Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a woman of valour

Ruth the Moabite is the only Biblical figure to merit the description ‘eshet chayil’ – ‘a woman of valour’.

One rabbinical exegesis sees Proverbs 31’s womanly virtues as a reference to Ruth: ‘Many women have done well, but you surpass them all.’

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died aged 87 on Erev Rosh Hashanah, surpassed the expectations and limitations placed on women who came before her. But she did more than that: the Brooklyn-born lawyer fundamentally transformed the role of women in law and changed the law on women’s roles.

Continue reading at the Spectator

Feature image: public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Scotland’s approach to lockdown is not working

Scots, or at least those I encounter at a two-metre distance, are growing scunnered with lockdown.

The impositions grand and petty on everyday life. The endless changes to increasingly unintelligible rules. The glum dawning that it’s going to be like this until a vaccine is manufactured.

We are fortunate, of course, those of us who haven’t been struck down by this contagion. Many have lost their lives, friends or loved ones. The restrictions are there to stop more people succumbing to Covid-19. Pandemics must be controlled before they can be eradicated.

Even so, lockdown is not an ideal solution, bringing with it deadly tolls on physical and mental health. For some of us, breaking point seems perilously near. No less important is the health of our liberties, which are placed in a coma and revived again as public health authorities deem appropriate.

Indoor and outdoor gatherings have been cut to six, while the rules are even more draconian on the 1.7 million people living in Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire, East Dunbartonshire and West Dunbartonshire.

It is imperative that we contain coronavirus, but it is imperative too that our containment strategy works — not only against the virus but in its wider impact. That the easing of contact rules has had to be reversed for the whole nation and one-third of Scots placed under even more stringent lockdown suggests the systems currently in place failed or were overwhelmed. We need to understand why, and how to avoid another failure when the regulations are loosened up a second time. 

Given these faults, the knock-on effects on health, and the damage visited upon the economy and personal freedoms, it is no longer tenable to keep doing things the way we have been. 

The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations lack the necessary checks and balances on the First Minister, who has been vested with extraordinary, almost monarchical, powers. (The regulations don’t grant this authority solely to the First Minister but under the reign of Nicola Sturgeon the phrase ‘the Scottish Ministers’ is decidedly singular.)

If we are to keep up this hokey-cokey lockdown in which we are in, out and our lives shaken all about, then it can’t be on the whim of a solitary politician.

The regulations should be amended to require that the Scottish parliament vote on each new schedule of restrictions (or lifting of restrictions). Practically, the outcome will be the same because, instead of a properly functioning legislature, Scotland has Holyrood.

SNP backbenchers will fulfil their constitutional role as the nodding Churchill dog that yelps ‘Oh, yes!’ to instructions from the executive, and if it’s lapdogs you’re after, Patrick Harvie, a one-man argument against proportional representation, will dutifully fetch the necessary votes from the Green benches.

The conclusion may be foregone but at least there would be a debate. Ideas and approaches would be placed in contest. The First Minister could be interrogated on the rationale for her latest round of restrictions and the advisers on whose counsel she makes her decisions called before the Covid-19 committee to lay out the evidence. The case for presenting the evidence in public has been made by the First Minister and her government and their opaque, if not downright cynical, use of statistics. 

Nicola Sturgeon’s claims that the prevalence of Covid-19 was ‘five times lower’ in Scotland than in England brought a blunt rebuke from the Office for Statistics Regulation.

Director general Ed Humpherson wrote to Sturgeon’s chief statistician, reproaching the Scottish Government for making claims using unverifiable sources, commenting: ‘When unpublished figures are quoted in the public domain, we expect that this information is shared with the media and the public in a way that promotes transparency and clarity.’

He went further, concluding that the five-times-lower assertion was not backed up by the data sets cited. ‘We do not think that the sources above allow for a quantified and uncaveated comparison of the kind that was made,’ he stated.  ‘In future if such comparisons are made, we would expect to see sources made publicly available and a clear explanation of the limitations and associated uncertainty.’ 

This came weeks after Humpherson rapped Scottish Government spin doctors for making a claim about the number of antibody tests carried out. ‘This figure cannot be verified,’ he wrote on that occasion. ‘This is unacceptable for a figure of such importance used in a government news release.’

The First Minister’s faux-folksy ‘I don’t want to make this about politics, but…’ shtick belies the partisan mode in which she has conducted herself, not least during her daily briefings, which are so important for public health that the BBC must carry them live but not so important that she will forgo turning them into a political soapbox at every opportunity.

No leader so ferociously tribal, no single leader of any temperament, should hold the fate of 5.5 million in their hands, especially not one who surrounds herself with solicitous courtiers and commands a deference from backbench MSPs at odds with good parliamentary government. Bute House has been home to a baronet, a marquess and even a French king but it took the SNP to turn it into a royal household. 

Decisions about who we can have in our homes must no longer be made by the House of Sturgeon-Murrell alone. Regular debate in the Scottish parliament is essential to test the First Minister’s claims, decide whether her proposed actions are proportionate and rein in her tendency towards overreach, as we saw early on with her aborted attempt to suspend the right to trial by jury.

For now, the public is behind the First Minister’s approach but their consent should not be taken for granted. We don’t know how much longer the Chancellor will be able to maintain his job retention scheme. We don’t know what winter will bring, but it could involve a fresh spike, a ban on funeral ceremonies and even the effective cancelling of Christmas.

If coronavirus is with us for years rather than months, our endurance will be severely tested. Giving MSPs a vote on lockdown measures would be one way of heading off public discontent. Instead of just restrictions, the country would be given reasons. Ineffective policies could be remedied faster and those that might provoke a backlash taken off the table.

If the Scottish parliament cannot exert itself over something as pivotal as this, what exactly is the point of it?

*****

Scottish Labour couldn’t find its spine with an X-ray machine and a copy of Gray’s Anatomy. On Saturday, it had a chance to send Richard Leonard back to his picket line and choose a new leader who could actually lead.

Instead, the bold challengers bottled it and condemned their party to an almighty skelping in May’s elections. Still, I’m sure their decision was motivated by principle – securing the principal spot on their regional list.

Leonard called for ‘unity not division’ in Scottish Labour, which is like calling for free will and independent thought in the SNP. The political equivalent of the mute button, Leonard has been shop steward of the branch office for three years but his sole achievement is splendid anonymity. There are people in the witness protection programme with higher public profiles.

Not that there’s much to see. You’d struggle to pick him out of a crowd but, if you did, you’d put him back. That’s what Scots will do next May.

*****

With a string of opinion polls showing a majority of Scots in favour of Scexit, the SNP’s dream seems closer than ever. Alas, cruel fate has brandished its dagger. Shetland and Orkney say they will pursue independence from Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon, a self-proclaimed democrat, will doubtless support their right to do so. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk

Sturgeon explains things to Richard Leonard verrrrrry sloooooowly

Tracking coronavirus? There’s an app for that.

First Minister’s Questions was buzzing about the new technological doohickey intended to save us all from Covid-19.

What the Protect Scotland app couldn’t do is save us from a major reversal of lockdown: meetings, indoors and out, would be cut to only six people across two households. Or a Scottish Lib Dem conference, to use the technical term.

Nicola Sturgeon was visibly burdened by the weight of the decisions she is having to take. She accepted they were ‘hard for people to hear’ and there was a sincerity in her expression. An entire country goes to work or stays at home on her word. ‘Unfortunately, the virus does not respond to government instruction,’ she lamented. So it’s not an SNP backbencher, then.

Ruth Davidson, who had downloaded the app and urged others to do likewise, noted not everyone is au fait with apps. ‘What is being done to ensure that everybody, including those hardest to reach, is being helped to adopt this new technology?’ she asked.

The answer, in another note of bipartisanship, was essentially: you’ve got a point there. Sturgeon sought to reassure those who don’t while away their time in the App Store, saying they would still be served by the Test and Protect system.

Anyone who tested positive would get a phone call from a contact tracer and be asked to provide the names of everyone they’ve been in contact with. Love-rat husbands across the land are about to suddenly misplace their smartphones.

Getting a phone call about your recent movements does seem a little meddlesome. There should be a single call to ask about your contacts, your missold PPI and imaginary accidents that weren’t your fault.

The First Minister started out by telling MSPs that 150,000 people had downloaded the app, then gave a running total throughout FMQs.

During an exchange with Patrick Harvie, she updated the figure to 200,000, then 250,000 while answering David Torrance’s question about the privacy implications of the app. It was like Children In Need, and given how much broadcast time the BBC affords her these days, she may end up presenting that too.

Labour MSPs looked more in need than most. Their alleged leader Richard Leonard had come armed with a killer statistic: ‘In Scotland’s testing strategy, published only last month, the government said that its target is to have a daily testing capacity of 65,000. Yesterday, only 14,341 tests were carried out.’

His righteous neck jab was in full tilt – imagine a chicken just back from its first Socialist Workers’ Party meeting – and his voice coated in the hollow emotionalism he struggles to feign. Boy, had he got her now.

‘I am going to try not to be too technical here,’ Sturgeon began. Ruh-roh.

She teed up the point that you’ve probably already spotted: ‘Those are tests carried out, not capacity,’ she explained.

This was more generous than she needed to be. Somehow the leader of an actual political party – okay, Scottish Labour, but still – had made it all the way through FMQs prep without noticing that capacity and demand are two different things.

Sturgeon had let him off the hook somewhat but, to the horror of those sitting behind him, he leapt right back on it: ‘I thank the First Minister for that answer, although I reflect that the actual number of tests carried out yesterday… is still 50,000 below the target figure.’

Sturgeon had the expression of a teacher whose mouth is saying ‘That’s not quite the right answer, Timmy’ while her mind is thinking: ‘This is a special one’.

She tried again: ‘The figure that Richard Leonard quoted… is the demand figure. it is demand-led… I know that such things are complex.’

Labour MSPs looked glum. Their leader is hopeless but they can’t get rid of him. If only there was an app for that.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk

National emergencies require national responses

With the aviation industry on its knees, Boris Johnson is under pressure to embrace airport testing.

Screening arrivals is thought more effective than the current policy: a blanket requirement to self-quarantine for 14 days. Airline and tourism chiefs warn this is crippling their sectors and putting thousands of jobs at risk.

The Scottish Conservatives want the Scottish Government, which holds the relevant powers, to back airport screening north of the Border. But you can be sure that, should the Prime Minister relent and roll out an airport swabbing programme, Nicola Sturgeon will announce it is wrong for Scotland and refuse to follow suit. A week or so later, she will follow the Prime Minister’s lead while demanding credit for her caution.

Whether on air bridges or reopening pubs or ‘Stay Alert’ messaging, that has been Sturgeon’s modus operandi. As UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps pointed out on Friday, the different travel restriction regimes are ‘confusing’ for tourists, adding that it didn’t ‘make the overall message any clearer’ when the Scottish Government ‘jumped the gun’ and added Greece to its quarantine list.

Boris Johnson opted to give Holyrood further emergency powers at the outset of the pandemic, rather than pursue a unified national strategy. While the four-nations approach appeared sensible at first, it was only as good as the faith of those running it, and in the case of Sturgeon, her divisive, tribal instincts got the better of her soon enough.

The leeway that devolution granted the SNP to take different choices in Scotland appears to have become a strategy to take different choices for the sake of it, and for political purposes.

Shunting elderly people into care homes, fully aware of the potential consequences, may be the most morally indefensible aspect of her government’s response to Covid-19, but the refusal to rule out quarantining English people coming to Scotland remains the primary political outrage.

At a time when national unity was called for, when it was essential that no one group of people be stigmatised, Sturgeon failed to rise above partisanship and pandering.

The lack of co-ordination, the confusion, the harm to the economy, and the opportunism of political pot-stirrers make the case for a better way of handling this and future emergency scenarios.

The UK Parliament should consider legislating for a new form of co-ordination of government in times like these. This would involve Parliament and UK ministers taking temporary control of relevant devolved competencies to ensure a coherent and effective response to a national emergency. National emergencies might include epidemics and pandemics; terrorism and war; catastrophic weather events and major industrial disputes; disruption to transport and to food, fuel and medicine supply chains.

In the current fight against Covid-19, it could mean ministers setting policy on areas such as airport screening and testing in general; air bridges and internal border crossings; the scope and timing of lockdown measures; infection control protocols; and statistics and data. Ministers may also require the power to issue regulations, directions and guidance to NHS Scotland, NHS Wales and Health and Social Care Northern Ireland.

The overriding objective would be to remove all barriers to swift and straightforward management of coronavirus and similar outbreaks. It would not necessitate a one-size-fits-all approach; instead, UK ministers would be able to take targeted action within a single framework. No more political games, no more playing Scotland and England off against one another. A healthy nation, rather than healthy polling numbers for one party or another, would be the organising principle.

This would not be an encroachment on devolved powers, but rather a recognition that some situations simply require a single government to be in charge. Airport testing, for example, will struggle to operate effectively if only some UK airports are using it. Working together, within the same strategy, would make all the difference.

There are already structures that nominally allow ministers from the four governments to co-operate. The Joint Ministerial Committee seldom meets but during the pandemic devolved ministers have attended Cobra (the Civil Contingencies Committee) meetings and Ministerial Implementation Groups, though the Institute for Government notes that both have since fallen by the wayside.

National emergency legislation should be accompanied by the creation of a National Emergency Committee, chaired by the Prime Minister. Unlike Cobra, it would meet regularly in non-emergency times to plan, prepare, advise, share information, organise training drills and establish relationships for future incidents. Those attending would include ministers from the devolved governments, as well as representatives from the police, fire and health services.

When an emergency situation did arise, the committee would co-ordinate the implementation of government decisions in each nation. It would offer the devolved administrations the opportunity to shape strategy and argue for changes. Ultimately, the Prime Minister would decide but the committee could help ensure the exercise of temporarily reserved powers was done with an eye to consensus and compromise.

The temporary nature of reservation would be written into law, with a statutory requirement for Parliament to review the situation at regular intervals. UK ministers would be forbidden from using a crisis as a pretext to legislate or issue directives in areas not relevant to the emergency at hand.

National emergencies demand a national response, and Covid-19 more than qualifies. Four governments pursuing four different strategies, and with ill-motivated actors determined to use this moment for divisiveness, clearly does not work. The question of airport testing amply demonstrates how a one-nation approach could function, giving airlines and the tourism industry the clarity and confidence they need to get through what is, for them, an existential crisis.

The next time we face an emergency like this, we should face it as one nation. Our response will be all the better for it.

*****

On Friday night, Extinction Rebellion blocked access to printing presses in Motherwell, Broxbourne and Knowsley. They targeted titles, including the Daily Mail, whom they accuse of failing to report on climate change. Eighty people were arrested, but not before severe disruption to the supply of millions of newspapers. 

Predictable excuses for their actions have been heard from predictable quarters. They obstructed the delivery of Right-leaning newspapers and to a certain caste of Left-wing mind that will always be justified. Of course, were a Right-wing rabble to impede the Guardian’s printers over its Brexit coverage or publication of Wikileaks, the apologists’ tune would hit a different note. 

While it is encouraging to hear Boris Johnson call the conduct of this eco-fundamentalist sect ‘unacceptable’, it is not enough. Press freedom is a bedrock liberal principle and ministers cannot allow it to become contingent on the whims of undisguised communists and undeodorised druids.

*****

Tony Abbott’s appointment as a trade envoy has proved controversial because of his past statements on gay marriage and women’s roles, but his personal views are irrelevant to the job. Labour says he’s unsuitable to represent the UK on the world stage. Remind me: who did Labour try to make UK prime minister nine months ago? 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Image by Klaus Hausmann from Pixabay.

Can’t read his, can’t read his poker face

Richard Leonard should take up poker.

He might have more spare time on his hands soon enough, but that is rather the point. He rose at First Minister’s Questions, hours after three of his MSPs called on him to resign, and he gave off not a single tell.

His composure seldom breaks. It would be hard to tell whether he had just won the lottery or been appointed head of inspections at the Wuhan wet market.

Come 12.20pm, he did as custom commands and set phasers to monotone. The Scottish Government had nicked his idea for a National Care Service but was first commissioning a feasibility study.

‘She [Nicola Sturgeon] should not need an independent review to tell her the basic principles on which such a service should be built,’ he droned.

The First Minister replied: ‘I agree with the principles that Richard Leonard has enunciated, however… there is a difference between a call for something in opposition and the delivery of it in government. One has to work out not just the vision that one seeks to achieve but the detail of how one gets from here to there.’

Sturgeon addressed him slowly and deliberately, as though explaining something to a small child or John Mason. The contempt in which she holds the man is palpable. She might even like Mike Russell more than him.

When Leonard objected to the review taking too long, she jabbed: ‘We have asked the independent review to give us a report by January, although I am not sure whether Richard Leonard will still be standing in his place by then.’

Ruth Davidson asked why an Indyref 2 Bill had priority over a schools Bill in the Programme for Government. Education was meant to be the number one priority.

Sturgeon rejoindered that this was because ‘on a basic matter of democracy, I believe that it is for the people of Scotland to choose their own future’. That’s quite the hostage to fortune she’s setting up. What happens when the people of Scotland want a vote on bringing back hanging or, worse, Phil Collins?

‘Fundamentally,’ the First Minister pronounced, ‘I believe in democracy.’

Sturgeon is mad keen on democracy. So much so that, when Alex Salmond stood down in 2014, she decided to give democracy a much-needed rest and just inherit the leadership of her party and the country from him.

Davidson circled back for another go on schools, specifically on plans by the Scottish Qualifications Authority to have students taught less this year.

‘The SQA will look closely at the curriculum and will listen carefully to the views that are being expressed,’ Sturgeon replied.

Well, as long as the important subjects are still offered: intersectional Gaelic and Scottish arithmetic. (‘If Johnny has four apples and a £15billion deficit, how much of his fiscal shortfall can he blame on Westminster?’)

The Tory group leader then went on a pronoun adventure: ‘It was her who said that education would be her number one priority… her who said that a flagship Education Bill was needed… her who said that closing the attainment gap was what she wanted to be judged by.’

Mercifully, when the parliamentary stenographers typed up Davidson’s remarks, they changed the hers to shes. Holyrood’s Official Report: the unlikely brake pad on the handcart to Hell.

Willie Rennie posed the not unreasonable puzzle that if Scotland’s Covid-19 response had been so stellar, why were Aberdeen and Glasgow under lockdown measures?

‘We all have to do our job maybe just a bit better,’ Sturgeon ventured. What’s all this ‘we’ business, First Minister? This is your job. You don’t get to cash out the successes and socialise the failures.

She sighed that Rennie should ‘learn a little bit more’ about contact tracing before interrogating her.

‘I am sorry if the First Minister does not like my asking such questions,’ the Lib Dem leader jabbed with faux sincerity.

The First Minister continues to take personal offence at MSPs using First Minister’s Questions to ask questions of the First Minister.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk

In the court of Queen Nicola

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Someone on the BBC got a bit overexcited and teed it up as ‘the Queen’s Speech of Scotland’.

Nicola Sturgeon’s annual Programme for Government doesn’t boast quite the same pomp and glitz, though she does wear her customary crown of virtue.

Addressing her court, the Nat regnant declared that this was ‘not a normal, business-as-usual Programme for Government’ because of coronavirus. This was her way of foreshadowing the paucity of new Bills in her announcement.

That’s a double-edged sword with the Nationalists. They go through alternating stretches of legislative torpor and hyperactivity. One minute they won’t lift a finger, the next they’re banging people up for singing the wrong songs at the football.

In place of substantive legislation, we got a lot of high-minded talk about climate change and technology, with more action on emissions and free electronic devices for the worst off. Let’s hope these laptops aren’t manufactured in China, the planet’s leading emissions polluter. That’s the kind of thing the First Minister might call hypocrisy in other circumstances.

Bringing digital access to 50,000 deprived families is grand, as is supplying retraining to 10,000 job seekers, but as mission statements for government go, it was all a bit Traffic Cones Hotline. Well-meaning, but hardly transformational.

There was one piece of legislation, however, that did get a look in.

Go on. Guess.

Sturgeon told MSPs: ‘We will publish, before the end of this session of parliament, a draft Bill setting out the proposed terms and timing of an independence referendum as well as the proposed question that people will be asked in that referendum.’

If you guessed something on education, go to the back of the class.

Another referendum Bill, that’s what Scotland needed. ‘Brexit and the way in which it is being implemented,’ she explained, ‘immeasurably strengthen the case for Scotland becoming an independent country.’

The First Minister forgetting her wi-fi password immeasurably strengthens the case for Scotland becoming an independent country. At least if we did vote for Scexit it would bring a merciful end to the regular updates on things Nicola Sturgeon deems an Indyref 2 trigger.

She’s clever, mind. She concluded with a canny pitch to older, conservative-minded voters, in the form of a tribute to the wartime generation and how, ‘even in desperate times, they resolved to build a better world’. This is the electoral group most sceptical of Scexit and yet, to the horror of Tory strategists, they have been expressing to pollsters confidence in Sturgeon’s handling of coronavirus.

It wasn’t long ago that rank-and-file Nationalists were piling steaming heaps of contempt on older voters. Now she intends to court them. Not to worry. The pro-Union movement is famously a well-oiled political machine. They’ll launch a counter-offensive sooner or later, and maybe even before Scotland becomes independent.

For a programme so marked by legislative inertia, the First Minister dedicated a fair whack of her remarks to productivity. To help those who wish to continue working from home, she unveiled a new Centre for Workplace Transformation. Maybe they should set it up at St Andrew’s House and transform that into a workplace.

She warned of ‘a tsunami of redundancies’ if the job retention scheme wasn’t extended by the UK Government, Scotland’s cruellest oppressor and largest employer.

The most promising pledge was to commission a review into setting up a National Care Service, a fine policy and just as fine when it appeared in Labour’s manifestos for the 2011, 2017 and 2019 elections. No doubt this brazen theft was why the First Minister felt the need to announce more investment in policing.

Independence, though, was what it was all about. Sturgeon sighed: ‘If this was a Programme for Government in an independent Scotland, it would not have to contemplate the damage of Brexit at all. Instead, it could set out even more far-reaching plans.’

They certainly would be more far-reaching, First Minister. Just not in the way you think.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk

 

Holyrood’s ghosts

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Sandra White’s decision not to contest next year’s Holyrood election brings the number of retiring SNP MSPs to an unlucky 13.

Unlucky for us in that some will be replaced by even direr representatives of the power-hungry superiority complex that is Scottish nationalism, but unlucky also for Nicola Sturgeon.

White will be chiefly remembered for retweeting (in error, the SNP claimed) a grotesque anti-Semitic cartoon of a pig branded with the word ‘Rothschild’ underneath a bank emblazoned with the Star of David. Her going will be no loss.

But Sturgeon is also losing reliable veterans such as Mike Russell, Roseanna Cunningham and Bruce Crawford. They leave behind a parliamentary party of dismal calibre.

While there are a few decent soldiers, Sturgeon’s rearguard is populated by order-takers and office-seekers with no discernible views or political priorities of their own. As a parliamentary sketchwriter I see them every week at First Minister’s Questions, leaping to their feet to pitch the boss a softball.

You can usually spot a toadying query by the sheet of paper in the backbencher’s hand and the halting fashion in which it is read from. Most of all, you can be certain it will contain not a single word of reflection on the shortcomings of the SNP. Thirteen years in government and everything is still someone else’s fault.

The iron grip the party has on MSPs is as much about camouflaging their inadequacies as it is about maintaining discipline and consistent messaging. This becomes apparent in those moments that party enforcers are unable to script, such as Twitter posts or impromptu speeches, and this is when Nationalist backbenchers are likely to make headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Many are mediocre but they lack the good sense to know they’re mediocre and keep their heads down accordingly. Instead, they make a din and draw attention to their high output of low quality.

For this, the SNP hierarchy only has itself to blame. When you select candidates based on their willingness to sing from a hymn sheet, you shouldn’t be surprised when they’re hopelessly out of tune without it.

Unquestioning loyalty has its upsides but the downside is that the sort of people prepared to give it are not the sort of people you want too many of in politics. The SNP has placed deference to the leadership above all other duties and in doing so has created a parliamentary group that does not know how to do anything else.

It wasn’t always like this. The 1999 generation, to which many of the retiring MSPs belong, included some canny politickers, slick performers and redoubtable characters. The first parliamentary group boasted the likes of Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill, Winnie Ewing and Margo MacDonald. You need not be in sympathy with their views to acknowledge that they had passion, ideas, insight and commitment. They spoke their minds because they had minds to speak. These were the faces of Scottish nationalism when the party was in the doldrums.

Today the SNP is at the height (thus far) of its political fortunes yet, with a few exceptions, the MSP group would struggle to pass muster in a community council. They are Holyrood’s ghosts, men and women of no apparent substance whose sole function is to rattle their chains and spook the opposition.

Their every parliamentary vote is cast through the First Minister’s console. There is almost nothing they will not nod through, from the legislative omnishambles that was the Offensive Behaviour Act to the sinister and intrusive Named Persons scheme. The Hate Crime Bill currently before parliament is the most radical and authoritarian legislation of the devolution era and should be scrutinised by independent minds and free spirits. There are precious few of either on the SNP benches these days.

Yet these are the people we are told will lead Scotland to independence, the legislators who will lay the foundations of a new country and a new constitution. Is James Dornan to be our James Madison, Tom Arthur our Thomas Jefferson? The arguments against separation are many but perhaps none as conclusive as simply pointing out who will be overseeing the separating.

Whenever I observe just how substandard Holyrood is, I am said to be talking down Scotland, accused of insulting hard-working parliamentarians, charged with snobbery for wishing more of our MSPs had been to our best universities, or told I should look to Westminster if it’s a dysfunctional parliament I’m after. The one thing that never happens is someone proposing to make Holyrood better.

In fact, it is likely to get worse from next year – and again because of changes taking place within the SNP. The passing of the baton from the 1999 generation to the 2014 generation will bring to Holyrood some of those activists who first entered politics during the independence referendum. In theory, that should mean an even sharper focus on Scexit, for that is what first stirred the ideological consciousness of this group, but their edge in youthful energy does not come with the wisdom, experience, patience and caution of the departing generation.

They have not knocked on doors in streets where even the dogs were voting Labour and where second place in a by-election was practically victory. They are all about the possibilities of politics but are unfamiliar with any of the limits. They believe and they think that is enough.

What some of them believe – about identity politics, gender theory and much else besides – would be considered bizarre by most SNP voters. It’s doubtful whether they have met many of those voters, whose values and priorities are very different to those of the party’s woker-than-thou activists.

Yet these are the activists who will soon take their seats on the Nationalist backbenches and Nicola Sturgeon will have to contend with that. Gone will be many of the cool heads and canny old veterans, and in their place will be self-righteous neophytes with little experience of the world outside a branch meeting or a consciousness-raising Zoom session.

They will be just as unimpressive but they may make more of an impression on the general public, who they think are just champing at the bit to hear about reform of the Gender Recognition Act and the urgency of awareness training for white privilege.

Sooner or later, there is going to be a nasty encounter between a changing SNP and the voters who put them in power.

This can be averted if the party is willing to challenge the deficiencies of its current crop of MSPs and face down excitable factions that would match the dullardry of time-servers with the amateurishness of upstarts.

Nothing would benefit the SNP benches more than a clear-out of dead wood and bringing in people with experience of real life – people who are leaders in their professions and industries, those who don’t fit the typical politician mould but obviously have something to contribute.

The polls say the SNP is on course for a landslide next May – all the more reason to take a chance on fresh faces with ability and an inclination towards public service. A party in as rude health as the SNP that can’t attract better than Gillian Martin and Paul Wheelhouse maybe isn’t in such rude health after all.

Sturgeon is forever demanding Westminster show Holyrood more respect. Given the stature of the people she chooses to stack it with, she might want to try that herself.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Image by Waldo Miguez from Pixabay. 

It’s time for Boris to back Israel

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Dominic Raab has visited Israel for his first trip as Foreign Secretary.

By all accounts, he was made very welcome, despite the UK’s craven abstention at the UN over extending an arms embargo on Iran, a country where they arrest our ambassador, burn our flag and chat ‘Death to Britain’. Quite the dilemma we faced in that vote.

According to the Foreign Office, Raab met Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, now in the 16th year of his four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority.

Continue reading ‘It’s time for Boris to back Israel’ in the Spectator…

 

Feature image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay.

You can’t fight for the Union on the SNP’s terms

 

Michael Gove Covid-19 Presser 27/03

Just when it seemed like the Tories had finally arrived at the fight for the Union, they go and take a detour up a dead end.

Michael Gove, head of the Cabinet sub-committee on the Union, hinted last week that a future Scexit referendum could give the vote to Scots living overseas.

He did so in response to a Twitter post from George Galloway, who has apparently decided that support for independence is still not high enough and could benefit from his becoming the face of Unionism in Scotland.

Galloway opined: ‘I’ll tell you this: IF there’s to be a second IndyRef, then 795,000 Scots living elsewhere in the UK MUST have a vote. If UK expats can vote in General Elections from Spain then an existential question like Separatism MUST be answered by all Scots.’

This prompted Gove to comment: ‘Interesting question.’ Gove knows how to use social media to set a hare racing among journalists and there duly appeared headlines about the dastardly Unionists trying to rig the franchise. The proposition that Scots living in the rest of the UK be given the vote is unlikely to be the victory-clincher its advocates hope but as ideas go it is respectable enough.

The same cannot be said of playing political footsie with George Galloway, who has reportedly been ‘sounded out’ by the Cabinet Office Minister on ‘strategy’. The fight to save the Union requires party politics and old enmities to be set aside but there are limits. If nothing else, a pro-Union movement that brings Russia Today host Galloway into the fold will have to tone down its criticism of Alex Salmond’s choice of broadcaster.

I’m all for UK Government ministers psyching out the Nationalists but every speech, every tweet, every word has consequences. John Swinney was first to oblige, pointing out that a senior UK minister speculating about the terms of a referendum conceded that a referendum was in the offing. Gove’s musings, he told the BBC, were ‘the UK Government accepting that there will have to be a referendum on independence’.

Gove is the smartest man in the government and he knows that a cardinal rule of politics is never to fight your opponents on their terms. Even to intimate the possibility of a forthcoming referendum is to do just that.

Unionist politicians stumble onto the SNP’s terms because they lack clear terms of their own. Not only are the pro-Union parties as divided on constitutional principles as on other areas of policy, the UK Government has no idea where it stands on these matters.

Should there be another referendum? Which parliament ought to decide? Is a pro-Scexit majority at Holyrood a mandate? Ask a different Unionist, get a different answer.

What the Union needs, more than clever wheezes and unlikely alliances, is a clear policy from the UK Government. A key strength of the No campaign and key weakness of the Yes campaign in 2014 was that everyone knew what continuing in the Union meant but independence was the great unknown. That dynamic has been reversed and today separation is easy to understand (we leave the UK) while the effects of remaining in the Union are harder to pin down.

This is why I and others argue for a new Act of Union to better define the United Kingdom, enhance its unity and prevent the misuse of devolved institutions to pursue separatism.

This would be a major, time-consuming, political capital-draining endeavour but it is the best shot at saving the Union. It would build on the reforms set out in the internal market White Paper, which are reasonable but come nowhere close to addressing the structural flaws of devolution.

Even if ministers toss the idea of devolution reform into the ‘too hard’ basket, they should at least have the confidence to defend the current devolution settlement from SNP attempts to unilaterally rewrite it.

Rather than surrender to the Nationalist logic that an SNP majority at Holyrood is a mandate for another Scexit referendum, the UK Government should assert a simple but important fact: the constitution is reserved. It is impossible to obtain a mandate for the exercise of powers held by one parliament in an election to another.

It may be that David Cameron granted the 2014 referendum in response to the majority SNP victory in 2011 but Boris Johnson is under no obligation to do likewise. Sooner or later, the Scottish Government or a Nationalist campaigner will ask the Supreme Court to decide whether Cameron’s foolish concession created a precedent, but that is all the more reason for the UK Parliament to clarify this and other constitutional questions in an Act of Parliament.

Merely stating this basic precept of devolution would produce shrieks of indignation not only from the Nationalists but from devocrats in the non-nationalist parties and beyond. That they would be more offended by the upholding of devolution’s terms than they are by the SNP’s constant efforts to undermine them is revealing. Their investment is in the devolution industry, not devolution.

Downing Street should not be frightened by such voices into giving the SNP what it wants. Even if the pro-Union side won another plebiscite, a convention would have been established and the Scexiteers would have to be given a referendum every time they won a majority at Holyrood. We could be looking at a referendum every five years.

This is what happens when you let the other side choose the turf. New Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross is in danger of making a similar mistake. Last week, he told the BBC: ‘I will back the Prime Minister where I think it is right for Scotland. But if I think he has got something wrong, or where I think the Government has got something wrong, I’ll stand up and say that.’

This again. Every Scottish Tory leader makes the same pledge to ‘stand up’ to the Conservative government and defend Scotland from wicked Westminster. Scottish Tory strategists think this terribly clever and produce polling to show that, if only they gave Westminster more of a kicking, they would win the next general election, Holyrood election and the men’s doubles at Wimbledon.

It is also a long-standing tradition. Back when the Tories were still the Unionists, they sold themselves as protectors of Scotland from the encroachments of Westminster centralisation.

Casting Westminster as a bogeyman may bring Douglas Ross a few good headlines, and maybe even a vote or two in the short-term, but it only plays into the SNP’s hands. Of course the Scottish Tory leader needn’t always agree with a Tory-run Downing Street, but making a virtue of resisting Westminster is a fool’s errand. If those are the terms of debate, the SNP will always win because they will always be more anti-Westminster.

As Ross himself alludes to, voters already know he’s his own man thanks to quitting his ministerial job in protest over Dominic Cummings’s lockdown adventures. He doesn’t need to beat up on the Union to prove his political virility.

In politics, the strong set the terms of debate and the weak abide by them. When Michael Gove was put in charge of the new Cabinet subcommittee, I said that the future of the Union was in his hands. It truly is. If anyone can convince the Prime Minister and Dominic Cummings of the need for devolution reform it is him.

But if he won’t do that he should, at a minimum, lobby for a clearer, firmer position on the Union. At its heart should be a policy statement that the only means of securing a legal and enforceable constitutional referendum is by convincing a majority in the House of Commons to vote for one in an Act of Parliament.

Show some strength. Change the terms of the debate.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Feature image © Pippa Fowles/Number 10 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A small step in the right direction

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This week there will be an almighty row about Westminster stealing powers from Holyrood.

You may be wondering how that differentiates it from any other week. Ginning up grievance over imaginary encroachments on your authority is infinitely easier than governing. Scottish ministers are so concerned they could lose some of their powers they might even start using them.

The UK Government’s white paper on the internal market is the latest trigger for SNP anxiety. Downing Street says its desired reforms are necessary to smooth the path for post-Brexit trade and investment across the UK and clear some of the hurdles put in place by a messy and uneven approach to devolution.

The Scottish Government has set aside time at Holyrood tomorrow for what it calls a ‘debate’ on the internal market but which will inevitably be another round of constitutional rammy bingo. Play along at home by writing ‘power grab’ in every square and shouting ‘full house’ before Mike Russell even gets to his feet.

The internal market white paper is measured and modest — too measured and too modest to match the scale of reform that devolution needs and that the Nationalists are beginning to fear it might get. The proposals, if enacted, would make for more coherent commercial and regulatory regimes, important for trade deals presently being negotiated. You might have heard of this as Liz Truss’s dastardly plot to force-feed you Domestos-flavoured chicken drumsticks. A campaign of sinisterly chipper ‘I Feel Like Chlorine Tonight’ ads will hit your TV screens any day now.

The white paper would also make it simpler for the UK Government to invest directly in Scotland. I have been arguing for this as a means of redistributing yet more cash from the Treasury to Scottish communities but also as tangible proof of the economic benefits of unity over division.

So, the proposed reforms are not without a political dimension but the benefits to Unionism are theoretical and probably quite small. At the very time when the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been funding the salaries of one-third of the Scottish workforce, support for independence, a policy that would mean forgoing such funding, has become the majority position among the voters. Democracy requires a thick skin but nothing so much as a sense of humour.

Last week, the Finance and Constitution Committee issued a call for ‘mutual trust and respect’ on the internal market discussion. Holyrood committees are much weaker than their Westminster counterparts because they lack the independence from party whips and, candidly, the intellectual rigour that make Commons committees a source of trepidation for ministers.

The Finance Committee is one of Holyrood’s best, in large part thanks to its convenor Bruce Crawford, an SNP veteran who respects rather than reviles opponents, and its deputy convenor Murdo Fraser, a Tory with a hairline streak of nationalism running through his unionist soul.

If there was a little more Crawfordism in Bute House and a touch of Fraserism in Downing Street, intergovernmental relations would be smoother, more courteous and more dignified than they are today. Instead, the Scottish Government’s response to everything Westminster does is to take the entire apparatus of devolution to Defcon One, whereupon Westminster suddenly remembers the existence of its Scottish front and dispatches a few generals northwards to pose with a bottle of malt and a giant trout.

The way the Finance Committee wants the internal market discussed — with collegiality and consultation — is how it ought to be but categorically won’t. Neither administration is above political point-scoring, but while the UK Government often gets it wrong through ineptitude or arrogance, the Scottish Government is by intent a bad faith actor.

When Crawford calls on ‘all four governments and legislatures across the UK to work constructively together’, he introduces a concept alien to the Scottish Government’s attitude to Whitehall. When he urges ‘mutual trust and respect for the existing constitutional arrangements’, he must do so because the Scottish Government has treated them with deliberate contempt. When he says ‘the solution cannot be left to the UK Government to decide’, he is addressing a government that has tried to work cooperatively with St Andrew’s House and has the scars to prove it.

The Salmond-Sturgeon strategy of antagonising Downing Street, a course of action largely responsible for wrecking relations between the two governments, was predicated on the assumption that Downing Street couldn’t respond in kind. Bute House could chuck bottles but Number 10 had to walk on eggshells. Number 10 has finally had enough.

As I understand it, the UK Government now recognises that the constitutional status quo is broken and putting the Union in mortal danger. However, the question of what to do about it remains up in the air. The internal market reforms are meant to be a nod towards a more united UK but, beyond that, Downing Street has not decided which road to take. I say they should pluck for the one marked ‘devolution reform’, for it is the only way to secure the Union for the longer term.

If the Prime Minister ultimately decides that legislation is needed — either in the form of another Scotland Act or a new Act of Union — the SNP will have brought it upon themselves. Across 13 years in power, they have acted with disregard for the purpose and parameters of the devolution settlement, advancing separatism legislatively and administratively, imperilling the neutrality of the Civil Service, and even developing a separate foreign policy. There have been power grabs but not in the direction that the devolution industry mithers about.

That the Nationalists react with apocalyptic angst at such minor changes as those contained in the white paper is revealing. Devolution as captured and reoriented by the SNP is threatened by moves to strengthen commerce across the four nations. This is a devolution fundamentally at odds with what Scots voted and MPs legislated for, a devolution that has already internalised the logic of independence.

Supporters of the Union accuse the SNP of hijacking devolution but the truth is that the UK Government handed over the controls willingly. For the past two decades at least, Whitehall has been derelict on Scotland and the Union. In a sense, this is the devolution paradox — ‘Stop interfering in our affairs!’, ‘You never bother with us anymore!’ — but the Tories in particular have dismal form here. In 20 years they have gone from opposing devolution to radically expanding it then growing sceptical once more, all without any intervening analysis of the state of the Union or its prospects for the future.

Any structural reforms to devolution will require a minimum consensus among Unionists. Almost all nationalists agree about using devolved institutions to achieve secession but the pro-Union side’s political diversity puts it at a disadvantage.

Some believe passionately that devolution is a process that must continue, perhaps to full federalism; others are just as determined that it has gone too far and should, in part at least, be reversed; others still, thoroughly fatigued by constitutional conflict, prefer the status quo. The separatists are united which lends an air of cogency to their fuzzy and counter-factual ideas. Their opponents will either have to agree broadly on a few basic reforms to devolution or take the risk of letting it drift into formal separation.

The current devolution settlement has been fatally undermined by the opportunism of the SNP and the complacency of the Tories. Denying this reality will not make it go away; it will only drive mistrust, disrespect and dysfunction deeper into the relationship between Holyrood and Westminster. As the seat of sovereignty in our constitution, it falls to Westminster to develop a new settlement that upholds the outcome of the 1997 referendum but repairs the faults that have led us down the path of ever-weaker union.

The UK Government must get bold fast or it will pay the price in endless constitutional crises. The internal market white paper is a good start but it cannot be the end. To borrow a phrase, devolution reform is a process, not an event.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Image by skeeze from Pixabay.