An interesting take on Scottish, UK and international politics that hopefully stimulates a little debate on topics where there is too little debate.



Wee country with a big voice or part of a big country with a wee voice?


President Obama is in Australia this week and the talk is of the shift in the axis of world influence to the Pacific. However, the real story should be his comments on the crisis in the Eurozone and how this signals a realignment of influence in Europe. In particular he praised Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy for their effort to resolve the Eurozone crisis. Indeed, this shift was acknowledged by the Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf who said in relation to the crisis:

"The time for too little, too late has passed. What is needed, instead, is ‘too much, right now’. Power brings responsibility. Germany alone has the power. It is up to it to exercise the responsibility"

From the appointments of EU technocrats as Prime Ministers of Italy and Greece and the role Germany played in developments in these countries, we can further confirm Germany is in the driving seat of the EU. Angela Merkel made it clear at her party conference this week the direction of travel she wants to take the Europe: “The task of our generation now is to complete the economic and currency union in Europe and, step by step, create a political union”. Little by little, the falacy of UK influence at ‘the top table’ is being eroded, as the Tory-led UK Government further isolate us from the centre of gravity.

The Government in London seem perfectly happy for this state of affairs to continue, the more aloof we remain from Europe, the happier their backbenchers. Douglas Alexander, Shadow Foreign Secretary has accused the Government of ” a tendency to empty chair those meetings that seem to be on the periphery of our interest”. Whilst UK Ministers are in the building but not in the room, Scottish Ministers are battering the doors down to no avail. In her speech to the SNP Conference Elin Jones AM (an impressive candidate for leadership of Plaid Cymru) talked of her experience as Welsh Agriculture Minister and of how she and Richard Lochhead (her Scottish counterpart) would often have to fight with UK civil servants to even sit in the second row at EU meetings. The low regard with which the UK Government holds the EU is only matched by the passion of Scottish Ministers to stand up for Scotland in Europe.

In David Cameron’s speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet this week, his pandering to the right-wing Daily Mail-esque set was summed up in his blast at the EU: ”It’s the pointless interference, rules and regulations that stifle growth not unleash it.” Rather than reinforce the UK’s committment to the EU and attempt to bring public opinion on side, this serves only to reinforce the negative assumptions the public already have about the EU. In fact, for all it’s faults, the EU does a lot of good. Some examples of community laws currently being scrutinised by the UK Parliament include: a regulation to enfore the UN Firearms Protocol; a directive to create a single portal of business registers across Europe; and a Commission Report on animal testing for cosmetics. Not exactly Eurocrats gone wild? Furthermore, the EU also spends money right here in Scotland to create jobs and support businesses. As Alyn Smith MEP welcomed two days ago, €1.9 million is set to be spent in Scotland business spaces and community hubs, potentially creating 76 jobs. There are many areas of the EU that are not perfect but there are far more advantages to membership that disadvantages.

Reform of the EU is the real myth of UK politics, every politician likes to say ‘the EU must reform’ but very few can, or do, ever acheive this. David Cameron peddled this line in his speech this week, calling the Eurozone crisis “An opportunity, in Britain’s case, for powers to ebb back instead of flow away”. It should be pointed out at this point that the EU only as power over economic matters, specifically trade, competition, agriculture, fisheries etc. In terms of foreign affairs and defence it is only a conduit for cooperation of soveriegn nation states. So what powers does David Cameron want back? On this point politicians are particularly vague, none more so than those in Government. Moreover, how would you get these powers back? David Cameron need look no further than his Deputy Prime Minister who made a rare valid point in his speech to the European Parliament earlier this month:

"[I] feel that it is right to caution against returning to the EU’s founding texts without first seeing if we can meet these objectives through other means. Our priorities are stability and growth – and they are urgent.

To sit around tables for months on end, agonising over this article or that one, becoming engulfed in endless institutional introspection, would be a huge political distraction from the economic task at hand.”

For the first time in a long time “I agree with Nick”. We only have to look at the failed EU Constitution project and the lengthy (and costly) Treaty of Lisbon that was born from the ashes to realise that reform isn’t easy. The problem is there seems to be a growing Eurosceptism across all three main UK parties so the call for reform and repatriation is becoming louder, just as the current crisis makes it even less likely.

Reform, however, is not what is on the lips of Scottish politicians. Instead we have a pointless argument over whether an independent Scotland would even be a member. I say pointless for two reasons: firstly there is no legal precendant for this particular form of enlargment; and secondly there is no logical reason whatever the legal position, for Scotland not to have expedited membership. Nonetheless, let’s leave this argument to the lawyers and begin to debate what sort of member we want to be.

As the mythical power and influence of the UK ebbs away, the case has never been stronger for Scotland to be a wee country with a big voice and not part of a big country with a wee voice.

I welcome all comments and suggestions below. Let’s have a serious conversation about Scotland in Europe, not a distracting discussion on the legalities of membership.



New Post: Is David Cameron a Giant #Condem?

Only a vote for Labour can stop the Tories and secure the econom

The Scottish people woke up today to a beautiful sunny, blue sky. But they also woke up to an uncertain political future: the only certainty being it would not be what they voted for yesterday. The results are in and Scotland voted a resounding no to a Tory Government. Actually, a no to any sort of change - not a single seat changed hands from the 2005 election result. It’s as if the last 5 years had not happened: the downfall of Tony Blair; the SNP 2007 victory; the expenses scandal; the Tory revival; the LibDem surge. Nothing seemed to factor in Scotland except fear of a Tory Government.

The SNP failed to make much progress at all, gaining no new seats and losing Glasgow East. A work colleague said to me yesterday “I didn’t know you could vote or the SNP in this election, I thought it was for the British Parliament”. That just summed up the disadvantage the SNP had before they even began. Firstly, the three main parties did all they could to ignore the SNP who they said were “irrelevant” in this election. Secondly, the SNP and Scottish issues were excluded from the three leaders debates that dominated the election. Finally, their “local champions” campaign had no resonance with the electorate, who clearly voted for national parties, not considering the merits or otherwise of the candidates - which explains some of the disastrous MPs elected/re-elected in Scotland. However, it was probably the best shot they had.

Scottish Labour fought a campaign founded in fear - fear of a Tory victory - and it succeeded spectacularly. However, this did not stop the Jim Murphy and Iain Gray spinning a different yarn as the votes came in. Apparently, the SNP were not irrelevant, the people actually voted for Labour in disapproval of the Scottish Government! The Labour spin machine never ceases to amaze me.

Nonetheless, the result is worst for the Tories who only managed to hold on to their single seat, increasing their vote by a mere 0.9%. Like every other factor, the Cameroon revolution didn’t play in Scotland.

Steve Bell

So what does this all mean? Well it looks like nationally we are either heading towards a Tory minority government or a Condem Coalition. Neither result is what the people of Scotland want - the LibDems and Tories coming third and fourth respectively in the popular vote. Never mind the political crisis currently in SW1, we’ve now got a constitutional crisis in Scotland. The Tories have not just failed to get a majority in Scotland but, unlike their last stint in government, they can barely get one MP elected. A deluded David Mundell has suggested that Labours victory in Scotland actually gives the Tories a mandate to govern Scotland. I just don’t believe the people are going to buy it.

 For Labour the victory in Scotland is the electoral equivalent to Jim Bowen’s BFH (bus fair home), a consolation price after a disastrous defeat. In spite of a disappointing night for the SNP, the only person that can take comfort from the result is Alex Salmond. The result will bolster the argument for an independent Scotland, with pre-election polls suggesting a Cameron victory will make people more likely to vote for independence. The next few days and weeks will be very interesting and I think the only thing we can predict is that none of us can predict what is going to happen.



The State of #ge2010: Backing Change

It feels like there has been an earthquake. The earth has moved and changed the landscape forever, the political classes now survey that change trying to map out the road ahead unsure what the coming weeks will bring. Since the first debate the UK political landscape has changed: three party politics, for this election at least, has landed and Labour and the Conservatives don’t know what to do.

In the first few days the papers knew exactly how to react, their power over the traditional parties was being challenged and they were on the attack. The Daily Mail didn’t disappoint, accusing Nick Clegg of being “Johnny foreigner”, not fit to be Prime Minister. After the second debate they changed tack, in trying to reassert David Cameron’s front runner status, they asserted that he won the second debate, in spite of what the opinion polls said. David Cameron remains in first place but it did not halt the advance of Nick Clegg.

Both David Cameron and Gordon Brown are all over the place. In turn they are attacking Nick Clegg and trying to imitate him. They don’t know what to do. There is now the very real possibility that there will be a hung parliament with no party gaining an overall majority.

I believe that a hung parliament will be exactly the tonic that is needed after 13 years of a Labour government with a majority so big that parliament has been reduced to a law factory, without the need for proper debate over legislation. In a hung parliament parties are forced to work together, to take on board the strongest arguments, where only the best ideas become law. Yes, it won’t be pretty, there will be arguing and bargaining but it will be politicians fighting for their beliefs: that’s what the people expect of them. We don’t expect them not to argue just for them to be arguing over things that matter to the people of this country.

This can be achieved if the voters reject both Labour and the Conservatives. In my opinion for Scotland this means a vote for the SNP, Plaid Cymru in Wales and the Liberal Democrats in England. But the Green Party must have a voice in Parliament, if we are a modern, forward looking European country, the Greens must be represented, their leader Caroline Lucas  deserves to win Brighton Pavillion.

These parties embody the same basic principles: a strong believe in local democracy; in social justice; rejecting armed conflict and nuclear weapons; tackling climate change and in finding radical solutions to society’s greatest ills. I don’t agree with them all of the times, being on the fringes means their policies are not always necessarily achievable but if they are better represented their views can at least be heard and can carry wait in Parliament. 



#Trident and Failed: Well done @SNPOfficial and @Plaid_Cymru - excellent poster, excellent campaign. Sadly, the issue has only moved up the agenda because of Nick Clegg’s performance in the leaders debate. He made an excellent point though, why throw so much money at something that will probably be obsolete by the time its completed? Surely our experience with the disasterous Eurofighter typhoon project has shown such schemes as folly. Neither should we be swayed by the “jobs” argument. Alex Salmond has pointed out that in an independent Scotland, Faslane would remain the main naval base without nuclear weapons so most, if not all jobs would be maintained. 
Never mind the fact the biggest threats to peace in Scotland and the UK cannot be kept at bay with nuclear submarines. Gordon Brown said that Nick Clegg was a threat to the countries security because we needed nuclear submarines in case Iran gained a nuke. I’m no defence expert but what use are nuclear submarines against Iran? Maybe I’m wrong, please leave a comment if I am. 
The only country I can see the submarines being of use against is China, maybe David Cameron knew something we don’t?

#Trident and Failed: Well done @SNPOfficial and @Plaid_Cymru - excellent poster, excellent campaign. Sadly, the issue has only moved up the agenda because of Nick Clegg’s performance in the leaders debate. He made an excellent point though, why throw so much money at something that will probably be obsolete by the time its completed? Surely our experience with the disasterous Eurofighter typhoon project has shown such schemes as folly. Neither should we be swayed by the “jobs” argument. Alex Salmond has pointed out that in an independent Scotland, Faslane would remain the main naval base without nuclear weapons so most, if not all jobs would be maintained. 

Never mind the fact the biggest threats to peace in Scotland and the UK cannot be kept at bay with nuclear submarines. Gordon Brown said that Nick Clegg was a threat to the countries security because we needed nuclear submarines in case Iran gained a nuke. I’m no defence expert but what use are nuclear submarines against Iran? Maybe I’m wrong, please leave a comment if I am. 

The only country I can see the submarines being of use against is China, maybe David Cameron knew something we don’t?



The Pink Elephant In the Room: Gay Rights, the #leadersdebate and @SNPofficia

Pink Elephant

So finally, in the second debate we got a question on gay rights. But did it really get to the heart of the issue? Was it even answered?

Firstly, I take issue with the question itself, it bundled up gay rights with the Pope’s visit, the child sex abuse scandal, contraception in Africa and the Catholic church’s view on science. Why not ask a substantial question on gay rights? The question gave the leaders the opportunity to make completely uncontroversial statements about child abuse. The moderator, however, prompted them to answer the gay rights part of the question, only David Cameron dodged it this time. It seems David Cameron can only talk about gay rights when he’s talking to Gay Times magazine.

Nick Clegg talks with conviction about the issue and has the policies to back this up – full marriage equality stands out here. Labour have over the last 13 years have delivered on the issue as I’ve said before. The Conservatives, however, talk the talk but I’m not convinced their policies back this up. I don’t think tagging civil partners on to any old style Tory social engineering policy counts. One other example is their “Homophobic bullying” policy, which is actually a recycled “more discipline in schools” Tory policy given a PC slant. That’s not change. Homophobic bullying and policies affecting young gay people are the most important in this area, they must be tackled properly, we need new thinking because the old hasn’t worked. Politicians need to stop worrying about offending the Daily Mail crowd and more time worrying about the children of this country for whom this issue is the only one that matters.  Despite Nick Clegg’s new found fame, he is still talking about these issues, whether it is popular with all voters or not.

In this election, however, I have one big disappointment: the lack of any specific policies to tackle this issue from the SNP. The SNP is a radical party for which equality is at the heart of their policies but sometimes putting Scotland and independence first every time clouds out all other important policies.

I asked the SNP’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson,  directly “Does the SNP have a gay rights policy and if not why not?”, he said “We believe in a policy of equality and non-discrimination”.

He couldn’t name a single policy. Why?



Second #leadersdebate Instant Reaction

Going into the second debate Gordon Brown looked strongest, strangely buoyed by polls that, although putting him in third place, should result in him staying in office. Nick Clegg started nervously but grew in strength. I do think David Cameron did look weakest. He dodged questions that he didn’t like – notably on gay rights of which he didn’t mention – and he flapped when challenged. Cameron looked rattled, worse he tried to imitate Clegg and it looked wooden: he did Clegg’s “look at questioner, answer question, look into camera, talk to people” technique and it looked silly.  I don’t get the YouGov/Sun poll but as I said in my post on the last debate, debates will only confirm what people believe. Gordon Brown looked statesman like  - you’d expect that from a Prime Minister though wouldn’t you? Though this hasn’t helped him in the polls so far.

Even Alex Salmond managed a hit tonight in the post debate analysis. Producing an election leaflet from Gordon Brown’s constituency was genius. Whether this, or the debate itself has any impact, we’ll have to wait and see. After all, it’s only David Cameron that can secure the future for the future. 



The Great #leadersdebate

Hailed as a night that would change the face of politics forever, the first of three elections debates took place on ITV last night.  As intriguing as the debate was, and the aftermath over the winners and losers, I can’t help but feel that it was a bit of a missed opportunity.

Take the world’s leading change expert David Cameron.  

A man who has an absolutely appalling record across the board.

A man who left the European People’s Party, completely isolating himself in Europe before he has even become Prime Minister.

One foolish man’s actions, don’t just affect our relations with Europe, but also across the pond as the Republican’s have informed Cameron he must rejoin or they won’t play ball either. 

What’s more he’s pretty much aligned himself with the Ulster Unionists in Northern Ireland, promising to appoint cabinet members, which he suggests won’t affect the peace process at all?  Did Cameron and his clan not learn anything from John Major?

But that wasn’t challenged in the first of the three debates.  

Instead, Cameron focused his attention on nuking China.  Stating that we need nuclear weapons due to the uncertainty over our trade partner.  

If you hadn’t isolated enough of our allies before last night you certainly will have done so by now.  

I think it is clear that on the 6th of May 2010 we cannot afford to be short-changed. We don’t just need a leader with style, we need a leader that has a clear set of goals and vision that goes beyond polling day, because whomever wins needs to realise that the good will and Moet won’t be flowing for long.  Just ask Gordon Brown.



The #leadersdebate – What to Expect

There has been much debate about the debate, especially over whether the debate will actually excite and engage the public – David Cameron has said that he fears the public may feel “short-changed”. The rules do constrain the debate quite a lot, if you expect the kind of debates you see in the US you’ll be disappointed. Here’s the lowdown on the debates and the possible outcome of them:

·         The debate will be 90 minutes long. This will probably allow for between 8-12 questions.

·         The questions have been submitted by the public and selected by a public panel set up by ITV.  None of the questions will focus solely on a single leader or party. This will mean that it will be more difficult to hold one leader to account over particular policies such as George Osbourne was in the Chancellors debate over the NI cut.

·         Essentially this is a moderated town hall debate as the questions will be asked by the audience members and they must stick to the agreed question. It takes a very skilled interviewer to hold a politician to account but this debate will not allow someone to do this – as, say, Jeremy Paxman could. Nor will the public people able to harangue them in the way they do on Question Time.

·         The town hall format can bring with it pros as well as cons for the leaders. Bill Clinton famously showed his “man of the people” at a town hall debate but George Bush Sr.  equally looked out of touch in the same debate. Bill Clinton’s “moment” happened because he walked away from the podium and into the audience and any West Wing fans will remember the Santos-Vinick debate where they both started wandering around the stage. Interestingly, while the rules state that the moderator must stay on his podium there is no rule saying the leaders must do this – will anyone take the plunge? Most likely would be Cameron  as he does this regularly in his conference speeches.

·         The first half of the debate will be “themed”. In the case of the ITV debate tonight this will be domestic issues:

o   “including but not exclusively: NHS; Education; Immigration; Law and Order; Family; Constitution; Trust in politics; Political reform”

·         Expect “people power” to loom large especially in health and education – both Labour and Tories have focussed on this in their manifesto while the LibDems may be stronger on “cleaning up politics”. As I said in my last post gay rights may be a safe bet since the parties have put a lot of focus on winning the “pink” vote. However, it could make them uncomfortable, it’s ok talking about gay adoption to a gay audience but tonight they’ll also be trying to court “traditional family values” voters.

·         The second half of the debate will be “unthemed”. If they’re not talking about domestic policy I can only imagine this will focus on personality, qualifications and experience. This is always one of the clangers in US debates , no less so here when you see the gap in this area between Gordon Brown and the other two leaders.  



In It To Win It. The First #leadersdebate

Dale Winton

It’s going to be like one of those National Lottery quiz shows isn’t it? You know the one’s presented by some B-list TV presenter like Dale Winton where the banter is wooden and the drama non-existent. In the end the big “moment” is the lottery draw where 6 balls are chosen at random (Well Gordon might have a Balls waiting in the wings but who has the bonus ball?!) and someone wins the big money prize. Then again we don’t even get to find out who the big winner is.

In the case of the leaders debates we won’t find out the winner till May 7th. Definitely no big money prize here unless you count the £950.4 billion in national debt they “win”.

The big winner of the evening will surely be Nick Clegg.  Alistair Campbell points out that in the negotiations for the 1997 debates that never happened the LibDem leader Paddy Ashdown didn’t expect to be on an equal footing with the other party leaders. Notably absent from the debates (anyone surprised?) is Alex Salmond. However, he will appear in a special Scottish Sky debate - let’s hope it’s better than the BBC’s Politics Show debate (more One Show than Question Time).

What has been most interesting has been how they have been preparing for the debates or, rather, who they have been preparing with. David Cameron has been preparing for the Sky debate with Shadow Education Secretary Micheal Gove playing presenter Adam Boulton. Apparently, he’s also been putting a cushion up his jumper to better represent Mr Boulton’s rather portly figure. What Alastair Campbell fails to mention in his latest blog post is that he is actually playing David Cameron in Gordon Brown’s debate prep (can you imagine Malcolm Tucker debating with Gordon Brown??). An interesting post from the Fabian Society on Alistair Campbell’s role.

Finally, the New York Times has an article on the debates which reveals the help the candidates have been getting from accross the pond:

"Behind the scenes, American political consultants have played a central role in tutoring the party leaders. Anita Dunn, the communications director at the White House until last November, is advising Mr. Cameron, and Joel Benenson, who helped Mr. Obama prepare for the 2008 debates, is assisting Mr. Brown. "

One last point - look out for gay rights popping up in tomorrows debate. Nick Clegg would probably be the one to bring it up, especially knowing its his strong point and could be really weak for David Cameron. Especially given the press David Cameron has had on the issue in the last week.

Let’s hope it is a good debate and that in the end the public won’t need Mystic Meg to take a gamble on one of the three men.



New Year - New Ideas?

Poor old Gordon Brown; it doesn’t look like 2010 is going to be going to be a great year for him. After a decade waiting in the wings, GB made it into Number 10 but it’s likely that the removal men might be moving in sooner than he hoped.

Polls suggest it is David Cameron that will be moving in. Which doesn’t bode well for the UK. As much as DC has done well to change the image of the Tory Party: his party still favours big business over jobs; marriage vows over help for families; tax cuts for the richest and welfare cuts for the poorest. All this and it’s unlikely that Scotland will elect more than a single Tory MP.
But all is not lost for GB. He was once known for thinking outside the Red Box, maybe a bit of thinking like that could rescue him now.
Radical suggestion 1: he resigns. I know it’s been suggested a thousand times but hear me out! He resigns as Labour leader and calls a leadership contest, one in which he may stand. It’s all a bit John Major I know but it worked for him and he didn’t have the political savvy of GB (although GB is looking increasing grey). Regardless of whether he stands we can expect a good contest with the likes of Jack Straw, Harriet Harrman, Alan Johnson and David Milliband standing. With less than six months till a general election, the Labour contest would dominate the agenda for nearly half of this and a stronger leader would emerge in time for the election proper. It would give Labour the chance to not just debate policy but to communicate this to an electorate who are unsure what they stand for and how the coming decade could be better.
Radical suggestion 2: ok, so GB is still heading for defeat. But worse than defeat would be defeat in his own back yard. It’s likely the SNP will make gains in Scotland, which would only help DC. To pre-empt this he could call a multi-option referendum on Scottish devolution/independence. This shatters Alex Salmond’s plans for the next year and shows Labour is serious about the Calman Commission proposals for further devolution. Opinion polls have consistently shown that where Scottish voters are given the option of independence, more powers or nothing, the always chose more powers. In fact, why not even throw in a referendum in Wales to give them law-making powers like they are asking for? The Tories are making real inroads there and while this doesn’t directly challenge them it will put Labour in charge of the agenda. This will prove the Labour Party are really talking about real progress, and allow voters to influence change.
GB needs to do something radical so he owns the agenda or all may be lost.