Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Liberal green taxes hit the poor, but so does global warming

It may not have been Ming’s High Noon, but it was arguably his Clause 4. The Liberals have left redistribution behind them - at least by the route of progressive taxation on income. Higher income tax was their most distinctive domestic policy at the last election - it was what made the LibDems different. Its passing marks a decisive break with the Left.

Indeed, the Liberal Democrats seem to have leapt to the other end of the political spectrum, over the heads of the Tories. For, if they win power, they will now cut the standard rate of income tax by 2 pence, raise the higher rate to #50,000 and cut corporation tax by 1%. This makes the Liberal Democrats the only major UK political party committed to tax cuts. Guess whose seats they’re targetting at the next election.

It’s left traditional Tories chewing the carpet, because of course David Cameron has refused to give any firm commitments on tax cuts. Gordon Brown is chewing another carpet because he realises there is no way he could switch the burden of taxation onto pollution in this way. Mind you, the Chancellor would insist there is no way the Liberal Democrats could either, in practice.

There is indeed a very large question about whether the Liberal Democrats are serious about green taxes. Under their plans, Mondeo Man will have to pay #800 for his Vehicle Excise Duty and 2 litre Focus Fella even more. Fuel will go up as the fuel duty escalator - scrapped by the Chancellor after the 2000 fuel protest - is restored. There would be hefty taxes on air travel.

Capital gains tax would also increase, and those on above-average earnings will pay more National Insurance contributions as the ceiling is lifted. This was something Gordon Brown also wanted to do, but he was blocked by Tony Blair on the grounds that middle class families would regard it as an increase in taxation. There is also a rather vague property tax waiting in the Liberal Democrat wings, and of course, local income tax could hit many middle income households.

The other parties are claiming that the Liberal Democrats would never have the will or the means to raise these very substantial indirect taxes, and that their policies are all pie in the environmental sky. The new taxes would hit the very “hard working families” that Sir Menzies Campbell claims he wants to help.

Think of it: no more holidays in Tenerife, no more spacious family car; huge increases in fuel costs, even more expensive houses and heating. And the problem is, if these taxes worked, and people curbed their addiction to fossil fuels, public spending would also have to be cut to match the reduced revenue.

Moreover, since the environmental taxes are not linked to ability to pay, they would hit less-well-off families harder than better off ones. The family car is a much bigger slice of a poorer family’s budget than a rich one’s. The wealthy will easily find the cash to licence their 4 by 4’s. The Liberal Democrats have not said how they would pay for the increase in public transport that would be necessary if ordinary people are to be priced out of their cars.

And why didn’t the Liberal Democrats opt for road pricing instead of vehicle excise duty? Could it be because this might mean Liberal Democrat councils would be obliged to support congestion-charging in future, in cities like Edinburgh where they have opposed it?

There is indeed an air of contrivance. of political expediency, about the tax prospectus which undermines confidence in the LibDem’s seriousness. Would they have the courage of their convictions? Would they really tax middle class families out of the skies? Or is this all a Mandelsonian exercise in sophisticated political spin, designed to make the Liberal Democrats appeal to Tory voters, with tax cuts, in Tory areas and to Labour voters with green taxes.

Left-wingers believe Sir Menzies Campbell is using environmentalism as a ruse to import a tax-cutting agenda, altering the philosophical underpinnings of Liberal Democracy. They may be right. If so, Britain faces an even narrower political choice at the next general election, with all three UK parties refusing to contemplate increasing income taxes, even as inequality in income becomes ever greater. Why couldn’t they have kept the 50p rate AND introduced green taxes?

All this may be true - but I think the Liberal Democrats are still to be congratulated for opening up this debate. In the very near future - unless the world’s climate scientists are having a collective delusion - all parties are going to have to introduce policies like these. The public may not realise it yet - but they will, once sea levels start to rise and house prices crash in flood plains and central London. When insurance rockets because of unstable weather and droughts wipe out English gardens. When countries like Bangladesh lose thirty percent of their land mass causing massive population movements. When the stock market goes haywire because confidence fails in the carbon economy.

The private car, as we know it, is doomed and international agencies will impose restrictions on air-travel if we don’t. In a few years, cutting C02 emissions will become the overriding priority of the entire planet. So, we might as well get used to it. The LibDems have given us a taste of the future - and it is green.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Proportional Representation will happen - if we make it.

It's enough to give the Daily Telegraph kittens. Gordon Brown and Ming Campbell, fixing the future of Westminster on their trips home to devolved Scotland. Well, they do talk, you know - a lot.

Campbell and Brown sit for neighbouring Fife constituencies, and they regularly discuss politics on the shuttle to and from London. Recently, a recurring theme has been "keeping the progressive forces of British politics together".

Now, Gordon Brown is, of course, opposed to proportional representation. But the prospects of their being some kind of hung parliament deal between Labour and the Liberal Democrats over PR may greater than Martin Kettle suggested in his column in Saturday's Guardian, even though, as he says: "Most Labour MPs oppose electoral reform on the turkeys-not-voting-for-Christmas principle, while a hard core of die-hard opponents would do everything they could to prevent it".

Well, exactly the same could have been said about Scotland, but here the turkeys did indeed vote for an early Christmas. Labour accepted electoral reform for the Scottish parliament as a result of participation in the cross-party Scottish Constitutional Convention in the late 1980s. Scottish Labour MPs and councillors were profoundly opposed to PR then, but as a result of the moral pressure exerted by Scottish public opinion through the convention, they were forced to accept the additional member system for Holyrood.

And here's the extraordinary thing: a majority of Labour MPs and Labour MSPs still oppose PR in principle, but they are still voting for an early Christmas. One of the achievements of the Scottish Parliament has been the legislation, passed in the last session, introducing electoral reform for local government.

In May, Labour will lose control of up to half its Scottish councils, when proportional voting is introduced for council elections. Hundreds of long standing Labour councillors will be looking for work. Edinburgh, which has been Labour since 1984, will almost certainly fall to a Libdem-led coalition.

This is something no one could have imagined ten years ago: that Labour would willingly renounce its hegemony over local Scotland. Many Scottish councils have, for generations, been effectively one party states. In 2000 in Glasgow, Labour won 94% of the seats (74 out of 79) on just 54% of the popular vote. Factionalism and cronyism was the only game in town hall. Not any more.

Right now, Westminster is rather like an old-style Labour authority, run by a Labour clique, exploiting patronage, secure in an absurdly inflated majority. This is not democracy, but elective dictatorship. There is an alternative.

Martin recycles the conventional wisdom that coalitions are unstable and provisional: "The deals, whipping and late night parliamentary dramas that go with minority governments will not restore trust in politics". Well, admittedly, restoring trust in government after years of sleaze, dodgy dossiers and spin is going to be a hard task.

However, the Scottish experience shows is quite possible for coalition or minority governments to provide constructive and effective legislative programmes. Moreover, Holyrood shows that the junior partner in a coalition can have considerable influence, which is why thinking Liberal Democrats remain very keen on extending reform to Westminster.

But Martin is right to say that a hung parliament in Westminster at the next election will not, of itself, lead to electoral reform. But it would provide the circumstances under which a determined cross party campaign - a UK Constitutional Convention on the reform of parliament - could make a big impact.

And Brown? It was division of the progressive forces of British politics that allowed Margaret Thatcher to rule for 18 years on a minority of votes. Labour may not like it, but if the choice is permanent opposition - as in the Thatcher years - or uniting the progressive forces to lock the Tories out of government indefinitely, I think Gordon Brown could be persuaded.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Blair's real legacy is devolution - funnily enough.

With the count down to the end of the Blair era well underway, the search for a suitable legacy for Labour’s most successful leader is becoming increasingly desperate. What is there in the trophy cupboard? The Millennium Dome? Hardly. ASBOs and the respect agenda? Please. The public service reforms are in trouble, and anyway borrowed from the Tory internal market. The economy and the Bank of England are down to Gordon.

No, apart from the Iraq war - the greatest foreign policy disaster since the Suez - there is very little for the PM to call his own. Except, strangely enough, a policy in which he has shown virtually no interest: devolution. Tony Blair has yet to visit the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, but when historians come to assess the lasting impact of his three administrations, they are likely to see home rule as the only thing that actually worked.

Devolution not only addressed long-standing Scottish grievances over the centralised state, it has broken the legislative monopoly of Westminster and opened a new democratic space in British politics. It has brought diversity to public service provision in Britain, brought democracy closer to the people, and arguably saved the UK from disintegration - even the SNP is reluctant to talk of independence these days.

Proportional representation has changed the character of electoral politics in Scotland by forcing parties to work together in coalitions. The extension of fair voting to council elections next year begins the long-delayed reform of the local state. New Labour used to talk about the “new politics” - well, you’re looking at it.

Unfortunately, Tony Blair has tended to see the nuisance rather than the new. He was furious at the Labour-led Scottish Executive for refusing to implement his market-centred health service and education reforms. Nor was he amused by the abolition of university tuition fees, free personal care for the elderly and a raft of progressive measures specifically rejected by New Labour for the rest of the country.

The Scottish Executive has challenged the UK Home Office over dawn raids on asylum seekers, and has been trying to pursue a more liberal immigration policy under the Fresh Talent initiative. Identity cards - if they ever happen - will not be compulsory in Scotland. The Scottish Executive has resolved to resist any new generation of nuclear power stations, unless or until there is a solution to the waste problem. If the Scottish Parliament hadn’t taken the initiative in pushing through the total smoking ban, it would never have happened in England.

But it is above all in the Scottish Executive’s resistance to Blairite reforms to schools and hospitals, with their focus on competition and choice, that Scotland is embarking on a very different social journey. Scotland, on the whole, remains content with one-size-fits-all comprehensives, albeit with ‘setting’ or ‘streaming’ for pupils of different abilities. There is little demand for hospitals to compete for patients, and most GPs favour the collaborative approach over the internal market.

Tony Blair sees all this as Old Labour, as state socialism, but it’s really a newer kind of New Labour. Regional diversity is itself an extension of choice. Why not allow Scotland to experiment with a more ‘European’ social model, while England pursues the ‘Anglo Saxon’ road? If nothing else it provides a laboratory for progressive alternatives. The puzzle is that progressives in and around the Labour Party, such as Compass, seem to be unaware that they are already a reality.

Scotland is not another country and the constitutional revolution will not stop at the border. Holyrood’s example of consensus politics will eventually fuel demands for proportional representation for Westminster, if for no other reason than this: had the House of Commons been elected under the Scottish system, leaving Blair without his inflated majority, Britain would never have gone to war in Iraq. And Tony Blair’s legacy would not be written in blood.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Can the Scottish Tories go Gay?

In future the Scottish Tories are going to have to learn to love homosexuals. Well, that’s surely the implications of the historic meeting between the Conservative party chairman, Francis Maude, and the gay pressure-group “Stonewall” on Friday.

I wonder what plans they to follow up the rapprochement with Scotland’s gay community? Will Annabel Goldie be piloting a phone in the Strathclyde Gay and Lesbian Switchboard? Or writing a column on ScotsGay magazine? Might MSP Phil Gallie be offering his services as a mentor to the the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Youth Scotland, which promotes homosexual awareness among young people? Maude made a point of visiting them too to show that Conservatives really have changed - in England at least.

For, most Scottish Tories still believe that introducing young people to gay ideas is practically paedophilia. They used to say that groups like LGBT groomed young people into homosexual ways, which is one reason Tories were so keen on Section 2A, the notorious clause which outlawed the teaching of homosexuality in schools.

The row over Keep the Clause seems like ancient history , but that’s the problem - in their attitudes the Scottish Tories are still living in ancient history. Just look at them: I'm told there are more Tory students these days but the public face is middle aged, middle class and generally male. Crusty lawyers, businessmen and masons, waxing nostalgic for the glory days of Thatcherism over a G and T in the golf club bar.

The “Dave” revolution has left the Scottish Tories cold - in deep freeze even. There’s no way they are going to start going around sympathising with single mothers, gays and greens. They want to get back to the old virtues of tax cuts, family values and law and order, which they see being ripped off them by Labour.

Indeed, I suspect a lot of Tory MSPs secretly yearn to be on Jack McConnell’s side of the Scottish Parliament these days rather than their own touchy-feely compassionate Conservative benches. If they were Labour they could still do macho things like cheer asbos, war on drugs, war on neds, war in Iraq.

Cameron has even deprived the Scottish Tories of their traditional platform as the war party. The Tory leader used his 9/11 address last week to attack American foreign policy, and Britain’s “slavish” pursuit of it. What defeatism! Tories used to have an absolute rule that you don’t question any war while ‘our boys’ are still fighting it - and dying in Afghanistan. It’s the kind of thing that Neil Kinnock used to do!

This is a living nightmare for your average Scottish Tory - an identity crisis, a collective nervous breakdown. Some console themselves with hopes that David Cameron is all front, a walking PR campaign, and that in a couple of years, the mask will slip and the “Liberal Conservative” will reveal himself as a true blue "Neo-Conservative". But I wouldn’t bank on it. As another Tory leader once put it: there is no alternative.

The Cameronians don’t even support cuts in public services any more. It leaves the Scottish Tories little distinctive to say apart from opposition to Scottish Enterprise and cutting Scottish MPs voting rights in Westminster.

OK, the policy of “English votes for English laws” is supposedly under review right now, but the chairman of the the Tory Democracy Commission looking into the West Lothian Question, Kenneth Clarke, has repeatedly said that Scottish MPs should be stopped from voting on English bills in Westminster. In July, David Cameron said he agreed, and that the Speaker should rule certain bills “English only”.

Similarly, Cameron is committed to reviewing the Barnett Formula on Scottish public spending. He promised in his speech in Glasgow that “we wouldn’t fall out about money”, but that remains to be seen. Labour will be able to accuse the Tories of offering Scots nothing but spending cuts and less say in Westminster.

Which doesn’t sound like an election-winning formula to me, or even a survival strategy. The Scottish Tories are already falling into the margins of Scottish politics, with some opinion polls showing them as low as 14%. There is a serious risk that the party could now be on a permanent decline, and that - rather like the Arctic ice cap - they may be gone forever in a generation. Something has to be done and done soon.

The Tories problem - as “Dave” conceded in his Glasgow speech on Friday - is bound up with the “blunders” they made in the 1980s. It was Thatcher’s failure on the Scottish question, plus her introduction of the poll tax to Scotland, that turned Scotland - which, remember, was a Tory country in living memory - forever against them. “Tory” became a four-letter word - it still is. Tories are the pantomime villains of Scottish politics.

They had a chance of a clean break in 1997 after the referendum result resolved the devolution issue once and for all. The Tories could have changed their name to the Peoples Party, or some such phrase, and ridden back to reality as a natural centre-right regional party. They didn’t, and despite insisting that they accepted the new constitutional arrangement, they didn’t change their political character.

Now, new Labour has swept in and taken law and order populism from them. David Cameron is washing his hands of them - unless they turn themselves into liberals, which they won’t. Many English nationalists in the Tory party want rid of Scotland altogether because in England the Conservatives have a majority of votes.

The Scottish Tories now have one chance and once chance only to get back in the race. They should accept the logic of devolution - as the former Scottish Secretary, Michael Forsyth saw it - and opt for independence. Many Conservatives in Westminster continue to believe that independence is the rational option for Scotland and preferable to the present half way house.

It wouldn’t necessarily mean they cease to be unionists. The Scottish Tories could call it “Independence in the UK” - maintaining the Crown, flag, currency and armed forces, but giving the Scottish parliament responsibility for its own affairs, across the entire range of domestic policy, and raising its own revenues.

Standing on your own feet, spending only what you earn, loving your country and uniting under the flag - these are enduring Tory virtues. If the Scottish Conservatives turned into the Scottish National Conservatives they could tap into the groundswell of support in Scotland, which now includes much of the business community, calling for a Scottish parliament with full tax powers.

The alternative is oblivion. Only something as radical as what David Cameron is doing in England will work in Scotland. By adopting civic nationalism, the Tories could remove forever the taint that they are “the English Party”. And Scottish Conservatism could finally come in from the cold.

Negotiating Trident away isn't such a daft idea

Jack McConnell can’t win. If he speaks about important moral issues like nuclear defence, he is attacked for getting above himself. If he avoids the issue, on the grounds that defence is not a responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, he is accused of moral cowardice.

Well, increasingly, on issues like asylum, immigration, Trident, Jack McConnell is prepared to speak out, and I think he should be congratulated for that - even by people who disagree with what he has to say. Last week he started a serious debate about the role of nuclear weapons in the age of global terrorism, addressing the concerns of the church leaders whose “Long March For Peace” arrived in Glasgow yesterday.

The FM, who was a unilateral nuclear disarmer in the 1980s, said that now believed that Trident should be used constructively in multilateral negotiations with countries like Iran who are trying to get into the nuclear club.

Jack McConnell was accused of “stupidity” by his Westminster colleagues for daring to discuss the uses of Trident at First Minister’s Question Time. How naive! How presumptuous! How dare this ridiculous little man intrude on these matters which are none of his concern!

An anonymous official in the foreign office was quoted as saying the idea of using Britain’s nuclear deterrent as a bargaining chip in arms talks was “completely ridiculous”. That the policy of the British government was to put pressure on Iran, not do some kind of deal.

But the idea certainly isn’t stupid or ridiculous - it is still the policy of the British Labour Party to use nuclear weapons in multilateral negotiations on arms reduction. Or at any rate this formula, which replaced the old unilateralism of the 1980s, has never been formally revoked by Labour. Now, these multilateral deals were intended to be with countries which already possessed nuclear weapons, rather than ones, like Iran, which are trying to acquire them. However, the principle is essentially the same.

It is certainly worth looking at, and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown has already looked at it. We know this because Brown had a number of in depth conversations on the matter with the late Robin Cook before the former Labour Foreign Secretary’s tragic death on a Scottish hillside in 2005. Brown spoke movingly at Cook’s funeral, and it was widely believed that, had Cook lived, he would have had a place in Brown’s cabinet.

In his final years, Cook had become a dedicated advocate of phasing out Trident. Moreover, he believed that Britain could become a moral force in the world by virtue of the manner in which we disarmed. Trident is an expensive anachronism, a deterrent which no longer deters, totally unsuited to the challenges faced by international terrorism. You can’t launch-multiple warhead nuclear missiles, designed to destroy cities, at al Qaeda or the Taleban. It would mean blowing up Pakistan as collateral damage.

As it is, the Vanguard submarines, which are of course based at Faslane in the Clyde, go out on ocean jollies where they cruise around a bit and then come home when they get bored. They can’t take part in exercises or war games, because there is no known military contingency for which they could exercise. The missiles are no longer targeted anywhere, because Vladimir Putin wouldn’t like the idea that finger trouble could obliterate Moscow, St Petersburg and Tashkent in about forty minutes. The idea of renewing this system at a cost of 30 billion is an offence against reason.

The only justification for keeping such a weapon, in Cook’s eyes, was to use it in arms decommissioning talks, rather like the ones that ended the war in Northern Ireland. That might seem fanciful, but nuclear arms reduction is not impossible. South Africa gave up her nuclear weapons after the fall of apartheid, and Ukraine did the same after the fall of Communism. Argentina and Brazil dropped their nuclear programmes after negotiating a non-nuclear pact.

It’s not inconceivable that there could be a similar pact between Russia and China, and between India and Pakistan. But it take someone to get the ball rolling, to show the world that the west really is serious about eliminating nuclear weapons from the world.

Brown is an internationalist and, unlike Tony Blair, an intensely moral individual. In the age of climate change and global warming the last thing the world needs is further proliferation of nuclear weapons. Yet in the present stand off between the Muslim world and the West, when even the Pope can provoke the wrath of Islam, there is a terrible danger of this clash of civilisations going nuclear.

Following the disastrous invasions of Iraq and the Lebanon, a nightmare vision emerges of an Islamic bomb facing a Christian bomb. Iran is determined to acquire nuclear weapons and argues, not unreasonably, that it is surrounded by nations that already possess them - India, Pakistan, Israel. If the logic of deterrence applies to us, then it applies equally to them.

It is hypocrisy for the West to lecture Iran on non-proliferation, and threaten invasion, when America and Britain are developing their own new generation of nuclear weapons, and making no effort whatever to dispose of their existing ones. We are in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which calls on nations to dismantle their own nuclear arsenals. This hypocrisy is clear to the entire Arab world, and it will make their determination to acquire nuclear weapons all the greater.

Brown is, of course now committed to the renewal of Trident. But he could use this an opportunity to downsize our nuclear deterrent, to make it compatible with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If he did this as part of negotiations with the Muslim world, he could make a huge impression on history.

Only if we address this moral question of nuclear equity does disarmament in the Middle East become a possibility. In a few years, it may be too late. It may be wishful thinking, but I suspect Brown - like McConnell - may be thinking right now about whether it would be possible to use the nuclear deterrent, constructively, as a form of bargaining with so-called rogue nations, to persuade them to put their own arsenals ‘beyond use’. It worked in Northern Ireland.

There’s some evidence that the chiefs of staff would not be unhappy at the prospect of saving the 4% of the military budget that goes on Trident and using it to buy something more useful - like decent boots and rifles and armoured cars in Afghanistan.

Brown is an internationalist and has already shown his concern for world peace and the alleviation of poverty. He is one of the few politicians on the planet who can speak on equal terms with the IMF and the wretched of the earth. Perhaps he should listen to the McConnell doctrine. It’s surely worth a shot.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The Scottish Media is Doomed.

We're all doomed - how often have we heard the Scottish media sound it's own death knell. But look around – the stench of decay is unmistakeable.

The Scottish press is engaged in a desperate war of all against all in a rapidly shrinking market. Scottish broadcasting is in a dreadful state with STV having given up the ghost and BBC Scotland forcing through cuts of 25% in its news and current affairs budget.

Just imagine if the BBC in London had tried to cut network news and current affairs by a quarter in an election year? There would have been a political outcry, a media firestorm. But the Scottish quality press has utterly failed to appreciate the significance of this act of cultural vandalism, even after the resignation of Blair Jenkins, the highly respected head of News and Current Affairs at BBC Scotland.

Collapsing the English language service of BBC Scotland (Gaelic retains its prodigious funding) is not just bad news for broadcasting. It will upset the delicate ecology of the Scotiish media. But the Scottish press seems too preoccupied by its own troubles to notice what is happening in Quen Margaret Drive.

The Scotsman has been suffering double digit falls in circulation over the summer, and the revenues of its new owners, Johnston Press, have plummeting by nearly a tenth as advertising evaporates. The Herald isn't in great shape either. The Record has capitulated to the Sun, and faces an uncertain future under Trinity Mirror, who axed the Scottish Mirror. The launch of evening cheapos by the Record - a vulpine attempt to feed of the decaying carcass of the Scottish evening press - will help no one.

Johnston have responded by appointing as editor of the Scotsman a local newspaper man who has no obvious familiarity with the Scottish political or media scene - Martin Gilson of the Portsmouth News.

"Life is Local” as the Johnston Press mission statement, puts it. Well, now we know.

Mr Gilson and may indeed be a brilliant operator, but his appointment was greeted by dismay among the Edinburgh chatteratti who fear that the Scotsman is being turned into another local paper, rather than a a forum for a national conversation.

Bring back Andrew Neil, say denizens of Barclay Towers, who are shell-shocked at the latest humiliation. At least he had national ambitions for the Scotsman and was prepared to pay for it, instead of syphoning cash to keep share-prices up.

The decline of great national papers is a matter of crucial importance to Scotland. The national media is disintegrating before our eyes, to be replaced by editionised English titles - Times, Daily Mail, Sun. This has real effects on Scottish civil society.

Speak to MPs and MSPs right now and they say that their constituents are preoccupied with immigration and the "swamping of Scotland". This has nothing to do with demographic reality and everything to do with the prominence given to immigration in the English titles, like the Mail and the Sun, which Scots increasingly read.

There is no immigration crisis in Scotland – we remain appallingly white, as Gregg Dyke might have put it – and the influx of 2,000 Polls has done nothing but good for the Scottish economy. But that isn’t what people are reading. The Scottish conversation is being hi-jacked by the racial obsessives of another country.

The Scottish political classes must wake up to the nature of the crisis and start to make waves before it is too late. The BBC is central to what happens to Scotland. It is what has been keeping the rest of the Scottish media honest. But increasingly the BBC is being reduced to a localized service.

Just look at the BBC Scotland website in which national stories are eclipsed by local tales about Edinburgh city parking arrangements and a school being closed because of a tummy bug.

This is what the BBC regards as suitable fare for Scotland's national broadcaster. Meanwhile, Scots put up with patronising and parochial opt-outs from Newsnight and the Politics Show. The Scottish dimension is being driven out of the Scottish media.

Pessimism may be a national sport in Scotland, but sometimes the doom-sayers are right. And they are right now.

The Scottish opposition parties could govern after May - but do they want to?

There’s only one question at the start of this crucial election year: have they got the bottle? Do the Scottish opposition parties really want to be in government after the Holyrood elections in May?

I’m afraid that the short answer is: no they don’t. Which is very unfortunate because a change of government is precisely what the Scottish Parliament needs. In fact, it might do the Scottish Labour Party good to spend a little time in opposition to discover what it really wants to do with devolution.

That Labour could be defeated in May is beyond doubt. All the evidence from opinion polls, local elections, by-elections like Dunfermline and Moray confirms that there is a strong “anyone-but-Labour” mood among Scottish voters. Party workers have deserted in droves.

Indeed, to hear some insiders speak you almost wonder if there is a Scottish Labour Party worth the name. If you stripped out elected members and their retinues, what would be left? Not a lot, perhaps. Labour doesn’t even have a lot of cash left for fighting the Scottish parliamentary election, following the cash for peerages scandal, which has frightened a lot of business donors away.

Jack McConnell can do very little about all this, since most of Labour’s troubles originate Westminster. The Scottish Executive has been performing pretty well of late, as the list of 280 achievements published by Labour last week confirmed. A lot of things are going right with the economy. But the voters are in an ugly mood and seem unprepared to give Labour any credit.

However, the likelihood is that Jack McConnell will lose the election but still remain in office government. This is because the opposition parties in Scotland - as I see them right now - are not in a mood for a change of government. That may seem absurd - what are political parties there for if not to win power? But that is to misunderstand the dynamics of opposition, and the challenges posed by coalition politics.

Let’s take a hypothetical outcome: Labour loses seven seats and is reduced to 43, the SNP get 36 (up 9); the Liberal Democrats 21 (up 3); the Greens get 10 (up 3) and the Tories get 17. Many would regard this as a serious rebuff to Labour, but it would still be the largest party and could continue governing with the support of the Liberal Democrats on a minority basis - perhaps with the support of independents like Margo Mac Donald who has fallen out badly with the SNP - provided the other parties didn’t get their act together. The Greens and the SNP would need need the support of the Scottish Conservatives to get near power, which isn’t going to happen.

Of course, if the Liberal Democrats went in with the SNP and the Greens, then a secure government majority could be formed of 67 seats. But that assumes that the Liberal Democrats want to be part of an SNP administration, and that isn’t at all clear.

Which would Nicol Stephen prefer? life under Jack McConnell, whom he knows he can do business with, or life under Alex Salmond, who is an unknown quantity and mistrusted by many LibDem MSPs? Look what the LibDems have got from Jack McConnell over the years: free personal care, tuition fees, electoral reform from local government etc.. They have been doing nicely under Labour.

Now, arguably, they should do even more nicely under the SNP because they share most of the nationalists’ policies: extending the powers of the parliament over tax, immigration , broadcasting and the like. Both parties oppose Trident and nuclear power, and both the SNP and the Liberal Democrats are unhappy with the authoritarian approach to crime and civil liberties. But there is one big issue between them that obscures all their agreements: independence.

The SNP are committed to a referendum on dissolving the union which must be held before the end of their first term of office. The Liberal Democrats, under their former leader, Jim Wallace, would not countenance any referendum on independence. They were opposed to any co-operation with the SNP so long as the nationalist sought to break up the UK. Wallace. This might seem like a bit of a contradiction for the Liberal Democrats, who have been happy in the past to support constitutional referendums. Why shouldn’t the Scottish voters have their say? But on this they are adamant: no deal.

So, the SNP would have to make some kind of move on the referendum issue if there were to be any prospect of an alternative coalition. Perhaps offering to delay the referendum until after the next-but-one Scottish elections in 2011. This would ensure that independence was not an issue in the first parliament of the Lib-SNP coalition. The Greens by the way already support independence, so no problems there.

This historic compromise would make a new coalition theoretically possible - but I see no indication of it being proposed. Neither party is giving any indication that they are even thinking in terms of a change of government in 2007. The SNP leader Alex Salmond might even face an internal revolt if he fiddled again with the referendum timing and appeared to be betraying independence. Many would be happier for the SNP just to maintain its purity in opposition and not have to bother about the compromise of office.

This is regrettable, if only because it represents a kind of betrayal of democracy. What is the point of people voting for a new government, if the new governors don’t want to govern? If both the Liberal Democrats and the SNP would, for their own narrow party reasons, prefer to stick with Labour what’s the point of their being there? This failure to explore the implications of the popular vote by the opposition will only fuel disillusion and cynicism about politics.

The voters of Scotland want a lead. They are dissatisfied with the lacklustre and under-confident administration of Labour, which has had too much of the air of the council chamber about it. Voters want a more dynamic and spirited political leadership, one which is not looking over its shoulders at London all the time. There are signs that the voters are overcoming their fear of independence also, and are prepared to explore further powers for the parliament, to make up for its deficiencies.

All it needs is for the opposition parties to give some kind of sign that an alternative is possible. Of course they can’t negotiate coalition before the election, but they do need to offer hope. The voters will do the rest.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Mirror memo reflects Blair's vanity

It would be tragic if it weren’t so funny. The Downing St memo on Blair’s last days reads like the curtain call for some Eastern European dictator. It is all about personality, about stage-managing the departure of the Dear Leader so that it creates maximum resonance with posterity. And as such it invites nothing but derision.

“Tony needs to go with the crowds wanting more” says the memo, “He should be the star who won’t even play that last encore”. Where have these people been for the last two years? The crowds aren’t calling for more, they’re calling for Tony Blair to go - now. The last thing they want is an encore.

At first, I thought this memo must be a hoax - they couldn’t be that stupid. Then Number Ten admitted that the document was genuine and entitled: “Reconnecting with the public - a new relationship with the media”.

But what kind of reconnection is this? Number Ten staffers have been busy scheduling final appearances for Blair on “Blue Peter” and “Songs of Praise”. Is this a bog roll and sticky tape leader who’ll sing his own praises on the God slot? Where's Cliff?

The memo talks of the need to ensure that Tony Blair is shot (presumably photographically) in suitable “iconic locations”, like the 20 landmark buildings constructed during his reign. Well, top of the list must surely be the Millennium Dome, since the PM said in 1998 that it would be “the first line of the next Labour Manifesto”.

This empty billion pound tent has stood as a symbol for the vacuity of the Tony years. The only prospect seems to be to turn it, for the benefit of John Prescott’s cowboy chum Philip Anschutz, into Britain’s first super casino. A rather apt metaphor for the insecure, self-centred, grab-the-money-and-run society which Tony Blair has sought to create.

The PM insists he hasn’t actually seen the memo, and that is probably true. But his character is reflected in the courtiers who surround him and who are paid to read his mind. This is what the boss wants - let’s give it to him. “His genuine legacy, ” continues the memo with unintentional irony, “ is not delivery...but the triumph of Blairism.”

What an astonishing statement that is. As if there ever were a “Blairism” - a coherent philosophy of government which marked the age, in the way that “Thatcherism” defined the 1980s. The only “ism” that defines this particular Labour leader is egoism.

It is this extraordinary vanity, this selfish obsession with personal image, that has caused almost the the entire Labour Party to join the chorus of Go Now! Even two key Blairite MPs, Sion Simon and Chris Bryant, have penned a letter inviting the PM to kindly leave the stage. It has been signed by a total of 17 Blairite backbenchers. This is like the Republican Guard calling for Saddam to step down on the eve of the American invasion.

Again, I didn’t believe this latest ‘letter to Tony’ until BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, confirmed that Number Ten had actually seen it. Loyalists then hastily put together a counter letter, signed by another 48 backbenchers, calling for an “orderly transfer of power”. But even this was a little ambiguous since just about everyone agrees that the main obstacle to that orderly succession is the PM himself.

This has been a pivotal week for Labour - the moment when the party finally lost all patience with Tony Blair. It is comparable to the Ides of November 1990 when Thatcher finally provoked her party into regicide. Yesterday, both the Blairite minister ,David Milliband, and the chairman of Labour’s National Executive, Sir Jeremy Beecham, effectively gave Blair his marching orders. Milliband said on “Today” that he couldn’t see Blair lasting more than a year; Beecham told “The World at One” that he expected Blair to make clear at this month’s Labour conference that he would not be attending another.

Trouble is, until Labour MPs hear it from the Prime MInister himself, they simply won’t believe it. We’ve been here too often before. It is going to have to be signed in blood - and signed soon. The alternative could be civil war.

Those inveterate Blairite outriders, Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn, have been urging Blair to remain for a full term and have launched a newspaper campaign calling for a kind of permanent revolution of Blairite modernisation.

They suggest that the gains of New Labour are in danger, and that there must be a “fundamental debate” about policy and party direction before Blair goes. Milburn warned in the Sunday Times of “electoral catastrophe” if the Chancellor didn’t join it. “Trappist vows of silence won’t do”, he said.

This thinly disguised attack on the Chancellor, who has been keeping own counsel recently, has infuriated many Labour MPs. The last thing the party needs is to be plunged into a lather ideological soul-searching just at the moment when the Tories are resurgent under David Cameron. Especially since there aren’t any recognisable issues of ideology dividing the party. This isn’t the 1970s. Gordon Brown isn’t Tony Benn. There is no “Alternative Economic Strategy” for a state-socialist Britain.

The Chancellor may use social democratic rhetoric now and again, such as at Scottish Labour Conferences, but he has been one of the most right-wing Chancellors since the Second World War. Brown has thrown open markets, let foreign interests buy British firms en masse, let the housing market explode, allowed income inequality to rocket. The rich have become richer under Brown than they ever were under the Tories.

Labour MPs can see this perfectly well themselves. They realise now that the threat to their seats comes not from the Chancellor, brooding away in his Fife fastness, but from a leader intoxicated by his own sense of destiny.

I have spoken to ministers of both sides of the supposed divide, Blairite and Brownite, in the last week, and the message I get from both sides is that Number Ten is undermining Labour’s case by a indulging in self-destructive negativity. There is simply no need to create this atmosphere of crisis, to suggest that Gordon Brown is a throwback to the past or that modernising reforms are in danger.

Some people are beginning to wonder if Blair has lost it. Has become Labour’s Tommy Sheridan. Like the former Scottish Socialist leader, he thinks the party belongs to him, and if he doesn’t get his way, he’ll take it away. Embattled by the war in Iraq and deluded by the adulation of hand-picked aides, Blair has become a paranoid leader, convinced that people are trying to steal his legacy.

The tragic thing is that if Blair had only been able to see past himself, he would have realised that his legacy was always secure - as the most successful Labour leader in history. It should have been as simple as that. Now he will be remembered for two things above all: the Iraq disaster, and the long good-bye.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

For God's sake Gordon, get on with it.

So, now we know. Tony Blair isn’t going, according to the Times on Friday. Oh yes he is, according to the Guardian on the same day. The PM has decided that it would be destabilising to give a timetable for his departure says one news outlet. But he has agreed to go next summer say the others - he just doesn’t want to make a fuss about it.

Tony Blair’s long good-bye is turning into a thundering bore. It is the most tedious story in British politics, yet it remains the only story in British politics. It drives the public mad hearing about his latest prevarication's; it drives hacks bonkers having to write about it.

I mean, how long can we go on alternating headlines about Tony going with headlines about Tony staying? We are caught in a loop - condemned to self-contradiction as every new briefing or interview reverses the previous one. But the trouble is, the entire political system is caught in this loop paralysed by the Prime Minister’s indecision. Nothing can get moving again until he goes.

In his round of pre-conference interviews Blair was playing the old tune about there being so much left to do. “Revolutionary” reforms in the health service, the war on terrorism, antisocial behaviour. But in the clearest sign et that Blair has been afflicted by mad-Prime Minister disease, he announced that he is going to tackle antisocial behaviour where it starts: in the womb.

Teenage mothers could be forced to accept state help before their children are born in order to prevent their progeny becoming a “menace to society a few years down the line” as the PM put it. If they don’t, they could lose benefits or have their children taken into care.

It isn’t clear exactly what kind of ante-natal intervention he has in mind. Perhaps they could be obliged to listen to improving recordings of the Prime Minister’s speeches on respect and community, much as middle class mothers used to play Beethoven to their unborn. Perhaps the intervention could be sterner than that. After all, if we know these children are going to be a threat to society and themselves, as the Prime Minister insists, why let them be born at all?

Of course, Tony Blair isn’t going to turn to eugenics - at least we hope not. But the idea of foetal interventionism is so Orwellian it seems astonishing that he or his advisers could have thought it was a sensible initiative to highlight at the start of a crucial parliamentary session. The idea was immediately dubbed the FASBOs - Foetal Anti Social Behaviour Orders.

Do Labour seriously believe that this rubbish is going to do them any good? The focus on crime may chime with public concern, but it also reminds people that crime is still a serious problem nine years after Labour came to power. Law and order initiatives represent a kind of anti-spin - they actually divert attention from the fact that, overall, crime is actually down in Britain.

As for the “revolutions” in public provision, I don’t know if the PM has looked recently, but things aren’t going well south of the border. PFI is becoming a national scandal as further evidence emerges - as in the recent Channell 4 “Dispatches: Public Service, Private Profit” - of the way PFI projects have been hi-jacked by sharp-witted financiers. Wards are being closed and operations cancelled as hospitals come to terms with their billion pound deficit. The six billion pound national computer system, which was supposed to make a reality of patient choice, is a disaster area with suggestions that it may end up costing over twenty billion. Many doctors still believe the new system will not work
The near impossibility of selling the PM’s modernising reforms suggests he will fall back on the war on terror to rekindle public passion for his leadership. We are promised a raft of new measures to make us safer and deal with the greatest threat “since the Second World War” as the Home Secretary John Reid put it. Expect 90 day detention to figure prominently in the forthcoming Westminster agenda.

But again, I think we have been here once too often. It isn’t so easy to scare people with the power of nightmares now that they’ve been living with them for five years. People have had time to consider the nature of the terrorist threat, and the likely impact on their lives There is clearly a threat from Islamist extremism in Britain, but the threat is thankfully a limited one.

We know what the terrorists can do - we saw it in London a year ago. But the phlegmatic British people brushed it off - as well they might since more people were killed on British roads that day than were destroyed by the bombers. The devastation caused by al Qaeda is very much less extensive than that caused by the IRA in the Seventies.

We are manifestly not facing a world war. There is no Muslim invasion force preparing to storm the English Channell. Moreover, people are increasingly coming to recognise, as opinion polls have demonstrated over the summer, that the government’s own policies in the Middle East have fuelled the threat.

Whenever the PM opens his mouth, he reminds the British voters of the reasons they don’t want him around any more. Or his 3,200 spin doctors and consultants. There is another agenda for Labour but it lies, for the time being, in the Chancellor’s head. Brownites hope that he has great things up his sleeve, comparable to Bank of England independence, to jump start his administration. Perhaps a reform of the Lords, a mass house-building programme, rebuilding the railways. But the truth is that no one really knows what is going on in Gordon’s skull. His silence is as conspicuous as ever.

The Chancellor is avoiding any public endorsement of Blair’s latest ‘come back’ programme, presumably as a mute commentary on what he thinks of it. Some believe he is keeping quiet about his own plans in case Tony Blair steals them, as he did the pension reforms. But Brown will have to break his silence at the Labour party conference later this month. He will have to give some idea of what the country, and the party, can expect under his leadership. At the very least he has to give some hope that there IS an alternative to Blair, and that Trident replacement and nuclear power isn’t the sum total of his vision. For the real nightmare in Downing St is the possibility that the Chancellor doesn’t really have any alternatives. That he will just continue with the same old neo-liberal economic policies, the flexible labour market, PFI (which he strongly supports), and ever more complex schemes of personal taxation.

The speculation has been going on so long now that it will almost certainly be an anticlimax when Brown does finally get the keys to Number Ten. Perhaps this is what Tony Blari intended. It’s only human to hope that your successor doesn’t outshine you. Has all the delay been designed to create a climate of uncertainty and speculation which will diminish Gordon Brown?

We know that Blairites want to lock him into “modernising” policies which allow Tony Blair to continue his rule after he’s gone. Do they also want us to get bored by Brown even before he’s in the door? Either way, Labour are now staring at electoral defeat as a result of this interminable succession crisis. And the rest of us are being driven quietly mad.

The immigrants are welcome here

There’s a newsagent on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile which sells foreign papers. These days, the vast majority of titles on sale come not from France or Germany, but Poland, bought by the thousands of Polish workers who have come to work in Edinburgh in the last two years.

Indeed, we may shortly discover that Scotland’s second language is not Gaelic, but Polish. Who knows - perhaps in a couple of years time, the Scottish Executive will be setting up Polish language schools and and BBC Scotland will be producing childrens programmes for them.

Well, why not? Scotland has long had a substantial and highly industrious Polish community. The arrival of a further 20,000 in the last two years - part of an influx of 32,000 from Eastern European accession states since 2004, is unprecedented in Scottish history and is changing the social landscape. It is part of one of the most dramatic migrations Europe has ever experienced outside wartime.

Last year, the UK registered its largest year-on-year population increase since 1962, largely as a result of inward migration, taking Britain’s population over 60,000,000 million. 427,000 Eastern European workers 600,000 if the self-employed are taken into account - are known to have come here and another 200,000 may be working the black market. The Labour MP for Southampton, John Denham, has said the true number is closer to one million.

So, should we worry? Does this amount to ethnic dilution, a “swamping” - as the former Home Secretary, David Blunkett once put it - of our culture by foreigners? Is it a form of social dumping, creating a reserve army of cheap labour which will force down the wages of indigenous workers, as some trades unionists fear?

Was it acceptable for the government to embark on a course that could fundamentally alter the social, economic and even religious complexion of these islands without any proper debate about the consequences? Finally, does Scotland need these foreign job-seekers while there are still tens of thousands of young Scots on job-seekers allowance themselves?

These questions certainly need to be answered, and I think they can be. Diversity has been good for Britain, and Scotland needs a lot more of it. But the task of arguing this has been made immeasurably harder by catastrophic mishandling of the politics of immigration by a government which is as incompetent as it is divided on the issue, and which has destroyed public trust by wilful misuse of population statistics.

It was, simply, the worst spin in history. Two years ago, the government forecast that the number of Eastern Europeans who would want to come here following the accession of 10 new states to the EU would be less than 20,000. The real figure has been forty times that. Running scared over asylum seekers and hostility to the proposed EU constitution, the government simply demanded numbers that suited its case.

The failure to prepare Britain for this great white migration, still less to argue the case for it, has had disastrous consequences. It has fuelled the paranoia of those who believe that the government has all along been lying about immigration and the implications of European integration. It has shattered the political consensus on the liberal left about immigration and turned discontent among the voters into outright hostility. A Mori poll last week indicated that three quarters of the UK electorate want now support far stricter controls on immigration. Worse, more than half have serious doubts about whether allowing foreigners to settle in Britain is good for the country.

The debate about Polish plumbers has become a kind of cipher for a wider debate on immigration which has been largely suppressed in Britain since the days of Enoch Powell. Look at the websites, the comments posted on papers like the Scotsman, and there is widespread hostility to the “scum” as one correspondent there put it recently. Because the new immigrants are white, it is possible to use language which would be unacceptable, or even illegal, if applied to black immigrants. There is a thinly-disguised hostility in the media. Last week the Scottish Sun ran a story claiming that Polish immigrants were accessing pornography on library computers.

The government has responded by sending out conflicting messages. There have been suggestions of a review of the entire policy of EU immigration from the Industry Minister, Alastair Darling. The Home Secretary, John Reid, has argued for curbing the influx from two new accession states, Romania and Bulgaria, who are due to come on stream next year. This infuriated the Europe Minister, Geof Hoon, who has been arguing that it would be illegal under EU rules for Britain to discriminate against any workers legitimately seeking work here. Since the government figures have been so manifestly unreliable, it is open season on forecasting how many Romanians and Bulgarians will actually come here, but the figure of 350,000 is in widespread currency.

The Left has been all over the place too. No longer do calls for curbing immigration come solely from right wingers, racists and bigots. The Guardian commentator, Polly Toynbee, has argued that, in future, immigration from accession states should be limited until their GDP is matches to ours. Workers in Britain should not have their wages depressed by the flood of immigrants from low pay economies, she says, claiming that the day rates of building workers have halved since 2004. They come over here...

But this is not just an argument about pay levels. “Social democracy”, according to Toynbee , “needs enough social cohesion to persuade people that everyone benefits when resources are more fairly distributed. But people will resent paying taxes towards others if they feel national borders are porous to the whole world” By suggesting that the very integrity of British society could be imperilled by immigration, Toynbee is treading ground which the Liberal Left in Britain has long feared to tread for fear of being accused of sounding racist. Indeed, this argument could equally be applied to immigration from non-white countries. But because we are talking about Poles and Lithuanians, rather than Pakistanis and Indians, it doesn’t sound like Powellism.

Toynbee’s arguments parallel those of the “progressive nationalists” like the editor of “Prospect” magazine, David Goodhart, and Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Racial Equality both of whom have been arguing for an end to multiculturalism. The Communities Secretary, Ruth Kelly, made clear last week in a speech that the government has now accepted that the policy of encouraging ethnic and religious diversity must now be reviewed by a new “communities commission”. That there must now be “creative engagement” with minority cultures and populations. Ironically, white migration has been the catalysts for a change in attitudes on the left to all forms of race and assimilation.

The Conservatives are watching these developments with wry amusement. The Right has been arguing for decades for controls on immigration, for restrictions on labour mobility in Europe and for an end to multiculturalism. At the last election, the Tory leader, Michael Howard called for a kind of ‘citizenship test’ for Asian immigrants and was widely accused of “playing the race card”. The Tories were also criticised for forecasting that immigration from Eastern Europe would be far higher than the government forecast, though even they underestimated the scale of the influx by three hundred percent. No wonder the Daily Telegraph has been saying; “told you so”.

So, has the Right won the argument? Are we all Powellites now? No - the fact that the government has failed to mount the progressive case for immigration, doesn’t mean that it falls by default. For, far from destroying Britain, the recent inward migration is a tribute to the dynamism of the British economy under Labour, and its extraordinary capacity to generate jobs. The economic boom which has made Britain so wealthy in the last decade could not have happened without an influx of flexible and committed Labour prepared to turn its hand to virtually anything and willing to move to where the jobs are. Unfortunately, the government has failed to make this case effectively, partly because of the absence of the Chancellor.

Migration is one problem that the other big EU economies would love to have. It is a sign that Europe really is working.
In the 1990s, those who argued against European monetary integration said that it would create mismatches between investment and population. It was thought that people wouldn’t travel long distances, uproot their families, or live away from home for long periods. Therefore, it was argued, there would be overheating in economies which were booming, and in the slow-lane economies of Europe there would be slump and depression.

Well, the eurosceptics were wrong. Clearly, there is formidable mobility of Labour within the EU. People are prepared to travel thousands of miles to go to where the jobs are - and right now, the jobs are in Britain, particularly in Scotland. The latest job market figures indicate that nearly a half of Scottish companies have vacancies right now. Scotland is finally beginning to attract more immigrants, proportionately, than England.

But won’t this place a burden on Scotland? The idea that immigrants are a drain on the welfare state is nonsense. First of all, they don’t qualify for unemployment benefits, or housing benefits in their first four years. Most of the immigrants from Eastern Europe are young and single and most of the rest have families back home which they support with their earnings.

But they also support Scotland’s old and sick. This is because, according to the government’s own figures, the average new immigrant pays higher taxes than we do: #112 compared to #100 for the average British-born person. The Polish plumbers do not qualify for all the tax credits and other benefits we enjoy but they still pay for them.

Of course, there is the paradox of British unemployment increasing while immigration is at record levels. But this is largely a result of an inability of the British economy to find the kind of jobs that British workers want to do. Yes, there is growing inequality of income, and the rich are getting richer in Britain. But that is an imbalance that should be tackled through the taxation system and by increasing the minimum wage, not by locking out non- British workers who want to work in the jobs we don’t want to do.

Diversity is generally a good thing, and in employment it is particularly beneficial. Incoming workers bring with them different habits and attitudes as well as new skills. The sight of Polish workers willingly taking on jobs that we consider menial and making something of them, is good for all of us. They are building the economy we have allowed to fall into disuse, and are filling vacancies from bus drives to dentists.

Many of the Eastern Europeans want to start businesses, and if we can persuade them to do so here in Scotland, so much the better. But they are much more likely to want to take their earnings and their enterprise back to their home countries, because that is where most of the new migrants want to settle. As they do this, the economies of the Eastern European countries will prosper, and GDP and wage rates will rise there. In a few years, who knows, we may be going to look for jobs in Poland. It has happened before. Remember when labourers on English roads were all Irish? Not any more. Go to Dublin and you’ll find a there are now a lot of London accents amid the day-glo jackets.

Of course, economics isn’t everything, and people shouldn’t feel that their their indigenous culture is being transformed without their consent But I don’t see any sign that Polish people are taking over Scotland and I don’t know how you would tell if they did. Increased attendance at Catholic churches doesn’t seem constitute a clash of civilisations. This migration represents a form of mutual economic co-operation and self help which benefits Scotland as much as it benefits Poland.

There’s an old Polish saying: “ The guest sees more in an hour than the host sees in a year”. Eastern European immigrants are helping us see Scotland differently. As for me - I wonder how long it takes to learn Polish?

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Spectre of Nationalism

A spectre is haunting Scotland - the spectre of nationalism. As Labour falters north of the Border, the SNP is rising in opinion polls. The latest, by Scottish Opinion, putx Alex Salmond’s party four points ahead.

All of which suggests that the best way to achieve success in the Scottish Parliament is to leave it. For, the SNP leader has, of course, spent the last five years in the Imperial Parliament in London, as a matter of his own free choice. Whatever, the SNP are on the march again.

The party everyone had written off three years ago, when it lost badly in the last Scottish parliamentary elections, is making progress again. With Scotland’s oil soaring in price, and with the Westminster government mired in sleaze and division, the Scottish Nationalists think their time may have finally come.

Suddenly, old arguments are being dusted down about whether or not Scotland could secede from the UK as a result of a vote in the Scottish Parliament, or whether Westminster would have to give its say so. The formal answer is that Westminster would have to endorse independence because constitutional matters are reserved. But in practice it seems unlikely that a Scottish Parliament, dominated by nationalists, would take a blind bit of notice of what Westminster said. The Scottish Parliament represents the people's will, and so it would likely pass an Enabling Act giving itself sovereign powers to dissolve the union.

However, it’s never going to happen like that - not in a parliament of minorities elected under proportional representation. The prospects for the SNP gaining an absolute majority in next May's Scottish parliamentary elections are practically zero. Nothing short of a Lebanon style invasion by an English army would cause Scots to vote in sufficient numbers to give the SNP more than fifty percent of the popular vote.

Labour insiders used to say that this was precisely the point. Stuck in a proportional Scottish parliament with limited powers, the SNP would never be able to break out of the limits imposed by the Additional Member electoral system. That the Scottish nationalists would be condemned to impotent fulmination on the backbenches of Holyrood, a secessionists faction permanently deprived of power. Ha! fiendish cunning, that Donald Dewar.

This belief that the parliament was “sorted” led Jack McConnell and his predecessors as First Minister to believe that Labour was likely to be in government indefinitely. Ten year plans abound. Jack McConnell ruminated in public a year ago about whether or not he should linger in office for a decade, or step down to give another Labour figure a chance.

However, the Scottish voters show no signs of being content to have Labour in office for eternity. Indeed, there are signs that the Scottish voter is heartily sick of its indifferent and unimaginative leadership and its connexion to the party of the same name in Westminster.

We saw in Dunfermline and Moray by-elections earlier this year just how ruthless the Scottish electorate can be. In Dunfermline and West Fife, the Chancellor’s home seat, Labour lost an 11,500 majority to the Liberal Democrats, and in Moray Labour was pushed into fourth place. The voters seem to want to punish Labour for being Labour. MSPs in the Scottish Parliament tell of voters hurling abuse at Labour politicians . Some complain that there is such a shortage of party workers on the ground that elected politicians are having to rely on heir extended families to get the message across.

It’s not just Iraq, but cash-for-peerages, privatisation, Trident replacement, nuclear power civil liberties, and of course Cherie’s #7,000 hairdressing bill, which may turn out to be the most expensive hairdo in history. So Labour can be beaten. The question is whether the opposition parties can get their act together.

If Labour is to be removed from office, the opposition parties will have to unite to lever it out. The SNP will have to lure the Scottish Liberal Democrats into some kind of coalition with themselves and the Greens if there is to be a chance of removing Labour from power.

At present, the Liberal Democrats are relatively happy partners of Labour in the Scottish Executive. Though the new LibDem leader, Nicol Stephen, is saying that Labour can’t take them for granted, it’s clear that most of his MSPs would prefer a stable arrangement with Labour than an unstable one with Alex Salmond and the Greens.

They don’t want to break up the union with England for a start, and both the SNP and the Greens want an independent Scotland. Moreover the LibDems have got a lot out of their eight year partnership with Labour - tuition fees, free personal care, reform of local government. It will take a lot to prize the LibDems apart from this embrace with.

Nothing is impossible of course. But the SNP would effectively have to give up on independence to enter government. Nationalism seems set to remain a ghostly apparition rather than a concrete reality.