Sunday, September 30, 2007

There was something alien about Brown's conference

It’s the eyes that are the give-away. In the sci-fi comedy Men in Black, you could tell the aliens who had stolen the bodies of earthlings because their eyes always behaved in inhuman ways. Well, the Brownite young turks have similar oracular ataxia - think of the thousand yard stare of Ed Balls, the manic gleam in the eyes David Miliband, or Douglas Alexander’s cross-eyed glaze, which makes the Development Secretary look as if he is too exhausted to see straight.

Everyone has praised Gordon Brown’s conference for its unity, cleverness and presentation. How he has shafted the Tories by stealing their clothes. But there was something alien about this Labour conference, a strange look in its eyes. They behaved a little like the Stepford wives, or some religious sect. Come to think of it, the last time I saw someone looking like David Miliband they were trying to sell me a copy of the Watchtower.

Gordon Brown is in danger of creating a party in his own dysfunctional image - full of eager-beaver acolytes falling over themselves to anticipate the whims of the Great Helmsman. The Stepford ministers seem to have erased all memory of Tony Blair, the leader they cheered to the rafters only twelve months ago. Blair has turned into a non-person, whose name they dare not mention.

It has become a bit of a cartoonist's cliché to portray Gordon Brown as Stalin, but the party conference seems to want to turn satire into reality by acquiescing in this monolithic style of leadership. Everything about this conference went too far. The egregious platform praise for Brown ; the airbrushing of Blair; the Schrummy rhetoric; the stifling of dissent; the recycled announcements; the cynical moralising; the desperate bid for the Tory vote; even the election speculation has been a tease to far.

I found it all a little scary, not least because of Gordon Brown’s discovery of the Bible. His homilies, parables and references to his father’s sermons. The “moral compass” that Brown has been brandishing at every opportunity, like some holier-than-thou prig who has a hot line to the almighty. I don’t remember Gordon Brown being a dedicated churchgoer - he certainly never admitted to it in his Red Paper days, or when Labour was in opposition. Perhaps he has been a closet Christian all his life, but that makes it all the more cynical, surely, to start parading your faith late in life purely for political purposes.

It’s the same with his Britishness. There were eighty one references to the “B” - word in Brown’s speech. He was using techniques of repetition drawn from American advertising, but it sounded neurotic, insincere, protesting too much. Then there was the ham-fisted celebration of John Smeaton, have-a-go hero of Glasgow airport. It was all so clunkingly, transparently manipulative. As Brown got up to speak, the colour of the conference stage backdrop changed from red to Tory blue to make sure TV viewers got the message.

I accept that Brown is a master politician at the top of his game, and all that. But is it necessary to bid so shamelessly for the Tory vote; to borrow Michael Howard’s “dog-whistle” - the practice of using ambiguous phrases phrases to communicate with the baser prejudices of Tory followers - and then blow it harder than even the former Tory leader dared in 2005? Howard never called for ‘British jobs for British workers”. Nor did he promise to deport immigrants selling drugs and firearms, making the dog-whistle elision of foreigners and crime.

Brown’s slogan “Strength to Change Britain” was pure Thatcher, and he had of course set the scene for his first conference as Labour leader by taking tea with Margaret. Like Thatcher, Brown is trying to appeal to the sections of the lower middle classes who like a strong leader who'll stand up for Britain and do something about immigration. But does he need to be so blatant about it?. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think that winning praise from Norman Tebbit is something a Labour leader should be proud of.

Of course, I can see what he is doing politically: trying to force the Tories to move further to the right by rhetorically colonising much of their ground on law and order, the family, immigration. The idea is that Cameron will now be under such pressure from his own people to counter this exercise in Labour cross-dressing, that he’ll be forced to take ever more extreme positions. Then again, he may not.

But a bigger question is this: what is all this spin doing to his own Labour Party? Stuffing all this Tory nonsense down its throat. Isn’t Brown in danger of dragging it to a position which is alien to Labour’s own roots and values? Brown’s yes-ministers have been trying to anticipate his every ideological move, eager to show their willingness to abase themselves. Thus we had Jack Straw ludicrously praising himself for being a “have-a-go hero” and calling for the law to be changed so that citizens have less risk of prosecution for attacking criminals. Only a couple of years ago, he was bitterly opposing Conservatives MPs for praising “have-a-go hero” vigilante, Tony Martin, who killed a burglar with a shot gun. Brown’s people may be delighted at the Police Federation, no less, are now criticising Labour ministers for being too right wing, but again I don’t think it’s something Labour should be proud of.

Nor should they be proud of the way conference has been emasculated. A couple of years ago we all attacked Tony Blair’s thought police for ejecting octogenarian Walter Wolfgang from the conference for heckling the foreign secretary during a debate on Iraq. Well, under Brown, there was no risk of that happening because there was no debate on Iraq, or any other issue of the moment, like private equity, low pay, immigration, Europe. Under the new conference rules debates of substance have been replaced by sycophantic interviews by television celebrities.

The abolition of debates and of votes may have made Labour appear more united, but it is the unity of the graveyard, because the annual conference is now dead as far as real politics is concerned. I don’t know how the broadcasting organisations can justify their coverage of this vacuous rubbish. The lights are going out all over British politics and not just because Hilary Benn is phasing out energy inefficient light-bulbs.

This is spin as we have never seen it before. If there is any doubt now about who was the true heart and soul of New Labour, it should be clear from this conference. Brown is a virtuoso of the dark arts of media manipulation and focus group politics. I just hope that, beneath it all, Brown still knows who he is, what he really stands for beneath all the triangulated Conservatism. After this week, I certainly don’t.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Wigs at dawn: why Lord Hamilton was right

Why do judges wear wigs? The same reason they used to pretend not to know about the Beatles - because they want to convey the impression that they are above and apart from society. Fashion and politics don’t influence them, for they are the guardians of the eternal flame of law - the nearest thing we have to divine authority.

And like divine authority, they cannot be second-guessed - at least, not by upstart law officers who aren’t even members of the Faculty of Advocates. So, when Elish Angiolini last month publicly challenged the decision of the judge in the World’s End murder case to abort the trial, wigs fairly flew on Edinburgh’s New Club and other legal watering holes. Who is this woman! By what right! Married to a hairdresser too!

Last week, the Scottish legal establishment’s top gun, Lord Justice General Lord Hamilton, delivered an extraordinary public rebuke to Lord Advocate Angiolini for trampling her kitten heels across the sacred divide. She had disrespected a the High Court, undermined the independence of the judiciary, and had taken unfair advantage of her seat in parliament to - effectively - murmur a judge. Now, murmuring a judge, for those not familiar with the term, was a criminal offence back in the days when journalists were not allowed to question a the rulings of a court. Nowadays, they don’t so much murmur as scream at the top of their voices.

Ms Angiolini, insisted that she hadn’t undermined the independence of the judiciary and had just restated the Crown’s view that the evidence against Angus Sinclair should have been put to the jury to decide. Most politicians and hacks tended to agree with her. Alex Salmond said that she had been “absolutely right” to make her statement to parliament. A clutch of legal pundits censured Lord Hamilton for going public in a fight the judges were going to lose. But I’m not so sure we are right to rush to judgement against the judges.

The wigs resent Angiolini’s access to the media deriving from her seat in parliament. And they have a point. Few of the politicians who commented on this row know the detail the World’s End case and why it was aborted - I certainly don’t - other than at the prosecuting counsel went awol and there were questions about whether the evidence was properly presented. That’s a pretty embarrassing state of affairs for the Crown prosecutors and their boss the Lord Advocate, who might reasonably be expected to want to cover her derriere.

But are judges to be allowed similar rights? They don’t have a right of reply, and cannot. I mean, just imagine if judges started holding press conferences to put their side of the story, to rebut what the law officers are saying in parliament? Pretty soon you’d have the legal equivalent of those daytime TV shock shows where people shout and head-but each other.

This isn’t really about the political independence of the Lord Advocate, but about the limits of public accountability. We live in an age of scrutiny, certainly, and the public expect people in public life to answer for themselves. But judges are not part of public life, in our system. If they were they might turn into politicians who have to weigh up how every legal decision will be interpreted by a fickle and febrile media.

It’s a curious and archaic convention that no one murmurs a judge - but it is not one we are in a position to abandon just yet. Time for Angiolini and Lord Hamilton to go out for a curry and a few pints to sort this out.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Will Wendy be spending more time with her family?

Could Labour really be in crisis in Holyrood after only a week under it’s new leader, Wendy Alexander? Well, it's beginning to look very like it. She’s had an appalling press over the weekend, a grim curtain-raiser to her first conference speech as leader today in Bournemouth. The headlines told of resignation, internecine warfare, cronyism, and incompetence.

Her own MSPs have started briefing against her; she looks likely to loose her communications chief, Brian Lironi, following a breakdown in relations; and her performance at First Minister’s question time has widely panned as a “disaster”. There are tales of lost tempers, late night texting furies, recrimination and confusion.

You have to wonder if Labour has acquired a death wish. How could they be so stupid, so irresponsible, as to plunge into another self-inflicted crisis just as Alex Salmond’s honeymoon was beginning to wear off? The Scottish Labour Party had an opportunity to make a fresh start with a new leadership and it is throwing it away.

How much of this is Wendy Alexander’s fault? Well, the problems in the Labour Party are systemic and can’t be put down to one individual, no matter how headstrong.. However, questions have to be raised about the way in which she has conducted the changeover. And I don’t mean the elevation of a substantial number of women MSPs in the Scottish Labour front bench - no one remarks on cabinets, like Gordon Brown’s, that happen to contain a preponderance of men.

No, this is nothing to do with her sex, or even her famously explosive temperament. It is all about her politics and the nature of her party. Above all it is her failure to delineate a clear political direction in Scotland. If team Wendy is fractious and embittered it is because it doesn’t really know where it’s going.

The first mistake was not to have a leadership election. Labour has an almost North Korean predilection for elections with only one candidate. Apart from undermining public respect, the lack of a contest meant that Wendy Alexander did not have to formulate a clear and expressive policy agenda, tested in debate.

Before she was elected, Wendy declared that she would be “uncompromising in my commitment to change”. “The road ahead for Labour” she said,”must be the radical road”. If you arouse these kinds of expectations, you simply have to deliver - especially when you are up against an SNP administration which is taking radical action on everything from local income tax to nuclear power; which has launched a major review of the constitution; and has put a bomb under every institution from BBC Scotland to Scottish Enterprise.

So far, her initiatives have either been tentative, counteproductive or essentially insignificant. It started with her brief campaign against “electronic stranger danger” which she launched on the eve of her election, claiming that “cotton wool kids” are more in danger at home than on the streets. Perfectly true, but since everyone agrees, more or less, with this proposition, it hardly marks out a distinct ideological territory for Scottish Labour. Similarly, everyone will applaud her call for affordable housing - but how? Abolishing tax breaks to second home owners? What?

Then, last week, she promised to drop her party’s emphasis on smaller class sizes. Why? There is perhaps an interesting academic debate to be had about just how important class sizes are in the learning process, but this is not the place for it. Teachers and parents are convinced that it is impossible to teach restless modern children in large classes, and so are the private schools - smaller class sizes are their unique selling point.

Worse was to come with the “Wendy house tax”. She announced a review of the council tax - no bad thing given its manifest unpopularity in Scotland. But in doing so she raised the prospect of a wholesale revaluation of Scottish property values, to provide the basis for a reformed property tax. Now, as it happens, I agree with her on this - you can’t have a tax on the value of houses which haven’t been valued since the early 1990s. But it is political madness to make this a defining issue in a new leadership since it arouses unnecessary anxiety among home owners already worried about their mortgages.

Wendy Alexander said she would be her boldest and most radical in her reform of the constitution. “A fresh look at the settlement holds no anxieties for me” she said, letting it be known that she supported “fiscal federalism” - a range of new tax powers to “strengthen the financial accountability of MSPs” . This really looked like a break with the past, a serious attempt to take on the Nationalists on their own ground, showing that the devolution settlement was not set in stone.

But what have we heard? Well, nothing - as far as I can see apart from inconclusive talks with the LibDems and the Tories. Yet, Ms Alexander had plenty of time on the backbenches to formulated a clear policy here. She even produced a Fraser of Allander paper in 2004 on fiscal federalism which talked favorably of handing to Holyrood control of taxes like stamp duty, excise duty, betting and gaming, and corporation tax. If she had really wanted to make an impact, why didn’t she get off the fence and back one of these options?

To be radical in this area you simply have to be specific. She could have said that she personally favoured, say, a share of corporation taxes to be raised in Scotland, much as is being proposed on Northern Ireland, or a share of oil revenues, or a beer tax to combat the drink problem. She could then have arranged with her mentor, Gordon Brown, for a Royal Commission or some such body to be set up to look at these proposals and make recommendations. You have to do more than just say you are going to be radical - you also have to act.

The root of the problem, remains her own inferior constitutional status within the Labour Party. Before she was elected, we were led to believe that Wendy Alexander was going to become, not just the leader of the Parliamentary group of Labour MSPs, but the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland. But we have heard nothing more about this. Instead we’ve had the Scottish Secretary Des Browne, putting her in her place and dismissing her own publicly-expressed view that “devolution is a process not an event”.

Like most in the Scottish media I have been willing to give the new Labour leader a fair wind, if only to allow some balance into coverage of Scottish politics. Alex Salmond has had it all his own way since May, and that is not how it should be in democratic politics. Everyone agreed that a woman leading the Scottish Labour Party is a good thing for Labour and a good thing for Scotland, where a lingering sneer of sexism is never far beneath the surface.

But Wendy has to do more than be female. She has to change the party too, and lead it imaginatively. If not, I fear we may find, after another six months of pointless rows, that history repeats itself, and that Wendy Alexander resigns - again - to spend more time with her family.

Why Brown should call an early election.

A week ago it looked as if the prospect of an early general election was disappearing like the deposits in the Northern Rock bank. But then something extraordinary happened. Black Monday became Brown Tuesday, as the first run on a British bank in over a century turned into yet another demonstration of the Prime Minister’s ability to handle a crisis.

Newsnight’s ICM poll on Friday showed that voter optimism about the economy has actually improved after Northern Rock. Labour’s lead over the Tories on the issue is now 25%. The economy has traditionally been the rock on which Labour governments foundered. Not this time. The rock has held in Downing St , raising once again the prospect of an election on October 25th.

As his first Labour conference as leader kicks off today in Bournemouth, Brown is keeping his cards so close to his chest that not even his closest friends can see them and most commentators still think he is more likely to delay than go. The PM likes to think of himself as a moral individual and he is worried about being called an opportunist, a political spiv, by rushing to cash in on his recent success. There is a tradition that governments with a comfortable majority stay in office for at least four years.

But some influential Labour people are saying he should reset his moral compass and start asking himself whether he has the right NOT to take this opportunity of winning his own clear mandate from the people. After all, he has become Prime Minister, essentially, through “buggins turn”, without an election in his own party. Only two months ago, the Conservatives were demanding that Brown hold an election to address his democratic deficit. Maybe they were more right than they realised.

There could be trouble ahead, and the Prime Minister needs to know that he chas the country behind him. Anyone who believes the banking crisis is over after the panic of Northern Rock hasn’t been reading the financial pages. The most likely outcome is a rise in repossessions and a fall in UK house prices - such is the forecast of no less a figure than Alan Greenspan, ex-head of the US Federal Reserve, and one of Brown’s financial mentors.

The geopolitical outlook is no less worrying, with an unstable American President staring at defeat in Iraq and yet actively contemplating a new war against Iran. The military situation in Afghanistan is going from bad to worse, and whatever happens there are likely to be many more British casualties - more than eighty have died already. The head of the army, Gen Sir Richard Dannatt has warned of a “growing gulf between the army and the nation” following the mistakes over Iraq. An election might show that the British people were fully behind this Prime Minister in this conflict in a way they never were behind his predecessor over Iraq.

Then there is the domestic front. Britain has changed in the past year, and there are serious questions being raised about the viability of the United Kingdom. There are nationalists in power in Scotland, and sharing power in Wales and Northern Ireland. The English Question has not been resolved, and there is unease about the voting rights of Scottish MPs in Westminster. There are are a number of people, not least in the Labour Party, calling for a referendum on Europe. Brown could make a strong case for holding an election now to resolve these and other constitutional issues, and to affirm the unity of the British nation that he talks about so effusively.

Those who think that the Prime Minister would not dare go to the country because of the SNP honeymoon in Holyrood are mistaken. In fact, wiser Labour insiders realise that an early election could be the most devastating way of marginalising Alex Salmond. Even with their growing popularity, the nationalists are unlikely to gain more than a couple of seats in Scotland in a general election. Many Scots who voted SNP in May, or who stayed away because of Iraq, would vote Brown in October. Labour would return with perhaps forty seats to the SNP’s eight, allowing Brown to claim that he had stopped nationalism in its tracks and demonstrated - without any need for a referendum - that Scotland was settled in its opposition to independence.

Brown has ‘connected’ with the British voters in a way no one expected six months ago, not even his greatest admirers. The “clunking fist” has been replaced by a sensitive politician with a sure touch achieving level of trust which few thought possible. Last week’s opinion polls were extraorindary, showing that the Northern Rock crisis has actually made Brown more popular rather than less. Newsnight’s ICM confirmed that 71% British voters are now confident about the economic future. Labour is back to an 8 point lead in the Guardian/ICM, and Brown has a commanding personal lead over Cameron. But what is more striking is that Brown is in he lead on almost every issue from the economy to asylum and immigration.

Brown’s handling of the foot and mouth outbreak and the English floods demonstrated his calm, unsensational authority - “Not flash - just Gordon”. He has also managed to finesse the withdrawal from Iraq without falling out with the Americans or appearing to sanction humiliating defeat. Brown has managed to communicate to British voters by a series of political gestures than would look contrived and shallow had anyone else tried them. For example, taking tea with Maggie on the eve of a Labour conference when the trades unions are already disgruntled over pay and changes to the party constitution. How does he get away with it?

Well, partly because people don’t seem to see through Brown. Most saw a Prime Minister magnanimously respecting an old adversary, perhaps cocking a snook in the process at the Tories, not a Labour politician honouring the great class enemy. It’s the same with the banking crisis. We suspend disbelief. Arguably, Brown should have been out there much earlier to calm Northern Rock nerves. But people don’t see this as political cowardice, but astuteness. They believe he was sorting things out behind the scenes, not hiding from the nation.

This kind of credibility is rare in modern politics and it is perishable. Events will eventually expose Brown’s more manipulative side, and the moral mask is bound to slip. But not yet. By seizing the moment, Brown could ensure another two terms of Labour government by winning a decisive early victory over the Tories.

Cameron’s experiment in Blue Labourism, already in difficulties, would be finished. After Cameron, there is nowhere for the Conservatives to go - they have had five leaders in the last ten years, and would likely split into the neo-thatcherites around John Redwood and the Notting Hill neo-liberals around George Osborne. There is no law says there has to be a Conservative Party in opposition, and it is possible that the Tories could go the way of the Liberals after the 1920s - into electoral oblivion.

Such an election could also establish Brown on the international stage as the moral leader of the progressive forces of the world a a moment of real danger. So, the question is not whether he should risk it, but whether he can risk not going for an early election. True, he has a comfortable majority and two years in hand, but these are unusual times presenting exceptional challenges. Go for it Gordon, you may never get a better chance.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

No one supports the unionist status quo anymore.

For once the hype was justified. “The most important debate the Scottish parliament has ever engaged in” said the Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie during last week’s debate on setting up a Constitutional Commission to extend home rule. She could be right. All the major forces in Scottish politics are now united as never before on the need to give Holyrood more oomph - to turn it into a proper parliament with full domestic powers and its own tax base. Even the SNP is part of the consensus, though Labour is trying to lock them out.

For hacks like me who have watched the battle for Scotland for over twenty years, this is hard to believe. Ultra-unionists like the Scottish Tories joining forces on the constitution with the ultra-devolutionist Liberal Democrats? Surely not. Michael Forsyth would be turning in his grave, were he dead. Annabel Goldie as a tartan revolutionary, a blue rinse madam Ecosse? Well, she delivered a powerful speech in last week’s debate, admitting past mistakes and conceding that home rule is a process that “dwarfs party politics”.

But Labour’s conversion is equally remarkable. Eight months ago it fought the Holyrood election with Gordon Brown ruling out any further powers for the parliament, let alone giving it a new tax base. Perhaps if Labour had proposed a cross party constitutional commission - as this column urged - before rather than after May 3rd, it might still be in power. It confirms everything we suspected about the Labour campaign - that it was driven by London Labour priorities rather than Scottish ones. Labour activists could be forgiven for asking why they had to lose the election to return to the mainstream.

But credit where it is due: Wendy Alexander boldly faced down her own boss, the Scottish Secretary, Des Browne, in her speech last week by declaring that devolution is indeed “a process not an event”. Browne had insisted in August that it was the other way round, and he even denied that Donald Dewar had ever used the phrase. She has also directly contradicted Gordon Brown’s pre-election veto on new powers.

This change has of course been inspired by Alex Salmond’s own “national conversation”, launched in August, which unlike the proposed Constitutional Commission is genuinely non-party, consensual initiative. At its launch, Salmond welcomed the participation of all strands of Scottish opinion, and pledged to work with any party which sought to extend Holyrood’s powers. “A government should never be afraid”, said Salmond, “to test its own preferred policy against the alternatives”. Unfortunately, this is a test the opposition parties have flunked.

Labour has drafted the terms of the proposed Constitutional Commission specifically to exclude any consideration of independence. This really doesn’t make any sense and undermines the credibility of the entire exercise. It really isn’t possible to discuss constitutional future of Scotland without considering one of the leading constitutional options. Their commission is to be funded by the Scottish Parliament yet it has barred the party of government. What are they afraid of? Surely the SNP has more to fear since only around 25% of Scots favour separation.

Wendy Alexander invoked the spirit of the original 1988 Scottish Constitutional Convention last week, but she really isn’t entitled to claim legitimate descent. That convention was a genuinely non-party body which invited the nationalists to the table; Wendy’s convention is a political device for marginalising the SNP. This is the reverse of what happened in 1988 when the SNP, under deputy leader Jim Sillars, boycotted the original Scottish Constitutional Convention, and opted for political irrelevance for the next decade.

Nor is it possible to take seriously an exercise that seeks radical constitutional change without consultation. The Liberal Democrats rightly see the starting point of the Constitutional Commission as being their own report on the constitution conducted by Lord Steel two years ago. It called for Scotland to gain powers not just over broadcasting, drugs and firearms, but also over things like welfare and immigration. In his speech on Thursday, the LibDem leader, Nicol Stephen, called for Holyrood to be given the power to raise personal and business taxes. It is inconceivable that the creation of a federal state - for that is what this amounts to - could happen without some test of Scottish opinion - without seeking the consent of the people of Scotland in a referendum. I can see no way that Westminster would allow it otherwise, and MPs are to have a say on the proposed Constitutional Commission.

Indeed, the participation of Westminster Labour MPs does also rather raise questions about the opposition parties’ sincerity. Many Scottish Labour MPs loathe Holyrood, don’t accept Wendy as their leader, and are hardly likely to endorse the kind of “devolution max” proposed by the Liberal Democrats. It is only a matter of weeks since the Scottish Secretary, Des Browne, was talking about taking powers away from Holyrood. Is he going to be part of the process he denies the existence of? The suspicion is that Labour’s real ambition is to indulge in a metaphysical debate about constitutional options which eventually endorses the status quo.

But that is no longer an option. The idea of a parliament living on a handout is now totally discredited. Labour’s own performance in office has been ample confirmation of that. The argument for tax-raising powers is now unanswerable, as Wendy Alexander has conceded. So is the case for powers like broadcasting to be repatriated to Holyrood. Merely by aligning the opposition parties behind these propositions, Labour has made them inevitable.

They may think they have outmanoeuvred the nationalists, but in reality they are playing into Salmond’s hands. He will simply welcome anything the commission comes up with. Indeed, SNP ministers haven’t ruled out participating in the convention in some way or other, for it presents no downside for them. They will embrace its findings as a constructive step on the road to self-government, furthering the case for a referendum.

As Annabel Goldie rightly observed, there are forces at work here which are above party politics and which Labour only dimly comprehends. Scotland has changed. The opposition parties have started something here which they cannot control, any more than the SN can. The collapse of the old unionist consensus will drive Scotland down the road of autonomy.

The only obstacle to this process is, paradoxically, the political parties themselves. We now have two parallel constitutional initiatives underway now - the SNP’s conversation and Labour’s convention - which may be going in the same direction, but which will spend much of the journey bickering and fighting with each other. This tribalism cannot ultimately stop the home rule process, but it could significantly delay it.

It is time, perhaps, for civil Scotland to come to the aid of the parties. To help them work together, at least to the extent that they agree change is necessary. The Sunday Herald will be hosting its own non-party conversation this week with civic bodies representing the major strands of constitutional opinion in Scotland. No options will be barred from this forum, and the only people not invited are politicians. Hopefully, through initiatives like this, a way may be found to save the political parties from themselves, and ensure that the process doesn’t become a non-event.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Petticoat strangle

Annabel Goldie called it “a petticoat strangle” with that slightly lurid coquettishness the Scottish Tory leader brings to parliamentary occasions. It was Alex Salmond’s final conflict with the women at First Ministers Questions. Petticoats at dawn - well, midday. Would Alex be able to hold up the y-front with pride, or would he go down, caught in a hail of underwear between Annabel and Wendy Alexander, the new leader of the Scottish Labour MSPs?

In a desperate attempt to switch metaphors, Salmond told Annabel that he felt a little like the “meat in the sandwich”. A curiously pornographic image flitted across my mind before the rest of my brain resolved not to go there. Certainly, Salmond looked the big enchilada as he batted away wee Wendy’s strangely ill-conceived attack on the SNP for allegedly wanting to remove universal entitlement to free central heating for pensioners.

Unfortunately, the government isn’t intending to means test free central heating which rather undermined the thrust of this line of questioning. But the Labour’s new Scottish leader went on with it regardless. Wendy is supposed to be much better at doing her homework than Jack the mouth, especially on economics, so it was strange that this first assault by the new Labour leader was based on someone in the Labour group being told that someone had heard the SNP communities minister, Stewart whatsisname, say something about targeting, er, something or other. Well. it’s an easy mistake to make.

Mind you, the viewers - and there are quite a lot of them actually - might not have thought it was such a push-pover for Big Eck. The dynamics of question time were subtlety altered by the presence of a woman at the head of the now almost entirely female Labour front bench. Apart from the odd token man, like Malcolm Chisholm, there is scarcely a boxer short left in the front rank of Scottish Labour.

What ever happened to sex equality? If it goes on like this it will soon be time now for all-male shortlists for Labour candidate selection. Groups of Weegian Labour numpties will have to start burning their boxers; invading women-only spas and nail bars; getting together in consciousness raising groups dressed in boiler suits with masculinist badges saying “a man needs a woman like a fish needs a bicycle”.

I don’t know if Salmond is into cycling, but he does sound a bit fishy, and he would certainly have difficulty riding Wendy Alexander. Perhaps I should rephrase that. He has yet to find a way of dealing with the new sexual dynamics of question time. It’s not so easy to crush women with those cutting put-downs for which the SNP leader is famous. Salmond found it noticeably easier to deal with the few remaining Labour men, like Iain Grey and Andy Kerr, who were left bruised and angry after feeling he back of the First Minister’s hand. You just can’t do that to a woman. Not nowadays.

Partly it is the apparent unfairness of the contest, since against the very large, male SNP leader, Wendy Alexander looks vulnerable and almost girlish, despite being over forty years of age. We all know that she can look after herself, but it looks a little unequal, and Salmond’s smirk of self-satisfaction doesn’t help. The danger for Salmond is that he looks either patronising or a bully. The SNP leader isn’t renowned in his own party for his subtlety in dealing with its female members.

Salmond hasn’t quite got the measure of the women’s vote yet, and the other half of Scotland is waiting to see whether he can get the tone right. So, following Annabel, you could say that petticoats are Labour’s new secret weapon. Except that, somehow, I find it difficult to envisage Wendy Alexander or Margaret Curran or Sarah Boyack actually wearing them. Or not wearing them. (This column will stop here owing to an excess of lurid metaphor).

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Will there be a run on Alex Salmond?

As the dark clouds dissipate from over the British banking sector, after the Northern Rock debacle, the Scottish Labour Party is looking for silver linings. After the first run on a British bank in over a century, the Scottish opposition parties are hoping that the next run will be on the SNP’s fiscal credibility. That queues will be forming of Scottish voters determine to withdraw their credit from the Bank of Independence and lodging it back with good old Northern Labour.

It was always going to be a very tough comprehensive spending round, with the new Chancellor, Alistair Darling, reining in spending to inflation plus 2% over the next three years. The SNP are already complaining that they are being held to 1% above inflation, a long way short of the 3% that the previous Liberal-Labour executive enjoyed and considerably less than the UK average. This means that it could fall to the SNP finance minister, John Swinney, to have to announce the biggest public spending cuts since devolution when he makes his first budget statement in November.

Questions were already being raised about the ability of the nationalist government to meet its election promises, which include abolishing student debt, freezing council tax, cutting class sizes, giving grants to first time buyers and hiring a thousand more police officers. Their pre-election statement on finance envisaged paying for all this through a heroic assumption of £2.7 bn in efficiency savings over the lifetime of the comprehensive spending review and another £500m through cutting the size of government.

Labour always claimed that this was pure fantasy and are now hoping that the SNP’s experiment in “progressive nationalism” will come crashing down to earth. Under their new leader, Wendy Alexander, Labour are holding tripartite talks with the Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Liberal Democrats to plan how best to make the fall as damaging as possible for the minority nationalist government. They intend to inflict a series of damaging parliamentary defeats in the run up to Alex Salmond’s black November.

The Scottish economy is peculiarly vulnerable to banking crises because financial services have been the big growth industry here over the last decade. A third of all new jobs have been created in this sector, and most of the rest were generated by the state. Edinburgh has boomed on the back of the Royal Bank’s emergence as one of the top five banks in the world. House prices have also rocketed in Scotland for the first time in modern history.

Scotland largely escaped the negative equity crisis that afflicted England in 1990, but Scots have got the borrowing bug and are extremely vulnerable now to any downturn in house prices. Values have been boosted by speculative money flooding over the border looking for capital gains. At the first sign of a downturn, this hot money may depart, leaving Scottish property prices teetering on a precipice.

What better end to Scotland’s experiment in nationalism than a full-blown credit crisis? say Labour. Repossessions and bankruptcies in Scotland are already increasing fast, and if there are cut backs in the financial services sector, that means unemployment too. The opposition parties can hardly believe their luck. Here is a chance, they believe, to kill nationalism stone dead.

But the SNP have seen it coming, and intend to mount a pre-emptive strike on the Treasury, challenging their spending numbers which, they say, discriminate against Scotland. They will also be demanding access to oil revenues and a more favourable distribution of tax revenues. The reaction from London will be abrupt and to the point: 'no way'. It is likely to get nasty.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Labour's Black Monday

“There are two kinds of chancellor”, said Gordon Brown famously,”failures, and those who get out in time”. No surprises for guessing which category Gordon fits into. And what is French for “apres moi le deluge” by the way?

Poor Alistair Darling (I still can’t get used yet to calling him the Chancellor) has been left to cope with the consequences of a decade of Gordonomics. The air is ringing to the sound of stable doors slamming as the livestock disappears over the hill.

Last week, Darling gave the City a stern lecture on how it wasn’t the government’s job to bail out banks which had indulged in irresponsible lending and borrowing. It was time to get back, he said, to “good old-fashioned banking”. The very next day, Darling began the bail-out out Northern Rock, a byword for irrational exuberance in the mortgage market. It had been financing its too-good-to-miss mortgages by dabbling in American sub prime. Borrowing short to lend long - the defining characteristic of irresponsible banking through the ages.

Reassuring words didnt' work, and after the first run on a bank in over a century, the government has been forced to guarantee the savings of every depositor in Northern Crock at a cost to the taxpayer of around £22bn. This was, indeed, Labour's 'Black Monday', when it was driven by events into taking an extraordinary gamble with the nation's finances. Never before has any government given a cast iron guarantee to honour the losses of a bank, indeed all banks, because Alistair Darling was forced to agree that 100% of all bank deposits are now guaranteed by the Bank of England. No wonder shares rocketed - it's now the bank of you and me.

It’s very nice of Mr Darling to use our money to bail out this company and its managers. I’m sure Northern Rock will be equally eager to help those low income home owners who will be unable to pay the increased mortgages rates that Northern Rock will be charging in future as it tries to rebuild its finances. Of course, everyone insists that NR is a “very sound, solvent business” with “solid assets and good prospects”. Everyone, that is, except investors, who have been dumping Northern Rock shares as if they were radioactive. If the FSA is right, and this is such a good business, why does it need to fall on the mercy of the Bank of England to avoid going bust? After all the banking scandals of recent years, it’s hardly surprising that people are queuing up to get their money out of Northern Rock’s few outlets. I would.

But, at least we don’t have any sub prime to worry about here do we? Good old British banks have been prudent lenders, ensuring that mortgages have only been given to people who have the ability to pay and on the basis of rock solid assets. Have they heck. In fact, the British banks have been throwing money at home-buyers without a thought for the consequences for most of the last decade. Just ring up one of the websites. You don’t even have to prove your earnings.

Even at the height of the ruinous US housing boom, American banks weren’t offering125% mortgages or six times earnings to people earning as little as £18,000 a year. Yet that is what British high rollers like Alliance and Leicester and Northern Rock have been doing. They have been “helping” first time buyers get onto the “housing ladder” by offering interest-only mortgages over forty years - mortgages which are so good you don’t even get to own the house after you’ve paid for it!

Irresponsible lending in Britain has prolonged the craziest housing bubble in the world. In America, house prices peaked eighteen months ago at average $267,000 dollars, that's only about £140,000 for a pretty substantial house. Here, that sum wouldn’t even buy you a basement in Edinburgh. Yet somehow we are told that the British housing market is more solid and values here are more reliable; that British house prices can only go up. Well, the laws of economic gravity can only be suspended for so long.

Politicians and central bankers are now beginning to realise the danger of having let the housing market get out of control. Prices have tripled in the ten years since Brown promised he would keep them stable in 1997. But Gordon’s bargain with the devil was that as long as house prices kept going up, the economy would appear to be booming. Cheap credit and house price inflation made everyone feel rich, even though we were building up £1.3 trillion in debts - debts which will now have to be paid now at higher rates.

Actually, if Northern Rock had been allowed to go under it might have brought some sanity into the housing market by precipitating the long-delayed fall in house prices. But following this rescue, political pressure is now mounting on the Bank of England to cut interest rates in order to keep the party going a little longer. With cheaper money, mortgages would become more “affordable” again and people will continue buying houses they, er, can’t afford.

To give him credit, Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, realises that this would only defer the pain for another few years, and so far he has resisted because he has a sense of history. Central banks cut interest rates in 1998 after the Asian stock market crash; they cut them again after the crash of 2000; and they cut them again after the last housing wobble in 2004/5. The cheap credit unleashed by these actions is the real cause of the American financial crisis, and now ours. But cheap credit is a kind of drug, and we are well and truly hooked.

What the credit crunch is really telling us is that the inflated asset values which underpin the debt economy are no longer sustainable. House prices must come down to earth - either by increasing the cost of borrowing or by allowing inflation to rip and eroding asset values by debasing the currency. Inflation is the weakest and sneakiest way of repricing inflated assets - inflation ruins savings and the livelihoods of people on fixed incomes - so it’s a slam dunk certainty that this is what the government will do.

Of course, the Bank of England is supposed to be the independent and resolute guardian against inflation, at least that’s what its charter says. But by saving Northern Rock it has blinked first. Other banks will see this as a sign that they can continue to behave recklessly secure in the knowledge that the Bank of England will come to their aid in the end.

But the inflation unleashed by cuts in interest rates could be sensational, for right now we are entering a much more expensive world. Oil is stabilising at prices well over $70 dollars a barrel with no signs of a fall, and food prices are increasing for the first time in a generation. A world wheat shortage has led to bread prices going up 25% and there supermarkets are forecasting a shortages in eggs and even bacon for the first time since the Second World War. Meanwhile, America is running up a huge post-Iraq deficit, China is booming out of control and world stock markets are all over the place.

It’s all beginning to look like a nightmare on Downing St..for Alistair Darling. But look on the bright side. Northern Rock may finally have crushed the prospect of an early election. If Brown went to the country now, it would look like panic, and voters might want to withdraw their political credit from the bank of Labour. You can’t call in the Bank of England to halt that.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Was Salmond Scotland's twelfth man?

No one said it; but it was in everybody’s minds. Was Alex Salmond the twelfth man? Had the Scottish football team in Parc de Princes been so inspired by the new Scottish government that they were moved to deliver the greatest Scottish sporting achievement in recorded time?

SNP MSPs are in no doubt that nationalism works on the football pitch just as it does in parliament. Fired with national pride and a renewed sense of destiny, the Scottish football nation has risen from the grave of unionism, to shine forth again as a beacon of sporting excellence. Well, at least until we get hammered by the Ukraine.

The message went out to all SNP MSPs to avoid triumphalism. It would be undignified to be seen making political capital from the miracle of McFadden. Some things don’t need to be said. But the smile on Alex Salmond’s face said it anyway at First Minister’s Questions as he congratulated himself, and the Scottish team for the nation’s growing confidence.

Labour looked on poisonously, like the losing side at an Auld Firm game. You half expected a hail of cans and coins. They’d been robbed of credit for the prudent and imaginative policies of the Scottish Executive which had been responsible for creating the best wee football team in the world. Aye, right.

Nevermind, Labour has a new coach now in the shape of Wendy Alexander. Unfortunately, the new Scottish Labour leader is agnostic about Scotland’s national sporting religion and doesn’t even support a team. Muttering nationalists sense that this could be another stick with which to beat the diminutive doyenne of New Labour politics. A gulf will opened between Labour and its natural supporters; a “footie gap”, which will be mercilessly exploited by the SNP. Salmond has been a passionate Scotland supporter all his life and used to figure prominently at international fixtures in a kilt and a bus, leading the tartan army.

Mind you, half the Scottish nation don’t follow football, most of them women voters, who don’t actually think that getting blind drunk, peeing yourself and missing your flight home is a manifestation of national greatness. Owing to a genetic disorder I too find myself curiously unmoved by watching twenty two overpaid men pat about for ninety minutes with only one goal to relieve the boredom. So perhaps Wendy is actually onto a winner in not being on the ball.

But the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, isn’t taking any chances. He took time off from his talks with new best friend Margaret Thatcher, to congratulate Alex Mcleish on his sterling achievement. But Brown has form. Remember the furore when he suggested that he would be supporting England in the 2018 World Cup? His enthusiasm for that Gazza goal against Scotland a his “greatest sporting moment” is believed by some to have been a major factor in Labour’s electoral collapse on May 3rd..

The truth is that football and politics do interact in mysterious ways, especially in small countries asserting their independence from large neighbours. Look at plucky little Lithuania, which emerged from Balkan obscurity to become a significant world player. Then there is smart successful Slovenia, a tiny fragment of former Yugoslavia where football has become a focus of national aspiration.

It’s not clear that small nations necessarily do better at football after independence, but there is no evidence that they do any worse. It’s a game of two halves. However Scotland’s return to form is undoubtedly a gift to the SNP, just at the moment when the post-election euphoria was beginning to wear off. Nationalism and football can be combined to create a sense of national renewal, and Salmond knows just how to do the old one, two.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Liberal Democrats lose the plot

Pity the Liberal Democrats. Ok, you might find that difficult, many do. But as they prepare for their UK conference , this once proud political party is in a dismal state, with a crisis of leadership at almost ever level.

Sir Ming Campbell is being portrayed as a geriatric nightmare; Nicol Stephen is little boy lost; even Edinburgh Council is a mess over school closures. The party is being flattened by the Brown bounce in Westminster; outmanoeuvred by David Cameron in English Tory marginals; elbowed aside by the Salmond machine in Holyrood.

Yet, it could have all been so different. Liberal Democrat politicians were offered positions of power and influence in the Welsh executive, the Scottish government and even in Gordon Brown’s cabinet. But in each case they declined to participate on the grounds that the other parties somehow weren’t good enough for them. In Scotland they wouldn’t even sit down with the SNP to discuss the possibility of a partnership. It is some achievement for a party that believes in proportional representation and co-operative politics to have walked out of three governments even before it served in them.

In Holyrood, as the party fortunes fall, tempers rise. Their normally level-headed deputy leader, Tavish Scott. has taken to accosting hacks - well me - in the Garden Lobby and accusing us of giving them unfair treatment. I had said that the party had lost the plot, and his behaviour rather confirmed it. Curiously, I don’t recall him complaining when I used to say that the Liberal Democrats had inspired most of the legislative achievements of the Lib-Lab coalitions. Labour MSPs used to berate me for being a “bloody Libdem”, now they just call me a card-carrying nationalist and “Salmond lover”. But I digress.

The reason why splendid isolation is not good for the Scottish Liberal Democrats is pretty clear from the recent opinion polls. You Gov in the Telegraph put them at 14% and a Daily Mail poll put them down at 8%. When they are out of government, it is very difficult to think of what the Liberal Democrats are actually for. They are an insignificant political force. In office, they meant something, made decisions, got policies enacted, like the Borders railway, which signalled to the voters that they punched above their weight. Now they just punch the air. And they don’t do that very effectively.

You just need to look at them. Ex Libdem ministers wander the lobbies like lost souls. The stentorian Ross Finnie looks like a deflated balloon, yet he was one of the longest serving ministers in the Scottish Executive and one who had a lot of respect from civil servants.

In an attempt to recapture lost glory, they’ve been looking to form some kind of shadow administration with Labour, but I would beware the motives of the other lot. They may be taking them by the hand the better to take them by the throat. Many Labour MSPs still resent their former coalition partners for resisting their vote-winning law and order policies, rejectng nuclear power, being equivocal on Trident and Iraq, and basically being a crowd of middle class bleeding hearts.

Anyway, it’s not quite clear what Liberal Democrats would do in Wendy Alexander’s big tent, since the they support most of the SNP’s policies, like local income tax, constitutional reform, abolishing graduate endowment etc., rather than Labour’s. About the only SNP policy they don’t support is the referendum on independence and that isn’t going to happen anyway. This was always the absurdity of their refusal to sit down with Alex Salmond to discuss a coalition. The Liberal Democrats opted out of power and influence because of a non-event. Now they are the non-event.

You can't have a consensus of one party

“I believe that [we] need a new type of politics which embraces everyone in this nation, not just a select few. A politics built on consensus, not division. A politics built on engaging with people, not excluding them. A politics that draws on the widest range of talents and expertise, not the narrow circles of power.”

Fine words, but who said them? No, it wasn’t Alex Salmond, though he has used almost identical language to describe the virtues of minority government. It was the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, announcing his plans for citizens’ juries to a sceptical Westminster last week.

And here is Alex Salmond announcing his risk-averse legislative programme in Holyrood last week and promising government which will: ‘propose and lead but cannot compel or dictate... one which persuades rather than one which asserts the domination of one party or coalition or one world view”. How strange that these two great political rivals are talking about abolishing political rivalry - talking same language of political renewal, of engaging the public, abandoning tribalism, using all the talents.

Mind you, many will say that talk is all it is. Cynics claim Salmond and Brown are just pursuing the old political game by new and subtler means. My own view is that they are both in their own ways sincere, but strangely naive about the nature and limits of consensus and consultation in an adversarial political system like ours. You can’t lead on your own - you need followers, and the rival parties are not about to fall behind Alex Salmond or Gordon Brown just because they’ve called for a new organic, whole-grain politics or put forward non-controversial bills. It takes at least two to consent.

Brown’s high-flown rhetoric came crashing down earth last week as the opposition parties trashed his citizen’s juries as glorified focus groups, and asked why, if the defects in our system of government are so serious, he hadn’t tried to do something about them over the last ten years. Labour has been talking about citizens’ juries almost as long as it has been in office, and Tony Blair actually set up a “Peoples Panel” in 1998 to involve the public in decision making. It died quietly some years later, only to be resurrected now, as a means - critics say - of lending legitimacy to policies that have already been decided, like nuclear energy. The juries will have no legislative role, and are for consultation only.

Similarly, Brown’s proposal for a Speaker’s conference on constitutional reform was rubbished, in much the same terms as Alex Salmond’s “national conversation” has been, as partisan - a cod consultation designed to furnish support for the government’s own settled views. Brown’s constitutional convention will exclude issues like Europe, the West Lothian Question and electoral reform from its agenda, let alone independence. The irony, of course, is that the Westminster opposition are attacking Brown in the same terms as the Labour opposition in Holyrood are attacking Salmond.

The First Minister received a pretty sharp lesson on the limits of the new politics last week at First Minister’s Question Time. He was mocked by Labour’s Cathy Jamieson for his failure to deliver manifesto promises on housing grants, more police and PFI which don’t actually require legislation. Not a lot of consensus there. When Salmond said that these matters had been put out for “consultation”, in line with the new politics of public engagement, the house jeered to the rafters.

Yet, Labour is clearly in the consultation game too - all the parties are. Consultation, consultation, consultation has become the great political cliché of the age now that politicians have given up on education cubed. For Gordon Brown it means citizen’s juries and a national debate on a written constitution; for the Liberal Democrats, as Ming Campbell will tell his conference this month, it means electoral reform and reversing the relationship between government and the people through a UK constitutional convention; and for the SNP it means a national debate on parliament’s powers and a new style of minority government based on co-operation rather than competition.

And for the rest of us it means a lot of long words which don’t mean a very great deal, because we see very well how the parties behave themselves in practice. Competition is written into the DNA of our system because winning elections is the first responsibility of any political party, and that means making promises to the electorate - promises which are rarely fulfilled. Oppositions see it, rightly, as their job to hold governments to account if they fail to deliver, and that is what the voters expect them to do. This immediately poses real limits to cross-party consensus and co-operative politics.

When he was challenged over his shelved promises, Alex Salmond responded to the effect that Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither can the new Scotland be built in 112; it is ludicrous for the parties to demand that all manifesto pledges are implemented immediately a new government takes office. Nevertheless, what politicians say to get elected matters. At a time when public spending is being reined in, there are real questions about whether the SNP can afford to deliver on the expectations it has generated on cutting class sizes, axing council tax, abolishing student debt.

Mind you, Labour can hardly claim that it has never made election promises which fall by the wayside. Remember Gordon Brown in 1997 saying that “I will not allow house prices to get out of control’; John Prescott saying that.”I will have failed if, in five year’s time, there are not fewer journeys by car” , Tony Blair promising to be “purer than pure”. Politicians are mocked by time and chance.

The other dimension to Brown’s new consensus politics which resonates with developments in Holyrood, involves co-opting members of the other parties into his administration. Labour’s Scottish leader-in-waiting, Wendy Alexander, is likely to follow this example in Holyrood, by inviting Liberal Democrats into her fold. Brown says he wants a government of “all the talents”, and has attracted big names, like the disaffected former Tory deputy treasurer, Johan Eliasch, who will advise on the environment.

But the opposition parties say the PM is just playing politics yet again. Political parties in the Commons have long sought to undermine their rivals by inducing disaffected MPs to ‘cross the floor’. Like Lenin’s “useful idiots” they are lured by vanity into the arms of the party opposite to be used as political hostages to misfortune. If Brown had been serious about his cross-party philosophy, Tories say, why didn’t he consult David Cameron and get his permission first? Why go behind his back? Does anyone seriously believe that Gordon Brown, one of the godfathers of Labour spin, is not seeking party advantage on the eve of a possible early election?

But I don’t want to succumb to knee jerk cynicism here. I think something serious is going on and that Brown and Salmond are trying to come to terms with the collapse of respect and trust in politicians. Both leaders are political enthusiasts who love their work and want everyone to see politics as clean and wholesome again, as they do. I believe they are genuine, up to a point - but that point is winning elections. They are members of political parties which must win power, and that means that, all too often, their actions will belie their fine words.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Making Iraq safe for terrorists

Here is measure of the madness that has been the Iraq war: British forces evacuated Basra last week, at high speed at dead of night, effectively handing over control of Basra to Iranian-supporting militias, including those of the Shi'ite warlord-cleric, Moqtada al Sadr, whose Mehdi army helpfully ordered a six month cease-fire to let the Brits go home. Job well done?

Meanwhile in Baghdad, joy is unconfined because America has struck a deal with Sunni insurgents in Anbar province to fight al Qaeda militants rather than US troops. This deal has been lubricated by large cash injections from the US taxpayer to the very militias who've been killing American soldiers in places like Falujah for years. Once again our enemies enemies are our friends.

Except that we are responsible for creating the enemy force that we are calling on our former enemies to fight. For, the supreme irony of the Iraq war is that al Qaeda was a marginal presence in Iraq, all Western intelligence agencies accept this, until we invaded the place in 2003 and turned it into a Mecca for Bin Laden's rootless terrorists.

What an achievement. Has there ever been a war which has been so completely misconceived? That has been so witlessly counterproductive? That has consumed so many thousands of lives only to strengthen the elements most opposed to Western values?

Yet this is the "mozaic" that General David Petraeus will commend to the US congess today as the fruit of the recent US miliitary "surge" in Iraq. But it's not so much a mozaic as a threadbare patchwork of opportunistic alliances designed to provide cover for the Western retreat which must now come. Britain knows it: Gordon Brown knows it, President Bush knows it, and most importantly, the Islamic militias know it. This is why there has been a period of relative calm in places like Basra and Anbar province. It is not the peace of victory but the silence of grave, as the militias there bury their dead and position themselves for the civil war that will almost certainly follow the ultimate US withdrawal.

So, what now? Where do we go from here? After this most disastrous mlitary adventure in modern history do we just shrug and move on? Put it down to experience? Suck our teeth and say that, well, democracy just doesn't 'take' in some cultures. Unfortunately we cannot. We will pull out of Iraq, leaving a token “overwatch” force, but the consequences of this calamity will pursue us. This war could be the prelude to a much wider crisis which could undermine our way of life and our liberties.

The first obvious consequence is that Muslim extremism of the al Qaeda variety will likely increase. Bin Laden now has secure bases in Iraq and pro-Western Pakistan where he is renewing his terrorist infrastructure. His agents, the Taliban, are now inflicting withering casualty on British troops in Helmand province in some of the most sustained firefights our forces have experienced since the Second World War.

We are not winning in Afghanistan, and the withdrawal from Iraq will give heart to the Afghani militias that they can dislodge the Brits from their country also. They defeated the Soviet Empire in the 1980s, so why not us? There is no way we can win the war in Afghanistan without a massive military presence, and a casualty rate that would be unacceptable to the British electorate following Iraq.

But there's worse. Once we have left Iraq, and the country is carved up between Kurds, Sunnis and Shias, the largest part will be under the influence of Shi’ite Iran. President Ahmadinejad has been fighting a kind of proxy war there against the Americans and their Israeli allies. He has made clear his determination to sweep Israel "into the sea", which is why the wealthy Israeli lobby in Washington is urging a military strike against Iran's nuclear industry.

Iran says it needs a nuclear “deterrent” just as much as Pakistan or Israel or Britain, and on the face of it it is hard to argue with their reasoning. An unstable Iraq will make the risk of a nuclear exchange in the Middle East all the more likely.

President Bush is contemplating military action against Iran to prevent what he calls a "nuclear holocaust" in the Middle East. But no one outide the loopy neo-conservative institutes thinks another war is possible. It is inconceivable that Iran will back down now as its influence grows in the region for 'defeating' America.

So, we have greater international terrorism, the threat of nuclear war, what else will be the fallout from Iraq? Well, how about the world economy?. It's looking pretty shaky at the moment and most of the world's oil supplies come from the Middle East. This was one covert reason for the military occupation of Iraq, to oversea that quarter of the world's oil reserves that lie under its sand. The world price of oil is stuck at unacceptably high levels of over $70 a barrel and is unlikely to go fall in the near future as the reality of America’s defeat in Iraq sinks in. Energy-rich countries like Russia see an opportunity to exploit their own control of scarce resources. No wonder Des Browne, the Scottish Secretary and Defence Secretary, doesn't want to lose control of Scotland's oil to a nationalist government.

So, the world will be a poorer place, as well as a more dangerous one. The recent market turmoil and the credit crisis is not a direct effect of the war, but the geo-political instability created by the debacle will certainly damage international business. America was already buckling under the cost of maintaining its military empire, even before the sub-prime mortgage crash exposed the weakness of its financial infrastructure.

And this brings us to the final, and most serious consequence of the Iraq disaster. The damage done to American military prestige by its imminent defeat will embolden anti-western movements throughout the world. American-backed regimes like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are likely to fall to Muslim fundamentalists. President Putin of Russia wants to restore his country's military prestige, which is why he has been sending military aircraft to buzz Western defences and has targeted nuclear missiles on Western cities. China may see the time as ripe to reclaim the island of Taiwan. Latin American countries may see an opportunity to get back at the "yankees" who have dominated the continent for so long.

Its all beginning to look like one of those school history exam questions: 'discuss the causes of the breakdown in the world order after the Iraq war'. The only hope is a change of government in America and some ground breaking international diplomacy from the new regime in Britain, which at least now as learned to stop digging. I hope Gordon will save the day - but I wouldn't bank on it.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Alex, Whaur's Yer Bills

Bills, bills, bills. They wanted bills; so they'll get bills. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been castigating Alex Salmond for failing to deliver a legislative programme. For being feart in Holyrood and running scared of his minority status. "Come on Alex", they cry, "Whaur's yer bills".

Well, this week,as parliament returns, the SNP government will propose a whole raft of bills on bridge tolls,rape, tuition fees, culture, climate change, firearms and possibly even the Commonwealth Games. And here's the twist - the opposition parties will have to back most of them. Anyone looking for a series of spectacular defeats in the near future is likely to be disappointed.

The opposition parties' presumption has been that the nationalists wanted to avoid putting any bills before Holyrood for fear of losing votes. Labour and the Liberal Democrats even planned to fill the legislative vacuum by setting up an "alternative executive" and tabling their own legislation on issues, like education, using private members bills and the legislative powers of parliamentary committees.

However, the premise was false. Certainly, this minority executive would find it impossible to push through divisive measures like a referendum on independence, but that doesn't mean it can't deliver legislation. Take the bill on rape. This is based on proposals from the solicitor general, Elish Angiolini, to deal with the low rate of convictions in rape trials. Are Labour wimmin going to oppose that? I think not. Margaret Curran, the shadow justice minister has already hailed it as a "welcome" improvement.

Labour has also signalled support for the abolition of bridge tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges. Nor, somehow, do I see them opposing a new culture bill, since it follows their own cultural commission. Or Glasgow's bid for the Commonwealth Games if that requires a bill. The Libdems will have difficulty opposing the abolition of the graduate endowment or firearms legislation.

Yes. I know. Holyrood doesn't actually have responsibility for firearms, and can't ban airguns without Westminster approval. But this has been placed in the programme precisely to focus the current debate on extending the powers of the Scottish parliament. The opposition parties have said that they want to see more powers for Holyrood. Well, here's a concrete example - do they want it or not?

Labour and the Liberal Democrats have repeated the miscalculation they made immediately following the May election. Then, Jack McConnell and co. belived the SNP minority administration would be impotent and would collapse within weeks, allowing Labour to sweep back into office. . It didn't happen. Salmond simply pressed ahead using his executive powers to launch a blizzard of initiatives from abolishing nuclear power to handing more cash for the Edinburgh Festival.

Salmond has now responded to opposition complaints about the bills famine by stuffing legislation down their throats. But shouldn't Labour have seen this coming? Did they really think the new government would leave parliament with nothing to do? Salmond has an entire civil service at his disposal full of ideas for legislation. It's what they do.

There are complaints that the legislation is not very ambitious or controversial; that Salmond is playing safe. But didn't they hear himsay in his acceptance speech in May that he would not impose measures on parliament, but intended to move by consensus, seeking cross-party agreement at every stage? This is exactly what he is now doing - seeking tabling only the kind of bills which are likely to get majority support. There's nothing particularly radical about it

The SNP will use the same cross-party approach on issues like abolishing council tax - supported by the Libdems - and cutting business rates - supported by the Tories - to mobilise issue by issue majorities. Under their wily parliament minister, Bruce Crawford, the SNP have already been doing this very successfully ever since they took office - winning votes on Trident, skills academies and local income tax. Indeed out of thirty odd votes, they have only lost one of any significance and that was on the Edinburgh trams - of which more later.

Really, Labour and the Lib Dems have been showing all the wisdom of the Pentagon war planners in their post-election strategy for dealing with the SNP. Instead of whinging about legislative programmes, and making vainglorious pronouncments about alternative governments, they should've been trying to win back the hearts and minds of Scottish voters. Hopefully, exposure to the constituents over the summer will have concentrated Labour's mind on the extraordinay popular response to Alex Salmond's leadership. It's been unlike anything I have seen in Scottish politics before.

So the first thing Labour has to do is accentuate the positive - be as confident and ambitious as the SNP. Just warning about the dangers of independence will not do this. Now, Wendy Alexander has made a good start, promising to enter the debate on the constitution, and taking up issues like affordable housing which have fallen beneath the nationalist radar. She might also consider appealing to Scotland's latent social democratic instincts by challenging the SNP's presumption that cutting the taxes of businessmen is going to promote social justice.

There is a very large group of Scots, from middle class and working class backgrounds, who can't afford a decent house and note with dismay that plutocratic captains of industry are paying less tax than their cleaners. Many of our top companies are paying no corporation tax at all. Is this really the right climate in which to slash business taxes, as the SNP propose? Does the SNP still believe in social equity or is it now the party of Brian Souter?

The SNP has few ideological roots, being essentially a single issue movement, so it is peculiarly vulnerable to special pleading by private interests with money. Mind you, so was New Labour. But Tony Blair is history, and with the SNP reportedly offering privileged access to ministers to businessmen prepared to part with ten grand to sponsor an event at their conference, perhaps it's time for a just a hint of good old class warfare. Wendy has a great tradition of Scottish socialism to draw on here - though she may have to curb her own infatuation with businessmen and their jargon.

Which brings us to the SNP budget bill. Labour can't simply vote this down, as some have proposed, because to do so would plunge the finances of the nation into chaos and invite the wrath of the voters. Recall the fate of Newt Gingrich in 1996 when the Republicans tried this against Bill Clinton. However, the SNP is likely to have trouble balancing the books, and the cuts it chooses could offer Labour a chance to challenge the SNP's prejudices.

It's just a pity that the opposition gave Salmond a get-out-of-jail-free card by imposing the half billion pound Edinburgh trams scheme on him. When difficult choices are made, the SNP leader will be able to say that, had the opposition not forced his hand, there might have been enough in the kitty to pay for everything. The budget is another bill the opposition will have to support with gritted teeth.

Wendy in da house

Labour’s new Scottish leader, Wendy Alexander, has been out and about “listening and learning”. What’s she learned? Well, she was reportedly “taken aback” by the strength of feeling across Scotland about the lack of affordable housing. "The huge issue", she said.

But why it took a nation-wide tour for Wendy, an economist, to discover that there is a housing crisis? Her party was in government only four months ago. The former First Minister, Jack McConnell, has a second home on Arran, where the crisis is so severe the island faces losing its indigenous population - priced out by holiday home owners like, well, Mr McConnell.

The Nationalists are just as bad as Labour. Last week the SNP housing minister, Stewart Maxwell, unveiled the new government’s bold solution to the housing crisis: another “consultation” with “stakeholders”. In other words, doing nothing at all.

I’m always astonished at the extent to which politicians seem unable to grasp that housing really is the biggest issue in politics right now. You only need to look at the property pages. The vast majority of people under 35 are unable to afford a rabbit hutch now that prices are up to ten times average earnings. The average age of a first time buyer is now 37, according to the Scottish government’s own figures.

But housing isn’t just about property. If you want to understand why the Scottish population is declining, and talented people are leaving, this is where you have to start. Even professionals can’t afford houses on the salaries they earn here, so they are taking their skills south or abroad. Those who stay are having to put off starting a family because they don’t want to raise children in a one-bedroom flat.

Housing is also the key to understanding the why policies on transport, the environment, global warming don’t work. People are using their cars more because they have to commute further and further to escape inflated house prices. The average commuting distance has risen by a mile and a half in ten years. Our houses are also so inefficient that they expend the equivalent output of Hunterston power station to heat the sky.

And housing now also threatens the stability of the economy. As the American sub-prime mortgage crisis has reminded us, prices can go down as well as up. And when they do, there is chaos and a “repricing of risk” - a euphemism for boardroom panic and governments throwing billions at bankrupt finance companies. In Britain, with house prices having tripled in ten years, we are sitting on a time-bomb.

Yet there is no need for this. Building houses is one of the few things that governments can actually do - as even the Tories showed in the 1950s. The housing shortage is an entirely artificial one in Scotland because, unlike the south of England, Scotland has an abundance of land - we have one third of the land mass of the Britain with less than a tenth of the population. To have a housing crisis here is really, really difficult. Yet the rate of new house building in Scotland is only one third that of England.

So, why do politicians seem unable to act? Could it have anything to do with the fact that most of them are multiple homeowners themselves? Could it be the mindset of senior civil servants, who are invariably middle-aged owner-occupiers? All of us who've ridden the long boom have been corrupted in one way or another by seeing our houses ‘earn’ more than we do year on year. But a time must come when we put aside l selfishness and start to build our way out of this crisis. Here’s a chance for Wendy to show how clever she really is.

British soldiers are killing more people in Scotland than in Afghanistan.

Are British soldiers killing more people in Scotland than in Afghanistan? An unintended consequence of our current “surge” in the war-torn country has been a massive increase in cultivation of the opium poppy in Helmand province. Afghanistan now provides 92% of Europe’s street heroin. Meanwhile back home there has been a 40% increase in
the death rate among Scottish addicts. I wonder if there could be a connection?

Nothing could better illustrate the failure of our “war against drugs” than the fact that even the British army seems to be making the problem worse. But anyone who knows anything about the drugs business, like former deputy chief constable Tom Wood, knows that the war was lost years ago. This is a thriving multinational industry; one of the fastest-growing and most profitable in the world. Its captains earn the kind of money that chief executives of private equity firms get out of bed for.

Drug barons have their own hedge funds, and they have been recycling their cash in the booming property markets of London, Birmingham and Edinburgh. Pretty soon they’ll be joining the Rotary Club and the chambers of commerce. Meanwhile their streetwise lieutenants turn places like Croxteth in Liverpool into war zones. The killer of Rhys Jones was a member of one of the drug gangs fighting for control of the streets.

These hooded pharmaceutical warriors carry guns as a matter of routine, and don’t fear the penalties because they know the police, and everyone else, has largely given up trying to catch them. The occasional high publicity drug seizure is what the police look for now, like last month’s record seizure of opium en route to Aberdeen. The estates of Scotland are left fending for themselves.

In a way, the drug gangs have themselves become a kind of delinquent police force. The cycle-hoodies with their guns are on the periphery of this chaos maintaining a kind of territorial order. It’s not an easy life, but if you are prepared to work at it, and have the bottle, it’s a living. Drugs have become a kind of job-creation programme of the dispossessed, a mainstay of the local economy in the estates. Scotland’s 50,000 addicts (plus all the addicts we don’t know about) constitute an entire social system based on addiction, with a kind of underworld work ethic. Since they need a thousand pounds a week to maintain their habit, addicts are responsible for 75% of property theft.

Lock ‘em up and throw away the key you say - well of course we do. Scottish jails are filled to overflowing - as we also learned last week - and most of the people in there are prostitutes, drug dealers, gang members, murderers, burglars fine defaulters who are connected to the industry in some way. And those that aren’t are soon introduced to drugs when they are incarcerated. This is because our jails are awash with hard drugs, often supplied by members of the prison staff acting in conjunction with legitimate visitors and others.

The young thug who has signed up on the estates will discover that prison is a pretty good finishing school - a university of crime, where he or she will learn about advanced techniques of coercion, money laundering, use of firearms, sources of supply, even accountancy. Yes, the disciplines of financial management are just as relevant to this multi-million pound industry as they are to the brewers or the pharmaceutical industries.

Back outside, they will use their expertise and contacts to spread the drugs further and wider into the community, enlisting children who are too young to be prosecuted as look outs and carriers who will themselves be encouraged to become users. For this is a unique trade in which the consumer is also the sales force - the young pusher has to sell drugs in order to feed his own habit. Which is why the drugs business spreads so rapidly, like an epidemic. It is also why, like cancer, it needs a radical solution.

And I don’t mean just law enforcement - the war on drugs has been as ineffective here as it has been in Afghanistan. The only way to destroy the drug trade is to destroy it as a business - use the laws of supply and demand. It is the exponential growth of consumption which is the key to the burgeoning drugs industry. Kill the demand, and you kill the supply.

This means two things: decriminalising hard drugs and devoting the kind of resources that presently go into the ‘war’ into rehabilitation. Addiction is an illness, so it should be treated that way, with the drugs available to addicts under prescription from the NHS. The users would come under the protection of health professionals who would use supply as a lever to get them into proper rehabilitation programmes.

As soon as users find they can get cheap and reliable narcotics from licensed outlets then the entire drugs industry will start to collapse. The hoodies will be out on the streets, as it were, forced to go to college or join the army or even get a job. The drug lords would become bankrupt, left demanding cheap loans from European central banks to bail them out (that’s a joke).

Of course, this involves an act of faith. We have to believe that junkies, most of them, want to get of drugs somehow, sometime. Very few want to spend their lives hooked up to this death machine suffering physical, financial and psychological decay. Given the opportunity we know from the research that the vast majority would eventually get clean given proper rehab.

But rehabilitation only works if the communities they return to afterwards are also clean. Very often it is reacquaintance with lifestyle that makes ex-junkies relapse. If the drug industry were wiped out there wouldn't be the same temptation on every street corner, and the patient’s friends and relatives wouldn't be luring them back into the world of addiction.

Yes, some may choose to remain on drugs, even to their own destruction - but in the end, we can’t stop people destroying themselves Some surprising people in history have been lifelong hard drug addicts. One was the antislavery campaigner, William Wilberforce, a devout Christian evangelical who disapproved of dancing and theatre, and yet took opium every day of his life. I’m not suggesting he should be a role model - we understand far better the risks of long term drug-abuse than in the early 19th Century - but the point is that it is a condition, a disease, that can be managed.

Anyway, what is the alternative? Existing policies are clearly not working, and the situation is rapidly running out of control. The only people who are benefiting are the Taliban and the traffickers. We need to apply the successful methods used against that other great addiction, smoking, to hard drugs. Management and control - above all, keeping it out of children's hands and robbing the gangsters of their profits is the key. The battle against nicotine is being won, while the battle against heroin is being lost, and the dead are littering the streets of Scotland as well as Afghanistan.

Murder means more in England

“Sometimes you want to sit there and say: ‘nothing much has happened, I’d go to bed if I were you.” So said the Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman about a phenomenon all of us face in the street of shame - what to do when there is a dearth of news.

The media is a machine which is sustained by shock and awe, and if there isn’t much going on, then we manufacture it. Not generally by inventing stories, though that does go on, but by investing the stories that are around with a significance they may not warrant. It's principally a tabloid vice, but none of us are immune and the coming of twenty four hour television has magnified it. I'm contributing to it here by writing this column.

I normally avoid reading murder and royal stories altogether because I simply don’t believe in them, and it saves time in the daily chore of reading all the papers. It’s not that I don’t believe the facts of the case: certainly Madeleine McCann was abducted (probably); Princess Diana perished in a car crash ten years ago(certainly); and a little boy was murdered last week in Liverpool. But the machine can’t leave it there, and in the absence of competing news, we have been subjected to a weekend of futile attempts to extract meaning from the random killing of eleven year old Rhys Jones: fevered anticipation of the tenth anniversary of Diana’s death; further fruitless anguish about the McCann affair. Why can’t we just leave them alone?

Now, I’m not saying that gangs of feral youths aren’t a problem; or that we should ignore gun crime; or that family break-up is good for children. But the Liverpool killing, which has launched many thousands of words on these issues, tells us very little about any of them. Rhys Jones’s murder was a tragic one-off, a unique event. Gun crime is actually going down (or up, depending on the statistics you look at). It wasn’t a typical gang-land killing and his parents are white and happily married. Stuff happens.

The search for explanation is a populist version of what the philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb called the “Black Swan” phenomenon - the human tendency to look for meaning when there often isn’t any. We are “fooled by randomness”. Paxo has a rather more robust way of putting it. Media frenzies like the McCanns, Diana and Rhys simply rob us of our reason: “At times like this, when the television hurricane hits a story, it too often sucks good sense and consideration out of the brains of those involved”.

The McCanns voluntarily became a media sensation, of course, and then were consumed by it. In a desperate search for black swans, the media descended on Gerry McCann seeking somehow to find a connexion between the loss of their daughter and the murder in Liverpool. The key, it turned out was the Everton shirt. Of course! Madeleine McCann and Rhys Jones shared a passionate support for the same football team. 40,000 Everton fans paying their respects at Goodison Park became the image of the weekend, as if in some way murder and sport had become one.

“Liverpool sometime seems to be made for grief”, said the Sunday Times, improbably linking Hillsborough, Jamie Bulger and Rhys Jones, whose death, “has brought Liverpool face to face with the sinister new cultural phenomenon of modern Britain: where youngsters feel empowered to shoot each other on a whim and are proud of it.” The only reason they didn’t add Holly and Jessica Chapmen was because they supported Manchester United. But this is not a 'sinister new phenomenon' - gangs have been around as long as long as there have been newspapers to run stories about them.

Politicians are made the biggest fools of all, having to respond to events like these because the media is running around looking for answers. So we have had David Cameron talking about everything from family breakdown to abolishing the Human Rights Act in the wake of the Liverpool killings. Yes, I know, that wasn’t about Rhys Jones, but the impending non-deportation to Italy of Learco Chindamo, who was jailed 11 years ago for the murder of headteacher Philip Lawrence. But somehow the HRA has become part of the same frenzy about "broken Britain". It's the collapse of the family, community, football, Europe, race...whatever.

There has been much debate about black fathers not raising their children, as if white marriages don’t break down. We are told that gangs have become surrogate families to disaffected urban black youth. "It's a cultural problem” the justice secretary Jack Straw told the BBC last week, “It's the absence of fathers who are actively involved in parenting... and they are more likely to be absent in the case of the Afro-Caribbean." Even the head of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, has got in on this one, suggesting that they could all do with a spell in the army. He wants black officers to start mentoring young black males to become responsible dads.

The Prime Minister tried not to get too involved in the Rhys Jones frenzy, but he was unable to in the end. The media would have murdered him for being unwilling to join in the emotional , rather as they attacked the Queen when she failed to show appropriate emotion over the death of Diana. Is Gordon so cold that he cannot feel the pain of 40,000 Everton supporters? Prime Minister, where are you when your nation needs you?

So, Brown had to follow the script by promising a “tougher enforcement...crackdown...more police... new laws if necessary”. Now, there may well be a case for having more police on the streets instead of filling in forms, and there may be a case for new laws, but the Rhys killing doesn’t tell us what they should be. Far more killings are the result of knife crime than guns, which tend to be carried by drug dealers for show rather than use. Airguns are responsible for a lot of killings too, and the Scottish government is pressing ahead with a law to outlaw them. But this reveals another curious dimension to the black swan hunt.

Strangely, murders mean more if they happen in England than in Scotland. Three weeks ago a teenager, Andrew Devlin, was shot and killed outside a snooker club in Paisley, but that didn’t launch an outpouring of national grief and angst. Nor did the death of two year old Andrew Morton two years ago by an airgun pellet. I’m not saying it should have, but it does lead to a curious hierarchy of impact - things seem to have more meaning the further south they happen. This is because the media machine is based in London and increasingly regards Scotland as a foreign country, even though the media it produces is broadcast here. Perhaps we should count our blessings. It means there is a chance of a more level-headed response to these episodes of inexplicable and implacable human tragedy.