Tag Archives: scotland

Simon Jenkins: how many points can one person miss?

I suspect that one of the things that most irks Simon Jenkins is that despite the fact that he clearly loathes the Lib Dems, so many of us have a grudging affection for the old git (okay, not all of us). Maybe we’ll end up killing him with kindness. His article in the Guardian today is a real shame because while the first half is dreadfully woolly headed hack journalism, he does actually have an important point to make.

Okay, first the dreadful hack stuff:

Ask a Liberal Democrat what he or she is for and you get only a susurration of platitudes.

Ask the member of any political party in the abstract what they are for and you will get platitudes. Clause 4 is one long list of platitudes. The Conservative Party’s Big Brain Oliver Letwin got enormous publicity for his speech yesterday that sought to define his party with lots of platitudes.

The “what are the Lib Dems for?” rhetorical question is a peculiar one because it would appear that we are the only party who are required to answer it. In truth, all parties struggle to develop meaningful narratives and definitions. At best, parties can only articulate their principles with the broadest of brushes. When Letwin claims that the Conservatives are essentially a pragmatic party, the fact remains that all mainstream parties are fundamentally a mixture of pragmatism and ideology. The precise balance at any one time varies depending on a whole range of factors. That doesn’t make his point wrong – Labour and the Lib Dems are broadly more idealistic than the Tories – but it does suggest that no crude delineation will ever be sufficient.

So to answer Jenkins’ question with an inevitable platitude, the Lib Dems are about freedom. We might disagree from time to time about how much emphasis to put on economic, social and political freedoms. Occasionally – like all other parties – we may lose the plot entirely; we certainly have a problem persuading certain people at the top of the party to talk about such things. Similarly, Labour are ‘for’ social justice, the Tories are ‘for’ continuity and the status quo. If anything they have been less consistent over the past two decades than we have.

In Scotland the Lib Dem leader, Nicol Stephen, has decided it would be inappropriate to maintain Labour in power yet has told Alex Salmond’s nationalists he will not coalesce with him. He cannot tolerate a referendum on independence. That the party of Irish home rule should reject so liberal a proposal as territorial self-determination is odd. Nor was Salmond demanding support for independence, merely for a vote on it. Under PR there is a majoritarian argument against almost any controversial decision. So what do the Lib Dems fear? Instead they have exchanged responsibility without power for power without responsibility, and are retiring to carp from the backbenches. They will smoke potency but not inhale.

Here, Jenkins gets very confused as this paragraph directly contradicts his later assertion that we shouldn’t have anything to do with coalitions in the first place. But to answer his point (which is being made in lots of other places at the moment I notice), Nicol Stephen is correct to hold out against an independence resolution because that is what his party has just been elected on a platform on. You can guarantee that the same voices denouncing us for not going into coalition with the SNP on this basis would be just as shrilly condemning us if he had done so (indeed Jenkins’ article does read as if he wrote it before the party ruled out coalition thus requiring him to shoehorn in an alternative reason for having a dig).

Why are we any more spoilers on this issue than Labour or the Tories? If a vote on independence is such a trivial matter, why isn’t Annabel Goldie not being denounced for not cuddling up to Salmond equally? The biggest crime that Stephen (and, for that matter, Mike German) seem to be guilty of is not fulfilling what other people have judged is our preformatted role as kingmakers.

It would be ludicrous to go into a government where most of the cabinet was looking at every issue through an independence referendum prism. One of the things I have repeatedly tried to point out on this blog over the last few weeks is that separatism is not a simple matter: it will have an impact on every single policy issue and will potentially have all sorts of unforeseen consequences. I’m all for Citizens’ Initiatives, and I’m surprised that the SNP have not yet called the Lib Dems’ bluff by calling them to support a Bill for a general Initiative & Referendum system, but for independence to happen you need an executive fully committed to pushing it through in fine detail. It isn’t ‘just a vote’ for the simple reason that, despite Salmond’s assertion, independence is not reversible.

Frankly, it would be foolhardy for any government that doesn’t enjoy a majority to attempt it, as I suspect the Scots are about to witness. Refusing to pander to the SNP’s dogmatism isn’t ‘undemocratic’ – it is simple, old-fashioned, common sense.

I don’t entirely disagree with Jenkins however, although I really don’t understand why he feels it only applies to the Lib Dems:

Lib Dems claim a bizarre interpretation of democracy, that the share of votes should be reflected in a share in power. This confuses quite different concepts: executive government and assembly representation. The first requires a coherent team, a declared programme and some mechanism to account for its delivery to the electorate. To this end, France and the US directly elect presidents, governors and mayors. They are checked by a second concept, that of a separately elected assembly, in which PR is both fair and just.

It is true that the Lib Dems have no policy to decouple the executive from the legislature and are unlikely to adopt one in the foreseeable future. I would even agree with Jenkins that it would be nice if we did so. But is this really a criticism of the Lib Dems? Labour and the Tories are hopelessly confused on this point as well, it’s just that they work on the opposite misapprehension that the electoral system should be about electing an executive-by-proxy (the worst thing about this is that first past the post can’t even guarantee such an outcome – look at Canada where hung parliaments are now the norm). Don’t expect to see Cameron or Brown calling for full separation of powers any time soon.

In fact, the Lib Dems do at least acknowledge the problem. We have a longstanding commitment to reduce the payroll vote in the Commons and the Lords. We fight to promote the independence of Parliament and don’t use the whip in anything like the heavy-handed way Labour and the Tories do. I suspect there are more people in the Lib Dems who support full separation than there are in the other two parties combined.

In short then, Jenkins is attacking the Lib Dems for being both kingmakers and refusing to be kingmakers, for supporting a constitutional situation supported by all UK parties and for failing to define ourselves any better than any other party. Deadline or no deadline, he really ought to be able to do better than this.

Chicken Entrail Psephology

One of the things about elections is that after them there is no shortage of people talking absolute nonsense about what the results ‘mean’.

Take Alex Salmond, who has been quick to claim that Labour has lost the “moral authority to govern”. Leaving a philosophical argument about what morality actually means in this context to one side, the fact is that no single party got a majority – thus no single party on their own has the authority to govern, moral or otherwise. Labour didn’t in 1999 or 2003 either. But, given that the difference between Labour and the SNP was just 0.5% in the constituency vote and 1.8% in the regional vote, is he really suggesting that a mere 20,000-30,000 people are the moral arbiters for the whole nation?

Then Salmond’s mini-me Nicola Sturgeon pipes up with:

“There will be an independence referendum if there is an SNP government.”

That’s for Parliament to decide, not a political party with less than a third of the popular vote. Is she seriously suggesting that the SNP will take its bat and ball home if it can’t secure a referendum? If it’s an all or nothing thing then that would suggest that the largest single unionist party has rather more moral authority than her boss would have us believe.

Scotland decides, er, what?

Okay, I admit: the Scottish results have got me stumped.

It was the list results that did it. My expectation was, and the polls appeared to back me up, that the Greens were on course to get about the same share of the vote that they had before. Instead, they were wiped out. The Tories were down on list seats as well. So, of course, were the Lib Dems. What stopped the Lib Dems from making no losses was a whopping 4% dip in the West of Scotland, which apparently cost us an MSP.

Why was this? It was already being mooted that the new ballot paper design would harm the smaller parties as people might think they had to vote for “Alex Salmond” AND “SNP” rather than split their ticket. This may well have been a large factor, and the Greens (and other) may need to reconsider their strategy of only fielding list candidates. But in an election with 100,000 spoilt papers, one can’t help but suspect that they were robbed.

The final scores on the doors at least means that the Lib Dems have been spared one particularly nasty decision: the combined SNP/Lib Dem vote is 3 short of a majority. Even if the Greens threw their lot in, that would mean a majority of 1, which isn’t exactly a delicious prospect. Adding Margo Macdonald to the mix might help, but her price would no doubt be pretty high. I could be proven wrong, but I can’t see Nicol Stephen wanting to join such a precarious executive. That doesn’t however mean the SNP wouldn’t be able to negotiate a multi-option referendum, which if they want an independence vote is pretty much their only option now.

I can’t see them getting a majority in favour of Local Income Tax either, unless they come up with some kind of compromise. Imaginative municipal finance reformers might want to consider a package that includes the localisation of a proportion of the existing income tax combined with a land value tax to keep the Greens happy. But maybe that is me disappearing into a Georgist Wonderland.

I suspect the promise to scrap the Graduate Endowment has rather more chance of getting through, which is a shame because I happen to think the Scots don’t know when they are onto a good thing here.

In short, compared to what was widely predicted, it is Labour that seem to come out as the unlikely winners of the Scottish election. Going from 50 seats to 46 is nothing in the grand scheme of things. They can now spend 4 years in opposition making life as difficult for Salmond as possible. Either way, every single decision made by the Scottish Executive will be subject to a degree of scrutiny that we are simply not used to in the UK. That can only be a good thing.

Those election results: hmmm…

Notwithstanding the understandable effervescence emanating from the party’s results service, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, overall, the elections yesterday were not very good for the Lib Dems.

With over a hundred councils still to declare (at least according to the BBC), it is hard to conclude anything much from them yet, especially when one recalls that last year’s results had us losing seats all day until we eventually ended up making a net gain of, erm, one. Nonetheless however, it is hard to see how we are going to recover to such an extent. At the moment (2pm), the BBC has us just a bit ahead of Labour in terms of net losses of councillors.

The positive side of that story is that where the Tories seem to be makiing the most impact, it is in areas where they are already strong. There is very little evidence of a Tory revival in the North (Gideon Osbourne breezily claimed on Today this morning that their gains in Birmingham was evidence of a Northern revival – one wonders if he has any idea of where his Tatton constituency actually is) – where they have been making gains, it is in the few places they weren’t wiped out a decade ago. Where they have been having landslide victories, they tend to already have an MP. Once again, national swing is only telling part of the story.

Partly because we are at the mercy of the electoral system, the Lib Dems have a sad history of failing to live up to our ever declining ambitions in Assembly elections, and once again we have failed to break our duck of 6 AMs. Back in 1999, I remember being confidently told by the then-Lib Dem Chief Exec that we would get 11-12 AMs. In 2003, at least one person predicted we’d get up to around 10. This year, people were talking of 7-9 AMs being a sure thing. The worst thing of it all is that, on paper, they should have been right. Because the system is only semi-proportional (2/3rds FPTP, 1/3rd list), each region has 4 top ups and we are the fourth party, we need to make fairly modest gains in each region to significantly increase our number of assembly members. In South Wales Central, we only needed an increase of 1% to double our Assembly Members. The fact that we have failed to do this twice now ought to be setting off alarm bells about how we fight the Welsh air war.

This was echoed by my own experience. I spent the last week being a footsoldier in a non-target constituency in Wales. We got a disappointing result, but our vote held up in our target polling districts. The national campaign didn’t just fail to boost us in the polls, it failed even to cushion the work we were doing locally.

Initial thoughts? All those ‘cheeky’ references in the media didn’t exactly help, however Lembit might like to dress it up. In and of themselves, I doubt they cost us votes, but they did make it tougher to get a coherent message across. They were an unnecessary distraction.

After three campaigns at the helm, Mike German can’t avoid responsibility. His performances on TV failed to impress. True, none of the Welsh Party leaders exactly set the world alight, but as the longest-serving leader, Mike really should have stood out.

The Scottish results are coming agonisingly slowly now. One thing everyone must surely now agree on is that Scotland must now either adopt a single electoral system for both locals and Parliamentary elections (Ken Ritchie of the ERS reported on News 24 that people seemed to cope with STV better than with AMS judging by the numbers of spoilt ballots, which is ironic given that STV is always presented by its critics as a ‘complicated’ system), or they should have each set of elections on a different year (a la Wales), or preferably both.

Like Wales, the Scottish results that have been coming in are static for the Lib Dems. However, the Scot Lib Dems have the mitigating factors of a) the SNP bandwagon and b) the fact that it is a more authentically proportional system than Wales, which makes it tougher to gain seats. Nonetheless, our failure to win seats such as Edinburgh Central and Strathkelvin & Bearsden was very disappointing.

But, behind closed doors of course, I doubt the SNP are exactly delighted with the result. It remains unclear whether they will win the plurality – at the moment it looks as if they haven’t – and even if they do, it will be by the smallest of margins and in the context of a clearly unionist majority in the Parliament. This isn’t the result that the SNP were confidently predicting last week. Support for their key policy has plummeted during the election campaign.

If Labour manage to form a coalition, this is the last hurrah for the SNP; if the SNP manage to form a coalition, it may well prove just as fatal in the longer term. Simply put, I remain doubtful that they will be capable of managing the transition from repository of protest votes to a party of government. I’m aware that people say that about the Lib Dems all the time, but we’ve now run Scotland for 8 years and not been punished by the electorate. Meanwhile, I am struck by the number of SNP policies that are merely lifted from the Lib Dems (and some, like local income tax, I don’t think are particularly well thought out). The real problem the SNP have is that they are a one-man band. What happens if the sheen of Salmond starts to get tarnished, if he goes under a bus, or if he simply gets bored? A power vacuum may yet emerge in Scotland, and that is a real opportunity for the Lib Dems, if they have the initiative and dynamism to take it.

Finally, there is the Ming Question. I think it is unfair to put too much blame at Ming’s door for this set of unimpressive results. After all, for all my frustrations, I’m accutely aware that our results in Scotland and Wales are almost identical to 2003, and the same questions were not being asked about Charles Kennedy at the time. Perhaps, in retrospect, they should have been, given that the Tories and the nationalists were in a much greater slump back then, and we failed to capitalise on the fact. I haven’t seen anything about Ming’s performance that gives me cause for concern; equally, I’ve seen a number of positive developments which haven’t yet had time to bed down. But the main lesson from this campaign seems to be that we need to work on our air war – there’s only so much we can do on the ground when the national party messages are not coming across and being drowned out by our opponents’.

Salmond proposes an independence loop-de-loop

You may have noticed I gave myself a miliband or two of wriggle room when I said that my Friday post on Scotland was ‘possibly’ my last one.

Euan Ferguson’s hagiographic, and appallingly badly written, article about Alex Salmond in the Observer today got me hopping:

The border, slow epoxy, is setting. Every indication, every poll, not least that revealed in today’s Observer, is that the SNP has a convincing, unassailable lead, and that on Friday Salmond will form a coalition with Nicol Stephen’s Lib Dems, and become First Minister: and, in 2010, in keeping with his manifesto, will take the country into a referendum vote for independence.

Really? Nicol Stephen is currently ruling out a coalition unless the SNP block their plans for an independence referendum. And the latest, largest, poll, puts an SNP-Lib Dem coalition at having a majority of 1. Hardly a strong administration then – that suggests that for the Lib Dems to agree to it, their price would have to be rather high indeed.

But the biggest nonsense today has to be Salmond’s claim that independence was “not a one-way street“. The Scots can suck it and see – if they don’t like it, then they can run back to Mama England’s ever-loving arms.

At what point are the English going to be given a way on all this I wonder? Pretty much everything the SNP have been asserting assumes the good will of the English – a good will which is likely to be in rather short supply during the divorce proceedings. Why, for example, should we accept this “Union of Crowns” idea? If a referendum were held, would the English go along with it?

But the fact that Salmond is now saying this suggests that he now recognises that the independence issue is growing increasingly toxic for the SNP. He’s trying to shut down the debate – he has to still pay lip service to independence, but with so many platitudes as to render it almost meaningless.

(Probably) final thoughts on Scottish Independence

This will probably be the last thing I write on Scottish Independence this side of polling day as I’m off to Cardiff tomorrow.

Firstly, a group of 60 Scottish scientists have hit out at the SNP. We should remember that the Scottish Enlightenment was very much a product of the Union. A generation of outward looking Scots revolutionised everything from philosophy and economics through to engineering and architecture. It is this rich history that the SNP are so dismissive off.

Secondly, going back to my ponderings about what Scottish Independence would mean for the Welsh and Northern Irish, I wonder what the implications for Gibraltar would be? The Spanish are already challenging the UK’s occupation of Gibraltar – would they use the break up of the UK as an opportunity to press the issue once more? Would Gibraltar revert to the remaining UK (as someone pointed out to me the other day, we could no longer be the “United” Kingdom and instead would have to be called the Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, or KEWNI), to Scotland, or to both? Would the Spanish have a case for claiming that the Treaty of Utrecht needs to be renegotiated given that one of its main signatories no longer existed?

Indeed, what is the SNP’s policy on all the other colonies as well?

Of course, this only affects a few tens of thousands of individuals scattered around the world. The SNP might consider their plight to be irrelevant. But I do wish they would at least acknowledge such issues instead of presenting independence as an opportunity for Scotland to have a completely fresh start. We have a rich, entangled shared history together which the SNP would like to turn their backs on but which, if they get enough votes next week, they will quickly find they cannot afford to.

Fortunately, it does appear as if the Scots have basically come to realise that, with the gap between the SNP and Labour closing by the day. At the outset of the campaign, support for Scottish independence was running at over 50%; despite outspending their rivals, the SNP have seen support for their flagship policy plummet by over 30%, down to the low 20s now. If any other party had presided over such a disaster, the media would be having a field day.

The best they can now offer the Scottish electorate is that they are ‘not Labour’ – but there are lots of parties that fit the bill. It may well be enough to win a plurality, but something tells it will be a pretty hollow victory for them. We shall see.

Scottish Elections: it ain’t over ’til its over

Today’s poll in the Times alone does not indicate a trend, but it does conform with what I suspected would happen as we got closer to polling day. The only thing that seems to be losing public support more quickly than the SNP is Scottish independence. People want to give Labour a kicking, but the more polling day looms, the more the Scots appear to be realising that a populist demagogue like Salmond at the controls would be disastrous.

Meanwhile, Salmond appears to be in meltdown mode:

Mr Salmond warned of a “huge public backlash” if the unionist parties “cobble together to circumnavigate the will of the Scottish people”.

I’m sorry, but what? If the majority of the Scottish people reject the separatist parties, we should give them what they want anyway? Part of me would quite like to see us call the SNP’s bluff and let a referendum go ahead, but if independence is less popular than the independents – which it appears to be by almost 2-1 – perhaps Salmond ought to be a little less keen in pressing ahead regardless. The more he shrill he sounds, the more his support is likely to peel away.

He may be comforted to find he has an ally in Tom Watson, who appears to think that the fact that PR is preventing the Scots from having independence foisted on them without their consent is a bad thing.

Vote Blue, Go Red

Friends of the Earth’s assessment of the Scottish Parties’ Green PoliciesNotwithstanding a certain caution about taking Friends of the Earth’s assessment at face value, this diagram (click to enlarge) is a pretty bad indictment on the Conservatives’ claims to be an environmentally friendly party.

More info on the Friends of the Earth Scotland website and The Herald. The Lib Dems fare better than the SNP and Labour but worse than the SSP and the Greens.

More on the Scottish Macho Christianity row…

The Times has an in depth article here.

My favourite line is this from the irreverand George Hargreaves:

“That money allows me to do the work that needs to be done to advance Christianity.

“What would they prefer me to do? Flush the money down the toilet? That would be ungodly.”

Spoken like a true televangelist. Whatever happened to the love of money being the ‘root of all evil’ (Timothy 6:10)? Or is it only the bits about gays that we should worry about when obeying the literal word of God?

I don’t recall Jesus declining to throw the money lenders out of the temple, but instead asking for a cut so he could continue his good works, but perhaps its apocryphal.

He forgot the woad…

Either I’m psychic or Alex Salmond reads this blog and just does things to wind me up. Six weeks after being castigated for stating that Salmond launched his 2005 General Election campaign by standing in front of that ridiculous statue of Mel Gibson in Stirling on 6 April to mark the Declaration of Arbroath. I suggested this was dog whistle politics. It turns out I had misremembered this, and was instead standing next to an actor dressed as Robert the Bruce.

Well, two years later, he’s ditched the claymore, but he did indeed choose to mark the Declaration of Arbroath by standing in front of Hollywood’s most famous anti-semite (can’t find any useable photos online, but they’re all up on PA Photos if you have access).

No doubt my dear SNP friends will be quick to claim that this is irrelevant, that the SNP are civic nationalists not ethnic nationalists, and that I’m spreading lies again, but let’s be clear. By explicitly posing outside of this statue he isn’t merely associating himself with William Wallace and all the blood and tears that is associated with him – he’s associating himself with the film version of his story which was a pack of lies. Presumably we are to believe that the Queen is Wallace’s distant ancestor, and that’s why he is happy for her to remain the Head of State of an independent Scotland?

Oh, and lest I forget, Mel Gibson is an adherent of exactly the kind of ‘muscular christianity’ that Brian Souter is such a fan of. Are we starting to see a pattern here?