Syria, solidarity, and virtue signalling from 40,000ft

It turns out we stand with France after all.

By 397 votes to 223, MPs gave their backing to the Prime Minister’s motion for air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria.

The decision came at 10.30pm on Wednesday after a marathon debate in the House of Commons. Speeches were measured, angry, passionate, clinical, accusatory and resolute – some all at once. Harsh words were uttered, some of which might be regretted in the morning, but that is to be expected when a matter as fundamental as war and peace is at stake.

At least, MPs thought it was a question of war and peace. It was really a choice between messy mini-war and the peace of the ostrich. The action proposed by David Cameron is a modest extension of current operations over Iraq, little more than virtue signalling from 40,000ft. The 70,000 “moderate” fighters touted by the Prime Minister, if they exist and in such numbers, would still not be equal to the mission at hand.

There are virtue signallers aplenty on the other side too who want us to know how moral they are. Women are being sold into sexual slavery and gays flung from rooftops but at least their consciences are clear. You have to peer through the looking glass to glimpse their ethical high ground.

Cameron was partially honest about the limitations of his proposals:

I am not pretending that the answers are simple. The situation in Syria is incredibly complex. I am not overstating the contribution our incredible servicemen and women can make; nor am I ignoring the risks of military action or pretending that military action is any more than one part of the answer.

I am absolutely clear that we must pursue a comprehensive strategy that also includes political, diplomatic and humanitarian action, and I know that the long-term solution in Syria – as in Iraq – must ultimately be a government that represents all of its people and one that can work with us to defeat the evil organisation of ISIL for good.

The Prime Minister’s speech was solid if plodding and overshadowed by what was, depending on your take, a shameful smear, a truthful gaffe or a bit of ruthless strategising.

There was outrage, much of it confected but some genuine, over private comments he made to Tory MPs on Tuesday night. Cameron reportedly urged wavering backbenchers not to walk through the No lobby with “Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers”.

The PM’s remarks struck this observer as a fairly clear reference to Corbyn’s associations with Hamas and Hezbollah, from which he has not resiled, and John McDonnell’s praise for the IRA’s “bombs and bullets”, for which a plainly disingenuousapology has been hawked. (He may have had in mind too Andy Slaughter, shadow minister for human rights, who accompanied Corbyn to a 2010 meeting with Hamas representatives.)

The theatrically offended cried “McCarthyism” and it was: Shameless demagoguery with a small, uncrackable kernel of truth.

I will not dwell on Jeremy Corbyn’s effort in response to the Prime Minister; even I take pity on the man now. The speech of the night, perhaps of the year, was given by Hilary Benn.

He brought the Commons to applause with this:

What we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. It is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists, trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It is why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. My view is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria.

A stirring cry for internationalism and a reminder why, for all its manifold idiocies, Britain needs a Labour Party. A correction, however: The entire House did not stand up against Hitler and Mussolini. There were appeasers and isolationists back then.

Benn’s defence of solidarity in the face of barbarous fascism was surely instrumental in convincing some of the 66 Labour MPs who defied Jeremy Corbyn and his heavies to vote in support of the government’s motion. The Prime Minister’s air strikes may not be enough but they are a start in any campaign to destroy ISIS.

The far-left, which has near-total control of the Labour Party, does not see the world this way. The motor engine of all conflict in their eyes is the injustices perpetrated by the West. Even as medieval totalitarians apportion death to innocent civilians, we are to blame. We had it coming. We brought it on ourselves. Keep our heads down and don’t upset them. Thus is logic tortured and self-defeat trumpeted. Solidarity with France? Warmonger! Standing up for women and girls and gays and minorities? Imperialist! Protecting our streets from carnage? Blair! Iraq! Dodgy dossier!

This is not socialism, it is surrender. French concert-goers are not being AK-47ed because the Americans ousted Saddam or because Jews can now climb beyond the seventh step to Me’arat ha-Machpela. The Islamic State seeks a global caliphate in which infidels must convert to their pseudo-Quranic ideology or die. The US Air Force could bomb Tel Aviv and Western leaders withdraw every last soldier from the Middle East. It would neither deter nor provoke ISIS. They don’t care what we do. They want us dead.

Scotland’s MPs were evenly divided on the question. David Mundell and Alistair Carmichael supported air strikes while Ian Murray and Nicola Sturgeon opposed.

The Nationalists have not covered themselves in glory in recent days. Their celebrity former leader and nominal foreign affairs spokesman Alex Salmond skipped the Prime Minister’s statement on Syria last Thursday and unveiled a portrait of himself in Edinburgh. Given his indication that an independent Scotland would have contemplated strikes against Assad, his opposition to the government motion smacked of opportunism. No doubt he considers it unpardonable folly that a majority of MPs did not heed his geopolitical wisdom.

Salmond’s contribution was loud but shallow and lacked the sharp and agile approach taken by Angus Robertson, leader of the Westminster SNP. Until Hilary Benn spoke, it was the most powerful speech of the day. He was particularly strong on the dubiety of claims about 70,000 “moderate” militiamen and on the lack of post-bombing reconstruction plans. Had the SNP engaged constructively with the government, it might have had the opportunity to influence the latter point. Had the government approached the debate with more humility, it might have had compelling answers to both points. No one on the opposition benches put ministers under more pressure than the Moray MP, all the while reassuring “our armed forces that, regardless of the differences in this place, we wish for their safety and we appreciate their professionalism”.

Nevertheless, I confess to disappointment. I had a dog in this fight. This was an opportunity for the Nats to prove they are more than the party of grievance. Nicola Sturgeon is fond of saying that Scotland should be independent because we’re just as good as every other country. Syrians are just as good as us, their entitlement to freedom from theocratic fascists no lesser than our right to vary our income tax rates.

The SNP is adept at putting a kilt on conservatism and calling it social democracy. However sincerely MPs might oppose war, their party’s stance will appeal to every hard-hearted Little Scotlander crowing “not in my name”. Not in my name: Never has a statement of insular reaction so audaciously posed as the voice of progressive conscience.

Perhaps I am being unjust in suggesting Nationalist MPs are one indistinct monolith, a dutiful instrument of the First Minister. One of the 54 tweeted after the vote: “I voted against UK air strikes. Hugely disappointed that the opposing view has won the day.” Another quipped: “Labour, Conservatives and LibDems #BombingTogether.” There couldn’t be a starker contrast between everything that is good and conscientious about the SNP and everything that is snide and intolerant.

All this for token air strikes. Imagine how ugly things will get when the Commons has to decide on real action.

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

Some St Andrew’s Day thoughts on Scotland and Scottishness

“St Andy’s Day.”

The tabloids and the First Minister have rechristened the national feast day in honour of Andy Murray.

The tennis powerhouse clinched the Davis Cup for Great Britain at Flanders Expo on Sunday. It marks the first title win for the national team since 1936 and the 28-year-old was understandably elated, posing for pictures with his teammates draped in the Union Jack.

Viewers in England might not have picked up on the significance, unattuned as many will be to the grammar of nationalism.

Murray was an eleventh-hour convert to the independence cause, announcing his Yes endorsement in the hours before the polls opened. And yet here he was swaddled in the emblem of what Scottish nationalists hate most, the standard some still refer to as the “Butcher’s Apron” and many more react to like Dracula confronted with a crucifix.

Born in Glasgow, based in London; a separatist who plays for Team GB — Andy Murray is one of five million contradictions in a nation caught between 300 years of history and an uncertain future. The sight of him attired in red, white and blue got me to thinking about patriotism and identity in Scotland today. As we mark St Andy’s Day, what does it mean to be Scottish?

A journalist up recently from London enquired, within a minute of meeting, “What’s with all the flags everywhere?” Honestly, I had stopped noticing. There are more flags in Scotland now and many more flag-wavers. Not simply at tennis finals and football matches or lining the streets at regal parades, fluttering their Hello! magazine deference as the old dear is whisked past. The Saltire is ubiquitous on buildings, cars, houses, signs and pretty much anything that can support a nail.

The proliferation of flags is one of the more overt testaments to a changing Scotland. This reassertion of national identity differs from previous efforts because it is allied to political nationalism, and a staggeringly successful nationalism at that. Before it was a teary-eyed spin of the Corries then back to “aye been”; now, there is an infrastructure that nurtures sentiment into politics. Patriotism doesn’t stop at 90 minutes anymore.

Given the option in the 2011 census, 62% of respondents defined themselves as “Scottish only” while 18% considered themselves “Scottish and British”. No wonder. Our British identity died of shame, embarrassed by post-imperial pomp and recast as Anglo-Jockery by cultural and civic society. When politicians, broadcasters and the great and the good spend half a century addressing you as Scottish and Scottish alone, you will come to think in those terms.

David Cameron may be perfectly sincere when he says, “Scotland is a constant source of pride and passion. It helps us put the ‘Great’ into Great Britain.” He will struggle to get a hearing because more and more we think of Britain as a foreign land. Who wants to be the adjective to someone else’s country?

The Scottish nationalists have been saying this for a long time. The remnants of Britishness confound many of them, which is why they have not come to terms with the referendum result. “How could anyone vote against their own country,” they enjoin, genuinely perplexed. Theirs is a straightforward patriotism, like the jealous love of a child for a parent. Tell them Mummy is a good person but has her flaws and they’ll kick you in the shin.

Am I proud to be Scottish? I’m proud of a professional achievement, a relationship worked at, a rare column in which I wouldn’t change a word. Of some hills and lochs and a gory past? No, I can’t be proud of that.

Am I even Scottish? An Israeli friend tells me I’m the most Scottish person he has ever met, which suggests he hasn’t met many Scottish people. I was born here and have remained my 29 years but I struggle to pinpoint my national identity. The Saltire does not stir my heart and the skirl of bagpipes makes for more irritation than inspiration. A thistle is just a weed to my eye and Bannockburn and Stirling Bridge a few sentences in world history.

I like nations with ideas behind them. America: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Israel: Lihyot am chofshi be-artzeinu. One of my political heroes, Paul Keating, was a borderline nationalist as prime minister, though he would probably spurn the term. That Australia should dethrone the Queen and have its own flag is obvious. Its future lies in Asia, the new New World, not in harking back to the old country.

Scottish nationalism leaves me cold because there is no philosophy to it. It is about being Scottish — or more accurately Not British — and nothing else. There is no ambition for us or our place in the world, just a transfer of assets and brass plaques. The SNP are conservative revolutionaries, out not to smash the status quo but to maintain it on a smaller scale. (Campaign rhetoric about making Scotland a social democratic nirvana is barely a notion, let alone an idea. It has been debunked by one of its originators. Those who still promote it are frauds; those who still believe it, fanatics.)

Our moral superiority is off-putting too. We are no better or kinder or more caring than folk down south. Compassion does not stop at the Tweed. For all our cant, people in Livingston do not act, think or live much differently from people in Leicester. St Andrew, remember, is also the patron saint of Russia, Romania, Greece and Barbados.

Scotland is a small country, not special or essential. If we vanished from the map tomorrow, warm eulogies would be given for our Enlightenment and inventors and the cute tartanry but the world would keep turning. Nations divide into three categories: The makers of history, the losers, and those who just mosey on along. Since the decline of the Empire, when history’s losers got their revenge, Scots — captains of the imperial project, however much we like to deny it — have been mostly moseying. Exceptionalism is for the exceptional.

But if we are not a great nation, I like to think we are a good one. Not uniquely so but in our own distinctive way.

So what is Scottishness?

Scottishness is the £3m raised for the STV Appeal, much of it from people who have very little themselves. It is Syrian refugees confronting the concept of a Mars Bar fried in batter. It is Gordon Aikman and £400,000 for his fightback against motor neurone disease. The Scottish nationalists who tried to crowdfund £500 to pay the court fine of a hungry Midlands woman who shoplifted sweets — and ended up cutting £16,000 worth of cheques to good causes. That’s Scottishness too.

Scottishness is a nation’s breath held for St Andy and hoarse throats around the office the next day. It’s JK Rowling, the world’s most successful author, who chose to be Scottish; Scottishness is not about heritage but where you call home. It is walking through the Edinburgh of Rebus and Renton but catching in the wind the elect sermons of Robert Wringhim and their none-too-distant echo in Jean Brodie. Scottishness is getting behind every rubbish act on the X-Factor because their granny once had a fish supper in Portobello.

It’s being canny with people and careful with money. It’s a healthy scepticism towards authority — “aye right” is the most Scottish locution ever — and having more time for the street sweeper than the high heid yins. It’s greetin’ at Caledonia, greetin’ at football, greetin’ at Hogmanay, greetin’ at pretty much anything. It’s knowing that whit’s fur ye’ll no’ go by ye but getting stuck in all the same. It is broad and open and welcoming, not small or petty or mean.

That is my Scottishness, my source of pride and passion on St Andy’s day and every other day.

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

George Osborne is all clichés and crossed fingers

Did you force the Chancellor to U-turn on cuts to tax credits?

If not, you evidently didn’t try hard enough.

Among those who have claimed credit so far are Corbynites, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru.

Don’t buy the spin. The credit goes to the House of Lords, Conservative backbenchers, the Sun, and the sensible wing of the Labour Party. The government has a majority in the Commons and could have pushed through the changes if it wanted. What scuppered the plans was the bolshiness of the upper chamber, unease on the government backbenches, as voiced by Heidi Allen, and a thundering Sun leader that branded Osborne’s move “bonkers”.

The Chancellor could have taken on one of these adversaries and eked a victory if enough moderate Labour MPs got on board. While the hard-left screamed, Labour centrists presented sensible and nuanced cases against the reforms and made clear that Osborne would find no refuge in them.

Of course, that’s the politics. The real winners of the Chancellor’s U-turn are the three million families forecast to be £1000 per year worse off under the cuts. However sincere its intentions, this government all too often sounds callous and mean-spirited towards people who are doing it tough. Osborne, who is biding his time until David Cameron vacates Number 10, might want to reflect on the lessons of this episode. Taking the working poor and giving them a right good shoeing – either to save a few quid or pour encourager les autres – is something you can get away with when there’s effectively no opposition. Another clanger like this and the voters will not be quite so forgiving.

The Chancellor executed a second U-turn in arresting his proposed cuts to the police. In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks and with Britain on high alert, to press ahead would have been politically unpalatable and even perilous to national security. Besides, the Tories can’t very well taunt Labour over its shadow chancellor’s support for disarming the police if the government is financially immobilising the boys and girls in blue.

Much backslapping will be taking place in the bars of Westminster this evening over the delivery of a populist, crowd-pleasing economic statement. Ministers and MPs should put the Veuve Clicquot on ice: George Osborne has deployed his Brownite “dividing lines” to lethal effect yet again but not without losing some face. If the Labour Party a) survives the next five years and b) gets itself a half-decent leader, there will be mileage in reminding the public of the would-be PM who tried to rob the poor and weaken the police.

“Long-term economic plan.” “Northern powerhouse.” The Chancellor is a fiscally-incontinent cliché generator, talking in tough bromides all the while his economic strategy is crossed fingers behind his back. Like Gordon Brown, Osborne views public expenditure as a metric of machismo and questions of economic viability are secondary. To fund his spending commitments and U-turns, he is betting the whole house on the black 21 of economic growth. If the global economy doesn’t come through for him, he won’t be fixing the roof while the sun is shining, the roof will come crashing down on his head.

The rhetoric is strong in this one, though, and if his numbers demand more scrutiny, his spruiking skills are beyond dispute. Talking a good game is half the battle and particularly when the opposition can’t even string a sentence together. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell responded to a statement though not obviously the one Osborne had made. It was a weak, halting performance that confirmed his unsuitability for frontline politics.

That was the good part. It got worse. Much, much worse. McDonnell underscored Labour’s great leap backward when he quoted from Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book. Some might question the wisdom of cribbing a mass murderer – Quotations from Chairman Mao is Mein Kampf for hipsters – but tossing the Marxist-Leninist bible across the despatch box was pure theatre. It was also apt given McDonnell’s five-year plan to destroy the Labour Party.

Britons, especially those on low and middle incomes, need a Labour Party that will hold the government to account. They do not need cheap stunts and common room laugh lines. They deserve better than this.

Spare a thought too for the Scottish Nationalists. George Osborne taunted them with forecasts of a 94% plummet in oil revenues, saying an independent Scotland – due to debut on the world stage four months from now had we voted Yes – would have faced “catastrophic cuts”. The SNP will hold the line and the faithful will keep reciting the mantras but sensible Nationalists know the truth: The economic case for independence as presented to Scotland in 2014 has not one skerrick of credibility left.

As the political situation in the UK strengthens the case for Scotland to go its own way, it is imperative that the Nationalists construct a feasible financial model for a new state. Shouting down all dissent is a comforting exercise in self-harm.

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

Forget Trident. Syria is the security test for the SNP

The leader of the opposition has been making life difficult for the government again.

After providing details of the strategic defence and security review, the Prime Minister was grilled on cuts to manpower, hardware and bases and lambasted for his 2010 decision to scrap the entire Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft fleet at a cost of £4bn.

Needless to say, we are not talking about Jeremy Corbyn, whose colleagues delivered their judgement on his faltering response to David Cameron’s statement by abandoning him one-by-one.

Once again, it fell to Westminster SNP chief Angus Robertson to put the executive on the spot. (When it comes to security matters, he enjoys what we in the west of Scotland call “hauners” in the form of the Nats’ respected defence spokesman Brendan O’Hara and defence committee member Douglas Chapman.)

The Moray MP’s deadliest barb was reserved for the subject of procurement. During the referendum, contracts for 13 Type-26 frigates to be built on the Clyde were held out as a reward for voting No. On Monday, the Prime Minister announced eight contracts and “at least another five of the new type of frigate, probably more, and they can be built in Scotland if the conditions are right”.

Understandably, the Nationalists are sceptical of this wording, which carries no guarantees and sits uneasily alongside a commitment to procuring 138 F35 joint strike fighters despite costings for just 24. “No voters and shipyard workers are being betrayed,” Robertson told the Commons. The SNP seeks grievance like infrared missiles seek heat but in this they are right on target.

The third party cranked up the pressure on Tuesday with a motion opposing the renewal of Trident. Labour, a party of multilateralists led by a unilateralist, demonstrated its support for the nation’s defences/abhorrence of nuclear weapons by abstaining. Only Labour could find three ways to split in two.

To the vast majority of Nats, opposition to Trident is an article of faith, almost as central to their worldview as the restoration of Scottish sovereignty. Whatever you think of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent or the SNP’s policy on it, we will not be giving it up anytime soon.

The big test for the Nationalists today is not conventional or nuclear security. It is their stance on the defence of Britain and our allies in the fight against global terrorism. That manifests most immediately in the question of intervention in Syria.

In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, Western governments can no longer amble their way towards a strategy on the Islamic State. An aerial strike here and arms to the Kurds there isn’t going to cut it anymore. In all likelihood, boots will have to hit the ground. The alternative is more (and more spectacular) outrages in the streets of European capitals. That, and not some warmongering bloodlust, is why David Cameron is prosecuting the case for concerted action against ISIS.

There are many, too many, in the SNP who think we should withdraw into our own wee bothies, secure from the perilous storms whipping around outside. It is the same old fantasy of appeasement and isolationism that we’ve seen before – just as tempting, just as wrongheaded.

This strain runs through most parties, left and right, and is born of a series of misconceptions. The first is that the threat of Islamist terrorism is something that happens Over There and we have no need to worry about it. New York stockbrokers, London commuters and French metal fans would testify otherwise if they were still with us.

The second misconception is that Islamist terrorists will leave us alone if we don’t bother them, or we throw Jews out of the West Bank, or apologise profusely enough for one historical sin or another. It is Western arrogance to believe it’s all about us when the enemy has a developed ideological agenda and explains it at length.

The third assumption – one the SNP clings to as a cover for the first two – is that the solution is always diplomatic or, if military, achieved through multilateral institutions. Nationalists who oppose military action take refuge in a UN resolution, knowing the potential for Russia or China to cause trouble is substantial.

The drumbeat of war is always unnerving but shrugging shoulders is the sound of moral capitulation and defeat. There is nothing straightforward about Syria, a country where victory for either of the two principal forces would represent profound failure. Things will get messy. Things are already messy. To leave Syrians to the brutality of Assad and ISIS because the situation is too difficult is callous selfishness repackaged as a foreign policy. To allow ISIS to direct the mass murder of our citizens and not act to cripple their operation is negligence and cowardice.

The SNP is not a pacifist party and its defence team needs to drive home that message. Scottish CND has allowed itself to become a branch office of the SNP but it should always be clear that, Trident aside, the SNP is a mainstream party on security. “Bairns not bombs” will sound hollow if, God forbid, bairns are blown up in an Edinburgh railway station or a Glasgow concert venue.

Ultimately, Nicola Sturgeon will have to take this decision. I don’t pretend it is an easy one, particularly for someone of her ideological instincts. There is another consideration that lies beyond our security and strategic interests and our debt of solidarity to France and Lebanon and every other nation attacked by fascist barbarians. The SNP still has to make the case for independence and in an increasingly hostile world.

A breakaway Scotland run by the Nationalists could pursue a less assertive foreign policy but independence supporters have to quell the notion we would be a global pushover. Intervention in Syria is an opportunity for the SNP to show that it is a responsible party and that, given the full tools of independence, its government would be a reliable member of the international community. Offering their support to the Prime Minister would allow the Nationalists to stipulate conditions, such as guarantees on humanitarian resources and reconstruction investment. It could also be part of the conversation on helping Syrians forge a post-ISIS, post-Assad future.

The SNP is beginning to carve out a feasible pro-peace, pro-security defence position. In this and a number of areas, it offers a more cogent policy agenda than the official opposition. Syria is a political, moral and security test. Will Nicola Sturgeon and Angus Robertson pass it?

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

The National supports independence for everything except itself

The National loves Scotland.

In fact, it loves Scotland so much it spells its own name with a map of the country in place of the letter “i”. A patriotic touch, to be sure, but it does give the unfortunate impression that the paper is called the Nat Onal.

The pro-independence daily marks its first anniversary on Tuesday, 12 months on from a noisy entry to the Scottish newspaper market.

Back then, its objective was clear:

“The raison d’etre of the National is to redress the balance and cogently to argue the case for independence. This does not mean, however, that we are a mouthpiece of the Scottish National Party and the government it leads. That would not be a healthy course to follow. We will be critical where appropriate and complimentary when merited.”

A cynic might aver that this attractive mission statement was undermined somewhat by the editor’s decision to announce the launch at an SNP rally in Glasgow. But there was an obvious need for a daily newspaper that reflected the views of 45% of the electorate and so I was cautiously pessimistic about its future.

After all, the launch editor was print maestro Richard Walker and he was joined by a number of talented journalists (some of whom remain). Politics soon did for the lofty ambitions and the National set about doggedly holding the opposition to account. The paper developed an obsession with Jim Murphy — nothing wrong with that — and became fixated with pictures of hands, a phenomenon which led Labour activist Paul Cruikshank to set up #HandWatch. The best that can be said for its front pages is that they vindicate Adobe’s strict enforcement of Photoshop licences.

Today the National features a line-up of incisive columnists: Cat Boyd (“austerity is bad, vote Yes”), Carolyn Leckie (“capitalism is bad, vote Yes“), and Lesley Riddoch (“I love Norway, so I do”). Another leading commentator is Angry Salmond. An Alex Salmond parody Twitter account which sprung up during the referendum, Angry Salmondembodies the great tradition of nationalist humour by satirising the former SNP leader’s opponents rather than him. It’s cutting-edge stuff: “New study says English accent is ‘eroding’ while Scottish accent is ‘flourishing’. I assume it’s because our head isn’t in America’s arse.”

There is one must-read columnist, the fearless and punchy Kevin McKenna. Paul Kavanagh, a blogger who assumes the persona of his Wee Ginger Dug — “little red-headed dog” for those unfamiliar with Scottish slang — is politically formulaic but writes compellingly. (As a pug myself, I fully approve of such diverse hiring practices.)

The National wears its heart on its sleeve and its 15 Yes badges on its lapel. Headlines range from the trite “Why are Unionists so eager to do Scotland down?” (an editorial) to the downright offensive “Inhuman treatment of society’s vulnerable echoes Nazi Germany” (an op-ed on the Department for Work and Pensions, natch).

In June, the Scottish Parliament approved the Community Empowerment Bill, which gives local people the opportunity to take over land and put it to public use. Here are two write-ups on the passage of the legislation:

“A new law which will give communities more powers to take on land and buildings and to have a say on how their services are delivered, has been approved by the Scottish Parliament.”

“A new law which will change lives and make dreams come true for thousands of communities was passed in the Scottish Parliament last night in what was hailed as a ‘momentous step’ for people’s rights.”

Guess which is the news report from the National and which is the Scottish Government press release. (Heroically, the paper billed its panegyric to making dreams come true an “exclusive”.)

The National, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, is the only paper in Scotland that’s not afraid to tell the truth: that everything is just fine.

Partisanship is nothing new in the British press. The Daily Mail is aggressively Conservative but more likely to set the government’s line than toe it. (It’s hard to imagine the National mildly rebuking Nicola Sturgeon let alone accusing her of sexual relations with a farmyard animal.) The Daily Record is Labour to its bones but has lost much of its tribalism of late, employing a strident Nationalist columnist in Joan McAlpine and giving the Sturgeon government a fair crack of the whip.

The National’s problem originates in the legend on its masthead: “The newspaper that supports an independent Scotland”. Other newspapers offer readers a package: News, sport, telly listings, a bit of politics and lots of filler features. Everything in the National is presented through the prism of the constitution. Politics is all that matters to its readers and by politics I mean nationalism, the only politics in Scotland anymore. This approach shifts 17,000 copies every day, small beer compared to the Daily Record’s 182,000 or the Scottish Daily Mail’s 89,000 but respectable when set against the Scotsman’s 24,000 and the Herald’s 34,000 circulation.

Outsiders looking in might wonder at the market for comical confirmation bias in the land of rational enquiry, of Smith and Hume. That is the Old Scotland. The New Scotland is a country where 42% believe the UK Government covered up the existence of secret oil fields in the North Sea to swing last year’s referendum result. Where one of its architects declares the SNP’s case for independence a fraud and is summarily dismissed with all the other heretics.

Little wonder sloppiness has set in. While trying to sound the alarm on hate crimes in a weekend splash, the National managed to understate the number of racially motivated incidents in Scotland a staggering 35-fold. It issued a correction last week after claiming the Daily Mail had wrongly accused Nicola Sturgeon of expressing “passionate hatred” for Margaret Thatcher. The original article had actually appeared in the Mail on Sunday and the First Minister has said: “Thatcher was the motivation for my entire political career. I hated everything she stood for.” In pandering to those who despise a critical media it makes sense that the National has pioneered a brand of anti-journalism.

There is an opening for a nationalist daily and a model meriting study. Common Space, a grassroots news and opinion website from a left-wing, pro-independence perspective, does not shy away from criticising the Scottish Government or the nationalist establishment. Some shortsighted observers (including, privately, me) assumed it was too earnest and right-on to prosper but while confirmed in its views it has defied the critics with news exclusives and insightful commentary.

The political imbalance of newspapers in Scotland is real and stark and in need of correction. The National is not the solution but a caricature of one, an inky Fox News that doesn’t even pretend to be fair and balanced. It supports independence for everything except itself.

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

What next for Politician of the Year Nicola Sturgeon?

Nicola Sturgeon is one year into her premiership and six months away from her first election.

In the hyperactive world of Scottish politics, it’s easy to forget that the First Minister has no mandate from the country.

Unlike Gordon Brown, this is not because she is too frit to face them; the only thing she has to fear is being crushed by throngs of worshipful supporters.

Three factors make this so.

First, a significant slice of the populace has been converted to nationalism as a political philosophy and in some cases a devotional order. The SNP could be led by Stabby McStabberson, the Friendly Neighbour Serial Killer and their only complaint would be that Crimewatch didn’t have him on enough.

Second, the SNP leader sits at the apex of a personality cult. She is discussed in reverent tones by the faithful and a selfie with her is akin to a winning Lotto ticket in the minds of many. Few heads of government boast their own clothing range.

Third, and most important, it’s not just the true believers who swoon for her. The voters love her. She was named Scottish Politician of the Year at an awards bash on Thursday night. It was the fourth time she had picked up the gong though the first as a religious icon. The nod from the great and the good was a predictable honour for someone whose popularity ratings are just the right side of Pyongyang and whose opponents even admire her and not altogether grudgingly.

If any of this adulation has gone to her head, it doesn’t show too often in public. She should be an insufferable egomaniac but in fact comes across as grounded and sensitive to the responsibilities of the office. She looks the part and more or less acts like it too. This was confirmed during a general election campaign in which she dominated north of the border and saw her stature grow across the rest of the UK. For all the pomp (and pomposity), Alex Salmond was always SNP leader first and First Minister second, a prisoner of his own belligerence.

Nicola Sturgeon is a proposition of a different order. A tribal Nationalist, to be sure, but one at ease with other points of view. She may deploy the tedious “talking down Scotland” saw from time to time but it is impossible to imagine her questioning the patriotism of her opponents, as Salmond did when he denounced Unionist politicians as “a parcel of rogues”. There is a welcome broadmindedness to Sturgeon, even if it has yet to spread to all sections of her party.

And what of that party? Where stands the SNP after 12 months of Sturgeon at the helm? It has secured an historic general election victory and seen its Commons seat tally soar ninefold. We can now say without doubt that the SNP is the natural party of government in Scotland and looks set to remain so for many years to come. In power at Holyrood, the third party at Westminster, newly embedded across civic Scotland, the Nationalists may still romanticise themselves as plucky outsiders but they are the Scottish establishment now.

Barring an unforeseen mahapach between now and May, Sturgeon will lead the SNP to victory in the Scottish Parliament elections. Another majority is likely, a stonking one a real possibility. Kezia Dugdale is talented and conscientious but Scottish Labour’s priority is rolling up their sleeves for a generational rebuild. Winning elections won’t even be a consideration for some time. Ruth Davidson is a tenacious parliamentary performer but spends her days doing CPR on the Scottish Tories with one hand while preparing a tourniquet with the other. This is the SNP’s election to lose and that’s probably the only feat they couldn’t pull off.

What makes this remarkable is that, under any other circumstances, the SNP would be fighting for its political life. It is a two-term incumbent government with a starkly mixed record on health, education and justice. Nationalism and the absence of an effective opposition have suspended the rules of democratic politics in Scotland.

What goes up, though, must come down. Eventually the voters will do for you or your colleagues will. “We all get taken out in a box, love,” former Australian prime minister Paul Keating consoled one of his ousted successors.

The First Minister is entitled to enjoy the laurels but should be careful not to rest on them. Sturvation needs to stop banging on about her poll ratings, the political equivalent of retweeting your own praise. The concert tours and signature hoodies and Vogue photoshoots are cute but the country needs a leader, not a star. It’s a short branded-helicopter trip from confidence to hubris. Her predecessor began his tenure as a blokey man of the people and ended it a talking swagger.

Scotland faces substantial challenges and the SNP government has too often proven itself less than equal to them. If it does not tackle the organisational chaos of Police Scotland, the troubled Queen Liz hospital, disappointing education outcomes, and sluggish employment numbers, it will come to be defined by these and other failures.

These are problems of policy and of personnel. The SNP’s governing agenda lacks coherence; other than “do the opposite of what England does”, you would struggle to sum it up in a sentence. For instance, the First Minister has made some encouraging noises on standardised testing and school autonomy. Does this mean she is an education reformer or merely a pragmatic defender of the status quo? I honestly can’t tell.

Labour runs scared of SNP populism, correctly gauging that it has potent appeal. Demagoguery is fine in opposition and good for a few years of government but when you actually have to do things, it causes problems. If you have spent your career rabble-rousing about reform, economic rationalism, and private sector involvement in health and education, you find yourself without the tools to improve public services. Sturgeon is caught in a web of her own weaving. She has acquired power but if she uses it to make change, she risks alienating one or other part of her coalition. To decide is to divide and if all politicians want to be loved, nationalist politicians need to be loved.

However, if she doesn’t decide, she risks vindicating opponents’ cries that hers is a protest party and nothing else. There are those who would cheerily sacrifice the family pet to get independence. Schools that fail their children and A&E wards that make their elderly parents wait five hours are small potatoes. The rest of the country, the vast majority, need more from the First Minister.

Policy is only as good as the implementer. A number of senior ministers are plainly not up to the job and there is only so long the First Minister can go on ignoring this fact. Cabinet posts shouldn’t be handed out like fistbumps to BFFs. There is real talent on the Holyrood backbenches and in the junior ministry; the overlooked and under-promoted are entitled to feel miffed about this lopsided set-up.

And the tone is in need of change. The danger to the SNP is that it becomes perceived as the nasty party of Scottish politics. Anger and accusation are not the hallmarks of a mainstream party of government. Grievance is not your friend; kindle resentment long enough and chances are it will find its way back to you. The First Minister’s tweets to victims of cybernat abuse are nice and all but maybe ponder why McCarthyite neds are so attracted to your party and cause. Sturgeonisation of the SNP won’t be complete until the party speaks with one voice: positive, inclusive, tolerant.

Nicola Sturgeon deserves her latest award after another year of hard work and dizzying success. What matters is what she does next. Maybe she’ll just mark time until a second referendum. Maybe she fears making things better will weaken the Yes case. Maybe she has no earthly idea what she wants to do.

Those of us who believe otherwise expect much from her. After eight years in government, it’s time to live up to that potential. It’s time for progress.

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

The economic case for independence is dead? Good riddance.

Independence is dead. Long live independence.

The economic case for a Scottish breakaway from the UK has been mortally wounded – by no less a figure than Alex Salmond’s former head of policy.

“The dream shall never die,” Mr Salmond assured us but his own right-hand man has beaten it to death with a shovel then delivered the eulogy.

Alex Bell, one of the authors of the White Paper on which the SNP’s case for independence was based, charges that “the SNP’s model is broken”. That model has become “the cocaine of the politically active, fun to join in but dulling the senses, jabbering on at a hundred words per minute while disconnected from self awareness”. The costs of borrowing faced by Scotland would be such that “you can make no promises on what independence will be like”.

If I was Mr Bell, I wouldn’t accept any invitations to Summerisle any time soon.

It is true this isn’t his first critical intervention but as an outsider peeking in, one thing has always struck me about his admonitions to the SNP leadership. They read like sincere intellectual broadsides against the prevailing party orthodoxy rather than personal grudge-settling. Bell is a committed nationalist who has expended significant efforts in the independence cause. The essay, posted on his new politics and culture platform Rattle, delivers a knock-out blow to the current financial arguments but a wake-up slap to the overall self-determination project.

He wants more honesty about the economics of independence and more research into the costs and processes of setting up a new state. At times he is damning about the SNP’s posturing during the referendum:

“The interests of the SNP and the interests of independence have diverged. Independence needs facts and planning. The leadership fear those facts will rip the party apart. The SNP is growing comfortable in its role as the ‘Scotland’ party within a lop-sided UK, while pretending it is still fighting for independence to keep the party together…

“This is a morally dubious form of government. Posing as the defender of the poor against Tories when you have no credible alternative and don’t bother to research one is arguably immoral. More so when there is an explicit party policy not to reverse all cuts upon independence. The SNP’s ill-prepared version of independence does not plausibly offer any real alternative.”

Much of what he says has been obvious to members of the reality-based community for some time now. The SNP might defy the laws of political gravity but even in the New Scotland the rules of economics are still in place. Independence has to be paid for and the present case, growing weaker by the day, cannot survive Bell’s scathing analysis. Petro-nationalism and Nordic social democracy were always uneasy bedfellows.

Yes campaigners declaim their opponents for scaring old people during the referendum with tales of lost pensions. As Scottish HMRC staff are learning, the Union is no protection from the facts of economics. But nor is independence and sensible SNP politicians know taxes would have to rise or spending fall significantly to balance the books after a split. Still, they stalked the high-rises and the council estates last summer, promising miracles to the desperate and despondent. Promoting fear is a base tactic but selling false hope is hardly more humane.

There are two potential flaws in Bell’s thinking.

The first is the primacy of economics. “Follow the money” any smart political strategist will tell you and the Don’t Knows who decided the outcome in September 2014 likely did so with their pocketbook in mind. Another former Salmond adviser, Professor John Kay, lamented the economic rhetoric that attended the referendum, warning voters that they would be at best £500 better or worse off after a break-up.

He told an audience at Edinburgh University in 2013: “Plus or minus £500 is about the outer limits of the economic effect that independence is likely to have on Scotland. But Scottish independence is not primarily an economic issue.

“Anyone who goes to the ballot box in 2014 believing either that they should vote no because independence for Scotland would be likely to be an economic disaster or vote yes because they believe it is likely to lead to an economic bonanza, has failed to review the issues sensibly.”

Call it wishful thinking but there has to be a push beyond pounds and pence. Independence is a political question and it can only be answered by politics. As a fulfilment of The Vow, the Scotland Bill is a decent settlement. As a pay-off on promises of “home rule” and “federalism”, it is a vomit taco with extra vom. Would it be more palatable if we had a few extra quid in our pockets? The nationalist argument cannot hang on fiscal fantasies and nor should Unionists put their faith in economics alone. Oil booms come and go – and come again.

SNP fundies were once mocked as “tattie peelings nationalists” for their frequent declarations that they would “live on tattie peelings as long as Scotland was free”. In the end, they were right. Either you believe Scotland should fully govern itself or you don’t. Money matters but there is such a thing as a political sense of self.

The second tricky assumption from Bell is that independence is a question for “another generation”. This fails to take into account the outcome of the 2020 general election. Unless Labour dunts him overboard before then, the party will go to the country with a leader who advocates higher taxes, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and is uneasy about a shoot-to-kill policy for terrorists. This Labour Party faces a brutal reckoning at the hands of the voters and Scotland will once again find itself with a Tory government it didn’t vote for. That has to be worth at least another five per cent for independence.

A final point, tangential but relevant.

I agree with Iain Martin that Rattle deserves to succeed. Yes, because Alex Bell is a fine writer but also because the nationalist movement desperately needs critical thinking right now. The SNP megachurch brooks no heresy. MPs and MSPs genuflect to the leadership on all questions of doctrine; hardcore members and supporters drown irksome facts in catechisms: “Talking down Scotland.” “Bias.” “SNP bad.”

An army of cybernats menaces journalists who voice any dissent, much preferring hacks who write with pom-poms in their hands. The National reads like an experiment in what happens when you give commenters on Scotsman articles their own newspaper to run. It offers all the journalistic distance of a Doctor Who fanzine.

It must feel mightily lonely at CommonSpace, the only pro-independence outlet that consistently reports without fear or favour to any party or government. (Wings over Scotland is capable of this too, and more powerfully, but can get bogged down in the trenches.)

This might sound like snippy Scullying to true believers but in politics confidence can all too easily drift into arrogance and complacency. The SNP needs critical friends like Alex Bell to rattle their cage.

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

How to be a Western liberal in an age of terror

Nous sommes tous les Parisiens. Je t’aime Paris. #IStandWithFrance.

Millennials are coming to terms as only we can with an attack on our own. The shootings and bombings that ripped through the French capital on Friday night targeted trendy restaurants and music venues. We were Charlie in January but our hearts weren’t really in it. Charlie Hebdo drew mean cartoons about Islam and that’s racist and maybe they shouldn’t have been so provocative.

We feel this one more. It could have been us. And so our social media profiles are awash in blue, white and red. Hashtags announce our solidarity with the slain and selfies bear sombre declarations of stoic defiance.

‘We are not afraid.’

Well, I am. I’m terrified. Diners are being shot. Concert-goers are being shot. Men are blowing themselves up outside soccer stadiums. Assassins walk among us, quietly and methodically arranging our deaths. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies will net many of them in time but others will slip through and bring carnage to yet more cities.

Fear is a legitimate response and so is anger. Other reactions I have less time for. That’s open borders for you, American acquaintances remark. Israeli friends are trying, some more successfully than others, to avoid the words ‘I told you so’. Not now. Later, but not now.

Knuckle-draggers are blaming all Muslims. There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. When the bullets started flying at 9.16pm on Friday 13, Muslims were at work or at home with their families; they were falling in love and striking business deals; they were returning home from jumu’ah or out drinking and having affairs; they were being good and great and foolish and terrible people. Only seven of them were bleeding the streets of Paris.

Well-meaning right-ons refuse to acknowledge the Islamist character of the atrocity. ‘Terrorists are not practising true Islam.’ ‘Islam is a religion of peace.’ On Twitter, everyone has a law degree, a master’s in theology, and ten years’ counter-terror training.

The murderers were Islamists and slaughtered in aid of that doctrine, an imperial and millenarian fusion of religious and political Islam. They killed 129 people for a medieval sky fairy and his warrior-prophet, for that is Islam to them: Laws and death. Their dull fanaticism reduces the Qur’an to an instructions manual, deprived of its subtle beauty. The fruit of the olive tree will never nourish them; the light of the lamp will not penetrate their minds.

Islam is a religion like all others; it merits no special treatment. But there is a struggle for the soul of this great faith and in this civil war we cannot remain neutral. The forces of modernity deserve our support and solidarity. We are at war with people who behead aid workers and gun down cartoonists. We are not at war with Muslims. Anyone who still needs that explained to them has probably already chosen their side.

The appeasers and fellow-travellers too have chosen their side, as if it was ever in doubt. ‘We brought this on ourselves,’ Salon tells us. Parisians were ‘reaping the whirlwind’ of Western foreign policy, according to Stop the War Coalition in a statement so callous even they later deleted it. That Pooterish crank Tariq Ali chunters, ‘The West is NOT morally superior to the jihadis. Why is a public execution with a sword worse than an indiscriminate drone attack?’ (His solution is the dismantling of Israel and its replacement with a binational state. Muslims kill Parisians and still the Jews are to blame.)

In an open society besieged by an enemy that uses that very openness against us, what’s a liberal to do?

Solidarity is a liberal value. We should stand with Parisians and the Beirut Shiites murdered by ISIS the same day. Not merely say we will stand with them but actually do it. France has bombed Islamic State targets in Syria. It will make no difference. We need concerted action by a broad coalition, including airstrikes and more arms for the Kurds. No one wants a ground war but we may not have a choice.

National security is a liberal value. What higher duty for government than the protection of its citizens? Europe has sheltered under US defence spending since the end of World War II — and been richly snide about it along the way. American global leadership, such as remains, cannot shield us from an asymmetric conflict where the theatre of war is our own streets. That will take higher spending on defence, security and intelligence.

The Islamic State can’t be fought in its physical strongholds alone; it must be defeated in the terrain of the mind. What we need as keenly as military might is civilisational confidence. Liberal democracy is objectively superior to every other political system. The Western inheritance — individual freedom, intellectual openness, scientific inquiry, free markets — is objectively superior to societies and cultures that are illiberal, closed, incurious, and static. We are right. They are wrong.

Security is a liberal value. The law guards our freedom and is due our jealous defence. As Jefferson reminds us, however: ‘The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.’

The laws of necessity unrestrained can become a charter for tyrants. Our liberties were hard-won and we would be foolish to strike a devil’s bargain with an almighty state, bartering freedom for security. Nevertheless, we have to protect ourselves and that will mean compromising some of our ideals.

It’s time to get a little less dainty and a lot less squeamish. We are already deploying drones and extra-judicial killing; we should be prepared to extend the use of these techniques where necessary. As we eliminate the hard infrastructure of Islamism, we will need to target its softer furnishings: Hate preachers and inciters should face deportation or the loss of British nationality, as applicable. Intelligence gathering and policing will become more intensive and at times intrusive but we must take care to cabin this to counter-terrorism. There will be difficult decisions on how we go about identifying suspects, how long we may detain them, and the conduct of interrogations.

None of these are easy questions; some make me very uncomfortable. We are fortunate to be rich and privileged and alive. We don’t get to be innocent too. My assessment of the Western moral character does not hinge on how we deal with seventh century religious fascists. I start from the knowledge that we will never be ‘just as bad as them’. To be a liberal in an age of terror requires us to defy Robert Frost’s aphorism about the man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel. Our grandparents went to war to smash totalitarianism and it falls to our generation to show similar foresight and courage. We can be more than over-indulged crybabies whining about ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ and our 17 flavours of gender.

It doesn’t end here. This will happen again in Paris and Madrid and London. Snipers along the Autobahn, perhaps, or a holdall left in St Peter’s Square. Many more innocents will be rent from the arms of their loved ones. Our liberal societies are under fire. It’s time to get off Twitter and stand up for ourselves.

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

Scottish self-pity proves Sandi Thom has flowers in her head

Sandi Thom is quitting the music industry.

It’s a bit like me announcing the end of my edible thong modelling career. The ersatz hippie chick had precisely one hit nine years ago and, save for being caught up in an expenses row over Scottish Government sponsored events in 2009, hasn’t done much else of note.

That is until earlier this week, when the 34-year-old went into an epic Facebook meltdown after learning that Radio 2 and the Bauer radio stations would not place her new single ‘Earthquake’ on their all-important playlists.

“F— you Radio 2,” she bawled into the camera. “F— you Bauer network and f— the lot of you.”

You can see why she’s found success as a lyricist.

Most acts have to get BBC and major commercial radio playtime to have any hopes of shifting downloads. All the same, the complaint about being sidelined by the big, bad mainstream broadcasters is ironic. Thom was one of the first UK artists to promote herself through social media, her Sixties nostalgia debut ‘I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers In My Hair)’ going viral and topping the charts in June 2006.

It’s the kind of song that does well in summer: Poppy, mindless mush to listen to in the airport departure lounge en route to Benidorm. A crowd-pleasing encomium to the decade of flower power and tie-dyes, the song’s structure is straightforward and the lyrics bromidic:

“When music really mattered and when radio was king/ When accountants didn’t have control/ And the media couldn’t buy your soul/ And computers were still scary and we didn’t know everything.”

‘Punk Rocker’ is a Back to Basics anthem for superannuated hippies in which Thom yearns for the good old days when you could leave your door unlocked and the local bobby could give Simon Cowell a clip round the ear.

Her story was lapped up north of the border and the Banff-born performer celebrated as one of wir ain done good. The columnist Melanie Reid pegged her early on, finding in her lyrics “a tour de force of muddled, middle-aged wistfulness”.

That description could almost double as a mission statement for Radio 2 and the fact that they aren’t interested this time round will be particularly galling for Thom. (Any singer who yearns for Radio 2 playtime probably deserves it.) So her Facebook tantrum is understandable since she has no doubt worked very hard on her latest offering.

Where she fritters any sympathy coming her way is in her attempt to play the “poor wee Scot” card. In an interview on Scotland Tonight with STV’s Rona Dougall on Thursday, Thom griped: “This week on the Radio 2 playlists, there are no Scottish artists whatsoever and that is not for the lack of talent in Scotland and that is definitely not for the lack of artists who are looking to be put on the playlist. I don’t know whether you think that’s fair or not; I certainly don’t.”

Pressed by Dougall on whether she was claiming discrimination, she continued: “I think there’s many reasons and I think there’s a massive biasm [sic] within the BBC network and within Radio 2. The facts really speak for themselves. If you look at the playlists and you go back through the weeks, even in the last month, you’ll see that there is a real lack of Scottish presence there.”

Although her turn as a simpering, blow-dried James Kelman is risible, Thom is onto something. By mining the deep reserves of self-pity underneath the Scottish psyche, she can deflect criticism of her individual abilities and cast a rejection of her as a snub to Scotland. Kelman too accuses those who fail to worship at his feet of class and national prejudice. “Writers like myself are guilty of being ‘too Scottish’,” he sighs, “our ‘Scottishness’ is an attack on ‘Britishness’ and acts as a disqualification.”

Kelman is an exhilarating stylist who captures the grammar of working-class Scottish vernacular better than anyone except Irvine Welsh but, speaking as a progeny of that social stratum, I find his work richer in observation than insight. But that’s not allowed. I must either be for Kelman or against him, hallow all Scottish creativity or be parcelled away with the other rogues.

Imagined oppression is becoming engrained in Scottish culture. It is a delusion which confects pains and horrors of subjugation for a free country that chooses to be an equal partner in a political, social and cultural union. No one has the whip hand over Scotland, no jackboot presses down on our neck, but there is a profound need amongst many to see things that way.

It’s there in the SNP, who have turned grievance into a crushing electoral strategy, and their cybernats, who always take offence so you don’t have to. It’s in Alasdair Gray’s pungent pronouncements on “settlers” and “colonists” and it’s in enervating outrage over the Scottishness of passport designs. You’ll find it in Alan Bissett’s complaint that too many English writers win the Booker Prize and Alan Warner’s pre-referendum denunciation of a No-voting Scotland as “a mere global brand, its reality officially cancelled by its own people”.

Perhaps there still is a “Scottish cringe” but it is rapidly being replaced by a Scottish whinge, one long wail of indignation and self-righteousness.

No country can thrive on victimhood. Eventually, we will have to stop blaming Westminster, the Tories, England, the BBC, Radio 2 and every other bogeyman for our shortcomings. If independence is the only means of snapping us out of this reverie of resentment, so be it.

Sandi Thom is a creature of this mindset, evidence of its spread and grip. I get that she wants to be a star. She may even want to make music. But no one owes her anything and no one is keeping her down. And if she thinks she’s being discriminated against because she’s Scottish, she doesn’t just have flowers in her hair – she has them in her head.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © P G Champion / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-2.0-UK.

Scotland Bill fulfils The Vow but not promises of home rule

Substantial new powers are coming to Scotland. This fact no Nationalist demagogue can inveigh away.

The Scotland Bill, approved by the Commons on Monday night, means Holyrood’s permanence will be enshrined in the constitution and MSPs will get the power to set income tax rates and bands, as well as significant welfare powers and control over abortion.

I was a Vow sceptic but I concede that the Bill makes good on the cautiously-worded pledge that appeared on the Daily Record’s front page two days before the referendum.

These are not powers Westminster politicians wanted to part with. They were dragged kicking and screaming by the Record and its editor Murray Foote. That is in the very best tradition of campaigning tabloid journalism but it doesn’t speak well of our leaders’ ambition for a modern, evolving constitution.

The Nationalists have since reified The Vow, as though Runnymede offered up a second charter seven centuries later, but it is merely a tactic to stoke anger. The SNP are ninth-dan black belts in grievance. If Westminster found a cure for the common cold, they would complain it was putting hard-working Scottish pharmacists out of business.

At the time, the Nats said The Vow was worthless; now they complain it’s not being kept. Nationalism means never having to be consistent.

Nevertheless, this wide-ranging slate of new powers takes on the blanch of anaemia when compared to the grandiloquent oratory of Gordon Brown. The Labour elder statesman, heralded as the saviour of the UK time and time and time again, was the guarantor of the No campaign’s compact with the voters.

I was there. I remember the panicked final weeks as the polls narrowed and narrowed. I recall, of course, the frustrated grumbles about Brown’s maverick behaviour but they were drowned in sighs of relief every time he “broke his silence”.

Gordon speaks to Labour voters.

Brown is a big beast; they’ll listen to him.

Thank God for Gordon.

And it wasn’t just Labour people who trumpeted the son of the manse.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson lustily applauded the former Labour prime minister when he quoted Karl Marx in his eve of referendum speech. “From each according to his ability to contribute,” he told pro-Union activists, “to each according to his needs.”

The Daily Mail waxed lyrical about the same address, praising the rallying call for progressive politics and wealth redistribution as “extraordinary”, “passionate, heart-felt” and “the speech of the referendum campaign”.

Brown deserved many of these tributes. His interventions were powerful and eloquent, coming (late) to the defence of Britain’s historic achievements and the virtues of cross-border solidarity. But loose cannons still fire and Brown, Better Together’s semi-official negotiator with undecided voters, make a series of undertakings about the devolution settlement in the event of a No vote.

A Scotland which rejected separatism would enjoy “nothing less than a modern form of Scottish Home Rule”, something “quite close to something near to federalism” (a bit auntie’s-granny’s-sister’s-budgerigar but you knew what he was getting at).

“The United Kingdom,” he confidently announced, “will move as close to federalism as we can go in a country where one nation accounts for 80% of the population.”

Perhaps he wasn’t licensed to enter into such commitments but enter into them he did and the Unionist parties, which profited from his gravitas and special connection with the Scottish people, had a duty to follow through.

This they have failed to do. I suspect they never intended to. The Vow has been delivered but a deeper, more heartfelt oath has not.

And so while new powers are to be welcomed, we must take note of those that remain reserved. Scotland will have to go along with the Trade Union Bill because industrial relations law will stay at Westminster. So too will broadcasting, the minimum wage, equal opportunities legislation, the rail network, and full oversight of the Crown Estate.

Holyrood can be trusted to mitigate Tory tax credit cuts but not to administer tax credits in the first place. (Labour, which has spent the past week demanding the Scottish Government top up slashed incomes, voted against devolving tax credits. This is because they believe in “pooling and sharing resources” but the strategic nuances will pass many voters by.)

Yes, the SNP’s only real purpose is the break-up of the United Kingdom.

Yes, they stir resentment and animus to achieve this.

Yes, the Scottish Government should start using the powers it has and the powers coming to it or make way for an administration that will.

But when the Nationalists charge that the Scotland Bill falls short of assurances made, they are not just spinning a line — they have a point.

Tommy Sheppard, with a touch of the Bond villain, warned the Commons: “This isn’t over; we will be coming back again and again to argue for more powers for Scotland.”

Who will say they are wrong to do so?

Federalism — real home rule — represented the only long-term future for the United Kingdom. All that is left to the Unionist cause now are economics and another tug on the heartstrings of ’45 and Blitz Spirit. That might be enough to scrape through another vote — I suspect it won’t be — but it is constitutionally barren.

The Scotland Bill is neither triumph nor travesty; it is just there, a paper monument to political legerdemain, a legislative tribute to intellectual modesty. The Scottish lion roared and this is the Westminster mouse’s squeak in response.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons.