Sunday, January 29, 2012
Thursday, January 26, 2012
As we waited in the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle for the arrival of Moses, sorry, Robert Mugabe, sorry Alex Salmond, there was much chatter about Tuesday's now infamous Newsnight interview in which Jeremy Paxman compared Alex Salmond to Zimbabwean dictator and suggest that he wanted to set up a one party state in Scotland. The FM wisely refused invitations to criticise Paxo - since the interview has probably added a couple percent to the SNP's poll ratings. Instead he ticked off BBC Scotland for axing a lot of its political output, including the respected Newsweek Scotland programme.
This was as sure-footed a performance as we have come to expect from the First Minister on these occasions. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard Alex Salmond launch constitutional consultations, but this was Eck's Biggest Day Out ever. With the hall packed with international television hardware, and press from over forty countries, the political theatre couldn't have been more dramatic. As the winds howled around the Castle, Salmond confidently forecast victory in the 2014 independence referendum. Surrounded by massed weaponry of warfare in the frankly militaristic Great Hall, Salmond was right to assure the assembled international media, that Scottish nationalism - unlike say Quebec, Basque or Corsican separatism - has always been a peaceful pursuit. There has “not been so much as a nosebleed” in the last hundred years of home rule agitation. Though I notice the FM didn't mention injury to letterboxes.
The biggest gag was The Question itself. “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” Is that it? No dodgy phrases, no weasel words, no devious circumlocutions. And no second or third questions either, unless civic Scotland gets its act together to formulate one. Here was Salmond doing precisely what he had been urged to do by the UK government and the opposition parties: seek a straight answer to a straight question. No need to invoke the Canadian Clarity Act. The UK Electoral Commission will have its say on the question, Salmlond confirmed, and would oversee the referendum, reporting to the Scottish parliament.
Saturday, January 21, 2012
Marriages – they just don't seem to last these days. First the couple start living in separate houses; then the arguments begin over money; and finally, the unhappy pair end up saying: 'see you in court'. Lawyers are rubbing their hands at the prospect of rich pickings from the case of Westminster v. Holyrood. There are suggestions that some anglophile Law Lord, or a private individual, will challenge, in the UK Supreme Court, Holyrood's right hold an independence referendum. (Which possibly explains why the First Minister was so anxious to challenge the Supreme Court's remit in Scotland last year after it overturned verdicts of the Scottish appeal courts).
Now, there is a precedent here: the Canadian Supreme Court looked into the secession of Quebec in 1998, and its ruling – subsequently enshrined in the 2000 Clarity Act - was a masterpiece of legal ambiguity. The Canadian constitutional court ruled that a province had no right to leave a federation or a union on its own volition. However, the judges went on to say that if a referendum was held, with a clear and unambiguous question, and the majority was substantial for independence, then the rest of the union would have to recognise this and act on it. In other words: you don't have any legal right to break up a union, but the political reality is that you do.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
It's only when Wikipedia isn't there you realise how incredibly influential it has become. Just try a few random searches. Yesterday I Googled “Scottish independence referendum” and top of the results list was the Wikipedia entry. Then I searched “global warming”, which also served up Wikipedia's page as number one. Even searching something relatively obscure, like “pensions crisis”, Wikipedia emerged top of the results table. Almost every non-news search I made came up Wiki – except interestingly, Celtic Football Club, where the club's own site is top. But even here Wikipedia was third.
This website is well on the way to becoming the number one source of information for the entire world. Wikipedia is a valuable resource, and is greatly increasing the accessibility of human knowledge. However, I'm beginning to wonder if it isn't gaining a virtual monopoly on online wisdom. Which is more than a little worrying. There was a time a few years ago when Wikipedia was the butt of stand ups and satirists because of the unreliability of some of its biographical entries, which were often full of lurid inaccuracies. These are all in the “Wikipedia inaccuracies” page on , er, Wikipedia. But no one is laughing now. Every school and university student in the industrialised world goes first to Wikipedia when they're looking for information for an essay. Not for nothing did the Wikipedia boss, Jimmy Wales, say on the eve of yesterday's blackout: “get your homework done early kids”.
Any journalist who says he or she doesn't use Wikipedia at some time or other is lying. You can't help using it because it is always there, sitting in poll position, on every internet search. Of course, I would never use it as a source on anything remotely controversial such climate change, or immigration, or the banking crisis. But as a means of checking routine facts – like the Conservative majority in the 1951 general election – Wikipedia has become remarkably and convenient and reliable. This is because, with its forty thousand editors monitoring millions of corrections by users, it is almost impossible for a simple factual inaccuracy to remain uncorrected for very long. It's entries are often sketchy and tendentious, but everyone turns to them, and they mostly get the basics right.
But just consider what immense power this places in the hands Jimmy Wales, the internet entrepreneur who set it up only ten years ago . Wikipedia's act of self-censorship yesterday was in protest at what many in the wired community believe is an attempt by big corporations in America to kill the internet by forcing it to obey draconian copyright laws. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its sister legislation, the Protection of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), currently before the US Congress, have been backed by media moguls like Rupert Murdoch of NewsCorp. But in taking itself down yesterday in protest, Wikipedia was engaged in its own form of powerplay. Clearly on this one issue, Wikipedia is taking sides, and is denying access to information in an attempt to strong arm a democratically elected legislature.
Now, I don't hold any brief for SOPA or PIPA, which make it illegal for any website to distribute, knowingly, material that is in breach of copyright. It is targeting those file sharing sites that our kids use all the time to share music and videos. Critics like Jimmy Wales claim that just by inadvertently linking to a pirate site, a website might be prosecuted under SOPA. This will drive many out of business, and curb freedom of speech. No one likes censorship, and everyone loves free stuff – but I can understand the purpose behind the legislation, which is to halt the losses that are incurred by publishers, authors, musicians, film-makers when their work is illegally distributed through internet pirate sites. The music industry and the newspaper industry have been brought to their knees by the internet. Bands can no longer expect to earn much from sales of their recorded music because it is offered online for nothing. Surely this is wrong. Creative people need to eat, like everyone else, and these sites are stealing their lunch.
To internet businesspeople this sounds like special pleading from old-tech industries who have failed to move with the times. There is a 'democracy of knowledge' on the web, we are told, and that it is evil to attempt to control this or to make money out of it. Everything should be free and accessible to all, in the digital republic. But how can film studios continue to invest hundreds of millions on making films if they are given away for nothing? How can newspapers survive if they have no revenue?
Moreover web organisations aren't exactly averse to making a lot of money out of other peoples' work. Essentially what happens is that the revenue that may once have gone into the box office or the record store now goes to the mega websites through their targeted ads. Google and YouTube make billions of dollars through advertising around content that they haven't made. At the other end of the food chain, TVShack, the site set up by a British student, Richard O'Dwyer, who is being extradited to the US to face trial for piracy, was earning £15,000 a month from advertising. Heavy handed justice perhaps -but this is surely theft.
Of course it would be worrying if websites were closed down because they inadvertently link to pirated content, though defenders of the legislation insist that intent has to be proved first. President Obama, under pressure from Silicon Valley, has called in SOPA until it can be reviewed for any unintended threat to freedom of speech. But I can't see why copyright law should not apply on the internet just as everywhere else. The truth is that websites are just like any other publishing business and the sooner the law recognises this the better. The world wide web is not the wild west - it cannot remain unregulated. And I am really rather worried that Mr Wales has chosen to use his own muscle in trying to challenge laws which are, whatever you think of them, the product of a democratic process. Maybe it's time to say that Wikipedia has got too big for its own good. Mr Wales's website may be on the side of the angels, but after yesterday's blackout it has lost its innocence.
Sunday, January 15, 2012
At times of constitutional turmoil, like last week, I'm often approached by researchers and producers from the London media looking for someone to explain the will-they-won't-they, devo-max independence-well-maybe referendum. They invariably use the word ”wily” when they're talking about Alex Salmond, as if the First Minister was a petty demagogue in some post-colonial banana republic. Isn't he 'playing games with the constitution', 'deviously delaying the referendum', 'picking a fight with Westminster'? Well, last week his wiliness was to play with a straight bat.
David Cameron believes he 'got a result' in that he finally “smoked out” Salmond on the referendum date last week. But there was really never any secret about the timing of the referendum, since it had been made clear in the Scottish election that the ballot would be held in the second half of the parliament. And for all the talk of imposing an early referendum, that's exactly what is going to happen. Similarly, as civic Scotland luminaries like Canon Kenyan Wright have argued, it really isn't up to Cameron or Salmond to decide if there are three options or two, but the Scottish people. The SNP's preference has always been to have a single question, yes-or-no ballot on independence, and for all the fuss and fluster, that hasn't changed either.
If an early referendum had been imposed on Scotland, it would anyway have been disastrous for David Cameron, since the SNP would have boycotted it. Rather like the Northern Ireland referendum in 1973, or the Keep the Clause referendum in 2000, it would have had zero credibility as a result. So, why did the Prime Minister propose it at all? Worse – why raise the prospect of an early referendum on Sunday, and then appear to back down within 48 hours? He must have realised that by intervening in this way he risked raising Scottish hackles at a Tory 'toff' trying to 'fix' Scotland's future.
Sunday, January 08, 2012
It was the 1987 general election campaign. I'd recently been made the BBC's Scottish political correspondent and I was furious that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had refused to give me an interview. So, when she arrived for a “whistle stop” press conference at Glasgow Airport, I was determined to get something out of her.
After her scripted remarks, I started hurling questions at her without waiting to be called. “Whatever happened to Tory promises on a better devolution, Mrs Thatcher?...What have you to the hundreds of thousands of Scots thrown out of work?...Do you not accept that your poll tax is destroying the TorIes as a political force in Scotland? ”. She answered my early questions, but at this she halted and said in those inimitable tones: “That's quite enough from you, young man. Now, does anyone else here want to ask the poll tax question?”. There was silence from rest of the hack pack who were clearly enjoying seeing the press conference turned into a car crash. Grudgingly she continued, and though my editor had to cut the bits and pieces together afterwards, we got an interview of sorts.
I was quite out of order, of course, and I rather cringe at the thought of it. As I was leaving she looked directly at me with that deadly smile and a shake of the head which said: “Ok – but don't think you're so clever.” I only interviewed her properly once after that and it was an uncomfortable affair. Almost as uncomfortable as seeing her again, ten feet high, on the cinema screen meticulously recreated by Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. It was like being back a that press conference.
Sunday, January 01, 2012
Spare a thought for Iain Gray this festive season He was by no means a bad politician – as his party discovered when they looked to replace him. But the abiding image of the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election campaign has to be Labour's Scottish leader seeking refuge in a “Subway” sandwich bar after being pursued by anti-cuts protesters. Mr Gray said he was no 'feartie', and reminded reporters that he had “walked the Killing fields of Cambodia” before entering politics. But the 'meatball marinara incident' helped seal his fate in the subsequent ballot, as Labour suffered its worst election defeat in at least 80 years.
The May 2011 Holyrood election was one of those landmark moments when a nation discovers, almost by accident, that it has altered the course of history, even if it isn't quite sure in what direction. Labour didn't just lose 22 seats – the SNP finally stormed the gates of its West of Scotland heartland, taking Glasgow Cathcart, Kelvin, Shettleston, even Anniesland, seat of the late Donald Dewar himself. The SNP swept Edinburgh too, leaving only one Labour constituency member in the capital city, the 'neonationalist' Malcolm Chisholm, and no Liberal Democrats or Tories. The Scottish Liberal Democrats also lost all their constituency seats in the Highland and Islands and in North East Scotland. After the bloodbath, the SNP was left with 69 out of 129 seats in Holyrood – a landslide that has turned the debating chamber into a supporter's club. But Alex Salmond, could legitimately claim that the SNP was now the first political party in modern history to represent the entire Scottish mainland. All three opposition leaders resigned, and the clock started ticking for the independence referendum which was now unstoppable.
2011 was also a critical year for me professionally and personally. Over thirty years of writing about Scottish politics, I'd always argued that home rule within the UK was the only plausible constitutional destination for Scotland. I envisaged a form of federalism, where Scotland would have extensive tax raising powers within a broad union with England and Wales. Of course, I accepted the right of the Scottish people to leave the UK – but I just thought it would never happen. Independence seemed too dramatic, too disruptive, too revolutionary for this small-c conservative country which, contrary to its popular image, avoids confrontation whenever possible. Now I am not so sure.
Scots did not vote for directly for independence, of course, in May but this massive vote of confidence in the Scottish National Party, and in particular its leader, Alex Salmond, was not made lightly. The Scottish voters did what commentators like me said was impossible, delivering an absolute SNP majority in a proportional election. It had the look of a watershed. And the political landscape did not just change because of the Scottish election.
The second bombshell to hit Scottish politics detonated not in Holyrood but in Brussels, in December, when David Cameron vetoed the European Union treaty on the new “fiscal compact” to resolved the euro debt crisis. Cameron has made what looks like a fundamental and irreversible change in Britain's relationship with Europe, delighting his eurosceptic backbenchers, but fatally undermining the unionist cause at home. The charge against the SNP has always been that they are “separatists”, who seek to divide nation from nation, and risk leaving Scotland alone and isolated from the mainstream of Europe. Now it appears as if David Cameron is the separatist and that Britain is now isolating itself from the other 26 members of the European Union.
The euro debt crisis has altered the dynamics of the Scottish Question in much the same way as Britain's membership of Europe altered it in the '70s. If the United Kingdom is on its way to the outer fringes of Europe, then what is left of the argument that only by remaining in the UK can Scotland be assured of representation at the “top table of Europe”? Both the former Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, and the Labour First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, have said that Cameron's veto has “strengthened the the hands” of the Nationalists, and they should know. As regional unionists, they see the danger that this new separatist Conservative-led administration poses to the moral integrity of the United Kingdom. How it turns the arguments about Scottish and Welsh independence on their head. After the Cameron veto, does anyone seriously believe that the 26 countries of the greater EU, who have finally shown England the door, would deny membership to an independent Scotland?
The United Kingdom used to be a humane project for the common good, based on universal principles, and embodied in great social institutions like the National Health Service. Not any more. The NHS is being privatised in England. Britain today looks more like a devil-take-the-hindmost union, driven by eurosceptic English Conservatives, and dedicated to protecting the financial interests of the City of London. Scots who retain a commitment to those old values have been left adrift and confused. For it wasn't just the Tories who debased the coinage of union: it was a Scottish Chancellor, Gordon Brown, a Labour son-of-the-manse, who gave birth to the monster that is the City of London through his policy of 'light touch regulation”.
Scotland remembers the charge that they were greedy for seeking to benefit directly from oil revenues in the 70s and 80s. “It's Scotland's Oil” was a political own goal for the SNP precisely because the slogan seemed selfish and narrow-minded. Politics is always about morality rather than material interest, and Scots didn't want to appear grasping. But where did the oil wealth go? To pay for the great industrial recessions of the 1980s that destroyed Scottish manufacturing, and to help make London the investment banking centre of the world. It's difficult for Scots to still feel they have a stake in this Banker's Britain.
But that doesn't necessarily mean they intend to vote for independence in the referendum pencilled in for the middle of 2014.. It remains the case that support for independence rarely rises above a third in opinion polls – though in an amusing poll for the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey in November 65% said they would support independence if they were £500 better off as a result. The vast majority of Scottish respondents continue to say that they want a parliament with more powers within the UK - 68% in the Times/Mori poll in December. Scots have difficulty saying they want to “break up Britain” even as they vote in huge numbers for a party dedicated to precisely that.
But the sheer scale of Labour's defeat, and the absence of any coherent response from the unionist parties, has created a momentum for further constitutional change which will be very difficult to halt. Already, the Scotland Bill, which comes back to parliament in the New Year, is looking like an irrelevance. This is the bill which implements most of the recommendations of the 2009 cross party Calman Commission on devolution, which proposed extensive new tax-raising powers for Holyrood including a 50/50 division of income tax revenue. The tax proposals had been severely criticised in 2011 by nationalist economists as unfair, inherently deflationary and probably unworkable. But now Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats seem to be ditching Calman also.
The Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, made a dramatic intervention in the autumn of 2011, telling Labour that they had been “gubbed” and that they had to show “an open minded approach as to how the architecture of devolution can be improved”. The Liberal Democrats too have set up a commission under the former leader Sir Menzies Campbell, to look at a new, improved form of devolution as a way of getting back into contention. The Scotland Bill will require the consent of both parliaments if it is to become law in the New Year. Alex Salmond has called for the bill to include powers for Holyrood over broadcasting, the Crown Estates, excise duties and corporation tax. The Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore is making clear that he isn't having any of it, and says that if Alex Salmond wants the increased borrowing powers contained in the Bill, he is going to have to lose the rest of his wish list. The way things are looking right now, both parliaments may decide that it is best to lay the bill to rest rather than to amend it to death.
But whether the bill stands of falls, the home rule story has already moved on to the next chapter. Figures from across the political spectrum – from the Conservative-leaning Reform Scotland think tank, through the Blairite former minister, Lord Foulkes, to nationalist “fellow travellers” like the former First Minister, Henry McLeish, are calling now for virtually all tax raising powers to be handed over to Holyrood. The SNP call this, “full fiscal freedom”; Lord Foulkes calls it “fiscal responsibility”; others call it “devolution max” or “independence lite”. Whatever, it implies a fundamental change in relations with England that it might eventually look very like independence. After all, the SNP says that, after independence, it would keep the pound and look to cooperate with England on foreign policy and non-nuclear defence.
Indeed, critics of the SNP question how Alex Salmond can still call it “independence” when the Bank of England is setting interest rates and Brussels is regulating the Scottish budgets. This is the modern nationalist paradox: they appear support not one but two monetary unions - UK and EU - at the same time. Salmond has tried to resolve the contradiction by invoking a new, though largely undefined, “Social Union” between Scotland and England, as if in some way trying to retrieve the best bits of the old UK and a referendum on the euro. But the SNP seems finally to have accepted that true independence is an anachronism – that the world has changed, and that in future Scotland is destined to remain in perpetual negotiation with other supra-national authorities.
Perhaps this is why Mr Salmond seems content to sacrifice formal independence in a multi choice referendum. For if the SNP leader continues to offer not just independence, but also “devolution max” on the referendum ballot paper, he must surely realise that independence would lose. Scots would vote for devolution max, the policy now backed by Lord Foulkes and many Conservatives. The calculation on Mr Salmond's part must be that this measure of “fiscal freedom” would be so close to formal independence that, in the modern multinational world, there would be no practical difference. Salmond could win even if he loses. But by the same token, in winning fiscal autonomy he might kill forever the 'auld sang' of full independence.
Whatever, in 2011 independence ceased to be a hypothetical and became an immediate and practical possibility, widely discussed and debated. I now think it is almost inevitable that Scotland will leave the United Kingdom as we understand it now – though it will almost certainly find itself back in some kind of confederal relationship with England. The two partners in the ancient Union are now on very different political trajectories. It would be well for everyone in Scotland - and the UK – to start preparing for the transition now. It is in no one's interest for the United Kingdom to disintegrate chaotically.