Nicola Sturgeon had a bad debate but will it change anything?

Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t walk on water after all.

The SNP leader famed for her formidable debating skills struggled to take the fight to Jim Murphy in the Scotland Debates programme.

I assumed Ms Sturgeon had won before she even took to her podium. There was no way Mr Murphy could outmanoeuvre the most popular politician in the land. He would be drowned in a torrent of “Red Tories” and “talking down Scotland”.

“She could garrotte a puppy live on that stage tonight and she’d still walk it,” I remarked to a colleague beforehand.

Lesson learned: Don’t underestimate Jim Murphy.

Backed into a corner and faced with abysmal polls, the Scottish Labour leader came out swinging and landed some minor blows on the First Minister.

Twice he asked if she wanted to see Ed Miliband as Prime Minister. Twice she pivoted to what the SNP would do after May 7. He brought up the SNP’s broken pledge to forgive student debt. “You did a Nick Clegg on us,” he jabbed with vicious precision.

(Stop a minute and take that in: Jim Murphy got the better of Nicola Sturgeon on higher education funding.)

The First Minister has found herself under pressure more than once from Scottish Labour’s second-in-command Kezia Dugdale at FMQs. The problem is there’s only a dozen people watching and they all work in politics or media.

Mr Murphy’s success was compounded by the fact it took place in front of 800,000 Scots, many of whom will have been getting their first taste of the Labour boss.

They won’t have seen the shameless triangulator, who was once a Blairite ultra and now sounds like Eric Heffer just back from a Campaign Group meeting. They will have seen passionate progressive Jim, with his fiery (and undoubtedly sincere) denunciation of the “disgusting” need for food banks and an improbable turn as a class warrior on the Mansion Tax: “I don’t give a damn what Boris Johnson thinks.”

The biggest boost for Labour came when its leader wasn’t even on stage. Ms Sturgeon stumbled when grilled by an audience member about her plans for a second referendum. She had, after all, said before September 18 that the vote was a “once in a lifetime” event. “Politicians don’t dictate these things,” she told moderator Bernard Ponsonby in response. “It’s up to the people.” Which is a noble principle but the subtext – that you can’t take Nicola Sturgeon at her word – is unfortunate.

The real difficulty came on the matter of timing. She clearly and firmly ruled out another plebiscite on the strength of May’s poll. What, Mr Ponsonby pressed, about the 2016 Holyrood election? “That’s another matter,” she attempted to bat the issue away. “We’ll write that manifesto when we get there.”

Then something weird happened. Not Moustache Man weird but unusual nonetheless. The audience jeered her.

This wasn’t the first time she had admitted to wanting a second referendum in this generation rather than the next. But it was probably the first time the audience had heard it and likely the first time they had heard Nicola Sturgeon sounding like what she is: a politician.

Labour was gleeful at the hint that the 2016 SNP manifesto could commit the party to another vote on what they delight in calling “separation”. And no wonder. The Nationalist leader can win this election handily with the support of The 45 – who have gone very quiet on the subject of a Yes vote not equating to an endorsement of the SNP – but she wants to win across Scotland and central to that is playing down the polarising issue of independence.

Recall her speech to the party’s conference not even a fortnight ago: “My message today reaches far beyond the ranks of our party. It goes to every home, community and workplace across our land. To Yes voters and to No voters. To those who have always voted SNP in Westminster elections and to those who have never done so before. On May 7, let us put the normal divisions of politics to one side. Let us come together on that day as one country.”

Now independence is back on the agenda, the normal divisions return to the fore. This is unlikely to help Labour much in May but it hands the party a sharp attack line for the next Holyrood poll.

The SNP leader didn’t have a disastrous night but it was a decidedly sub-Sturgeon performance. Given her standing in the polls, she could afford another ten debates like Tuesday night’s – she might even get away with the aforementioned doggy-throttling, were she so inclined – and she would still coast this election. She is, however, no longer unassailable and that matters.

Despite his confident turn, Mr Murphy isn’t jejune enough to think one debate can turn things around. But he left Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms with a spring in his crimson-brogued step. Labour is off life support, if not politically certainly in psychological terms. I’d wager that a fair few activists who have stayed away from the campaign so far will turn up for canvassing on Saturday morning.

In truth, for his performance to be a game-changer, Mr Murphy needed it to take place five months ago. However, if he can keep up the momentum and hammer away at the SNP on its record on education and the NHS at Holyrood, Labour could pick up the extra four or five percent it needs to turn obliteration into a less catastrophic defeat. It’s hardly a victory but victory is impossible now.

If Jim Murphy was the winner of the debate, it was by a nose. Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson was at his heels – and at one point, his throat – with one of the strongest performances she has yet given. (This, bear in mind, is a politician who was the highlight of any number of TV debates during the referendum.)

The Conservative chief staked out a clear centre-right position and was refreshingly honest on the need for more spending restraint to reduce the deficit. In a country whose politics is governed by giddy disregard for economic realities, this was a brave move and it more than paid off. Here was a Tory who elicited applause from a Scottish audience for her call to reintroduce prescription charges for the middle classes. Could you imagine David Cameron tethering himself to such an unpopular policy simply because he thought it was the right thing to do?

There is no real test for Ms Davidson on May 7; that comes in 2016. If her party picks up a second seat at Westminster, the grassroots will be very happy; a third and they’ll be ecstatic. (To a thirsty man, tap water tastes like champagne.)

But she is – slowly and almost singlehandedly – replenishing the reserves of confidence and maybe even optimism amongst Scotland’s true blue faithful. Whether she picked up a single vote last night is debatable but she will have confirmed to Tory Scotland that if they are to be revived as a political force, she is the leader to do it.

Debate scorecard?

Winner: Murphy.

Close second: Davidson.

Underachiever: Sturgeon.

And Willie Rennie? Well, he turned up and that’s the main thing.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © First Minister of Scotland by Creative Commons 2.0.

Gordon Brown bows out in style, with substance

Gordon Brown is all substance and no style.

We know this to be true because lots of people say it over and over. It’s said by his admirers (“unlike You Know Who” they often add) and by his detractors, who deem him insufficiently image-friendly for modern, media-driven politics.

His final speech to Parliament on Thursday confounded this axiom. Brown was all substance but he carried it off with real flair. His rhetoric was passionate and personal, reminding those of us generally cynical about his contributions to politics that he is a real person with sincere beliefs.

When he announced last December that he would not stand for re-election to the Commons, I strove to marshal my array of mixed feelings towards Brown into a cogent analysis of his political career. The best I could manage was to describe him as a“moral romantic”, my attempt to capture the religious and economic influences that compliment one another in Brown’s political worldview.

He is a believing Christian and a churchgoer who “does God”, if in a humbler fashion than his predecessor. His public displays of faith are not in the fashion of American presidential candidates, whose idea of introducing new people to the Gospel is inviting CNN along every time they go to church.

From his speeches and his writings, it is clear Brown’s political programme is imbued by Christian commitment and vice versa. His speeches as prime minister were peppered with references to the parable of the good Samaritan who came to the aid of a man robbed on the road to Jericho. “We will not walk by on the other side,” Brown was fond of booming with a righteous scowl in the direction of the Tories. It was never clear if he considered them the modern-day priests, Levites — or the robbers.

Government was a means to an end and his mission was to create a society that loved not in word or talk but in deed and truth.

The last words that will appear under his name in Hansard were forged by that same alloy of Christianity and Labour politics. The Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath MP used his final speech to restate his case in the progressive interest:

“All societies need a moral energy that can inspire individuals to the self-sacrificial acts of public service that come alive out of mutual respect and obligation, and can turn impersonal buildings and anonymous streets made only of stone and concrete into vibrant, sharing communities.”

He added: ‘‘For I sense millions of us feel, however distantly, the pain of others, and believe in something within ourselves, beyond ourselves and bigger than ourselves that can lead us to work for causes greater than ourselves. And so we cannot easily feast when our fellow citizens go hungry to food banks; we cannot feel at ease when our neighbours – in hock to payday lenders – are ill at ease; and cannot be fully content when, with poverty pay and zero-hour contracts, there is around us so much discontent.

‘‘It’s not anti-wealth to say that the wealthy must do more to lift up those who are not wealthy. It’s not anti-enterprise to say the enterprising must do more to meet the aspirations of those who have never had the chances to show that they too are enterprising. And it’s not anti-market to say that markets need morals to underpin their success.”

Let’s dispense with niceties like “social justice” and “social democracy”. This was a homily for socialism. (Labour is not allowed to talk about socialism anymore because it no longer advocates policies that other parties have never advocated.)

It wasn’t the socialism of Clause Four or government by union baron. That old, cold technocratic socialism is dead and buried and good riddance. It was a socialism of caring, sharing, compassion, and fairness; a socialism to which even those who don’t consider themselves socialists could sign up.

This wasn’t a repudiation of New Labour, that much-maligned and universally misunderstood project, but a vindication of its original purpose: To elect a Labour government which would, once in power, embed progressive politics in Britain for a generation.

That it did this only to mixed success does not invalidate the project. When Brown left Downing Street in 2010, he (and Tony Blair) left behind a country that was fairer, more democratic, and more at ease with itself than they found it.

I can already hear the imprecations from those on the Left (and those who think they’re on the Left) that Brown was a Tory, a Thatcherite, a traitor to real Labour values. While there is undoubtedly a principled Left prosecution to be made against New Labour, so much of the carping comes from bitter impossibilists with little interest in winning elections. They would prefer the impotent purity of opposition to the messy business of government.

The world and the rest of the UK will remember him as a successful Chancellor and a failed Prime Minister. But in Scotland his legacy will always be coloured by his eleventh-hour intervention in the independence referendum. His brokering of The Vow and an energetic speech the day before the vote either saved the Union or betrayed Scotland, depending on your constitutional leanings.

But he closed his parliamentary career not with a declamation against Scottish nationalism but with a warning against English nationalism and playing politics with the constitution.

He told the House: “I sense that the UK today is fragile, it is at risk and we are potentially at a point of departure.

‘‘Countries at their best, their strongest, their truest, are more than places on the map, more than a demarcation of borders. Great countries stand on shared foundations. They are guided by unifying ideals. They move forward in common purpose. And so it must be with Britain.”

Whatever constitutional arrangements the UK decides upon in the coming years, he pledged to “fight and fight and fight again to renew and reconstruct for a new age the idea of Britain around shared values can bring us together and advance a common Britishness”. This, he said, should include a commitment to tolerance, liberty, and fairness as embodied in the NHS and the impulse towards social justice.

To this end, he excoriated the Tories’ designs for “English votes for English laws”, which would “create two classes of elected representatives” and served only to “mimic the nationalists by driving a wedge between Scotland and England”. In moving thus to see off the threat of Ukip, the governing party was in fact pursuing “English laws for English votes”.

It was stirring stuff and classic Brown: A progressive vision expressed with moral fire and a bit of Tory-bashing thrown in to spice up the proceedings. Had he delivered oratory like this every day as Prime Minister, he would still have been monstered by the Tory press but it would have been less of a chore for his sympathisers to stir to his defence.

None of this exculpates Brown of his many flaws and self-inflicted wounds. Few could rival his rebarbative personality, which in the world of politics is saying something. No umbrage was left untaken, no grievance went unnursed, no grudge was ever surrendered. He wasted too many years as Labour’s most successful Chancellor attacking Labour’s most successful Prime Minister.

And he allowed himself to be a front for a Tory Prime Minister desperate to cling on to the Union and willing to say anything to do so. The Vow may have been an instrument of Brown’s devising but it has benefited no one as much as David Cameron.

Such are the complexities of a man too often seen in black and white. Gordon Brown’s final speech as an MP can help us understand the character and purpose of progressive politics and of the man himself. It is an artefact of a life in public service and a philosophical blueprint for those who will follow him.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Monika Flueckiger / World Economic Forum, swiss-image.ch / CC-BY-SA-2.0.

What have the Liberal Democrats ever done for us?

The Scottish Liberal Democrats, such as remain, gathered in Aberdeen over the weekend for their party conference.

Every inch of the proceedings was soaked in dread, like watching an old children’s film just knowing the dog’s getting shot at some point.

Members know how hated their party has become for its governing alliance with the Conservatives and accept that the voters are preparing — many with unseemly glee — to punish them for it at the ballot box in May.

In happier times, the Lib Dems didn’t stand for anything so you couldn’t pin them down. Their first experience of government (as the Liberal Democrats) has seen them not so much pinned down as pinned against a wall. They have been defined by everyone else: jilted voters, rival parties, and an almost universally hostile press.

Lib Dems used to be geography teachers, trendy vicars and people who left the house to their cat in the will. Government has transformed them from harmless oddballs into near-demonic hate figures. Five years on, Cleggmania looks like an unconscious left-liberal pastiche of tabloid hysteria — much heat, little light, but a whole lot of embarrassment when examined with hindsight. Now the Lib Dems find themselves on seven percent in UK polling and a barely perceptible four percent in Scotland. In many parts of the UK, they face a similar problem to Labour in Scotland: The voters have grown so hostile that they are no longer willing to listen. They want to hurt the Lib Dems.

Them’s the breaks when you go into government with a party your natural voters consider a half-step to the left of Vlad the Impaler and ditch a totemic policy like free higher education. But if the general election is to see them sharply rebuked, fairness demands that we consider the successes of five years of the Lib Dems in power.

Their achievements largely fall into one of two categories: Positive (where they have succeeded in implementing a policy) and negative (where they have prevented the Tories from implementing a policy).

A 2012 study by researchers at University College London found that 75% of the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto found its way into the coalition agreement that became the Cameron-Clegg administration’s programme for government. Overall, 40% of that document was Lib Dem in policy terms, a creditable achievement considering they won only a fifth as many seats as the Conservatives in the general election.

Policy successes include: Securing a referendum on proportional representation (which they went on to spectacularly mismanage and overwhelmingly lose); separating high street banking from “casino banking” of the kind that hastened the economic collapse; agreeing a 45% higher tax rate instead of the Tories’ desired 40%; establishing a green investment bank headquartered in Edinburgh; delivering £2.5bn for schools in England under the pupil premium; and providing free, nutritional meals for infants at those schools.

Many more examples can be found on this good-humoured site.

But what of their negative achievements, where they have unswivelled the eyes and defoamed the mouths of their true blue coalition partners? The record is also substantial here.

Theresa May’s campaign to repeal the Human Rights Act? Blocked by the Liberal Democrats.

The Tory pledge to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1m? Blocked by the Liberal Democrats.

Like-for-like replacement of Trident in this parliament? Blocked by the Liberal Democrats.

Michael Gove’s push for profit-making state schools? The illiberal “snoopers’ charter” requiring ISPs to archive users’ web histories and share them with the police and security services? Allowing employers to sack workers at will, a policy advanced forcefully by the Conservatives?

All blocked by the Liberal Democrats.

Even as the Lib Dems have frustrated some of the Tories’ more reactionary impulses, the sensible wing of the Conservative Party has been busily ripping off the very best of Lib Demmery.

As Asa Bennett of the Daily Telegraph (a newspaper not known for its charity to Nick Clegg’s party) points out, the Conservatives have been adept at pinching Lib Dem policies and passing them off as their own, as was witnessed again in the Budget when Chancellor George Osborne raised the personal tax-free allowance threshold to £11,000. Taking the low paid out of tax has been a Lib Dem totem and their 2010 manifesto pledged to end income tax for all people earning less than £10,000 per annum. The Tories opposed this at the time but now trumpet the reform as an example of “compassionate conservatism”.

And while I come to bury the Lib Dems, not to praise them, we shouldn’t forget their record of dogged liberalism in the Scottish Parliament. They may have been reduced to a mere five MSPs but leader Willie Rennie has earned a reputation for spirited opposition to the SNP’s illiberal agenda. On stop and search, routine arming of the police, the ongoing push to scrap corroboration, and other areas, Rennie has been the stinging nettle that pricked the Nationalists as they trampled cherished freedoms and precious safeguards underfoot.

There are few votes in civil libertarianism, particularly in Scotland where the SNP’s belief that “decisions about Scotland should be made by the people of Scotland” doesn’t seem to apply to deciding how to raise their children or what songs they sing at football matches. I’ve always found it reassuring to have the quietly stubborn Lib Dems at Holyrood, politely suggesting that banging up Dubliners tribute acts and giving AK47s to traffic wardens might not be altogether sensible ideas.

No doubt Nick Clegg and his senior strategists expected to receive credit for the coalition’s more progressive measures. Even those opposed to joining with the Tories could have been forgiven for assuming the party would reap some reward for reining in David Cameron’s right-wing tormentors on the backbenches. It is a sign of the pungent sense of betrayal still felt by Lib Dem voters that the party now faces extinction in Scotland and the north of England. It is also an object lesson in what can happen when a long-term opposition party finally finds itself in government.

For years to come, political scientists will compare and contrast the experience of the Liberal Democrats and the SNP. Both thrived in opposition by being all things to all people, both were adept at tapping into anti-establishment anger, and both mopped up protest votes from left and right. But while the Lib Dems became a conventional party of power, the SNP was canny enough to govern as though still in opposition. The voters’ response to these two approaches offers a case study in the elusive subtleties and cruel ironies of British politics. If you take tough decisions, you are pilloried as opportunists. If you avoid unpopularity at all costs, you are hailed as principled champions of your cause.

Before you start feeling sorry for them (unlikely, I know), the Lib Dems have been done in by no one but themselves. They built their strength by exploiting public sentiment on the issue of the day — Iraq, student funding, banking excesses — instead of articulating a principled platform. Their populist posturing, sometimes justified but often obtuse, has returned to haunt them. Now they are the objects of mass opprobrium, the deal with the Tories an Iraq of political miscalculation, their 2010 manifesto scorned as a dodgy dossier.

The temptation of schadenfreude is powerful but if the Liberal Democrats are indeed eviscerated on polling day, we may come to appreciate too late what they have brought to the political scene. Britain needs an authentic liberal voice and, for all their flaws, the only party fulfilling that role right now is the Lib Dems. There are liberal tendencies within Labour and particularly the Greens but these are drowned out by heavy-handed statism and dreamy collectivism, just as genuine Tory libertarians are outgunned by the bang-‘em-uppers and border-closers.

On that basis alone, the Liberal Democrats deserve to survive as a force in UK politics, if a more modest one than at present. But the party must decide what it stands for. Is it a social liberal movement like the American Democrats, Canadian Liberals and Swedish Centre Party? Or is it an economic liberal outfit in the vein of Denmark’s Venstre, Slovakia’s Freedom and Solidarity, and Germany’s FDP?

The philosophical character of the party is important, and the Left and the Orange Bookers will join battle swiftly after May 7, but just as vital is the purpose of the Liberal Democrats. Do they exist merely to profit from resentment towards the Conservatives and Labour and grab at every chance of power that comes along? Or is their mission more noble — to reorient our system of government and entrench liberalism in our political culture?

If they continue on the former path, the Liberal Democrats will struggle to find a place in the democratic risorgimento under way in Britain. If they pursue the latter path, they will have a future as a rehabilitated party of personal liberty and political moderation.

But first they have to choose.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © NCVO London by Creative Commons 2.0.

Anti-immigrationism has poisoned politics in Britain

A hysteria grips this fair country of ours.

It is not a feverish fandom for a footballer or a pop group or a shiny new gadget.

It is not the 950,000 signatories to the petition to reinstate Jeremy Clarkson to a job from which he has not been fired. (Though these are profoundly odd people and you probably shouldn’t allow them to look after your pets, plants or children.)

Nor is it the exuberance of Scottish Nationalists, their various shades of Yes badge distributed 15 per lapel, who refuse to lose the independence referendum.

No, the mania stalking Britain is quite mundane as manias go, and is more likely to affect the mature, the reserved, and the customarily polite.

Quite simply, Britain has lost the plot when it comes to immigration.

A case in point is the Home Office minister, Lord Bates. In the course of answering a question on immigration in the House of Lords on Monday, the Conservative politician told their noble lordships:

“In the year ending December 2013, an estimated 7.8 million people were born outside the UK, while 4.9 million were non-UK citizens. For the calendar year of 2013, births in the UK to non-UK born mothers accounted for 25% of all live births. That is why we need to reduce immigration.”

If you’re wondering what the big deal is, you too are probably fixed by the hysteria or could be showing early symptoms. Stay with me for a few minutes and I promise to help you.

The contentious part is those eight words tacked on at the end of his statement.

”That is why we need to reduce immigration.”

Immigrants are coming here and having too many children. We must stop this social ill by cutting immigration. It is an extraordinary thing for a politician to say.

In 1974, the Conservative MP Keith Joseph gave a speech on social policy. Reading it again today, it sounds a tad curmudgeonly in its youth-gone-wild moralism but it is undoubtedly the composition of an intellectual. Joseph drew on the work of Orwell, Freud, Rousseau and, somewhat less illustriously, Mary Whitehouse.

But near the end of his remarks, Joseph inveighed against the late unlamented bogeyman of the Tory Right: Unmarried mothers and the “problem children” they bring into the world. “The balance of our population,” he ventured, “our human stock is threatened.” Allowing these young women easier access to birth control was far from ideal but perhaps expedient, he implied.

Joseph’s critics accused him of promoting eugenics (which he really wasn’t doing) and he lost his opportunity to become leader of the Conservative Party, clearing the way for Margaret Thatcher.

We should be careful not to overreact to Lord Bates’ comments and they certainly contain no hint of the repugnant pseudo-science of eugenics. But having read and re-read his remarks, I cannot reconcile the horror most Conservatives would express were Joseph’s words to be spoken today with the middling response to the minister’s statement.

The impeccably right-wing Spectator editor Fraser Nelson tweeted:

Screen Shot 2016-03-07 at 02.14.58.png

I’ve no doubt many sensible right-of-centre people agree with him but the failure of the Prime Minister to rebuke his minister swiftly and firmly is dismaying. This omission, whatever the behind-the-scenes machinations, unhelpfully juxtaposes itself with the frenzy of anti-immigration rhetoric issuing forth from the Conservative re-election campaign.

It is worth noting that Lord Bates was answering a question from Lord Green of Deddington, formerly plain old Andrew Green, the chair of MigrationWatch. MigrationWatch describes itself as a “think tank” and advocates “sustainable levels of properly managed immigration”, which is to say dramatic reductions in the annual number of people coming to live here “to the low tens of thousands”.

As a frequently aired voice on the BBC and in the tabloid press, MigrationWatch has perfected the art of assuring us it thinks some immigration is valuable before going on to warn that unless we cut the numbers soon, we’ll have to build “the equivalent of the city of Birmingham” every other year to cope.

MigrationWatch is beloved of the right-wing of the Conservative Party, which is perhaps why Lord Bates followed up his call for cutting back on these overly fertile immigrants by “pay[ing] tribute” to Lord Green and lauding MigrationWatch as “a balanced think tank that makes a positive contribution to the debate on immigration in this country”.

Time for some perspective. According to research by the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration at University College London, European immigrants put more than £20bn into the British economy between 2001 and 2011, £5bn from eastern Europe and £15bn from the rest of the EU. Non-European immigrants chipped in £5bn during the same time period. These immigrants were 43% less likely than people born in Britain to claim welfare benefits. European immigrants are more likely than Britons to be degree educated and the skills they brought the labour market during the Noughties would have set the UK taxpayer back £49bn to impart through our own schools and universities. Overall, immigrants were estimated to have contributed around £82bn to public goods between 1995 and 2011.

You’re a pretty well-educated crowd. Hands up if you didn’t know any of that?

This is the problem. Our national discourse on immigration is governed by ignorance rather than evidence. True, politicians are following the public mood which is hostile but it is the job of leaders to lead on matters like this. (Oh and before any fellow Scots try to pull the ‘anti-immigrationism is an English phenomenon; Scotland warmly welcomes newcomers’ line, I’d suggest venturing beyond the salons of Byres Road once in a while. A January poll carried out by Panelbase for Wings over Scotland found 69% of Scots thought there was “a problem with too much immigration in this country”, just two percent lower than voters in the rest of the UK.)

For their part, the Conservatives have pursued a relentlessly negative agenda on immigration. The liberal-Left denounces ministers for pandering to base impulses towards foreigners. Their real sin as Tories is acquiescing in the economic and demographic illiteracy that distorts the debate on immigration.

If you believe the state should limit the free movement of labour and block the inward-investment-on-two-legs that every immigrant represents, you’re probably not an economic liberal. If you would prefer to spend vast sums of taxpayers’ money subsidising native-born Britons — and only native-born Britons — in careers as doctors, teachers, and firefighters, I hate to break it to you but you’re most likely not a Thatcherite. A protectionist, yes. A corporatist, perhaps. A believer in free markets and individual liberty? Not so much.

There is a debate to be had. Immigration is not an unalloyed good and plenty of legitimate questions hang in the air. How do we address the housing strain already with us and which can only increase with a growing population? How do we ensure immigrants integrate, accept basic liberal and democratic precepts, and what do we do about those who won’t? Do we want to be a “multicultural” society, where distinctive (some might say insular) groups bump up against each other, or a “melting pot” into which people from all backgrounds and parts of the world chip in their values and experiences to forge a cogent British identity?

None of these should be no-go areas for reasoned discussion. Those who seek to cordon them off are demagogues no less than the xenophobes. But reasoned is exactly what the current debate is not. Deranged might be a more appropriate description.

Tim Montgomerie laments the “Crosbyisation of the Conservative Party”, a reference to David Cameron’s Australian campaign strategist Lynton Crosby. Mr Crosby is notorious for his bare-knuckle approach to political combat and his right-wing populist mindset. The decision to ditch the “compassionate conservatism” touted in opposition in favour of a run to the right and an avalanche of negativity about the Labour Party can be traced to Mr Crosby’s influence.

And so we find ourselves in the situation where a growing constituency of ambitious and industrious new voters, driven here by aspiration and in pursuit of hard work and better lives for their families, are pushed away by the very party that is supposed to stand for all those things. And not just pushed away but traduced, abused, and demonised.

The Tories’ strategy to win the 2015 General Election looks remarkably like a campaign to lose the Britain of the future.

No wonder John Stuart Mill called them the stupid party.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Jonathan McIntosh by Creative Commons 2.5.

Is the Budget good news or bad news for your pocket?

Budget statements are pretty dull affairs.

Amidst a blizzard of statistics and percentages, most voters just want to know how much more they’ll have to pay for a pint, a pack of smokes, and a gallon of petrol.

What little fun stuff there once was has been purged, such as the customary dram of whisky beside the despatch box to assist the chancellor’s oratory — or his nerves.

So below we’ve cut through the facts and figures to bring you the key details you need to work out whether the Budget is good or bad for you and your family.

It was a good Budget for…

Smokers and drinkers

There were no changes to the duty on tobacco, normally an easy hit for a chancellor keen to rake in some cash.

The price of a pint will go down by a penny for the third year in a row, while the country’s cider drinkers will be raising a glass at the news of a 2% cut.

Scotland is hardly a battleground for the Tories but Mr Osborne made a pitch for votes anyway with a 2% cut on Scotch whisky duty.

Drivers

The chancellor cancelled the fuel duty hike planned for the autumn and declared “the longest duty freeze in over twenty years”.

“It’s £10 off a tank with the Tories,” he told the Commons to cheers from his backbenches.

Taxpayers

The coalition government has made taking more people out of tax one of its top priorities. Their goal of raising the tax-free income allowance to £10,000 by May 2015 has already been exceeded, with the exemption set to hit £10,600 in a fortnight.

Mr Osborne announced that the personal allowance would go up again to £10,800 in 2016 and £11,000 in 2017.

This, he said, represented a tax cut for 27 million Britons and took almost four million low-paid workers out of tax completely.

The threshold for higher-rate payers would also rise, from £42,385 to £43,300 by 2017/18. The married couples tax allowance will also go up to £1100.

Savers

Pensioners will be able to access their annuity earlier and the 55% tax levied will be reduce to the marginal rate.

ISAs will become more flexible and savers will be allowed to take money out and put it back in without losing their tax-free entitlement.

A Help to Buy ISA scheme will see the government put up £50 for every £200 raised by the saver towards a deposit, up to £3000.

Seventeen million people with savings will no longer pay tax on their nest egg, with an allowance of £1000 from 2016, or £500 for those on the higher rate.

The government will tout this as rewarding the responsible. It is doubtless an attempt to grab aspirational voters, including first-time buyers, in Labour/Tory marginals.

Scotland

To address the impact of the global oil price collapse on the North Sea sector, the chancellor announced a “single, simply, and generous tax allowance” to boost investment. He also pledged money for seismic surveys to identify new oil fields and a cut in petroleum revenue tax from 50% to 35%. The supplementary charge will be slashed from 30% to 20% and backdated to January.

This, according to Mr Osborne, represented a £1.3bn support package for Scotland’s oil industry and would grow production by 15% within five years. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who pushed for the chancellor to help the North Sea industry, will be pleased with herself today.

The news will be welcomed by the troubled energy sector but it was also a useful opportunity to have a swipe at the Nationalists, who based their plans for independence on oil prices of $113 a barrel but find the current value closer to $50.

The Tory politician said: “It goes without saying that an independent Scotland would never have been able to afford such a package of support. But it is one of the great strengths of our three-hundred year old union that just as we pool our resources, so too we share our challenges and find solutions together.

“For we are one United Kingdom.”

It was a bad Budget for…

Banks and multinationals

£900m a year will be taken from the banking sector by raising the bank levy rate to 0.21%. Banks will also be banned from taking a corporation tax deduction on PPI compensation paid out to customers.

Overall, bankers will take a £5.3bn hit from the measures announced on Wednesday.

Multinationals will face a diverted profits tax if they transfer their profits overseas.

In a move aimed at tackling tax evasion, there will be a common reporting standard to allow governments to share information about people’s assets and incomes.

Mr Osborne said measures to crackdown on tax dodging would raise £3.1bn.

Welfare recipients

The chancellor boasted that coalition policies were saving £21bn per year from the welfare spend. As part of his efforts to reduce the debt, Mr Osborne announced a further £12bn in benefits savings.

The books will be balanced, even if that means on the backs of the poor and vulnerable.

The young

Mr Osborne ruled out limiting the annual allowance on pension pots and diverting the money saved to bring down tuition fees.

“I have examined this proposal,” he hold the House. “It involves penalising moderately-paid, long-serving public servants, including police officers, teachers and nurses, and instead rewarding higher paid graduates.”

This is the point where students do their Kevin-the-Teenager turn and complain “It’s not fair!” Tough. You don’t vote. Older people do. They get the goodies. You do the maths.

Those not keen on speaking Russian

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Good jokes

The chancellor took a convoluted pop at Ed Miliband over his two kitchens:

“We’ll invest in what is known as the Internet of Things. This is the next stage of the information revolution, connecting up everything from urban transport to medical devices to household appliances.

“So should – to use a ridiculous example – someone have two kitchens, they will be able to control both fridges from the same mobile phone.”

And he really strained to get in a dig at any possible Labour/SNP pact after the election:

“We could not let the 600th anniversary of Agincourt pass without commemoration.

“The battle of Agincourt is, of course, celebrated by Shakespeare as a victory secured by a ‘band of brothers’. It is also when a strong leader defeated an ill-judged alliance between the champion of a united Europe and a renegade force of Scottish nationalists.

“So it is well worth the £1m we will provide to celebrate it.”

The jury is still out on…

Whether any of this will actually repair the economy…

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Whether the Budget can swing the election for the Tories…

The Conservative-led coalition government has a mixed record but there are positives. Almost two million jobs have been created on the coalition’s watch, roughly 1000 per day. Four-fifths of these, the chancellor said, were skilled and full-time. And what’s more the north west of England was growing faster in employment terms than anywhere else in the UK.

Yorkshire, Mr Osborne told the chamber, had created more jobs than all of France. William Hague, two seats away, appeared to take some pride in that revelation.

But the Conservatives face an uphill struggle in selling this message to the voters, who consistently tell pollsters that they do not feel significantly better off today than they did five years ago.

Part of the problem is the party leadership. David Cameron looks like a Prime Minister and George Osborne a Chancellor. They provide a powerful contrast with Labour leader Ed Miliband, who looks permanently out of his depth.

However, just as Mr Miliband does not inspire confidence as a leader, the Prime Minister and Chancellor struggle to sound like they empathise with the lives of the average Briton. They talk about struggling families and parents ambitious for their children but they speak aspiration as a second language.

Mr Miliband isn’t particularly personable in this regard but the two Oxbridge posh boys make more obvious villains. If he can hammer home his message that the Tories are for the well-off and don’t understand, let alone care about, the challenges facing middle-class families, he could nudge himself over the line and see Labour become the largest party in the Commons.

If the Lib Dems will get any credit for the coalition’s successes…

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © altogetherfool by Creative Commons 2.0.

Ed Miliband has given up on Scotland and Scottish Labour

Now that the SNP has won the general election in Scotland, talk is understandably turning to the party’s role in the new Parliament.

The SNP is keen to play up its potential for “holding Westminster’s feet to the fire” but Labour has ruled out a coalition with the Nationalists.

Speaking at a public event in Yorkshire on Monday, Ed Miliband insisted: “It will not happen. There are big differences between us. Labour will not go into coalition government with the SNP. There will be no SNP ministers in any government I lead.”

That sounds pretty definitive, doesn’t it? Ah but wait… He rules out a coalition but neither Labour nor the SNP was ever going to agree to that. He might as well have dispelled concerns that he was about to embark on a BDSM-themed ménage à trois with Iain Duncan Smith and Moira Stuart.

The more likely arrangement was always a confidence and supply deal – where the Nationalists agreed to vote for Labour Budgets and against motions of no confidence – or a more unstable vote-by-vote set-up, like the informal arrangement which saw the Scottish Tories prop up the first minority SNP administration at Holyrood.

And Labour is making it known – through anonymous briefings – that it is open to a looser relationship with the Scottish Nationalists.

The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour quotes a Labour source, who tells him: “David Cameron for his own electoral purposes is trying to suggest Scottish MPs should have no vote at Westminster and that is an extraordinary position for a Unionist politician to adopt.”

David Cameron has repeatedly called on Labour to rule out any agreement with the SNP and the Conservatives have produced an election poster depicting Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket.

This is smart politics for the Tories for two reasons. First, it scares Middle England with the prospect of a weak Labour government beholden to Scottish Nationalists. Second, with no single party likely to command a majority in the House of Commons after May, it boxes Mr Miliband into abjuring the support of a 50-seat bloc and thus making his path to Number Ten all but impassable.

And Labour’s refusal to be bounced is smart politics too – on the face of it, at least. The party has been out of power for five years, hardly an eternity in the history of Labour but 40 years in desert for the current generation of Labour politicians. Labour people want a Labour government. They may not be prepared to sit side by side with Nationalists – Labour attitudes towards the SNP range from uneasy indifference to coruscating hatred – but they will not spurn their votes. Walking through the Aye lobby with Alex Salmond from time to time is a small price to pay for a return to the Treasury bench. Labour has not forgotten the painful lessons of the 1980s, the last time they chose purism over power.

But, as is increasingly the case for the party, there’s a Scotland problem. While Labour is fighting the Tories south of the border, in Scotland they are up against the SNP, which is telling voters that they can bring down the Tories and ensure a left-leaning Labour government by voting Nationalist.

Labour has strained to fight this narrative. It has claimed that the largest party always forms the government, which isn’t true but has the advantage of sounding right. It has warned that voting SNP will make a Conservative government more likely, a point that is more reasonable but would be better expressed as “Voting SNP makes a majority Labour government even less likely than it already is”.

It is an indication of the dire straits Scottish Labour finds itself in that “Vote for the party you hate to keep out the party you really hate” is the strongest line in its rhetorical armoury. But it is the only trump card Labour has left to play.

Or it was until today. Ed Miliband’s comments have undermined Jim Murphy’s case for a Labour vote in Scotland. Mr Murphy will argue that it makes the choice starker for voters. But by ruling out a formal coalition while leaving the door open to a looser pact, Mr Miliband appears to vindicate the SNP’s claim that Scots can vote for them and still get a Labour government. Think voters don’t understand parliamentary pacts? Don’t be so sure; they’re smarter than the political class might imagine.

This tells us a few things about Mr Miliband. He has resigned himself to falling short of an outright majority in May. He has given up on Scotland. He is hungry for power and will do whatever it takes to achieve it. The last point is hardly revelatory – this is politics, after all – but this sort of ruthlessness is normally reserved for rival parties. The UK Labour leader is stepping on the necks of his Scottish MPs to get into Downing Street. Those who survive won’t forgive or forget.

But there is a more immediate problem. The Tories now have yet another attack line against the hapless Labour leader: If even his own colleagues can’t trust him, why would you?

Originally published on STV News.

Nigel Farage isn’t a racist but some of his best lines are

Thank God for the SNP.

They may be whiny at times, populist all the time, and social authoritarians even in their sleep but they’re not Ukip.

Whatever your constitutional politics or your thoughts on nationalism, we are blessed in Scotland to have a nationalist party that is driven more by jobs and public services than by blood and soil.

True, there is still a strain of Little Scotlanderism in the SNP. Former First Minister Alex Salmond, in traitor-baiting mode, referred to the Unionist parties as a “parcel of rogues”; South of Scotland MSP Joan McAlpine reckons her opponents are “anti-Scottish” and hellbent on “bring[ing] down our parliament”; and the patriotism card was oft-played during the referendum, with Better Together politicians endlessly accused of “talking down Scotland”.

But these are aberrations in the otherwise successful modernisation of the SNP into a civic nationalist party. It helps too that Nicola Sturgeon is a sincere progressive and a heartfelt social democrat and that her ranks are swelled with Left and ex-Labour voters for whom fairness comes before the flag.

Every now and then, some local chumps will give their leader a showing up, such as the Renfrewshire SNP councillors who publicly burned the Smith Commission report or the Edinburgh Western branch that encouraged supporters to take photographs of Labour politicians and put them on the internet. They are, however, swiftly slapped down. Ms Sturgeon’s own occasional slips – for example, impugning Scottish Labour’s patriotism at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday – are the exception rather than the rule.

What centre-left voters in England would give to face a nationalist party like that. Instead, they have Ukip to contend with. The contrast between the two nationalisms could not be more vivid after Nigel Farage called for the scrapping of laws against racial discrimination.

The Independent reports that Mr Farage made the comments in a documentary, Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True, to be aired on Channel 4 next week. The programme is presented by Labour politician and former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission Trevor Phillips.

Mr Farage is quoted as saying: “I would argue that the law does need changing, and that if an employer wishes to choose, or you can use the word  ‘discriminate’ if you want to, but wishes to choose to employ a British-born person, they should be allowed to do so. I think you should be able to choose on the basis of nationality, yes. I do.”

Pressed on whether Ukip would keep laws making it a crime to discriminate on the basis of race, he is reported to have replied: “No, because … we as a party are colour-blind.”

Explaining how his policy would work in practical terms, he is supposed to have said: “I think the employer should be much freer to make decisions on who she or he employs. I think the situation that we now have, where an employer is not allowed to choose between a British-born person and somebody from Poland, is a ludicrous state of affairs. I think that we have taken our relationship with Europe to a level that, frankly, has gone against common sense, and certainly against self-interest.”

Mr Farage has claimed that his comments were solely in reference to nationality-based preferences and not race. We will have to wait until next Thursday and the airing of the programme to see for ourselves. Quite why being permitted to discriminate against Poles in recruitment is a nobler cause than doing the same against Jews or Asians or Africans is not clear.

These comments are hardly without, well, pedigree. They are of a piece with his brand of dogwhistle politics. In February 2014, he raised the spectre of Britain “having whole areas taken over” by immigrants and questioned whether parts of the country were “a foreign land”. As proof, he claimed that on a recent train journey he had not been able to “hear English being audibly spoken”.

He wasn’t complaining about whispering. He was talking about people who were not born here speaking languages unfamiliar to him. This made him feel “slightly awkward” and he was sure “three quarters of the population” agreed with him.

In February of this year, Ukip called for a ban on kosher and halal slaughter in the UK. This was despite Mr Farage explicitly promising the Jewish community that his party would uphold their religious freedoms, including shechita.

Why the sudden about-face? The party’s agriculture spokesman Stuart Agnew gave the game away. ““This isn’t aimed at you, he told the Jewish Chronicle, “it’s aimed elsewhere – it’s aimed at others. You’ve been caught in the crossfire; collateral damage. You know what I mean.”

Yes. We know exactly what he means.

And the party’s MP for Rochester and Strood was accused of raising the possibility of repatriation of recent EU migrants ahead of the November byelection in the constituency. Mark Reckless said that EU citizens presently living in the UK could “have a work permit at least for a fixed period” if the country departed the European Union but that “people who have been here a long time and integrated” could be “look[ed] sympathetically at.”

A new immigrant arriving in Britain (to “take over”, presumably) could be forgiven for thinking Mr Farage’s party is called “Disgraced Ukip”, so often do news reports begin with the words “A disgraced Ukip candidate…” You can take your pick of Kippers who have embarrassed their party with offensive statements. One candidate was forced to withdraw after using the term “chinky” and calling Ukip’s LGBT group (who can hardly have their sorrows to seek) “f——— old poofters”. Another councillor had to be expelled after telling a BBC camera crew that she “had a problem with people with negroid features”. Another candidate still recommended that the comedian Lenny Henry “go and live in a black country”.

There are many more examples. Every party attracts oddballs, weirdos, and downright lunatics; Ukip has no monopoly on moon-howlers. But try to imagine anyone in the SNP, however low-level, saying any of the above. Even if you’re the most ardent of Nat-loathers, you would have to concede that it is unthinkable. Some Nationalist and pro-independence efforts to portray Scotland and England as fundamentally different countries are cynical, crass, or evidentially dubious. But we can say this: When it comes to the experience of nationalism, the two nations couldn’t be more different.

But, you might say, Ukip does suspend or expel candidates and councillors who make these reprehensible remarks. Surely that shows that it’s not a racist organisation. And you’d be right. I don’t believe Ukip is a racist party. Instead Ukip is a populist-nationalist outfit wedded to misty-eyed false memories of imperial glory and Great Britishness. It is the party that remembers when you could leave your door unlocked and children could play football in the streets till all hours and the local bobby could give them a clip round the ear if they got a bit impudent.

It understands better than the mainstream parties that there are people out there uneasy about the 21st century and the pace of change it has brought. The country they grew up in is less white, less Christian, less heterosexual and in some ineffable way feels less like their Britain. They are conscientious objectors to modernity.

Ukip is uncannily attuned to these fears and prejudices and exploits them without necessarily offering any practical remedies. The reason is that none of Ukip’s policies would restore this ever-gone, never-been England pined for by a certain segment of the population. Even if Ukip were to win an outright majority in every election from now until Judgment Day, Britain will only get more diverse and more different. The party and those who support it are on the losing side of economics, demographics, and social attitudes.

This is why outwardly bigoted figures within the party are thrown out. They give the game away. Ukip operates in the tall grass of bias and prejudice; it doesn’t have the stomach for open-air racism or the policies required to achieve its aims. They will poke, prod, stoke, and stir up for electoral gain but they’ll never actually do anything.

English nationalism is no less legitimate than its Scottish counterpart but where nationalism is an ideology of the mainstream in Scotland, south of the border Labour and the Conservatives have left the politics of national identity to the fringes. This is a function of the major parties’ neglect of the white working class vote and the liberal intelligentsia’s contempt for English patriotism and intolerance of the open discussion of “sensitive” topics such as immigration, integration, and social cohesion.

Mercifully, the SNP is miles from this brand of politics. But Mr Farage’s remarks are a reminder that stigmatising and stereotyping are still very effective tools and can bring handsome profits to parties willing to explore this territory. What a shame, then, that some Scottish nationalists have proclaimed themselves victims of racism on the basis of the jibes of a few newspaper columnists and a cartoon mocking the SNP.

They should study Mr Farage’s remarks to see what genuine prejudice and divisiveness looks like and reconsider their efforts to feign victimhood for political gain.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Chatham House by Creative Commons 2.0.

Taking offence at a cartoon is a caricature of nationalism

Someone has drawn a cartoon and a lot of people are angry about it.

Don’t worry, it doesn’t depict the Prophet Mohammed. No one needs to go into hiding.

It’s just a standard comic strip by the Guardian’s Steve Bell and pokes fun at a couple of politicians.

The strip shows Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond in SNP-coloured kilts. The First Minister says: “I will happily support a Labour government on a case by case basis and I will not make Trident a red line issue. But I will never ever compromise on our core demand for incest and Scottish country dancing!”

Bell would no doubt have expected his educated audience to pick up on the reference to Sir Thomas Beecham’s apophthegm, “In this life try everything once, except incest and Morris dancing.”

Unfortunately, there’s this thing called Twitter and the people on there don’t do nuance. It’s six characters too many. Amongst these are a segment of Scottish nationalists, who were most displeased at Bell.

The insult police were already on high alert after a newspaper column at the weekend warned that English voters would not stand for being ruled over by Scottish politicians they didn’t vote for. In a silly attempt to overegg the pudding, Allan Massie added: “I don’t say the rivers Thames and Mersey will literally foam with blood – but they might well do so metaphorically.”

A dreadfully written Daily Mail screed by Max Hastings (how many tautologies can one sentence bear?) a few days before had thrown its toys out of the pram over the idea that having Scotland remain in the Union might involve Scotland getting some sort of say in how the Union is run.

Just as the Disgusted-of-Byres-Road crowd had done in response to Massie’s and Hastings’ throwaway articles, so too did they jump upon Bell’s innocuous sketch. Twitter was soon ablaze with accusations of racism and xenophobia and encouragements to complain to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (but remember, journalists were being hysterical when they warned against post-Leveson regulation of the press).

Mike Small of Bella Caledonia pronounced the Bell cartoon “racist” and linked it to Jeremy Clarkson calling Gordon Brown “a one-eyed Scottish idiot” and David Mitchell opposing increased public funding for Gaelic.

He wrote: “Can you imagine a Scottish newspaper publishing an equivalent cartoon about the English? You can’t and I’m so glad you can’t. It would be thought outrageous and bigoted. You can’t imagine someone coming on your television and arguing that the English language should die. You can’t imagine a vastly paid BBC presenter calling someone a ‘one eyed English idiot’.”

No, I can’t imagine it.

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Small charged that Massie “has descended from High Tory to float off to somewhere on the far-right” and illustrated “the deep pool of self-loathing that many Scottish unionists draw on”.

Bella Caledonia is hands-down the best culture site in Scotland but every now and then you come across something like this that makes you wonder if the driving force for Small isn’t independence or social democracy but indignation at the discovery of alternative points of view.

Even Iain Macwhirter, recovering as a liberal after dabbling in populism during the referendum, was at it too. He wasn’t too bothered by Bell’s cartoon, though he seemed to think the satirist was alleging a “fondness” for incest on Ms Sturgeon’s part, but he was fit to be tied over Massie’s article. It was a “Powellite diatribe” and painted Scots as the “enemy within” and an “alien force”.

“There is a casual contempt for Scottish people,” he charged, “who are routinely discussed in terms that would be inconceivable were they Afro-Caribbean or Jewish.”

This is a risible fantasy and the wearisome you-wouldn’t-say-it-about-the-blacks-or-the-Jews canard is the stuff of Daily Mail comment threads, and beneath a writer of Macwhirter’s stature and abilities.

I enjoy Massie’s book reviews and curmudgeonly wit. Hastings’ military histories make compelling reading but his opinion pieces are all the same: 800 words of tedious why-oh-whyery. Bell’s appeal lies beyond my ken. I find his satire crude; he draws in brush strokes rather than pencil swipes. Nothing is left to the imagination. He isn’t content to draw the cartoon, he wants to interpret it for us too.

But the relative merits of each as writers or artists shouldn’t matter. It is the job of a polemicist to stir things up and the duty of a newspaper cartoonist to savage politicians, people, and ideas. The more ludicrous the satirist’s subject, the more outlandish his caricature becomes in the hope of capturing the fundamental absurdity of politics. Bell, an old lefty, gleefully tormented John Major during his tenure in Number Ten with a long-running gag that saw the prime minister depicted wearing Y-fronts over his trousers.

Bell’s chronicling of the Blair era was vicious towards the New Labour leader and his take on American politics for almost a decade involved drawing George W Bush as a monkey. As might be expected for a Guardian staffer, the two countries most consistently in his firing line are the United States and Israel. He does it because his readers enjoy acerbic lampooning of the people and things they don’t like. Ask not for whom Steve Bell trolls, he trolls for you.

The idea that this standard-issue man of the left is motivated by ethnic animus against Scots is paranoid havering. Don’t take my word for it. Nicola Sturgeon insists she hasn’t seen the graphic but says in Wednesday’s Times: “Cartoonists are there to provoke and to satirise. I’m not going to comment on different cartoons — that’s their job to poke fun at people.”

There is a strain of Scottish nationalism – present in all nationalisms, if you look closely enough – that revels in outrage. It feasts on slights real and imagined and gorges itself on the psychological junk food of grievance. No offence is left untaken because to do so would disrupt the pleasures of a siege mentality.

But to frame every crass joke and snide remark as a hate crime – as one writer did of the Economist’s sneering ‘Skintland’ cover – is culturally unhealthy. It is a nationalism that, having lost at the ballot box, now seeks victory in the dark recesses of fear and suspicion. See, we told you, it says. They hate us. They’re laughing at us. Are you just going to sit back and take it? Have you no dignity?

Scotland is not a victim or an oppressed minority or a subjugated nation. It is a voluntary partner in a political enterprise, albeit a dysfunctional and asymmetric one. The electorate voted No and just as we have to learn to live with that fact, we also have to live with each other. The energy spent on confected victimhood is energy sapped from pursuing electoral advances and securing a second referendum.

This will do little to dissuade the self-appointed prosecutors of crimes against the nation. These generous souls spread their outrage around; they’ll happily be offended on all our behalves. If only we were as Scottish as they are, if only we cared as much for the country’s spiritual well-being as they do, we would be able to see their point.

In this regard, siege nationalism resembles the behavioural patterns of sections of the conservative movement in the United States. Barely a week goes by without a cable news moraliser or one of the many social arsonists of talk radio seizing upon another example of “elite” snobbery towards the heartland. If you follow American politics, you’ll be familiar with the routine: A politician, celebrity or minor academic makes a questionable remark about evangelical Christians, gun-owners, soldiers, or another favoured group. A desk-thumping hairdo with a slot in prime-time “exposes” the crime and sermonises against the coast-dwelling, Christmas-banning, values-challenged liberals.

The Emmanuel Goldstein of the week will be compelled into a mea culpa or will remain defiant, as more screamers call for their party to suspend them, their record label to drop them, or their university to turf them out for a quiet life. At no point will the guardians of the nation’s morals pause to question their fitness to decide what ought and ought not to be said. Appeals for rationality will go unheeded and don’t dare suggest an off-colour remark is just that and not an attack on the American way of life — What, so you hate America too?

It is the replication of the latter tic, the conflation of nationalism with the nation itself, that is particularly troubling here. The implicit assumption that criticism of the SNP is “talking down Scotland” is present in some responses to Bell and Massie and present to a degree that should make us uneasy. Believing you have the country’s best interests at heart is politics; believing you are the country is religion.

But what if Bell’s cartoon and Massie’s column had been broadsides against Scotland? Are we really so fragile — we an ancient people who denied conquerors and defied odds, we who dominated half the world under the banner of the British Empire and invented the other half through our science and philosophy – that we cannot withstand a few barbs from cartoonists and newspaper columnists?

It should go without saying, though I suppose I’ll have to say it for the benefit of the hard of thinking, that I don’t excuse genuine bigotry directed towards individuals or groups. Columns and cartoons can and do that and they deserve condemnation when they do. But when you cry wolf like this, you can only weaken the awesome power of actual racism to disgust decent people.

It is not true what the schoolmarms say. Political anger is not a dead end; it is a potent force for those who seek power or want to retain it. But it poisons everything around it. This is not the politics that inspired hundreds of thousands of Labour voters to fight the muscle memory of class and family and custom to vote for independence. It bears no relation to the positive and progressive visions outlined by Nicola Sturgeon, National Collective, or Women for Independence.

In the short-term, it could tip the balance of public opinion but in the longer term it risks tainting the entire independence enterprise. It is the Ukipping of Yes, an attempt to replace constructive nationalism with poor-me chauvinism. Independence supporters should resist it as fiercely as they do Unionism.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © zombieite by Creative Commons 2.0.

Two leaders but only one Prime Minister at Labour conference

Ed Miliband is a much more impressive speaker in the flesh than he is on TV.

That’s not much of an endorsement but it merits noting for what it says about the tyranny of the visual in our politics.

Mr Miliband is sincere, bright, policy-focussed, and has ideas for achieving the kind of Britain he wants to see.

An undecided voter who sneaked into the main hall at the Scottish Labour conference in Edinburgh on Saturday might have been surprised by the power of his performance.

They would have seen the determination and heard the righteous tremor in his voice as he excoriated the Tories and their austerity policies.

He intoned:

They are a party that defends a country with bank bonuses unchecked and food banks on the rise. They are party that refuses a Mansion Tax and imposes the cruel and unfair Bedroom Tax. A tax we will abolish across the whole of the UK as soon as we get into government.

They are a party that assaults the tax credits of working families and lets the tax avoiders off the hook. They are a party that cuts funds for the most vulnerable and stands up for the hedge funds. Whenever there is a choice to be made, they always make the wrong choice. The unfair choice. The choice for the few.

Think of what has happened to working families since they came to power. Wages down by £1600. Zero hours contracts exploding. Insecurity at work. Opportunities denied to the young. Promises broken. It is a record they can’t defend.

His logic was prosecutorial but his tone was pure white burning indignation.

Aye, there’s the rub. Mr Miliband can lecture us all on what is wrong with the country, and he can even propose plausible policy remedies, but he can’t convince enough people that he is the man to carry these changes through.

On television, he comes across as awkward, geeky, and blandly earnest, like a well-meaning sixth former making a speech at the school assembly on the evils of animal testing or the destruction of the rain forest.

This fits the caricature of Mr Miliband fashioned by the right-wing press but their cruel cartooning reflects public feelings about the Labour leader as much as it shapes them.

He looks odd, thanks to a rubberish, hyper-expressive face that could have been animated by Acme. Every time he opens his mouth, you expect him to gaffe and even when he doesn’t it seems a case of sheer luck rather that competence or confidence. He projects weakness when he manages to project anything.

A good and decent person no doubt he is but he doesn’t talk, walk, or carry himself like a man on the cusp of power in the world’s fifth largest economy.

The spectre that stalks Ed Miliband is not the jibes of the Daily Mail or the braying of Tory backbenchers every Wednesday lunchtime. It’s the unshakeable feeling, elusive as smoke but just as real, that he is simply not a leader, not a Prime Minister.

It’s all grossly unfair but then so is life. Man is imperfect and imperfectible.

None of this would matter if the general election weren’t so close. In Mr Miliband, Labour has a leader less popular in Scotland than David Cameron just at the very time when they need a figurehead who connects with voters north of the border.

When the unions installed ‘Red Ed’ over his Blairite brother David, many on the right of the party predicted it would lose them Middle England. They could never have imagined it might lose them Scotland too.

Of course, the referendum has played a large part in the collapse of Labour’s vote but a more confident, assured, and commanding leader could have made an appeal to the less militant Yes voters.

He or she could have said: “I know independence is important to you. I respect that. But throwing out the Tories and creating a fairer and more prosperous society is important to all of us. The constitution isn’t going to be changed in 60 days, so let’s work together in our shared interests until May 7 – and join battle again on May 8.”

That is not Mr Miliband or, just as important, not the perception of him.

This impolite truth was there for all to see when he and Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy shared the stage.

Mr Murphy spoke with passion and without notes. He talked about the achievements of Labour – the NHS, the Race Relations Act, the minimum wage, and the Scottish Parliament – but it was not a speech anchored in the past. He sketched out a vision for the future of Scotland, one both more left-of-centre than we’re used to hearing from Labour politicians and yet at the same time attuned to the economic realities of the day.

He told the hall:

We are determined to win not just because we want a Labour government but because those people who are genuinely in the fight of their lives need a Labour government. We are determined to win for the mother, the business owner and the pensioner.

And he appealed to Labour voters flirting with a vote for the SNP to stay on board:

I know that there are Labour supporters thinking of switching to be SNP voters this time. And I’ve met and listened to a lot of those undecided voters and I know that you are desperate for change. So are we.

I hear your sense of frustration about how you work harder and feel no better off. What I want to set out to you and the rest of Scotland is that Labour is that change. We will stop a decade of Tory rule, end Tory austerity, prevent their cut of £2.7 billion to Scotland.

As is the case with all the parties, there was little in the way of fresh policy announcements. One, however, was a pledge to restore student support cut by the SNP and boost college bursaries by £1000 per head. There would also be a “future fund” of £1600 for 18 and 19 year olds not at university, college or undergoing an apprenticeship to help them get into work.

If Mr Murphy was light on policy, the same could not be said for vigour. He spoke with an intense empathy for the injustices suffered by vulnerable people under the Conservatives and optimism that Labour could help those people back onto their feet. This wasn’t just another conference speech but a vivid piece of evangelism for the redemptive, uplifting power of government and social action.

Where Mr Miliband damned the Tory worldview, Mr Murphy put forward a vision of his own. Where Mr Miliband talked like a critic of coalition policies, Mr Murphy spoke like someone who had alternative ideas and could do something about them. Where Mr Miliband sounded like the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Murphy sounded like a leader. More than that, he looked like someone who should be setting his sights higher than First Minister of Scotland.

Sound a bit far-fetched? Fine. Here’s a test: Close your eyes and picture the famous black door of 10 Downing Street. Imagine Ed Miliband standing outside it, knowing that beyond the door lies the Cabinet room where decisions of life and death, war and peace are made. He looks out of place, doesn’t he? Now imagine Jim Murphy standing there.

There were two leaders on stage in Edinburgh today but only one Prime Minister.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © EdMiliband by Creative Commons 2.0.

Labour can only stand by and watch their electoral destruction

The latest glut of Lord Ashcroft polling data is nothing short of horrendous for Scottish Labour.

It’s also terrible for the Liberal Democrats but we don’t have time to deal with their problems right now.

The polling of five Labour-held seats, along with two Lib Dems constituencies and the sole Tory outpost in Scotland, shows Labour losing four to the SNP.

Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock; Dumfries and Galloway; outgoing MP Alistair Darling’s Edinburgh South West; and also departing Gordon Brown’s Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath — all would fall to the Nationalists in swings ranging from 20% to 28.5%.

Amongst those seats in focus, only East Renfrewshire — represented by Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy — would stay red, and by a whisker at that.

One respected number-cruncher extrapolated Lord Ashcroft’s data across Scotland. It would result, he estimated, in the SNP taking 56 out of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats.

This is the second thumping handed out to Scottish Labour by the Tory peer’s polling operation. His first run of Scotland polling in February, rumoured to show Labour in a better position than in most other polls, in fact forecast devastation for the party in its Glasgow and Lanarkshire heartlands.

The two biggest takeaways from the Ashcroft polling are 1) The SNP isn’t going to win the general election in Scotland by a landslide, they’re going to win it by an avalanche, and 2) Seats that were once stone-rigid safe for the incumbent party are now marginals.

The cull looks set to be entirely indiscriminate. Lefties and Blairites, pro-Iraqers and anti-Iraqers, Tory platform-sharers and Better Together shunners.

In one sense, a clear-out would do the party the world of good. Sweep away the deadwood, blow away the cobwebs. Labour would be able to rebuild with fresh faces and new ideas.

But can a party rebuild itself if deprived of all its talent? There are plenty of mediocre Scottish Labour MPs; people like Margaret Curran, Douglas Alexander, and Tom Harris are not amongst them. But they would be brushed aside along with the placeholders and seat-clingers if these swings played out on polling day.

The best and the brightest of the 2010 intake could be kicked out too, people like Gregg McClymont in Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East and Thomas Docherty in Dunfermline and West Fife. Both have shown signs of real political ability, as has Tom Greatrex. The latter’s position in Rutherglen and Hamilton West is stronger — he took 60% of the vote last time — but no Labour seat can be considered safe anymore.

The defeat of such MPs, seasoned veterans and the promising next generation, would not auger well for Labour’s chances of getting back up on its feet in the near future.

The question every Labour MP is asking is ‘Why?’

After Jim Murphy’s brief time at the helm, he has not managed to turn his party’s fortunes around and with 60 days to go the task is all but insurmountable. It might be tempting for some MPs to lay the blame for the coming catastrophe at his door. They are about to lose what they assumed was a job for life and that can’t be easy.

But Jim Murphy is not the reason Labour faces electoral oblivion. He has failed to win back Yes-voting (ex-)Labour people because they don’t want to be won back. At least not yet, and probably not for a good while.

The electorate isn’t impressed by Murphy’s leftwards tack, the pressure put on Nicola Sturgeon over the “NHS crisis” in Scotland, or the Labour leader’s attempts to reach out to supporters of independence. They don’t want to be impressed.

They’ve decided on the direction of travel and won’t be diverted before May 7. You change if you want to, Labour. The voters are not for turning.

Labour hopes, with more optimism than evidence, that the fear of a Tory government will snap the public out of this fit of rebellion. But, as we saw in polling for the referendum, once people went Yes they didn’t go back. That pattern appears to be repeating here.

If Labour cannot provoke an eleventh-hour bolt by the voters, their sole remaining hope is tactical voting.

If yellow, green and red nationalists can have a “Yes Alliance”, why can’t No voters throw their support behind whichever party would frustrate the SNP in their constituency? After all, this isn’t really a general election. It’s a second independence vote in all but name, albeit with a slightly smaller prize for the Nationalists. A referendum without the risks, if you will.

According to Lord Ashcroft, the SNP is poised to grab Aberdeenshire West & Kincardine from the Liberal Democrats. But if half of the constituency’s Labour voters and half of the Lib Dems lent their vote to the Conservative candidate Alexander Burnett, they could deny the Nationalists the seat.

The peer’s polling has Jim Murphy neck-and-neck with the SNP in leafy, affluent East Renfrewshire. If just a quarter of Tory voters threw their weight behind the moderate Labour MP, the Nationalists’ hopes would be dashed.

In Ross, Skye & Lochaber, the popular left-wing Liberal Democrat Charles Kennedy is sitting five points behind the SNP. But if half the seat’s Labour and Conservative voters backed him, he could narrowly see off the challenge.

There have been some, mostly low-level, calls for a No Alliance but the Ashcroft polling makes for uncomfortable reading for anyone pinning their hopes on a coalition of the nose-holders.

Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat voters show little sign of embracing tactical voting. In East Renfrewshire, now inexplicably a Labour-SNP marginal, 72% of Conservative supporters rule out voting Labour at the same time that only 68% of Labour voters say they would definitely not back the SNP. In Labour-held Dumfries and Galloway, only the Tories can stop the SNP according to Lord Ashcroft but 82% of Labour identifiers refuse to vote Conservative. That is 21% higher than the percentage who refuse to vote for the Nationalists.

No voters may outnumber Yes voters in Scotland but there is a vital difference: Nationalists want independence more than Unionists want to stop the SNP. This makes tactical voting, Labour’s last best hope, no hope at all.

Scottish politics and society are undergoing landmark changes and there is little Labour can do except stand on the sidelines and watch history being made.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.