Saturday, 20 January 2018

Decisions, decisions, decisions.

I want to  start by saying something that might surprise you. I am in favour of the decision to close Ward 15 (the Children's Ward) at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley.

And here is why.

The standard of hospital medical treatment is not, can never be, the same across the whole of the NHS. It depends on the number and qualification of the medical staff available and inevitably in busier metropolitan areas these staff are more numerous and the possibility of sub-specialism much more readily available. The larger the unit therefor the greater the level of expertise and experience available and with that the greater the prospect of expeditious and successful treatment.

Further, the quality of all medical professionals is not the same and inevitably the very best are inclined to be attracted to where they will enjoy the greatest variety of medical experience. Again creating a virtuous circle where the best treatment is inclined to be in the larger hospitals.

Further still, the constant interaction between the university based medical schools and the hospital sector makes working in a hospital near to such a university a much more attractive proposition for those providing teaching as well as treatment, as well as for those still engaged in professional development.

And finally, when it comes to the quality of life, working with more colleagues and being able to draw on their expertise is in itself a significant stress reducer. Not to mention the greater flexibility likely to be available when wanting a holiday. But, outwith work, basing yourself where you can work until 6.30 and still get to the opera or the theatre is a consideration all of its own. So if you are at the top of the profession, with skills in demand and the opportunity to make a choice then the choice is obvious.

Thus, as a general rule, medical expertise is greater and treatment likely to be superior in the cities.

At the back of our minds we all recognise that but we also recognise that in where we are treated the system makes a trade for our own convenience. If hospitalised we might, indeed often do, prefer to be treated where we can easily be visited by friends and family and readily and easily get back home when our treatment is concluded. That's why not all hospitals are in the cities, even in urban Scotland.

But of course that's not always possible. Some illnesses or conditions are sufficiently complex but relatively rare to preclude the maintenance of local expertise and to require the creation of National or regional specialist units to which, like it or lump it, the patient requires to travel.

And it is not at all unreasonable to class children sufficiently ill as to require hospitalisation as falling into that rare or complex category. Particularly as the hospital to which Paisley's juvenile patients will now be referred, The Royal Hospital for Children in Govan, Glasgow, is, frankly, no great distance from Paisley and indeed for patients from the north and east of the town, if not nearer as the crow flies then certainly quicker to get to at certain times of the day when otherwise you would require to negotiate the centre of Paisley.

And the geography is hardly unprecedented. It is eight miles from my home town, Paisley, to the hospital. My new home, Kilsyth, hardly in the middle of nowhere, is twelve miles from our nearest general hospital, Monklands, without anybody locally being noticeably outraged by that. Our nearest Lanarkshire Health Board children's ward is in Wishaw!

So why all the fuss?

Because the decision making over the RAH is indicative of something much more concerning in Scottish public life under the SNP, an unwillingness to be honest with the electorate. To be honest about difficult decisions for fear of offending.......somebody. "Rumours" about the possibility of the ward closing have been circulating for more than two years but the response of the SNP until yesterday, not just locally but in a now notorious television appearance by the First Minister herself,  has been simply to deny the very possibility. Accusing opposition politicians raising concerns of, using that all purpose nationalist response, "scaremongering".

The problem for them is that this is a strategy that eventually falls foul of time. The outrage over the closure will inevitably be much greater now than if an honest case had been made for it earlier in much the manner described above As it is going to be over a similar exercise still going on over the eventual permanent closure of the children's ward at St John's Hospital in Livingston.

But this is only indicative of a wider stasis in our devolved public services. Consider education. There is a widespread acceptance that something needs to be done but doing anything will inevitably upset somebody, I suspect indeed a good deal more somebodies than the local Paisley campaigners. So the response has been little more than the wringing of hands.

Take fracking. They could pass legislation blocking this permanently but in doing so cause significant damage to the Scottish economy possibly paving the way for the departure of our biggest single site employer. Or they could allow it, outraging their more luddite supporters and perhaps even causing discrete noises of disapproval from their not quite totally owned minor Party allies. So instead they have announced a permanent moratorium clearly in the hope that the judicial review now launched by Ineos will get them off a hook of their own creation.

Or taxation. They could stick with UK levels ("while we remain without the full levers") on a point of principle or they could raise taxes to sufficient effect as to provide meaningful additional public spending. Instead they've done neither. Bringing in negligible additional income (less than £200 million against expenditure of more than £32 billion) with tinkering aimed at little more than making us "different" from England.

Why this timidity on all these fronts and, perhaps most appallingly, on the example I conclude with?

Because the SNP are in reality two things at once. Certainly they are the government of Scotland but they are also a permanent campaign for Scottish Independence. And that latter function depends on the maintenance, indeed the expansion, of the fragile "Yes coalition" that has got them (to their mind at least) close to their ultimate goal. But the danger of alienating anybody as a supporter of the SNP is that you also offend them as a supporter of independence. And decisions of any sort inevitably offend somebody.

Yet sometimes decisions have to be made as they ultimately had to be made over the RAH children's ward. As they will ultimately have to made over education and the other examples I provide. And ignoring that inevitability only makes the ultimate climb down all the more offending.

As I said I will finish with one particularly outrageous example.

On 3rd May 2015, a man called Sheku Bayoh died while being restrained by police officers in Kirkcaldy. Now, as I said above, the Yes coalition is a wide one. It includes on one wing many who are of a naturally anti authoritarian bent with little time for the "forces of state repression" in any form. But it also extends well into the leadership of the Scottish Police Federation, who have come repeatedly to the nationalists assistance, from during the referendum when they claimed to have seen little or no evidence of nationalist thuggery, to more recent support over the handling of the leadership crisis at Police Scotland.

But the problem over the Bayoh case is that, whenever a decision is made on whether there should be prosecutions, one or other group is going to be furious, "offended". For the former can see no circumstance in which a black man might die accidentally while in police custody while the latter no circumstance in which Police officers might ever be heavy handed in dealing with any suspect (at least unless they had brought it on themselves).

So, the nationalist answer to this conundrum? Nearly three years after Mr Bayoh's death, eighteen months after a report was submitted to Crown Office, no decision has been made either way whether to prosecute or to rule out prosecutions.

Now the actual decision is of course a matter for the independent prosecution service but demanding that they make a decision is surely a matter within the remit of the Justice Minister's responsibility to protect the integrity of the system? Except of course, no decision offends nobody. And perhaps offending nobody matters more than any other consideration.

I'd only point this out as a statement of the bloody obvious. A decision of some sort will have to made sometime and that's highly unlikely to be after a "second referendum", even on the most optimistic of nationalist timetables.

Perhaps it's time for them to realise that, to paraphrase Lincoln, "You can't please all of the people, all of the time" and just get on with it. Indeed get on with deciding things more generally.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Book of the Year

Back on the First of July I explained I would be doing much less blogging and generally I've kept to that. One of my intentions at that time was to use the time gained to do more reading but in truth it's mainly given me more time to watch football on the telly.

But over the holiday I have had more time to read and one of the things I've read, or more correctly re-read was what I think on any view has been the most important book written in Scotland this year: Poverty Safari by Darren "Loki" McGarvey.

The world it describes could not in one way be more different from my own comfortable middle class existence, never more comfortable than over a festive period where what to do, eat, drink or give as presents passes by entirely as a matter of choice and without affordability featuring in any meaningful way. Yet it is a world with which I am actually only too familiar, for it is the world in which for nearly forty years I have been engaged professionally.

So what (here I pause as to what to call the author: Mr McGarvey sounds altogether to pompous but Darren would pretend a personal familiarity which does not exist. I'll settle for his performing name and Nickname) "Loki" describes resonated with me on every page. Poverty cascading down through the generations. Not just financial poverty but environmental poverty; poverty of expectation both for and by its victims; poverty of hope.

Before I worked in Cumbernauld I worked in Easterhouse for seven years, from where Cumbernauld was then regarded as approaching a promised land. Anyone who could then get out from the "schemes" seized the opportunity to do and those from Easterhouse moved out centrifugally to Cumbernauld in the same way as those fleeing Easterhouse's south side twin, Castlemilk, gravitated towards East Kilbride.

And for some, perhaps for more than Loki would concede, the move worked. Amid a fresh start in a cleaner, greener environment, in (generally) better quality housing and with some at least of the lack of local facility problems that had so crippled the schemes addressed at the outset, new opportunities were taken. Helped, there is no point now in disputing by the widespread take up of the rent to buy,* which gave so many their first lifetime opportunity of home ownership.

But many regrettably were still trapped by history. I give this but as one of what could be any number of examples.

Not long after I arrived in Cumbernauld I encountered a woman who had been an Easterhouse client in a case involving domestic violence and (as Loki also observes) its common companion, child neglect. She was in not on her own behalf but with her daughter who was dealing with the aftermath of a relationship involving domestic violence and child neglect. Today, the first woman's great grandson is a child I encountered in a case involving allegations of.....domestic violence and child neglect. Generations for whom having a social worker is as routine as having a doctor and, regrettably, often more common than, certainly as a teenager, having a regular teacher, such is the prevalence of poor school attendance against such a home background.

And all the other features of this life. Constant economic uncertainty certainly, but also legal and illegal substance abuse. Unstable relationships involving the conception of children between people barely known to each other at the time. Anti-social behaviour without any real perception of how that might adversely affect the lives of other people or even cause them to look towards (and sometimes react towards, and worse), you. Chronic ill health at an early age including the almost ubiquitous "anxiety and depression" that leads to a ping pong existence of jumps between ESA and JSA, with all the stress of "Cadogan Street interviews" this involves. Ironically, given the way the Tories have now changed the financial entitlements, now piling on stress for little actual "benefit" financially to either the claimant or the State. And of course, the curse of "Sanctions" and the swap between relative poverty and absolute destitution that can induce.

Loki spells all of this out much more eloquently than me, with the "benefit" of personal experience in the telling.

But he then raises some more telling observations in the process. That "systemic" change, as proposed as the solution by the left wing political tradition he (and I) still adhere to, won't sort all of these problems on its own. There has also be a commitment to personal change. Personal change that requires help from "the system" certainly, and here I pause only to note Labour's achievement in reducing child poverty between 1997 and 2010, but personal change which "the system" itself can't induce alone. Not necessarily solely individual change but change that can be brought about collectively. Only however if driven from the bottom up, not dictated from the top down. A point on which he is quite adamant and on which I yet more adamantly agree. In my lifetime what was once the voluntary sector has lost far far too much of its voluntary nature, changing in the process not only its appellation but also much of its independence from local or central government, leaving recipients of the "service" provided often with little distinction between the two.

But the final conclusion is not his but mine. How can we help people to break of this cycle of misery?This should be the most important issue of our age yet instead it appears now to be on nobody's agenda. Not the Tories, for whom the idea of Universal Credit was once a worthwhile attempt to make it easier to move into work, but who have now, through botched execution and, more deplorably still, conscious intention, allowed it to slide into a crude cost cutting exercise. But not the Labour Party either whose "radical" manifesto last June, while full of lots of goodies for middle class students and relatively well off unionised interests in public and former public sector employment, had little or nothing to say about those at the very bottom to the extent indeed of being absolutely silent on what we might do about the benefit freeze. And as for the SNP? The Scottish Government? Don't even get me started.

I don't know what to do about this. And yet in one way I do. It follows from a tradition running from Victor Hugo, through Shaftesbury and Wiberforce to Dickens and to Orwell, that if an outrage is to be addressed it must first be exposed to the oxygen of publicity. Darren "Loki" McGarvey is a worthy successor in that role. Read his book.


and a Happy New Year when it comes.

* With hindsight, the problem with right to buy was not the principle but the failure to build replacement stock

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Congratulations Comrade Leonard

And so this years Scottish Labour leadership contest is at an end. I said at the start that I would vote for Anas, which I did, but I also said at the start that I would be content with either candidate, which I am.

I thought Richard ran much the better campaign because he actually promised so little and that was the clever thing to do.

Anas's campaign was policy, often innovative policy, rich, whereas you would struggle to find much in Richard's platform that is not current Scottish Labour Party policy. That is as it should be.

There will be no Scottish Parliament election for three and a half years and by that time the Scottish political environment will be very different.

I see no reason that the stasis in the SNP's approach to our public services will have moved on, so scared are they of offending any section of their fragile "Yes coalition", so inevitably by 2021 the condition of our public services will be much worse. Whether, however, the electorate will have concluded that this is due to their being insufficient money, and thus be willing to thole tax rises to address this or whether, instead, they will conclude that existing money is being unwisely deployed.....we'll know that in three years time. Richard's cautious approach on this is surely better than Anas's comprehensive and specific proposals. Richard even cleverly threw some red meat to his supporters with his proposal for a wealth tax which he quietly acknowledged in the small print was beyond the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament. This, dare I say it, is one straight out of the SNP playbook. No less clever for that.

Anyway, in three and a half years time we will be but a year out from a UK election. It would be lunatic for Scottish Labour to fight a Holyrood election promising that no matter what taxes were levied and public spending sanctioned by a supposedly imminent radical, left-wing Westminster Government, taxes and spending would be higher in Scotland still. So lunatic that it is not going to happen. Instead we will fight the Hoyrood election promising to fund certain things and implying we will raise taxes if required to do so. And that's as far as we'll go. Richard got that. Anas didn't.

And in three and a half years time UK Labour politics will also have moved on. Corbynism at the moment floats along on the illusion that a UK General election, and a Labour Government, is somehow imminent. In reality neither is. Because of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act the only way the Tories will not stumble on until 2022 is if they want an early election. Which, unless the polls have moved very decisively in their favour, is not going to happen. Indeed, standing their near death experience earlier this year, even if they were twenty points ahead in the polls, such an opportunistic early contest would be a hard sell internally.

So Corbyn's age will become an issue. He is currently 68. By June 2022 he will be 73. Some Countries have a tradition of political gerontocracy but ours does not. Sure, Churchill won aged 76 in 1951 but he was something of a special case and that administration generally accepted not to be exactly his finest hour. Other than that, every 20th or 21st Century Prime Minister has been significantly younger and elected in the reasonable certainty that they'd be capable of being in office for a full term. Once the idea of an imminent further contest has been eroded by the passage of time, attention will inevitably turn to this. And if we're going to change leader then we'll want that done before the Summer of 2021.

Now that might be just to someone of similar politics but I wouldn't bet on it. What Corbyn won in 2015 was essentially a personality contest. So will the next contest be. I credit Corbyn with having moved the Party's policy agenda to the left but not with establishing forever a messianic cult of ultra left leadership. So his departure will be the opportunity for a changed climate of internal debate which I suspect will also lead to a return to the Party's Westminster talent being more fully deployed. And that rapprochement will also spill over to Scotland. Short term, it has suited Richard to be Corbyn's candidate but long term, if he wants to be FM, he will want to lead a united Party. And also, as I pointed out when I wrote at the start of the contest, Richard has no personal history of Party sectarianism. Here's however another thing. He traded,over the last three months, on having opposed the challenge to Corbyn in 2016 but he's never to my knowledge said who he voted for in 2015. Someone should ask him.

And that leads me to my final point. We have no idea what the Scottish political landscape will look like in 2021 but almost inevitably it will remain utterly dominated by the National question.  All the attention has been on whether Nicola will attempt to call another referendum before May 2021 but, like the question of whether there will be an early UK election, this is simply something which is not going to happen. She would need a section 30 and Mrs May is not for her having one. As indeed would be any other conceivable Tory leader. But come 2021 the internal politics of the SNP will make a manifesto pledge to hold another vote almost certainly unavoidable. Yet all external evidence indicates that such a pledge is electorally toxic to sufficient of the electorate to deny the Nats, even with their Green allies, a Holyrood majority for that proposition.  Indeed, that's the very reason they are so desperate, however forlornly, to have a pre 2021 poll.

What happens then? Suppose the 2021 Scottish election gives none of the three "big" Parties a workable governing coalition without one of the others?  Well, here's the clever thing. Richard has emerged from a contest in which this was surely the most obvious question to ask without ever having answered it at all.

So Comrade Leonard doesn't have his immediate troubles to seek but he has emerged from victory with two substantial assets. The first is the absence of any hostages to fortune but the second is far more valuable still. Time.

Peter Mandelson would be proud of him.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Lessons from Catalonia.

I could write at length about the differences between Scotland and Catalonia. Particularly about how one is a historic nation forming a voluntary part of the world's oldest democracy, The other, on the other hand has never, ever, been an internationally recognised independent country and belongs to a modern state which has within living memory been a fascist dictatorship. Most particularly of all however, that  the former, without a written Constitution, has to make the rules up as we go along while the latter has an overwhelmingly popularly adopted written constitution that sets these rules.

But that's not the point I want to make. The point I want to make is about nationalists here not being bothered about the effect of their actions on people's everyday lives.

You see, what exactly was/is the "strategy" of the Catalonian Nationalists? Suppose on Friday afternoon the democratically elected Government of Spain had thrown their hand in and said "OK, you are independent." How would then even supporters of Catalonian Independence been able to pay their taxes to the "Government of Catalonia"?

Well actually they wouldn't have been, for only the Spanish Government has the administrative machinery to receive and process all major taxes duly paid, through the Agencia Estatal de Administración Tributaria. (The Spanish HMRC).

And how would pensioners or benefit claimants of the most enthusiastic nationalist bent have been able to receive their pensions or benefits? Well, actually, only the Spanish Government has the ability to make these payments. Indeed I suspect only the Spanish Government even knows who is entitled to receive them.  And even if the Spanish Government did a data dump to their Catalonian successors, the latter wouldn't have any money or technical machinery to pay the pensions or benefits. Or indeed public sector wages. As, as I repeat, they don't have any money or the technical ability to receive taxes to raise that money. Indeed, initially. logically, an independent Catalonia won't even have any legally levied taxes to collect! Spain had levied taxes and the regional government of Catalonia (as part of Spain) had levied taxes but on the declaration of independence both of these bodies ceased to have any legal jurisdiction in "free" Catalonia.. All of which would take, at best, months to sort out. Which kind of puts the legitimate disquiet over a UK six week delay in Universal Credit payments commencing in to some perspective.

Instant Catalonian Independence is a nonsensical proposition. That's even before you start on the flight of Corporate Capital that was the inevitable consequence of there being an uncertain (I put that kindly) regulatory framework in an independent Catalonia. Or indeed the impact, in an area hugely dependent on tourism, of the reluctance of anybody to take their holidays where the local administration was in a state of chaos and the medical services going unpaid.

Instant Catalonian Independence is a nonsense even judged against the proposition the SNP put before the Scottish people on 18th September 2014. For that was not for Independence on 19th September 2014. It was for independence fully nineteen months later once precisely the issues I refer to above, in a Catalonian context, had had the chance to be addressed. And, don't forget, many, even on the Yes side, thought that nineteen month period to be unrealistically short.

Just as even the most enthusiastic Brexiteer didn't think we could leave the EU on the day after the referendum and is slowly accepting that even the article 50 timetable might be an unduly optimistic goal.

So why is Catalan Independence being taken seriously? I'll let you into a secret. It is not. Not by Spain, not by the EU, not by any Country in the world. Not even, really, by Catalonia. In Catalonia it is really aimed at getting Spain to negotiate about something more sensible. Although that now has clearly been a miscalculation.

The only place it is being taken seriously is by the governing party in Scotland, even their Green allies having adopted a low profile.

And why is that? Because, for many in the SNP, possibly even a majority, having a viable plan for "independence" isn't actually necessary. It is a decision to be taken based on emotion, not reason. Whether taxes could be levied, or pensions, benefits and wages paid is unimportant. What is important is, literally, a flag and a song. Which is pretty much all Catalonia proposed to start off with.

And that puts our own notorious White Paper into context. It wasn't just over optimistic. it was actively deceitful. But to the true believers that didn't matter.

Don't take my word for it, listen to the words of Mhari Black at the SNP Conference earlier this month.

"We might not know where we are going, but we sure as hell know what we are walking away from".

"We might not know where we are going".......for which she received a standing ovation.

Personally, before I set off on any journey, I want to know my intended destination. But mibbee that's just me. Who knows, next year I might go to Catalonia.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Dark days.

I recent times I have written my blog from my desk at the window of  my rather over grandly titled library. I say rather over grandly titled because while the room is undoubtedly lined by my books it is also the repository for various other junk for which a place cannot be readily found elsewhere in the house.

Nonetheless, it does have a desk and a window beyond that desk which looks out to the garden.

So, for six or so months past I've been able to look out as Spring came, the trees grew slowly greener and fuller and colour slowly emerged among the flower beds.

Tonight however I am looking out in to darkness, knowing only that for nearly three months things will only get darker still.

And that kind of marks my mood about the state of our nation.

Brexit is an utter disaster. It is a policy regarded as such not just by the current Prime Minister but by every living Prime Minister. And not just by the Prime Minister but by the de facto deputy Prime Minister; by the Chancellor and by the Home Secretary. By the leader of the Scottish Tories and the Tory Secretary of State for Wales. By the vast majority of opposition Members of Parliament of all political stripe. By the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Parliament. By the Treasury. By the EU certainly but also by every one of this Country's other major allies. By almost all independent economic forecasters in this country and in the wider world. Indeed by almost anyone with an informed opinion.

And yet we are told it must be persisted with. Because we had a referendum and, to lift the nihilistic words of a different sort of nationalist, Mhari Black, in a different context this week, on one single day, by a narrow majority, the electorate were prepared to sign up to the proposition:

I've never got the outrage at the Nats wanting another Referendum. I've certainly mocked their demand that such events should happen daily until they got the right result but it would surely have been unrealistic, indeed undemocratic, to have suggested that on 19th September 2014 the SNP should have wound itself up as a political Party and accepted that their cause was done. In that same vein, I never accepted, even had we lost on that September day, that my side would have had to have given up and join "Team Scotland" (copyright A. Salmond) to make the best of (or more likely share the blame for) the economic calamity that would have followed. I argued back then for "Unionists" legitimate right to insist that we'd been right and they'd been wrong, on through as many elections as followed, at least until the deed was actually done. Somewhat ironically, having located that very blog, I recall the nationalist outrage which followed.

So I don't accept that we, the electorate, are somehow mandated in the legitimacy of the options available to our elected representatives by a vote on 23rd June 2016, any more than those victorious on that day were obliged to accept such a vote from 6th June 1975.

But, to be clear, you cannot deny the electorate forever. You have to have the courage to confront them with their own folly. That you can't have prosperity without immigration. Or, for a Country of our size, economic influence without allies. Or allies without a means of shared decision making. Or shared decision making without an arbiter over what these decisions mean. That it is a deal or it is no deal, and a deal cannot simply be dictated by only one side.

So we need politicians with bravery.  Politicians on the Tory and Labour side to stand up together to declare "THIS IS MADNESS!" even in the knowledge that, under our first past the post system, they take a risk with their own long term careers.

But I get, as much as anybody gets, the draw of what is unfairly dismissed as Party tribalism but more accurately categorised as Party loyalty.

My mother died on the 13th of April 1979 during the General Election campaign of that year. I was but a boy of twenty but my folks had both been big Labour people locally (my father had died three years before) and the Party, at that time, looked after me, literally, as family. As it has, through personal and political ups and downs ever since. I'd find it exceptionally difficult to leave the Labour Party.

And I had a similar exchange with a pro European Tory post 23rd June 2016. "Let's try and persuade Ruth to lead a new Party" I proposed, by no means entirely frivolously. "I hate this, but I'm still a Tory. And so is she." was the response. On both sides we know this. Other people, comrades on my team, colleagues on theirs, matter to us across the divide. For they are family. And blood is thicker than water. People we might hope would only feel disappointed by such a development but we fear would actually think betrayed.

But perhaps there is an alternative. We now have a fixed term Parliament and a Brexit process to be concluded within it. Would it be beyond the device of woman and man to declare, in numbers and on both sides, for free votes on that process? Impossible? Except you see that's essentially what happened in 1971 when we first decided to join the EU. John Smith ended up voting with Reginald Maudling and Tony Benn with Enoch Powell. As, today, Diane Abbott might vote with Jeremy Hunt while Jeremy Corbyn joins Jacob Rees-Mogg. On this one issue alone. And somehow, a very British way, we might yet muddle through.

For Brexit, or at least a hard Brexit, would be a disaster.  And yet unless something happens that is precisely our destination. Through personal weakness on both sides of our two major Parties, those who perceive that coming disaster only too well are currently trapped, by tribalism or loyalty, in a way proving it impossible to prevent.

Something has to give or those judged most harshly by history will not be the true believing Boris Johnsons or John McDonnells but the Commons majority who saw it all coming but, for reasons of the moment, chose to look away.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Written Constitutions

Think back to your Higher History.

The whole of Hobsbawn's "long 19th Century" (1789-1914) was about insurrections against absolute monarchies. In 1789, 1830, 1848 (in spades), 1870 and at various other points in between "the people" rose up in "revolution". But, while their protest was invariably about particular urgent grievance, their demands invariably included "A WRITTEN CONSTITUTION!" Not so much to prevent these grievances from recurring but rather, if they did,  to provide a non revolutionary means for their resolution.

For revolutions might be glorious things, even on occasion necessary things. But they involve violence. Violence in which people get hurt. Even, if they succeed, people "hurt" on the winning side who do not live to celebrate the victory.

How much better if matters can be resolved at the ballot box within a commonly based agreed set of rules (for that is all a constitution ultimately is) and with an ultimate independent arbiter in the form of a Supreme Court?  A Court constituted in accordance with...... the Constitution.

Nobody gets hurt (except perhaps reputationally) and certainly nobody gets killed. And that surely has to be progress.

So that is why the Nineteenth Century's long march towards progress involved the steady adoption of constitutions. It is also why, within my lifetime, as they emerged from fascist totalitarianism in southern Europe, or communist authoritarianism in central and eastern Europe, that almost the first step of every Country was to adopt a constitution. For, today, every democracy in the world, (except four, a point I refer to in my footnote) has a written constitution. And it is also why the first act of any right wing coup, in any previous or temporary democracy, is to "suspend the constitution".

It is against that background that events in Catalonia have to be judged.

After the death of Franco, Spain became a democracy. And it adopted a constitution. Which was put to a national referendum in 1978. At which referendum it was approved overwhelmingly, including by 91.4% of voters in Catalonia.

And that constitution  included the declaration that Spain was indivisible.

There are, as there almost inevitably are, provisions for that constitution to be amended. But in respect of this provision it hasn't been.

And it is against that fact that events in Catalonia need to be judged. For as much as the establishment of a constitution is an aspiration (over more than 200 years) of the left and ultimately an achievement of the left, then the ability of any person or interest or faction to defy a democratically approved constitution can only be a defeat for the left. For while that defiance might on one occasion be about unilateral secession, it might on another be about freedom of speech, or religious observance or sexual equality.

And yet that is precisely what is being attempted in Catalonia. Even if some of the partisans of a unilateral repudiation of the Spanish Constitution don't appreciate that. I say some, because as with the dark underbelly of Scottish Nationalism, I'm sure many realise exactly what their politics truly are but just prefer to keep that quiet for the moment.

But I want to finish by talking about the first written constitution, which inspired so many others, that of the United States of America.

What was the American Civil War about? Today it is thought about being to free the slaves, Except it wasn't. Initially it was simply about the "right" of the southern states to unilaterally secede from the union, contrary to the Constitution. Emancipation followed only after nearly two years of actual fighting.

So let us be clear. That's the parallel. Anybody who supports the unconstitutional events in Catalonia have but one exemplar, Jefferson Davis. And let's be equally clear, any true democrat, Scottish or otherwise, should be standing with Lincoln. Not so much for the Union but for the Constitution. For all of us, but particularly those of us on the side of progress, benefit from there being a constitution. Don't ask me, ask those who died before me for that very principle.

Footnote. The four Countries are the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Israel. The second and third follow "our" example, The final one? These people are Israelis, They've presumably concluded they'd spend so much time arguing over what should be in their constitution that it was easier just to not have one at all. 

Monday, 11 September 2017

Tax (again)

I've written about tax before and you'll gather from that that I am not antipathetical to targeted tax increases BUT

We are twenty years on from the Devolution Referendum when 63% of the Scottish people voted for a devolved parliament with tax raising powers and yet we have never used these powers.

There are two reasons for this. The Labour reason and the SNP reason.

The Labour reason was initially quite simple. While Labour was in power at Holyrood, we were also in power at Westminster. The political reality always was that a Scottish Labour Government could not imply, by raising taxes here, that a UK Labour Government was itself not raising sufficient tax to fund public services properly. Not just not raising it, to be clear, to fund public services properly in Scotland but logically also failing in that task UK wide. And that political reality was particularly the case when, during, the whole of that period, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was Scottish Labour's easily most favourite son.

The SNP reason is also straightforward. Raising the basic rate of Income Tax is electorally toxic. They know that from experience.

At the first ever Holyrood election, in 1999, the SNP stood on a slogan of "A Penny for Scotland." This envisaged the basic rate of Income Tax being 1% (a penny) higher than that in the rest of the UK. This didn't even involve a tax rise. The UK Labour Government was that very same year proposing a 1% cut in the basic rate and all the Nats suggested was Scotland foregoing that cut, using the additional revenue raised on increased public spending.

The problem was that, put to the test, "Scotland" proved a good deal less keen to "properly fund" public services than past rhetoric (not just by nationalists) had suggested. The Nats got a significant rebuff and by the 2003 election, John Swinney, the then leader, had ensured that the policy did not reappear.

Which it hasn't since.

And indeed, by the 2011 election, the SNP reason had become also the Labour reason. Neither Party stood on a manifesto suggesting raising the basic rate. Nor indeed did any other major Party.

But since then there have been two significant developments.

Firstly, in 2016, Labour did stand on a platform of raising the basic rate by I%.

And, secondly, last week in her Programme for Government, Nicola said

Ahead of publishing our draft budget for 2018‑19, we will publish a discussion paper on Income Tax to open up the debate about the best use of our tax powers. It will:
  • set out the current distribution of Income Tax liabilities in Scotland
  • analyse the implications of different options around Income Tax, including the proposals of other parties represented in the Scottish Parliament
  • set out the importance of the interaction of Income Tax policy with the fiscal framework
  • provide international comparisons of Scotland's Income Tax policy
  • better inform the Parliament and people in Scotland about the choices open to us to invest in our public services and support the economy in the context of austerity and Brexit
The briefing which accompanied this was clear. The Nats would consider the blunt weapon of raising basic rate tax but only if the other Parties were prepared to also dip their hands in the blood. And, by implication, if they weren't, then the SNP wouldn't act unilaterally. Despite being the Government.

Now all of this leaves Labour in an awkward position.

You see, we didn't win the 2016 election. Indeed we didn't even come second. Now, at the time, this was attributed to "circumstances" in general. And, to be honest, that's probably what was the main cause. But we also benefited in 2016 from nobody thinking we were ever likely to win and so being bothered to much to pay attention to our tax policy. 2021 is likely to be a very different election.

And in 2016 nobody thought there would be a UK General Election for five years, so the tax policy of the Scottish Labour Party wasn't of any interest as any sort of exemplar for our likely UK tax policy. In 2021 we will be within a year of such an UK event and, you see, even John McDonnell didn't risk a basic rate increase in our "left-wing" UK manifesto earlier this year. And so that question would then be asked. Including if we'd still maintain higher taxes in Scotland if there was a Labour Government at Westminster.

And you see, the reason Mr McDonnell was not proposing to increase the basic rate (or indeed the income tax of anybody earning less than £80,000) was that he got that this would have been incredibly electorally unpopular. Which indeed is why no Chancellor of any Party has done this since Denis Healey in....................1975.*

But, and it's a big but, the idea of raising income tax is not unpopular within the Scottish Labour Party. Indeed its popularity internally is probably in inverse proportion to its unpopularity with the electorate. Because extra revenue means extra spending. Particularly potentially spending on public sector wages and local government jobs. Which, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a desired outcome of the public sector trade unions, who are our principal funders, and of the many local councillors who co-ordinate much of our activist base.

Now, because they are against "austerity" and would pay more tax to end it, they assume that this view is shared more widely. Regrettably however all the evidence suggests that it isn't. Which is what is got in spades by Nicola. For she also now has a significant cohort of Party members who would equally like higher taxes and more public spending but she has been careful not to commit to actually doing this, just to consulting about considering doing so. Which ultimately she won't. No matter what you think of her she is not stupid.

But of course Labour is currently in a leadership contest where the selectorate is not the general public but rather these same "anti-austerity" forces. So the temptation will be to play to the gallery. Particularly as neither candidate will want to be characterised as "to the right of Kezia Dugdale".

However, this would be a strategic error. Because we are now in a three cornered fight here. And winning the 2021 contest is frankly unlikely to be delivered by simply being to the left of the SNP. And who is to say they would by then be our main rivals anyway? Ruth Davidson has to date been characterised as a one trick ("save the union") pony. A criticism to her credit that she takes on board and is trying to remedy. But the danger is that Labour gratuitously provides her with another string to her bow. "Vote Tory and not only will you remain in the UK, you'll also pay no more tax than anybody else in the UK". And Ruth Davidson isn't stupid either.

Now, Labour might be prepared to take that on, to make the case for higher taxes and higher spending. For Scottish public sector workers to be (even) more relatively numerous than English public sector workers and better paid into the bargain**. And for that to be paid for, significantly, by higher taxes on Scottish private sector workers. But we shouldn't labour under the misapprehension that this will be universally popular (sic) with the Scottish electorate. No matter how well it might play within the Scottish Labour Party.

* That's not the same as raising the total income tax take.  George Osborne (!) did this between 2011-15 by significantly reducing the threshold at which higher rate (40%) tax fell to be paid.

** In writing this blog I have tried to get a figure for what percentage of Scottish Government revenue expenditure ultimately goes on wages. I have been unable to find this. But 65% of UK Government expenditure is spent in this way despite the UK Government also having current responsibility for the big ticket item of almost all  Welfare and Pension payments. So it is not unreasonable to assume the Scottish figure to be significantly higher.