Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Saturday, October 12, 2013
In the wake of the former CIA analyst Edward Snowden's revelations about state surveillance, I thought I'd reread George Orwell's 1984, written nearly70 years ago on the Island of Jura. I was taken aback by how prophetic it is. When I first read this novel at school, before personal computers and the internet, the idea of two-way interactive “telescreens” in every home and workplace seemed like improbable science fiction. Not today. Orwell, through an extraordinary feat of imagination, had described the internet nearly half a century before it was invented.
But not even he could have imagined the sheer power digital technology would place in the hands of the state to record, store, search and collate information. In the Ministry of Truth they had voice recognition software – the “speakwrite” - but ultimately information was still retained on paper. Imagine Big Brother having access to Big Data , and acquiring the ability to hold and search petabytes of information, in the way GCHQ and the American National Security Agency apparently do. Or to monitor, record and search millions of telephone conversations like Verizon.
Winston Smith could still go off line, at least for short periods. But today, BB would know exactly where he was thanks to ubiquitous CCTV cameras and global positioning software on mobile phones. Then there is all that Orwellian-sounding “metadata” that can be and is mined from the net, allowing access to our very unconscious mind through algorithms that analyse what we watch, buy and read; who we meet and where we go. As for Facebook – Orwell would never have believed it. Millions of people ejaculating their private thoughts onto a public record that can never be erased.
But Orwell got the basics right. As Winston Smith's banned book explained, what differentiated 1984 from all previous repressive regimes was that: “in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance”. Freedom has, since the dawn of civilisation, rested on our right to live our lives free from arbitrary interference and monitoring by the state. Orwell's message was that without democratic control and rigorous accountability – without a presumption of privacy and freedom of thought – the coming technology of surveillance had the capacity to extinguish most of what it means to be human.
Tuesday, October 08, 2013
Neil Kinnock made a speech before the 1983 general election in which he said: "I warn you not to be old. I warn you not to get sick. I warn you not to lose your job..." Today, he might have added a warning not to be young. This week an unprecedented assault was launched by the Conservatives on the living standards and prospects of Britain's under 25 year olds, a million of whom are unemployed.
Who would be young today? £9,000 a year fees (in |England at least) no jobs, zero hours contracts, unaffordable mortgages, ruinous rents and now you lose your benefits if you happen to lose your job. Think about it. If you are someone who left school, got an apprenticeship, worked for five years and then were made redundant, you would lose housing benefits and job seekers allowance for the crime of being under 25.
This is so manifestly unfair, I could hardly believe that David Cameron was serious about it in his conference speech. But this is going to be a major plank of their Tory election platform in 18 months. They are already committed to cutting housing benefits for jobless under 25s, and now they plan to take away jobseekers allowance too, which at £51 is already too little to live on.
I'm not entirely sure this is even legal. If I were a single parent, or a soldier back from Afghanistan, or a hospital worker axed in the cuts, I would be inclined to raise a court action for discrimination on grounds of age. These are adults were are talking about, not children. I feel genuinely sorry for the under 25s, setting out on lifetime of debt, their aspirations crushed by an generation of politicians who enjoyed advantages they can only dream about.
Friday, October 04, 2013
He may not move the voters, but Ed Miliband has certainly rattled David Cameron's cage. The PM name checked Labour no fewer than 25 times in his address to the Tory conference yesterday in Manchester. He mentioned Ukip not once and only referred to the Liberal Democrats as an albatross around the Tory neck. So, why has Ed got under Tory skins?
Well, obviously Milband's taking on the energy companies has annoyed the Tories because it is rather popular, as was a fair amount of Labour's new "red" agenda. Hitting property developers and energy monopolies and shifting taxation from small businesses to big ones is hardly striking at the roots of capitalism. This is the kind of policy agenda that some Conservatives used to rather favour - supporting the little man, the small business against powerful vested interests.
One Nation conservatism of the type Harold MacMillan largely invented and Michael Heseltine still advocates today was all about raising the living standards of the many and curbing the privileges of the few. It was about building houses, promoting welfare and extending economic activity to the 'regions'. It wasn't about rejecting Europe, victimising the unemployed and pandering to the prejudices of voters in the South East of England.
You only needed to look at the huge blue banners draped around the conference centre in Manchester to get the message: "Immigration Down. Crime Down. Welfare Down. Taxes Down". Mrs Thatcher would have been proud to discover that her legacy was so secure in the age of "liberal" Conservatism. Behind the emolient face of David Cameron, the Conservatives have defaulted to their true blue roots. This is a party tacking rapidly to the right.
David Cameron, we are told, is now planning to cut housing and possibly other benefits from unemployed people under the age of 25. This is a draconian extension of the welfare cap that has proved so successful for the Conservatives. He has committed his party to an in/out referendum on membership of Europe, a "go home" policy on immigration and a form of hair shirt fiscal conservatism by promising extending public sector cuts to 2020 in order to replace the deficit with a budget surplus. If he is serious, this would involve truly heroic spending reductions, since the Coalition has already failed in its original 2010 pledge to eliminate the deficit by 2015.
Wednesday, October 02, 2013
Is politics back in fashion? People like me have been moaning for years about how all the parties are the same at Westminster, crowding the centre ground and pursuing synthetic focus group policies. But after this week, just maybe, things have changed. Between Ed Miliband and David Cameron, a gulf in policy and ideology has emerged that, on the surface at least, looks as wide as anything we have seen in the last two decades
David Cameron attacked Ed Miliband's plans to freeze energy prices, build 200,000 houses a year and scrap the bedroom tax, as a lurch to the left. Tory ministers will accuse Labour of the politics of envy for wanting to extend the bank levy, introduce a mansion tax, axe higher rate pension tax relief and possibly restore the 50p tax. Worst of all, with Ed's threat to confiscate development land, end NHS privatisation, selectively increase the minimum wage and curb bank bonuses, the Labour leader will be accused of taking Britain back to the bad old days of the 1970s, of class war, nationalisation and state controls.
That is far from the case. However, before deconstructing "Red Ed", a word in defence of that much-maligned decade. 1970s fashions may have been execrable and industrial confrontation was out of control. But Britain was at its most equal, in terms of income and wealth, in 1977. It was an era of genuine social security, when houses were cheap, jobs were relatively abundant, Britain was an industrial nation, and there was genuine social mobility thanks to free higher education. Unemployment was thought to be excessive when it surpassed one million.
Countries like Germany and Norway have stuck essentially to 1970s consensus politics with great success. Britain left for the far side of Thatcherism and ended up with a dysfunctional economy dominated by a banking kleptocracy. But in our deracinated political culture, under both New Labour and the Conservative coalition, the bogey of the 70s has been used to close down political debate, in England at least.
In Scotland, the SNP adopted Labour's social democratic agenda almost wholesale - unilateralism, abolition of tuition fees, social housing - and has been successful, electorally at least. So successful that Ed Miliband wants to steal some of it back - on bedroom tax, even votes for 16 year olds. When Johann Lamont's "Cuts Commission" - launched exactly a year ago - reports on the "something for nothing society" it may find that it has caught up with New Labour just as it has been superseded by Ed Labour
But only up to a point. The Labour leader's radicalism is heavily circumscribed. He is not proposing a fundamental shift of wealth and power, nor will he back his conference on public ownership of rail and Royal Mail. He said nothing about nuclear weapons and isn't proposing to to redistribute wealth or restore the principle of free education. Miliband is responding to the despair of Middle England as it discovers, to its surprise, that it is no longer the poor who are being squeezed.
The general decline in earnings since 2008 has masked a profound shift in British social demography. With student debt, house prices and the collapse of the old career structure, the aspirant middle classes of the 21st Century are discovering they no longer have a foot hold on prosperity. The old distinctions between the middle class and the working class, as in that old Frost Report sketch with John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, have eroded.
This is why Labour is banging on about the "cost of living crisis". That is something the working poor have always suffered, but now it is spreading across the social divide, leaving a gulf between 'us' and a super rich 1% 'them'. "Red" Ed has realised that this has revived the market for elements of the old social democratic consensus. His targeting of the energy companies is no accident: high energy costs hit the middle classes disproportionately because they have larger houses. Indeed, had the SNP proposed a price freeze Ms Lamont's Cuts Commission would probably have accused it of being regressive.
Whatever you think Ed Miliband's qualities as a leader, he has an astute understanding of political dynamics. He has drawn a line under the New Labour experiment and rediscovered the rhetorical power of fairness. Getting both the profiteering energy companies and Peter Mandelson to disown him in the same week was pretty good going. And this week, the Conservatives will be left defending the indefensible - bankers, energy bosses, property developers and people who live in £2m houses.
But what does it mean for Scotland? Well, it could mean that the SNP has a fight on its hands. It can no longer roam freely across Labour's abandoned terrain of social democracy. If there appears to be a genuinely left of centre party bidding for power in Westminster, the argument that Scotland needs independence to secure social objectives is undermined. It is much too early to tell yet because the Scottish Labour Party under Johann Lamont has moved in the opposite direction by defining her leadership through an assault on universal benefits. But the Nationalists may no longer have all the best tunes.
Voters in Scotland often despair at the tribalism of politics, where parties, Labour and SNP, berate each other instead of working together for common goals. On social housing, bedroom tax, green energy, NHS, apprenticeships, gay marriage, living wage etc Salmond and Lamont are on the same side. Much of their mutual antagonism can be put down to the fact that Scotland used to be effectively a one party state run by Labour. If you wanted to get on in Scotland, in public sector jobs, local government, quangos etc. you first had to join the Labour tribe. This power of patronage has been destroyed by two SNP governments and the destruction of Labour electoral monopoly of local government - though ironically it was a Labour FM, Jack McConnell, who sealed their fate by introducing fair voting in council elections.
Beyond that, there is the old antagonism of the Left to nationalism in all its forms, which goes back to George Orwell and socialist internationalism. Left wing intellectuals in England still instinctively recoil on any politics based on national identity, even though the SNP is a civic nationalist party that supports open borders and seeks independence for social objectives.
I don't think Alex Salmond will be losing too much sleep over Ed Miliband's rediscovery of social democratic rhetoric. The Labour leader's ignorance of Scottish politics was revealed by his suggestion, in his speech, that the NHS might be split by independence. It is already split, thanks to the Tory reforms - and in Scotland the SNP government has defended the integrated National Health Service that Ed Miliband says he wants for the UK as a whole. His attacks on Alex Salmond for being tax-cutting Tory are similarly wide of the mark.
The SNP will only find itself challenged in Scotland if the Scottish Labour Party discovers its voice, shakes off its antagonism towards popular policies like tuition fees and stops behvaing like the party of the council bureaucrat. And there is no sign yet of that.
Monday, September 30, 2013
It's not exactly been a happy pre-anniversary for the Yes Scotland campaign. Looking at the deluge of one-year-to-go opinion polls, the only sensible conclusion is that very little has changed and independence is set to be rejected by a substantial majority. Yes, the number of don't knows has gone up and there is a degree of fluidity about the supporters of devolution max. But there is no sign of an early breakthrough. Even Alex Salmond's Aberdeenshire school students blew him a raspberry by voting against independence in mock elections by a margin of three to one.
The economic argument rages on to no particular purpose. All sides accept that Scotland could be a viable economy on its own, but the £500 question remains unanswered. An opinion poll by ICM last week suggested that 47% of Scots would vote Yes if they could be assured that independence would make them richer by this amount, while only 18% would vote for independence if they were made poorer. Nicola Sturgeon welcomed this poll and insisted that “on the basis of the current Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland report Scotland’s finances are stronger than the UK’s as a whole to the tune of £4.4 billion – which equates to £824 per person”. Whether this fiscal arithmetic is right or not, I find it rather demeaning for the question of Scotland's national renewal to be reduced to the cost of a minibreak in Benidorm.
Anyway, the Nationalists are always going to be on the defensive with these arguments because of the uncertainty factor. It is impossible to say whether Scotland would be better off after independence, and the hard fiscal reality is that a short period of post independence austerity is likely, even with the benefit of oil revenues. The Institute for Fiscal Studies claimed last week that Scottish public spending, which it says is 17% higher per head than in England, would be squeezed in a transition period as Scotland tried to grapple with the debts inherited from the UK.
Now, the Nationalists rightly say that this is hardly their fault, and that is true. They are also right to argue that with oil and renewable resources, Scotland could be a viable and very effective economy. But it is hard to argue with the IFS calculation that there would be significant spending constraints in the short term. The IFS is the gold standard of financial accounting and its assessments have to be taken seriously, unlike the UK Treasury, which has been frankly producing propaganda in the guise of economic analysis.
Now, in any normal independence situation, such transitional costs would be seen as a price worth paying for national freedom. You didn't find the Slovakia, the Lativa, or any of the other countries which won independence in 1990s worrying over such trivial sums. In Barcelona today, Catalonian nationalists don't march in their millions demanding 500 more euros – they demand an end to domination from Madrid, cultural liberation, control of their own affairs. Scottish independence is in danger of turning into a bean-counter convention, where people are arguing over the small change in the national accounts instead of creating a vision of a better society.
Friday, September 27, 2013
From Herald, 26/9/13
Reaction to Ed Miliband's plan to freeze energy prices has been, well, electric. Energy UK warned of “black-outs”; Centrica said it might go out of business; press commentators accused “Red” Ed of taking Britain back to the bad old 1970s of price controls, shortages and nationalisation. I suspect most consumers, this one included, said: about time.
Price control is a pretty blunt instrument, but governments sometimes have to use blunt instruments to make industries behave. The energy monopolies have been racking up prices and profits in lock step for years, making a nonsense of any free market in energy. This has been noted by both the consumer rights group, Which, and the Commons Energy Committee.
Other European countries regulate prices including France, whose state-owned EDF charges lower prices to its domestic consumers than to consumers in Britain. This is why Miliband is so confident that his proposal is not going to break EU competition laws. The howls of anguish from business groups are unjustified. In 1997 Gordon Brown imposed a £5bn windfall tax on the privatised utilities – mainly energy companies again – and no one thought he was abolishing capitalism. Miliband's price freeze will cost them £4.5 billion, according to Labour.
Friday, September 06, 2013
Thursday, August 22, 2013
"Snowden", "surveillance", "Islam" , "bomb", "terrorist". That's all it takes. Those key words, written in any order on an email - or indeed this column - could be enough for my name to be identified as a 'person of interest' by the security services of the United States of America or Great Britain. Probably both.
Indeed, if you are reading this on the internet, you might well be alerting the attention of some internet 'bot' somewhere in cyberspace, which will by now have logged your IP address, traced your browser history and even had a peek at your email inbox.
The consequences could be quite profound. You might be held at an airport, denied a visa to travel. You might find yourself held for questioning by the police for nine hours with no explanation. Threatened with prison if you don't divulge all your internet passwords.
Paranoid? Absolutely. But that is the world we are now living in, where it must be assumed that everything you do or say on the internet or on the phone is being monitored. Perhaps not by some PC plod on headphones as of old - those of us brought up on television series like The Wire have a very antiquated notion of what surveillance means in the digital age. Now it is all done automatically, anonymously, by computer programmes that search millions, even billions of digital messages in seconds.
The Home Secretary Teresa May made clear yesterday that, under her interpretation of Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act, any individual may be detained by the police merely on suspicion that they possess information that might be of use to terrorists. I could hardly believe my ears. That is very close to the definition of a police state.
It may not seem a great hardship, to be detained at an airport and questioned. But anyone who has had experience of interrogation will tell you that a lot can happen in nine hours, and the psychological stress is intense. This is supposed to be a free country. It is shocking that a citizen can be held and interrogated when there is no evidence that he or she is engaged in acts of terrorism - and in the case of David Miranda, the Brazilian partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, there was none.
We are now being told that Mr Miranda, was not an innocent citizen but a "mule" carrying security sensitive material on behalf of the Guardian newspaper. What a ridiculous concept: to equate journalism with drug trafficking! It is also said that he was "uncooperative" and "asked for his own lawyer". Good for him.
No free citizen should be forced to co-operate with police going on a blatant fishing expedition, as even the Labour Peer Lord Falconer - who was Lord Chancellor in the government that passed the Terrorism Act 2000 - made clear yesterday. What we are seeing now looks very like a campaign of intimidation of the press.
Monday, August 12, 2013
Road to Referendum, the TV documentary. To be shown on ITV, 19th August 2013 at 10.30pm. Repeated, STV same night, 11.30.
This is condensed version of the three part series, presented by me, shown in Scotland in June.
Meanwhile: "Road to Referendum", my account of the national question since the Middle Ages, published by Cargo is available in bookshops near you in a bewildering range of prices. .
This is condensed version of the three part series, presented by me, shown in Scotland in June.
Meanwhile: "Road to Referendum", my account of the national question since the Middle Ages, published by Cargo is available in bookshops near you in a bewildering range of prices. .
from Sunday Herald, 10/8/13
Suddenly, everyone's doing it. Following the royal baby. and the news that Edinburgh Zoo's giant panda, Tian Tian, may be pregnant, we hear that the birth rate in the UK is at its highest rate since 1972, according to the Office for National Statistics. It's official: we're bonking for Britain.
And for Scotland - at least a little. For the astonishing news is that Scotland's population is now higher than it has EVER been : 5,31 million - 14,000 more than the previous peak recorded in 1974. Yet only a decade ago, we were being told that Scotland was dying out, as the population dwindled to less than 5 million.
Back in 2003, the Registrar General forecast that, by 2017, there would only be 4.84m Scots. The workforce would fall by nearly 10%; the number of under-sixteens by 80% while the number of Scottish pensioners would increase by 25%. This was called the Demographic Time Bomb, and we were told that public finances would be destroyed by the greyquake.
As recently as 2005, the First Minister of the day, Jack McConnell, was desperately looking for ways to reverse what looked like a terminal decline in Scottish population. And meeting resistance from Westminster for his plans to increase immigration by, for example, allowing foreign students to remain in Scotland after graduation.
Professor Robert Wright of Stirling University, dismissed the Scottish Executive's measures as too little too late: "The demographic problem in Scotland is very, very serious," he gloomed. "The government is very näive to believe this problem can be solved by trying to retain a small number of foreign students."
Well, it seems that the problem was not quite as serious as supposed, and that under their duvets, Scots were taking matters into their own hands, as it were. Perhaps, with diminishing incomes, people have turned to sex as a low-cost recreational activity.
But more important than the increase in the birth rate in recent years (it actually dipped last year) has been the decline in the death rate. Thanks to remarkable work by the NHS, combatting heart disease and cancer, Scots are not popping their clogs as they were even ten years ago. Measures like free personal care and the smoking ban in 2005 have had a remarkable impact on the health of Scots. People are drinking less, taking few drugs and some of us are even exercising.
However, this most remarkable demographic turnarounds in Scottish history could not have been achieved without another significant factor: increased immigration. Not only are more people coming to Scotland, they are having larger families when they get here. And this is a UK phenomenon - which takes us into rather murky waters.
Monday, June 17, 2013
From Sunday Herald, 16/6/13
I don't know about the Scottish cringe, but I found Thursday's Edinburgh Question Time toe-curling. It was a nightmare version of the referendum campaign, complete with an omni-rant from George Galloway, the Respect MP, forming a devil's alliance with the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage - a demented glove-puppet - to claim, mendaciously, that the latter had been the victim of ugly anti-English behaviour when he last appeared in Scotland.
I felt some sympathy for the journalist Lesley Riddoch, trying confusedly to make a moderate non-party case for voting Yes against those two unionist foghorns. The SNP Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, made the cardinal error of attacking the programme for bias. This never works because it looks like an attack on David Dimbleby, who is of course a national institution. Robertson may have had a case since he was outnumbered three to one, but in these situations you just have to suck it up because whingeing antagonises viewers.
Having worked on BBC programmes like Question Time I'm sure there was no political bias intended by the producers. It doesn't work that way. They just wanted a good old confrontation, a rammy, and because it was Scotland they knew they could get away with it. If it had been Question Time the week before, say, the Eastleigh by-election in Hampshire, rather than Donside in Aberdeen, they wouldn't have dared pack the panel with eccentrics and nationalists representing constituencies in another country.
But better get used to this, because I suspect the QT spat is what next year's referendum campaign will be like, only on a larger scale. The SNP are wrong to assume that they will get favourable treatment from the broadcasters in 2014. The 'story' of the referendum will be nationalists trying to break up Britain and setting Scot against English. We have seen nothing yet.
Friday, June 14, 2013
Another 'here's tae us' press release from the Scottish Government on jobs. “The employment rate is now higher in Scotland than in the other four nations of the UK”, it proclaims, “whilst the unemployment is now lower than in any of the four nations of the UK”. Leave aside whether there are four nations in the Union, the last time I looked there were only two. Unemployment in Scotland is indeed down 7.000, which is indeed remarkable given the sluggish recovery and the shake-out of jobs in the hight street.
Funny, though, how it's always Westminster's fault when unemployment goes up, but when it goes down down it is thanks to the wisdom of the SNP government. That's politics of course. Governments always try to own good news and disown bad. And it's hard to argue with figures showing that more than 2.5 million Scots are now in employment, which means that nearly 50,000 jobs have been in the last quarter alone.
However, there is a dark side to this good news story of happy Scots toddling off to work in unprecedented numbers. They may be earning, but they're not spending. An inconvenient statistic this week revealed that that retail sales in Scotland have not been recovering in the way they have been in the rest of the UK. The difference is quite dramatic. As the Herald reported yesterday, the total value of retail sales was up 0.8% last month, year on year, as against 3.4% in the UK.
Retailers always talk about this in terms of “consumer confidence” as if people in Scotland are wandering around in a state of dismal depression at the weather and keeping their purses tightly shut out of spite. The Scottish Retail Consortium says that “in terms of consumer confidence, London is certainly weathering the difficult economic conditions better than elsewhere in the UK”. Well, yes, it would do, since that's where all the money is. Look at London house prices which are rising dramatically as they fall elsewhere.
There is a very obvious reason why people outside the metropolis are spending less: they are earning less. The Institute for Fiscal Studies confirmed yesterday that we have lived through the deepest and longest squeeze on earnings in a century. Far worse than the 1990 recession or even the 1930s. Real earnings are 15% lower today than they would have been had the banking crisis not wrecked the British economy after 2007. It's the biggest five year fall in earnings in history, according to the IFS. One in three workers has suffered a cut or freeze in their pay packets in real terms since 2010.
Sunday, June 09, 2013
My documentary series on the national question "Road to Referendum", continues this week with part 2 on Tuesday at 8.00pm on STV. See the stars of the poll tax era - and I mean stars - as we revisit the 80s and Thatcherism.
Also, Part 1 is repeated tonight at 7.00 on STV for those who missed it through technical difficulties. This tells the extraordinary story of how Scotland went from being at the heart of the Union in 1945 to a referendum on independence in 2014.
Also, Part 1 is repeated tonight at 7.00 on STV for those who missed it through technical difficulties. This tells the extraordinary story of how Scotland went from being at the heart of the Union in 1945 to a referendum on independence in 2014.
I have also written a book of the same name - Road to Referendum - which is launched at the Aye Write book festival in Glasgow on 17th June published by Cargo Press. This charts the history of the national question in Scotland since the Middle Ages, through the age of Empire - when Scots fought Britain's wars and ran much of its colonial business - to the present existential crisis of British unionism.
Reviews of "Road to Referendum":
"A truly important book, particularly at this moment. It offers a huge sweep of history and deals with recent Scottish politics in formidable, but never tedious detail". --Andrew Marr
"Iain Macwhirter is shrewd, insightful and with few rivals in the business of understanding - and explaining - the changing politics of Scotland". --Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian
"Iain Macwhirter offers a highly readable and personal account of Scottish history drawing on wide reading and a career during which he has followed these debates more closely and consistently than any other journalist. He enlivens old stories with new perspectives, challenges established wisdom and raises awkward questions for protagonists and antagonists in equal measure on either side of today's debate". --Professor James Mitchell, University of Edinburgh
This extract from my book was published in the Sunday Herald 2/6/13.
The most extraordinary thing about Scotland's independence referendum next year is that it is happening at all. We could be only eighteen months away from the dissolution of one of the most successful political unions in history: the United Kingdom - a country whose empire once dominated the planet. Yet, Scotland has no real history or tradition of political nationalism, at least not on the scale of Ireland or any of the former British colonies that sought independence in the 1950s and 60s.
And there's a very good reason for this. Scots have not rebelled against the UK because, for most of the last 300 years, Scots have been among its most enthusiastic supporters. They helped to create it after 1707 along with the currency union based on sterling. The Bank of England was even founded by a Scot, William Paterson. Which makes it offensive to hear unionists like the Chancellor, George Osborne, threaten to deny Scotland the use of its own currency. It's like denying the pound and the Bank of England to Yorkshire.
When Scotland gave up its parliament in 1707, it wasn't quite the corrupt annexation that has been presented in Jacobite lore, or the ambiguous poetry of Robert Burns. Nor was it the last gasp of a nation impoverished by the Darien disaster, which is how it tends to be presented in some school history books. The Treaty of Union was essentially about security: about ending three hundred years of debilitating warfare between Scotland and England, that had continued, and even intensified, after the Union of the Crowns in 1603 which was supposed to have ended this historic enmity.
King Edward's armies may never have conquered Scotland and extinguished Scottish nationhood, but Oliver Cromwell's roundheads nearly did after 1650. The Wars of the Three Kingdoms, and the turbulent Stuart Restoration that followed, left Scotland exhausted physically, economically and spiritually. It has been estimated that 100,000 Scots died in these terrible conflicts, in a population of little more than 1 million.
Economic and political union was seen by its advocates as a way of resolving this conflict by creating a new economic and political entity, Great Britain - rather as the European Union was seen as a way of ending conflict between France and Germany. And it worked - even though, crucially, Scotland and England remained nations with their identities intact. The abortive '45 Rebellion was the last battle ever fought on British soil.
England didn't move the Treaty out of altruism, of course. It wanted the security of the Hanoverian succession, and also needed Scottish taxes and Scottish men to fight its battles with France. Scotland's parliament was folded into Westminster with indecent haste. However, losing a parliament was not considered as great a loss in 1707 as it would be today. Scotland was not a democracy at the start of the 18th Century – it was more like a theocracy, dominated by the Presbyterian Kirk.
The old Scottish parliament before 1707 was more like a chamber of commerce for the nobles, lairds and burgesses - people of property. Yes, 'a parcel o' rogues', were shamelessly bribed by Queen Anne's agents into voting for the Treaty of Union. And yes, many Scots did riot against the 1707 union, especially when they discovered that they were expected to pay the cost of it through an array of new taxes, like the hated Malt Tax on alcoholic beverage. But crucially the Presbyterian Kirk accepted the deal because the Acts of Union left it in sole charge of its own religious turf, and for most Scots this was more important than the location of a parliament in which they had no say.
Scottish merchants and money lenders got what they wanted: access to the lucrative markets created by the British Empire. By the 1750s, they had begun to make good money out of tobacco, the slave plantations of Jamaica and the cotton trade, which helped fuel Scotland's mills in the early industrial revolution. Meanwhile many lower class Scots, some of whom had fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie against Cumberland's red coats in the '45, were enlisted into the British army and became the shock troops of the British Empire.
Scotland provided an “inexhaustible treasury of men”, according to one contemporary account. From Quebec to Balaclava; from the Indian Mutiny to the First World War, it was generally the Scots who went over the top first, suffering the worst casualties as a result. Their exploits were glorified in epic Victorian paintings like the Thin Red Line and Scotland Forever. These were the blockbuster films of their day and lent a mystique and celebrity to the Scottish soldier which exists to this day in plays like Black Watch.
Scots saw themselves as partners in the Empire - junior ones, but partners nevertheless. The Scots fought Britain's wars, kept its books, ran its colonial administrations, evangelised the heathens. By the mid 19th Century, Scots were flattering themselves that they were the best bit of the Empire – the hardy ones who did the work, handled the natives and even lent a moral dimension through the work of Scots missionaries like David Livingstone.
Back home, the fantasy image of the heroic Highlander, created by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, captivated Victorian England and helped turn Scotland into a deer-hunting theme park for the English upper classes. They were often clad in tartans invented by the Highland Society of London, and wearing the short kilt or philabeg, which was popularised, if not created, by an Englishman, Thomas Rawlinson, and bore little relation to the great plaid worn by true Highlanders.
Scots rather liked being regarded by the English as fearless warriors, canny entrepreneurs and prudent bankers. Being a patriotic Scot, and celebrating Wallace and Bruce, became a way of expressing Britishness in Scotland. The mighty Wallace monument outside Stirling was built in the 1860s. Scotland became a hub of the British industrial revolution, thanks to Watt and his steam engine. By the end of the 19th Century Scotland was arguably the most technologically advanced country in the world after England and Glasgow called itself the Second City of the British Empire.
Working class Scots didn't get much change out of it however – Edinburgh's slums in the 19th Century were almost as bad as Calcutta's. Scots, many cleared off their ancestral lands by former clan chiefs, were turned into industrial wage slaves. But their patriotism, and their presbyterian religion, consoled many lowlanders, and seemed to immunise Scotland from the political nationalism that swept Ireland and Europe in the 19th Century. 1848 may have been the Springtime for Nations on the continent, but it was still winter in Scotland. Scots continued to respond to the call of the British Empire in 1914, enlisting in prodigious numbers and dying disproportionately in the trenches.
World War Two is often called the “High Noon” of the Union, as Scottish and English soldiers fought to defeat fascism. And they fought side by side again afterwards to create the welfare state, a new post-imperial social contract, defined by the NHS, sponsored by the 1945 Labour government. It really did look like a land fit for heroes in the 50s, as the slums were cleared, Scottish wages tripled and infant mortality became a thing of the past. Scots probably never felt more British than they did in the early 60s, as popular culture and television made the border seem irrelevant
Scottish nationalism was certainly irrelevant in post war Scotland. The SNP, created in 1934, barely registered in elections until 1967 when Winnie Ewing won the safe Labour seat of Hamilton. That, plus the discovery of Scottish oil, launched the wave of constitutional innovation that ultimately led to the creation of the Scottish parliament in 1999. Though it was Margaret Thatcher, and her poll tax, who finally convinced Scots that they needed to restore their parliament, essentially as a defence against Tory governments in Westminster.
But this was very much Labour's Scottish parliament, the SNP having boycotted the cross-party Scottish Constitutional Convention that devised it. Holyrood was delivered on the back of the 1997 UK Labour landslide as a subordinate, devolved parliament within the UK. In the early years, it looked as if the Scottish parliament really had “killed nationalism stone dead” as the former Labour Shadow Scottish Secretary, George Robertson had forecast in 1996. As late as 2003, the SNP's support was in steep decline in the Scottish parliamentary elections.
It was only the return of the 'absentee landlord' Alex Salmond from voluntary exile in Westminster that allowed the SNP to crawl to power in 2007 over the ruins of the Scottish Labour Party, whose period in office had been marked by scandals and resignations. Scots were so relieved at the SNP's performance that they re-elected Salmond with a landslide in 2011, making the referendum inevitable. The Scottish parliament had thus been the incubator, for the first time, of a genuine political nationalism in Scotland.
However, it is important to stress that most Scots were not voting for independence in 2011, but for a better devolution. Scottish voters have told opinion pollsters repeatedly over the last thirty years that they do not want to leave the UK, but want a stronger, essentially federal parliament with a full range of economic powers, but leaving policy on defence and foreign affairs with Westminster. The most recent confirmation came in the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey in January 2013. In this most exhaustive independent survey of Scottish opinion, two thirds, 67% said either that the Scottish parliament should take all decisions for Scotland (35%) or that it should make all decisions apart from defence and foreign affairs (32%). Yet, this is the one option Scots are not allowed to choose in the 2014 referendum.
It isn't hard to understand why so many Scots are confused and irritated about the referendum in September 2014. They will be presented with a choice of unacceptable alternatives - independence or the status quo – in a referendum they never really asked for. Moreover, Alex Salmond, in trying to tailor his message to mainstream Scottish opinion has confused matters by talking of a new 'social union' in which Scotland would keep the Queen the pound, Nato bases, UK pensions etc..
So, on the one hand,we have the Scottish National Party offering a form of ersatz autonomy, which leaves so much power with Westminster that it is hard to call it independence. On the other we have the reactionary unionism of Labour's MPs in Westminster, who won't even allow their own Scottish leader, Johann Lamont, the freedom to contemplate more powers for Holyrood, as was demonstrated by their rubbishing of her tentative tax proposals in March.
Scots are increasingly confident that they could become a viable independent country if they really wanted. The great change in the Holyrood years has been the increasing acceptance by both sides of the independence debate that Scotland, with its burgeoning oil industry, its financial services, its universities, renewable energy resources etc, has the means to become an independent state just like Denmark of Norway. Scotland increasingly resembles a Nordic country in terms of economic and political culture. This is apparent in the continuing commitment in Scotland to collective provision expressed in policies like elderly care to student fees and opposition to the commercialisation of the NHS.
However, it is understandable that the Scots should not want to discard the UK because they helped build it, even if it is looking unfit for purpose. With Conservative-led government back in Westminster, the divergence of political culture between Scotland and England is becoming more pronounced. “Tory” is still a four letter word in Scotland. Scots can no longer be confident even of remaining in the European Union now that the UK Conservatives are committed to an in/out referendum.
The worst that could happen in 2014 is an inconclusive and bad tempered referendum campaign after which a No vote is taken by Westminster as a sign that the Scottish question is no longer important. This is what happened after the 1979 referendum, which failed to meet the 40% rule. UK governments then allowed Scotland's manufacturing economy to be dismantled, while the UK balance of payments deficit was being financed by Scottish oil revenue.
To avoid that fate, many Scots may be tempted to vote Yes in September 2014, even though they don't want independence. Others may vote No, even though they want a deeper form of devolution. The fate of Scotland may be decided by the frustrated middle who decline to make any choice at all. It would be the ultimate irony if Scotland left the UK through apathy.
Saturday, June 08, 2013
from Herald 6/6/13
The Herald-STV Road to Referendum documentary series was sabotaged by technical difficulties on Tuesday. Apparently 65% of viewers in Scotland were unable to watch the first 25 minutes of the first instalment of our three-part television history of the national question in Scotland since the war. Part one of Road to Referendum will now be shown on Sunday June 9th at 7pm on STV, and is available now on the STV website. My book of the same name is published this week by Cargo.
And no, this wasn't a Unionist conspiracy to obliterate Scotland's history. ITV in England was also blanked out for two hours, the first time since the miners' strike, or so I was told. The only region that didn't get a blank screen was London, and they wouldn't have been watching anyway. But I'm pleased to say a version of Road to Referendum will be shown in England later this year.
However, some have already made up their minds. It was a "60-minute advert for nationalism" according a headline in the Spectator magazine. Yet I defy anyone to view this unique collaboration between The Herald and STV as an exercise in nationalist propaganda. The first documentary is all about how the SNP was electorally insignificant as recently as the 1960s and could only register its existence by blowing up pillar boxes.
The unsolved mystery of Scottish politics, which I explore further in my book, is why an independence referendum should be happening at all in a country which hasn't had a tradition of political nationalism until the day before yesterday – at least not since the Scottish wars of independence in the Middle Ages, which is where my investigation of the national question begins.
Some Unionists believe a veil should be drawn over the history of Wallace and Bruce for fear of inciting hatred of the English. As if history itself is suspect. Yet 19th-century Unionists, like the Tory novelist, Sir Walter Scott, weren't in the least afraid of Scottish nationalist history – in fact, he invented a lot of it.
Scottish nationalism is unlike nationalist movements in other countries. This is not, and never has been, about national liberation in the conventional sense. Scots don't feel they are oppressed; rather, they feel they are being excluded from a unique multinational entity, the UK, that they helped create.
Monday, May 20, 2013
Wull ye no come back again, Arch Duke Franz of Bavaria? The Kirk dropped a constitutional bombshell into the referendum campaign last week by suggesting that Scottish monarchs should be crowned in Scotland after independence. The last king to have been so invested was Charles 11 in 1651, who was of course a Catholic. Direct in line through the Jacobite succession today is one Franz of Bavaria, an amiable octogenarian who may not fully appreciate that he is King over the Water.
The Restoration didn't end too well for the Presbyterians back in the day. It led to the “Killing Time” of the 1680s - when thumbscrews and the gallows were the penalties Presbyterians suffered for holding their open-air 'conventicles'. The Act of Settlement in 1701 prevented Catholics from becoming monarchs ever again, and we are still signed up to that – much to the frustration of Alex Salmond who has been trying to get the Act changed so that it no longer discriminates against Catholics.
Which might be why the Kirk also called last week for the Church of Scotland to be called the National Church of Scotland. If the Jacobites got their hands back on the throne, Franz might be minded to bring back thumbscrews for Protestants. And then invade England.
What does all this mean? Well, almost nothing, since no one seriously takes issue with the Hanoverian succession these days, and few of us are members of any church. But it provided another perplexing constitutional issue for Scots to worry about as they await the referendum, or should that be referendoom, in September 2014. Like the threat that Scotland's bank notes may be taken away, as alleged by the UK Treasury's latest broadside against independence. Not content with oor Pandas, they will even take oor poonds.
FROM SUNDAY HERALD
It seems only yesterday that everyone was talking about a "Grexit" - the forecast, made by most of the UK press, that Greece was about to leave the European Union because of the onerous bailout terms imposed by the EU and IMF. Now, suddenly, we are talking about the "Brexit" - the possibility, indeed probability, of a British exit from Europe when the current Lisbon Treaty comes up for negotiation in 2015.
Last week, three prominent Tory grandees - the former Chancellor, Lord Lawson, the former Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo, and Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, called for British withdrawal from the European Union. The former Tory Scottish Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind said they'd "hurled a hand-grenade into a small building". It certainly put a bomb under David Cameron's policy of promising to renegotiate the terms of British membership, and then putting the result to a referendum after the next general election. Tory backbenchers, emboldened by Lord Lawson and co. are demanding a firm commitment right away. Labour says it is opposed to a referendum now, but agrees on the need for reform, and is not ruling out its own referendum on independence from Europe.
Viewed from Scotland, where opposition to Europe is muted and where we have another referendum on our minds, this all seems more than a little surprising. Most Scots still want to stay in the EU, according to the latest Ipsos Mori poll, and only a third want out. But in England - especially the south - there has been a growing frustration with Europe that finally erupted two weeks ago in the English local elections, when UKIP - the party seeking withdrawal from the EU - won up to 25% of the vote. There is little doubt that many people in England feel that Europe is a "bureaucratic monstrosity" to use Lord Lawson's description, and that their democracy is being subverted by Brussels.
But what exactly do they mean by this? When you ask eurosceptic Tory MPs they tend to reply with relatively trivial examples - compulsory seat belts for children under 12, regulations on food standards, health and hygiene. Those infamous straight bananas. But most of these relate to the terms under which the UK is a member of the Single European Market, where standardisation is necessary to ensure a level playing field for all trading nations.
Similarly, the social protections of the EU, like the working time directive, are intended to make the single market work fairly and prevent some countries seeking advantage by forcing their workers to spend longer at work. The "social Europe" as it is called is hardly onerous, and Britain anyway has an opt out from the 48hr working week.
Eurosceptics also talk of the Human Rights Act and claim that the failure to deport suspected terrorists like Abu Qatada has something to do with the European Union. This is completely wrong. The Human Rights Act is based on the European Convention on Human Rights which was set up by Winston Churchill after the Second World War to prevent totalitarianism returning to Europe.
None of these, it seems to me, are reasons to go to war with Europe, and deny the benefits of the single market which has undoubtedly boosted prosperity. Trade within Europe has doubled since 1992, thanks to the abolition of tariffs and barriers to the free movement of goods and services in Europe.
It was typical of the Guardian to try to suggest some equivalence between Nigel Farrage's UKIP and Alex Salmond's Scottish National Party. At an editorial level the Guardian has always found it hard to understand that the SNP is not a nationalist party in the conventional sense and is not based on any concept of ethnic chauvinism. Don't they ever bother to read its election manifestos?
The SNP is probably the left wing and most multicultural political party in Britain with any significant parliamentary representation in Britain. It was the first party to have a muslim MSP; it supports an open immigration policy; its external affairs spokesman is Hums I gave up trying to make this clear in pieces I have written for them in recent years, and I am not a member of the SNP and don't describe myself as a nationalists.
What metropolitan papers cannot quite understand is that the political culture is different in Scotland. The Radical Scotland demonstrators who barracked Farrage called him a racist and a homophobe. They were not attacking him for his nationality. It was convenient for him to present it this way, but it was nauseating to see papers like the Guardian echoing his English nationalist misrepresentation and giving prominence to the equally mendacious accusations by discredited figures like Lord George Foulkes that the SNP condones anti-English racism.
It is Labour that has been trying to foment racial antagonism recently. The most egregious example was the former Labour election candidate, Ian Smart's, claim that the SNP wanted to send home "Pakis and Poles". It is a matter of record that Labour First Ministers, both SNP and Labour, have been arguing for greater immigration to Scotland and against the policies of the UK government. Jack McConnell and Alex Salmond don't agree on many things, but they are at one on the need for Scotland to receive workers from abroad in order to revive the Scottish economy.
The SNP supports same sex marriage and wants to keep Scotland in Europe. It's a measure of how attitudes to Europe have changed in Britain over the last twenty years, that anti-Europeans like Nigel Farrage of UKIP, who was barracked in an Edinburgh pub last week, are now regarded almost as members of the political mainstream. In England at least.
The term "eurosceptic" was originally coined to describe the minority of mainly Tory MPs in the early 1990s who opposed the Maastricht Treaty. But the term has become redundant because almost all Conservatives are now of that persuasion. Over 100 are so hostile, they voted against their own Prime Minister's Queens Speech last week because there wasn't an immediate referendum on withdrawal. Britain, it seems, is on its way out.
David Cameron has already promised an in out referendum after the next election. Labour and the Liberal Democrats also support a referendum if there are significant changes to Britain's relationship to Europe, which seem almost inevitable now. Ironically, the only party that doesn't seem to want to repatriate powers from Brussels is the SNP, which wants to take Scotland out of the UK but not the EU. It is almost impossible to find anyone in Britain who makes the positive case for European economic integration any more, now that the eurozone crisis has led to mass unemployment and falling living standards in countries like Spain and Greece
Yet, for people of my generation, it is hard to regard the Europe as anything other than a huge advance in European civilisation. I can remember when it was impossible to travel to Eastern European countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Latvia. They were communist dictatorships, closed societies, where often impoverished populations lived in fear of the state and had no human rights. They were part of a military alliance which threatened the very security of the West. Now these countries are vibrant European democracies and pose no threat to anyone. This has happened in only twenty five years - the blink of an eye in historical terms.
Of course, eurosceptics say that this has more to do with Ryanair than the European Union. That these countries have become part of the European family simply because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the expansion of capitalism. Conservatives like the former MEP Daniel Hannon, say that Europe itself today poses a threat to democracy because of its bureaucratic institutions and its lack of respect for diversity among the 27 member states. But no one who recalls the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990 could deny that Europe played a part in the democratization of Europe. It is not just a willingness to host stag and hen parties that gets you into the European Union.
Friday, May 10, 2013
Postpone the referendum? How can Scots decide on staying in the UK if they don't know whether the UK is staying in the EU?
“Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?”. That's the question that looks increasingly likely to be asked of British voters in a referendum in the near future. It is in the draft bill offered by David Cameron to assuage his eurosceptic backbenchers. It didn't, and 116 of them demonstrated their continued dissatisfaction by voting against their own government's Queen's Speech. They still don't believe their leader is serious about holding an in out referendum and want a commitment before 2015.
Labour's Ed Milliband has been enjoying David Cameron's latest troubles over Europe immensely. It is redolent of the mess the Conservatives found themselves in during the early 1990s, when John Major was unable to control his eurosceptic “B@@tards”. But Miliband may not be smiling for long, because things have moved on and Britain, or rather England, appears to be increasingly hostile to the European Union. The pressure will mount on Labour before the next general election to give its own commitment to a referendum on Europe, especially if, as expected, UKIP effectively win the European Elections in May 2014.
I don't see how the Labour leader can refuse. Indeed, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats already accept that there should be a referendum if there is any “substantial” change in Britain's relationship to Europe. Since Europe is in the process of reviewing the EU treaties prior to introducing a banking and fiscal union, that substantial change looks increasingly likely. Yesterday, at Prime Minister's Question Time, the Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, said it was a matter of “when not if” there will be a referendum on Europe.
Europe has become the dominant issue in UK politics, and it increasingly looks as if Britain is, if not on its way out, then moving towards a much looser relationship. But where does this leave Scotland? We have a referendum on independence in September in September 2014 in which Scots will be asked whether they want to be out of the UK but in Europe. Then, shortly after, they will be asked in a referendum whether we want to stay in the UK but out of Europe. I don't know about the voters, but I'm confused. I'm not even sure it is possible to have a view on staying in the UK if we don't know whether Britain is staying in Europe.
Indeed, as the constitutional lawyer, Alan Trench has suggested, there is a case for delaying the Scottish referendum until the UK's position in Europe has been resolved. This is because the information essential for making a determination on independence for Scotland will not be available to Scots when they make their choice in September 2014. Will a No vote also be a vote, effectively, to leave Europe - a proposition that a majority of Scots reject? We don't know.