This Scuppered Isle

Three days on and the enormity of what happened on June 23rd still has not registered in all its implications either with me or the population at large. The jubilation shown by Brexiteers at counting stations appears to have evaporated overnight. More importantly, the architects of this seismic shift in Britain’s future seemed equally overawed by what they have done. Boris and Gove are boys who laced school dinners with laxative—laying low, hoping their wheeze won’t have serious repercussions but realising only now they hadn’t thought things through.

Apart from a weak pound and markets, ructions at the top of both UK parties and considerable outrage among 16m people (plus a fair few among the other 17m), long-term effects are only now becoming clearer. Within the EU, the northern bloc of ‘reasonable’ countries who should have been our allies are peeved that we  pulled out and left them to deal with what everyone agrees is a dis-functional Europe project. At the same time the southern reprobates realise there will be even less money than they thought to bale them out of their spendthrift ways .

Demanding to leave the EU instead of staying and throwing ourselves into making it better is myopic. Divorce is not the only viable solution to a marriage spat.

And yet, it is not as if Britain can really move to pastures new. Geography—give or take a continental nanometric drift or two—is not changed one whit by political decisions. Even Brexiteers concede that our biggest trading partner should still be there right across the Channel.

But how can it be as now?

By unilaterally throwing our collective toys out of the pram and abdicating any hope of influencing future EU decisions, Britain has just irritated the very people with whom we wish to negotiate. And this much is clear; if we want absolute control of immigration we cannot be part of the single market. And, as if that were not enough, by leaving, we undermine the stability of that bloc such that its economic future may become uncertain. Our best customer may now become poorer and so less able to buy our stuff—even with our now-discounted £.

And who will be doing the negotiating from this side? By siding with Cameron, the bulk of the Cabinet is disqualified. By siding with Corbyn, so is the Shadow Cabinet. The media are talking up Boris as a front-runner and you have to credit him with the nous to play the populist amiable idiot as if he were born to it. But if popular, folksy philosopher is all the qualification needed, Homer Simpson ought to make as good a PM as Boris.

The man has no depth. He has consciously cultivated popularity since he went to Eton. But he is a total weathervane on policy, failing to exhibit detectable backbone of principle within his ample body. As a Prime Minister, he would be a Sarkozy—a toom tabard living on charm, or Tsipras, Syriza’s pliant leader who looks good but is effectively disabled—buried under events beyond his control.

But, if not Boris, things go downhill even steeper. Gove is as credible as a shandy at a whisky-tasting. The other Brexit ‘leaders’ may make cogent arguments but are all non-starters because they come across as prats— Redwood? Fabricant? Rees-Mogg?—their mothers and their backwoods constituents may love them but they are as popular with the English public as a series of farts in a spacesuit. In Scotland, they are alien as Martians.

Whoever it winds up being, the PM’s job is now a poisoned chalice. As the Grauniad said over the weekend: “All that remains is for someone to have the guts to stand up and say that Brexit is unachievable in reality without an enormous amount of pain and destruction, that cannot be borne.” Because this is one doozy of an abyss Britain is now staring into. Consider these factors over the 2+ years it will take for Article 50 to be implemented:

  • Minimum 28 months of market uncertainty when much of UK wealth comes from financial services in both London and Edinburgh
  • Exodus of workers to EU as companies adjust to upcoming border restrictions (Barclays has already announced 1,000 staff moving from London to Paris so they can continue to operate within the EU
  • Huge dislocation of 2m Britons currently resident in EU who will soon need work permits or different health provision or pension arrangements
  • Difficult and public wrangling over terms of trade and co-operation because there was scant love left for British stroppiness within the EU even before they were dropped into this additional hassle.
  • Undermining of NATO, especially if Trump gets anywhere near the White House, with a consequent rise in sabre-rattling from Putin et al.
  • Backlash from the Hartlepools and Halesowens and Huddersfields whose blue-collar votes tipped the decision because they hoped funds would flow to them instead of Brussels when they find factors (see above) result in there being less.
  • Backlash in London and other major cities when the flow of immigrants does not abate with the EU’s ‘free movement of labour’ because most of the UK’s 300,000 immigrants weren’t EU citizens in the first place.
  • Major disruption to the NHS as free movement of labour that has allowed thousands of staff from the EU to be employed becomes blocked
  • Serious disruption in farming, with knock-on to its supply side, as the entire CAP subsidy system disappears
  • Difficulty maintaining the current standard of living because a weaker £ will make the 80% of manufactured goods we import (especially from China) dearer—and even make a holiday in the sun proportionally dearer.
  • Perhaps most telling (given Tory thundering how Brexit would let us take charge of our future) a diminished role in the world because Britain will no longer have backing from 300m+ in the world’s biggest economic bloc.

Even assuming there isn’t an emergency budget declared this summer, all of Osbornes flawed calculations regarding turning the debt around are now out the window. There must be such a budget under whatever new PM emerges by October. It must cope with knock-on effects of Moodies down-rating the UK economy, not least of which will be a consequent rise in interest rates, loading even more of a burden onto interest payments, already at £30bn per annum, not to mention mortgage payments rising and property sagging.

By the New Year (except among Farage, his UKIP hardliners and the usual Tory Little Englander suspects) expect widespread regret at this huge self-inflicted wound in our welfare. And that’s when the wheels will really come off. With the English economy on its worst slide in years, the counsel of caution why Scotland cannot go it alone will weaken. And, as English Labour follows their Scottish brethren into the wilderness, voices against independence will be increasingly stilled and Nicola praised for her foresight in preparing for indyref2.

Most of the unionist arguments deployed in 2014 will then ring hollow amidst an economic downturn that will be austerity on steroids. Oil prices rising back towards former levels would be all the economic confirmation Scots would need to make their escape. With the October 2018-ish deadline for final Brexit looming, a Spring 2018 referendum YES decision could keep Scotland—long more popular abroad than our stand-offish English cousins—in the EU.

And, if that happened, the likelihood of a similarly discomfited Northern Ireland with its growing proportion of Catholic voters seizing similar opportunity moves from the fantastic to the possible. Joining with Eire they would stay in the EU, the Troubles would at last be over and the wrongs of 1922 righted a century late.

All of which might give tresolutely narrow-minded, living-in-the-past, almost-all-English Brexit politicians left looking at what they had wrought some food for thought—not least contemplating their sputtering, isolated English economy, surrounded by annoying affluent resilience of a revitalised EU.

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Toys Out the Pram; Bums Oot the Windae

I join over 15m voters in their varied disappointment on waking this morning to discover that Britain has voted to leave the EU. That’s about as sober a statement as I can manage right now. Because I am bealing, furious, outraged, incandescent with indignation that the vote went that way for reasons of myopia and xenophobia that should have no place in an advanced nation in the 21st century.

From Boris to Farage, this was Henry V, Armada-era, thin-red-line, fight-them-on-the-beaches stuff that attempted—and succeeded—in turning back the clock towards a time when Britannia ruled the stock markets, as well as the waves. Had the benefits of an arms-length (rather than close) relationship with Britain’s nearest neighbours been laid out in a cogent and/or pounds-and-pence case and that had won, I would be disappointed, upset even, but resigned that democracy had debated and spoken. But the Brexit case made McCarthyism seem a rational and calm search for the truth by comparison.

Any attempt I make to present a rational analysis of this must be prefaced by the confession that I was constantly amazed that Brexit leaders consisted of an almost complete who’s who of irritating British politicians . They all fall into that type who, at school, would have been taken behind the bike shed in utter irritation at their endless smug infallibility in oleaginous pronouncements. Farage and Boris lead this rogue’s gallery by a country mile, but honourable mention must go to John Redwood, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove and similar insufferables, plus our own embrassment-in-an-ill-fitting-suit, David Cockburn.

But. leaving personalities aside, consider what appears to have happened in this most momentous decision in Britain so far in the 21st century—and, yes, I include 2014’s indyref in that and do not do so lightly.

  • It was always clear that right-wing England—largely represented by the Tory party but more recently also partly by UKIP—was hostile to Europe. In this group are Little-Englanders, Backwoodsmen of the Tory back benches, the Home Counties, those who still remember the War and those who feel their culture threatened by any form of outside influence.
  • A goodly section of the Tory party who are more outward-looking, trade oriented stood for Remain. They accepted the fact that ironclads and gunboats are no longer modern tools with which to negotiate and build friendships. Ruth Davidson’s very creditable contributions are en example of this element.
  • By three to one, nationalists and environmentalists gave the lie to Better Together’s accusation of inward-looking small-mindedness to endorse Remain as the best was for a small nation like Scotland to make global contributions as part of an umbrella of friendly nations who, together, could carry political and economic clout on the scale of a superpower. Perhaps because of their two recent sweeps of former Labour heartland in Scotland, the bulk of former Labour voters appear to have broken with England and followed this lead.
  • Largely-white, largely-Labour-voting areas were the surprise that swung it. From Canvey Island to Chester-le-Street, voters who had already swung to UKIP came out in force. But the real surprise was the scale of two fingers given by those still voting Labour to their leadership’s attempts to persuade them to Remain. By 2am, the swing to Brexit in England’s North-East was already clear and massive. It was such solid Leave votes in cities across England (outside of London) that scuppered any hopes for Remain.

But it is the reason why this last occurred that is so depressing and not hard to seek. While all is fair in love, war and politics, it is not just the arguments Brexiteers deployed that strike distasteful notes but the fact that voters in those areas were so disenchanted with the current political situation that their elected representatives had brought them to, they seized on a number of ignoble reasons proferred to give the establishment a good kicking, such as:

  1. Turkey will soon join the EU and up to 70m Turks could arrive“. Palpable nonsense as Turkey has been applying for some time and faces serious hurdles before membership. Also, Germany has had thousands of Turkish ‘gastarbeiter’ for decades with mostly positive effect. But this added fuel to the recent cry:
  2. Immigration is out of control” Immigration into the UK is certainly large at some 300,000 a year. But not even half of those are the unrestricted EU citizens and Britain is taking trivial amounts of Middle East refugees, compared to other developed countries. It also presume immigration is bad. America was built on immigration; Scots-Italians and Scots-Asians are very productive contributors to the Scottish economy and, with only 5.3m people, Scotland is far from full up.
  3. We must take back control of our country” About the only country able to ignore the rest of the world is North Korea. Every other makes compormises to live and trade with its neighbours. Even outside the EU, Norway and Switzerland both comply with EU directives in order to trade. Isolation got America nowhere in the 1930s and a similar raising of drawbridges by the UK would make the current 10% drop in the value of the pount seem trivial.
  4. We are too much government by arbitrary laws from Brussels” Nobody argues the EU does not need reform. But the bulk of laws created from workers rights to free movement of labour have benfitted Britain more than they have cost. Britain had a part in making those laws and a veto if they were somehow unacceptable. The EU will continue to make laws but we will no longer have any influence on them.

All across England, working class areas that have seen little or no migration and who have lost few jobs to them because there were few jobs to lose, seem to have bought the UKIP line that foreigners were the problem and that Europe was the reason they were coming. That seems wholly illogical until you realise that it was just such areas where Labour is increasingly losing control.

Throughout the EU campaign, Labour has been slow to galvanise its members. Messages of internationalism or of responsibility for refugees fell on increasingly deaf ears. People were hurting economically from Osborne’s endless austerity and believed UKIP’s xenophobic blaming of foreign incomers and EU meddling, rather than any noble aspirations floating out of HQ.

The 15 Labour MPs who supported Brexit were at least in touch with their rank and file. What happens to Labour now in the political ruins of their former northern power base from Newcastle on Tyne to Newcastle Under Lyme remains to be seen but a parliamentary party Vote of No Confidence in Corbyn has already been loaded in Margaret Hodge’s formidable blunderbuss. Who knows what will be left when the smoke from its blast clears?

Meantime, all of Britain faces a major dilemma. There is no precedent, let alone a coherent plan, for Brexit. We all face ructions and losses, such as today’s drop in the pound and Footsie. England will have to come to terms with being a pariah in Europe for throwing its constitutional toys out of the pram. But it may take more than a two-year Article 50 obstacle course to discover just how far it has stuck its bum out the windae by its choice.

Scotland, meanwhile, can rightly argue it voted decisively otherwise—much more so than the 51.9% to 48.1% that everyone is rushing to declare ‘decisive’. That fact alone justifies another referendum because the Union is no longer the one extant on 15.9.16. Otherwise, we risk similar pariah isolation and running our economy into the sand along with England’s.

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Quis Docebit ipsos Doctores?

Actually, at school, I hated Latin. The relevance of dead languages was even less clear to me than that of calculus. But I was blessed with teachers who knew how to ignite thrawn teenage imagination and instill a heady mix of curiosity, self-confidence and practical knowledge, despite myself.

For I was an example of those over whom the current political battle rages in Scotland—disproportionate numbers of poor kids who still fail to get a decent education as compared to social ‘upper deciles’. We were all ‘schemies’ = lower deciles—except for one kid whose dad was a teacher and so was regarded as ‘posh’. The really posh kids all went to private school in Edinburgh.

This must surely be one of the great puzzles of our country. Unlike back then, people in all social groupings are fixated by wealth and its trappings. But the single most important tool to acquire it—education—does not register as every parent and their child’s priority. Ms Sturgeon’s top priority is “closing the attainment gap between young people from our most and least deprived communities“. Such focus on attainment is certainly true in most oriental cultures. Why is it still not so here in Scotland? She claims standard assessment will be the answer. But I think it was been chosen because it can be wielded centrally and there is mistrust of devolution to councils. I think she’s wrong.

From parliamentary debates to universities to teachers’ unions to council education committees, all the talk is of lack of resources. That has to be crap. Whereas we had one teacher banging away on a single piano, my old high school now has roomfuls of keyboards and enough woodwind, brass and strings to equip several orchestras. The same riches apply to CDT, language labs, libraries, etc, not to mention school outings and trips abroad. Clearly, a great deal of money has already been thrown at the problem. Half of all council spend (roughly £5.5bn) is now on schools. Why would more resources make any difference?

Parents, pupils, schools, teachers, councils and even governments all claim our kids’ education is improving steadily. But then, it’s in their interest to say so. Is it really? Reports from employers on leaver literacy/numeracy, close examination of exam stats and the laser light of international PISA ratings all disagree. By most objective standards, Scottish education is treading water; resources can be a factor but they are seldom the underlying reason.

Quite simply, it starts and ends with the teachers. They—and especially their union reps—say they are underpaid and overworked, despite a doubling in compensation and easing of class time negotiated in the McCrone settlement back in 2002. Comparison with their OECD colleagues gives the lie to this.

In Scotland, teachers start as probationers at £22.4k, rising to £35.8k. Head teachers start at £44.2k and make up to £86.3k. Their £32.1k average gross compares to a country average gross of £26.5k Not shabby—and also not shabby when compared to other OECD countries. This is 10% better than Sweden and 15% better than France or Italy—only Dutch and Danish teachers earn more. It is also 5% more than Finnish teachers whose kids’ PISA scores on reading, writing and numeracy all knock ours into a cocked hat.

Also, education has a history of lurching from one miracle solution to the next. There have been education initiatives to make everyone’s head spin—from inclusion to GIRFEC to early years to Curriculum for Excellence, pet theories have been trotted out, most of which may have done some good, even allowing for confusion and loss of teaching time involved. But, years into them, the jury is out that any was truly effective, let alone offered any ‘silver bullet’.

So, let’s draw a baseline here before moving on:

  1. It is not about school resources (are you listening, Head Teachers?)
  2. It is not about teacher remuneration (are you listening, EIS, SSTA, ETC?)
  3. It is not about throwing more money at the problem (are you listening, Nicola, Ruth, Kezia?)
  4. It is not about yet another education initiative (are you listening Education Scotland?)

The Economist has recently made a forceful case that it is all about teachers. One American study found that in a single year’s teaching, the top 10% of teachers impart three times as much learning to their pupils as the worst 10% do. Another suggests that, if deprived pupils were taught by the best quarter of teachers, the gap between their achievement and that of non-deprived pupils would disappear. If we truly abhor this social gap that scars Scottish education, does this not point the way?

Teachers’ unions insist that if only their members were set free from central diktat, excellence would follow. But look at EIS web site (there are other unions like SSTA but EIS dominates). Their index page is full of ballots and refugee solidarity but says zip on pupils or education. Even their current issue of SEJ headlines strike ballot success, a workload ballot and LGBT campaigning. But nothing about pedagogy in any form. EIS are Pavlovian reactionaries in modern education the way the riveters’ union was in our shipyards or the firemen’s union during conversion from steam on the railways. And look how well all that went.

Efforts to ensure that every teacher can teach are hobbled by the tenacious myth that good teachers are born, not made. Classroom heroes like Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society” or Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds” are endowed with exceptional, innate inspirational powers. But teaching is a mass profession: it cannot grab all the top graduates, nor hope all are inspirational. When poor teachers are fired, replacements will still have been trained in the very same system that failed to make fine teachers out of their predecessors.

By contrast, the idea of improving the average teacher could revolutionise the entire profession. Teachers qualify following a long, specialised course. This will often involve airy discussions of theory that have no effect on how well these graduates’ pupils end up being taught.

What teachers fail to learn in universities and teacher-training colleges they rarely pick up on the job. They become better teachers in their first few years as they get to grips with real pupils in real classrooms but after that, improvements tail off. This is largely because everybody from school to minister neglect their most important pupils: teachers themselves. Across the OECD, two-fifths of teachers say they have never had a chance to learn by sitting in on another teacher’s lessons; nor have they been asked to give feedback on their peers.

If this is to change, teachers need to learn how to impart knowledge and prepare young minds to receive and retain it. Good teachers set clear goals, enforce high standards of behaviour and manage their lesson time wisely. They use tried-and-tested instructional techniques to ensure that all the brains are working all of the time. This is not the same as the dead-end career track of the well intentioned but ill-conceived “Chartered Teacher” from McCrone.

One key point that seems to be pivotal in making the real ‘continual learning’ required has already been clearly demonstrated in Finland. Teachers there achieve better results for less salary because they have been given a flexibility in how they learn and advance in their career AND broad flexibility in the curriculum. This contrasts with Scotland where unions exert a passive stranglehold on the former (see their website) and the Scottish Government is about to impose draconian uniformity on the latter. Education here is in stasis. Individual teachers are being given no latitude to experiment with curriculum flexibility and self-learning.

Joyce Mcmillan made useful commentary in The Scotsman on two key issues that might be preventing such experimentation at Scotland’s chalk face right now:

The number of gifted people I have seen, over the past generation, simply walk away from school teaching; and the fact that in the last decade or two, the near-universal complaint of those who have quit is not about their students, but about toxic levels of bad management at school and departmental level.

There is also the matter of the mainstreaming of children with special needs, generally seen as a good thing in principle, but often, so it seems, very poorly implemented, with a chronic shortage of the dedicated classroom assistance the children need.

To some extent, this could be seen as supporting the EIS contention about political interference with their profession. But their solution would be to simply demand more money and time to deal with such issues—and ignore the root causes.

With teaching—as with other complex skills—the route to mastery is not abstruse theory but intense, guided practice grounded in subject-matter knowledge and pedagogical methods. Trainees should spend more time in the classroom. The places where pupils do best, for example Finland, Singapore and Shanghai, put novice teachers through a demanding apprenticeship.

Teacher-training colleges must become more rigorous—rather as a century ago medical faculties raised the calibre of doctors by introducing systematic curricula and providing clinical experience. But the biggest changes are needed in schools to ensure all teachers improve throughout their careers and those who can’t be persuaded to leave. Instructors must hone a craft through observation, coaching and absorbing critical feedback. People who thrive in front of pupils should not have to become managers or narrow specialists to earn a pay rise. Whether the EIS is ready to accept anything as radical is quite another matter.

The key external factor, over which even teachers have little control and about which little gets said because it treads on politically correct corns, is the societal and cultural backgrounds from which pupils emerge to attend school. Rich and middle-class kids don’t always have it easy but engagement by their parents in their education is almost universal. Central government is too remote to have the solution to this; it must be community-based and involve deprived families by encouraging engagement and pride in where they live so that their children attending school see the point of it. Parents must help children want to learn.

“Deprivation” has been bandied about so much it has become an insidious entitlement culture that sees school as a kind of child-minding operation. With so many poorly paid service jobs and a dearth of the skilled lifetime craft positions in steel mills, shipyards and factories, employment’s marginal effect on income vs benefits demotivates much of what should be the workforce. And, by harping on (expensive and non-paying) years university as the route to riches, gives scant incentive to children growing up in that environment to seek out better, especially as creative, craft and vocational skills are seen as secondary.

So, the final leap that the teaching profession must make is to detoxify vocational education and ditch this lunatic consensus that more pupils going on to university is a good thing. Parental pressure to ‘succeed’ is currently all bound up in the idea that a university degree is the only ticket to a bright future. The current mob of jobless graduates has done little to correct this fallacy.

We would do well to study the parallel craft and apprentice system in Germany whereby many bright and creative youngsters find fulfillment and lucrative careers designing, creating and producing the many high quality products for which their country is justly famed. Whereas those so inclined from wealthier families here tend to be coerced down the academic path when they should be in furniture design or horticulture, their soul mates from more deprived backgrounds simply disengage for want of options.

For all their pious hand-wringing, Holyrood politicians (of all parties) perpetuate a huge waste of young talent and resources which standardised testing will do little to correct. Memo to John Swinney:

Usus magister est optimus.

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Trump des Willens?

By James Kirchick, Washington Post, 9th June 2016

Republican leaders who support Trump are modern-day Neville Chamberlains

With the rise of Trump, the party obsessed with the lessons of appeasement is now replicating his same exact mistakes.

American conservatives are fond of World War II analogies, especially those that illustrate the dangers of appeasing dictators. In this historical appropriation, today’s conservatives invariably assume the role of Winston Churchill, courageously telling the truth regardless of the consequences. Their liberal adversaries, meanwhile, behave as latter-day Neville Chamberlains, hoping against reality that diplomacy and concessions will satiate the desires of evil men.

When then-House Budget Committee chairman (and current House speaker) Paul Ryan received the 2011 Churchill Award for Statesmanship from the conservative Claremont Institute, he intoned, “If there is such a thing as an unforgivable sin in politics, for Churchill that sin was the refusal to tell the people the facts they need in order to act against an impending threat.” Two years later, when President Obama shook the hand of Cuban leader Raúl Castro at the funeral of Nelson Mandela, Sen. John McCain scoffed, “Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler.” Last year, conservative talk radio host Dennis Prager headlined a column about the Iranian nuclear deal, “1938 and 2015: Only the Names Are Different,” casting Obama as the cowardly equivalent to the British prime minister whose promise that the Munich Agreement amounted to “peace in our time” is rightly remembered as one of history’s most fatally inaccurate statements.

The appeal is obvious. Notwithstanding how the lessons of Churchill’s prescience are misapplied, there is something to be said for stubbornly standing on moral principle, particularly when the political costs are high.

Which makes the abject failure of so many Republican leaders to challenge their party’s presumptive presidential nominee so scandalously ironic. With the rise of Donald Trump, the party obsessed with the lessons of Neville Chamberlain and appeasement is now replicating his same exact mistakes.

To be sure, Trump is not Adolf Hitler. But he is the most unabashedly authoritarian presidential nominee in American history, and the most openly racist major-party candidate since Alabama Democratic Gov. George Wallace ran on a segregationist platform in 1964. Indeed, one has to reach back nearly two centuries to the presidency of Andrew Jackson to find a historical analogue to Trump. Jackson was a populist, a conspiracy theorist and an ethnic cleanser the way that Trump — who pledges to deport 11 million Mexicans and vows to ban Muslims from entering the United States — aspires to be.

Trump’s unique unfitness for the presidency was apparent early in the primary process and has nothing to do with mundane policy matters (though his lack of knowledge about even the most basic government functions should itself be grounds for disqualification). His cruel mockery of a physically disabled New York Times reporter at a campaign rally last fall was absolutely chilling. Trump’s refusal to disavow the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan should have immediately invalidated him in the minds of decent people, regardless of their politics. No other candidate has earned such open and unabashed support from the rancid throng of American neo-Nazis.

Don’t take it from me that Trump represents an unparalleled threat not just to American democracy but world peace. Listen to erstwhile Trump opponent and now supporter Marco Rubio. During the heated primary campaign, Rubio famously said that we could not turn over “the nuclear codes of the United States to an erratic individual.” Rubio, who has since endorsed Trump, is no less correct in his assessment today than he was when he originally made it four months ago, meaning that his partisanship is greater than his patriotism. For what disagreement with Hillary Clinton could Rubio possibly have that would rise above the existential? Is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s plan for universal pre-kindergarten education so offensive to limited-government sensibilities that it’s worth risking nuclear war to see it stopped?

Trump’s hesitant defenders insist that America’s system of checks and balances will restrain his authoritarian impulses. “I still believe we have the institutions of government that would restrain someone who seeks to exceed their constitutional obligations,” McCain said in his tepid endorsement of Trump. “We have a Congress. We have the Supreme Court. We’re not
Romania.” Never mind the pathetic spectacle of McCain — who refused to exploit the Jeremiah Wright controversy in his campaign against Obama in 2008 — succumbing to Trump, a man who mocked his five years in Vietnamese communist captivity while referring to his own draft-dodging sexual escapades of the time as his “personal Vietnam.” When your argument in favor of a candidate is that Congress and the Supreme Court will prevent him from behaving as a tin-pot dictator, then perhaps you should reassess your position. For can anyone sincerely deny that, were it not for those checks and balances, Trump would rule in the mold of a Hugo Chávez?

When I covered the former Soviet Union for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, I never imagined that the political lexicon of places like Belarus and Kyrgyzstan would be applicable to my own country. Yet now I find terms like “strongman,” “ethnic violence” and “political instability” slipping into my copy.

Today’s Vichy Republicans also fail to comprehend, or choose to ignore, how Trump’s victory will legitimize bigotry in the American political process. Five decades after passage of the Civil Rights Act, Trump’s presence in the race has already normalized, in the form of his proposed Muslim ban, an explicitly unconstitutional religious test for entry into the country and, in his racist attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel, ethnic tests for federal appointments. With its impending nomination of Trump, the GOP will transform from the party of racial equality, women’s suffrage and global American leadership into a rump, ethno-nationalist faction promoting religious and ethnic loyalty tests, misogyny and the unraveling of the American-led liberal world order.

Since conservatives are usually so quick to make Hitler analogies, they should be more forbearing when the parallel does not put them in a positive light. And besides, the stakes today with Trump are far lower than they were in 1938, meaning that individual Republicans have a far easier choice than the one Churchill and his brave band of Tory rebels had to make in standing up to Chamberlain. In their debased supplication before Trump, the Republican leadership has collectively acted like Franz von Papen, the German politician who eased Hitler into the chancellorship naively believing that the mad Austrian paper hanger could be “controlled.” If there are any Churchills in this story, it is the handful of Republican officials, like Sens. Mark Kirk and Ben Sasse, who have risked their careers by standing up to Trump.

Here’s one more World War II analogy for our history-conscious conservatives: To save the republic, Trump not only must lose but he must lose on a massive scale. The repudiation of Trumpism must be so thorough that Republicans never contemplate nominating such a candidate again, in the same way that the atom bomb convinced generations of Japanese that they must forever abandon belligerent nationalism and become peaceful members of the international community.

In his memoir of Nazi Germany, “Not I,” the historian Joachim Fest paints an admirable portrait of his father, a Catholic schoolteacher who refused to go along with the majority of his countrymen in supporting the fascist regime. “Ever since the republic came into existence I wished it would have enemies as short-sighted and timid as we are,” Fest quotes his father as saying about the fragile, interwar Weimar democracy. “Then it would have survived. Now everyone knows that this state does not have the will to assert itself against its declared enemies.” The same could be said of today’s Republican Party, whose leaders are too spineless and shortsighted to recognize the exceptional threat Trump presents not only to their party but to the country and the world.

“You were given the choice between war and dishonor,” Churchill famously said to Chamberlain after the latter secured his much-ballyhooed Munich Agreement. “You chose dishonor and you will have war.” In its cowardly refusal to fight against Trumpism, the GOP chose dishonor. Yet it will not stop the inevitable — and necessary — fight for the party’s soul.

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Brexit is an empire-era trick. Only the radical case for Europe makes sense – in The Guardian

Yanis has become one of the more astute observers of the international political scene. But his experience in Europe has made him particularly qualified to dismiss the largely ‘Little Englander’ arguments deployed in support of Brexit.

Yanis Varoufakis

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‘Sovereignty is dear to our hearts. We reject the notion that Britain must settle for diminished sovereignty as the price of global influence.’ 

Referendums can throw up some odd bedfellows. But there is nothing odd about the company descending on London today to present the radical case for keeping Britain in the EU.

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And the First Shall Be Last

Lunchtime today something of a bombshell landed in East Lothian Council with First Edinburgh’s peremptory announcement that they were cutting one fifth of all their services as of August this year. More specifically, they are pulling out of East Lothian altogether, with the closure of both Musselburgh and North Berwick bus garages and the loss of some seventy local jobs.

Given less than three months to sort this out, ELC will be hard-pressed to ensure that replacement services of some sort are in place by then, including provision of transport of pupils to/from their various schools in time for the new term. On the other hand, this comes as little surprise to those in the know. Indeed, it is a repetition of the fast one they pulled back in Spring 2010 when they axed half their services in the County with even less notice.

Bus professionals and local anoraks are unsurprised for a variety of reasons:

  • First in general has developed into a cheap-and-cheerful operation, more geared to profits than long-term customer satisfaction and value.
  • Their cheesiness was evident in the ramshackle fleet they ran and the corresponding lack of reliability, as compared to other operators.
  • Despite their letter claiming they had tried to expand ridership and make the lines profitable, in truth they had simply soaked East Lothian customers with ever-increasing fares; it costs more to bus across North Berwick than it does to cross Edinburgh.
  • They deliberately set timetables to NOT connect with trains (run by First) to try to keep passengers on the bus and claimed the Monopolies Commission forced them to do so.

So poor were they at running the service and charging too much that they let upstart Berwick-based Perryman’s eat their lunch on what should have been a profitable Dunbar-Edinburgh service. Friendlier drivers on the more comfortable 253 got folk there faster and cheaper than the lumbering X6. What’s not to like?

On the other route that should have made money, they took over 90 minutes to make a North Berwick-Edinburgh journey that the train makes in 33 minutes in far more amenable surroundings for the same money. Add in that they stopped half the buses in Musselburgh and called the other half an express service when it palpably wasn’t makes you wonder if the management had a fiscal death wish.

So, concerned as I am that people reliant on their residual services should continue to have bus services and that seventy families may be hit by redundancy through no fault of their own, this may not be the regrettable tragedy implied in First Edinburgh’s letter. Given that other local services already provided by Lothian, Prentice and Eve are already first-class and show growing ridership, this turn of events may actually be an opportunity to bring all local services up to that high level. One scheme to do so might be:

  1. Work with Perryman’s to augment the existing 253 service to replace the X6 (express between Haddington and Edinburgh)
  2. Work with Lothian Country to augment their existing 104 and 113 services to compensate for the loss of the X8/106 slow services from Haddington
  3. Work with Lothian Country to replace the X24/124 with a slow service NB-Musselburgh (124) and a true NB-Edinburgh express via Longniddry, Pencaitland Road and A1.
  4. Combine 120 (NB-Dunbar) with 121 (NB-Haddington) to create an hourly through service that would provide an NB town service replacing the likely loss of the Church Road-Tesco leg of the 124 once the bus garage closes.

What would make such an arrangement particularly useful would be to develop both an Oyster-style card and easy inter-bus transfer by setting up proper transfer points with co-ordinated timetables (including rail). Some obvious candidates for such points are:

  • Haddington High Street
  • North Berwick station
  • Longniddry Station
  • Wallyford station
  • Musselburgh High Street


Once the main transport ‘backbone’ of the NB/Dunbar rail service was linked by the key bus routes mentioned above, evaluation of other supported bus routes (111, 122, 128, etc) might re-jig them to simply feed into the above and thereby save some of their present tortuous (and therefore arduous) journeys.

If the East Lothian network actually worked as such, ridership in our growing county would rise. The resulting fare box receipts could then release funds to expand services in a virtuous cycle.

It will be up to ELC’s Transport Services to pull this together and Depute Leader Michael Veitch to take a lead in driving this towards a solution. Iain Gray MSP’s position is already up on Facebook and the pattern of positive co-operation required was already laid down in the successful co-operation of six years ago when First’s thrawn shortsightedness was turned into positive opportunity so Pencaitland, Ormiston and Haddington all found themselves with better services.

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Open Letter to Nicola

I hope you’ll forgive the presumption but I have already tried writing in confidence to all four of your party’s members of Holyrood’s previous Local Government Committee and even to the Minister at the time (Marco Biagi). Unfortunately none saw fit to send anything by way of reply—although Marco’s staff was good enough to acknowledge my missive.

First of all, sincere congratulations are due, both for a decisive win in the recent election and for a well merited return to the post of First Minister. But that now means the task of selecting a cabinet who will best assist you to, as you put it:

keep a laser like focus on the economy and the need to generate revenue to invest in our future…in a constantly evolving and challenging global environment, with the potential for renewed economic turbulence internationally, it is vital that we make sure Scotland is as well-equipped as possible to make a success of our considerable economic strengths.

While I would not presume to suggest its composition, I do ask that you consider that—from close observation of the SNP administration over the last nine years—local government should register more highly in cabinet consideration.

Significant number of your experienced members have considerable local government experience: Derek Mackay; Bruce Crawford; Richard Lyle; Kevin Stewart; Kenny Gibson; Keith Brown; Joe Fitzpatrick, to name just a few. Marco—bright and decent though he was—offered no such experience and displayed scant interest in pushing his brief, all of which sent a lamentable message to those who toil diligently as much as full time to get their chests prodded regularly for £16k.

After the positive start made by John Swinney with the Concordat and ‘parity of esteem’ in 2007, the hollowness of that and downplaying of councils’ roles became obvious (as well as embarrassing for your members). Council tax stayed frozen; no serious effort was made to reform local finance; last year’s budget hit councils particularly hard with ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ indifference. Your 400+ SNP councillors apparently were expected to stay well in the background and not rock the referendum boat.

But, now that your party soared over this month’s parliamentary hurdle and there is little likelihood of a second referendum soon, this would appear the opportunity to turn your and your closest colleagues (not to mention the Chief Executive’s) skeptical attitude to the usefulness of local government. As none of you have such experience, this is, perhaps, understandable—especially so where you own experience is against Glasgow Labour ‘machine politics’. But consider this before you continue to degrade councils into biddable extensions of the government.

  1. There are ten times more councillors than MSPs ; most come in daily contact with their public and are personally known by them.
  2. Though many councils are not SNP-run, only a few are Labour-run and even those are no longer a phalanx of old-guard opposition to an SNP government
  3. The public’s sour attitude to politicians is widespread. They don’t understand the system; they gravitate to single issues that matter to them; they prefer social-based civic organisations like WFI.
  4. Only councillors are numerous and widespread enough to reconnect public ambitions with a government that has the power to achieve them.
  5. A wider belief in something as momentous as independence can be led, but not generated from the top; rebuilding trust required involves reconnection of the public from the bottom up.
  6. Devolution good enough for Government is good enough for councils.
  7. Council finance reform is overdue; more like 50% should be raised locally
  8. Over-centralisation leads to arrogant government and to lazy government
  9. Council reorganisation is essential, perhaps into a few city regions and many much smaller burghs with minimal staff
  10. Local, visible control is the antidote to bureaucracy and disenfranchisement. It can generate civic participation

As SNP leader (with years in its leadership) you must understand more than most that speaking to the YES 45% is preaching to the choir. One in five of the other 55% must change their mind to make another referendum sensible, let alone winnable. Meantime, demonstrating competence and spreading affluence demands growing the economy and budgeting for the most good with the least expenditure.

For councils to spend their 1/3rd judiciously, they must be active partners and not passive executors—as dictated in this year’s SNP budget.But even the best-led 63 MSPs cannot speak to, let alone galvanise the wider public without those 1,200+ councillors working enthusiastically with your government and not dragging their heels in resentment.

It is not just in parliament that cross-party consensus is called for. If Tories and Labour are serious about forward thinking, then their councillors too, plus all the ALEOs, quangos, trusts, charities and sundry other civic initiatives in which they are involved could galvanise grass roots Scotland to also play their part in this awakening of Scots and their potential in which you rightly place so much faith.

Local government is not the enemy; it is actually the best ally available to you

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Not Waving but Drowning

Over its five years and almost 1,000 posts, this blog has been critical of the Scottish Labour party. In part, this has been in lively debate with some of its members and its policies. The position taken here has always been that, like the Conservatives, the party reflects a substantial body of opinion in Scotland, deserves a voice to express that and has a serious role in holding to account whichever party has gleaned enough votes to form the Government of Scotland.

But much as the Conservatives marched themselves into electoral oblivion during the 1980s/90s and suffered catastrophic come-uppance in 1997, so Labour took the people’s enthusiastic endorsement in that year and spent the last two decades drinking pretty much the same Kool-aid of hubris. As journalist Molly Ivins observes about Texas men; ‘You can tell ’em; but you can’t tell ’em much”.

This came to mind after a minor falling out on Twitter with Duncan Hothersall, Duncan is one of the capable good guys still in Scottish Labour. As CLP Organiser in Edinburgh Southern, he pulls off political miracles even his opponents admire. Not only was his candidate the sole survivor among 41 MPs prior to last May but his was the only Labour candidate to win a seat from the otherwise triumphant SNP sweep of 59 constituency MSPs last week.

But when I had the temerity to suggest to Duncan that, as one of the few who clearly know what they were doing, thinking people like him might reconsider re-hashed socialist policies and ‘Labour values’ that defined his party through successive defeats, he took it that I was trying to silence him or, at the least, undermine his principles. However ineptly couched, my intent had been neither.

But if a stalwart of the party who clearly knows what they’re about is deaf to dialogue when the hale clamjamfrie teeters in the brink of oblivion, what chance does sincere-but-too-inexperienced Kezia, let alone the shattered remnants of her troops, stand in piecing together a viable future.

Though I oppose Labour for the manner in which it has taken Scotland for granted, plugged so many undeserving passengers into the ranks of those who should work to represent us and have put UK priorities ahead of Scottish ones, they do still matter. There is a constituency they could represent if they just stopped thinking they can tell the voters what to think and avoid righteous indignation when former fiefdoms are threatened. But their actions are starting to echo Sylvia Plath’s poem of hidden despair Not Waving But Drowning. If they obstinately refuse to hear the clarion call for change (as Duncan seems to) they will suffer the Tories’ two decades in the impotent wilderness. Or worse.

But some in the party ARE listening…and thinking. I came across this piece on Labour Uncut which should make eminent sense to loyal members It certainly made sense to me:

It is a shrewd evaluation of where they are and what brought them there and deserves better consideration. But, as I’m not a member, they’ll just have to work it out for themselves or contemplate further SNP hegemony with Tory as the dominant opposition. They can’t want that.


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No’ Sae Green…but Cabbage-Lookin’

Despite predictions (including my own) of this election being a rather boring shoo-in, credit is due to those who peppered it with upsets of pundit apple carts. Iain Gray increased a wafer-thin majority in the teeth of the SNP hurricane that tore through former Labour heartlands. Virtuoso agent Duncan Hothersall repeated  last year’s Labour miracle in Edinburgh South by stealing a seat off the SNP. Credit also to Lib-Dems for reviving the Chris Rennard magic of focus where it matters and taking both NE Fife and Edinburgh West against heavy odds.

But the trail-blazing performance of the night was  Ruth Davidson’s 610 majority in Edinburgh Central, catapulting the Tories from 4th place there into their first city win since 2007 with a 10% swing. So, major and historic though the SNP’s third term may be, the one thing they clearly hoped for had eluded them. And, supporter though I am, I find this good, even as they avoided making it better.

Back in the heady days of 2007-11, they pulled off what no-one thought possible; a stable government with a minority of only 47 members. They eschewed coalition but found common ground with other parties so even budgets went through smoothly (with one exception). Scotland found itself governed more imaginatively than in the plodding days of Labour’s Executive and—because most parties traded some concession from the government in exchange for support, a wider swathe of the public than just SNP supporters felt they got something.

After the 2011 landslide, this sense of consensus disappeared as the SNP found no further need for it and stuffed every committee chair with their appointees and the membership with an SNP majority. Run with imagination and good judgement, this might have worked well. But absolute power and self-realisation seldom coincide. Though the SNP Government was scarcely ill-intentioned, a sense of autocratic insensitivity not seen since the dark days of Thatcher grew in the minds of their opponents.

See former blogs Making the Law an Ass, Must Justice Always be Blind? and Kenny Canny Ca’ Canny for examples from the Justice brief and the way it was handled.

Their sense of progress, apparently confirmed by the surge in support in the wake of the Independence Referendum, encouraged the government to press on. The brick wall hit by Labour in last year’s Westminster election lured them further into thinking they had discovered political mother lode and could do not wrong.

And, since their main Labour opposition looked especially vulnerable, the SNP carefully constructed a policy platform to revisit on Labour MSPs this year the same whirlwind that ravaged their MPs last year. So the social programme was strengthened, all the free perks like concession travel, prescriptions, eye tests, etc were safeguarded, the NHS and its budget were held sacrosanct and any tax talk was rigorously ‘progressive’ so that it would not hit the lower-paid.

As a strategy to deliver a body-blow to Labour, it was effective. But it also opened a flank on the business side. All sorts of people: those leery of independence; those concerned the UK economy had not recovered; those who saw Scotland’s economy under-performing vis-à-vis the UK; even those who were simply scunnered with the SNP appearing to have everything their own way—all saw little hope in Labour. This left them few choices.

For once, the Scottish Tories shook off their now-traditional cringe in Scotland and fought a feisty, unabashedly unionist, business oriented campaign. They pitched themselves as raring to take on this uppity SNP. It proved to be a shrewd move, especially as they had managed to bring in a broad spectrum of younger non-politicians who offered a fresher appeal than the series of former aides and SPADs who had characterised new faces in many parties.

But, taking nothing away from Ruth Davidson and her team whose 31 seats represent the best Tory performance in 25 years, the result reveals a trend that bodes ill for the SNP. Yes, the SNP swept the country, barring a handful of hold-outs. Yes, they pushed the limits of the voting system, bouncing into a third term when they should, by rights, have been toiling. Yes, they managed vote swings against Labour across the Central Belt in the teens . Yes, they are likely to provide a better government than any alternative on offer.

But there are straws in the wind.

Firstly, the delight at the debacle of their arch-enemy Labour and the taking of their citadels should not distract how the Tories exploited their exposed flank while they were busy doing so. In some non-Central Belt seats the SNP took some time ago—Inverness, Aberdeenshire/East, Moray, Angus/South, Perthshire/South, Angus/North/Mearns, Banffshire/Buchan the Tories now threaten in second place. If their 20% swings happen again, heads will roll. Even capable, weel-kent faces like John Swinney suffered a 25% swing to the ever-optimistic Murdo Fraser.

Secondly, in many of those non-Central Belt cases, even where they made little headway against SNP incumbents, they were snaffling up wandering Labour voters, rather then those going to the SNP. Aberdeen/Donside, Stirling, Carrick/Cumnock/DoonValley, Cunninghame/North, Clacks/Dunblane, Linlithgow, Clydesdale are all good examples. Even where there was no Labour vote to mop up and the incumbent held their own, there were still prodigious Tory advances, like the 19% in Aberdeen/South.

And that was just the constituencies. The Tories played an even cleverer game on the list and boosting their seven FPTP seats by doubling their list members to 24 with 524,222 votes that took them well past Labour for a very economical 21,842 votes per list member. Even in South of Scotland, despite winning four constituencies, their 100,753 votes were not wasted as they added two list seats.

So, thirdly, Tory emphasis on receiving both votes was justified. Not so the SNP, who were adamant on the same point. This seems to have gifted their reviving Tory opponents an extra boost in doing so. The table below shows it took 288,397 list votes to elect one SNP list MSP but only 25,171 to elect a Green one (see above for what a deal the Tories got).


In six regions, 751,770 SNP votes were totally wasted. Worse, they could have been harnessed to the cause of independence. Rather than party discipline when there was no need, what if the SNP had publicly encouraged its supporters to vote Green on the list? Lets assume 25% were scunnered by this and didn’t vote, 50% ignored the request and voted SNP anyway, but 25% saw the logic and split their two votes.

Even that 1-in-4 would (except in Glasgow) have tripled the Green vote for one or two more Green list MSPs per region for a total around 19. Those would have come most from the Tories and Labour, with SNP and Lib-Dems losing one each. This would result in the following makeup of Parliament:


The SNP would still be in as strong a position to form a minority government. But if Nicola is serious about a working consensus, this scenario would make her job so much easier. Not only would she be facing Tories 2/3rds as resurgent but some hoary un-dead Labour opponents wouldn’t have slipped in through the back door.

She would face only 48 (instead of 60) hostile unionists in opposition. She would have a stronger similarly progressive ally committed to the same goal as she. That populist and similarly principled ally would soften the autocratic edges that cost the SNP votes and boosted the Tories for their promise to take that autocracy on.

That the SNP chose not to do this is regrettable by all who support their goal. It has boosted once-toxic Tories in a way they could scarce have dared hope. We’ll see just how green the SNP will become working with St Partick of the Harvie and his fewer untried troops. But so far, the waste of the greater opportunity—and of 751,770 of their supporters’ list votes—just makes them cabbage-looking.

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The Election That Wasn’t

It’s a funny old world. Once Thatcherism so scunnered the Scottish electorate in the 1980’s they sent a phalanx of Labour MPs down to Westminster in protest. It was a vain effort to block the worst effect of Tory privatisation. But, though they were mocked by Alex Salmond as “the feeble fifty”, that phalanx was all we had to voice Scotland’s needs there for a quarter century. An objective assessment of their impact would be they were both invisible and ineffectual.

Labour’s watershed victory of 1997 changed nothing of this, nor did 1999 when the same stolid buggins-turn Labour stalwarts dominated the new Scottish Executive who behaved much like Strathclyde Region reborn—docile, partisan but rather less ambitious.

An observer of the subequent 2003 Scottish and 2005 UK elections could be forgiven for extrapolating such stasis into the far future. Loyal Labour activists were anointed (there is no other word for it) as councillors; if they voted right, they’d become committee chairs who, in turn, might be nodded into safe seats as MSPs and MPs. There were notable and capable exceptions like John Smith and Donnie Dewar. But the average member of either phalanx showed all the initiative of a spear-carrier in a 1950s Cecil B. de Mille sword-and-sandal epic.

And why should they kick against the traces? A conveyor belt to sinecure worked for the illuminati. It wasn’t broke, so why fix it? Though the Tories dwelt in the political wilderness north of the border, they still provided a convenient bogey man at Westminster; successive waves of effort by the SNP shattered on Labour’s monolithic West Central Scotland redoubt; all seemed well.

But the rot was evident to those paying attention. Labour’s Scottish vote was cultural more than political. As “the party of the working man“, as long as there were shipyards, steel mills, factories and mines to work in, all were instinctively Labour. Their workmates were all Labour. They lived in estates that were Labour. They socialised in Labour Clubs and Miners’ Welfares—or in pubs that might as well have been.

But the Proclaimers were singing about “Linwood no more” and significant numbers of such working men learned the words the hard way. And joined in. At first, it made little difference to voting. Dis-chuffed as they were, they weren’t going to betray former workmates, let alone drinking buddies and their own da’ and lodge a protest vote. After all, they counted Labour votes with a shovel, so what difference would one make?

But then Labour Clubs started to close. That loosened the social cohesion as such key melting pots disappeared. Then the SNP started winning council seats raising voices of effective opposition—even in monolithic Glasgow where irrepressible characters like Kenny Gibson and Billy Mcallister stood out against the norm of passive, faceless loyalty.

Scotland’s sprawling council estates once underpinned Labour’s base. But sale of those houses and floods of tract homes during the upwardly mobile 1990’s created residents with prospects and ambitions very different from the “aye-been” working class resignation on which much Labour support had been based. From Dunfermline East to Inshes/Milton of Leys in Inverness to Kirkintilloch/Lenzie to Tranent’s Windygoul, tracts of new homes were not cultivated and even the council houses sporting new doors drifted in loyalty with their new life.

So, while Labour heartlands started to wobble, the party stayed fixated on power at a UK level. Holyrood was regarded much like councils; a base of resources and patronage acting as a training ground for the real business of Westminster. So attention and venom was directed at Tories, even though they posed no threat in Scotland. As late as 2005, Blair swept them into power again; all was rosy.

But dwindling industry and clubs could not sustain working class consciousness. Gradually Labour in Scotland hollowed out. Its continued clout was sustained by still-plentiful MPs, MSPs, councillors. But the street-loads of loyal support were thinning out. Many regular voters stopped voting—a sure sign of anguish before changing their vote.

In parallel, the SNP’s relentless focus on Scottish matters, the obvious maturing of their front bench after eight years of Holyrood opposition and assiduous work by their 200+ councillors who didn’t see their office as a sinecure granted by the party, all paid off in 2007. It was a sea-change in results on a scale no-one predicted. Control of Holyrood and several councils passed to the SNP.

Because the SNP regard themselves as subservient to no-one, least of all London, they became adept at exercising control in a manner in which Labour had never dared. Labour in Scotland’s surly resentment at all this eased some in 2010. Even though they lost control at the Westminster heart of things, the Scottish phalanx continued intact; clearly little was wrong  with the party; it was just a question of tholing this awkward interregnum and they would come into their own again.

That restored complacency received a second sharp shock in the 2011 election when serious constituency losses to the SNP unexpectedly catapulted a slew of untried faces into ranks so diminished their leader of the time fell on his sword. A behind-the-scenes panic finally broke out that resources to recover from this were thin and the cupboard of experienced talent to lead that was bare.

The run-up to and even the result of the Independence Referendum almost two years ago further frayed nerves. The SNP emerged from that defeat not only united but a magnet galvanising involvement by a whole new segment of the public in a way  neither Tory nor Labour had managed in half a century.

Tories and Lib-Dems had already been humiliated. But going from 40 to 1 MPs was a body blow to what coherence Scottish Labour had left. As the transfer of the reins to Nicola Sturgeon was handled masterfully by an ever-more-professional SNP team, old hands disparaged the presidential rally style adopted as tacky and counter-productive. But SNP membership soared and a new sense of participation permeated the streets of Scotland that had not been seen since Labour had last galvanised the working class early in the 20th ©.

Since delivering that body blow to their one remaining opponent, the SNP have shown a steely focus on winning again. So dominant have they been that the media is reduced to whipping up flagging interest in what many now see as a done deal. Naturally, no party admits that in public. But when the only serious debate is on who’ll come second, this is not an election; it’s a foregone conclusion. It is entirely possible that voters will not bother to come out—but that usually hurts Labour more than any other party. That could even magnify the scale of defeat. Bookies have stopped taking bets against SNP candidates, never mind the party.

Which is a shame. Because in their urgency to seize full power for a second term, the SNP is actually doing damage to its main cause. It is true that a party must be in power to achieve its goals. But the goals set out in the SNP manifesto are shilpit things, full of reassurance, weak on facts, fluffy on the future. As a vehicle to discomfit Labour and stay in power, it is shrewd. But other commentators like Scott Macnab lambast its lack of vision and ambition. Even fairly even-handed political observers like  Gerry Hassan are scathing on this:

“There is a paucity of ideas, of imagination and serious policy, combined with a lack of candour. Worse, there is a fundamental lack of ambition for our country.”

So, while media and politicians collude to give the impression that this is a real election about which we’re locked in real debate, it is in fact a coronation. Discussion whether the emperor has any clothes never makes the front page.

And, while it may stretch a point to describe it as a coronation, this presidential personality cult imported from the USA contributes to that sense. We are enjoined to “choose Ruth for a strong opposition” or “re-elect Nicola“. Every Labour tweet or blog is about Kezia.The actual candidates become as faceless as the delegates stacked up in each US primary.


It’s not quite the three-ring circus going on with the primaries in America just now. But huge coverage, massive spends, ill-tempered debates still say little about policy or how the country and the welfare of its citizens will be improved. That we are heading down a similarly unedifying road is a shame.

Even now, the SNP is focussing entirely on re-election. At this stage, that is taking a 12-bore to a bumble bee. They have already won. They should stop posturing and make an early start on the hard work of improving the country so that its people want them to lead us all to independence. Rather than squabbling over oil price and numbers of police or NHS budget, they should be leveraging oil and whisky and renewables and tourism to turn us into an economic powerhouse.

Once you have made Scotland the Singapore-esque powerhouse of Europe where our skilled workforce out-crafts the Germans, our whizzkid software engineers out-program  the Indians, our tidal turbines in the St Lawrence and Straits of Johore and Straits of Gibraltar out-green the Danes, much becomes inevitable. Once the English are trailing sheepishly north across the Border to find the financial services and leading technology jobs they can’t find at home, then is the time to reward our retired hard workers with free bus passes and prescriptions. The more you dole out the seed corn, the less prosperous the future harvest.

That prosperous future harvest can only be reached by taking risks. So Nicola, be prepared to give half those cosy jobsworth bureaucrats dozing at Scottish Enterprise their jotters. You get there through world-class research, so hands off university budgets but hold on to every bright foreign postgrad we can. You get there by making best use of your money; ‘C’-class administrators blight the NHS—go through ’em like a dose of salts if they can’t show how blizzards of KPIs can lead to efficiency.

But, most of all, forget what campaign training has taught you, admit that you don’t have all the answers and that—whatever leadership you may show—you need to weld a far-flung team together to achieve ambitious goals for us all. That means

  • not treating local councils like subserviant executors of your policy—they may need a shake-up to be competent partners but that is a separate matter.
  • a bonfire of the quangos until they twig cosy remuneration for a few days a month needs to be earned by real experience, scrutiny and contributions.
  • serious capital investment in strategic development that includes bringing public transport up to European standards and roads up to US standards.
  • devolution of significant powers to at least city region level so that the major centres in Scotland can develop their own characteristic futures.
  • Be England’s best friend by showing all the advantages its faltering dog-eat-dog economy could have through a nimble entrepôt economy sharing the same island

Or the SNP can slide back into the comfortable shapes their bums have already pressed into ministerial chairs and ca’ the haun’le in much the same manner as your Labour opponents were always happy to do. You’ll have at least two more parliament sessions while others pull themselves off the floor and finally hold you to account. Do what you’re doing and your nemesis starts around 2025.

Which is a shame. Because, unless the Cult of Ruth can bring the Tories back from the dead this side of the next Ice Age, Scottish Labour will be the one to bring the SNP to earth. And, as they may simply revive the same walking political dead as they’ve mass-produced throughout the last half-century next time around, nobody outside their nomeklatura will see this as progress.

Given how the SNP is bludgeoning this already-dead campaign to death, the runes are not good. But, more than Labour, there are still good people in the SNP for whom the shape of our future matters more than the cushiness of their chairs.

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