How Nicola Sturgeon could help Brexit win the EU referendum

Quiz time. Who tweeted this over the weekend:

‘Quisling Tories characterise independence, freedom & democracy as “a leap into the void”. Other countries can have independence. Not us.’

a) A cybernat

b) One of the more intellectually modest SNP MPs

c) Angry Salmond

The answer, surprisingly enough, is d) None of the above.

In fact, Roger Helmer, Ukip MEP for East Midlands, is the author. Helmer seems to have been put on this earth to make Kelvin MacKenzie look like Socrates but his traitor-baiting missive is notable for its ghost of referenda past.

You could be forgiven for assuming a Scottish Nationalist was behind the tweet. The surly victimhood. The populist strawmanning. The blithe accusation that opponents are working against their own country. At least ageing hippies earned their flashbacks dropping all that acid. Voters in Scotland are reliving the independence referendum every day as the plebiscite on EU membership ramps up.

Where the SNP had Business for Scotland, the Brexiters have Business for Britain. Where “Labour” for Independence claimed to represent a groundswell of separatist support within Scottish Labour, Labour Leave is offered as the voice of centre-left Euroscepticism. For the Sunday Herald, see the Daily Express and for Alex Salmond, Nigel Farage.

Brexiters have yet to adopt the media intimidation tactics seen on the Yes side in Scotland but they share an antipathy for the BBC. It is all but inevitable that mobs will surround New Broadcasting House at some point.

These echoes are to be expected. A year and a half on from September 2014, Britain faces another referendum between unionists who assure us we are better together in a larger political and economic partnership and nationalists who say it’s time to go it alone and make our own decisions. Flags and facts will join battle over Europe as they did over the United Kingdom.

That doesn’t mean those campaigning for an Out vote have to replicate the strategies and tactics seen in Scotland. Echoes are not determinants; the stakes are distinct and the risks and rewards different. The temptation, however, will be mighty, especially as polling day nears and the numbers stubbornly refuse to shift.

If Brexiters must take cues from Scotland’s separatists, they should realise that there were two SNP campaigns for independence. Alex Salmond, who dedicated many years to planing off the rough edges of his party, reverted to type and swaggered around the country stoking tensions and branding his opponents “a parcel of rogues”. Unseemly as it was to see a statesman, the first First Minister worthy of the title, braying like a cybernat let out of the basement, Salmond’s demagoguery appealed to angry middle-aged men.

These voters, many of them traditionally aligned to Labour, resented the global financial crisis and the way its burdens had fallen on the shoulders of hard-pressed families while the bankers continued to draw their Premier League bonuses. Salmond didn’t necessarily dissent from the standard left analysis of casino capitalism run amok but he channelled public resentment to a different enemy, a national enemy. Westminster, not the City, was the source of Scotland’s ills.

There was another campaign that ran in parallel to Salmond’s rabble-rousing. Nicola Sturgeon, then still his deputy but already his superior in political judgement and temperament, toured the town halls and TV studios making the positive case for a Yes vote. It was no less ruthless and no less sophistic in its promises of social democratic jam tomorrow and threats of NHS privatisation under the Union. But it was more often than not an appeal to the better part of us, to optimism for our family and hope for our country. Salmond’s belligerence cost him the history books but Sturgeon’s is a nationalism even non-nationalists can respect.

As the Leave movement assembles its troops for a fight where all the institutional advantage is on the other side, it should set aside Salmond’s divide-and-rule playbook. The poison that was injected into the Scottish public discourse during the referendum has not been drawn and the beginnings of a US-style kulturkampf can be glimpsed. A small nation tucked away in the wilds of north-western Europe can afford to be insular and polarised but a world power – as Britain still, just, is – cannot. Brexiters are a patriotic bunch and will not wish to inflict acrimony on their country.

Instead they should look to Sturgeon’s approach. A positive, upbeat message that the UK can prosper as a sovereign nation outside the EU. That a vote to leave is not a retreat into Little England but a confident step out into the world. You are no less British if you vote for the status quo, Out campaigners should reassure the public, but you can be a good European while rejecting the diktats of an unaccountable bureaucracy. None of this will obscure the very real political, economic, and security risks of secession but it is the noblest tack and the one most likely to result in victory.

There is a legitimate case for the UK to leave the EU, which even those of us who do not concur can concede. Its logic is stronger and more intellectually coherent than the mush of economic fantasy, sentiment, and prejudice that came to dominate the anti-UK campaign in the Scottish referendum. Had Nicola Sturgeon’s arguments set the tone in that contest, Yes might have won the day. If they emulate her style, Leave still might.

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

Labour is worth saving now, but by 2020…

Catherine McKinnell has resigned from the shadow cabinet.

Yes, that Catherine McKinnell.

The shadow attorney general.

I honestly hadn’t heard of her until her resignation statement dropped on the news wires on Monday morning. I understand the pinnacle of her career thus far has been a spat with Gary Barlow, the Take That star, about tax avoidance. The Labour party can’t even find decent people to resign from it any more.

McKinnell cites “concerns about the direction and internal conflict” of the party as her reason for going. There’s been quite a bit of that lately. Pat McFadden was dumped in the Raqqa reshuffle, punishment for saying that Islamic State and not its targets was responsible for terrorism. That view is now a sacking offence in the Labour party. Fellow centrists followed him out of the door with some disgust and much relief.

Ken Livingstone, heading up a defence review, wants to reverse policy on Trident and Nato membership. Paul Kenny, the general secretary of the GMB union, warns that he won’t “go quietly into the night” and will stand up for the thousands of jobs connected to Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell — whose job title mercifully will always begin “shadow” — denounced the pressure group Progress as “rightwing conservative” and even “hard right”, lending the élan of counterrevolution to a group that spends most of its time debating how to reform public services and extend free childcare. Alison McGovern, the chairwoman of Progress, resigned from a party review into child poverty in response.

Moderates ponder their future in a party rapidly coming to resemble a hard-left sect. This has inspired many an injudicious comparison with the 1980s, the decade etched in the Blairite mind as the primal scene of ideological mania. A key difference is that back then the hard-left failed to capture the leadership, though Tony Benn came perilously close to supplanting Denis Healey as deputy in 1981.

Peter Mandelson records the frantic atmosphere of that party conference in his memoirs: “Many of my Labour friends, and many Labour MPs, were collectively holding their breath. I got the sense that they had not unpacked their bags, and that if Benn won they would . . . probably leave the party.”

Even some centrists do not fully grasp the grim horror of what has become of the Labour party because they misunderstand the 1980s. The Bennites did not try to take over Labour, they tried to take it away, destroy it and remake it as something else. That is why moderates greet the present circumstances with dejection but not despair. They believe Corbyn to be another Michael Foot, an avuncular leftie who will lead them to electoral disaster in 2020. Then he’ll be gone and the rebuild can begin.

But he is not Foot in intellect, temperament or, in truth, philosophy — and the analogy could be flawed in historical terms, too. If we must seek parallels, a more troubling example shuffles forward and meekly raises its hand. That Corbyn is in fact the new Neil Kinnock, the internal reformer who changes not just the party’s direction but its institutions. It took Kinnock nine years with a divided membership to drum out Militant and fellow travellers. With members on board, five years should be more than enough to hack off the Blairite rump and anchor Labour in the unelectable left. Once this fundamental transformation is accomplished, Corbyn may leave but Corbynism will remain.

Middle-grounders insist they are staying put to fight but it is not clear for what. Jim Murphy, the former Scottish Labour leader, appeals to “a sense of what we can still achieve and all that we have shared; the pride in what we have built together, the hurt of our frequent defeats and the satisfaction in the lives changed by our occasional victories”.

This is not fighting so much as pining for the Labour past, that spirit of decency that has civilised our economic and social life on and off since 1945. Order is the drug of choice for the Conservative party but for Labour it is sentiment. The Labour party is a cross between a Methodist church and a mafia; members are bound by ties of common purpose and social belonging. Labour might make mistakes but its heart is in the right place, no matter how much damage it does. In the end, the country doesn’t come first, the party does.

Labour at the start of 2016 is a party worth recovering; Labour in the autumn of 2020 could be a very different beast. Day by day the Labour party, the real Labour party — social democratic, internationalist, patriotic — is being smothered by an assassin claiming to be its saviour.

There is a point where patience slips into complicity, where Corbyn’s critics stop being “moderates” and become feckless wimps. They need not storm off, but they owe it to their party and their country to resist. The removal of Jeremy Corbyn from the leadership and the Labour party is the most urgent cause in progressive politics today. If that cannot be achieved, if Labour is too far gone to rescue, the time will have come for packing bags.

Originally published in The TimesFeature image © Lonpicman at English Wikipedia by Creative Commons 3.0.

Sir Albert McQuarrie: North east MP known as the ‘Buchan Bulldog’

Sir Albert McQuarrie earned the nickname ‘Buchan Bulldog’ for his tenacity, much of which was expended on behalf of the north east and in particular the fishing industry.

A Conservative MP at the height of the Thatcher revolution, Sir Albert represented a bygone era of working-class Scottish Toryism and unabashed British patriotism.

He was 98 at the time of his death.

He entered Parliament in 1979 as MP for East Aberdeenshire, one of 22 Tories from north of the border. By the 1987 election, when he lost his redrawn seat of Banff and Buchan to a young Alex Salmond, the Scottish Tory contingent had fallen to ten. Within a decade, it would be wiped out altogether.

Across his two terms in office, he built a reputation as a dedicated local MP and his hard work and good humour brought affection from his constituents and respect from his adversaries.

Born in Greenock on New Year’s Day 1918, Sir Albert was educated at Highlanders Academy and later Greenock High School. He studied engineering at Strathclyde University, in the days when it was still the Royal College of Science and Technology, and went on to serve in the Royal Engineers during World War II.

After the war, he embarked on a plumbing apprenticeship before setting up his own business. His early foray into politics saw him serve on the now defunct Greenock Town Council from 1949 to 1955 but bids to unseat Labour in Kilmarnock in 1966 and in Caithness and Sutherland in the October 1974 election proved fruitless.

Five years later, the winter of discontent had crippled James Callaghan’s Labour government and a swing to the Conservatives saw Sir Albert take East Aberdeenshire from the SNP’s Douglas Henderson. (Ironically Henderson had masterminded the Nationalists’ support of Margaret Thatcher’s motion of no confidence in Labour. Nowhere was Callaghan’s quip about turkeys voting for an early Christmas more apt.)

His time in the Commons was spent campaigning on behalf of the north east fishing industry, culminating in the Safety at Sea Act 1986, which required fishing vessels to carry emergency radio beacons, automatic-release life rafts, and lifejackets for every crew member.

He was a passionate campaigner on Gibraltar. He spent six and a half years living on the Rock and spoke out for the right of the islanders to remain British, ensuring the British Nationality Act 1981 included a provision to allow Gibraltarians to become citizens. In 1982, he was rewarded with the Freedom of the City of Gibraltar.

That attachment to some far-flung British rocks symbolised a Unionism that transcended distance as it celebrated difference, finding compliment rather than contrast in national and regional peculiarities.

As he evocatively sketched it in his maiden speech to the Commons:

I represent that fine constituency of Aberdeenshire East, which is a long way from this chamber. But, thanks to modern travel, I am able to commute to this lovely city of London to the Palace of Westminster to take part in the proceedings of the House, and then return to the green fields of the beautiful agricultural areas in my constituency and the rolling waves of the North Sea, where the oil and gas come ashore to aid this country’s economy.

Ideologically he was eclectic, never quite fitting in with either of the two dominant factions in the Tory Party of the time: the Essex Man ‘dries’, for whom monetarism was a creed and Mrs Thatcher their free-market high priestess, or the patrician ‘wets’, who counselled consensus over confrontation and a return to the benign paternalism of the Macmillan years.

In policy terms, Sir Albert eschewed straightforward categorisation. He called for the reintroduction of the death penalty and was an outspoken opponent of abortion. However, he also supported helping young mothers into the workplace, equality in benefit payments and pressed for an end to taxation on widows’ pensions. A devout Catholic, he was a fierce critic of republican violence and urged tougher punishments for IRA terrorists.

Where he stood out was in rhetoric, some of it pungent. “[A]bortion clinics are nothing more than the gas chambers of the Hitler era,” he told the Commons during a debate on women’s rights while another contribution saw him remark coolly that the Long Kesh hunger strikers had “inflicted capital punishment upon themselves without the necessity of legislation”.

It was this sharp tongue, and its deployment on behalf of causes dear to his heart, that attracted the “Buchan Bulldog” sobriquet. Former Scottish Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind once remarked that his colleague “was as happy with the title as Margaret Thatcher was with being known as the Iron Lady”.

Sir Albert remained active in Scottish Conservative politics in his later years, endorsing Ruth Davidson for the party leadership in 2011. Taking aim at her rival Murdo Fraser’s proposal to create a new centre-right party, the grandee huffed: “We want no new name. We are the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and that is what we should remain.” He spent his retirement in Aberdeenshire and his recreations were listed in Debrett’s as “golf, bridge, music, soccer, swimming, horticulture”.

Sir Albert McQuarrie, who was knighted in 1987, was born on January 1, 1918 and died on January 13, 2016. His autobiography, A Lifetime of Memories, was published by the Memoir Club in 2014.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Port of Gibraltar by Creative Commons 4.0.

Wha’s like us? Gie few and they’re a’ boycotted

The average cybernat, on the 3am comment thread he calls home, hammers out the details of the Tunnock’s tea cake boycott.

The mallow-filled Scottish biscuit has rebranded as “British” for the London market. It is the worst thing since the Highland Clearances, Act of Union and 1966 World Cup final all rolled into one and dipped in milk chocolate.

From now on, it’ll be Lees snowballs for him. He’s used to making sacrifices for the cause.

He sleeps in every morning. There’s been no radio to wake him up since the BBC tuned out the truth about independence.

On the way to work, he stops in at the newsagent (not John Menzies) to pick up a paper. No Daily Record for him; they vowed to another country. The Scotsman isn’t Scottish enough and the Economist is a hate crime. That’ll be the National again then. He grimaces at the front page Photoshop of Jackie Baillie machine-gunning Greyfriars Bobby but forces a smile.

He pays for his paper with pennies from a sock. Sure it was more convenient to bank with RBS and the Co-op but he has zero percent interest in financial forelock-tuggers. Lloyds and Standard Life need not even apply.

At lunch, someone offers him a crisp. “Don’t mind if I- Oh. They’re Mackie’s. ‘No thanks’, as they say!”

When workmates suggest a night at the local comedy club he must say no. Eddie Izzard is headlining. Al Murray? Afraid not. What about that nice Rory Bremner? Not a chance.

His car is always running out of petrol for he must drive past Shell and BP, hydrocarbon Haw-Haws. He can just about make the Asda garage but alas.

When he finally gets home, he switches on the TV to find Ross Kemp embedded with gangs. Not his thing at all. Peep Show is on the other side. It used to be his favourite programme but not anymore. Bloody Mitchell. And Webb.

Netflix is not much better. Judi Dench this, Emma Thompson that. And that Mike Myers was never funny anyway. What he needs is a film with a Scottish actor in it. Like Ewan McGregor: A good, patriotic, self-respecting– Damn.

Nowhere can an independent-minded Scot turn to escape the influence of the Union.

His children are still mithering about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. “Look I’m sorry, Saor and Alba, but we’re not giving our money to JK Quisling. We’ll get some sock puppets and put on our own play: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Colonists and Settlers.”

The new David Bowie tour holds no excitement for him. He doesn’t listen to music much these days anyway. His Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones records all had to go to the charity shop. His higher loyalty must be to the White Paper, not the White Album.

At least he still has Runrig. Bugger.

The dreich weather – brought on by biased BBC maps – is getting him down but he can’t even book a week away. Barrhead Travel wants Scotland to be all inclusive with the UK. Besides, where would he go? Spain and the United States are out, as are Canada and Australia.

To console himself he reaches for a dram of Glenfiddich, then remembers they sold out Scotland. En route to the sink, he ruefully collects his near-full bottle of Bruichladdich, for it too distilled away our hopes and dreams. In fact, he may as well toss the entire drinks cabinet given the Scotch Whisky Association‘s perfidy.

“Wha’s like us,” he muses ruefully, and hopes the party appreciates his sufferances on their behalf. Come to think of it: Nicola Sturgeon goes on the BBC all the time, she probably enjoys a wee nip, and she’s still not said a word about the Tunnock’s treason. It’s almost as if she’s okay with all this.

He wonders: Maybe boycotting travel agents and chocolate-makers is a bit daft. Maybe he should accept that other folk see the world differently. Maybe you can support independence without taking offence at every last thing going. After all, Nicola can do it…

Naw, he resolves, nibbling miserably on a homemade oatcake. There’s only one thing for it: Boycott the SNP.

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

Lessons from Scotland for the European referendum

Could Britain really vote to leave the European Union?

That question is rattling around the minds of the liberal intelligentsia, after a new poll from Lord Ashcroft put the Out vote nine points ahead of In.

Lord Ashcroft, like other poll purveyors, has work to do to rebuild his reputation after May. His research was, however, uncannily accurate when it came to Scotland. John Rentoul points out too that the peer’s methodology involves telephone polling and this has tended to produce worse results for the unionist side.

However representative the latest research is of public opinion, the possibility of Brexit alarms politicians and commentators. They live and work in London, a truly international city, and some would think nothing of hopping on the Eurostar for a weekend in Paris. Europe to them is Polish plumbers, Lithuanian au pairs, and cheap city breaks in Riga. I say this not to demagogue but to contrast these cosmopolitan attitudes with those elsewhere in Britain. Out there in the country, the EU is a tougher sell, associated with immigration, refugees, human rights and metric martyrdom. Lived experience versus received wisdom.

The source of liberal London’s confusion is that they have only encountered nationalism in very small doses. Nigel Farage on Question Time every other week is tough going but not quite the same as having nationalists dominate your political landscape for a decade. That is why the Scottish experience has to be understood to appreciate how national sentiment and grievance politics can shift large slices of public opinion in relatively short spaces of time.

In all likelihood the English will be tempted by nationalism as the Scots were. As with the Scots, the enticers will not be tattooed skinheads or aled-up pub patriots but polite, civilised men and women, the sort of people who move in next door, invite you round for dinner and it turns out they get their sofa throws from IKEA too. They will not talk about foreigners or national superiority. Instead they will say it’s about fairness, democracy, common sense and why can’t we make decisions for ourselves. Their animus will be reserved for the enemy within, the fainthearts who lack confidence in their country and people. Stop talking down Britain, they will rebuke, then protest in sincere offence when referred to as nationalists.

The Yes campaign did not achieve 45% of the vote by kilts and claymores but by the chuntering bonhomie of Alex Salmond. The English became “Westminster” and independence a route to “social justice”. In the run-up to the EU referendum, look out for similar tactics and language. Daniel Hannan, not Peter Bone; Kate Hoey, not Nigel Farage. And don’t be surprised if Vote Leave turns streetfighter in the final weeks. (Where the Scottish nationalists cast doubt on the future of the NHS, the Brexiters might confect a coming immigration crisis.)

And when the gloves do come off, expect deja vu as the BBC comes under fire and unionist politicians are subjected to online abuse. For all their assurances that they are different, benign, civic, in the end a nationalist is a nationalist.

As with Scottish nationalism, there is a reasonable case for British secession from the EU. Unionists should accord their adversaries the respect they deserve. EU political institutions are less transparent and accountable than those in Westminster and it is more plausible to contend that Britons are culturally different from French or Germans or Italians than it is to claim substantial distinctions between Catlowdy and Canonbie. Euro-unionists mustn’t dismiss their opponents’ outlook as inherently illegitimate. There is more than one way to be a European.

Avoid the clodhopping stupidity and unforced errors of the Better Together campaign. Keep the tone upbeat and positive as long as you can. No wild scare stories; no Lego; no simpering housewives telling people to eat their cereal. No John Barrowman. Joe Pike’s Project Fear should be handed to every pro-EU politician, adviser and spin doctor as a cautionary tale.

The EUref is not a straightforward rerun of the indyref but these and other lessons are on hand should the Remain campaign wish to learn them. If they don’t, they might be in for more polls like this one.

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

James Kelly should show more respect to presiding officer

‘Members shall at all times conduct themselves in an orderly manner.’

That’s what the standing orders of the Scottish Parliament say. The standing orders are Holyrood’s rulebook, intended to ensure the smooth running of parliamentary business.

Scottish Labour MSP James Kelly fell foul of this instruction on Tuesday afternoon when he became confrontational with presiding officer Tricia Marwick.

The Rutherglen MSP raised a point of order on a ruling made by Marwick last week. Faced with an attempt to block the UK Government’s trade union bill, which the SNP and Labour oppose, Marwick determined that the “legislative consent” of Holyrood was not required since industrial relations is a reserved matter.

Her ruling did not go down well with the Nats or Labour and it wasn’t surprising when the issue came up in the chamber today. However, the way Kelly went about it turned a normally dry procedural question into a political row. Although the rules allow MSPs three minutes to make a point of order, Kelly began with a long preamble that failed to state where the standing orders or legislation had been misapplied.

Marwick pressed him four times to get to his point of order and Kelly shot back that he couldn’t because “you keep interrupting me”. His tone would charitably be described as terse and an obviously displeased Marwick told him to resume his seat. Kelly refused to comply despite the presiding officer reiterating her instruction a further four times, on each occasion prefacing her enjoinment with a courteous “please”. “I will not sit down. I want to make a point of order,” he insisted, before adding: “I want to make a point of order and I was not allowed to make the point of order because you kept interrupting me.”

Marwick asked twice for the Labour MSP to respect the authority of the chair and reminded him of the sanctions available to her should he continue to behave in a disorderly manner. Still he tried to speak over her and in the end Marwick ordered him out and asked security to show him the way.

Scottish Labour is capitalising on the brouhaha with the hashtag #FreeJamesKelly. Fair play to them; their opportunities for good press are few and far between these days.

There will be mutterings too about a presiding officer with a Nationalist background throwing out a Labour MSP. Opposition parties are increasingly unsettled by the dominance of the SNP and the lack of democratic infrastructure to hold the executive to account. Those are concerns which many will share, regardless of political inclination, but they are not at issue here. Marwick has been the very soul of neutrality, her rebukes from the chair directed as firmly at noisy Nats as recalcitrant opposition backbenchers. (Remember this to-do only came about after she ruled against her old party on procedural grounds.)

And any fair-minded reading of the rules suggests she’s in the right. A point of order is not a speech or an excuse for a good moan; it is an instrument to flag up possible breaches of parliamentary rules. Beyond this, the functioning of parliament depends on respect for the presiding officer, even when members bitterly disagree with a decision.

Rule 7.3 is clear: MSPs must “at all times conduct themselves in a courteous and respectful manner and shall respect the authority of the presiding officer”. The standing orders explicitly warn members not to “speak or stand when the presiding officer is speaking”. And if MSPs refuse to take a telling, the rulebook empowers the chair to boot them out “for such period as the presiding officer thinks fit but not beyond the end of the next sitting day”.

This is broadly similar to how discipline functions at Westminster. Standing order 43 of the House of Commons allows the Speaker to “name” disruptive members, whereupon MPs vote to exclude them from “the precincts of the House” for a defined period (five sitting days for a first offence, 20 the second time). That power was invoked notoriously in 1881 to eject Irish nationalist parliamentarians en masse, led by Charles Stewart Parnell.

In modern times, speakers have shown greater reluctance to use their disciplinary powers, relying on the compliance of members. An exception was Bernard Weatherill, a martinet for parliamentary procedure who named fractious Scottish Labour MP Tam Dalyell on four separate occasions. Other parliaments that have adapted the Westminster system maintain similar tools for keeping badly behaved politicians in line. Bronwyn Bishop, former speaker of the Australian House of Representatives, ejected 18 opposition MPs in one hour during a particularly rowdy question time last year.

Holyrood’s rule 7.3 has been drawn upon sparingly by presiding officers and it is difficult to argue that Marwick has deviated from that tradition. No matter your opinion on her Sewel ruling, her management of today’s argy-bargy showed patience and restraint.

The trade union bill is the subject of intense debate and disagreement. For a socialist and trade unionist like Kelly, it understandably stirs sincere anger. The cynic in me recalls too that Scottish Labour MSPs are vying for places on the regional lists and a highly-publicised dust-up over the trade union bill would go down well with the party’s newly Corbynised selectorate. But Tricia Marwick is not proposing to strip a single shop steward of a single protection or entitlement. Right sentiment, wrong target.

Whatever the motivation, whether it was desperate plea or canny stunt, Kelly has been banned from the chamber for the remainder of Tuesday’s business and Wednesday’s to boot. It’s the Scottish budget tomorrow. Let’s hope the good people of Rutherglen were not hoping to see their MSP hold finance secretary John Swinney to account for his economic policies. They’ll have to settle for a press release instead.

Chairing the Scottish Parliament – any parliament – is a thankless task. “Presiding Officer Runs Parliamentary Business To Schedule Again” isn’t the stuff of headlines. Slip up, mind, and you’ll be the first segment on Scotland Tonight. Tricia Marwick, who is standing down in May, has served the parliament with integrity and dedication. It’s not too much to ask that MSPs show her some respect in return.

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

Scotland has lost a great writer with the passing of Ian Bell

When I learned of Ian Bell’s death, just past midnight, I was in the middle of writing an obituary.

It’s something I do when I can’t sleep. Ghoulish perhaps but in journalism you have to think ahead.

My tribute was to a much older man. Ian Bell was just 59. It is no age to die, at least outside the developing world or Scotland. Mortality is a stalker that pursues our people more lustily than any other in Europe.

Great writers cannot be memorialised; their words speak for themselves. We can offer only pale shadows. But if anyone deserves the attempt, it is Ian Bell. The rest of us were always loitering in his shadow anyway; why should death alter the matter.

His taking is no simple fluke of blood and muscle, no mere testament to social ills and bastard inequality. It feels like an attack upon the national psyche. How else to describe the snatching away so soon of our most eloquent writer, a few days after the removal of William McIlvanney, our most powerful writer. There is only so much loss a country can take.

Bell will be remembered by his colleagues as an adept editor and principled journalist, whose career spanned the Herald, Sunday Herald, Scotsman and Daily Record. To his readers, and I have been one for the past ten years, he was more than professional ethics and commas in the right place. The Edinburgh-born scribe was a contemporary historian of Scotland, a vivid chronicler of the ups and downs of national life. He was Scotland’s other makar, on a tighter deadline.

Bell wrote with left-wing fury, a secular fire and brimstone that tolerated no tabloid deviance, forgave no free-market peccadillos. Never has a sceptic been so certain of so much. That could be grating on some and made his Herald column and his page in the Sunday Herald love-it-or-loathe-it fare. Not me. Whether I raged with him or railed against him – more of the latter than the former as the years went by – he was always a joy to echo and a pleasure to disagree with.

His analysis seldom touched on tactics or the clever-clevers in the backroom. Ideas animated his writing, not limp “issues”. He was ferocious in his left-nationalism – and, yes, sometimes shrill – but it was never a programmatic dogma. Politics was about people and Bell was fluent in the human condition.

And he was perceptive. It was Bell who predicted early on that the SNP would win the 2007 Holyrood election. The duller of mind mocked him but he was vindicated. Before any other mainstream commentator he saw trouble ahead for the BBC’s coverage of the referendum. Little wonder he was named Journalist of the Year and Columnist of the Year several times, picking up the prestigious Orwell Prize along the way.

One column has stayed with me; not his best but one of his truest. In the course of this essay on education, he confessed that no one – not a single employer – had ever asked to see evidence of his MA. Reading this as an undergraduate at Glasgow University was a disheartening experience, to say the least, but truth was deep in it: Education is so much more than a scrap of paper.

He joined Twitter in 2013 but never seemed to take to it, even though it was an ideal forum for his steel toecap elegance. His final tweet read: “Quiz: If Carmichael now claims to have been a helpless victim, is the lie a) political; b) personal; c) none of your business, oik?”

The referendum occupied many of his column inches as he threw himself into the national cause. No smelling salts routine with him: He was a nationalist, a real one. Independence for Scotland, troops out, free Palestine. For him, the right to self-determination didn’t begin and end in our wee bit hill and glen. It was a nationalism that could hold its head high in the world.

The result last September was a delay not a defeat, as he mused a year ago:

McIlvanney was the one who called us feart in 79, after all, and he wasn’t wrong. But in 2014, the fear fell away. I’ll remember that. They brought up every pop-gun in the armoury and people far younger than I found all their threats comical. Scotland woke up. Its young men and women turned the lead of the usual political crap into gold. They didn’t get an answer worth the name from the decayed hulks of old political traditions, but they kept on asking their questions. They exposed the rot. Things are set fair, I think, for a wee country.

Bell has not lived to see that wee country take its place in the world but he would have drawn satisfaction from knowing it was only a matter of time.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Antonio Litterio by Creative Commons 3.0.

Alistair Carmichael should do the decent thing and resign

It might be the only interesting thing ever to come out of the Scotland Office.

The memo leaked by former Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael through his special adviser in April was dynamite.

The notes on a conversation between SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and French ambassador Sylvie Bermann recorded an admission from the First Minister that she would prefer David Cameron to remain in Downing Street after May’s election. Carmichael, quizzed on Channel 4 News, said it was nowt to do with him, guv’nor.

The problem? Ms Sturgeon said it wasn’t true. The French consul general said it wasn’t true. And eventually Carmichael said it wasn’t true, thus bringing to an abrupt end one of the least promising careers in political leaking.

There being little else to do in Orkney and Shetland, his constituents petitioned the Court of Session to have Carmichael’s election invalidated under the Representation of the People Act 1983. The proceedings were broadcast and streamed live by STV in a UK television first.

Presiding in the case, Lady Paton and Lord Matthews found that the MP had told “a blatant but simple lie” but said it was not clear “beyond reasonable doubt” that he had provided “a false statement about himself to the effect that he was someone who was upright, honourable, trustworthy, and straightforward, and therefore would not be involved in the leak”. His statement to Channel 4 could be construed as either “a general one in relation to his personal character or conduct” or “more specific and limited to a false statement that he was not involved in that particular leak”. Even if the less onerous civil standard of a preponderance of the evidence were applied, it still would not have been enough to prove a section 106 infraction.

That all sounds mightily technical but it means that Carmichael is in the clear, something that does not sit well with his political opponents.

For the Napoleonic wing of the SNP, Carmichael’s head was another prize in their quest for total dominance of Scottish political life. He had offended against the Holy Mother, St Nicola of the Immaculate Separation, and had to be cast into the fire. Fifty-seven MPs also has a sweeter taste than 56 (though now it would only have taken them to a more savoury 55).

Watching the cybernat meltdown and tremble-lipped indictments of establishment stitch-up is of course very entertaining. (That Lord Matthews is a former SNP activist is a mere factual inconvenience.) And yes, some of those baying for his blood are unpleasant sorts.

But that does not occlude one basic fact: Carmichael is a liar. A “blatant” liar.

We all are, of course. I’m not actually 6ft 2in and I didn’t model for Armani in Milan this summer so much as buy a shirt from them in an Amazon sale. My Grindr profile pic that looks suspiciously like Josh Hartnett? Yeah, Pearl Harbour screen grab.

Politicians mislead the public all the time, sometimes for their own good, sometimes for base and self-serving reasons. Dare I say Ms Sturgeon will have told a porkie or two in her time; I’ll let readers decide how to characterise her blood-curdling claims of a privatised NHS if Scotland voted No to independence.

Carmichael’s conduct was egregious. He had “full responsibility” for the dissemination of a civil service memo outlining a conversation between a minister of the Crown and a foreign dignitary. By his own admission, this “was a serious breach of protocol” and “the details of the account [were] not correct”. The document was given to the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper hostile to the Nationalists and which went big on the story.

The revelation was potentially devastating to the SNP’s electoral chances, for Scottish Labour’s campaign strategy was based on the message that a strong showing for the Nationalists would assist David Cameron to remain in Number 10. (This is the only part of the whole saga with any definite truth to it.) Had it proved to be true, it might have been Scottish Labour sitting with fifty-odd MPs right now and Jim Murphy poised to sweep into Bute House next May. (Leave me my dreams, okay.)

The lying didn’t stop there. Carmichael lied to Channel 4 News, telling them the first he had heard of the memorandum was when a journalist contacted him. He later admitted that, had he still been a minister, these actions would have warranted his resignation.

To this layman, Lady Paton and Lord Matthews have put a reasonable and fair-minded construction on the relevant Act. Their interpretation of Carmichael’s Channel 4 comments as a lie but not one directly related to his “personal character or conduct” strikes me as sensible. The law cannot be bent to every whim of the most excitable Nationalists, otherwise a great many people would have been forcibly relocated to England by now and those who hadn’t would be languishing in Barlinnie on treason charges.

The legal questions may have been resolved but this is about politics now and the politics stink. In lying to Channel 4 News, Carmichael lied to his constituents, the general public, and journalists. How are the voters of Orkney and Shetland supposed to have confidence in their MP? How are reporters supposed to take him at his word? Yes, politicians often spin you a line and a canny hack takes it all with a pinch of salt; with Carmichael, we’re going to need a Saxa factory from now on.

As for the public… you tell me. The next time he pops up on the Scotland Tonight sofa, will you be pondering the important policy issues he is discussing or will the Louis Heren question be running through your mind: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”

Politicians so rarely stand down of their own volition. The honourable exception was John Profumo, the Tory Cabinet minister who resigned after misleading Parliament about his affair with Christine Keeler and dedicated the remainder of his life to good works. If Carmichael were truly contrite, he would take a leaf out of Profumo’s book. If he really cared about his party and its chances of retaining Orkney and Shetland, he would make way for a fresh face who could rebuild trust between the Liberal Democrats and the local communities. If he genuinely had the best interests of his constituents at heart, he would recognise that, while he may not have broken the law, he has broken faith with the people he was elected to serve and no court can absolve him of that.

The alternative is keeping his head down and hoping everyone forgives and forgets. But he has been shown to be a liar, and an incompetent one at that. He has to rebuild his reputation with that hanging over his head, not to mention a hostile public, a much-diminished party support network, and the obscurity of the Shankill-or-Short-Strand benches in the Commons.

That is quite an ask. Even Rona can’t help him now.

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

Don’t judge The 56 by the worst of their number

You wait years for an SNP scandal and three come along at once.

First it was Michelle Thomson, she of the totally-not-an-SNP-front Business for Scotland who stood for the Nationalists in Edinburgh West in May. Barely had she planted bum on green leather before the boys in blue started looking into a series of property deals cut by solicitor Christopher Hales. Although there is no suggestion Thomson is being investigated by police she “withdrew” from the SNP whip pending the outcome of enquiries. She denies all wrongdoing.

Then Natalie McGarry, a scowl with parliamentary privilege, found herself at the centre of a Police Scotland probe over alleged discrepancies in the finances of the Women for Independence group. McGarry too has been deprived of the whip until investigators clear up the matter. She denies all wrongdoing.

Now Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill MP Philip Boswell is accused of tax avoidance. The Mail on Sunday claims he benefitted from an £18,000 loan that minimised his HMRC bill. Such a scheme would be entirely legal and he contends a common practice in the industry where he worked. However, it somewhat flies in the face of Boswell’s public condemnation of tax avoidance. He too denies all wrongdoing.

Some Twitter users put “all views my own” on their profile. Maybe SNP MPs should stick “denies all wrongdoing” on theirs just to be on the safe side.

The 56 has become 54, though don’t expect Boswell’s alleged dodge to take the number down to 53. Nicola Sturgeon thinks tax avoidance is “obscene and immoral and downright wrong” but not when there’s an election six months away.

If nothing else We Are The 56, a collection of SNP MP profiles by Josh Bircham and Grant Costello, will prove useful to journalists for the next scandal. When the slim volume arrived on my desk last week, my first thought was that the authors had missed a trick in not presenting the “56” on the front cover in the form of an adjustable countdown. Bircham and Costello are Nat whippersnappers and We Are The 56 predictably reads like a hagiography of the 54(+2), the new priest class of the SNP. It is the ideal stocking-stuffer for the cybernat in your life but also a marker of the historic upset of May 2015.

The reverberations of that result still tremor and the loss of political heavyweights like Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling is keenly felt. There are no elder statesmen in Scotland’s delegation to Westminster. Missing too are seasoned political battlers Tom Harris and Margaret Curran and rising stars Gemma Doyle and Gregg McClymont. But if we’re honest, the great yellow landslide was a long-overdue clear-out of dullards, timeservers, and superannuated mediocrities. There was more than one ousted comrade whose number I was happy to delete from my phone on May 8.

The new intake have attracted ridicule as chip-chomping oiks from some newspapers and drawn the simpering supplications of the candle-clutchers who now form part of the SNP coalition. Haters gonna hate and cultists gonna cult but the vast majority in the middle were happy to give them a fair go. Now I detect a slight adjustment in the mood; a sourness has begun to creep into the way we talk about the Nationalists. “I can’t wait till their first expenses claims are out,” a not terribly political friend trilled over the weekend.

In part this is to be expected after the publicity surrounding Thomson and McGarry but there is also an instinctive mistrust of politicians’ motives, the pungent cry of “they’re all in it for themselves”. That jaundiced attitude has been put on hold in Scotland amid unprecedented levels of public enthusiasm for Nicola Sturgeon and her party but complacency is the opium of the foolish.

It would be a pity if voters became lazily contemptuous of their new representatives. It’s true the group has its fair share of careerists and toadies, just like its Labour predecessor. Parties in the ascendant attract all sorts and it’s fair to say there are more zoomers in the Nat ranks. Paul Monaghan, MP for Caithness, Sutherland, Easter Ross and the comment threads on Derek Bateman blogs, is one of the more colourful honourable members. (I used to be sceptical of the SNP’s state guardian scheme; now I think it should be piloted on a number of their MPs.)

But if you are seeking more than good copy, you will find amongst the lobby fodder men and women of ability. There are the stars, of course. Mhairi Black and Tommy Sheppard have deservedly attracted plaudits and promise significant parliamentary careers. Just outside the limelight are the likes of Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central), who first spotted the grim consequences of the UK Government’s plan to limit child tax credits to two children, and Hannah Bardell (Livingston), a first-rate communicator and down to earth with it.

Consider too Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute), the party’s defence spokesman. His parliamentary style can be a high-wire act and not everyone has taken to it but I find it refreshingly blunt. The SNP needs to convince people it is not a daisy-chained Woodstock reunion but a hard-headed party of national security. O’Hara is equal to that daunting task.

Joanna Cherry QC (Edinburgh South West) has proved a doughty opponent of the Tory government’s efforts to scrap the Human Rights Act and Stephen Gethins (North East Fife) is already demonstrating how to make a grown-up case for Britain’s place in the European Union. Glasgow South’s Stewart McDonald has more political nous than any 29-year-old ought to and has shown himself willing to challenge grassroots activists and even his own colleagues. (And not to demolish his Nat street cred completely but he is the SNP MP journalists and even Labour folk most consistently describe as impressive.)

And then there’s Callum McCaig (Aberdeen South). Swoon. I would note my approval that the Scottish MP group still contains some eye-candy post-Hunky Jim but the poor lad has to deal with Aberdeen City Council every day. He’s suffered enough.

Whatever the outcome of police investigations into Michelle Thomson and Natalie McGarry, whatever the low calibre of some of their colleagues, these and other Nationalist MPs put paid to the nonsense about claymore-wielding Bravehearts giving us a right showing up in the House of Commons. There are 400 miles between Scotland and Westminster; that is distance enough without allowing cynicism to widen the gulf. Nor should the fandom they enjoy from the paranoid sociopaths of Cybernatland define them. The 45 endorse the The 56 but not necessarily the other way round. (I am as guilty of that mistake as anyone else and maybe more so.)

Allowing the MPs to speak for themselves, as Bircham and Costello do, lets us see what they are really like. And in many cases that is talented and conscientious politicians caught between their supporters’ sky-high expectations and the essential impotence of a third party in the Westminster system but trying all the same. That’s not terribly revolutionary but it is reassuring.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Speed Property Buyers by Creative Commons 2.0.

The Oldham by-election result is a disaster for Labour

There was a glimmer of hope for the Labour Party this week.

Hilary Benn captivated the House of Commons with an impassioned proclamation that democratic socialism still lives.

Closing the debate on Syria, the Leeds Central MP called on his comrades to stand against Islamist terrorism, a monstrous and fascistic conspiracy against liberal democracy.

It was rousing stuff, like a few verses of the Bandiera Rossa down the pub after a good demo. But the speech was given in defiance of the Labour leader, who does not support extending military action against the Islamic State. Denouncing totalitarianism and asserting Britain’s right to self-defence are now rebellious positions in the Labour Party.

Would Benn’s peroration inspire Labour moderates to fight, fight and fight again to save the party they love?

Hope faded quickly as the polls closed in Oldham West and Royton. The Labour by-election victory is being spun by Corbynites as a vindication of the rabbit hole their leader is leading the party down. In fact, Jim McMahon was the moderate candidate who saw off a Corbynite challenger but facts scarcely matter anymore. Like Fox Mulder and Scottish Nationalists, Corbynites want to believe.

Far from a victory, the outcome in Oldham is a disaster for Labour. Defeat to Ukip could have spurred a mainstream revolt against Corbyn. There may be further opportunities but the longer he stays in the job, the longer he’ll stay in the job. If that sees him lead Labour into 2020, it could be the last election the party contests as a credible alternative government.

That Corbyn’s removal is essential should now be beyond doubt. The Tories, incumbents for five and a half years, are 11 points ahead of Labour in the latest YouGov poll. On handling of the economy, the Conservatives enjoy a 17-point lead over the opposition. Jeremy Corbyn’s net approval rating has plummeted to minus-41. If a general election was held tomorrow, Labour would face not just defeat but devastation.

The public’s hostility to a Marxist ideologue who yearns for a command economy, nationalisation, and unilateral nuclear disarmament has come as a shock to Corbyn’s groupies. Britain, they are beginning to realise, is not a land of mad old Trots and sullen sociology undergrads.

Economics is largely incidental. In a dangerous world, voters want a prime minister who can keep them safe but Corbyn offers them nothing. His foreign policy analysis is scribbled in pencil in the margins of Chomsky, a predictable melange of apology, isolationism and anti-Western sentiment. He is uncomfortable with a shoot-to-kill policy. (If I spent as much time hanging around terrorists as he does, I would be too.) But his position on the Islamic State is something of a different order.

The Labour leader and 152 of his comrades walked through the division lobby with nationalists to vote against solidarity with the Socialist government of France. There are legitimate reasons to oppose the strikes against ISIS — not least because they are recklessly inadequate — but for Labour to abandon its sisters and brothers in the Socialist International is extraordinary. Scottish Nationalists need not concern themselves with the troubles of foreigners; the Greens are hardly the go-to people for sound defence policy. But Labour is an internationalist party, “committed to the defence and security of the British people and to co-operating in European institutions, the United Nations, the Commonwealth and other international bodies”.

Labour ends this week a little less Labour than it started it.

Those MPs who backed air strikes could find themselves out of a job. Corbynites are preparing to deselect moderate MP Stella Creasy, the New Statesman reports. On Tuesday night, a far-left mob assembled outside her constituency office in Walthamstow ostensibly to protest ahead of the Syria vote. Creasy, in case you have forgotten, was three months ago a contender for the deputy leadership of her party, coming second behind Tom Watson. Now, she is an apostate in need of purging.

Purging isn’t an altogether bad idea but it is not the likes of Stella Creasy who have to be cleared out. Of course Corbyn has to be shunted sooner than later but the timing matters less than the scope of the operation. He must go, his allies must go, his NEC must go, and many of those who elected him leader must go. Labour cannot prosper in a post-Corbyn era if the party remains dominated by the reactionary left.

The reactionary left are easy to spot. They still think the miners were right and privatisation was wrong; that Tony Benn should have been prime minister and Tony Blair should be in the Hague; that the BBC is a Tory echo chamber and the British public gullible fools. Their worldview is gleaned from Michael Moore movies and their economic theory that of a child composing his list to Father Christmas.

No reform will appease them, no redistribution will ever be enough. They are the simple and the aggrieved, the embittered and the angry. A democratic underclass that shuns the complexities of the world and the nuances of policy.

When I talk to sensible Labour people, they despair but assure me things will be better when Corbyn is replaced by Dan Jarvis or Yvette Cooper or Chuka Umunna. I don’t have the heart to tell them they’re wrong. If Jeremy Corbyn were deposed tomorrow and a mainstream leader elected in his place, politics would not return to Year Zero. Labour would spend years trying to win back voters repelled by their extremism as the new leader embarked on the long, painful process of dropping every single Corbynite policy.

If they are to defeat Corbyn and Corbynism, Labour centrists have to devise an “ism” of their own. Most are coruscating critics of the current leadership but fail to articulate a compelling vision for a moderate social democratic future in a dynamic economy. It’s not enough to have a plan to remove Corbyn, they have to replace him too.

In saving Corbyn, the Oldham result imperils Labour. Corbynism cannot be allowed to stand. If it does, Labour will fall.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Global Justice Now by Creative Commons 2.0.