The Other Sceptr’d Isle I

The Problem (Part 1 of 5)

With all the fuss over the Euro Final and the discussion of racism that ensued, nobody much noticed an item of non-news, a dog that did not bark in the night-time: celebrations of the Battle of the Boyne on July 12th was heralded by the usual massive bonfires. But there were no arrests or even unrest, much less rioting, as might have been expected, such as earlier in the summer. While this is to be welcomed, it does not mean the volcano rumbling under Ulster for centuries is dormant at last. It has not, any more than the recent replacement of Arlene Foster as leader of the DUP at the second attempt has made them into pliant political kittens. In fact, Northern Ireland stands at a crossroads just as pivotal as that in which it was formed a century ago. Its people are caught in an insoluble dilemma, brought to a head by Britain’s slipshod Brexit arrangements, supposed to resolve their unique status: Northern Ireland Protocol. This dilemma can be summed by:

  1. The EU requires a customs border between members and any non-EU country
  2. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement requires an open, invisible border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (which remains an EU member)
  3. The DUP insists there can be no form of border separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK; NI must be “an integral part of the UK

Clearly, these three statements cannot all be fulfilled at the one time. This hard fact has been known since a “hard Brexit” was first mooted by Theresa May’s government. At that time, vague talk of “technical solutions” was made to gloss over this, none of which have since materialised. The Johnson government merely kicked the can down the road by taking no customs action to/from NI after Brexit became reality. The EU tolerated this as being temporary. But they are increasingly angry at being blamed for stirring up trouble by simply wanting the NI protocol to be followed.

Considering Ulster’s volatile history, Brexiteers pushing this line are playing with fire. The chance of all this going pear-shaped is made more likely by Johnson’s style. This situation calls for insightful patience and meticulous diplomacy. These traits appear entirely foreign to the PM. Delegation to N.I. Secretary Brandon Lewis solves nothing, as he has been given no leeway and shows no aptitude to dissemble creatively. There is no sign of good will and dedication that wrought the peace process miracle of 1998.

Indeed, a Machiavellian take on UK government actions would be to see this as an attempt to frame the EU in a bad light so as to blame them for inevitable difficulties stemming from this is months to come. Whatever its motivation, the UK government could soon find itself with a political forest fire of unrest reminiscent of the Troubles,. For any solution, the problem must be unwound back to roots running almost a millennia deep.

(to be continued)

  • Part 1: The Problem
  • Part 2: The History
  • Part 3: The Hiatus
  • Part 4: The Crunch
  • Part 5: The Future?
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There’s Nothing Surer…

…the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer” runs the old song. Here are some stats to back up that equally old assertion.

This blog is a lift of the series of a half-dozen tweets by Tosten Bell (@TostenBell) of the Resolution Foundation, which provided a highly insightful synopsis of the impact the Covid pandemic has had on relative wealth in the UK.

The results are not quite what you might expect. The anatomy of the Covid wealth boom starts with:

  • Savings up £200bn +
  • Debt down £10bn +
  • House prices up 8%
  • Total UK wealth up by £900 billion to £16.5 trillion.

What’s going on? Two unrelated effects. First the direct impact has seen the usual wealth falls for those losing their jobs outweighed by Covid restrictions. This means big spending falls for higher income households, lading to accumulating savings for them.

But the second effect is even bigger. Asset price rises have seen the wealth of those who already had some surge in value. For the UK that is mainly about housing but elsewhere (e.g US) shares have also boomed.

For the first time we’ve combined the effects of spending falls and asset prices surges to see who this wealth boom has benefited overall.

This wealth boom is a big—but very unequal—deal. The typical adult has seen a £7,800 windfall – but the average increase is just £86 for the poorest 30% vs over £50,000 for the top 10%. The middle have done best in terms of a percentage rise, because they are most reliant on property.

So wealth gaps have risen AGAIN – the gap between the middle and wealthiest 10 per cent has increased by £44,000 mid-crisis (on top of a £350,000 increase in the pre-crisis decade). It’s these wealth gaps that are redefining who does/doesn’t feel like the country works for them.

This is very much continuing the pre-crisis trend of wealth gaps rising because household wealth is rising so much faster than income (note it’s the growth in household wealth NOT rising wealth inequality that is doing the work here

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For a lot more detail on this comprehensive take on what the pandemic has done to household wealth read our annual Wealth Audit, available via Rwitter from @jackhleslie @krishansays – with the kind support of @standardlifefdn. See also the Resolution Foundation at:

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Fort Sumter Revisited?

One hundred and sixty years ago was a seminal date in American history. There had always been tension between states in the South and those in the North. Resentment among southern slave-owning states grew with increasing pressure from the more populous and prosperous non-slave states of the North. In an attempt to redress this imbalance, southern politicians were keen for new states forming in the Mid-West to be incorporated in the Union as slave-owning states to stregthen their position.

Abraham Lincoln was elected President on an anti-slavery platform in November 1860 This was too much for South Carolina, which took the radical step of seceding from the Union in December. It was followed by six others. Together, they declared the Confederate States of America in February 1861. By the time Lincoln took office as President on March 4th, they had been joined by four others.

This unprecedented situation meant nobody on either side was sure what to do next, much less how to resolve it. The Confederates genuinely believed they were defending America and the freedoms for which it stood. Even before Lincoln took office, Confederate lawmakers wrote their own constitution, by copying the original United States Constitution verbatim, except for three “improvements”:

  1. States each had rights to run their own affairs
  2. Federal government were banned from interfering in states’ internal affairs
  3. No law could deny or impair owner right of property in negro slaves. 

The 4 million black people in those 11 states, almost all of them slaves, were not emancipated, and so had no voice in this momentous decision. Confederate leaders simply had to convince ordinary white men in their states that defending the expansion of human enslavement would, in effect, be defending the nation against “radicals” who misinterpreted “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence. As women were neither mentioned, and therefore not meant to be covered by this, neither should blacks be. Arguing that this constituted true patriotism, secession happened while tempers over Lincoln’s anti-slavery stance were still hot.

However, after several weeks of standoff, with no move from either side, that heat was cooling. Sentiment for rapprochement was building in the South because the Confederacy found itself in a quandry how to official recognition from the North was to be achieved. They decided to make a bold move tat would signal their commitment and seriousness.

Charleston Harbor was the major port of South Carolina, which had seized all Union assets there, except Fort Sumter, which dominated the harbour entrance. After minor skirmishes in early 1861, bombardment was opened on April 12th and surrender received the next day. This triggered Civil War, brnging any Southern waverers firmly on-side for the Confederacy.

The relevance of this to modern times may not be obvious to those who have not studied the rhetoric building from Trump and supportive Republicans since the first accusatory political balloons of political skulduggery were flown by them over a year ago. Speculative claims of voter fraud grew in the run-up to the November election. Then—to the surprise of most neutral observers—it continued apace afterwards, the din rising as Republicans clung to Trump as political saviour.

Ironic as it may seem, given his prominent place among America’s rich & famous, Trump has successfully played to his followers as outsider, an anti-establishment figure who had demonised the Washington careerists and Democrats, accusing them holding back ordinary Americans with their rules and socialism. Such an anti-tax/big government is a Republicans mantra. But, under Trump, it became surreal, achieving a stridency that engaged the disillusioned, especially from the far right.

His desperate attempts to hold on to the Presidency after he had clearly lost—and recounts had conformed this—was behind the unprecedented event of his supporters storming the Capitol on January 6th this year. His plea was for supporters to defend America against bureaucrats and socialists trying to deny them “their” President.

This parallels the Confederate leaders claiming justification for slavery and defying the legitimacy of Lincoln. Trump’s rallies, his multiple law suits and sunsequent activity in Republican-controlled states to disenfranchise voters echo the argument behind founding the Confederacy in 1861: that the Founding Fathers would approve such actions. Like Christian fundamentalists with the bible, Republicans are keen on literal interpretation of the wjat the framers of the 1776 Constitution meant.  The insurrectionists of January 6th, and those who continue to insist the election was stolen, do not think of themselves as domestic terrorists, but as patriots in the mould of Samuel Adams, one of those Founding Fathers.

A slew of Republican-controlled rural Southern and Mid-West states (approximating to the Confederacy) have questioned Biden’s victory and revised state voting laws in such a way as to disenfranchise minority communities and erode the value of their voting, all under the umbrella of “preventing voter fraud”. Such actions indirectly support the claim that the election was stolen from Trump. The clamour continues.

“Today is 1776!”:

—Tweet from Colorado Republican Representative Lauren Boebert, January 6th 2021

While all this has been disruptive to civic life, none has been truly effective. Biden’s Presidency has completed its first six months undeterred. However, with all efforts by Trump and supporters to question the result or derail Biden’s program come to nothing, their position parallels the Confederacy pre-Sumter. They have made their claim; that has not been accepted; there is no obvious road back; high expectations among followers are now drifting toward disillusion and dejection.

So Trump, like Jefferson Davis before him, must, in that colourful American phrase, “shit or get off the pot”. Davis seized the bull by the hors and triggered four years of civil war. Whatever Trump and his increasingly desperate supporters do, it is unlikely to lead to that. But they must do something radical to reverse increasing isolation and irrelevance. Even if they could find their symbolic equivalent of Fort Sumter, shelling it is probably not the best approach. But both Trump and his supporters are not the types to go away quietly.

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Gunboat Idiocy

On June 23rd, H.M.S. Defender of the Royal Navy, sailed from the Ukrainian port of Odessa on passage to the Georgian port of Batumi. This would take it across the Black Sea, covering 1,000 km from Northwest to Southeast. To do so requires navigating around Crimea, held by Russia and claimed by Ukraine, and therefore a sensitive area in politics and diplomacy. Russia claims territorial waters around Crimea up to the international standard of just under 20 km. By plotting its course to swing further West and South, Defender had plenty of sea room to avoid even approaching that distance from Crimea. But the ship chose not to and ‘cut the corner’, entering coastal waters near Cape Florient to a depth of some 3 km.

H.M.S. Defender (flag code: D36) is among the RN’s most capable ships in defending herself. At 8,500 tons and capable of over 30 knots, she is one of six modern Type 45 Daring class destroyers,whose primary role is to provide air defence, using the Sea Viper anti-air missile system.

H.M.S. Defender. Armament: Sea Vixen missilile system; 4.5-inch deck gun; 2 x 30mm cannon; 2 x 20mm Phalanx

The response from the Russians was swift and firm. A coastal patrol boat intercepted Defender, demanded several times that she left territorial waters, trying to force her further out before opening fire on the sea well ahead of their course. Several SU-24M Russian strike aircraft flew overhead, at least one dropping bombs, again well clear and another ‘buzzing’ the ship—passing low over it within a few hundred metres. Defender’s crew went to action stations but did not return fire. No-one was hurt; no damage was done before she was back out in international waters. But the real question is why she left them in the first place.

Crimea. Cape Florient is below Sevastopol

The RN is too professional for mistakes like this. The weather was clear; the coast was visible; the navigation aids were all functional. The captain, Commander Vince Owen has 20 years’ service and had been with the ship over a year. This wasn’t an error or misjudgement. Owen had orders to do this. The Amiralty would not have provoked such an incident without approval from Downing Street. The fact that a BBC reporter and camera team, plus other journalists were on board to witness this confirms this was a stunt, a deliberate poking of the Russian bear to see how he would react. It’s doubtful they let any Allies know—the same Allies trying to build bridges to Putin, including Biden’s recent meeting.

The rationale is not too hard to guess. After the Soviet Union collapsed 30 years ago, the residual Russian state realised that its Black Sea Fleet and main naval base at Sevastopol would be controlled by Ukraine, which had declared itself an independent state after centuries of Russian control. Clashes between the two in the Donbas region led to Russia seizing all Crimea in 2014. This was deplored internationally and Russia’s hold on it acknowledged by few.

Beyond unjustified military force, there are some arguments to support Tussia;s case. Not only is Sevastopol their second-biggest naval base and the only one with year-round warm water access, but almost 70% of the inhabitants are Russian, with only 17% Ukrainian and 10% Tartar Cossacks.

The West has, understandably, deplored such Russian high-handedness. But they have set about wooing Ukraine into their orbit, even discussing NATO membership, without showing how they could intervene effectively that far to the East. Such talk has upset the Russians, to whom they believe both Ukraine and Byelorussia rightly belong, as their inclusion in the Tsar’s domain had predated the United Kingdom. To even reasonable ussians, having Ukraine in NATO would be like the UK having to watch France join the Warsaw Pact at the height of the Cold War. If this seems exaggeration, read up on invasion by Karl Gustav’s Swedes, Napoleon’s Grande Armee, the Kaiser and Hitler’s Wehrmacht and the devastation they left. They have reasons to be touchy.

So, when Defender shows the flag in Odessa, in part to bolster sales of arms and corvettes to the Ukrainians for their defence against Russia, things are already growing tense. But, when she gets orders, as must have been the case, to bolster Ukraine’s claim to Crimea and its territorial waters by sailing through them, we have a demonstration of cold-war-era brinkmanship we have not seen in decades.

At home, this may been seen to boost Tory ambitions to present Britaon as a resurgent global power post-Brexit, it is playing with diplomatic firs and people’s lives. Because the Russians are no pushovers, have long been master chess players and in Chechnya and Syria, as well as Cromea and Donbas, don’t give much of a hoot whose toes they tread on.

Had this been 30 years ago, a fleet badly maintained and trained by a bankupt Soviet Union might not have posed such a threat. But, since the Rurrians again took over Cromea, there is a new sheriff in town. The fleet now includes six attack submarines, six Admiral Grigorovich class frigates and three flotillas of missile corvettes from the Steregushchiy, Karakurt and Buyan-M classes. All these support the cruiser Moskva and at least four amphibious landing ships.

Slava class Guided Missile Cruiser Moskva, 11,200 tons

Together with expensive land-based air and advanced missile batteries are capable of taking on the Royal Navy, let alone a single destroyer, however modern. Hat such a force dominates the Black Sea is confirmed by the US Navy, whose Sixth Fleet does not venture its mughty aircraft carriers anywhere near. They content themselves with a couple of detached destroyers (currently USS Roosevelt and USS Donald Cook) which are there more to reassure the Turks than anything else. American posture should it come to a shooting war in the region is to fly stand-off cruise missiles from B-52s and keep ships out of harm’s way.

Someone should tell the Tories: the days when the appearance of a British gunboat would cow the natives are long gone. Which makes you shudder at the insouciance with which this government beards the Russians. Whatever we may think of their claim to Crimea, they are convinced it’s theirs. As a result they are perfectly capable, both morally and militarily, of sinking any vessel that tries another such stunt, and of riding the subsequent diplomatic row with calm aplomb. Britain would also not win friends among NATO allies, plus the loss of £1bn it cost to build, plus its 191 crew, not to mention sundry reporters or film crews brought along for the scoop.

A type 45 destroyer costs us all £46ma each year to run. There must be better and more sensible things we could do with it.

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Overlord? Over-hyped

Today (June 6th) marks the 77th anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of Occupied Europe by the Western Allies, who subsequently fought their way across France, Belgium and into the heart of Germany to bring the Second World War to an end less than a year later. It was the biggest naval assault the world had ever seen, backed up by the most complex planning and logistics, involving over 150,000 troops. Many people and organisations will mark the event, usually among the lines of Heather Cox, who has blogged:

“Operation Overlord was a success, launching the final assault in which western democracy, defended by ordinary men and women, would destroy European fascism.”

While raking nothing away from either the professionalism and innovation of the organisation or the bravery and accomplishments of the troops who stormed ashore, eight decades have allowed western commentators to mould history to suit current purposes. “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it” is an adage that applies today as much as it ever did. This condensed attempt to set the record straight may not please people, especially those wearing rose-tinted spectacles but the intention is to do honour equally to those who deserve it.

The September 1939 outbreak of World War 2 caught Britain unprepared and still pretending it was a world power. Its military shortcomings were revealed when it could do nothing to prevent Poland from being crushed inside three weeks and, despite eight months of “Phony War” in which to prepare, getting unceremoniously bundled out of France at Dunkirk after barely six weeks. Though Britain salvaged some prestige that same year by ejecting the Italians from half of their Libyan colony, the involvement of the German military in 1941 not only rolled them back into Egypt but bundled them out of Greece and Crete too.

At that point, it seemed to most people, whether friend or foe, that Britain standing alone was doomed. It is to Churchill’s and the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ of the British people that they did not capitulate at that point. But Hitler’s unexpected assault on the Soviet Union and Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, bringing America into the war boosted Britain’s beleaguered position into one of alliance with the two greatest powers on the planet, both from manpower and equipment/resources perspectives.

Because they were in the winning side, not much has been made of Britain’s manpower shortages, inadequacy of equipment and diversion of military strength into other services. Britain mobilised around 4 million men in the services, compared to 7 million in Germany and 12 million each in USA and the Soviet Union. Compounding this was the need for a strong Royal Navy to defend a global empire that no longer paid for itself and a strategic choice to build a heavy bomber force that was the sole means of “taking the war to the enemy”. Nobody seriously questioned whether either could defeat Germany. Without allies, could not have prevailed.

To put the 1941-43 ground effort in perspective, Britain fought the Axis only in the Middle East. Starting with one British and one Indian division, this was gradually augmented by two Australian, another Indian and a New Zealand divisions before a British Infantry and Armoured divisions made up the victorious Eighth Army at El Alamein in late 1942. These were opposed and often defeated by the three divisions of the German Africa Corps, plus around eight uneven divisions of the Italian Tenth Army.

To put this in perspective, the Eastern Front in Russia absorbed 160 German divisions, 19 of which were Panzer (armoured), 8 motorised and five elite formations of the Waffen SS. They were opposed by 400 Russian divisions, who, in the first year of the war, caused the Germans a million casualties by fighting tenaciously over the endless Russian landscape. Despite initial setbacks, the Soviets outfought and out-produced the Wehrmacht, who had been considered unbeatable for the first two years of WW2.

In ferocious battles like Stalingrad and Kursk, the Soviets tore the heart out of Germany’s finest troops. By the time of Overlord, they would soon eject them from their vast conquests in the Soviet Union itself, be poised to clear the Balkans and close up to the Oder river, threatening Berlin itself when the Western Allies had yet to cross the Rhine. Militarily, the Soviet Union won the war, and would have done so without any D-Day.

But the most fallacious aspect of “Western democracy beat fascist oppression” is that the Soviets did all this under a repressive regime that made fascism look cuddly by comparison. Stalin ran a dictatorship more repressive than Hitler’s. His security sidekick, Beria, was coldly efficient, compared to a bumbling, bespectacled Himmler. Gulags in Siberia could match Dachau or Buchenwald for sheer brutality. Frightening though the Gestapo were to German civilians, the NKVD also had units equipped with machine guns stationed behind army units in the field—and would use them against any who dared to retreat.

What the Germans called the Eastern Font was on a scale and pervaded with a brutality unknown and scarcely understood in the West. This does not imply that the fighting in and following Overlord was not fierce, nor deserving of grateful acknowledgement. But the German 7th and 15th Armies that opposed Bradley and Montgomery were a mixed bunch. Third-rate Static divisions full of press-ganged POWs and second-rate, horse-drawn Infantry divisions were stiffened with a handful of tough divisions—3rd & 5th Parachute; 2nd, 9th & 12th SS Panzer. But the latter were blanketed by overwhelming Allied air power and never able to achieve much more than dogged defence.

And, because of manpower shortages mentioned above, the British element of this, though important, became a lesser proportion of forces deployed. In early 1945, when the last major barrier of the Rhine was forced the Allies deployed four American armies (1sr, 3rd,  7th and 9th), the 1st French, 1st Canadian and only the 2nd British Army. To be fair, the British also had two other armies in the field: the 8th in Italy and the 14th in Burma. But, tough though both slogs were, neither made strategic contributions to ending the war  and both included considerable non-British formations.

Veterans deserve all the accolades and respect we can give them. Whether their contribution was major and/or decisive or not, they risked their lives and did their duty in nightmare circumstances of which we have little concept. But let us not adopt the chest-beating and jingoistic approach favoured by the Daly Mail or the Conservative Party to boast how “we won the war” and “made the world safe for democracy” because our role, however doggedly and nobly fought, was secondary and we embraced some totalitarian allies, whose indifference to democracy locked half of Europe behind an iron curtain for 45 long years.

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Revenge Is Tweet

This author has had a Twitter presence for over a decade. It was then a lively interactive forum in which anyone who was anyone in Scottish politics had a presence and used it for informal debate and interaction. Following them and a couple of hundred others gave participants a sense of immediacy and insight that following standard media could not quite achieve. There were trolls and bigots, but not so many, nor so venomous that they did much more than highlight how informed, reasonable and open-minded the bulk of tweets were. Blocking was a last resort, and seldom necessary.

Then, four years ago, struck by macular occlusion and registered blind, it was no longer possible to follow, let alone contribute to, the cut and thrust of Twitter. Not wishing to make too much of this, there was a hiatus in this author’s participation. Due to the almost magical options available on Apple laptops, this blog was continued with little more than a drop in frequency of posts.

Twitter was another matter until this Spring, when some training, adjustments to technique and the looming elections of May 6th rendered re-involvement in the Twitterati overdue, to stay current and informed enough to feel contributions could be made.

A month reading fewer follows and making fewer contributions than before have highlighted how Twitter appears to have changed in a way that participation over the four year hiatus would not have done, as gradual change often passes unnoticed.

For a start, many of the ‘big beasts’, not just in Scotland, appear to have cut down on activity, if not disengaged altogether. Of those accounts still active, they seem to be either driven by SPADs posting in the name of the account, or, especially in the case of Scottish Conservatives (@ScotTories) the accounts are all part of a co-ordinated campaign—recently trying to catalyse wider campaigns against Nicola Sturgeon and her party (@theSNP), highlighting her government’s failures (often accurately) but posting no remedy.

There are some honourable mentions for veteran politicians who still tweet articulately themselves. From the SNP Angus MacNeil (@AngusMacNeilSNP) and Mike Russell (@feorlean) continue with active personal presence, but the days when Kezia Dugdale (@kezdugdale) or Ruth Davidson (@RuthDavidsonPC) would spark off each other are gone. They’ve both racked over 20k tweets but lately favour retweets and positive commentary. Those still flying the political flag down south are more marginal figures like John Redwood (@johnredwood) and Michael Fabricant (Mike_Fabricant), both with interesting things to say, but neither of whom can be considered representative of mainstream.

Those still there who weigh in with worthwhile bon mots include Ruth Wishart (@ruth_wishart), Gerry Hassan (@GerryHassan), Lesley Riddoch (@LesleyRiddoch) and Andrew Wilson (@AndrewWilson) on the bolshier side of things, with Spectator editor Fraser Nelson (@FraserNelson), ex-Labour MP Tom Harris (@MrTCHarris), and Times columnist Alex Massie (@alexmassie) holding up the Establishment end with competence. For neutral commentary, the now-retired Brian Taylor is sorely missed and Douglas Fraser (@BBCDouglasF) restricts himself to business and economy. Despite being Scottish, Laura Kuenssberg (@BBClaurak) is now immersed in the Westminster bubble and Sarah Smith (@BBCsarahsmith ) makes little use of her Twitter account. Murray Foote (@murrayf00te) still weighs in with balanced observations and it would be churlish to imply that there aren’t many other well informed and articulate contributions being made.

But Twitter used to be a tau and engaging place for the political anorak. Most of the friendly chats, family updates and pictures of cats were all on Facebook; Twitter was for professional discourse. This is now much less the case.

First of all, it has become littered with media showcasing their scoops and programmes, which require subscriptions if you are mug enough to follow the links offered. However, some, like Al-Jazeera (@AJEnglish) are, in fact, informative. Second, these are interleaved with copious adverts masquerading as tweets and doubly boring because they recur so often with the same message. Thirdly, there is the proliferation of pictures and videos—snazzy technology, but too often banal.

All of this would be tolerable, were the frequency of threads with debates of posit and counter to be found as before. But, though there are still many contributions of wit and humanity to be found, the bulk of those not falling into the commercial categories above are statements of such declarative certitude as to tacitly scorn any counter-argument. This seems particularly true of replies to even innocuous declarations, many of which include swearing and disparaging personal remarks, attacking the author, rather than any argument made.

All this is not to say that Twitter no longer serves a purpose. But, between increased in-your-face commercialism, the withdrawal of many ‘names’ the blatant positioning by party apparatchiks and a feeling of venomous revenge exuded by the trolls, it has lost much of the innocent energy that drew me in circa 2010. I suspect others from that era may feel the same.

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Sturgeon’s Stavka

After being re-elected by the Scottish Parliament the previous day, on May 19th, Nicola Sturgeon announced the Cabinet Secretaries in her slimmed-down Cabinet tram. She likes to run a tight ship, but has realised, as many such leaders do, that a supine chorus may do your bidding, but it doesn’t get things done. In this (only), she resembles Stalin, who, in the early stages of the Great Patriotic War thought that loyal yes-men like Pavlov or Budyenny could do the job. With German panzers in the suburbs of Moscow, he realised the error of his ways and brought into his supreme command (Stavka) the likes of Zhukov and Voroshilov—professionals who thought for themselves and could get the job done. Let’s run through Nicola’s new Stavka.

Four who had previously held Cabinet posts stepped down as MSPs (Roseanna Cunningham; Jean Freeman; Mike Russell; Aileen Campbell). Of these, only Mike represents loss of real experience. These departures made a reshuffle inevitable. But it was more extensive, removing two Cabinet secretary posts and four post-holders (Fiona Hyslop; Fergus Ewing; Kevin Stewart; Joe Fitzpatrick). The final composition was:

  • Nicola Sturgeon—First Minister
  • John Swinney—Deputy First Minister, responsible for Covid recovery
  • Kate Forbes—Finance, with Economy brief added
  • Shirley-Anne Somerville—Education & Lifelong Learning
  • Humza Yusef—Health & Social Care
  • Shona Robison—Social Justice & Local Government
  • Keith Brown—Justice, with responsibility for COP20
  • Michael Matheson—Transport responsible for Net Zero
  • Mairi Gougeon—Rural Affairs & Islands
  • Angus Robertson—Constitution

This choice of team is a lot more than window-dressing and maintenance of gender balance. It would appear to be a re-thinking of Cabinet, not just to deal with Covid and the economic recovery from it. This is s team that will need to contemplate not just an independence referendum, but the visionary arguments to be deployed to win it and lay the foundations of a government capable of running the country upon success.

In truth, the previous Cabinet had not been a success. The main reason this had not made a more damaging impact on the May the election result appears to be that no effort by ether Tory or Labour opposition appeared to dent the SNP’s and especially Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity and consequent ratings. But even cursory examination of results showed serious flaws.

Jean Freeman had been uncomfortable in her brief on Health and was saved largely by capable staff work and general NHS Scotland competence. John Swinney had made a far less effective fist at Education than he had at Finance. To be fair to John, the difficulties inherent in teaching unions, Education Scotland and the SQA, which predecessor Fiona Hyslop had failed to  weld into a team made this task tough and barely suited to the bank-manager-ish ‘safe pair of hands’ that is John’s forte. Also barely missed will be Kevin Stewart, who did little with the Local Government brief but follow orders and alienate the bulk of CoSLA and cash-strapped councils, despite his own council background. Joe Fitzpatrick failed to make much impact in the high-profile role of reversing the rise in drug deaths. Fergus Ewing, despite his famous name, had had over a decade with the Rural Affairs and Islands brief, losing much of the ground his predecessor Richard Lochhead had made. Though it could be argued that, by removing them, experience was being lost, but it was not experience leading to much progress.

Though the new Cabinet is ten instead of twelve, it is likely to be more effective. Remember, the fist SNP Cabinet in a minority government was only six strong. But t paved the way to the 2011-16 majority which unlocked the 2014 referendum.

The three ‘newcomers’ are nothing of the sort and will stiffen competence in government. Shona Robison held down the Heath brief with some distinction and is known to be a resolute and unpretentious worker. Her Dundee background and long experience with the party faithful will stand her I good stead. Keith Brown is another solid performer, having implemented the EGIP rail electrification programme while he held the Transport brief. A former Marine and Leader of Clackmannan Council, he is at home in tough spots and knows how the machinery of government works at all levels. Not as abrasive as Kenny MacAskill, who once held the Justice brief, Keith is just the sort of lead necessary to make the showcase COP20 a success in Glasgow this November.

The most powerful new face is Angus Robertson in the Constitution brief. He is only new to Holyrood, having been in senior posts and a most effective Leader of the SNP at Westminster, where he was far more effective holding David Cameron’s and Thersa May’s feet to he fire than Ian Blackford seems to be with the slippery BoJo. Taking over the Constitution brief from a retiring Mike Russell, Angus is just the man to weave cogent arguments for Scotland, as well as another referendum  that even constitution-less Westminster will find it hard to argue against. He us urbane, articulate, persuasive, with an international outlook far beyond Brexit-crippled Britain.

The new Cabinet has balance, with a wealth of talent drawn from across the SNP. With uncompromising egos like Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill self-isolation politically in Alba and Nicola seasoned enough by her handling of Covid, with Kate Forbes outshining anything her disgraced predecessor Derek Mackay achieved in the pivotal Finance and Economy role, look for a political fireworks showing up Douglas Ross and his girning opposition —and goading such talent as Labour and Tories do have into some visionary ideas, even if they are about the Union.

We might find this Stavka parking its tanks on the Westminster Reichstag’s lawn.

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Republicans Shoot the Messenger

On May 11th, Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney (daughter of President “Dubya” Bush’s Vice-President_let loose a blistering broadside against the Republican leaders who have shackled the party to former president Donald Trump who, despite losing office, sixty lawsuits and access to both Twitter and Facebook, continues to plague America’s democracy. As third-ranking Republican leader, her criticism of her own party is hot stuff, as well as brave. She said:

“Today we face a threat America has never seen before. A former president who provoked a violent attack on this Capitol in an effort to steal the election has resumed his aggressive effort to convince Americans that the election was stolen from him. He risks inciting further violence. Millions of Americans have been misled by the former president. They have heard only his words, but not the truth, as he continues to undermine our democratic process, sowing seeds of doubt about whether democracy really works at all.”

“Compae the determination of those in Kenya, Russia, and Poland to risk their lives to vote for freedom. The dream of democracy has inspired them. Reagan’s Republican Party won the Cold War. Now America is on the cusp of another cold war, this time with China.

“This impending struggle highlights the importance of today’s domestic struggle: attacks against our democratic process and the rule of law empower our adversaries and feed communist propaganda that American democracy is a failure. We must speak the truth. Our election was not stolen, and America has not failed.

“I stand on conservative principles that Republicans like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has abandoned. The fundamental conservative principle is the rule of law—and those backing Trump’s Big Lie are denying that rule and undermining our democracy. The election is over, Those who refuse to accept the rulings of our courts are at war with the Constitution. It is imperative we act to prevent the unraveling of our democracy.”

“This is not about policy. This is not about partisanship. This is about our duty as Americans. Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar.”

On the very next day, House Republicans voted to remove Cheney from the number three spot in the party in the House. This is despite Trump’s own former Deputy Attorney General, Jeffrey Rosen telling the House Oversight Committee that “the Justice Department had been presented with no evidence of widespread voter fraud at a scale sufficient to change the outcome of the 2020 election.”

All this could end badly for more than just the Republican Party.

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Channeling George III

Three days after the polls opened, results are in for the 2021 elections to the Scottish Parliament. Unlike previous elections when a diversity of policies brought in a variety of parties, this result—and the tactical voting that led to it—split along independence vs union lines.

Pro-indy parties—72 seats (3 more)
SNP: 64 (+1)
Green: 8 (+2)

Pro-union parties—57 seats (3 fewer)
Cons: 31 (n.c.)
Labour: 22 (-2)
Lib-Den: 4 (-1)

What is decisive about this is not just the numbers. The Conservatives made opposition to any referendum their main policy and repeated it ad infinitum. Both the SNP and Greens had other policies, starting with dealing with Covidm but clearly stating their intention to call a referendum during the term of the parliament (i.e. by 2026).

Though the unionists are spinning away big-time that this is not the time to choose, that the SNP received no overall majority, that the SNP ‘only’ received 48% of the vote, the smell of fear and sense of desperation from them is in the air. And, as the NYT says, Boris and the Tories being implacably against any referendum, let alone allowing Scotland to become independent is putting up backs among people who are not SNP voters but resent being told what to do by a distant and largely unsympathetic Westminster.

It has become a question of democracy. A majority of 15 in the Scottish Parliament were elected on the pledge to ask the people whether they wanted independence or to stay in the union. To refuse that begs the question how the Scottish people could ever achieve that if electing such a majority in their parliament is not enough. The idea that we would need over 50% of the 650-seat UK parliament to approve it is ludicrous, not least because only 57 of those MPs are from Scotland (almost all SNP). The Tories used a 52%-to-48% UK vote to leave the EU, even though 62% of Scotland voted to stay. With Scottish seafood exporters to the EU now being crippled by red tape, circumstances since the 2014 referendum have changed dramatically.

If American readers were to imagine if California wanted to secede but the other 49 sates were all Republican and wanted to retain CA for their own purposes and much of the Central Valley produce lay rotting at the border as a result. If any union is being held together by mutual agreement becomes one held together by coercion, the question becomes not whether but when it will fall apart.

As Boris’ great hero Churchill once said:

“This is not the end; it is not even the beginning of the end. But it may be the end of the beginning.”

Unfortunately for all of us, Boris Johnson is no Churchill, displaying little of either his steadfastness or his vision. Rather his style has been characterised by what has been described as “a vacuum f integrity”. Seen from a Scottish perspective, he seems less to be channeling his hero than George III, who caused the first fragmentation of the English Empire. Boris is bidding fair to go down in history as being similarly instrumental in causing the last.

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The Maine Line

Like it or not, America is a great country with a massive influence on both the peace and the future of the world. Though their institutionalised two-party system may seem simplistic to Europeans, it has generally served them and their democratic principles well. Then came Trump.

He did not invent venal hostility between the two parties—that dishonour goes to Newt Gingrich with his bind obsession in discraditing Bill Clinton and, by extension, the Democrats. Republicans did their level best to derail Obama’s efforts to bring in a sensible and fair health care system and generally carry the Reaganomics banner that all government is bad, especially when it comes to taxing the rich.

For four years, Donald Trump, with enthusiastic support from Senate Leader Mitch McConnel put this policy on steroids. Many people, watching Biden’s energetic unrolling of all that, thinks the worst is over. That may be. But most Republicans have bought in to Trump’s big lie that the election was stolen and are using every means they can think up to prove him right. A shrewd observer of all this is journalist Heather Cox Richardson, who, despite being holed up in a scenic corner of Maine, nonetheless has her finger firmly on the pulse of her nation. She writes a daily blog that takes few prisoners. Europeans interested in crisp doses of US political reality should consider the $5 for a month’s subscription most worthwhile. What follows is a sample of her work.

By a vote of 216 to 208, the House of Representatives passed a bill to grant statehood to the District of Columbia. The measure would carve out the area around Capitol Hill, the White House, and the National Mall to remain much as they are today, but the rest of what is now the District would get one representative in Congress and two senators. About 712,000 people live in Washington, D.C., only about 37.5% of whom are non-Hispanic white.

Republicans are furiously arguing that this is a naked power play on the part of the Democrats, for D.C.’s inhabitants are presumed to be Democratic voters. In response, those in favor of D.C. statehood point out that the Republican Party, quite famously, admitted six states in twelve months between 1889 and 1890. They were not shy about what they were doing. The admission of North Dakota, South Dakota (they split the Dakota Territory in two), Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming, Republicans said, should guarantee to the Republican Party a permanent majority. (They were so blatant that they convinced a number of Republicans to turn against them.)

But today’s vote to admit D.C. to the Union is not quite the same as the power grab of the 1890s for the simple reason that Washington, D.C., in 2021 has a lot of people in it. Republicans pushed for the admission of their six new states as quickly as they did because they knew that the 1890 census would reveal that the new states did not have enough people in them to become states (unlike Arizona and New Mexico, which did have a lot of people, but those folks supported the Democrats).

In contrast to that push to create states purely for political power, today’s D.C. has people in it. A lot of them. It has more people today than Vermont… and Wyoming, one of the states the Republican brought in in 1890.

—Heather Cox Richardson, April 22nd 2021

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