Interview: Jim Murphy on patriotism, socialism and Labour’s future

Jim Murphy loves Scotland.

I know this because he assures me of it at least a dozen times in a half-hour interview.

Scotland is his country. He’s proud of it. He intends to do well by it.

Asked why he wants to lead Scottish Labour, the first thing he says is: “It sounds trite, but I love my country.”

This expression of national pride is jarring because the SNP has so comprehensively co-opted the language of patriotism. That Murphy is comfortable talking about his love of country sets him apart from so many Scottish Labour politicians in recent years.

That’s not all that makes him different. He loves his Irn-Bru and his Celtic — some sort of football club popular in the West of Scotland, m’lud — and for a politician he seems remarkably, well, normal.

He’s the only vegetarian I’ve ever spent more than three minutes with and not wanted to punch.

He has a sense of humour, doesn’t take himself too seriously, and though he speaks with evident passion about creating a fairer society, it is clear that politics is not his life.

“I’ve never been a favourite in an election but I’ve never come second,” he points out, before chewing it over and adding: “There’s three candidates in this race so maybe I’ll come third this time and keep that record.”

He’s the sort of bloke you could have a pint with. Except he’s teetotal.

(An abstemious vegetarian? Applying to lead Scottish Labour? At a time like this? If he wins, I give it six months before he gets tanked on half a Bacardi Breezer and challenges Len McCluskey to a square go in a Nando’s car park.)

Career

In the Scottish Labour leadership election, Murphy stands out as the only MP contesting for the top job. A former president of the National Union of Students (where he made himself a power of enemies by reversing the NUS’s opposition to scrapping grants), he pulled off a surprise win in the safe Tory seat of Eastwood in 1997. He has retained the seat, now known as East Renfrewshire, ever since and despite the best efforts of the Conservatives to win back the prosperous suburban constituency.

Although often branded a Blairite, his political star came into the ascendancy when Gordon Brown took over at Number Ten and Murphy was appointed Europe minister and later Secretary of State for Scotland, a position from which he masterminded Labour’s successful 2010 election in Scotland.

His 100 Towns in 100 Days tour of Scotland during the independence referendum was seen as both a welcome energy boost for the Better Together campaign and a brazen pitch to replace the ineffective Johann Lamont as Scottish Labour leader. (It was also a tactic blatantly nicked from Neil Kinnock — coincidentally, a recent Murphy backer — who figured out early on that the 1983 general election was lost and drove round the country with a megaphone denouncing Thatcherism and positioning himself to succeed Michael Foot.) Murphy infamously attracted Nationalist hecklers to his soapbox speeches, their roiling anger — and flying dairy produce — betraying the threat they deemed him to pose.

If Labour’s electoral college of MPs, MSPs, members, and unions award him the job, Nationalists think Murphy’s 17-year record at Westminster will provide them with endless lines of attack:- His support for tuition fees; his vote for military action in Iraq; his parliamentary expenses.

The problem is that anyone who won’t vote Labour because Jim Murphy supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein stopped voting Labour a long time ago and probably never will again. Murphy himself recognises the need to move on from New Labour, while careful to pay the necessary obeisance to that project and the leader who brought Labour back out of the wilderness.

He explains: “New Labour is a way of thinking and of designing your politics that was of the moment in the mid-90s. It’s 20 years of age and it’s time to do things a bit differently. I’m not fascinated by whether people are left-wing or right-wing, New or Old Labour, I want us to be winning Labour.”

The time has come, he reckons, to step beyond the party’s most successful leader: “I think we need a post-Tony Blair Labour Party that’s patriotic, that’s radical. The Labour Party’s had six leaders since Tony Blair: two UK leaders and four Scottish leaders. It’s time for us to move on. Tony Blair was the right answer to the questions of his era. He’s a long time gone so it’s time to move on and be more confident about our future rather than continually harking on and looking in our rear-view mirror about our past.”

Murphy is not the candidate to bring disaffected lefties back into the fold. They have gone to the fringes or to the SNP, socialist Scotland’s favourite neoliberal party. His appeal is to the mainstream Labour voter, including those who have become more comfortable voting SNP in recent years. But as he argued during the Scotland Tonight leadership hustings, his pitch reaches further than that. “I don’t think we can just talk to Labour voters,” he said. “There aren’t enough of them.”

That means driving Labour’s tanks onto the SNP’s lawns just as brazenly as Alex Salmond did to Labour over the last decade. For the most committed SNP supporters, independence is everything but amongst the Nationalists’ impressive electoral coalition there are many, including Yes voters, who have other priorities.

Winning over Yes voters

Cast your mind back, if you can, to a time before the referendum campaign, when we had entire conversations and even parliamentary debates about things other than the constitution. Murphy’s task is to return the political debate to education, health, and the economy — and to offer voters bold alternatives to the SNP. His Blairite credentials might even come in handy here.

Scottish politics needs a substantial opposition figure other than Tory leader Ruth Davidson who is willing to think the unthinkable in order to reform education, improve the NHS, and create jobs. There is real scope to take on some of the SNP’s sacred cows, particularly their hostility to the non-state sectors, and offer parents, patients, businesspeople, public sector workers, and taxpayers policies driven by outcomes rather than the SNP’s uneasy mixture of populism and ideology.

How bold Murphy is willing or inclined to be remains to be seen, but he is determined to reach out to everyone necessary to win, including Yes voters.

He maintains: “You have to move beyond the referendum. You don’t win people’s affections by telling them they were wrong… It’s about reaching out to these folk and making a patriotic case that we believe in similar things; we just disagree about how to achieve them. On the basis that we’ve now decided the constitutional arrangements of Scotland for a generation, as we were told, then let’s work together.

“If ever there’s a referendum again, we’ll be on different sides of that probably, but let’s work together in the meantime and try to create a better society. The challenge for the Labour Party is to be a party again that people can see a cause of social justice in. For example, I want to put income tax up to 50% as part that.”

His own brand of socialism

That left tilt is perfectly balanced by a pitch to the middle ground.

“In terms of aspirational voters, it’s about guaranteeing that if you go to work you’ll be better off in work than if you are on benefit. Now that parts of the welfare state are going to be devolved to Scotland, that’s important. It’s also about saying to people they deserve a decent home and it they want to own their home, I’m happy about that. I’m in favour of more people owning their home.”

He wouldn’t reinstate the Right to Buy but wants to ensure there are enough houses, council, social, and private, to end homelessness.

Murphy insists he is a socialist, a claim that his critics and even some of his supporters would scoff at. The MP for East Renfrewshire is not someone you’d mistake for a Morning Star seller standing outside a boarded-up Woolworths on a drizzly Saturday morning.

But Comrade Murphy has his own definition:

“Everyone who’s comfortable with that title had a different definition. For me it means it doesn’t matter where you’re born or the family you’re born into, you should have a fair chance. And you should get a second and third chance in life. Strident, right-wing Conservatism has a sense of you being on your own; it’s like advanced social Darwinism – the survival of the fittest. I think every human being is created equal and people should have an equal chance.

“It’s up to people what you do with your chance but my politics are that you should get a first chance, a second chance, a third chance. But you only get one shot at life and a politician’s job is to help you make the most of your life. If you don’t take your chances, there’s nothing I can do about that, but I’m a patient person and I’d like to give people multiple chances and choices. That’s my socialism. Others have their own definition.”

I don’t buy Murphy’s definition for a second but it is obvious that justice in one form or another is the nucleus of his political philosophy. While most Labour politicians learn about injustice from The Road to Wigan Pier or The Soul of Man under Socialism, Murphy lived it first hand during his early years in South Africa.

His parents were driven there in search of work and better opportunities for their family. What greeted the 12-year-old Jim was the moral obscenity of apartheid. He describes a thread of segregation that ran through every aspect of public and private life. It is the only point during the interview that he’s subdued and his voice takes on a sadness that seems to come from another time and place.

He recounts: “It was a bizarre nightmare of a society, where the only thing that mattered was the colour of your skin. In a country where almost 90% of the country were black Africans, you could easily go weeks without coming into contact with anyone other than someone of the same skin colour. You would stand at a Whites Only bus stop to go to a Whites Only school. You would travel on Whites Only buses. It was an unforgivable type of politics but the remarkable thing is that so many South Africans have forgiven.”

He adds: “I had to go to a Whites Only school where you had to learn Afrikaans, you had to be bilingual. Every Thursday you had to turn up to school in your cadet uniform and march up and down the rugby field to prepare to go and serve two years in the South African army. The society was structured around the maintenance of a minority politics. The media was controlled by the state, the curriculum was influenced by the state’s racism, sport was used to bolster a white supremacy. Then, like the Berlin Wall, it all just fell over.”

Life under Apartheid

He paints a harrowing picture of a society that practised totalitarianism over the human spirit. It is, however, where he felt the first stirrings of political radicalism.

He recalls: “Nelson Mandela’s name was banned — and his photograph. You weren’t allowed to say his name and the newspapers weren’t allowed to print his name or his photograph or they would have been shut down. It’s a remarkable experience to have your political consciousness forged in a place where democratic politics wasn’t tolerated and the biggest decisions you’ve got to make are daily ones about the way in which you live your life.

“Do you buy into the casual, all-encompassing racism that dominated your education and dominated the culture of the country? I chose to opt out of that in all sorts of different ways. You find a social circle that wants nothing to do with it. You find ways of arguing against it. Then when it comes to the big decision about whether you’re going to serve in the South African army, I left the country.”

The move, he interjects, was not motivated by pacifism or cowardice. “I wasn’t going to spend two years of my life propping up the vile beast that was apartheid.”

Instead he went to Glasgow, to study at Strathclyde University, and it was years before he saw the family he had left behind in Cape Town again. There’s that sadness again, but his tone quickly turns upbeat when he remembers that the experience, and the British Government’s stance on apartheid, drove him to political activism.

“Mrs Thatcher got me to join the Labour Party,” he announces with pride. The late Conservative Prime Minister had opposed international sanctions against South Africa and deemed the African National Congress a terrorist outfit rather than a liberation movement. “I had just returned from that country and couldn’t understand it at all.”

Now, a quarter of a century on, Murphy wants to lead his party, or at least its Scottish “branch office”. He could hardly have picked a worse time, given the party’s continuing opposition at Holyrood, dreadful poll numbers, and an SNP surging towards 100,000 members and a possible breakthough at Westminster next May.

The Sturgeon challenge

The real obstacle to his political ambitions is the new First Minister. Nicola Sturgeon is a social democrat’s dream come true, a politician so perfectly attuned to the ideals and impulses of north European progressivism that she could almost have walked off the set of her favourite TV programme Borgen.

Quite how that fits with a party that campaigns for corporate tax cuts and a services-slashing council tax freeze is a dynamic yet to play itself out. But as personal polling numbers show, this contradiction does not weigh on the minds of the electorate, who consistently rate the First Minister above any other politician in trust and effectiveness.

I ask Murphy if the SNP is a “left-of-centre” party and I’ve barely reached the question mark before he rejects the idea. Surely, I push, Nicola Sturgeon’s politics are more clearly aligned with Labour voters than Alex Salmond’s ever were.

“We’ll see what Nicola Sturgeon is, we’ve yet to see what she really is. I think she’s effective, I think she’s formidable. Nicola Sturgeon will be what she needs to be to build a coalition to get independence. The SNP are unencumbered by an economic anchor; they will drift wherever they need to go to build a coalition that gets them to 50% plus one of the votes in any future referendum.”

Outside Glasgow and the west, he assures me, many of the SNP’s supporters are not left-wing and lend their vote to the Nationalists as the “anyone but Labour” party. However, in Labour’s traditional working-class heartlands, he recognises how much work has to be done.

He concedes: “In terms of the central belt, the Labour Party hasn’t been good enough. That’ll change. We haven’t been strong enough, we haven’t been proud enough, we haven’t been radical enough.” That radicalism need not mean ideological policies, he argues, and should include overlooked and unpopular issues like mental health and prison reform.

But he is convinced that Labour alone is the platform on which a progressive politics can be built.

“Radical social reform in our country comes from the Labour Party, when it comes to things like ending discrimination based on people’s sexuality, driving out discrimination based on gender, the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act, all the great social reforms in our country – the national minimum wage, devolution, freedom of information – all of these great reforms come from a Labour government. The SNP have spent seven years in power and while they’ve done some important things that the Labour Party should probably have supported – such as the minimum pricing of alcohol – there’s a lot more that can be done.”

Still, if Murphy wins — and that’s not guaranteed; Labour’s trade union money men aren’t keen on him — he faces a monumental challenge. He will be leading a party that has lost the votes, the patience, and frankly the goodwill of the people of Scotland. Murphy talks a good game but that will matter for little if the voters no longer want to listen.

But he has skill and wit and charm. He sounds like a leader and looks like a First Minister. He also has necessity on his side. He is spoken of by his supporters as the only candidate who can make Scottish Labour electable again. That is for Labour members and trade unionist voters to decide. The bigger decision for this party is whether it should continue to be relevant to the political life of Scotland.

Political parties that dominate electoral systems, as Labour has done in Scotland for half a century, come to confuse their dominance for permanence. But nations change and parties that fail to change with them are left behind. Consider the fate of Canada’s Progressive Conservative Party, the Democrat Party in the American South, or closer to home and a century back the Liberal Party. There is no law in heaven or earth that says the Scottish Labour Party must endure.

Labour responded to its defeat in 2007 by going into denial. In the wake of its 2011 drubbing, it gave the impression of a party that had still not come to terms with its electoral reversal and had lost the will to fight back. The opinion polls for next May’s general election and the 2016 Scottish Parliament vote hint at results ranging from dire to apocalyptic.

A winning Labour

Murphy seems acutely aware of the odds stacked against his party at the moment. “The Scottish Labour Party is the underdog. Scottish Labour is used to being the champion of the underdog; it hasn’t often found itself to be the underdog.”

Under his leadership, the party will “get out of the recently acquired habit of losing”. What would a Murphy-run, non-losing Scottish Labour look like?

“We would have a much more professional party, a better-funded party, a much more confident party that takes its chin off its chest and stands up for itself. That says our cause is as great as the Nationalists’, if not greater. The sense of solidarity in our country and beyond and the knowledge that a boundary or a border has never put food in the tummy of any kid anywhere in the world. It’s about energy, optimism, and a sense of self-belief.

“We win, we hold what we have in 2015 and we go into a two-horse race against the Nats in 2016 where I think we can build a coalition of people, some of whom have always voted Labour and some of whom have never voted Labour. And in a two-horse race, I’m pretty confident we’ll win.”

It can’t be easy to summon up that kind of optimism at these times but the positivity seems genuine. It shouldn’t be allowed to lapse into complacency. Scottish Labour is a party fast running out of chances. Jim Murphy will be hoping members see him as one of those chances — and grab it while they can.

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

Gordon Brown: A flawed giant who got a rare second act in political life

“There are no second acts in American lives,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once lamented.

As an admirer of the American political scene – he idolises Robert F Kennedy and his “strain of moral commitment” – Gordon Brown could have been forgiven for assuming his defeat at the 2010 general election would similarly curtail his political career.

But politics has a way of surprising even the veteran and practised. The election of an SNP majority government at Holyrood in 2011 made a referendum on independence inevitable. Mr Brown’s role in the campaign was muted at first but in the final months, with the Yes vote creeping up in poll after poll, he was called upon to lend his integrity to a campaign that had alienated Labour voters with its negativity.

The mythology surrounding The Vow has long since loosed itself from the text of that pledge and those Nationalists who at the time of its publication dismissed it as a stunt not to be taken seriously now speak of it in reverent tones, as though Mr Brown had followed Moses down Mount Sinai with a scroll of revisions.

Where Brown really came into his own was not in a few lines on the front page of the Daily Record. His speech on the eve of referendum day was one of the most impassioned perorations any of us will see in our lifetimes. Every word burned with righteous fury. Gone were the standard punctuation marks of public speaking: The tempered pace, the modulations of tone, and the pauses deployed for solemn effect. There was no time for such niceties; there was a country to be saved.

Scotland voted No and the voters waited to see if Brown’s promise of “nothing less than a modern form of Scottish home rule” would come to pass. The Smith Commission, which reported last week, contained a substantial range of powers but if it represents a modern form of home rule, it is a modern one indeed. This is why Mr Brown has been the target of so much ire from the Nationalists. They perceive him to have scuppered their chances of independence then reneged on his pledge to the voters.

The truth is somewhat more nuanced. Mr Brown’s grandiloquent pronouncements were the words of a maverick let off the leash. He was in no position to deliver these promises but with the Union at stake, the No campaign allowed itself to forget such practicalities and sighed with relief as the popular former Labour leader roused the faithful. Whether he saved the UK, we will never know. However, we can say with certainty that his contribution was large and substantial and came at a time of crisis in Better Together.

Of course, we’re beginning at the end. Mr Brown stepped onto the political stage in 1983, at Labour’s lowest ebb. Some questioned at that time, not unreasonably, whether Labour would survive the decade. Mr Brown joined the vanguard of bright young things, at first surrounding Neil Kinnock and then running the party themselves, who dragged Labour out of electoral irrelevance and refashioned it into an election-winning machine, an outfit which Tony Blair aptly nominated the “political wing of the British people”.

That ambition was realised in the 1997 landslide, which didn’t so much redraw the map of British politics as take giant tin of red paint and pour it over every part of the UK. The election ushered in a new, reforming government and Brown kickstarted the changes by devolving control over interest rates to the Bank of England. This wasn’t your father’s Labour Party.

As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Brown set about creating new taxes and redistributing wealth by stealth, targeting Britain’s social and economic travails while keeping the City and the Daily Mail (more or less) on board. There was a national minimum wage, sustained economic growth, and the canny Scot’s prudence kept the UK out of the euro.

But Mr Brown’s flaws — political, economic, and personal — were many and came to overshadow his successes. He was a control freak; like all geniuses, frustrated at the mediocrity of those around him. He was intemperate of alternative points of view and disdainful of collective decision-making. The sketchwriters’ caricature of a dour, brooding Scot set English public opinion against him and every attempt to win it over ended badly, and often embarrassingly.

He flunked the courage test when he failed to call an election in 2007 and secure a mandate for his government. His raid on pensions has still not been forgiven by those who lost out. His deregulation of the financial markets, the relaxed attitude to casino mortgages, and explosion in public expenditure all caught up with him in the credit crunch and the recession that followed. And his tribal brand of Labourism made a coalition with the Liberal Democrats impossible after the 2010 election.

The description of him by one senior Labour figure as “psychologically flawed” was a cruel jibe but one that seemed plausible, even to those who bore him no particular ill will. He was a difficult personality, forever on the shortest of fuses. The jock-baiting of some sections of the London-based press was matched by a contempt amongst journalists north of the border. Brown never swayed the commentariat the way Blair did. His problem was that he cared and, like John Major before him, it got under his skin. Few senior politicians in living memory have seemed so consistently angry.

It is obvious to cast Brown as a latter-day Macbeth, pining darkly for an office which was his eventual undoing. But the heights of his achievements and the depths of his reversals cannot help but summon the cruelest ironies of Shakepearean hamartia. Had he remained in the post which he felt smothered his larger talents, he might have been remembered as a landmark Chancellor rather than a failed Prime Minister.

When we weigh the costs and benefits in the political balance sheet, there is a missing debt on the ledger. That is the Gordon Brown no one talks about. Under Brown, Labour passed the Equality Act, a progressive piece of anti-discrimination legislation. Paid holiday leave entitlements were increased, tax credits expanded, and parents given the right to request flexible working hours. When Labour came to power in 1997, one in every four children lived in relative poverty; when Brown left office in 2010, that figure had fallen to one in five.

Brown supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein but he was also the Prime Minister who set up the Chilcot Inquiry into the lead-up to military action. He was a champion for Africa, the kind that sent money instead of wearing sloganeering wristbands. When he entered Number Ten, the department of international development aid programme budget was just over £5bn. By the time he left, it had risen to more than £7.5bn.

And he endured every parent’s nightmare when his baby daughter Jennifer Jane died aged just ten days. Some fathers could not have endured another day of public life; they would have preferred a private and sombre existence. But Brown’s zeal for fighting poverty and strengthening society gave him a purpose and the drive to pursue it.

British prime ministers have tended to be realists rather than moralists and even the most patrician have shied away from invoking a higher purpose, or, Heaven forfend, a higher power in their ministry of the nation. This tradition was broken in different ways by the two great post-war prime ministers: Clement Attlee, who strove to build a New Jerusalem, and free-market evangelist Margaret Thatcher, in whose political theology the economic flaws of socialism were as nothing compared to its moral turpitude.

Amongst the generation of politicians who followed in the wake of ’45 and ’79, the two bitterest rivals both brought a moral impulse to bear on the business of government, though two very different strains of moralism. Tony Blair, despite the insistence of his spin doctor Alastair Campbell that “we don’t do God”, could often sound like an American president in his openness about his faith and the part it played in his governing philosophy. Blair’s was an Anglo-Catholic ethos that thought and acted big. New Labour, New Testament.

Brown was more Old Testament. Greed and selfishness, and the structural injustices which calcify because of them, were man’s original sin. Moral improvement channelled through the instrument of government could be our deliverance.

He has a mutual admiration for the conservative historian of Victorian virtue Gertrude Himmelfarb, for whose The Roads to Modernity he penned a foreword. Mr Brown told readers of Professor Himmelfarb’s veneration of the British and American Enlightenments — the ordered liberty and social commonalities of these two movements held in contrast to the radical and disruptive forces of the French Englightenment — that Britain’s contribution to modernity was “a desire to bring about a more decent, humane and compassionate society. Its temper was progressive and reformist; its proponents were social reformers and religious dissenters as well as academics and public intellectuals; and it celebrated the virtues and affections of ordinary people.”

Mr Brown proclaimed his comity with this cause, “progressive change resting on a deep moral sense… individual liberty hand in hand with social responsibility and active citizenship.” Left-wing intellectuals in the UK recoiled in horror at Brown’s seeming endorsement of what were once reformist principles but which have since been spurned as the moralism of bourgeois meddlers and judgemental Bible-clutchers.

In this myopia, the Left was lost for the words to describe Mr Brown, who had no helpful “illegal” war or close friendship with George W Bush to define him. The truth is that Mr Brown was never a socialist in the Marxist sense. He has always been a moral romantic, an impassioned ethicist of the human condition and prosthelytiser for the redemptive power of social bonds to heal fractured individualism. A sincere Christian and a devout democrat, his is a Son of the Manse socialism. In the Book of Brown, man is fallen but together men can get back up again.

“A just balance and scales are the Lord’s,” Proverbs tells us. “All the weights in the bag are His work.” In his farewell speech to colleagues and party workers on Monday night, Mr Brown remarked on the odd experience of reading his political obituaries before he had formally announced his resignation. Whether his flaws will come to outweigh his contributions will be debated by his partisans and his detractors. Historians, the scholarly revisers of received wisdom, will come in time to pass their judgement.

He fought a good fight, finished his course, and kept the faith. Mr Brown got his second act and in his continuing work on international development, global education, and girls’ rights, he may even find a third.

Originally published on STV News

Facebook Q&A and interview: Scottish Labour candidate Sarah Boyack

If Twitter is where nuance goes to die, Facebook is where crazy lets its hair down.

The unrestricted post-length allows the angry and the aggrieved to inveigh until their heart’s content.

Into this social media bear pit stepped Sarah Boyack, Lothian MSP and contender for Scottish Labour leader, in a live question and answer session on the STV News Facebook page on Thursday.

Ms Boyack is a seasoned political operator, with extensive experience of government and opposition; so she’s more than familiar with criticism and tough questions.

But criticism follows a line of logic and questions have question marks at the end of them. Facebook’s trade in stock is snide sideswipes, ALL-CAPS accusations, and personal insults that would make Old Firm fans blanch.

Still, any communications platform is what people make of it and Facebook is the biggest social media site in the world and, alongside posts about the Great British Bake-Off and pictures of folk’s tea, many use it to talk about the hot topics of the day. It has replaced the office watercooler and the steamie before that.

So politicians, who speak so often about national conversations on this or that, cannot afford to ignore the website where most voters conduct such conversations. This is something Sarah Boyack acknowledges and her ability to weave in and out of a minefield of invective and snark during her web chat was certainly impressive.

And despite taking place on the day the Smith Commission report was published, Ms Boyack managed to do that most old-fashioned of things in Scottish politics right now: Talk about something other than the constitution.

So she took questions from members of the public on delays in fatal accident inquiries, work and disability benefit assessments, and the electoral future of Scottish Labour.

STV is holding a series of Facebook Q&As. We’ll be joined shortly by Scottish Labour leadership candidate candidate Sarah Boyack. What would you like to ask her?

Posted by STV News on Thursday, 27 November 2014

Grilled – she’d have been burned at the stake if some of the more belligerent inquisitors had had their way – on Scottish Labour’s lack of autonomy from the UK party, she argued that the powers of Holyrood could be used to cut a distinctive path.

She told “Ally Aye Mltn”: “Our policies for the Scottish Parliament are agreed by our members in Scotland. We’re already talking about how we believe the powers in the Scottish Parliament could be better used, for example to create more jobs and training opportunities for young people, to make the living wage compulsory for public sector procurement and to end zero hours contracts. I’d also want to tackle the fact that rents have gone up by 40% over the last four years.”

Here is a Labour politician determined to move on from constitutional wrangling and start using the powers of the Scottish Parliament productively and progressively. Whether the Smith Commission settlement is satisfying enough to a divided electorate to allow that remains to be seen but in Sarah Boyack Scottish Labour has someone with the ideas and experience to get the party back onto the social justice agenda.

The leadership contest has been pitched as a left-right battle between trade union favourite Neil Findlay and Blairite MP Jim Murphy but Ms Boyack’s politics are less ideological and seem more geared towards what works and what helps. Still, her left-of-centre credentials are in no doubt. She is a lifelong Labour campaigner, a vocal supporter of Palestinian rights, and as transport minister under Henry McLeish introduced one of the most popular policies of devolution: free bus passes for the over-60s and people with disabilities.

She talks with some passion about an internationalist progressive politics, pointing to the Scottish doctors and aid workers who have gone to west Africa to fight the Ebola crisis and Scotland’s relationship, started under Jack McConnell, with Malawi.

Far from the madding, and maddening, crowd of Facebook, she talks to me about her vision for Scottish Labour. It is a social democratic one – she describes herself as a socialist – and coalesces around what has been the Big Idea of her leadership campaign, a new energy infrastructure programme.

Outlining her proposals, she says: “We could create thousands of jobs if we had a proper national infrastructure programme on energy efficiency. There are particular challenges we’ve got in Scotland. We’ve got a colder, rougher climate but we’ve also got a lot of people who are not connected to the gas grid, so energy prices for them are expanding at a rate of noughts.

“In the Western Isles, we don’t just have fuel poverty, we have extreme fuel poverty. So it’s something that could be relevant across the country; it’s about creating new jobs and apprenticeships. There are a lot of small companies who could be very effective if we had a national programme.”

This, she says, must be backed up by investment in renewables as a climate-positive and cost-effective way of driving down energy bills.

She tells me: “The other thing I’d like to do is make the most of the renewables technology that’s out there. If you’re in the rest of Europe, a lot of those technologies are seen as day-to-day technologies. We got companies that build renewables kits in Scotland that don’t have a market in Scotland. We got to change that.

“So, there’s jobs for the private sector in the renewables industry. There’s a whole raft of opportunities in terms of improving people’s lives. There are still people who are in debt from last year’s Christmas expenditure so sorting out the cost of fuel and getting in a Labour government would freeze people’s bills. But in the long term it’s got to be about making people’s houses more energy efficient.”

While the SNP-run administration at Holyrood talks of “holding Westminster’s feet to the fire” over more powers for MSPs, Ms Boyack wants to hold ministers’ feet to the fire on social and economic policy. Commentators have predicted that whoever emerges victorious in the Scottish Labour leadership contest faces the daunting task of taking on a popular Nationalist First Minister who speaks sincerely and convincingly about equality and fairness. Former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell, under whom Ms Boyack served in the transport and environment briefs, recently warned his party that while Alex Salmond was “essentially a right-wing populist posing as a social democrat”, his successor actually “is a social democrat”.

She sees the task as one of challenging the Scottish Government on what she deems its inauthentically progressive policies, such as the council tax freeze which is considered regressive by a wide range of critics.

She explains: “Our job as the key opposition party is holding the Scottish Government to account and asking the tough questions. For example, I have the brief of local government in the Scottish Parliament and for seven-and-a-half years we’ve had an underfunded council tax freeze. That means we’ve lost 70,000 jobs in local government; we’ve lost services that people on low incomes and modest incomes rely on; there are now charges for services that used to be free.

“So I think we have to dig in and call out the SNP for not having done enough to support people on low and modest incomes. Particularly in the aftermath of the bankers’ crash, people are struggling to make ends meet and that’s why the fact that the SNP haven’t moved fast on the living wage – there’s more that could have been done over the past few years – and an anti-poverty strategy needs to cut right across government.”

There was a jarring note in our chat, a turn of phrase that caught me off-guard and captured the seismic changes afoot in Scottish politics. Ms Boyack told me she wanted “to make Scottish Labour a force in Scottish politics again” and I was struck by the awesome unrealness of this moment we’re living in. Scottish Labour, once the political wing of the Scottish people, has fallen from grace. It has lost the last two elections to the Scottish Parliament, in 2011 by a landslide that saw the SNP take seat after seat in Labour’s central belt heartlands. The polls predict a drubbing in next May’s general election, with one survey putting their MP contingent down to just four. Its referendum alliance with the Tories against independence seems to be costing Labour dearly amongst previously rock-solid demographics.

Who, under such circumstances, would want to be Scottish Labour leader? Ms Boyack recognises the problem but she sounds single-minded about tackling the challenges head-on.

She tells me: “We need to rebuild, we need to reach out and talk to people whether they voted Yes or No in the referendum.

“We need to reconnect with our traditional Labour voters but we also have to relate to people who haven’t currently got a fixed party. There were a large number of people voting in the referendum who weren’t tied to any one party.

“With the experience I’ve got, having served in the first cabinet with Donald Dewar and then for Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell as well as being in our front-bench team for the last seven-and-a-half years, I know we need to be a sharper opposition and we need to be working now to set out a policy programme for 2016.

“So if I was leader of Scottish Labour, those would be my priorities. We need to rebuild, reconnect, and get back on the front foot again.”

However the internal leadership election goes, Scottish Labour could do with some of Sarah Boyack’s passion and determination.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Murray Cheek by Creative Commons 3.0.

A sneak peek at David Torrance’s independence referendum diary

It’s Wednesday, so David Torrance has a new book out.

The hipster historian is the Scottish commentariat’s answer to Dame Barbara Cartland, though his similarly prolific output comes without those glorious lashings of fragrant fuchsia. We think.

La Torrance’s latest effort is 100 Days of Hope and Fear: How Scotland’s Independence Referendum was Lost and Won, an observer’s diary of the referendum campaign.

He has kindly agreed to allow us to publish an exclusive extract.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Got up at 5.32am and rode my Brompton bicycle to Bikram Yoga. Filed 1000 words for the Scottish Review, 600 for the Herald, and 250 on Sylvester McCoy and the Barnett Formula for the Doctor Who fanzine.

I’ve been asked to go on Scotland Tonight to talk about some referendum question that’s been announced. I agreed as long as the make-up girl is under strict instructions not to touch The Hair. Also, I stressed that I would only appear as an impartial analyst because I don’t have a stance on Alex Salmond’s deranged proposal to break up our United Kingdom and turn the Scottish economy into an agrarian socialist dystopia.

Presenter Rona Dougall keeps bringing the discussion back to the wording of the question on the ballot paper but it’s clear to all that what Scotland really wants to talk about is my Merino wool two-tone Argyle sweater with tasteful tassles.

Stupid STV make-up girl touched The Hair. I feel violated. All the taxi driver who took me back home from the studio wants to talk about is EU accession criteria for applicant countries which have seceded from member states. He has no idea the kind of pain I’m in right now.

Console myself that I’m flying out to Tuvalu tomorrow. I am covering their ballot on recycled toilet paper. The strength of the Yes vote will surely give an indication of where Scotland’s pro-independence campaign stands in the polls.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Nelson Mandela has died. A very sad day. I emailed the Herald pitching an obituary based on my close personal relationship with a copy of the Long Walk to Freedom that’s on the shelf next to my critically acclaimed biography of Margaret Thatcher. Mrs Thatcher wasn’t my kind of Tory. She believed in all this mad right-wing stuff about free markets and small government instead of wearing Tweed and knowing the best restaurants to eat in. That’s what Conservatism is really all about. Still, it’s the greatest contribution to Thatcher studies ever written by me or anyone else and a steal at just £34.17.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

I have agreed to co-author a book with the New Statesman’s Jamie Maxwell. He’s a Marxist but a bit of all right so I said yes. But not Yes to independence because I’m impartial.

Segwayed to Hemma for coffee with Alistair Carmichael. He’s the Scottish Secretary but not one of the ones from my history of the Scottish Secretaries, retailing on Amazon right now for £48.06, postage and packaging included.

Caught a plane to Saint Kitts and Nevis, where they are holding a referendum on badger-baiting that could provide some insight into our own plebiscite.

STV’s political correspondent Claire Stewart updated her Facebook status tonight. She’s a sweet girl but shops in Marks & Spencer and drinks white wine instead of Absinthe. So. Bour. Geois.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Alan Bissett has viciously attacked me over a column I wrote subtly suggesting he might be a budding comandante in the Nationalist concentration camps that will inevitably arise in a separate Scotland. I don’t know what his problem is. I quoted from his poems where he expresses his support for the Scots “language” and stupid tartan man-skirts. What more evidence do you need? I’m totally impartial about this and everything else related to the referendum.

The whole thing reminds me of the book I wrote about David Steel, which is available from Amazon for just £19.84. (£99.99 for signed copies.)

Met Chris Deerin from the Daily Mail for a drink in Panda & Sons. I ordered a Belle Époque Flip with just a soupçon of unrefined coconut water. Chris asked for a pint of whatever was on tap. He’s so midtown.

Chris’s hair is soft yet sculpted but no match for mine.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

I arrived at STV for their results programme wearing my three-piece suit. They wouldn’t let me take my pipe rack and unicycle into the studio with me. They are not hip.

The No campaign won by an impressive ten-point margin, just as I predicted all along while everyone else got it wrong.

I cycled home while listening to my Bislama language tape in preparation for my upcoming fact-finding mission to Vanuatu. The Guardian is interested in a feature on how their parliamentary vote on environmentally sustainable traffic lights could predict the outcome in Catalonia’s upcoming referendum. Which the Spanish government has wisely refused to recognise. Just as Cameron should have done in Scotland. Though I’m of course impartial about the matter.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Alex Salmond has denounced me in a letter published in the The Herald. I will never be able to show my Lancome for Men moisturised face in Tchai-Ovna again. It’s all about the bestselling biography I wrote, Salmond: Against the Odds, which will be out in paperback with a revised afternote sometime tomorrow afternoon. I’m going to be the bigger man though and rise above it. I think tweeting the link 20, 30 times is sufficient.

Friday, 26 September 2014

I’m often told I look like Matt Damon but he’s never written the authoritative biography of Noel Skelton, has he? And if he had, it wouldn’t have been described by critics as “scholarly”, “engaging”, and “visionary”.

I don’t like to bang on about the letter Alex Salmond wrote about me. I just show people the copy I keep folded up in my pocket and let them be the judge.


Of course, I jest about the bouffanted Buddy Holly lookalike. His diary is deliciously gossipy, entertainingly indiscreet, and a must-read for political geeks as well as those who want to see what goes on behind the scenes of Scotland’s politics and media.

You can get a copy of David’s book here

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

Leadership debate returns Labour to the devolutionist cause

At some point after setting up the Scottish Parliament, Labour forgot that it had done so.

The party that was the political driving force behind the Scottish Constitutional Convention and that campaigned on and delivered the most far-reaching constitutional change since the Fifth Reform Act, became complacent and began to drift.

There were dedicated Labour first ministers — Donald Dewar and Jack McConnell — who wanted to use the powers of devolution to a purpose and they were served by industrious and astute ministers (diverse talents like Susan Deacon, Andy Kerr, and Tom McCabe).

But the party as a whole, particularly the mixed bag of MPs it sends to Westminster, settled into a self-assured funk. Devolution had been delivered but what did that matter now anyway; finally, there was a UK Labour government.

The junior comrades at the bottom of the Royal Mile could pass warm and fuzzy laws — Malawi good, smoking bad — but Labour at Westminster was where the real power rested.

While some were contemptuous, others bordered on the hysterical in their antipathy towards devolution. Midway through the referendum campaign, one Labour irredentist predicted belligerent triumph: “Losers should lose. The dream consequence of this loss should be a steady erosion of Holyrood’s powers until it can be abolished and the previous efficient unitary form of government restored.”

This misadventure has hurt Labour’s support in Scotland and handed the SNP an advantage it has been only too happy to pick up.

The contest to lead Scottish Labour has taken place in measured tones but that conceals a quiet devolutionist fightback under way in the party. That rearguard action broke out into the open on Tuesday night’s Scotland Tonight, a half-hour special in which the three Scottish Labour leadership candidates were grilled by John MacKay.

Jim Murphy reaffirmed his shift on full devolution of income tax, which he now supports as long as the Barnett Formula that funds Scottish spending can be safeguarded. This reverses Scottish Labour’s tepid submission to the Smith Commission, which call for only part of income tax to be handed to Holyrood.

Earlier in the day, Mr Murphy said he would use this power to impose a 50% tax on those earning more than £150,000 a year, a redistributionist policy that outflanks the SNP on the left. He had not told UK leader Ed Miliband or shadow chancellor Ed Balls about this pledge, he said; they could “read about it in the papers”. A shameless soundbite, to be sure, but an effective one that sends the message that Scottish Labour under Jim Murphy would be a branch office no more. The centre of gravity would move from a few green benches in Westminster to the Scottish Parliament.

Even Neil Findlay, still sceptical about full income tax devolution, hinted that he could agree to such a move if the Smith Commission report due on Thursday protects the Barnett Formula.

Sarah Boyack kept the theme going in addressing the failures of the (successful) No campaign. She said Labour should have been “on the front foot” on further devolution and “campaigning to talk about how we wanted to strengthen Scotland within the UK, a stronger more accountable Scottish Parliament”.

And the three candidates set out bold policies that showed ambition for using a stronger Scottish Parliament as an instrument for social change. Ms Boyack outlined a radical, job-creating energy scheme; Mr Findlay urged measures to “eradicate” youth unemployment, build 50,000 council houses, and replace the national minimum wage with the living wage.

Here was Scottish Labour remembering the maxim (either Ron Davies’ or Donald Dewar’s, depending on who you ask) that “devolution is a process and not an event”. Whoever wins the top job has to keep moving that process forward, showing ambition for further devolution beyond and after the Smith Commission. The internal pressure group Labour for Scotland has put forward radical ideas that deserve a hearing from the party’s next leader.

If Labour can reclaim the mantle of the devolution party, it will be on its way to the political rehabilitation it so badly needs.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Finlay McWalter by Creative Commons 3.0.

Sturgeon’s attack on Labour foreshadows the next election

PERTH, United Kingdom

You were supposed to take two messages from Nicola Sturgeon’s first conference speech as leader of the Scottish National Party.

First, independence remains very much on the agenda and the constitutional question will rumble on.

Second, hers will be a party and a Scottish Government that drives its tanks onto Scottish Labour’s lawn like never before.

The pledges on free childcare and more money for the NHS were hardly earth-shattering, rehashing existing policy and promises from the White Paper, but they went down very well with the faithful. (It turns out free childcare can be delivered without independence and the NHS isn’t going to be privatised after all. Who knew?)

She told the party what it wanted to hear — and no doubt what she sincerely believes — that, despite the outcome of the referendum, Scotland will be independent sooner or later.

She rallied: “Our country is alive, engaged, restless for the next stage of our journey. 1.6m Yes votes for independence is an achievement our forebears could only dream of. But it becomes our base camp and from here the summit is in sight. The challenge is great, but our determination is even greater. Because the prize is prosperity, equality, opportunity. The prize is independence.”

The real fire came, though, when she turned her guns on Labour.

She told delegates: “Labour was once the party of progress. Now it is just a barrier to progress. Next May, we’ve got the chance to clear the Labour roadblock out of the way.”

Later, she added: “I want us to be known as the party of economic and social progress as well. In the 20th century, that progressive spirit was the province of a radically reforming Labour Party. Those days are gone.

“The referendum put beyond any doubt that, for Labour, the trappings of Westminster power are far more important than the pursuit of a fairer Scotland. If there had been any doubt at all, the alliance with the Tories in the No campaign removed it once and for all.”

Most blunt of all was her pronouncement that Labour had “lost its soul”.

The polls have the SNP far ahead of Labour at both Westminster and Holyrood and this speech was the appetiser for both campaigns. Real Labour is dead. What remains is a pale imitation, a shell, a political machine with no purpose except the retention of office.

The SNP, she was saying, is the Labour Party now.

Scottish Labour will dismiss this as rhetoric and wishful thinking. Margaret Curran will say it was the Nationalists, don’t forget, who brought down James Callaghan’s Labour government and ushered Margaret Thatcher into power in 1979. Jackie Baillie will recall that, for much of their existence, the SNP were known as the “Tartan Tories” and their fondness for corporation tax cuts and the socially regressive council tax freeze prove they haven’t really changed. Asked about Sturgeon’s appeal to the Labour core vote, Jim Murphy will say the SNP doesn’t believe in nationalism as a means to achieve social justice, it feigns a belief in social justice to achieve nationalism.

There is much to be said for these arguments but they sound, even to this neutral observer, outdated and unreflective of the seismic changes Scottish politics has undergone in the last few years.

Then Sturgeon went after the greatest of all Scottish Labour greatest hits.

She contended: “They’ve got no positive case to make, so they will fall back on the same desperate mantra as before. You’ve got to vote Labour, they’ll say, to keep the Tories out.

“That is the biggest con-trick in Scottish politics and we must not fall for it again. Scotland did vote Labour at the last general election, but we still ended up with the Tories.

“And if the people of England vote Tory again next May, it won’t matter how we vote. A Tory government is what we’ll get. Or worse, a Tory/UKIP government.”

Instead, she appealed to the people who will be watching her speech on YouTube or hearing about it on Facebook during their lunch hour in the next few days, give the SNP the balance of power at Westminster and we will force a minority Labour government to devolve more powers to Scotland and act progressively on reserved matters.

If I were a member of the Scottish Labour Party – such as that remain – I would read every word of Nicola Sturgeon’s speech before casting my vote in the leadership election. Then I would vote for the candidate who seems most up to the challenge of facing such a formidable foe.

In this Labour-targeting context, the speech was markedly left-wing. There were teasers about economic growth and enterprise but the main feature was social democracy.

Ms Sturgeon promised: “The agenda of a fair society underpinned by a strong economy is one that will be the daily business of the party and government I lead. In two weeks’ time, I will set out our programme for government – the legislation and policies that will shape our priorities until the next election.

“At its heart will be radical action on land reform, empowering communities, raising attainment in our schools and tackling some of the deep injustices in our society, like domestic abuse and gender inequality. Labour may have abandoned social justice. But in the SNP, the people of Scotland will always know they have a party of true social democracy.”

The optimistic vision was incongruous with the setting for conference. A one-time Tory bastion turned Nationalist heartland, Perth is the town we must pretend is a city, a slate-grey, charity-shop studded conurbation left behind by the financial thrust of Edinburgh and the cultural vibrancy of Glasgow. This middling economy is as nothing compared to parts of Glasgow, Dundee and Lanarkshire and their seemingly intractable socioeconomic challenges. It underscores the task the Nationalists’ new figurehead faces.

And by no means are all the cards decked in the SNP’s favour. They lost the referendum and all the stirring speeches and ginned-up members in the world won’t change that. More than half the country took a look at the SNP’s prospectus for independence and said No Thanks. The 44.7% are incensed at the thought that The Vow might not be kept. The 55.3% will be no less exercised if they feel their democratic will is being disregarded by a party that acts like it wants to dissolve the people and elect another.

During the referendum, the SNP’s critics charged that the Scottish Government had turned its attentions from governing to campaigning for independence. Scotland, former Labour leader Johann Lamont liked to say, was “on pause”.

A simplistic soundbite, perhaps, but one not entirely unacquainted with the facts. After seven years of SNP government, the policy prize cabinet is not quite bare but there’s more than a little shelf space left. The scorecard for the health, education, and justice briefs are especially mixed.

The importance of the NHS and childcare pledges, reheated though they may be, is that they project an SNP which cares about more than just the constitution.

And while the Nationalists trumpeted the dynamism of grassroots movements in the referendum, in other policy areas they have all too often been centralist and top-down, to say nothing of heavy-handed.

The release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was controversial, especially after he lived for almost three years rather than the three months assured, but it could at least be touted as an act of liberalism. No such excuses for the ill-conceived Offensive Behaviour Act, a case study in the limits of good intentions, or authoritarian pushes on tobacco display, state guardians, and the abolition of corroboration.

The SNP, like all nationalist parties, can suffer from an ambivalence towards liberty: It can see limitless potential in national independence but is more circumspect about personal independence, fearful that individuals want the wrong freedoms and would misuse them anyway.

Sturgeon has an opportunity to prove that the SNP truly is a modern, social democratic party by moving on from such clunky statism. Regulation and redistribution can be pursued cooperatively, from the bottom up, and believing in the power of government need not mean diminishing the autonomy of the individual.

The new SNP leader was born to give speeches and this was one of her best. She was warm, witty, girder-strong, and sincere. She proved that she has vision and the determination to see it through. No wonder the SNP is on such a high.

The soon-to-be First Minister had delegates cheering her every syllable. What comes next is the hard part: Winning over the voters.

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

Welsh nationalists look to Scotland for a way forward

PERTH, United Kingdom

Here in Perth, the SNP is basking in the glory of its referendum defeat.

Where its opponents expected the Nationalists to sink into in-fighting and bitter recriminations, the party has never been in better shape. A membership boost of 65,000 has made it the third largest party in the UK and the polls put it far in the lead for the 2015 and 2016 elections. With a popular, charismatic new leader and the Scottish Labour party in crisis, there has never been a better time to be a Scottish Nationalist.

Four hundred miles south in Cardiff, the picture is very different for the Welsh nationalist movement.

Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales, holds just three out of 40 Commons seats and 11 of 60 in the National Assembly, where it has been relegated to the second party of opposition after the Tories. In recent months, they have been polling behind the Tories and even Ukip for the general election.

Support for independence is miniscule; Plaid would bite your hand off for 44.7%. A poll conducted after the Scottish referendum found only three per cent of Welsh voters backing a breakaway. (Though support for expanding Wales’ modest devolution settlement has increased over the years and around half of voters now want to see the Assembly get more powers.)

But Plaid Cymru has something going for it in the form of its leader, Leanne Wood. The probation officer turned university lecturer turned Assembly Member was elected leader of the party in 2012 by standing on a platform of equal commitment to independence and social justice.

Back in 2012, plucking for a republican socialist (Wood was once ejected from the Assembly for calling Queen Elizabeth II “Mrs Windsor”) looked like a radical, or even ill-judged move. In 2014, however, fringe parties and radical beliefs are storming the mainstream, with the SNP dominating Scottish politics and Ukip and the Greens in the ascendancy south of the border.

While Plaid Cymru is still awaiting its breakthrough, it has a confident and fluent leader whose facility for speaking movingly and convincingly about fairness, equality, and democracy, however obvious the comparison may sound, cannot help but recall Nicola Sturgeon.

SNP members seem to make this connection too and display real affection for Wood, as demonstrated by the sustained standing ovation she received when she took to the stage at the SNP conference on Saturday.

Wood, who visited Scotland several times to campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum, congratulated the delegates on inspiring what she called a “democratic revolution”, telling them: “Not only have you inspired thousands of previously disillusioned people in Scotland, your grassroots movement and its enthusiasm has reverberated far beyond your country.”

Turning to next May’s general election, she said the nationalist parties were “the alternatives to the four shades of Westminster grey” and called for them to be included in the TV debates.

She said: “From the tremendous momentum that has followed the referendum, no one can be in any doubt that this isn’t the end of Scotland’s journey, in fact it is just the beginning. Both Plaid Cymru and the SNP face a UK election is a matter of a few short months and already attempts are being made to lock out the alternatives to the four shades of Westminster grey.

“I reiterate today, it is undemocratic and unacceptable for broadcasters to deny the public the opportunity to scrutinise all major party leaders, from all the nations of Britain. And I actually think it’s important for viewers in England to know what our priorities will be when the SNP and Plaid Cymru hold the balance of power at Westminster after the next election.”

She repeated a theme that ran through the SNP conference: that Westminster, as a political system and a model of government, has failed even if politicians at Westminster have yet to realise that.

In remarks that were cheered enthusiastically by delegates, she said: “As members of both Plaid Cymru and the SNP we know, and we have known for years that Westminster is broken. It’s why we want to bring government home to the nations because power held by the people is how the best decisions are reached.

“And this is where the Westminster parties are still yet to grasp the irreversible change that has occurred in these islands: It is the peoples of the nations of the UK who are sovereign, not Westminster.”

She proposed a twin solution to this democratic deficit: Devolution of more powers to Holyrood and the Senedd and a new consensual model of government that would see the UK Government work cooperatively with the devolved administrations on reserved matters.

She told delegates: “It is fair and democratic that any decisions made about the purchase and location of weapons of mass destruction require universal support among the governments of the UK.

“I want a reformed UK ministerial council – consisting of the governments of the UK – to include a provision whereby the wishes of our people are not just heard but adhered to.

“Reserved powers should mean shared powers and let me make clear that a Plaid Cymru government from 2016 will insist on a major decisions at a UK level requiring consensus between the governments – or at the very least an option of an opt-out.”

In a particularly striking and effective turn of phrase, she remarked: “The imbalance experiment is over and it has failed.”

Wood laid out her platform for a “new industrial revolution” for Wales that would bring new powers but also allow the Assembly to create opportunities and prosperity for the benefit of all parts of the country.

Welsh public opinion may be set against independence at this juncture but Leanne Wood’s course of campaigning for enhanced devolution to forge an egalitarian society, one that can be held out as a model of further bounties that could come with independence, could pay off in the way a similar strategy brought the SNP to the brink of a Yes vote two months ago.

“It is the moral factor which decides the fate of nations,” wrote Gwynfor Evans, icon of an older, more confrontational Welsh nationalism. “Man’s spirit can prove greater than the power of leviathan.” Wood has understood that an appeal to patriotism and national spirit is not enough and that for an independence movement to succeed the moral factor must be social justice.

The Welsh national movement has a long way to go to replicate the success of the SNP but it has a leader with the skill, determination, and insight to take the cause forward.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Gareth Llewellyn, Plaid Cymru by Creative Commons 3.0. 

Nicola Sturgeon is a tenacious leader for a party that won’t back down

Cometh the hour, cometh the woman.

Nicola Sturgeon took the stage in Perth on Friday to rapturous applause.

She had just been announced as the new leader of the SNP, elected unopposed to replace Alex Salmond.

It is rare in UK politics for an outgoing party leader who is overwhelmingly popular among members to be replaced by someone who attracts similar acclaim. But Ms Sturgeon is a superstar to the rank and file.

And she rode that energy to outline the priorities of her leadership.

The Scottish Government, under her charge, would continue the economic and social policies which had delivered a landslide in the 2011 Holyrood elections and seen the SNP enjoy eye-watering leads in the opinion polls.

She also set her party the aim of winning a majority of Scottish seats in the 2015 general election. This would help the Nationalists ensure referendum promises of extra powers for Scotland.

“That vow will be delivered in full,” she said with steely determination. “That is our pledge.”

But this was an SNP leader speaking to an SNP conference and so she came to the ultimate priority, the dream, the cause.

The SNP would, the new leader said, “keep making the case for Scotland being an independent country”.

“I believe today as strongly as I ever have that we should be independent,” she told delegates. “And I believe today as strongly as I ever have, perhaps more strongly than I ever have, that we will be independent.”

To this end, the SNP leader and First Minister designate unveiled plans to allow non-members to stand in the next Westminster election under the SNP banner. This falls short of the Yes Alliance touted by the minor parties but it is aimed at stopping a split in the pro-independence vote and, Ms Sturgeon hopes, returning as many SNP MPs as possible next May.

This confident agenda was impressive and underscored once again that the SNP is the vision party of Scotland.

But the Nationalists must show caution. There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance and in voicing their determination to achieve independence they must avoid the impression that they are contemptuous of the referendum result. The majority of Scots voted No on September 18; they expect their sovereign, democratically-expressed will to be respected.

In making the case for a second referendum, Ms Sturgeon already has a model: Alex Salmond’s 2004 strategy. That approach placed the emphasis on building up the confidence of the voters in the SNP’s ability to run domestic affairs. Once that was won, Mr Salmond figured, the Nationalists would get a fairer hearing on the constitution.

Ten years on, many of the voters of Scotland have confidence in the SNP’s ability to run the health service, schools, and the justice system but not enough believe in its prospectus for independence. It is here where the faith and goodwill of the majority of Scotland must be earned. That won’t be done by shrillness or arrogance. It won’t come about by Nationalists talking only to other Nationalists. It will happen when the SNP understands why Scotland voted No and addresses those concerns to change the minds and win the votes needed to achieve its first and most important principle, independence.

That is the task Ms Sturgeon faces. Tomorrow she will give her first formal address to conference as leader and will have to begin to outline how she plans to succeed.

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

‘Thinking outside the bubble’: Analysis on the new SNP leadership

PERTH, United Kingdom

Conventional wisdom has been having a bad few weeks since the dawn of the New Scotland.

The latest manifestation of this is the election of Stewart Hosie as the deputy leader of the SNP.

Scottish Government transport minister Keith Brown had been seen as the favourite in the race to replace Nicola Sturgeon, who is moving on to higher office.

Mr Brown is a capable minister, fluent communicator, and a Falklands veteran who commands respect across the spectrum

Mr Hosie, MP for Dundee East, and Angela Constance, Scottish Government cabinet secretary for training, youth and women’s employment, were seen as conscientious and dedicated party figures but unlikely to defeat Mr Brown.

But the membership of the SNP, new and shiny and very, very big indeed, had other ideas.

So Mr Hosie’s victory can be seen as a positive vote for him but also, in a sense, a vote against inside-the-bubble thinking.

If Mr Brown was the candidate best equipped to reach out to swing voters and ‘Soft Noes’, Mr Hosie is the grassroots choice; a Nationalist’s Nationalist.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. Once elected First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon will face pressure to tack centre ahead of the Westminster and Holyrood elections. Middle Scotland, which voted No, will have to be wooed and soothed into the polling stations.

Here Mr Hosie could serve an important role as the core vote’s man at the top of the party. As Sturgeon plays for the undecided, her deputy can sound rallying cries to reassure the committed that the SNP remains true to the cause.

The new man in the job has the big shoes of a very successful woman to follow. Time will tell if he can match Nicola Sturgeon’s legacy as second-in-command and contribute the kind of support and energy to her new leadership as she did to Alex Salmond’s.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Nou Uiserr by Creative Commons 3.0.

Choose to shout or choose to listen on Israel and Palestine

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

An Israeli diplomat, Yiftah Curiel, visited Scotland for the first time on Wednesday. He set aside some of his time to speak to students at the University of Glasgow about Israel, Europe, trade, culture, and peace.

But during his talk, some people decided they didn’t like Mr Curiel, his country, what he was saying, or some combination of all three, and began heckling the speaker and brought his remarks to a halt.

Eventually, the discussion had to be moved to another location, where it went ahead without further incident. The university said it was aware of the disturbance, which involved only a tiny minority of students and saw no one physically harmed.

Mr Curiel said afterwards: “It was good to meet and discuss Israel and Europe with students at Glasgow Uni. The event took place despite an attempt by a small number of students to hijack freedom of speech on campus for their narrow, violent agenda. Those who preclude dialogue are necessarily part of the problem and not the solution.

“Those who preach hatred and division, are on a dangerous path to violent incitement. It was sad and disappointing to realise that freedom of expression, a pillar of academic discourse and British tradition, could be so easily trampled by a small group of extremists on a UK campus.”

This is a common experience for representatives of the Jewish state on university campuses in the West. Speakers, invited to engage in dialogue, are met not just by healthy protest but opponents so antagonistic towards Israel they seek to shout down anyone who offers an alternative perspective.

Another Israeli diplomat Ishmael Khladi was meted out the same treatment during a speech at the University of Edinburgh in 2011. Mr Khaldi, a Bedouin Muslim who ran a Jewish/Bedouin outreach programme before going to work for Israel’s foreign ministry, has a unique story to tell but the people who shouted him down were not prepared to listen.

The routine deployment of the heckler’s veto is symptomatic of an encroaching epistemic closure amongst liberal-leftists on the subject of Israel. Like their right-wing counterparts on matters like Europe and immigration, self-styled “progressives” have made up their mind and are not willing to see blissful certainty disrupted by the sinister temptations of doubt.

Historically, support for Israel, and before that for the re-establishment of a Jewish polity in what had come to be known as Palestine, was a mainstream position for left-of-centre people. The Zionist pioneers who risked imprisonment or death in their campaigns to ingather Jews, oppressed and hounded in much of the Diaspora, seemed natural comrades for socialists in the West.

Their kibbutz ideology was the most complete form of collectivism outside the Soviet Union, they were fighting the imperialist British occupation forces in Mandate Palestine, and antisemitism was still for many on the Left a supreme evil against which exacting vigilance was essential.

The Six-Day War in 1967 marked a turning point. Israel pre-empted a coordinated invasion by the surrounding Arab nations, aimed at destroying the 19-year-old Jewish state. At the cease of hostilities six days later, Israel held the Sinai and Gaza (since returned to Egypt and the Palestinians, respectively) as well as a united Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank, previously known as Judea and Samaria and considered the cradle of Jewish history.

To Israel, it had redrawn new, secure borders in a defensive war. But to swelling numbers of those on the left, the socialist Zionist utopia had become an occupier and, worse, a satellite state of the hated United States. The rise of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and the use of terrorism against Israeli military and civilian targets, became a dividing line in Western politics. If you were pro-Israel, you were anti-Palestinian and if you were pro-Palestinian, you were endorsing terrorism. The continuing failure of the peace process down the years has only reinforced this polarisation.

It is against this backdrop that Yiftah Curiel and other Israeli diplomats do their jobs. Hence the anger and shouting and accusations. What is at stake matters a great deal and both sides have spokespeople and activists determined to make their narrative the official truth.

The mild-mannered and soft-spoken Mr Curiel was on a visit to Scotland (his first) to meet students, academics and journalists. He serves as the spokesperson for the Embassy of Israel in London. He was educated at Tel Aviv University, holding degrees in law, political science and the arts, and worked for the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz before joining the country’s ministry of foreign affairs, where he has held positions on nuclear non-proliferation, culture, and communications. He was born in Israel, as were his parents, but his Viennese grandfather Leo joined the British Army during World War II and fought the Nazis, ending up in a prisoner of war camp.

In the UK, Israel is viewed almost exclusively through the prism of the Palestinian conflict but there are strong trade ties between the Jewish nation and the UK and Mr Curiel was keen to talk about the value those connections bring to both countries. The UK is Israel’s number one export market in Europe and number four in the world, with trade between the two countries doubling in recent years and now standing at almost £4bn. The Middle Eastern country is feted for its innovative medical and hi-tech sectors, two industries where Scotland is finding itself more in demand on the world stage and Mr Curiel sees opportunities for the two countries to work together in these areas.

For Israel, trade is a not just about economic advantage. It is a key form of “soft diplomacy”.

Mr Curiel explained: “In order to make the relationship between any two countries meaningful, and this goes especially for Israel and Europe in a specific context, you have to fill it with as much content as you can. That includes trade, academic cooperation, and cultural cooperation. I think that, given Israel’s history with Europe, there were very high points — Jews flourished in Europe for a long time and the founder of Israel, Herzl, was a European liberal Jew.

“On the other hand, there’s a darker part of that history in the destruction of almost all of European Jewry in the Holocaust. So the relationship is not just any bilateral relationship; it has deep historical aspects. We need to fill that relationship not with these historical extremes but with positive, day-to-day content and that is with trade and culture. That is the best way to influence one another. That’s the best bridge between countries.”

Yet, as ever in the Middle East, we can set the conflict aside only for so long. Because trade and commerce have become the new battleground between Israel and the Palestinians and their respective partisans. A pro-Palestinian movement for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns to disrupt trade and cultural and academic relationships with Israel and Israeli organisations. Israel, the BDS movement contends, must be isolated in the international community to compel it to comply with international law.

Mr Curiel rejects this movement and its aims, arguing that it not only fails to alienate Israel but undermines hopes for peace on both sides.

He maintains: “There is nothing wrong with being pro-Palestinian. You don’t have to be either pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. That’s the most important message I’d like to bring. But I think the people who try to be divisive and incite are dangerous. BDS is not denting trade, which has doubled in recent years, and it’s not denting any part of the real relationship.

“But what it is doing is sending a worrying message to Israelis that no matter what you do, the people who hate you will continue to hate you. One example is the Sodastream factory that was boycotted for a long time, even though it employed hundreds of Palestinians at equal wages, and now because of financial reasons it’s moving to the Negev and BDS has announced that they’ll continue to boycott it. That gives you a real insight into the aims of BDS. I wish that the people who are pro-Palestinian here in Glasgow would realise that it takes dialogue and it takes listening to the other side if we are ever going to reach peace.”

The need for dialogue and compromise has been at the fore once again in recent weeks. Tensions have flared up around Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism but also the location of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the past month has seen six Israelis murdered in terrorist attacks. The Temple Mount is the subject of almost constant rumour and a common theme is the claim by one Islamist group or another that Israel is about to defile or destroy Al-Aqsa. Such is the sensitivity of this one hill in Israel’s capital that it is administered by a neighbouring Arab country and while Muslims are free to pray there, Jews are forbidden from doing so and can ascend only at select times.

Mr Curiel said his government was determined to bring the recent unrest to a peaceful end.

He said: “Israel has maintained the status quo on the Temple Mount since 1967, since Jerusalem was reunited. That status quo is very clear and simple, meaning Muslims pray in Al-Aqsa while non-Muslims, such as Jews and tourists, are allowed at specific times and are not allowed to pray. That status quo has never changed and it hasn’t changed in the past few weeks, despite what people are saying.

“We are now trying to calm these tensions and our prime minister Netanyahu has reiterated what I am saying. He has spoken with the King of Jordan, whose organisation the Waqf sees over the Temple Mount. It’s extremely dangerous to make these statements of holy wars because these statements can bring individuals to take actions like we’ve seen in the past few weeks.”

Before our time is up we come, inevitably, to the elephant in the room: The two-state solution. It used to be said that everyone knew a two-state solution was the answer but no one knew how to do it. However, in recent years, new voices have questioned the fundamentals of “two states for two peoples”. New Yorker editor David Remnick has suggested that Israel’s refusal to withdraw from the West Bank makes a binational solution more likely.

Under those circumstances, Israel would cease being the Jewish state and Jews would (in theory) live alongside the Palestinians in a single state. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick argues in her book The Israeli Solution that the West Bank should be incorporated into Israel and Palestinians given a path to citizenship, thus joining the 1.7m Arabs living in Israel today.

But these proposals, while accruing support, are still very much outwith the mainstream in Israel and the capitals of the world. Polls consistently show strong majority support amongst Israelis for a Palestinian state. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accepted the principle also, though many in the rank and file of his right-of-centre Likud party are less enthusiastic.

Mr Curiel insists: “The two-state solution has been the only viable solution for a long time now and it’s been adopted not just by Israel’s traditional left-wing governments but also by more right-wing governments, including the current one. There is no doubt that this is where we’re heading but it takes two sides to do this. We have difficulties, currently, with our partner with Hamas being part of this PA government but I don’t see any other solution. The different one-state proposals which are being discussed are alternate ways of destroying Israel as a Jewish state.”

And this commitment to peace and coexistence is as much personal as political for Mr Curiel. He explained: “Before I came here, I lived in Jaffa which is a mixed neighbourhood where Israelis and Muslim Arabs and Christians live together. My daughter went to a kindergarten where they spoke Arabic and Hebrew and her friends were from different faiths. That reality is happening in Israel today. It’s not as if Jews and Arabs can’t live together; they can do it quite well.

“But we’ve got certain groups out there, like Hamas and others, which are opposed to peace and aided by Iran and others, and I think that when we overcome these obstacles it may be simpler than we thought. Simply because, people, on the day to day level, want to live their lives. They’re not interested in violence.

“I think it still stands true today what the late former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin said. ‘We must pursue peace as if there is no terror but fight terror as if there is no peace.’ Sometimes the idea is thrown around that we can be relaxed on terror and achieve peace but that is never going to work. That is why Israel is sometimes viewed as an aggressor when it is actually doing the only thing it can do to create a reality in which peace will be possible.”

Mr Curiel is a young man from a young country — Theodor Herzl’s “Old New Land” – and he speaks hopefully of coexistence and progress. It is, however, a very Israeli optimism, tempered by the bitter and painful lessons of war and terrorism, error and failure. Israel is a country that anyone who cares about peace must work to understand. Understand, but not always agree with the policies of this government or that. Protest, demonstrate, and agitate if you feel strongly. Condemn and denounce injustice when you perceive it. Fly your Palestinian flag and send your money and show solidarity if you choose. But if you want to be part of the solution and help create a climate where peace can be achieved, you have to talk — and listen.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Zachi Evenor צחי אבנור by Creative Commons 3.0.