaigns which would have delivered hope and neutralised the extremists?

In short: what constructive role can Hope Not Hate possibly play in a campaign?

Westminster Waning?

Via the Manchester Evening News, here’s a story that may have passed you by over the weekend: the Department for Transport has agreed a deal with Rail North, an alliance of more than thirty local councils and transport authorities, to share decision-making on Northern England’s rail franchises, which are up for renewal in 2016.

Now, it’s clear at this stage that this is shared decision-making: the DfT still has a role and it’s not clear what will happen if the two bodies disagree; and this is an agreement, not law: it’s not set in stone. But still, it’s significant that the DfT now no longer sees itself as the sole arbiter of rail services in the country, and it’s a small triumph for the localism agenda.

A few things occur: firstly, this is represents another move on the part of the UK Government to chip away at the old Government regions, which are now used predominantly for statistics and the European elections. The membership of Rail North encompasses the entire North East, North West and Yorkshire and the Humber regions (as you’d expect), but also various northern midland counties, with Staffordshire taking part from what was the West Midlands region (leaving behind the metropolitan West Midlands, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire); and Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire signing up from the East Midlands, leaving out Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Rutland. A move like this, which crosses and even bisects regions on a matter as important as public transport helps to render the boundaries meaningless.

Secondly, it’s a step backwards in local accountability: John Major’s Government farmed out some Government functions to the regions; Tony Blair’s set up regional development agencies and regional assemblies and Gordon Brown even appointed Ministers for each Region, but with the exception of the Greater London Authority, the concept of a directly-elected Assembly that would oversee all regional functions died a rather humiliating death at the hands of the North East’s electorate, who were seen as the most enthusiastic supporters of an Assembly and still rejected the idea by a margin of more than three to one, with less than half of voters even opting to send the postal ballots back. But setting up what is essentially another quango comprised of representatives from the Councils seems like a retrograde step to the early days of the regions, and it doesn’t help that Greater Manchester has in effect returned to two-tier local government with the establishment of a Combined Authority, comprised of the Leaders of nine of the area’s councils and the Mayor of Salford. It certainly flies in the face of the UK Government’s ideas for more elected mayors and,of course, directly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners.

But there’s a more important point: this is part of a narrative that starts with the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales – the erosion of Westminster and Whitehall as the key centre of power in the UK.

Besides those bodies being created, and the GLA being set up, we’ve seen more powers move to Cardiff Bay and Holyrood, with more on the way to the Assembly and of course, a referendum on removing all Westminster authority over Scotland. And even if the No campaign win that vote, there’s been a remarkable shift in attitudes over the last 15 years.

Despite David Cameron’s protestations that the independence campaign is and should be a debate between Scots, it increasingly takes the form of Scottish and UK Government Ministers crossing paths and exchanging statements (William Hague’s visit being the most recent example). Labour, the official Opposition in both Parliaments, are involved in the campaign, but their involvement is getting increasingly overshadowed by the clash between the Governments.

When a row erupted over the regrading of GCSE exams, who crossed swords with Education Secretary Michael Gove? Was it then Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg MP? No, it was then Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews AM.

Who is touted as David Cameron’s most likely successor as Leader of the Conservatives? A sitting Minister? A Tory backbencher? No, Boris Johnson, Mayor of London.

And when David Cameron is on the defensive and needs to make a negative point about Labour policy, where does he turn? The Welsh Government under Labour’s Carwyn Jones.

But then, look at the Parliamentary CVs of the three main UK party leaders: of the three of them, David Cameron has the most experience, having been elected in 2001, four and a half years before he was elected Leader of his party and nine years before entering Downing Street, but has some experience as a Special Adviser to the last Tory Government. Ed Miliband was, of course, a member of Gordon Brown’s backroom team but didn’t get a seat in Parliament until 2005, five years before he assumed the Labour Leadership, while Nick Clegg was an MP for just two and a half years before he became Liberal Democrat Leader (though he had five years in the European Parliament behind him). The party leader with the most Westminster experience is the DUP’s Peter Robinson, who was first elected to the Commons in 1979 and would still be an MP today had the voters of Belfast East not voted him out in 2010.

Think about how much Parliamentary experience David Cameron’s predecessors as Prime Minister had before they entered 10 Downing Street: Gordon Brown had been an MP for 24 years, and a Government Minister for ten. Tony Blair’s first and only job in Government was Prime Minister, but he had been an MP for 14 years (and Leader of the Opposition for two and a half of those) before that. In fact, David Cameron is the Prime Minister with the least Parliamentary experience since William Pitt the Younger was appointed in 1783, almost three years after he was elected MP for Appleby.

So whichever way you turn, you see Parliament that is no longer the main source of authority in the UK, that Parliamentary experience is no longer a source of political credibility.

And there’s a wake-up call here, because whatever the outcome of the independence referendum, it’s not enough to replace just one centre of power – London – with three: London, Edinburgh and Cardiff. The regions of each nations have their issues as well, whether it’s public transport in the North (and believe me, that will just be the beginning: the Richard, Calman and Silk Commissions prove that this process just keeps on going), the Lerwick Declaration confirming the possibility of further devolution from Holyrood to the three Islands Councils, or the longstanding semi-detachment between North and South Wales, most recently evidenced in the Daily Post’s decision to cut costs by no longer distributing the paper outwith its traditional North Wales market.

But politicians in the three centres haven’t truly grasped that: the DfT has its vague ‘partnership’ with a quango; the Scottish Government has promised nothing more than a working group to the islands and Carwyn Jones is too busy trying to get Silk implemented and wading into the Scottish referendum debate to deal with the problems that come with being, in effect, the First Minister of one nation but two countries.

It’s not just the London-Edinburgh or even the London-Cardiff dimension that matters any longer: it’s the London-Manchester dimension; the Edinburgh-Lerwick dimension; the Cardiff-Wrexham dimension. But the continued focus on London as the centre of the multi-national Union means that it’s not entirely clear that Westminster, Cardiff Bay or even Holyrood truly grasp what’s going on and the regional questions within each of the nations are coming increasingly to the fore. And it’s going to take the dissolution of the London-Edinburgh-Cardiff nexus for policymakers to wake up and really deal with the challenges facing them in their own backyards.

Sure, if there’s a No vote in Scotland, there might (if the Better Together parties can actually be trusted to deliver on their vague promises of action) be a discussion of what else can move north to Edinburgh. But England has a diverse population of 53 million people, living in regions with different economic and demographic pressures. Scotland’s population might be a tenth of that but has a land area of half of England’s, with a large percentage of the population concentrated in small area in the centre, producing a small yet diverse nation with different challenges facing each region. And Wales has a lot of work to do before its North and South are as well connected to each other as they are to the likes of Liverpool and Bristol respectively.

So each nation has a lot of work to do to produce a method of governance that works for all the different regions, and it’s not the national constitutional question but the status quo that’s getting in the way of that, as it has done for so long.

Quite simply, we need a major event to shatter the complacency that dogs officials in the three governments.

Something that will change our perspective of the countries we live in.

Something that will force us to really think about who we are, and how we are governed.

And that event could well happen on the 18th of September.

Wicked Whispers

Which Labour MSP who, once upon a time, ran a blog with the strapline “Maggie stole my milk” today appears to be leading Scottish Labour’s online charge AGAINST free school meals?

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Expert analysis

I was fascinated by Tavish Scott’s op-ed in The Scotsman, which appeared online last night, in which he opines (once again) that one-party rule was hurting Holyrood, lamenting that it’s all gone horribly wrong since the SNP won a majority in 2011 (those pesky voters!), overlooking the fact that only one party had formed the Government in 2007 (albeit with a Parliamentary minority), and the 1999-2007 Coalition had rendered debate in Holyrood somewhat sterile before that. But never mind.

For those of you who do not remember him, it’s worth pointing out that Tavish Scott is a former Leader of the Norwegian Scottish Liberal Democrats. Let me now explain why he is the former Leader: an element of rot had set in before he assumed the role, with a net loss of LibDem seats in 2007, and the lost deposit in Glasgow East during the interregnum between Nicol Stephen’s resignation and Scott’s election. Scott was unable to stop the rot: his hardline anti-Government tactics backfired spectacularly in Budget negotiations; lost deposits followed in Glenrothes and Glasgow North East; Scotland became the only part of the UK where the LibDem vote went down in 2010; and the loss of more than two thirds of his Parliamentary group in 2011 capped it all off. He had no choice but to quit.

So it’s perhaps that the period around that election was such an emotional maelstrom that explains why he opens his article by misremembering the election of the Parliament’s current Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick.

Since 2011, Scotland has been ruled by a majority Nationalist government. In Holyrood, this meant the imposition of an SNP presiding officer. The only secret and so-called free vote was between Tricia Marwick (SNP) and Christine Grahame (SNP) to become presiding officer. Marwick won. Observers concluded that the SNP leadership wanted one of their own and Grahame did not fit that bill.

Let us begin by bearing in mind that if the SNP Leadership were capable of subverting a free vote and secret ballot, it would have been capable of preventing Christine Grahame’s candidacy in the first place, let alone stopping her from receiving 32 votes for the post. Let us also bear in mind that Jack McConnell attempted this very move as First Minister, when having appointed then Deputy Presiding Officer Patricia Ferguson as a minister, attempted to shoehorn Cathy Peattie into the vacant post ahead of Trish Godman. Godman’s candidacy never materialised, but neither did Peattie’s election: she lost to Conservative Murray Tosh by 68 votes to 45 (ultimately, Godman got her way in 2003 in any case). Now, it is entirely possible – indeed credible – to suggest that not a single Labour member voted for Tosh: the combined total of the SNP, Conservative and others, together with Labour’s junior Coalition partners the LibDems, would have had a majority. But Labour did have 55 MSPs at the time, so even if none of them rebelled, at least ten of them went walkabout when they were needed. That is what happens when Leaderships attempt to subvert votes in this fashion.

But I digress. Let us also remember that Tavish Scott is wrong in any case, for the choice in 2011 was not only between Christine Grahame and Tricia Marwick, but also Labour’s Hugh Henry, and that in this supposed two-horse race, Christine Grahame came third, with 32 votes to Marwick’s 45 and Henry’s 49. Now, note the combined total of the two SNP MSPs’ votes: 77. Let us, for the sake of argument, make a number of assumptions:

  1. That partisan calculations were the only arguments in play in selecting Alex Fergusson’s successor;
  2. That every member of the SNP was hell-bent on seeing their party seize control of the Chair;
  3. That every SNP MSP had entirely overlooked the merits of having a PO from the Opposition so as to enhance the SNP’s majority rather than reduce it;
  4. That Margo MacDonald was happy to get on board with this line of thinking; and
  5. That the Greens, who over the course of the previous four years had gone from ushering Alex Salmond into Bute House to seemingly lamenting every action taken by the Scottish Government, were also happy to get on board with this line of thinking.

You will notice my enthusiasm for these assumptions. But do the maths: there were 69 SNP MSPs then. There were (and still are) two Greens, and there can only ever be one Margo MacDonald. That makes 72. Who, then, were the other five to vote for them? Even in the final vote, Marwick defeated Henry by 73 votes to 55, meaning that at least one outright anti-SNP MSP backed Marwick. Partisanship was not the only factor, particularly as so many observers had noted the opportunity to elected a woman to the post for the first time.

So Parliament had more of a choice than Scott contends – and more than SNP members chose Tricia Marwick. But let us move on.

The Presiding Officer now proposes that Holyrood committee conveners could be elected by the whole parliament and not appointed by their parties. It is a reasonable idea. But only if parliament was to forget politics on the day of these elections, and that seems unlikely. Currently, parties are allocated conveners in proportion to their seats in parliament. That is a fair principle. Marwick proposes retaining that. A party then chooses a particular MSP to chair a committee. Instead, Marwick wants the entire parliament to vote in each convener. In the current parliament, that would enshrine power in the hands of the SNP whips and in reality, that means Alex Salmond. Nothing happens in parliament without Salmond’s assent. The SNP controls parliamentary business, votes and the timetabling of legislation. That is what one-party rule means. Marwick now proposes that a majority government would in effect appoint conveners of committees, thus enshrining patronage and loyalty. A minority or coalition government might ensure a more open contest.

Except on votes for the Chair, Parliament does forget politics, or at least, partisanship: the Cathy Peattie debacle of 2001, which saw Executive MSPs (whether Labour or Liberal Democrat) opt for an Opposition MSP to succeed Patricia Ferguson instead of one of their own; the 2007 election for the Deputy Presiding Officers in which two Liberal Democrats stood and between them, managed to get support from outwith their party in the first round of voting (though this may have fallen away in the second round after Jamie Stone was eliminated). It was forgotten to some extent in 2011 when not the SNP found not one but two women among its ranks to stand. Now, it can’t be completely forgotten in the race for Committee Convenerships as there is still a constraint on which party takes which chairs, but still, it is a secret ballot. And Whips cannot enforce it. How could they? They can neither reward compliant voting nor punish rebels, as neither can be identified. They will certainly have less influence on proceedings than they do now.

But, as always with Tavish Scott, the problem is not the proposal but the proposer: Marwick has to be politically neutral in her role, but for Scott she is still a Narionalist and therefore, she is The Enemy. She must, in his mind, always be wrong, and have sinister motives in mind. That her proposals for the next Parliament would take effect after an election must also be noted. He’s lamenting what effect the changes would have on a landscaped changed by an election more than two years from now, with two other elections and a referendum to come before then, by looking at what would happen now. Is he conceding that majority government is here to stay? Or is he lamenting that the voters behaved as they did?

The fact is that the system is what it is, and while successive Presiding Officers have sought to refine and develop it, MSPs – whatever their party – have to make it work regardless of whether we have a single-party majority, a coalition or a minority government. The system is built around what members require to do their jobs effectively, and taking the convenerships out of the Whips’ hands will surely push things away from the monolithic nightmare Tavish Scott sees. Instead, he’s opted to second guess the electorate. His argument seems to be, “We can’t reform things, as the public might vote in people I don’t like”. Some Liberal! Some Democrat!

The other downside to the proposal is the inherent failure of the Holyrood committee system. Holyrood does not have enough members to have separate legislative and select committees as Westminster does. So committees must mix cross-party, impartial inquiries with consideration of new laws. This tends to be highly political, irrespective of the colour of the government. All governments want their own way on legislation and whip the votes accordingly. Marwick has not proposed any reform to this.

So let’s see. Scott has identified a problem: the committees have to engage in both detailed study of their subjects and full-on legislative scrutiny. He may have misdiagnosed the symptom – that legislation politicises the Committee (it’s the Members’ political affiliation that does that) – but it does mean that there aren’t enough MSPs to have as many committees as are needed to carry out both the day to day scrutiny and the important pre-legislative work that was to be the cornerstone of the Committee system. But having identified the problem and the root cause – the lack of numbers – he then seems to be calling on the Presiding Officer to abandon her political neutrality and unilaterally demand that the Scotland Act be re-amended to increase the numbers. That is the only viable reform to this issue and it is beyond any Presiding Officer. If Marwick did attempt it, you can bet that Scott would be the first to criticise her for coming off the fence.

She has also rightly said that First Minister’s Questions does not work. Backbenchers are frozen out, as the party leaders take up most of the half hour allocated to allow Salmond to provide answers to questions that were not asked. There is one person who can do something about this: the Presiding Officer. She or he controls the format. If the First Minister or a party leader is waffling far from the subject matter, the Presiding Officer can stop them. A former incumbent says the day to get that right is at the first FMQ of a new parliament. Wise words.

And again, the Presiding Officer can only go so far: she has to enforce the Standing Orders. If the leaders are waffling at FMQs, how can she enforce a Standing Order to shut them up, if that Standing Order does not exist? Aside from the Leaders being more responsible themselves, that’s really one for the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, who have more influence on the format and structure of FMQs than the Presiding Officer, who selects the questions and keeps order. MSPs control the content of their speeches, not the PO. The SPPA Committee controls the format of FMQs, not the PO. But then, while Alex Salmond’s responses can be verbose, it takes two to tango: if the questions are long-winded, the answers will be as well. But Scott won’t blame long-winded speeches on the speechmakers if some of them aren’t in the SNP. Nor will he demand the Standards Committee do everything he wants because some of its members are not in the SNP. But Marwick is (or rather, was) an SNP member, so in Scott’s mind, she is not to be trusted.

And that, ultimately, is what’s really wrong with Parliament, and Scott is its leading proponent. When he was Leader, we heard so often about “Alex Salmond’s Referendum”. And even in this musing about Parliamentary procedure, the only names singled out are SNP names, Alex Salmond gets mentioned by name three times, and Hugh Henry appears to have been airbrushed out of Parliamentary history because his presence doesn’t support Scott’s argument. If you can’t win on policy (and Tavish Scott comprehensively lost on policy), attack the process. If you can’t win on process, attack the person. And if you still can’t beat the person, just tell an outright lie, as Scott did at the start of his article.

Scott presided over the near-wipeout of his party at Holyrood, but he has failed to learn from that electoral disaster that he way he did things was wrong. Instead, he has carried on as though everyone (including the electorate, who rejected his party and his way of doing things by a margin of more than eleven to one) is wrong except him. So let me be clear: yes, there is something wrong with Parliament. But it’s not the state of the parties, the election result or who’s in Government. It’s the Opposition’s obsession with the proposer rather than the proposal. It’s the unwillingness to let the facts get in the way of a hatchet job. It’s the unwillingness to come up with clear proposals on the way forward when carping from the sidelines will do.

No, what’s hurting Holyrood isn’t majority Government, but the same thing that delivered majority Government in the first place.

An incompetent Opposition.

Wait, What?

From today’s Daily Record:

The independence referendum will be the first time Louise Cameron, 17, sets foot inside a ballot box.

If she’s actually going to set foot in the ballot box, which is the small black thing we put the completed papers into, then perhaps we need to take a close look at the Modern Studies curriculum…

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