Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Zero tolerance doesn't work with prostitution or drugs

Curious how human tragedy changes public attitudes. It took the deaths of five women in Suffolk for us to discover that we no longer regard prostitutes as moral outcasts. They are now “sex workers” or “working girls”, as if streetwalking was a perfectly normal occupation for a young woman.
And maybe that’s how it is gong to be in future. In a few years, perhaps they’ll be offering sex therapy courses at night school. As the word “prostitute” falls out of favour, legally-sanctioned brothels and tolerance zones will replace street life. And a good thing too.
Zero tolerance has never worked and never will. So long as men want sex there will be women prepared to sell it to them. Better to regulate than denigrate. A more liberal attitude to prostitution may be the only positive thing from the Ipswich Ripper case, leaving the Suffolk five as martyrs to outdated attitudes toward sex and personal freedom.
However, the real tragedy is that, even with enlightened prostitution laws, these “working girls” might still have met a grisly end. For they were all drug addicts - hopeless crack heads and heroin junkies. These girls would not have been allowed to work in the saunas of Edinburgh because of their addictions. The proprietors wouldn’t have wanted them there, and neither would the other working girls.
It’s debatable whether they would be tolerated in properly managed tolerance zones either since they would attract the unwelcome attention of the police and the drug gangs. They would likely seek the darkest most dangerous corners of our cities to ply their trade, almost inviting early death.
Suffolk was really about the drugs industry and the failure of our society to combat it. Zero tolerance is failing on drugs just as it has failed over prostitution and we need new language here too. The same cloud of moral confusion obscures clear thinking about the drug epidemic.
And it is a kind of disease. The parents and relatives of the Ipswich victims told the sad old story of how their nice ordinary girls contracted it after they had been exposed to heroin or cocaine during periods of emotional turmoil and relationship breakdown. Once infected, the prognosis is poor.
This disease is supported by a massive industry - one of the biggest in the world, and it is part of the fabric of every day life in the estates of Scotland as in Suffolk. We are now seeing second and third generation drug abusers. Fifty thousand children living with addict parents - a future army of drug traffickers.
Politicians are paralysed. They know perfectly well that the war against drugs isn’t working - that’s what the police keep telling them - and that prison doesn’t work either. As an expert witness revealed in Perth Sheriff court last week, our prisons are becoming drug supermarkets.
In desperation, the Scottish Executive is threatening to take the children of drug abusers into care, en masse, if their parents don’t accept a contract on rehabilitation. But since a large proportion of drug addicts and prostitutes started their criminal lives in care homes, this is unlikely to contain the disease. Nor is the proposal to prevent drug abusers having children by mixing contraceptives with their methadone, a policy which would be impossible to implement in a democracy.
The only way to deal ultimately with the drug problem is to kill the industry which spreads it. And that means decriminalisation and ultimately legalisation of all drugs backed up by rehabilitation. Crack heads aren’t criminals they are mentally ill.
The existing laws are anyway becoming unenforceable. Models like Kate Moss and pop stars like Pete Docherty flaunt their use of highly addictive substances. Ex addicts like the novelist Will Self, who is being feted as the new George Orwell on Jura, are no longer treated as pariahs because they have been to the underworld and back. With stars like Russell Brand and Davina McCall on the box you begin to wonder if being an ex addict is now a job qualification for television presentation.
Like the new language of prostitution the social acceptability of individuals who have used drugs is a sign that public attitudes are changing fast. These people are no longer treated as social outcasts, pariahs, lepers. They are respected, even, as people who have overcome health problem to emerge more effective human beings.
This is how we will have to address the drug problem in future - as a public health issue. Destroy the monopoly of the drugs industry by legalising heroin on prescription, and you rob it of its army of pushers. Addicts then become patients suffering from an unglamorous medical condition, similar to aids or diabetes.
Of course, some people may continue to take drugs, just as people continue to smoke cigarettes. But at least it would be possible to control the quality of the substances, manage the distribution, monitor abusers and keep the stuff out of the hands of children. It wouldn’t be a soft option. Rehabilitation might have to be mandatory for people who have become criminally insane through crack cocaine.
Of course, no one wants to see the state taking over the drugs trade, but what is the alternative? We now find eleven year old children turning up to school high on heroin. We have prostitutes risking their lives - and their clients’ - through unprotected sex. Those naked bodies in the woods represent the reality of our present drug laws, and they must change. Prohibition, like prostitution, is long past its sell by date.

Blair's Black Friday

How Tony Blair must wish he had stuck to that agreement with Gordon Brown and left office in 2004. He could at least have claimed success of a kind after the Iraqi elections, and then claim he’d laid the ground for Labour’s third election victory. But by hanging on and on, things got worse and worse. And last week, they reached rock bottom.
The sight of the Prime Minister scuttling off abroad after being interviewed by the police over cash for peerages, pausing only to take “full responsibility” for the abandoning of police investigations into the BAE slush fund, was deeply damaging. Spin doctors are supposed to bury bad news, not their leader.
It’s widely assumed in Westminster that the government carefully choreographed last week’s announcements so that the PM’s encounter with PC Plod and the dropping of the Serious Fraud Office investigation into the al Yamamah arms deals, would be eclipsed by the report into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Also buried was the controversial decision to expand Stanstead and Heathrow airports (to hell with the environment) plus the closure of 2,500 post offices.
Well, it certainly looked like news management out of the Alistair Campbell book of spin. He would have known that the papers would all splash pictures of Diana and Dodi on the Friday front pages - because they sell copies - rather than Tony Blair and the police, even though the Stevens inquiry confirmed what everyone already knew: that Diana’s death was a tragic accident accident.
But the real car crash was in Number Ten. I half thought it really might have all been coincidental, so damaging has been the concatenation of negative news events on Blair’s Black Friday. Any sensible spin-doctor would have advised the PM to avoid trying to bury quite so many pieces of bad news under the late Princess of Wales. Better too, for the PM to face the music, here in Britain, rather than disappear to Brussels and then the Middle East away from press and parliament.
The PM’s impromptu comments on cash-for-peerages, delivered from Brussels, sounded like those of a politician who had fled into exile. A kind of Downing Street Ronnie Biggs. The PM told the media that all those millionaires who had been secretly loaning him money were nominated for peerages, not because of charitable work or service to the community, but “party service”.
Really? The property developer, Sir David Garrard, a loyal and industrious Labour activist? Curry King Sir Gulam Noon, licking envelopes and canvassing in South London? Constituency delegate Dr Chai Patel speaking haltingly in favour of resolutions 46 and 32a at conference? Hardly.
Of course, these aren’t the only way in which you can work for the Labour Party, but it is kind of expected that you would show your face, or at least become a member. Or were these businessmen - had they been ennobled - really intending to enter parliament on behalf of the Labour Party? To take the whip and start taking on the workload of working peers? I don’t think so.
This was bad enough, but to combine cash-for-honours with cash-for-Saudi Princes must represent a new benchmark for inept media management. It looked as if the Prime Minister was defending the giving of bribes, for that is the issue at stake in the Al Yamamah arms deal, a £40 billion scam in which Mark Thatcher and the imprisoned Tory minister Jonathan Aitken had walk-on roles.
There is little doubt that British Aerospace, now BAE, was responsible for handing out tens of millions in “commissions” to Saudi intermediaries, such as the louche Prince Turki bin Nasser, a leading member of the Saudi Arabian ruling royal family. The BBC’s Money Programme revealed two years ago that BAE had been showing its gratitude by purchasing a £170, 000 Rolls Royce for Prince Turki’s wife’s birthday; a £200,000 wedding video for his daughter’s wedding; and a three month holiday for all the family costing BAE £2m.
Now, a lot of people in the commeercial world shake their heads and say: ‘well, that’s what you have to do to get the business’. Perhaps they are right, though the law says something rather different. The Serious Fraud Office spend two years investigating the scams, and intended to follow the money into the Swiss banking world. That was until the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, announced that it wouldn’t be in the national interest to do so. The fact that orders for 72 BAE Typhoon Eurofighter jets was about to go to the French had, of course, nothing to do with it.
According to Downing St. it was all about the security of Britain. We cannot afford to pursue the corrupt Saudi princes because it would antagonise an ally in the war against terrorism, and could place British interest in jeopardy. “The strategic interest comes first” according to the PM.
Well, if our national security is dependent on this corrupt and medieval monarchy then we are in a bad way, for they are the principle benefactors of the extreme Islamist Wahhabin sect which gave rise to Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden and most of the 9/11 plane bombers were Saudi passport holders. Saudi money finances the madrassas that indoctrinate young Muslims across the Middle East.
But now the House of Saud is our rock in the fight against international terrorism. As for the safety of British interests, we also learned on Friday from the former top diplomat, Carne Ross, that the British government knew that the threat to British interests from Saddam Hussein’s WMD was hogwash. It led the former Tory Prime Minister, Sir John Major, to launch an assault on Tony Blair from the airwaves by demanding a proper independent inquiry.
For the leader who presided over the years of Tory sleaze to be giving Tony Blair a lecture in ethics might sound rich, and indeed, it was. However, Major can at least say he was never interviewed by police pursuing a fraud investigation, nor did he go to war on a false pretext in Iraq. The first Gulf War was all about expelling Saddam from Kuwait, which he had invaded in violation of international law.
Can Tony Blair recover from all this? Of course not. Everything the PM does now is doomed because of the collapse in his moral authority and personal credibility. That’s his lookout. The real question is whether there will be anything left of Labour for Gordon Brown to inherit.
Number Ten “rogue elements” made clear their intentions to deprive him of any moral dividend by briefing the Sunday Press that the Chancellor had been doing a bit of cash for honours himself, by pushing cronies Wilf Stevenson, head of the Smith Institute and Sir Ronald Cohen, of the Social Investment Task force. Mr Brown was incensed.
He rushed a statement not quite denying that he had pushed his pals, informally, in the direction of the Lords and insisting that he had known nothing about loans. Protesting too much? Perhaps - though neither of his protégés had actually made loans to Labour having chosen conventional donations.
But the affair shows that the Blairites, Peter Mandelson et al, are not going to let Brown walk into Number Ten over the PM’s body. They are out to get him. This is personal.

Remember the "Barnett Squeeze"? It's happening.

No spending announcement on Scotland is complete without a quote from Lord Barnett saying his formula should be scrapped. Yesterday he was at it again, saying that the Barnett Formula was “unfair” and giving the Scots “more than they should have” in comparison with England. He was commenting on the latest “GERS” figures on Scottish public spending.
The funny thing about this is that Lord Barnett doesn’t appear to understand how his own formula works. Rather than ensuring that Scotland gets a bigger slice of the cake, it is designed to ensure fiscal convergence. By allocating increases in spending in proportion to population, the Barnett Formula reduces Scottish spending over time relative to England.
Or rather it should reduce it. In the 1980s and 1990s the Barnett Formula was bypassed for political reasons, essentially because successive Tory secretaries of state wanted to placate Scotland. But not any more. Under Labour, Barnett is working with a vengance, radically altering the entire spending debate.
Buried in the Government Expenditure and Revenue in Scotland (GERS) report published this week are figures (table 6.4) which show Scotland’s relative spending advantage per head declined from 19.1% above the UK average in 2004 to 15.8% in 2005. That is a big fall in the space of one year -
equivalent to several hundred million in spending on hospitals and schools. At this rate, Scotland’s crude spending advantage could be obliterated in five or six years.
Why hasn’t anyone noticed that Scotland’s “Barnett bonus” - which was such a hugely controversial issue only a few years ago and remains so in the London press - has declined so sharply? Well, the main reason is that overall UK public spending has been increasing very rapidly as a result of the Chancellor’s economic policy in the last few years. Indeed, so many billions have been pumped into the public sector that the Scottish Executive has been having difficulty spending it all. Scotland’s share of this largesse is rising more slowly than England’s.
This sounds academic, but the Barnett Squeeze could be a ticking time bomb. It is widely accepted in Westminster that the Chancellor’s spending spree cannot continue, and that public spending will have to be reined in over the three or four years years. Once this starts to happen, the effects of the Barnett Squeeze may become only too apparent in Scotland, as hospital wards are shut, nurses laid off and schools closed down because of falling rolls.
Scotland’s “extra” spending under the Barnett Formula was always something of a fiction. The reason that Scots figures were higher than England for services like health and education is largely because Scots are unhealthy and it is more expensive to provide services to areas with low population density. It costs a lot more per head to provide a school for a few children on a Scottish island, say, than for an inner London borough. It’s the same with roads and hospitals.
If the spending tap is turned off these costs don’t simply go away. You just don’t build the schools and roads anymore, or maintain the ones you have. It doesn’t mean Scotland is going to be plunged into penury, but ministers are in no doubt that things might get difficult. Some MSPs have even hinted that this might be a good time to put the SNP into government so that they are landed with the spending crisis.
The paradox of GERS is that Scottish spending appears to be going up and down at the same time. For the expnditure figures also show that Scotland’s budget deficit has ballooned to #11 billion, excluding oil, which is the number that hit the headlines this week. This deficit is increasing largely because the Scottish economy is growing more slowly than spending is increasing. High relative spending is not an expression of London generosity, but low tax revenues in Scotland.
We have been told all week that this black hole has destroyed the economic case for independence (or federalism) because it shows Scotland is functionally bankrupt. We need this “Union Dividend” as the Prime Minister called it, to stay afloat - as if the deficit were some kind of bribe to stay in the UK.
But just adding up government spending in Scotland and subtracting tax revenues is no substitute for an economic policy. The enthusiasm with which some politicians have embraced the Scottish deficit, as if it were something to be proud of, just betrays economic illiteracy.
The low tax revenues in Scotland are because Scottish businesses are growing very slowly, or not at all, bcause Scottish wage rates are so lower than England’s, and because business formation in Scotland is feeble.
What would happen if, by some miracle, the Scottish economy were to bloom and generate prodigious tax revenues - like Ireland? Presumably, government ministers would then have to apologise for the relative decline in spending. That would of course be nonsensical.
Economic policy should be geared towards improving he dynamism of the Scottish economy, and should not become fixated on any particular level of public spending. In no sense is Scotland being featherbedded or subsidised by England, as the ministers try to suggest.
Of course, an independent Scotland would have a deficit, of a greater or lesser degree depending on oil prices. Nothing wrong with that - all governments borrow. A nationalist government would almost certainly have to cut state spending considerably, in the early years at least, if it cut corporation taxes. The gamble would be that the Scottish economy would boom like Ireland’s or Latvia’s, which is by no means certain.
But nor is lower public spending necessarily an evil. It depends what you spend it on. The number of civil servants has increased hugely in the last ten years, as have public appointments generally. An independent, or federal Scottish government might well choose to lower public spending as a matter of choice, not of necessity.
I don’t believe that people in Scotland are afraid of this prospect any more. Voters are becoming much more sophisticated in their understanding of how the economy works. Nor do they feel particularly happy about constantly being told they are living off London subsidies - which is how the present arrangement is being presented by the UK Press.
Last month we were then told that an independent Scotland would be swamped by illegal immigrants and a prime target for terrorists. This month that Scotland would be impoverished. “We’d be broke if we went it alone” said the Daily Record. It’s the politics of fear again.
But the economic debate has moved on from the days when Scotland’s economic well-being was measured by the level of public spending.
Scotland is saying in effect: who’s afraid of the big black hole?

Let's hear it for Malcolm

Malcolm Chisholm, the communities minister, is a very decent man, perhaps too decent for the often poisonous world of Scottish Labour Politics.
He is one of those rare politicians these day who is burdened by a conscience. Chisholm was the first Labour minister to resign from Tony Blair’s government. That was over lone parent benefit, and Gordon Brown’s decision to axe it in 1997. Having to resign from the first Labour government in 18 years was a personal tragedy for him. But hypocrisy doesn’t come easy for Malcolm Chisholm.
He has now spoken out against Trident missiles and left people in no doubt about his opposition to nuclear power stations. In doing this he is only expressing the views of many of his colleagues and constituents. But on the eve of an election it could be political suicide. The SNP claim his apostasy shows Labour is split “from top to bottom”.
Chisholm is increasingly isolated in the Scottish Executive as an East of Scotland minister in a government which hails from the Peoples’ Republic of Lanarkshire. Friends say that he is sometimes treated as if he comes from another planet - and coming from Edinburgh that may not be far off.
In the West of Scotland, Labour politicians don’t feel under any real pressure over the kind of issues that move Malcolm Chisholm. Their constituents don’t lobby them on the environment or on the nuclear issue, but on drugs, youth crime and hospital closures. They certainly don’t go on demonstrations against Trident.
Chisholm isn’t an unreconstructed unilateralist, but he believes in getting rid of nuclear weapons as soon as possible. “I just think in the new world we don’t actually need this weapon.” he told BBC Scotland’s “Politics Scotland. “We ought to try and get rid of the weapons through multilateral disarmament”.
Now this must be the first time a politician has been accused of rebellion for quoting his own leader. For, in September, the First Minister, Jack McConnell said he too thought that nuclear weapons should be used in multilateral disarmament negotiations with countries like Iran.
But this was not the argument used by the Prime Minister on Monday when he launched the government's white paper on renewing Trident. Tony Blair never mentioned multilateral disarmament or getting rid of nuclear weapons in his Commons statement. Quite the reverse. He said it would be “unwise and dangerous” for Britain to give up the “independent nuclear deterrent”.
But who would it be used on? Alarmingly, the PM suggested that, far from opening talks with the Iranians, Trident might be targeted against them. “It is true that our deterrent would not deter or prevent terrorists”, Mr Blair told MPs, “But it is bound to have an impact on governments that might sponsor them.” What impact, one wonders?
The SNP were quick to attack McConnell for abandoning his principled multilateralism and endorsing the Blair doctrine. McConnell justified his conversion by suggesting that the proposed reduction in the number of Trident boats and warheads in the proposed new system was itself a kind of disarmament. But since we are devising a wholly new system of delivery, and preparing to use a new generation of missiles, we are clearly breaching the spirit if not the letter of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty.
Malcolm Chisholm was unable to follow Jack McConnell's logic, and he risks the wrath of his colleagues for not doing so and giving the Liberal Democrats and the SNP political ammunition in May. Many West of Scotland Labour politicians used to be unilateralist, but have allowed their principles to wither. The constitution gives everyone in the Scottish parliament a get-out-of-jail-free card as far as nuclear issues are concerned, since they can always say that defence isn’t a responsibility of the Scottish parliament. Trouble is, the First Minister has made it an issue by his remarks on multilateral nuclear disarmament.
But perhaps Malcolm is doing them all a favour. Trident is hugely unpopular in many areas of Scotland, and Labour is in danger of losing a lot of precious votes over the renewal issue. Politicians like Malcolm Chisholm with delicate majorities don’t want to lose any more votes than they have to, which is why Trident is a political as well as a conscience issue for him. Opinion polls all show that Scots do not like Trident at all, and consider it another English imposition. It does no harm for it to be known that some Labour MSPs in Holyrood share their misgivings.
But that won’t stop the grumbling. Things haven’t been going spectacularly well recently for the communities and housing minister. The flagship policy of council house stock transfer has been a mess, with rejection of the policy in Edinburgh, Stirling, Renfrewshire and Highland. It may be that the Lanarkshire is about to claim another victim.
This would be unfortunate. After May, Chisholm will be the only Labour MSP left who has experience as an MP and minister in Westminster. It would be a real loss to the parliament if someone of Chisholms character were to be lost, especially for saying what his own leader thinks. The centre of gravity of the Scottish parliament is too much weighted to the West. Malcolm Chisholm should be preserved for the good of the nation.

How does Blair remain in office?

I thought it couldn’t get worse, but it just has. The Iraq Study Group, far from showing a way out of the crisis, has become a new dimension of it. The wise men confirmed that the war is unwinnable, but didn’t didn't say how to stop their leader fighting it.
The Baker-Hamilton Report, published last week, made three things clear: that the security situation in Iraq is deteriorating rapidly; that it is undermining the stability of the entire region; and that America - thinking America - has had enough of it.
It is unprecedented for such a defeatist document to be prepared and disseminated so publicly while American soldiers are still fighting a war. Yet the two leaders responsible for Iraq - George W Bush and Tony Blair remain obstinately in denial and defiantly in office. This means diplomatic paralysis, military stalemate, and further incalculable loss of life.
It is the worst of both worlds. America has lost the war, but is determined to fight on. It remains embroiled in a bloody conflict, even though it has abandoned its war aims. No one believes in the beacon of democracy anymore, or that American and British troops can somehow end the carnage. We are now in Iraq for only one reason: to protect the vanity of two powerful men.
I can’t think of any historical example of political leaders - in Western democracies - remaining in office after being so completely discredited in war time. H.H. Asquith resigned as Prime Minister in 1916 over his conduct of the First World War; Neville Chamberlain resigned in 1940 after Germany invaded the Netherlands; Anthony Eden resigned after the Suez debacle, claiming ill health. Even Richard Nixon threw in the towel eventually, though the Vietnam war was only one of the disasters on his watch.
Resignation performs a vital function in a democracy: it allows a country that’s in a hole to stop digging. But far from hanging up their spades, Bush and Blair have just moved in the heavy earth-moving equipment and seem intent on burying themselves and the West in the graveyard of their own incompetence.
George W. Bush said in response to the ISG that he was determined to ‘stay the course’ in Iraq and to ‘get the job done’ whatever that means. He even announced that “we’re hunting down al Qaeda and we’re bringing them to justice.” I nearly about fell off my chair at that one.
If al Qaeda is in Iraq, it is only because the Americans are there - Osama bin Laden had nothing but contempt for Saddam Hussein, and he had no terrorist training camps in Iraq, according to the CIA. If Bush had really wanted to hunt down al Qaeda he should have stayed the course in Afghanistan and ensured that bin Laden and co weren’t able to establish their safe havens over the border in Pakistan.
It is an insult to the intelligence of the American public to claim that Iraq is all about 9/11 and al Qaeda. Unfortunately, the US press corps tends to leave its collective intellect on the hatstand before entering the Presidential briefing room and has allowed the President to get away with this canard. Tony Blair would never dare suggest at a UK press conference that Iraq was about hunting down al Qaeda, because he would be laughed out of the room.
Mind you, Blair had no shortage of supporters in the UK press at the launch of this absurd and tragic venture back in March 2003. I well recall the Sun telling us that there would be no casualties in this high tech war. Editors and commentators throughout the UK took the line that, well, there were no sales in opposing “our boys” when they went into action. I’m not going to name names - the Times columnist Matthew Parris did that in a devastating piece six weeks ago.
As the invasion fireworks began, most in the UK press decided that, since America was invincible, there was no point in being on the losing side. That WMD was certain to be found in Iraq and further evidence would surely emerge of Saddam’s monstrous mistreatment of his own people. It was thought by many that Iraqis would soon see the virtues of democracy - and if they didn’t the US would pump in enough dollars to persuade them. With all that oil under the ground, Iraq would become wealthy democracy, a beacon for the entire Middle East.
It seemed a no brainer. And it was, literally, since it betrayed a lack of grey matter. The idea of marching into Baghdad, on a “crusade” against terror, was always lunacy. It was madness to think that you could surgically remove Saddam and his Baathist cronies and then let the free market sort out the future of this divided dictatorship.
There were critical voices, including this newspaper, which argued consistently that al Qaeda was not based in Iraq; that the UN weapons inspectors should have been allowed to finish the job; that invading a Muslim country would make international terrorism worse and inflame he Middle East. But we were drowned out by the war fever.
Of course, Saddam Hussein was a ruthless tyrant, but it was up to his own people to remove him. The US neo Conservatives who conceived the war strategy - Rumsfeld, Cheney, Perle - seemed to believe that Saddam would topple painlessly, like the dictators of Eastern Europe, and that a liberated people would spontaneously erect the institutions of a liberal democracy.
And maybe they would have, ultimately. But by trying to speed up history and “remake the world” as Bush remarked before his premature declaration of victory in the battle of Baghdad, the Americans made the oldest mistake in the military book: they thought the people would welcome the military occupation of their country.
America broke Iraq, but it can’t mend it. The Iraq Study Group has tried to put some of the pieces back together again, but not even the glue of all-party support in Congress can make it stick.
Meanwhile, in Iraq the insurgents - a collection of religious fanatics, unemployed soldiers, hardened terrorists and former Baath Party loyalists - is taking on and beating the greatest military power in history: America. And with the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan, they may be about to do the double.
It gives me no satisfaction to see the most powerful democracies humbled in this way. We will all suffer the consequences of the Bush/Blair madness, as militant Islamism gains strength from America's defeat. The world really will be a more dangerous place after the collapse of the Iraqi state. But there is no alternative now but to get out - as fast as possible.

Monday, December 04, 2006

What's the worst that could happen?

So, what’s the worst that could happen? If the opinion polls are broadly correct, and the SNP is returned as the largest party in May, what could be the realistic downside? given that most people seem to have dismissed Tony Blair’s forecasts of constitutional apocalypse.
The reaction to the government’s warnings about families being split asunder and the nation being left defenceless, has been one of bemused disdain in the Scottish press - traditionally a bastion of unionism. Times change.
However, while customs posts and border guards may not be on the agenda, people still have a right to ask what an SNP vote would mean. If many voters are contemplating lending their votes to Alex Salmond what would he do with them? Yes, we know that the SNP would have to form a coalition with the unionist Liberal Democrats and there would be a referendum before independence. But what else?
Now, the SNP have a whole raft of policies for the Scottish parliament including local income tax, abolishing student debt, subsidising homebuyers and even keeping teenager drivers off motorways. The question is whether they would ever be in a position to implement any of them. Or perhaps the question should be: would they want to implement them?
It seems to me that the only credible worst-case scenario of and SNP win is that there could be a prolonged period of constitutional instability and legislative stasis in Holyrood. The real danger is not independence as such, but that an SNP-led coalition could become so preoccupied with constitutional processes that there might simply be no time or energy left to pass any significant domestic legislation.
This is certainly the fear of the Liberal Democrats, who of course, would have to join with the SNP if there is to be any alternative to Labour. The Libdems, and indeed the Greens, are intensely suspicious of the SNP - which is puzzling because they agree with most of its policies. You would be amazed at the length to which the LibDems go to play down the prospects for partnership with the nationalists. Given the logic of a proportional representation, this amounts to a kind of denial.
Personality has a lot to do with it. What keeps Liberal Democrat ministers awake at night is the thought of waking up on May 4th and finding themselves sitting round a table with Alex Salmond as First Minister. They regard him as arrogant, impetuous, a demagogue even.
Strange this, since their former leader, Jim Wallace, worked closely with Salmond in the devolution referendum campaign in 1997. But Liberal Democrats now talk about the SNP leader the way some Labour ministers talk about Gordon Brown - as if he has psychological flaws that would make it impossible for him to head a coherent administration.
This is why some LibDems are seriously arguing that, if there’s to be a Nat/Lib coalition, the First Minister should be Nicol Stephen - a condition the SNP could never accept. So let’s not even go there. Alex Salmond, like him or loathe him, would become First Minister of Scotland - if there is a coalition at all.
The other main LibDem demand is that the SNP abandon its commitment to legislate, within the first hundred days, for a referendum on independence. Indeed for any referendum. This, they say, would be the real nightmare: Alex Salmond, intoxicated by his own charisma, a man in a hurry, running a one-man administration, doing whatever it takes to break up the union by turning every issue into a constitutional one, the better to prepare the ground for the referendum when it comes.
The SNP in government would not be interested in young drivers’ lives - they say - but in forcing a confrontation with Westminster. The nationalists would invent spurious motions on Trident and immigration in order to provoke further friction with London. There would be endless financial wrangles over the Barnett Formula and the proper level of public spending in Scotland.
Holyrood would, in this scenario, cease to be a parliament, and would turn into a theatre of national liberation. A stage on which Alex Salmond could seek his destiny as Scotland’s saviour from English domination.
The Liberal Democrats would be in and out of the coalition like a cuckoo clock, trying to hold Salmond to agreements, and then marching out when he insists on going his own way. If the Greens were in there too, things could be even more chaotic. Scotland , indeed the entire UK( because English nationalism is very much in play now ) would become unstable until the referendum finally happens, sometime around year three.
Now, I don’t want to overplay this. We are looking , remember, at the worst that could happen if the SNP entered government in bad faith. There are a couple of reasons for thinking that it wouldn’t be this bad. First, thinking members of the nationalist movement are now beginning to take seriously the prospect of government and are realising that if they make a horlicks of it they could be in opposition for a long time thereafter.
The second reason is that there may not be any coalition. Liberal Democrat ministers I speak to are adamant that they will refuse to hold any talks until the SNP drop the referendum. It may seem perverse for the party of constitutional reform to deny the Scottish people a say on their own constitutional future, but that’s the deal. The SNP would have to turn their referendum into a neverendum - a ballot some time in the distant future.
Independence may be the nationalist Clause Four, an electoral millstone, but is no sign that Alex Salmond wants to get it off his neck. In conversations I have had with him he is adamant that he is not in the business of sidelining separatism, that he relishes Labour’s focus on independence and that he’s happy to talk about it all the way to polling day.
All of which means that we must look at a very different prospect altogether if the polls are right: that Labour might have to form a minority administration with the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. There’s no law that says the largest party has to be part of the government.
One reason Jack McConnell was so understated at the Labour conference, while his Westminster colleagues were putting the boot in, may be that he is thinking along these lines. Politics in a proportional parliament is about co-operation and confidence building, not denunciation and ultimatums. McConnell can’t afford to drive the Liberal Democrats and the Greens into the arms of the SNP by belligerent unionist bluster.
This is why the FM has been so equivocal about issues like Trident and nuclear power; cautiously distancing himself from the London line on asylum and immigration. He needs to put himself in a position to lead an alternative coalition if he and the SNP end up neck and neck in the Scottish elections.
And then a truly terrifying thought occurs - far worse than any of the other nightmare scenarios. That, after May, nothing may change at all.

Why England wants rid of Scotland

 Just as Scotland is beginning to tire of the latest flurry of nationalist speculation, based on a couple of rather optimistic opinion polls, England has  rediscovered perfidious Caledonia.  Last week, the London press was been full of challenges to Scotland to go for autonomy - if you think you’re hard enough. 
   Here’s Simon Jerkins in the Guardian: “I would not lose any sleep if the Scots voted to repeal the 1707 Act...it would do Scotland nothing but good to learn that public money does not grow on English trees.”  
    According to David Aaronovitch in the Times, the English “might moan about the passport man getting on the train near Berwick, but - with traditional complacency - would otherwise soon get over it”.   Prospect magazine has been running a lively debate about the merits of independence since it ran a cover story last month about the apostasy of the Scottish Tory historian, Michael Fry, who has promised to vote SNP in May.  The consensus is that it’s only a matter of time. 
   Conservative columnists like Michael Portillo, in the Sunday Times, and Max Hastings (everywhere) have long been arguing that the Scots need to be taught a lesson by having the subsidy tap turned off at source.  That England could survive and thrive without Scotland - now that the oil has mostly run out - since it only constitutes a twelfth of the population. 
   This is becoming something close to a post-unionist consensus now among the commentariat. Curiously, it was left to a Scottish journalists, John Lloyd of the FT, to make the case for the union in the Guardian’s internet forum “Comment is Free”.  A lone voice against the chorus of opinion formers dissing the UK.
    So much for the great crusade to defend the Union, launched by the Labour cabinet last weekend.  Tony Blair raised the Union Jack and no one saluted.  Simon Jenkins compared the posse of Labour ministers in Oban to: ”a bunch of Spanish hidalgos racing back from he flesh pots of Madrid to quell a revolt in their home province”.   English newspapers  seemed utterly unmoved by the warnings from the Home Secretary John Reid, that independence would leave the country vulnerable to terrorist attack and a flood of illegal immigrants.  
     But why has the Union fallen out of favour so dramatically in England? Do all those organs of opinion really want to see a break up of Britain?  It is of course wrong to make sweeping generalisations about a country’s attitudes, when there has been no real national debate about the question at hand.  It may be that there are millions of closet unionists south of the Border who are only waiting their moment to speak out.
    However,  I have been acutely conscious in my recent conversations with metropolitan editors and commentators a resentment, an irritation with Scotland right now which is as unmistakable as it is puzzling.     After all, it is not my perception that Scotland is going through one of its anti-English phases.  Yet I keep being told that the Scots just won’t stop moaning and attacking the English.  That we ask for more and more subsidies and then complain that London is responsible for all our problems.  That we “run” the cabinet and are over-represented in Westminster. Yet, Scottish public spending is in relative decline and Scottish MPs were reduced by one sixth after devolution . 
        This has little to do with the Barnett Formula or the West Lothian Question.  It’s personal. Simon Jenkins wrote in the Guardian last week that: “Gordon Brown, probably the next Prime Minister, wears his distaste for England on his sleeve, and English voters sense it.”   That was an astonishing thing to say, when the Chancellor has been going to such lengths to stress his love for the Union and his support for England in sporting events the World Cup.  He even says his favourite sporting moment is that Paul Gascoigne goal against Scotland. 
    There is a note of condescension, impatience even contempt creeping into a lot of media commentary on Scotland which is becoming more than a little disturbing. This hostility is reflected in rather more Anglo Saxon terms in many emails and internet comments,  many  racist and unprintable, on my pieces.  When will the Scots learn to stop complaining. Why don’t you just Jock Off!
     I have been wondering where all this is coming from and I am beginning to think if may be a displaced resentment about the way in which race has transformed English culture and society.   There is a widespread but largely suppressed concern about the consequences of mass immigration in England.  The editor of Prospect, David Goodhart,  has bee  calling for “progressive nationalism”, a return to British values and an unwinding of multiculturalism. Goodhart has warned that unlimited immigration could undermine the welfare state by destroying the social contract that underpins it.
     Now, for even suggesting that there should be a debate about immigration Goodhart has been widely vilified on the Left for being racist. A “liberal Powellite” is how he was described by the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Philips.  Ironic that, since Phillips has recently been attacked as a BNP fellow traveller by the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone.  Phillips had said that Britain is “sleep-walking to segregation” because of miss-placed multiculturalism and the failure to integrate immigrant communities.
    It has become all but impossible to speak about identity in British political culture without being accused of racism. “There is a danger”, says Phillips, “that increasingly we are so afraid to speak to each other about our differences that nobody can say what they mean.”  Well, there is one ethnic group about whom English people can say what they mean: the Scots.
   When commentators talk of Scots running England, the Scottish “Raj”, “whinging Jocks” etc.. they can indulge in a identity politics without worrying that they are going to be accused of supporting the BNP.  During last Summer’s footie wars, the Observer ran a front page headline which read:  ”Brown under fresh pressure over Scottish roots”.   If Brown had been black or Asian that story would would never have been printed.  
     This ethnic hostility is rife on the internet where foul-mouthed abuse of the Scots is quite acceptable even on liberal websites.  For once they can speak their minds.  It is an opportunity for English people to get it off their chests  - have a rant at non English people for a change. 
     And to celebrate their own values.  For one of the problems about criticising multiculturalism, and calling for a return to British values, is deciding what these values actually are.  George Orwell’s warm beer, cricket and spinsters on bicycles usually figure on the inventory of Britishness.  But these are essentially English values rather than Scottish ones.  It is not easy to have a Scottish “cricket test”.  
    Now, I’m not for one second denying that Scots aren’t guilty of this kind of communal hostility themselves.   There is far too much anti-English feeling Scotland which is excused as banter, but is - in its own way - racist. That’s not the point.  
     This crisis of English identity may be one of the factors behind the withdrawal of English support for the Union.  This is having a blow-back in Scotland.  Indeed, it may be that, this time round, English nationalism is becoming a more important dynamic of constitutional change  than Scottish nationalism.  That like the Czech Republic before the Velvet Divorce from Slovakia, the momentum for dissolution is coming from the senior partner in the union.
    The 300th anniversary of the Act of Union  next year is going to be very interesting.  

Labour could be left with only one council after May: North Lanarkshire

You couldn’t make it up. Our report today reveals that, according to You Gov, the Scottish Labour Party could be reduced to only one council after May 3rd: North Lanarkshire. Fitting that the local authority which has become a by-word for the deadhead, crony culture of the local state should be the last bastion of Labourism. After the whirlwind of STV has swept the council map of Scotland, only Lanarkshire Man is left standing.
Now, as it happens, North Lanarkshire isn’t such a bad council these days. There are certainly many worse ones around. But rightly or wrongly, Lanarkshire has been associated with factionalism, sectarianism, bureaucracy, jobs for the boys, votes for trips - the kind of politics that has thrived in the one party states which have dominated local Scotland for the last century. And which, in six months, will become history.
The coming of proportional representation to local government elections hasn’t had a lot of attention recently, with all the excitement generated by the SNP’s prospects for Holyrood. But STV will spark what can only be called a revolution in Scottish political culture. It’s like the collapse of Communism on a local scale.
Labour stands to lose twelve of its thirteen councils including the crown jewels of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Suddenly, areas of Scotland which have seen Labour control for as long as anyone can remember - Midlothian, Clackmannanshire, West Lothian - will suddenly become multiparty democracies where Labour will either have to share power or languish in opposition.
Councils are the seed beds of national politics. Labour’s grip on the local state has stunted the growth of other political organisations in Scotland. Non Labourites have not only been locked out of the council chambers, but out of the public sector bureaucracies. In most of Scotland, if you aren’t Labour you aren’t in the running for a lot of public sector jobs.
How Jack McConnell managed to get this legislation through the Scottish Parliament in the teeth of opposition from his own Labour councillors - hundreds of whom could lose their jobs - is one of the great untold stories of the devolution years. Of course, he had the backing of the opposition parties in the Scottish parliament. But it took a degree of personal bravery nevertheless.
Labour has a way of dealing with leaders who take a stand against the cronyocracy. They often end up discredited by anonymous briefings to the press disclosing personal peccadilloes and worse. McConnell experienced this in 2002/3 when members of his own local constituency party started talking to tabloid newspapers about alleged irregularities in the accounts of the FM’s Motherwell and Wishaw constituency party. McConnell must have known that by declaring war on local Labour he was risking his political career.
But it had to happen. The old order, when it wasn’t actually corrupt, was sclerotic, inefficient and reactionary. Democracy existed in name only in councils such as Glasgow, where Labour has 90% of the seats last time on the strength of 48% . In Midlothian, Labour has 83% of the seats on the basis of only 43% of the vote.
If the 2003 elections had been run on the STV system which will be introduced in May 2007, Labour would have only had around 50% of the seats in Glasgow and Midlothian. But as the You Gov poll today shows, Labour’s loss of support since 2003 ensures that these councils, along with all but one of the others, will fall to the opposition parties.
Now, critics of proportional representation have argued that this would just be out of the frying pan into the smoke filled room. That Labour domination would be replaced by endless back room deals to cobble together shifting coalitions of various parties. No party would have the mandate to get anything done. All would be compromise and chaos.
But what they ignored was the fact that, in most cases, Labour local administrations were themselves shifting coalitions of political factions and religious affiliations. The energies of local councillors were too often devoted to fixing and reconciling those internal groupings within the broad Labour coalition. At least now, there will be a degree of openness and transparency.
Democracy can only thrive when there is a fair distribution of seats in any legislature. The virtual absence of non-Labour members in councils like Glasgow and Midlothian meant there was no adequate scrutiny of what went on, and no plurality of ideas. The opposition were so weak they couldn’t develop an alternative vision or coherent strategy. What was the point? They were never going to be in a position of power.
This bottom up transformation of the Scottish political culture can only be for the good. Many Labour councillors now accept that things had to change. The debate now will move to whether or not city mayors, which are under discussion in England, would further improve the governance of the big Scottish conurbations.
My own view is that the diffusion of power that results from STV does build the case for having a recognisable personality in charge of cities - subject of course to democratic control. However, this is for the future. In the meantime, let’s just praise Lanarkshire and pass the ballot paper.

Trident is a codpiece

You’ll have had your debate. It took about an hour on Thursday for the decision to be taken by the UK Cabinet to replace Trident. The consultation will be an empty one, taking place over the Christmas holiday season, and the vote in the New Year will be a formality.
Faced with a fait accompli, Labour MPs will mostly come into line after threats from the government whips of the dire electoral consequences of slipping back into unilateralism. The assumption is that the British public will never vote for a party which leaves the nation defenceless. That in a dangerous world, people will expect the government to maintain nuclear security.
Most Labour MPs I know dislike Trident. But the party’s electoral psychology is still locked in the 1980s, like the generals who always fight the last war. The memory of their former leader Michael Foot’s crushing defeat in 1983 still haunts Labour. Never again.
So, Britain will spend between £25 and £70bn on a new and useless generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to destroy most of the major cities in the former Warsaw Pact. Countries with which we are now at peace.
There is no known target for these missiles. They are purely symbolic - an affirmation of British national status. There to ensure that we don’t walk naked into conference chambers; have seat at the top table of the UN Security Council; don’t let the French become the only nuclear country in Europe. Trident is a bit like a codpiece - a macho decoration, intended to indicate potency, but which merely conceals the diminutive size of our moral credibility.
Of course, you’ve heard all these arguments before. Old story; let’s hear something new. We are all just a little bored by the whole debate about Trident - I am myself. It seems to revive every few months, but never really get anywhere. Which is exactly how the government wants it to be.
When the vote comes, we will be told that the issue has been examined exhaustively over the last eighteen months. Which it emphatically has not been. This has been a one-sided debate, in which the opponents of renewal have been fighting shadows because there has been no clear proposal on the table. Just hints and steers.
At one stage it was thought possible that the government might just extend the life of the existing Trident system beyond 2025, and further reduce the number of missiles deployed. This looked an attractive option to some Labour anti-nukes since it would allow the government to retain the nuclear deterrent, and yet meet the spirit as well as the letter of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty.
That agreement requires nations not only to work towards nuclear disarmament, but to refrain from developing new weapons systems and to take practical steps to reduce existing nuclear capability. Britain has quietly reduced the number of warheads in the Trident system by 50% over the last decade .
There was a hope that Gordon Brown, who is no great nuclear enthusiast, might continue this policy - keep the existing boats and allow Trident to rust in peace. That as Prime Minister, he might take up the challenge laid down by the former Labour foreign secretary Robin Cook, who shortly before he died called on the government to: “Find the courage to let Trident be the end of Britain’s futile and costly obsession with nuclear-weapon status”.
Brown read the eulogy at Cook’s funeral. But it looks unlikely now that he will follow his logic and use the Trident renewal process to effectively ‘decommission’ the system. The hints we are now getting about next month’s White Paper is that the government is going to go for a new system, with new missiles - perhaps with fewer warheads which could be more precisely targeted. This would be, in the eyes of many international lawyers, a material breach of the Non Proliferation Treaty because it increases the likelihood of a first strike.
The disaster in Iraq seems to have increased the attractions for the Prime Minister of a shiny new Trident. After all, Britain will somehow have to compensate for the lost of international prestige that could follow defeat by a few thousand insurgents and Islamist fanatics. This is not the time to show weakness, we will be told.
Britain must be strong to face the challenges of a dangerous new world. It is up to those who would ditch Trident to prove that they will never be needed - that will be the line.
But that, of course, is impossible. You cannot base defence policy on hypothetical enemies. It is up to governments to assess the current risk and devise a security system that is appropriate to the times, not speculate about some future revival of superpower rivalry.
We keep being told that Britain faces a wholly new threat to national security in the shape of global terrorism. But we are developing a weapons system which is even more unsuited to the challenge posed by al Qaeda than invading arbitrary countries like Iraq. Or are we going to fire Trident missiles at Sadr City. Or Leeds, where the 7/7 bombers hailed from?
Renewing Trident will not only be a waste of money, it will increase the risk of nuclear proliferation. Britain’s decision will have immense international resonance. It will rob the West of any moral authority on the issue of disarmament and undo all the achievements of the last twenty years of multilateral negotiations. It will simply be impossible to lecture other countries, like Iran, against developing their own nuclear weapons while we are renewing our own.
So, it is replacing Trident, rather than dumping it, that will make the world a much more dangerous place. It is depressing that the government is apparently incapable of seeing this - as if Labour has forgotten everything it has said about nuclear weapons over the last twenty five years. Curiously, it took the First Minister, Jack McConnell, to remind them that Labour’s policy is supposed to be to use Trident as a bargaining chip in multilateral negotiations on disarmament.
McConnell, was laughed at in September when he originally proposed using Trident in talks with countries like Iran to prevent them developing their own nuclear deterrent - but events have vindicated him. With the Iraq Study Group, suddenly everyone is talking about talking to Iran.
It is very difficult to foresee the future of international relations.
But the one thing that we can be sure of is this: that if no one takes a lead on disarmament, the world will see more and more countries acquiring nuclear weapons. And eventually, someone, somewhere, will use them.