Lest we Forget


As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, we’re being bombarded with stories of the horrors and heroism of that war. While I feel huge sadness at the loss of life, my predominant emotion is one of anger, at the futility of it all and how war is glorified. The core theme of the remembrance commemorations is ‘lest we forget’; a worthy objective, but forget what? It seems we mustn’t forget the sacrifice of those who died. However, the causes of the First World War seem all too readily forgotten. As Kenny MacAskill wrote (‘I will not glorify a pointless and shameful war’ iNewspaper, 8.11.18) ‘But as four years have rolled by since the centenary of its outbreak, there has been little critical analysis – or it is remarkably well camouflaged by the glorification of the dead, with no consideration of the pointlessness of it all. Why did we go to war, for what and who benefitted?’ 

Though we’re often told that WW1 was to safeguard democracy, Britain’s involvement in WW1 seems to have been largely to protect its Imperial interests. A German victory would have imperilled the Empire, through the Turks in the Middle East, which would also have threatened Egypt (under British mandate) and the Suez Canal, thus choking off Britain’s route to India, that most lucrative of possessions. Meanwhile the Germans would have taken possession of French colonies on the African continent, including countries immediately across from the Straits of Gibraltar and those close to South Africa.

Britain was also concerned about the increasing dominance of German industrial output which was beginning to outstrip that of the UK. Germany’s further expansion was restricted by their lack of access to raw materials, much of which was tied up in British and French colonial possessions. A quick war with Germany was therefore seen by a number of influential British politicians (including Churchill) as a means of re-establishing the status-quo.

Diplomacy and cooperation might well have headed off armed conflict with Germany, by finding solutions that would have been in the interests of all parties. Instead, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Serbia seems to have been used as a pretext for provoking Germany into conflict. Instead of constructive diplomacy, jingoistic rhetoric and sabre rattling became the norm, boxing Germany into a situation where they were virtually encircled by a hostile Russia and France. Meanwhile Britain took the role of a somewhat untrustworthy broker in between (Perfidious Albion).

It is this bellicose grandstanding that I believe is the real lesson that we should remember from WW1 but which, time after time, seems to be forgotten. In Afghanistan, US President George W Bush’s ‘crusade’ was a notably provocative term. In Iraq, where Saddam, who was at one time the West’s favourite dictator during his war against Iran, suddenly became a despot with WMD that could strike Europe in 45 minutes. George W Bush once again used bully-boy tactics, demanding support from other Western powers by his challenge ‘you’re either with us or against us’. In Libya, David Cameron assured us that surgical air strikes could quickly resolve the situation in favour of the rebels with little ‘collateral damage’. Civil war continues to rage in Libya as a result of this intervention, with little prospect of peace. Collateral damage is in my view the most deplorable euphemism in the rhetoric of modern warfare given how it attempts to airbrush civilian casualties out of the picture.  This is the most egregious consequence of modern warfare, for whom there are currently no memorials or commemorations and which now far outweigh military deaths.

Finally we have Syria in which the Saddam playbook has once again been deployed. Originally hailed as a moderating influence in the the Middle East, Assad is now apparently a tyrant who cruelly slaughters (and gases) hundreds of thousands of his citizens. The solution was to equip and support the numerous Islamist guerilla groups fighting against Assad, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, with the desired outcome of regime change, whatever that means in a Middle East that has been destabilised largely as a result of Western interference.

In all these conflicts, the BBC has been complicit. Nothing illustrates the BBC’s role as the State Broadcaster better than their promotion of the poppy appeal. The BBC is currently awash with red poppies, never a white  poppy. To be seen without a poppy in a BBC studio is as rare as hens’ teeth. We are consistently reminded of the generosity of the British public; however, there’s rarely any reference in the media as to why the poppy and other appeals are necessary. The grim truth is that Government cuts are making charitable giving ever more necessary to keep basic services running. This is David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ writ large, however we weren’t made aware of the terms and conditions of the big society which has enabled successive Tory Governments to embark on a low tax, low spend ideology, including tax cuts for the already well off, the worst pensions in the EU and the only EU country to reduce spending on social security as a percentage of GDP (Eurostat 2016).

The Royal British Legion, who run the annual Poppy appeal have for years been lobbying the Government to bring the Military Covenant, whose purpose is to care for ex-servicemen and women and their families, onto a statutory footing. It seems that successive Governments have refused to do so in order to avoid legal action where disability payments to ex-service personnel are less generous than their civilian counterparts. This stance was summed up eloquently by Neil McEvoy, a Plaid Cymru AM in the Welsh Assembly, in a recent tweet:  ‘It is shameful that 27 AMs voted down my ‘No Soldier Left Behind Act’ to guarantee in law rights in health and housing for all military personnel who have seen active service’ 

There was a feature on the BBC today (9.11.18) speculating how World War One might be remembered by future generations. I would hope that they will heed Kenny MacAskil’s call and seek a more honest, less myopic appraisal of the causes and lessons to be learned from that and the many other wars that Britain has chosen to enter. Meanwhile, the sabre rattling continues, currently with Russia and ‘axis of evil’ Iran in the spotlight, while we continue to support and fail to speak out about the depredations by Saudi Arabia in Yemen and the continued aggression towards Palestinians by Israel.




Book Review – ‘How to Start a New Country’


I found this book by Robin McAlpine and published by Common Print (part of Common Weal) inspiring, annoying and deeply troubling. Inspiring in that it illustrated some of the many possibilities of independence; annoying in that we don’t appear to have done much, if any, pre-planning and deeply troubling that we probably won’t be able to prepare for independence in the way outlined but instead be forced to act in haste in order to extricate ourselves from what looks like being a Brexit bourach.

The main strategy the book outlines is that of a clean-break, taking on minimal moveable assets and not buying into existing UK systems as temporary solutions.  As well as getting to a truly independent Scotland more quickly, this would also, according to  McAlpine,  provide the rUK with much less bargaining leverage during separation negotiations – the less we want, the less opportunity HMG have to be difficult. Such a strategy also provides the maximum opportunity to implement ‘Scottish solutions’  He therefore proposes a 3 year transition period between referendum and independence day. The 2014 referendum assumed a handover period of 18 months, however this involved sharing a number of existing arrangements with the rUK, notably currency and central Bank. As we know the proposal was vetoed by George Osborne, making the pro-independence campaign a hostage to fortune.

As part of the clean-break strategy McAlpine argues for instance that we shouldn’t take a share of Royal Navy vessels which would be a poor fit for a Scottish Navy whose priorities would be very different from those of the Royal Navy. Instead he proposes we build our own naval vessels.  Such a strategy would have the added benefit of providing a boost to jobs and the Scottish shipbuilding industry.

Speaking of jobs, McAlpine calculates that an independent Scotland would require an extra 20,000 Civil Servants to run the new Ministries (Home Office, Treasury, Foreign Office, Social Security, DVLA and so on).  To provide an illustration of the potential of these additional Civil Servant jobs, imagine all these new (mostly well paid) civil servants moving to a new town in Scotland with their partners and families. This new town will require housing, roads, schools, shops, restaurants, garages, heat, light, water and sanitation plus the staff to service this new infrastructure. The size of the new town very quickly approaches 100,000 people. That’s one massive economic stimulus, worth according to McAlpine about £3 billion per year.

He also notes the need for many more MSPs to cope with the expanding responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament. Here I feel Robin McAlpine misses a trick (or possibly he was channelling his inner socialist centralising tendencies), as he merely pointed out that the current Holyrood Parliament wouldn’t be big enough to accommodate such an influx and a new building would be required. However, there may be an opportunity to move to a Federal system of Government. Holyrood would then become less of a focal point as more of the day-to-day business of the Federal Government is conducted in the Regions while Government departmental business (Home Office, Foreign Office, Work and Pensions etc.) could be conducted in a new purpose built campus of Ministries, ideally somewhere other than Edinburgh.

A Federal Government offers possibilities for further devolution at a local level. The current monolithic Highland Council might become a federal government region within which there could be a number of local Councils (such as Skye and Lochalsh) which would have revenue earning capacity and the ability to act autonomously. There’ve been calls to create a Skye National Park in order to better manage the creaking infrastructure to cope with the influx of tourists. However, a National Park would still need to liaise with Highland Council as they would continue to hold the purse strings. A Skye & Lochalsh Council on the other hand could act more decisively.

Much of the above could be agreed through Robin McAlpine’s proposal for a further plebicite (pre-independence day) on a new constitution. He suggests that at that time the electorate could also be asked to vote on matters such as the monarchy and EU membership (McAlpine himself seems keen on EFTA, at least as an interim as this offers more flexibility and is less contentious than full EU membership). So federalism might be added to the list of questions to put to the electorate. The author proposes that a National Commission should be set up to manage the entire transition process, reporting to the Scottish Government who otherwise will continue with their existing duties. He also points out that this should be in place, at least in embryo, before a further Independence vote!

On the question of an England – Scotland border the author suggests a hardish border would be no bad thing as that would give Scotland much greater control over customs duties. He points out that the official annual customs duty fraud in the UK is estimated at £36 billion but that figure is regarded as conservative by numerous observers who believe the figure to be nearer £120 billion (partly because Customs are increasingly tied up with managing immigration). So a hardish land border with England would allow for much greater customs control which would, he argues, more than justify the expense. The Scottish Navy would also play an important role in deterring smuggling (hence the need for appropriate vessels rather than ex-RN frigates/destroyers). The hardish border could apparently allow private traffic to cross unhindered, with number plate recognition CCTV used to capture individual border crossings. Meanwhile commercial vehicles could have their customs checks well away from the border, for instance on the quayside for fish catches bound for export, thus allaying fears of rotting catches in lorries delayed by customs checks at the border.

On the much touted UK single market,  in which we’re told, Scotland does considerably more trade than with the EU and which the UK Government, using the Project Fear playbook, suggest might be imperilled by Scottish independence, Robin McAlpine points out that electricity accounts for about 1/3 of all exports from Scotland to England via the national grid, so it’s highly unlikely the UK would want to jeopardise this, while a good deal of the rest is cross border movement of supermarket goods. He points out that supermarkets really like frictionless borders so any difficulties caused by the UK Government would meet stiff resistance from Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons.

Robin McAlpine concludes by stating that the book doesn’t set out to make the case for independence. However he goes on to say, ‘…it is hard to miss just how big an opportunity this is. To create a fit-for-purpose tax system, to have a defence system which efficiently focuses on defence rather than power projection, the chance to fundamentally fix public IT, the impact of having a proper Customs and Excise system, the chance to build a humane system of social security, the enormous injection of investment into the Scottish economy that would result, the thousands upon thousands of jobs it would create, the expertise it would bring to Scotland, the way it would effect how we see ourselves…In so many ways it is possible to see in this technical attempt to understand a transition to independence the very reasons so many people want that independence in the first place.’  Amen to that.

Whatever you think of Robin McAlpine’s views, he and Common Weal deserve credit for conducting a rigorous analysis of the planning required for Scottish independence, unlike another recent ongoing constitutional issue, the plans for which were simply written on the side of a bus.



Historians, what are they like?


Given the querulous response of most British historians to the prospect of Scottish independence, I think the collective pronoun for a group of historians must be a ‘querul’. David Starkey, Niall Ferguson, Dan Snow, Neil Oliver and Simon Scharma all seem to become apoplectic about the prospect of an independent Scotland. As far as I know only Tom Devine is pro-independence.

This thought occured to me as a result of reading yet another diatribe against Scottish independence in the Times newspaper, this time from Max Hastings, the war historian (and one of 200 ‘public figures’ who signed an anti-independence declaration prior to the 2014 referendum), has waded in with an article titled ‘Dressing down to enjoy my Highland fling’. In the article, Hastings posits the idea of dressing in jeans and tee shirts rather than in 19th century toffs’clothing (tweeds and breeches). He suggests that this mode of dress along with the ostentatious flaunting of wealth does little to endear the hunting, shooting and fishing fraternity to the average Scot. In this he’s probably correct and it’s about the only thing in his otherwise ignorant, arrogant article which I agreed with.

Hastings has apparently spent many summers enjoying ‘sporting’ activities in Scotland since his early 20’s, mostly in Sutherland and Caithness, which he claims to ‘know so well’  That’s a bit like a Scot averring to know Lancashire well having spent many summer holidays in Blackpool. Except that the Scot in Blackpool would probably meet a wider cross section of Lancashire society than Hastings does on his annual jaunts to the Highlands. There he will mostly interact with estate workers who are probably somewhat guarded in their opinions due to the client relationship, while sharing his sporting activities mostly with other English ‘toffs’ and foreigners. So while he may be familiar with the topography of the Northern Highlands I very much doubt the degree to which he’s in tune with the views, values and culture of the average Highlander. Hastings himself acknowledges that there is justifiable pain caused to Scottish sensibilities by visitors who meet no local people but only stalkers and ghillies.

Hastings goes on to rail against the ‘Nats’, asserting ‘that the spring tide of Nicola Sturgeon has ebbed after experience of her flawed Government’. Such evidence free assertions from a supposedly reputable historian are truly breathtaking. His big beef however, seems to be the Scottish Government’s proposals for land reform. He argues that there is a strong economic case in favour of private shooting estates and their sporting visitors, that they have a ‘cash value unmatched by any other activity, actual or prospective’ Tell that to the people of Eigg,  Gigha and Assynt all of whom have bought out the previous private owners and are in the process of diversifying and transforming their economies. Hastings goes on to say that ‘In Sutherland and Caithness… we glimpse pathetically few non-sporting English tourists because there are no theme parks to lure them and no sane person would build such facilities at the extremity of Britain’ Apart from the fact that there are more economic possibilities for the vast spaces of the Highlands than simply tourism (Space port anyone?), he obviously isn’t aware of the transformative effect on tourism of the North Coast 500, created without needing to construct anything but simply by advertising what was already there!

To counter the accusation that Highland estate owners are exploiting the Scottish people Hastings cites a cluster of estates around Tomatin, whose accounts demonstrated that the owners make annual net contributions in the order of £100,000 each.  What Hastings fails to mention are the many wheezes that estate owners use to mitigate their tax liabilities, such as being registered offshore or placing the estate into family or charitable trusts and of course the rates relief and grants available to Highland estates as a result of being registered as both sporting and agricultural entities.

Then there is the resale value of Highland estates, which according to the Financial Times (‘Why Scottish Highlands and Islands are still in buyers sights’) remain sound investments despite Brexit and the prospect of land reform. Their enduring value is apparently due to their attraction as the playthings of rich men. While some of the mega rich buy super-yachts, others buy Highland estates. Anders Holch Povlsen, the Danish fashion empire billionaire, currently owns 218,000 acres spread over 11 Highland estates. His aim is to ‘re-wild’ the landscape, to take it back to it’s ‘former wilderness state’ No mention is made of repopulating the land, which was a more recent aspect of the Highlands.

Which leads me to Hasting’s most egregious assertion. Quoting from an observation by Michael Fry, he states that there is no rational justification for the volume of grievance about the Highland clearances. ‘Ugly though they were, Scotland did not suffer remotely the scale of English injustice and persecution that fell upon Ireland’  That’s a bit like saying that the Armenians should shut up and stop complaining about the Turkish genocide of Armenia because it was less catastrophic than the Jewish holocaust of World War Two.

Hastings ends his piece by writing, ‘I once told a friend that playing a salmon and shooting grouse in the Highlands have provided me with some of the most euphoric experiences I have ever known’ Like many other British Nationalists who profess undying love of Scotland,  Hastings clearly has a wistful and wholly mythical sense of all things Scottish, from the landscape to the skirl of the pipes. Of the people, not so much.  The Times article is useful in that it offers us yet another window into the minds of the English ruling class, that even a supposedly forensic historian is unable to get to the heart of what drives the quest for Scottish independence and instead takes a purely sentimental view. He is clearly unable to engage with the real argument for independence, that of self-determination and is therefore blind to the economic possibilities, particularly in his beloved Highlands. Why is it for instance, that the more extensive wild land in Norway can be economically viable, able not only to retain but to increase its population, while Scotland apparently must depend on and be grateful for the largesse of mostly foreign estate owners?




Independence – passion or reason?


I read the Times most Saturdays to keep up to date with the preoccupations of the ruling class. Which reminds me of the old saw about who reads which newspapers. The Times is read by those who run the country, The Daily Telegraph is read by those who used to run the country, The Daily Mail is read by those who would like to run the country, while Sun readers don’t care who runs the country, so long as she’s well built (I’ve edited that last phrase for more sensitive readers). I think the Guardian also featured but I can’t recall what their position was. Perhaps it was that it was read by those who think the metropolitan intelligentsia should run the country?

Anyway, this Saturday there were two interesting articles in the Times relating to Scotland. The first that caught my eye was a book review ‘Scots and Catalans – Union and disunion’ by J.H. Elliot. The reviewer was scathing of both Catalan and Scottish independence movements, declaring that they are both driven by passion (often in the guise of grievance) at the expense of reason. The title of the review says much about the reviewers own view ‘It’s all bagpipes, flags and fake history’ He goes on to assert, Scottish independence is ‘… all about the Gay Gordons, Irn Bru, that statue of Wellington with the traffic cone on its head and singing Flower of Scotland after six cans of McEwans’ So no passion there from the reviewer then, all clear common-sense.

Elsewhere the Parliamentary sketch writer Patrick Kidd offered his end of term report on the coming and goings in Westminster by offering various awards, such as the ‘Prize for summing up’and ‘Best Intervention’. Under the heading ‘Baby of the House’, Kidd wrote, ‘Not Mhairi Black, who is the youngest MP but someone with greater maturity, Zana Lewis, the 11 week old daughter of the Labour MP Clive Lewis, slept peacefully through a petulant strop by the SNP, who stormed out of the chamber en-masse while the speaker bellowed ‘order’ 28 times at them’ No insight was offered concerning the reason for the SNPs walk-out and no analysis of the impact, which shone a spotlight on the inequity of the EU Withdrawal Bill that the BBC had failed to highlight because viewers, apparently, weren’t interested! Or the boost to SNP membership which ensued from the walkout. So, once again, a perspective based on passion or reason?  You decide.

Finally, on today’s Andrew Marr Show, in an otherwise balanced and coherent analysis of Brexit, John Major couldn’t help himself when talking about the various political parties. Having name checked the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberals (sic), when it came to the SNP however, he used the more pejorative ‘Scottish Nats’.

When accusing nationalists of being motivated by grievance and passion therefore and being uninterested in a rational exploration of the ‘facts’, the opponents of Scottish independence really need to look in the mirror. While they persist in this view, they fail to engage with the many real arguments that drive the quest for independence. Arguments such as why a country with the natural and human resources of Scotland lags behind many of our European neighbours. The democratic deficit which is forcing Brexit and its dire economic consequences onto a Scotland that voted decisively to remain in the EU. Or being hamstrung by the lack of access to those economic levers that are reserved to Westminster.

The good news is that as a result of their obsession with portraying Scottish Nationalism as simply about grievance and flags, British Nationalists will be ill prepared come IndyRef2 to provide compelling arguments for staying within the Union. They are likely therefore to resort once again, to fear tactics and ‘promises’ which, next time round, are unlikely to gain anything like the traction they achieved in 2014.


Scotland’s Future


I re-read the Scottish Government’s white paper ‘Scotland’s Future’ while researching my previous article ‘W(h)ither Independence?’. At 650 pages it’s a hefty document and there probably aren’t many people who’ve read it cover to cover, which is in itself a criticism of the document. Mhairi Black said recently that she ‘hated’ it. I wouldn’t go that far, indeed I believe it serves a useful purpose, however I am critical of its format.

Essentially ‘Scotland’s Future’ falls into two parts. One part deals with the nuts and bolts of extricating Scotland from the UK and covers things like the timetable of withdrawal, the role of the Civil Service, pensions and the division of assets. All of these matters will be the responsibility of the Scottish Government, hence it’s official status as a ‘white paper’

The other part is much more party political in nature and makes numerous proposals, for example on welfare and tax reform, increased child support and of course that we dump Trident.  Incidentally, on tax, Scotland’s Future suggests raising about £250 million extra in the first tax year, pretty much what the recent budget is expected to raise.

Many Unionists have poured scorn on Scotland’s Future, saying it is full of uncosted promises and vague assertions. Yet they never felt the need to produce their own counter proposal. I may have a solution to that anomaly. In retrospect I think it would have been better to have separated these two parts; the first part covering the mechanics of separation, quite rightly being produced by the Scottish Government as a white paper and part two as an SNP post independence declaration of what they would do if elected as the first Government of an independent Scotland.

The advantages of this approach are that it’s a lot simpler. Constitutional geeks can pore over the minutiae of Part one, while Part two could be produced as an easy to read manifesto for the general public. Doing this would also provide the opportunity for the SNP to challenge other political parties to produce their own manifestos – highlighting their proposals for an independent Scotland or for those of a Unionist persuasion, detailing their vision of Scotland within the Union.


W(h)ither Independence?


Pete Wishart has generated a great deal of coverage in both the MSM and blogosphere by suggesting that the SNP should allow its current mandate for a second independence referendum to expire. He points out that after two close losses, the Quebec independence movement has now been in the wilderness for 20 years. I believe the comparison with Quebec is inappropriate. The Quebec independence referenda were culturally based. Quebecois felt alienated by the Anglocentric majority in Canada and wanted to express their French roots more fully. However, Canada has a federal system of Government and provinces enjoy a great deal of autonomy (including fiscal autonomy); by contrast, Scotland has nowhere near as much autonomy and is in many ways something of a vassal state.

So whilst celebrating their cultural heritage and how they see themselves is clearly important to many Quebecois, unlike Scotland’s place in the UK, being part of Canada doesn’t pose an existential threat. Scottish independence is driven by much more fundamental needs, to gain control of the fiscal mechanisms necessary for economic development and social policy. These needs will not go away after another No vote, indeed while we are tied to the UK post Brexit they will come ever more sharply into focus, exacerbated over time as nearby small, independent nations prosper whilst we are stuck in the slow lane, forever subordinate to Westminster’s priorities. So conditions for Scottish independence are unlikely to be diminished. The Quebecois on the other hand were more likely to ask whether the disruption was worth it, for something so ephemeral?

So my view is that of the old saying ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ If the SNP uses its mandate and we lose, we’re unlikely to lose core support and the reason for Scottish independence won’t recede. Allowing the mandate to expire on the other hand is highly likely to lead to a loss of support for the SNP – in particular back to Labour. Pete Wishart states that nobody has told him they would stop voting SNP if they don’t exercise the mandate, however I would have thought that the vehemently hostile response to his comments might cause him to think otherwise.  As far as I’m aware, there’s nothing in the UK constitution that dictates how often we can hold an independence referendum, so as long as we keep electing Scottish Governments with a commitment to independence in their manifestos, we are still in the game.

The likely outcome of a loss of support however, is that come the next Holyrood elections, the SNP won’t be able to form a Government, opening the door for a Unionist coalition of some sort. That would make it a lot easier for a Tory administration in Westminster to impose new constitutional restrictions on the Scottish Parliament, making a further independence referendum virtually impossible.

Wishart says that Independence is the most hotly debated issue in Scottish politics. Again I disagree. Most debate is currently within the Independence and Unionist bubbles. The case for independence hasn’t really been presented to the electorate since 2014, when we started on 28% and finished on 45%. Next time we’d be starting in the mid forties and serious debate of the issues on TV would allow voters a much better comparison of the relative merits of the two choices than at present where Unionist tropes of Scottish ‘debt’, UK single market, low growth and currency go virtually unchallenged in the MSM. We will also be able to question the UK Government on its vision for Scotland in a highly uncertain post-Brexit future. In 2014 we started from a choice between the status-quo or what was presented as risky independence. The latter now looks a lot less risky, particularly if Scotland remains in the EU or EEA while the UK is outside. Meanwhile the status quo simply isn’t on offer.

Which leads me to the nature of the independence campaign. Much heat and not much light has been expended on whether to follow the Norway, Irish or New Zealand economic models. Interesting but irrelevant in my view. The goal is independence – self-determination. After independence is the time to debate such practicalities, when political parties can set out in their Manifestos their vision for Scotland; high tax, low tax, how to grow the economy etc. What I believe we need to do during the campaign is to highlight the many many small, prosperous, independent countries that surround us, the differing economic models they follow and to stress that we the electorate will choose how we are governed post independence.


A Letter to ‘NO’ Voters


As Naomi Klein wrote in her book ‘No is not enough’, the goal (of an argument) is rarely to change minds but too often to win. With this in mind and with some humility, therefore, I’d like to set out a case for Scottish Independence. My assumption is that the vast majority on both sides want what’s best for Scotland. Those on the pro-Union side believe that Scotland’s interests are best served by some or all of: solidarity with the rest of the UK in good times and bad; that we benefit from the support we receive from the UK (best of both worlds) as our economy isn’t robust enough to sustain independence; that we’ve shared so much that to break our ties would be to alienate ourselves from a family of Nations; or a belief that the SNP is a malign influence which is unlikely to build a better Scotland .

Addressing these reasons in reverse order; an independent Scotland should reanimate politics which at present is stuck in a constitutional stand-off. With the constitutional issue settled, politics can get back to normal, in fact better than normal since the SNP are committed to introducing a written constitution and Proportional Representation electoral system for General Elections, which will enhance democracy and ensure fair political representation at Holyrood.

In the 2014 Referendum much was made of the view that independence would turn family and friends living elsewhere in the UK into foreigners. Many of us have family who live in a foreign country. I have a sister who married a Norwegian and has lived in Norway for decades. She’s still my sister and to regard her as a foreigner would seem very strange to me. I would guess that the same is true for those of you with family members living abroad, some of whom may have emigrated. I also have family living in England and I don’t expect my feelings towards them to change post-independence or visa versa.

Yes, there is a deep, shared history between Scotland and the rest of the UK and that history will remain. What will change with independence are our future histories. Even in a Scotland that remains part of the UK however there will be significant changes, not least because of Brexit. The status quo is, therefore, not on offer. Take Ireland for example, where there is an even deeper and more fraught history between it and the UK (and with England before that), yet the bonds still endure and in many ways are more positive than in the past as Ireland and the UK now interact as equals.

I don’t have facts and figures detailing the economic performance of an independent Scotland as there are no future facts. What we do have, however, are precedents. Around Scotland are a number of small independent countries; Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark all of which are more prosperous than the UK, while also being fairer, more equal societies. Just to reinforce the point, the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund (started with earnings from oil in 1995), earned £131 billion pounds in 2017 – that’s in one year! (Financial Times. 1.3.18). On the plus side, Scotland compares very favourably with all these countries in terms of the necessary conditions for prosperity (democracy, rule of law, sound finance, an educated populace plus abundant natural resources). None of the above countries rely on the ‘broad shoulders’ of a larger State and any support Scotland receives from the UK comes with a price tag as we pay for it through our contribution to the national debt.

The final point, that just because our relationship is going through a sticky patch, we shouldn’t walk away from the Union, is perhaps the most emotionally compelling and it’s true that in times past, Scotland benefited greatly from the Union. However those days (of Empire) are long gone. I think it’s fair to say that Scotland’s well-being is an afterthought to the UK Government and probably only features at all because of the constitutional question and Brexit. Remove these and I doubt there would be much thought given to what goes on up here. Instead, resources will continue to be targeted towards London and the South East.

Investing in the South East makes sense in some ways as surpluses generated there currently subsidise the rest of the UK. However, this concentration of resources on the South East has created huge imbalances in the economy. No capital city anywhere in the developed world plays such a dominant role in the economy as that of London in the UK. According to Inequality Briefing, London is the wealthiest area in Northern Europe. However, the same report points out that 9 of the 10 poorest areas in Northern Europe are in England and Wales. That’s because, to quote Vince Cable, London has become the great suction engine of the British economy. While this continues, talent will inevitably migrate to the South East, thus further eroding the economic prospects elsewhere. And despite warm words and rhetoric about Northern Powerhouses, the vast majority of infrastructure projects, essential for stimulating economic health, continue to be concentrated in the South East.

I have two questions for you. What kind of country would you like Scotland to be and how confident are you that the current political settlement can deliver that country? My own vision is for a  prosperous Scotland that has the financial resources to place the environment at the heart of policy making; one that prioritises green, sustainable working practices in every sphere, not just energy, and puts public money into those areas rather than weapons of mass destruction. And one that really cares for all its citizens through fair taxation and redistribution. I see no prospect of the UK Government delivering on that vision and the current devolution settlement severely constrains any Scottish Government from doing so.

In summary, I believe that only Independence can unlock the long-term investment required to transform Scotland. However, I also believe an independent Scotland could be a role-model for the rest of the UK. Confronted with the reality of its mortality and given Scotland’s example would, I hope, lead to a serious overhaul of the political and economic structures of the remaining United Kingdom and a more realistic view of its role in the world.


Democracy – ‘a nice idea’


Asked for his views on democracy, Gerry  Adams, Sinn Fein President, said, ‘It’s a nice idea’.

There’s a delicious irony in the boast that Britain was the first modern democracy and that Westminster is the ‘mother of Parliaments’. I was reminded of this as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of (some) women gaining the right to vote. When it was built in 1870, the Palace of Westminster was designed as a men only establishment – so much for democracy. More than anything however, the suffragette movement reminded me that democracy is a journey rather than an event.

In his book ‘Democracy and its Crisis’, A.C.Grayling charts the history of democracy from its roots in pre-Christian Athens through to the present day. His thesis is that, while some European countries are fairly close to achieving democracy, it’s still a largely unfulfilled concept in most countries that claim to be democracies. He singles out both the UK and USA for particular criticism.

A recurrent theme in the book is the readiness of the electorate for democracy. In ancient Greece, Plato was very much against the idea of democracy, believing that the common man was unable to grasp the complexities of Government, the best form of which was via an Aristocracy. This word in its ancient usage meant a man (always a man), who was highly intelligent, wise and crucially, disinterested, so would be incorruptible, seeking no material gain from his power but simply wishing to do what was right for the populace. I tried to think who might fit such a tough CV and could only come up with Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Yoda and Gandalf.

Democracy continued to be a contentious issue after the ancient Greeks, through the Roman Empire and into medieval times. During the Peasants Revolt of 1381, the rebel priest John Ball caught the essence of the argument with the immortal question, ‘When Adam dug and Eve span, who then was the Gentleman?’, alluding to the fact that there was no aristocracy during the time of Adam and Eve, so the common man was presumably able to run his own affairs. Later, at the Putney Debates of 1647, when the Levellers met with Oliver Cromwell to press their case for the rights of the ‘common man’, they did so on the grounds that they had not fought to overthrow a King simply to be ruled by a new tyranny. Some of the Levellers were later jailed – so much for the free speech aspect of democracy!

The franchise was extended somewhat in 1832 with the Great Reform Act, when universal suffrage was declared, having been extended to property owning males over 21. However, the vast majority continued to be voiceless; in late 19th century Britain something like 85% of working men were manual labourers, none of whom had the vote and most were illiterate (compulsory public education only began in England in 1870). The ruling class were  wary of extending the franchise, as they felt that to give the vote to such an uneducated mass could lead to anarchy. Their fears were perhaps justified given the number of States that have introduced democratic institutions but have failed to deliver stable governments, for example Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Ukraine and Bolivia, partly because the voters were politically and in some cases, educationally illiterate.

It would seem that a necessary requirement for the effective exercise of democracy then is an educated electorate, both generally and politically. This seems crucial in the 21st century as the scope and scale of many of the issues of Government become ever more complex- Brexit and Scottish independence for instance, both of which require a deeper and wider understanding of the issues than a General Election which might provoke an emotional response – ‘I voted for ‘X’ because  I’ve always voted ‘X”, or voting simply for the Party promising tax cuts.

This leads me to observe that in Scotland, despite what former Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, said about ‘Scots not being  genetically programmed to make political decisions’ we have the most politically literate electorate in the UK. Consider this; we have two Governments, one in Holyrood and the other in Westminster, which share responsibility for Scottish affairs and whose Executives are drawn from differing political Parties. Our elections are conducted using three different election methods; first past the post (FPTP) for Westminster elections, the d’Hondt proportional system for Holyrood elections and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) proportional representation system for Scottish Council elections. We also have in the SNP a strong third party to break up the Tory, Labour hegemony that exists in England. The 2014 Independence Referendum then focussed the attention of the electorate on what kind of country they wanted Scotland to be. Finally, we had the EU Referendum in 2016. Given the volume of political education undergone by the Scottish electorate since the 1997 devolution referendum as just outlined, it’s perhaps no surprise that Scotland, bucked the general trend and voted 62% in favour of remaining.  Since then, attitudes towards the EU seem to have hardened North and South of the Border. Recent opinion polls suggest only 45% support for remaining in the EU in England while 68% support remain in Scotland – a political chasm.

Grayling insists that the UK as presently constituted, meets very few of the criteria necessary for an effective democracy and is in effect an Elective Dictatorship. His big beef is with the first-past-the-post electoral system which provides an unfettered mandate to the Governing Party, invariably on a minority of the vote. Grayling also singles out the Whip system, which he says is frequently abused by bullying (e.g. threatening exposure of an MP’s domestic peccadilloes), threats of de-selection and/or loss of potential promotion opportunities as a consequence of defying the Whips. All these factors, Grayling says, leads to an impotent opposition which, because it is unable to influence legislation, creates a great deal of sound and fury to give the appearance that it is holding Government to account – all of which Grayling suggests is highly unsettling to the general public, whose impression tends to be that the Government is in constant turmoil. In an effective Government, where the Governing parties genuinely represent the majority of the electorate, things tend to be much quieter (boring even) as Government is allowed to get on with the business of Governing because they have a genuine mandate. I would exclude Holyrood from this tranquil nirvana as the British Nationalist politicians and pro-Union press do their utmost to stir up unrest against the SNP interloper in their cosy consensus.

Grayling’s other requirements for an effective democracy includes a written constitution, STV proportional representation voting system extended to 16 – 18 year olds, an elected second chamber which can overturn Bills and a Supreme Court which can strike down any Bill which fails to abide by the constitution.  More contentiously, Grayling asserts that voting should be compulsory, because a non-vote always favours the winner. Peter Bell made a similar point recently in iScot Magazine. Bell used a simple example of 100 voters and just 2 candidates. While 51 votes are required to win the election when everyone votes, if we assume a typical General Election turnout of around 60%, then to win only requires 31 votes, a much lower threshold and crucially, one which is only supported by a minority of the electorate, thus creating the potential for dissent.

Looking back 100 years, votes for women is a no-brainer; it’s inconceivable that women should be denied the vote. At the time, however, the suffragette movement was not not popular, even among women, who saw it as a cause of strife between them and their menfolk, rather than liberating (an example perhaps of a lack of political education). In short, most men and many women thought women should ‘know their place’, to not get ideas above their station. This caused me to compare the suffragettes with the quest for Scottish independence. Both are steps along the democratic road and like the suffragettes before it, Scottish independence appears to be supported by a minority of the electorate. So how do we change minds? Will it need an extreme gesture like that of Emily Davison, who died when she stepped in front of the King’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby, or will the Scottish electorate finally wake up to the democratic deficit that exists in Scotland, so clearly illustrated by a British Government that continues to ignore Scottish aspirations regarding the EU?  And what will our successors 100 years hence think, as they view an independent Scotland? I strongly suspect that, just as we do now with votes for women, they’ll scratch their heads, wonder what all the fuss was about and agree it was also a no-brainer.





Is God a Unionist?


In his polemic ‘God is not Great’, Christopher Hitchens suggests a parallel between organised religion and fascism – both requiring an undisputed leader and absolute loyalty from the faithful. While Hitchens was perhaps being deliberately provocative, you don’t have to look far to find links between religion and (right wing) politics. Islamic fundamentalism is its most extreme manifestation; however the American religious right, the Church of England, AKA ‘the Tory Party at prayer’ and of course the Orange Order, a sectarian order created to protect the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland, is very supportive of Unionism and allegedly has a number of DUP and Scottish Tory politicians in its ranks. Even the Church of Scotland is not immune – in 1986, 45% of its members were Tory voters (Tom Devine, ‘Independence or Union?’ 2015). There seems therefore to be a correlation between the religiously devout and a desire for authoritarian leadership and adherence to the status quo (conservative with a small ‘c’ even if they don’t vote Tory).

Shortly after reading ‘God is not Great’, I had a visit from two Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were very pleasant and I engaged in a brief discussion about the likelihood of a supernatural deity. (For the record, I find it highly improbable). Towards the end of our chat, one of them asked me what I thought about the natural world?  When I said I found it amazing  she agreed, then pointing at the sea, asserted that, unlike every other substance, the sea never freezes completely and again unlike other substances, when water freezes it expands. Her conclusion seemed to be that these inconsistencies defied the laws of nature and were indicative of a ‘guiding hand’ A quick Google search after they’d left confirmed that there were perfectly logical explanations to her mysterious phenomena.

What I found extraordinary about this incident was that two apparently intelligent people, instead of carrying out the simple investigation that I did, seemed to prefer to believe in mythology and one has to ask why? Psychologist Jonas Kaplan observed that political beliefs are like religious beliefs in that both are part of who you are and are important for the social circle to which you belong. To consider an alternative view, you would have to consider an alternative view of yourself. Endorsing this apparent victory of tribalism over reason, the  Washington Post carried out a simple survey. They showed photographs of both the Trump and Obama Presidential inaugurations to Democrat and Republican supporters and asked which had the bigger crowd?  Despite clear evidence that the Obama crowd was larger, one in seven Trump supporters averred that the Trump inauguration drew the bigger crowd.

This tribalism is beautifully illustrated by Andrew Skinner. Writing in ‘Scotland in Union’, 25.7.2017 he asserts: ‘One of the things I find is not fully understood and not explained enough is “Scales of Economy”, providing services in a country the size of Scotland with a population of 5 million with lots of remote areas and islands etc, costs a lot more than providing the same services across a similar sized country with fewer Islands and a population of 60 million. So it’s clear we benefit greatly from being part of the United Kingdom’ (my emphasis)

All Skinner needed to do to understand the flaw in his argument was to look across the North Sea to Norway, which, like Scotland has a population of around 5 million. It also has ‘remote areas and islands’ in abundance throughout its 1200 kilometre length with a few fjords and major mountain ranges thrown in for good measure. Despite all these challenges, Norway seems to be doing ‘no bad’ economically as summed up by the recent headline  ‘Norway’s sovereign wealth fund hits $1 trillion’ (Independent 19.12. 2017) 

And yet, rather like Jehovah’s Witnesses, they don’t seem to want to do analysis. In an article (Herald 31.12.17, ‘Labour leader Leonard says an independent Scotland is perfectly feasible’) one reader made an unflattering comparison between the UK and Germany. In response, a  pro-Union blogger  stated: ‘Oh please. Give the rest of us a break. Random country comparison… something wrong with the UK … independence is the only answer…’

Random country, Germany! For over 100 years Germany has been the benchmark country of choice by the British state. Indeed, according to Hidden Histories, growing German economic hegemony, which was eating into Britain’s share of world industrial production, was a key factor in Britain going to war with Germany in 1914. Actually a more apt comparison for Scotland is the Scandinavian countries with which we share many similarities. All these countries are economically stronger than Scotland, while also having lower levels of inequality. Nor are they being propped up by any ‘broad shouldered’ larger Nation, so there is much we can learn from them. Even here however, staunch Unionists refuse to be drawn into serious investigation. One commentator sneered that Independistas never cite countries like Mozambique when making comparisons. Well, quite. Mozambique is as different as chalk from cheese to Scotland, gaining independence from Portugal in only 1975 after 200 years of colonial rule and zero experience of democracy. Today its GDP per head is about $1,200 compared to Scotland’s £40,000.

The ability to avoid serious enquiry therefore appears to be endemic not only in those of a strong religious persuasion, but also among staunch Unionists. But could I also be guilty of the same unquestioning myopia as staunch Unionists? I can say “no” with some confidence, because I was once a Unionist. Not a staunch Unionist it’s true but rather an unthinking Unionist. I blithely accepted what I was told, that I was incredibly lucky to live in such a tolerant, fair minded country, the mother of democracy. I was a patriot who bought my poppy, watched the pomp and circumstance of Remembrance Sunday with pride and believed the areas of the world ruled by the British Empire had been fortunate to have had such a benign protector.

Then something changed. I’m not sure exactly when; the Genesis was probably when I began questioning my own religious beliefs. It was certainly reinforced when I began reading more widely about the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’.  The more I delved the more I came to see a different picture than the one the British Establishment painted. And it turns out my increased scepticism was justified. According to recently released documents by the Irish Government under the 30 year rule, MI5 attempted to persuade the UVF to assassinate the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey (to their credit they declined), provided the bomb that was used to blow up ‘The Miami Showband’, an Irish cabaret band, and offered to supply foot and mouth  toxins to anyone who would plant them in the Irish Republic, all in the interests of destablising the Irish economy.

So if God is a Unionist, how can this knowledge be utilised to persuade Unionists towards independence? The short answer is that we probably can’t! To attempt to change the views of those with strong convictions based on faith and dogma tends simply to radicalise them. In Politics this is creating an ultra nationalism (AKA BritNats), whose behaviour is becoming increasingly hysterical, for instance when they ridicule the new Queensferry Crossing or the Baby Box;  jingoistic – seeking to politicise the Poppy Appeal, or xenophobic – Johnny Foreigner and migrants.  While such behaviour will no doubt appeal to the Ultras, it’s likely to repel more moderate No voters and give them cause to consider whether they want to be associated with such extremism or perhaps they prefer the inclusiveness and positivity of those on the Independence movement. As Joyce McMillan observed in  The Scotsman: ‘And this, for me, is a new experience in politics – to enter a debate with a strongish view on one side of the argument and to find myself so repelled by the tone and attitude of those who should be my allies that I am gradually forced into the other camp’ 

According to a BBC report (March 2017) the number of people who regularly attend church services in Scotland has fallen by more than half over the last 30 years (from 854000 to around 390,000 ) and 42% of churchgoers are aged over 65. This mirrors the trend  among Tory party members, where the average age is 62. Meanwhile, perhaps because they tend to be more open to new ideas and are less indoctrinated than I was about Britain’s ‘greatness’, younger voters are increasingly drawn towards independence. Time is on our side.



Wha’s Like Us?


In his documentary ‘Border Country: the Story of Britain’s Lost Middleland’, shown on BBC television shortly before the 2014 Independence Referendum, the presenter Rory Stewart (Tory MP for Penrith) suggested that the England-Scotland border has historically been very fluid, that in reality there was no cultural difference between the English and the Scots on either side of the border, thus demonstrating that borders are artificial constructs. On a similar theme in a 2017 General Election speech in Edinburgh, Theresa May suggested that in the United Kingdom ‘we are all one people’, seeming to also suggest that there is no difference between Scots and other Nations of the UK. While in no way endorsing any ‘blood and soil’ Nationalism, I think there is a difference. In this article I’d like to explore why that might be the case.

The differences seem to be due to a combination of history and geography. Historically, English culture has been shaped by the Romans, Anglo Saxons and Normans, who between them created the market economy, civic institutions, the nuclear family, hierarchical structures and the rule of law. Collectively these encouraged social and economic mobility. In his book ‘The Pinch’, David (Two Brains) Willets suggests that the driving force of all these characteristics in England was the nuclear family, a unique institution when it emerged over 1000 years ago as a result of migration by Germanic Angles. Contrasting the nuclear family with the extended family or tribal structure Willets observes: ‘Big Clan style families are better than nuclear ones at spreading advantage and pooling risks, but for them to be effective people have to stay close to each other, so there is less mobility’

Willetts use of the word Clan to describe the extended family is apt as the Clan tribal structure was the norm in the Scottish Highlands until the 19th century, where the notion of economic and social mobility was an alien concept. While there was a hierarchy in Clans, it was much flatter than in English society. So while the English were living in small family groups and moving both for economic and social reasons from the early Middle-ages, the extended family of the Clan wasn’t seriously disturbed until the Clearances of the 1800s.

The Romans introduced the concept of trade and civic institutions, through the creation of market towns and guilds where goods could be exchanged, imported and exported, taking advantage of Southern England’s proximity to continental Europe and Roman lines of commerce. In Caledonia by contrast, the Romans made little impact beyond the Borders. It’s often said that this was due to the wild people who lived further North and was perhaps true to some extent, though I suspect the main reason was the lack of trading opportunities.

The Normans brought with them the feudal hierarchy of Lords, vassals and fiefs, the remnants of which are still very much evident in present-day Britain (eg the House of Lords). Whilst the Normans had a greater influence in Scotland than either the Romans or Anglo Saxons (Robert the Bruce was of partial Norman stock), again the impact was less dominant than in England. In Scotland the process was more one of assimilation where Norman Knights married into Scottish nobility. In contrast to England and particularly in Wales, where a network of castles were built to quell the natives, few great Norman castles were built in Scotland.

All these incursions tended towards the South and East of Scotland (Stewart’s ‘Borderlands’), unsurprising, as this is where the best agricultural lands were to be found. Meanwhile the North and West of Scotland continued to be dominated first by the Celts then the Norsemen. Though the Industrial Revolution had a homogenising influence throughout Britain, the Celtic culture and the Clan structure still seems to resonate in Scottish society, with an emphasis on social justice.

English hierarchical structures and Scottish egalitarianism extended to the Church. While the Reformation saw the emergence of Anglicanism, replete with Bishops, ceremony and the Monarch at its head, in Scotland the Presbyterian Church adopted an altogether simpler, flatter structure  and sought to separate Church from State. The Church of Scotland also developed a policy of ‘a school in every parish’ which gave rise to the Scots becoming the best educated citizens in the British Isles, with more universities than England until the 19th century. It’s no surprise that  Scotland was the crucible of the European Enlightenment in the British Isles.

Scotland is approximately two thirds the size of England but has only 10% of the population. These simple facts of geography perhaps also help to explain any cultural difference between the English and the Scots. South of a line between Hull and Liverpool, the English are very much an urban population with little contact with country life. It’s said that whilst you must go back 3 generations to find any direct experience of agriculture in an English family, in Scotland it’s only 2 generations. Even that doesn’t make the distinction between England and Scotland. In England the migration from country to town was often driven by a desire to ‘get on’. While this was also the case in Scotland, the shift to the towns was also a consequence of the Clearances, so the shift was more existential and less aspirational. That more people in England have made the latter choice is indisputable and what that does is to create, or at least encourage, a different mind-set, one based on ambition  rather than survival.

While there are many shades in between, country life and city life could be said to occupy opposite ends of a spectrum. So while a city lover might be upwardly mobile and status conscious, country dwellers are much more likely to be content with their lot and take a ‘live and let live’ attitude. The greater concentration of people with little or no contact with country living then becomes both a cause and a result of different priorities, priorities which in the case of England and Scotland are magnified by their different histories.

One example of how the social hierarchy in England today differs from Scotland can be seen in professions like the media and law. In England it’s almost mandatory to speak with a Standard English accent. A regional accent, from say, Liverpool, Birmingham or Tyneside is professional suicide. In Scotland by contrast, no such snobbery exists and a Scottish accent is no barrier to advancement. Indeed judging by the large number of Scottish presenters on BBC TV and radio, a Scottish accent appears to be a positive advantage. Perhaps this is because, unlike an English regional accent, a Scottish accent doesn’t carry any status assumptions.

These cultural differences are reflected in politics, which in Scotland is dominated by left of centre parties. The last time the Tories won a majority of seats in Scotland was in 1955, in an altogether more deferential age. This left leaning bias in Scotland is the major reason why Jeremy Corbyn seems to believe he can make inroads here. Meanwhile the voters in England tend to vote more consistently right wing.

What I’m not saying is that the differences between the Scots and the English are massive, rather that they are individually quite subtle but, taken collectively, lead to a cultural and ultimately, a political divergence. On a recent TV programme, the owner of a swanky London boutique hotel mentioned that he employed all Australian front-of-house staff because in his view Australians don’t know how to be snobbish – it’s not in their nature. In my experience as an Englishman, the same is true of Scots.