Monday, 19 January 2015

Je Suis Charlie - Except In Scotland

You know, 2015 has started in utterly rubbish fashion.  Political parties gearing up for the oncoming UK General Election and utterly failing to understand the trouble ordinary people are in.

Then there’s the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

David Brown from The Independent's take on the Charlie Hebdo attack.
As an outsider, it does look like Charlie Hebdo does sail very close to the bone with its subject matter.  Looking at the covers, they are more strident and forthright than their nearest British equivalent Private Eye.  For all that the cover in the aftermath of the death of the Princess of Wales and the New York terrorist attacks were controversial, Charlie Hebdo is consistently controversial.  There’s the one with Francois Holland being led by his penis and there’s one that is about as close to the bone as possible about Michael Jackson… quite literally.  Then there’s the one’s that show the Islamic prophet Mohammed.

If I’m honest, the thought that people are offended at an image just seems so absurd…  so quaint...  so old fashioned.  Add to that the thought that the message that, arguably, Charlie Hebdo’s most controversial cover is obscured by that, misplaced, offence.  That cover shows the prophet being killed by someone who resembles an IS/ISIS/ISL thug.  The message that these Neanderthals wouldn’t know the true meaning of Islam being obscured by the use of the prophet is such a block on the true interpretation of these cartoons.  To quote another Charlie Hebdo cartoon “It’s hard to be liked by jerks…”.  Jerks who happen to behave more like bullyboy gangsters than religious figureheads mind, but still jerks.

It’s not just France that are having issues regarding the attacks.  Here in the UK, our media shamefully decided to not give any context to the story by pointedly not showing any of the cartoons, at least until they were pressed.  The BBC’s Newsnight showed the front page of “the survivors” issue, whilst someone tried to show it on Qatar Airlines sponsored Sky News.  Up here, the talk has been more on the offence caused by Charlie Hebdo more than anything else.  Last Wednesday’s Scotland 2015 was something of a low when it’s edition was a po faced discussion on…  well why do these people do it?

It’s not just the motives behind poking fun at Islamic fundamentalism that Scotland has failed the Je Suis Charlie test.  Supporters of both the SNP and Labour have continued to bitch, argue, fight and be nasty towards each other.  Two incidents come to mind.  Firstly, you may remember the case of the four Renfrewshire councillors suspended for protesting against the weak “Smith Report” – Indeed Smith himself dealt with the situation with more humor than any of the Labour representatives on the media.  In the past couple of weeks it came out that the punishment given to the “Renfrewshire Four” did not cover running for the SNP after 2016.  Cue hoardes of Labour empty vessels with their pitchforks out raged at this…  well to be honest I’m not sure why they are outraged.

The second incident involved a group called “Comedians for Independence” who, with a shocking lack of self awareness, called for the sacking of the journalist Paul Hutcheon for writing something critical of the SNP.  Words just fail…

For all of the so called similarities between Scotland and France, there are also lots of differences – France’s secular outlook is not a majority viewpoint here in Scotland.  It’s why I’ve felt that we (in Scotland) have never really understood why Je Suis Charlie resonates.  To me it’s about freedom of speech, freedom to make arguments and to make the case for things that may sound unsayable. 

It’s about being grown up and accepting ideas contrary to your own and responding to those views and ideas in a grown up fashion.  It is not about regurgitating decades discredited views, mistaking diplomacy with appeasement, surrendering to intimidation and abuse or giving into frustration and the temptation to abuse.  Those are the values that should be defended and adopted as we go into a General Election campaign hard on the tails of a bruising Referendum campaign.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

First Footing 2015, With The Best of 2014

First of all, can I wish you a Happy New Year?

Last year saw 36 posts.  A wee bit light given the year Scotland has gone through.  I’d have liked to have posted more but time constraints and all that.  It won’t surprise you to know that the referendum dominated the most read posts list, so without further ado (insert own preferred countdown music, be it Pick of The Pops, Phil Lynott or Paul Hardcastle…)

At 10, it’s the post about the first referendum debate between the Chairman of Better Together, Alistair Darling and the First Minister Alex Salmond.  A Wasted Opportunity was not the last post about currency, but Darling’s brutal slaughter of Salmond’s currency position told us what some people knew already – Sterlingzone wasn’t going to win the referendum.  As a contrast, the post at number 9 asks, in the week of Salmond’s resignation as First Minister, Just WhatHas Alex Salmond Ever Done For Us?

The second Darling/Salmond debate is partly the subject of the eighth best read post of the year.  A Tale of Two Debates compares & contrasts that debate with the Paisley hustings which featured Jim Sheridan MP, George Adam MSP, Fiona McDonald (from the PCS Union) and Tommy Morrison (from Clydebank Trades Union Council).  Both debates took place on the same night in August.  At 7 was my take on the whole Wiiings/Lally/Rowling/Cybernats thing. Cyber-twats probably tells you everything about what I think about every hardcore pro-Indy supporters favorite blogger with alarmingly UKIP acceptable views and a line in appropriating Laibach’s imagery.  Just outside the top 5 and at 6 is a post about that debate.  No not that one, the one between Sturgeon and Lamont.  So How Did Lamont Lose That Debate reports on Johann Lamont’s successful attempt to take Nicola Sturgeon to extra time and then penalties in their Scotland Tonight debate.

So, top 5, and at 5 is “The Lie of The Land – What Now For The 45?” which looks at the evolving post referendum landscape and the SNP’s task in making inroads to Labour’s 41 seats it will be defending in May.  Essentially, it will be hard.  The fourth best read blog of 2014 was the post sifting through the wreckage and foot in mouth moments of Johann Lamont’s leadership – The Political Suicide ofJohann Lamont. Ah, the wee things.

We are now into the top three, and the third best read blog of 2014 keeps that Labour theme going.  The Slow Slow Death of ScottishLabour pinpointed the issues Scottish Labour had accrued during the referendum campaign, and highlighted the reasons why voters might be thinking of not voting Labour in the onrushing General Election.  Being held off the number one slot is the second Sterlingzone post of the year – confusingly titled Sterlingzone – Part 57.  This one was in the aftermath of Osborne’s speech ruling out a currency union – closely backed up by the 99p shop Dennis Healy and the ginger haired one off the Muppets.  Punningly, Iain MacWhirter dubbed this event “The Sermon on The Pound” as he identified that Osborne’s behavior could backfire on the pro-Union parties.  Political mastermind my bahochie.

Which leaves us with the most read post in 2014.  At number one is “The UKIP effect” – a post looking at the rightwards drift of the Westminster parties as they are (without justification) looking to stem the light trickle of voters defecting to UKIP.  A rather prescient post that explains the (suggested according to polling) decline in support for Scottish Labour to the SNP, given it was written in February.

So that’s that for 2014.  A year like no other the blurb went, all rather obvious given that 2014 will only happen once.  Proper blogging will resume shortly…

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

In The Year Of Our Referendum, 2014

Buchanan Street, 13 September 2014 - the so called "ground war"
For Scottish people, 2014 means only one thing.  It was the year or our referendum, where we debated & discussed before voting on whether we should leave the union.  It dominated our news and currant affairs programmes, and since the vote has refused to bugger off.  That not only did the referendum only dominate the Scottish news cycles, and that there were other events shows either how much of a bubble we were in or that the divergence between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom is well underway

Outside of the referendum, the biggest story was the continued and inexplicable rise of UKIP.  In May they topped the poll in the UK part of the European Elections, forming part of a wider anti European Union narrative across the EU.  Yet UKIP’s campaign this time wasn’t targeted against the European Commission or other EU policies.  Like the French National Front, UKIP targeted freedom of movement – deliberately linking this with immigration.

By tapping into the supposed dissatisfaction with “unlimited immigration” (whilst not mentioning the amount of UK citizens who have themselves taken advantage of freedom of movement) UKIP topped the poll on 27.49% of the vote, taking 24 of the UK’s allocation of seats. 

The most controversial of those seats was the election of London resident David Coburn as one of Scotland’s 6 MEP’s.  The Westminster parties kinda took this in their stride while the SNP went into full toys out of the pram mode.  The SNP had, in the weeks leading up to the vote, been running a campaign to vote SNP to keep out UKIP without really explaining why.  As a result many Scots blew a raspberry at Salmond and co by voting UKIP.  Maybe it was the insipid campaign, or maybe it was the perceived careerism displayed by the SNP’s third candidate (and former Tory candidate in 1999), Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh.  Whatever was the case, the SNP rather than look like winners (which they were, they topped the share of vote) looked more like sore losers. This was a role reversal that provided to be a harbinger of things to come.

Coburn (3rd left) and Ahmed-Sheikh (left of Sturgeon) at the Euro declaration
Another facet of this rise that would play out during the referendum campaign would be accusations of bias towards UKIP.  During his parties toys out of the pram moment, Salmond said that Scot’s voted UKIP because English TV was being beamed into their homes.  What Scottish Labour representatives failed to realise was Salmond’s admonishment of David Dimbleby and the BBC’s coverage of the European elections actually played well with the Greens…  and Labour supporters in England.

Both the Greens and Labour had cause for complaint about the BBC’s coverage.  As a left of centre party that leaned towards euroscepticism, the Greens were annoyed at UKIP’s billing as the only eurosceptics in the village.  Labour were annoyed at the BBC’s reporting of better than expected council results.  All parties have voiced concerns at UKIP’s seeming residency on Question Time.  Indeed it did seem at times that the Anglocentric media were running a story that wasn’t there – the success of UKIP in by-elections.  That changed on 9 October when the Conservative defector Douglas Carswell “won” back the seat of Clacton for his new party UKIP, thus becoming UKIP’s first Westminster MP.  He was followed in November by another Tory defectee, Mark Reckless.

I can understand why people might get excited about UKIP.  However, lets not forget that they are no SDP.  Carswell might turn out to be a coup for UKIP, but neither he or Reckless are of the stature of Jenkins, Williams or Owen when they defected from Labour and set up the SDP in 1981, while it has taken a long time for UKIP to make their breakthrough.  In any case, I rather suspect that UKIP’s showing at next years General Election will be restricted to just siphoning votes from the Tories.  I suspect they’ll fall back to about 10% of the share of vote and maybe pick up at most 4 seats (Carswell will keep his seat, I think Farage will win a seat for sure). 

Nah, for me the story of the year is the story that refuses to bugger off.  That referendum.

So, what is left that hasn’t been said about the Independence Referendum.  Well, for starters that despite the rantings of other members of the Macblogosphere (Hello, Bella, Wings and Newsnat Scotland), you need look no further than Swinney Sturgeon and Salmond for reasons why Scots voted No.  Yes, the pro-Indy Yessers won on social issues, but as I’ve said previously the big elections battlegrounds are the economy, the economy and the economy.  Salmond, Swinney and Sturgeon did not win these battles, and in the case of currency badly lost that argument.  To the surprise of…  well hardcore Yessers… Scotland’s commuter belts voted No in their droves.

A cursory glance at the Michael Ashcroft poll released in the aftermath of the referendum bears this out.  When asked what the two or three deciding issues were, 57% of no voters replied the pound, 37% pensions and 32% tax and public spending.  In contrast, the driving force for pro-Independence supporters was dissatisfaction with Westminster politics (74%) and the NHS (54%). No mention of “the Vow” or Brown’s set of speeches in the week before the referendum.  Though to be honest the impact of “The Vow” was more in keeping wavering “No’s” as no voters and in stopping the steady stream of voters moving from No to Yes.

As the campaigns came to a close, the referendum felt not unlike the 1992 Westminster Election.  There was our own “Double Whammy” with the unilateral scuppering of Sterlingzone.  There was our equivalent to April Fools day (when three polls gave Labour leads of 7%, 6% and 5% - the Indyref equivalent being the poll 10 days before polling putting Yes ahead).  Referendum day itself felt, certainly in weather terms, like 9 April 1992.  Warm but overcast.

Where the Yes side were successful was in tapping into lapsed voters and engaging in that old fashioned campaigning tool of the old style public meeting.  I went to two, one was a “Yes Scotland” run event which was interesting if one sided (though to be fair there were complaints that Better Together refused to engage with the voters at hustings level).  There were no complaints with the first hustings event I attended, which was on the same night as the second of the Salmond/Darling television debates.

The Paisley referendum hustings also highlighted a facet of the campaign that hasn’t really been picked up – the number of females who made small cameo’s that made a lasting impression.  PCS Union’s Fiona McDonald was the most impressive person at the Paisley hustings, I was also struck by how open and warm Christine McKelvie at the Yes meeting I went to.  Unfortunately, I don’t know the name of the Green activist I spoke to on Buchannan Street that put the debate in more acceptable terms.  Looking at the Scottish Green prospectus for Independence, this was a much more realistic and attractive set of arguments and policies than the prospectus being prosecuted by the SNP.

Salmond announces his resignation on 19 September
A couple of years ago, I wrote that after the referendum, things would not be the same again whatever happened.  Yet, only the Anglocentric media seems to have thought that after the referendum things would revert to the way things were.  If anything, the referendum seems to have triggered a dramatic moving of the political tectonic plates.  That the prospectus for Independence managed to garner just shy of 45% of the electorate seems to have galvanised the Independence movement.  Now all the affiliated fringe organizations to Yes Scotland – Women for Independence and Radical Independence – are creeping further and further away from the fringes and towards the mainstream of Scottish politics.

If the old Scottish staple of glorious defeat has galvanised the pro-Independence side, the victory from the jaws of victory for the pro-Union side has weighed down the pro-Union parties.  Labour’s poll rating began to fall in the weeks after the referendum, possibly as a result of Labour’s continued acceptance of Osborne-nomics or even dissatisfaction with Milliband.  The resignation of Johann Lamont as “Scottish” Labour leader made matters worse for Labour – especially as Lamont confirmed that Milliband blocked “Scottish” Labour’s opposition to the Bedroom Tax and that she felt that her party was essentially a “branch office” of London Labour.  Thus confirming every single criticism of “Scottish” Labour made by the SNP as true.

When I wrote about where now for the so called “45”, I highlighted the difficulty of the SNP’s task in taking Labour held seats.  The first of those polls highlighting the shift in opinion against Labour had just been published and looked like it might have been an outlier.  Since then a number of polls have been published confirming this trend.  Most polls show that the SNP (were the election held now) would achieve a swing upwards of 19% - enough to capture the cluster of 20 odd Labour seats around the 12-18% swing mark.  Crucially this has not changed since the election of the Blairite Jim Murphy.  The most forgotten aspect of Blair was that when he became Labour leader, and then Prime Minister, he was the most astutely pragmatic politician in the country.  For Labour to step back from the abyss that they are maybe standing on, Murphy will have to be tactically pragmatic and not automatically fall into Blairite tropes.

2014 was the year of our Referendum and it looks like 2015 will be the year of the fallout from our Referendum.  There is the small matter of a Westminster Election as well.  All the indications there is that it will be the Tories that will be utilising the lessons from “Project Fear”, that the relationship between UKIP and the Tories is developing into the most fractious relationship in British politics outside of that between “Scottish” Labour and the SNP and that it will be the rejuvenated SNP that will be going into that Westminster Election in better health than Labour.  Other than that, the election picture will not become clear until the campaign proper begins in April.  Even then, the spectre of the referendum will loom large.

In the mean time, may I wish you a happy new year to you all and see you in 2015.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Murphy's Law

You know, perceived wisdom dictates that Scottish Labour’s election of the East Renfrewshire MP Jim Murphy as party leader is some sort of huge mistake.  That Murphy will somehow prove to be the final nail in the coffin of Scottish Labour and that this paves the way for the SNP to dominate Scottish politics.  I’m not entirely sure that this will be the case.

That’s not to say there are not bad points to Murphy.  He still occupies a position on the parties right wing, a leading member of the Progress group – the group looking to keep the Blairite flame alive within Labour.  Pro-Israel and pro-Trident,  I wouldn’t even be surprised if Murphy was a member of the British American Institute.  In his acceptance speech, he even reiterated his aims through the Blairite prism – “More entrepreneurs, not fewer. A growing middle class that more families are joining”.  I think that the voters within the Labour party have decided to put those policy positions aside.

Who Scottish Labour voted for was someone who is very much a political operator.  Someone who knows where the levers of power are and how to use them.  I’d bet that Murphy is also the sort of person that would know where the bodies are buried, so to speak.  Someone who, whatever your opinion on how Johann Lamont was treated, is a huge upgrade on both Lamont and Gray.

The SNP of course have welcomed Murphy’s win.  What is interesting is that the view from Westminster is that the SNP are somehow scared of Murphy.  I genuinely don’t think they are.  There’s not even a sense of apprehension there, which is not a good sign.  Had the SNP had a sense of apprehension at Gordon Brown’s legendary skills at talking to “Labour” people, then they would have reacted better to Brown’s single handed attempt at saving the UK and of course “The Vow”.

Had they not underestimated the enhanced standing Brown still has in parts of Scotland, maybe the referendum would not have been lost.  Judging by the reaction to Murphy’s election, this is a lesson that parts of the SNP seem unwilling to learn from.  Then again, do we expect anything less from a constituency that still refuses to acknowledge the bad policy decisions that lead to defeat, instead preferring to blame a biased media.  Oh and thick “No”voters.

Whether Murphy will be a success though depends on whether he can change up and not simply fall into Blairite tropes.  There are signs already that Murphy is willing to move left in the policy of a 50% tax rate.  Another facet Murphy will have to display will be his ability to make right wing policies sound left wing.  Brown was a pass master at this – maybe the best.  It’s not universally recognized that Salmond was also rather good at this too – judging by the popularity among pro-Indy supporters of the proposed policy to cut Corporation tax.

I don’t subscribe to the belief that this is automatically the final nail in the coffin of Scottish Labour.  Like so much in the British political landscape, so much is in flux.  Murphy’s demeanor and conduct could seal Scottish Labour’s fate.  On the other hand, the SNP could let their complacency take root and make it easier for Murphy to bring Scottish Labour back from the brink.  Whatever happens, I think we can safely say the scene is now set for the electoral battles next spring and in 2016.