Monthly Archives: September 2014

How bad was the Labour Conference?

Maybe not quite as bad as the commentators have suggested.  Certainly, it was no political lighting storm, but then we've just had one of those in the form of the Scottish referendum, and it was rather bad luck for Labour that their conference should come by just as the majority of the British public have had their annual politics fix.  Most people - including the 'ordinary people' name checked by Ed Miliband in his widely panned conference speech - simply aren't engaged with politics.  The chance of creating or rejecting a new nation seems to get them out, but a bog standard party conference isn't going to do the trick, so it would be unfair to be too condemning towards Labour on that front.

Nevertheless, this is an Opposition party that could form the next government heading towards another close election battle, so it is a failure on their part that they didn't even seem able to energise their own supporters. The most admired speech was from an elderly World War Two veteran, while the international guest speaker, Bill De Blasio, mayor of New York, failed to alight the passions of his fellow social democrats.  The two shadow cabinet ministers who seemed to energise their audiences the most were probably Health shadow Andy Burnham (a not very secret contender for the leadership vacancy that most observers think will be sooner rather than later) and Yvette Cooper, shadow Home Secretary.

Miliband's own speech was a seriously uninteresting ragbag of anecdote and under the wire policy ruminations.  His forgotten sections were all the more newsworthy for the remembered bits having been so dull.  His party trick of seeking to memorise the speech probably tells us more about the disconnection of policy-wonks-turned-leaders who think memorising a speech is more important than its content, than it does about his actual policy priorities.

The excellent Spectator Coffee House blog, currently on very good form with several pithy, readable and shrewd updates each day, carries this analysis by Isabel Hardman of what was wrong with the Labour conference.  Politics.co.uk meanwhile is more positive about Ed Miliband generally, but damning about this year's his speech.  

Has Scotland shown us how to reinvigorate democray?

There hasn't been wanting commentators and ordinary joes to tell us that the extraordinary turnout in the Scottish referendum has shown us the way to a better, more invigorated democratic system.

Janet Street Porter, one of the more emotional of these, says in her paean of praise to the Scottish people that "You showed us what commitment and passion are all about and given the rest of the UK a wake-up call."  Mind you, Janet also noted how wonderful it was that "people who don’t agree can accept a result and move forward together", suggesting she hasn't been watching events in Glasgow too closely.

The reality, though, is that this is an exceptional rather than indicative democratic event.  Rarely will people get to vote on the very nature of their country, or to bring a new country into existence, so it is hardly surprising that the interest and turnout should have been high.  Scotland has hardly been a shining example of democratic activism in any of its other elections however.  Turnout for their own parliamentary elections in 2011 was a mere 50% (it's on this miserable turnout that the SNP won their victory).  It was slightly up for the apparently hated Westminster elections in 2010 at 63.8%, and even for the first ever elections to a Scottish Parliament in 1999 it was only 58%.  So let's rest on praising the Scots as great democrats and consider that this was an exceptional circumstance.  

The referendum offers us no answers about the participation crisis in British democracy.  Indeed, it is instructive to note, as politicians start discussing regionalism as a way forward for a more balanced UK polity, that even in Scotland, where bile towards Westminster was at its height, voters have still preferred to turn out and vote for a parliament that no longer runs their domestic services than they do for their own home-grown assembly. 

After ‘No’, What?

First detailed reaction to the No vote in Scotland comes from the Spectator's team of Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth.  Their article here is a thorough examination of the campaign, and the problems it now poses.  "This morning, the United Kingdom wakes up to one of the biggest constitutional messes in its history" they begin, and who could argue with that?

Key points:

- The referendum has failed to settle the issue of devolution, as it was supposed to, because David Cameron changed the terms of engagement at the last minute
- The Egnlish Question is now writ large on the political agenda, with most Tory MPs determined to pursue it (and, incidentally, furious with Cameron for his ill considered 'Vow')
- Ed Balls is angry at Miliband's commitment to this 'Vow' too as it hamstrings Labour's ability to pass a budget for England
- Today's mess is the consequence of the original, and disastrous, New Labour devolution settlement
- All the main Westminster parties are frankly in a mess in Scotland; in Labour's case they have a B-list of politicians active at Holyrood, easily outmanouevred by Salmond and Sturgeon
- Salmond remains in charge in Scotland - he will use any failure to pass the pledges of the 'Vow' as an excuse to reignite the independence question
- The referendum question was poorly worded as far as the Unionist side were concerned; nstead of asking whether to vote for an independent Scotland, it should have asked whether Scotland wanted to remain part of the UK, giving the Union campaign the advantage of a positive 'Yes'.
- The leadership of the Better Together campaign was fraught, with Darling unequal to the street-fighting nature of the Yes campaign
- The rejection of a currency union was done in a way that made it look like a Westminster diktat - grist to the nationalist mill
- "A mixture of Labour squeamishness and Tory uselessness ensured that the battle for Britain was never properly fought. The case for the Union was reduced to a series of dire and sometimes implausible warnings."

Nelson and Forsyth conclude:

The unionist campaign was designed to achieve a victory clear enough to end the independence question for a generation. Instead, it found itself taking support for separation to levels never seen, or anticipated. Scotland is now a divided country, after a debate that has split families and damaged friendships. The healing process will begin, but no one can claim the country is stronger for all of this. It would have been bad enough for the combination of Cameron, Miliband and Clegg to have had no impact in saving the Union — but in many ways they managed to make things worse. This weekend, all three party leaders have a lot to answer for.

Yes. One hundred per cent spot on. Sadly.

David Cameron’s Leadership Flaws

As we await the results of the Scottish referendum - and with the No vote sounding more confident than they have done for the past fortnight - reflections are obviously turning towards the post-vote fall-out.  There has been a widespread belief that David Cameron would not have survived a Yes vote.  The question is whether he can survive a No vote.  His credibility is at an all time low with his backbenchers, who believe he has ill-advisedly offered the Scots too much on the devolution front in his panicky attempts to ensure the Union stays together. 

Gaby Hinsliff, in the Guardian, has provided a very effective analysis of the Cameron leadership and its flaws.  One prescient passage notes this:

It’s become a bit of a cliche to accuse the prime minister of treating government like it’s an undergraduate essay crisis, with everything tackled at 10 minutes to midnight in a caffeine-fuelled blur. Cameron is neither so dim nor so thoughtless as he’s sometimes painted, and nor is he the only senior politician ever secretly reduced to crossing fingers and hoping for the best. But he has now flown so often by the seat of his pants that they’re getting worryingly threadbare. Too often he has either busked his way to the “right” result for all the wrong reasons, or got the wrong result for what were frankly good reasons – namely that he didn’t deserve to win.

She provides evidence of his leadership style throughout her piece, but he can be effectively summed up as the  threadbare prime minister.

A Yes Vote for Scotland is the best possible result for Scotland; and England too.


I want Scotland to vote Yes tomorrow.  Not just by a small margin, but by an utterly convincing majority.  Had you asked me a few weeks ago I would have been far less convinced of this; might even have been a little agnostic on the issue.  But the events of the past couple of weeks have convinced me that Scotland needs to vote Yes, not just for her sake, but for England’s too.

I have watched all three Westminster party leaders be panicked by opinion polls into making rash and self-serving promises that will simply serve to send the Union into meltdown.  Promises which they may not even be able to deliver on.  Promises on behalf of other nations – England, Wales and Northern Ireland – which they have barely deigned to consult. 

I have watched three Westminster party leaders scurry up to Scotland in the last couple of weeks of a campaign that has lasted for some eighteen months to deliver from their southern redoubt a plea for Scotland to vote No that has no basis at all in the real interests of the Scottish people who they have ignored for so long.

I have watched a Prime Minister who, eighteen months ago, was so dismissive of the idea of further devolution that he refused to countenance it as a referendum option, now embrace it fully and quickly offer it to the Scottish people.

I have watched a Labour leader muddle his way through his English leadership, ignoring his Scottish heartland and finally wake up to the realisation that his party’s vote is collapsing north of the border.

And is there anything still to say about a Liberal leader whose last unbreakable pledge was reduced to nothing within months of taking office?

There is no doubt in my mind that the Scots should vote Yes if for no other reason than that the referendum campaign, in its last two weeks, has found the Westminster leadership of the Union utterly wanting.  Should they do so, the English parties may well each carry out a coup and install new, fresher, more creative leaders who will be forced to face the challenge of re-casting English politics.  Scotland voting Yes not only gives the Scots a chance to form their own nation, but gives the English, the Welsh and the Northern Irish too chances to re-mould theirs.  It is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and it is in the hands of our northern neighbours.  Please, please give us all the chance.  Scotland is not just giving themselves the chance of freedom and a brave new world.  If she can make the leap, she offers it to all the other parts of the United Kingdom too, and boy do we need it.

I love Scotland and I think the Scots people are inventive, down to earth, witty and wonderful.  It is not much surprise that so many Scots have made their way south and then dominated.  But my question to them would be why?  Why haven’t you stayed to infuse your own nation with your wit and your cleverness and your articulate genius?  And the answer surely lies in the fact that the Scots haven’t felt they truly have a nation.  They have an adjunct province to a ‘united’ kingdom dominated by one of its constituent parts.

Well, now is the chance for Scots genius and Scots creativity to have a future in its own home.  I hope the Scottish people ignore the fear-mongering that has been the only really substantive part of the No campaign.  I hope they accept that the creating of a re-born nation is fraught with challenges, but that seizing those challenges with alacrity will offer a far greater opportunity than the reluctant acceptance of the status quo.  Nothing worthwhile comes without difficulty, and that is as true of nation-building as anything.  As the Scots have watched cynical English politicians troop north at the last minute with hastily cobbled together pledges they should ask whether they really want to vote to keep those same politicians as their leaders.  Because that is what a No vote will do. 

And as for England, what happens to us if Scotland chooses to go her own way?  I have listened with fascination as well meaning English men and women have spoken up about the importance of Scotland and the Scots to the United Kingdom, and wondered where on earth their own sense of English pride has gone.  If nothing else, Scottish independence will free the English to rediscover their own national virtues and character. 

But there would be more.  We would also gain a proudly independent northern neighbour with whom our relations should be able to remain cordial and arguably stronger than they have been before.  No longer will Scotland see herself as subject to England, or England view Scotland wearily as a complaining drain on her resources.  Two equal and independent kingdoms – united, perhaps, by a common monarch and probably (whisper it quietly) a common currency – will now be able to pursue their relationship in far greater harmony than will be the result from a whimpering No vote.

England will also get the opportunity to re-cast her own politics.  The weak, visionless leadership of the parties that has been thrown into stark relief by the referendum campaign is ripe for removal – a Yes vote may just engineer that. We can talk of an English parliament.  We may even start to see the flowering of a regionalism that might finally be able to break free of its overpoweringly mediocre leadership.  The Welsh and the Northern Irish, too, can breathe new life into their countries either through independence or at the very least a far greater autonomy within a new federation of the island nations.

The United Kingdom is broken.  Where once the referendum had the possibility of it continuing as before in the event of a No vote, the sudden U-turns of Cameron and Milliband have now removed that.  A No vote plunges us all into the mire of constitutional chaos wrought by inadequate and poll-driven politicians with the political depth of half-filled paddling pools.  A Yes vote provides a clear and fresh beginning.  Not just for the Scots, but for all of us.  For the sake of Scotland, and for the sake of the UK as a whole, I hope the Scots vote Yes tomorrow.