Fingers and Thumbs

What is it that keeps all those goggle-eyed Nats voting SNP? The more blinkered Unionists ask themselves the same question over and over. Well, how about this for an answer. The SNP are competent.

Competence – ability, proficiency, accomplishment, expertise, skill, prowess, mastery, control, authority.

When it comes to government, it matters. Even administrations you really don’t like and certainly didn’t vote for can earn your respect if they are clear, firm and apparently logical. If what they do makes sense to you, whether you agree on policy or not, they are a good government. You just disagree with them.

It isn’t often remarked amid the ‘Scotland changed forever’ theme and the other justifications for nationalist advance like confidence and political education, that one enduring feature of their success is competence. By and large they run a tight ship. That leads to trust. That means, in turn, that when they speak, people listen AND they’re more inclined to accept and believe what they’re told. This is electoral gold.

It also means that when there’s a slip, an off-note, or a downright error, they are easily forgiven.

How different it is with Labour. No trust – indeed the direct opposite – they are disbelieved and scorned no matter what they say. We no longer expect them to get it right – they have a lengthening history of getting it badly wrong. Their look is chaotic, often incoherent and, taking the example of Jim Murphy, contradictory and surreal.

In order to make Labour respectable again the priority must surely be to look competent. It’s the basic fundamental of electoral appeal. The frightening success of Donald Trump may get its oxygen from an anti establishment message but it’s the belief among his supporters that he knows how to take down that establishment that delivers the votes. If they thought he was only a blowhard, they’d dismiss him. But he’s made a fortune in business, has firm policies (build a wall with Mexico, stop Muslims coming in) or at least he articulates a clear impression and acts like a can-do guy. So, while we recoil, he’s convincing Americans he can do it. He can challenge the Washington elite. Make America great again. He’s competent. And he’s winning.

Which is the exactly what Labour is not. This week’s about-face on recompensing those earning under £20,000 with £100 from the council is the most glaring kind of incompetence you can imagine.

In February it’s a new policy. In March, it’s abandoned. It doesn’t matter that it was only planned for one year until full income tax powers come to Edinburgh – we, and presumably Labour, knew that already. And if it was only to last for one year why abandon it in advance of that year?

If the answer really is that they don’t need that policy now because Osborne has raised allowances, it means a Tory Chancellor is writing Scottish Labour’s tax policy. Better Together with a vengeance. And we can ask: didn’t they know there was a budget coming? Changed allowances and thresholds were forecast. Did Labour miss that?

This way it’s the Tories who are making low-paid Scots better off, not Labour. Yet they’ll still have the money taken from their income so they will be paying higher taxes than the same folk over the border. Just working through the possibilities makes your head hurt. And that’s the point – policies always have an element of technical abstraction that we leave the civil servants to work out. It’s for the politicians to lay out the plan and to craft a comprehensible message to tell the voters. Labour was never able to answer the question of how the £100 would actually be delivered because the work wasn’t done. There is no direct correlation between HMRC and local government in this context and it’s most likely any gift from council coffers to boost taxpayers’ accounts would be liable for tax itself. A retreat was needed before this became a thorn in Kezia’s side. But the wound is already bleeding because the impression left is of a bunch of amateurs who don’t know what they’re doing and can’t be trusted to run the country. Labour can spin till they levitate, the message to voters is: Just because we make a bold announcement one week, doesn’t mean we won’t bin it the next. It’s incompetent. Anyone with an understanding of how campaign politics works, Labour or not, knows this is messy and counter-productive and will worry there is more of the same to come. This after all is a blue ribbon policy. It draws attention away from the SNP’s position on higher rate taxation and allows them to ask Labour why they’re ‘not going to compensate the low-paid as they promised for raising their taxes.’

I also fear it looks sleekit to start reneging on the named person legislation. You can object to it as the Tories have done but you can’t give it wholehearted endorsement one week, watch it operate in parts of Scotland without comment, then another week demand that it be halted because a) some parents think it’s not working well, b) there’s an election coming. This legislation isn’t designed to antagonise middle class parents, it’s aimed at vulnerable, at-risk children who need our protection. They deserve Scotland’s arms around them not toyed with like a campaign gimmick.

They say politics is a high wire balancing act – picture Nicola on that wooden beam in the gym inching along determined to look dignified. Then think of Kezia on a plank over a plastic pool with a giant paddle falling in again and again in It’s a Knockout. That’s the level of difference we’re talking about.

Have as many policy differences with Nicola as you like – berate her for keeping the 45p rate – but don’t tell me the SNP aren’t competent to run the country. And, for the sake of sanity, don’t pretend Labour is anything but a slapstick act that would bring Holyrood into disrepute

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Losing the Plot

There’s a point in every storyline when your suspicions are confirmed. The plot twist may seem entirely improbable but you can’t shake that feeling in your gut. You go from: I think that’s it, to: My God. I was right.

Usually that’s followed by incredulity. How did they get away with that…

For the last year and a half the case for the Union has had the same wobbly foundation. In fact it’s taken its cue more from Midsomer Murders than The Night Manager. One, if you’ve ever watched, is am dram for telly, poorly acted, totally implausible and devoid of theatrical tension. The other, whatever your take on the concept, is the opposite – tight, tense, expensively designed and with a plot that gnaws at the edges of your suspicions. You wonder if this could almost be real.

In Scotland the Holyrood opposition is political am dram. High calibre statecraft, it ain’t.

Labour were the de facto upholders of the UK because they carried so much popular support, a Hercules labouring under the weight on his shoulders. They swayed voters in their droves because if Labour believed in it, it had to be for the good. Right? Many of the same voters realised years ago they had deep suspicions of a system that foisted Tory governments on them every 10 or 15 years and there were more Tory years than Labour. Social advances were reversed and it was a two steps forward, three back. Still, if a humble voter could see that surely all the big brains in Labour could too. And they were sticking with it, laughing at the SNP meantime for pretending to have an alternative.

But sometimes it’s the captain on the bridge that is last to see encroaching disaster. If complacency or stupidity takes hold he can look down the wrong end of the telescope and spy only insignificant troubles on the horizon. He may even be aiming the glass in the opposite direction. Whatever the explanation, Labour didn’t see the iceberg ahead and, like Titanic, is beyond redemption – too far from help to save much more than the women and children and a few stragglers. The great liner that carried so many hopes is going down.

(I imagine a decades-long resurrection project with academics seeking artefacts from the submerged vessel and possibly a film, Labour: The Movie. There will be tours of Glasgow. ‘This whole city was once run by them – with council, Holyrood, Westminster and European representation. The City Chambers here was their stronghold. Now there’s three of them left’).

I say this because I can think of no Labour figure, indeed no figure in Scottish politics from any party, whom I fear. By fear I mean an opponent with the ability to reach out, to wound, to make you rethink your position, one who just might be changing the views of the electorate. And who, given time, can turn the tide of opinion. I’m reluctant to say so because it sounds complacent and that’s not a clever place to be. I held back until near the end on Jim Murphy because he carried the air of the big beast from London that has traditionally seduced the journalists. But mainly because I couldn’t believe Labour could fall any further. A revival of some kind must be imminent, I thought. Like Labour’s 2010 General Election campaign when Murphy was Secretary of State charged with winning back or retaining all of Labour seats won in 2005. He did.

I had hopes for Alex Rowley, believing him to be an authentic working class voice from a previous admired Labour age who could add bottom to Kezia’s wide-eyed enthusiasm. He disappeared without trace and has now broken his promise about not standing on the list. I doubt if one in ten voters could name Kezia’s deputy.

What does leadership contender Neil Findlay do? Isn’t he supposed to be Jeremy’s man in Scotland making challenging speeches on a radical left theme and raising the red flag as both a rallying call for voters and a veiled threat to Kezia to get on board, or something like that.

Who are the MSPs? With the lack of members and quality at Westminster isn’t there a need for a commensurate upturn in Holyrood activity? Where are experienced old hands like Patricia Ferguson and Dave Stewart? Or Lewis Macdonald and Ken McIntosh? Where’s the new talent…wasn’t Drew Smith supposed to be a rising star? Or by election winner Cara Hilton. Does Jenny Mara still have a role? Who is Margaret McCulloch? Who’s John Pentland?

And behind it all is the grim Buddha, Blair McDougall, the Better Together failure.

Worse than Labour’s dire straights are the voices of the Union, the shrill and weirdly disconnected media voices which strain to turn every decision into a weapon, often in direct contradiction of the polling evidence. One of the mysteries of the modern debate is how the BBC fails to unearth writers to interview who actually support (broadly) the governing party. Little as I listen, when I do switch on I hear identifiably Unionist journalists from UK-supporting outlets like the Times, the Herald or, God help us, the Daily Mail. They are ‘countered’ by writers from the alternative media most of whom support the Greens or RISE. It is an extraordinary conundrum in a country that the party with the massive popular support carries on rising regardless of an antipathetic and sometimes biased media offering. In a way the BBC is reflecting the media accurately. There really aren’t journalists currently in newspapers in Scotland who don’t have an axe to grind against the ruling party at election time. The newspapers just don’t hire people in that mould and are instead fully equipped with well-drilled anti-SNP propagandists. By that I don’t mean lending deep scrutiny to policy or politicians’ behaviour which is the journalists’ role. There are some real signs of this now coming from the new media. From the decaying print industry we get only the sham and the shameless. Witness the ream of vitriol that flowed from, among others, the Herald during the TinthePark debacle. A relentless flow of innuendo and opposition quotes couched in the language of corruption and sleaze. The clear suggestion we were invited to entertain was that a former SNP staffer and elicited a bung of public money from her Nationalist mate at the ministry for a company that didn’t need it. The only ‘evidence’ was the woman involved had indeed worked for the party and – smelling salts, please – was partner to an SNP MP. That she might be earning a living doing something different which involved approaching politicians was discounted despite the creation of a veritable industry of such people facilitating and lobbying…of all parties. And indeed she had contacted MSPs of all parties, a fact mysteriously missing from some of the Herald’s one-sided coverage.

The woman, Jennifer Dempsie, had in fact only arranged for a meeting between her boss at TinthePark and the minister and didn’t even attend. The grant was the result of the meeting. It was paid to cover the cost of relocating the event.

When last week the minister involved, Fiona Hyslop, was ‘cleared’ of any wrong-doing because there was none, one simple story appeared in the Herald reporting, in effect, that their relentless pursuit of a questionable story without factual foundation, had been exposed as shoddy, low grade character assassination. Some tweeted that Hyslop deserved an apology from the editor. The apology is surely due to Dempsie whose attempts at an alternative career were put under public scrutiny, so turning off prospective employers and, more damaging, persuaded her to avoid a career in politics when she was nominated for a place on the Highlands and Islands list. The overblown, under-researched scuttlebutt repeated with such glee by a former leading newspaper is one reason why it is in serious decline. Congratulations are due to the editor for chasing a talented young female away from our politics…(the same editor who sacked a talented young female journalist for disagreeing with him). Much of the rest seems to be composed of a kind of Bullingdon Club of self-congratulatory commentators with Twitter links to Joanne Rowling.

And where are the sane voices of the Union among the citizenry? My Twitter timeline has very few of those. Instead it has rabid and often disturbingly unhinged outpourings from leading Unionists like Tom Gallagher and Ian Smart, both obsessed with Nazis. Phrases like ‘you spit on working people’ and ein volk, ein reich are their stock-in-trade. The impression they give is of bitter, self-obsessed, irrational curmudgeons failing to deal with defeat and feeling instead the resentment at their humiliation. What kind of contributors to a new country would such people have made had we won the referendum? And when I get disagreement with my tweets, the ubiquitous Rangers references are prominent. Is that what Unionism has become. A throwback to the fifties?

All this – the implosion of effective political opposition, the collapse of Establishment media credibility and the fear and loathing of Unionist voices – combine in a lurid blaze of failure. One can only assume that the future of the Union remains in the hands of the silent constituency who know this but are untouched by it, whose rejection of independence is as concrete as it is unspoken. It may not be articulated but is none the less real for that, a spasm of defiance at a world they see changing before them but which they refuse to acknowledge. Like Labour, they live in denial. But they cannot stop the inevitable.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Ah’m no weel…

What is wrong with me? As soon as I worked out the SNP strategy on personal taxation, I thought: What a smart idea. They keep taxes where they are but get extra income from the higher earners via the tax threshold. But they don’t even have to take any action to achieve it – just don’t implement Osborne’s tax giveaway. By not implementing someone else’s measure, they even manage to look innocent in the eyes of those paying more.

This plays well with the mass of voters who don’t pay more and think the wealthy should. Not having a different top pay tax rate of 50 per cent also consolidates the tax base by discouraging those with the two-nation option available to them from installing themselves in England for tax purposes. That’s why keeping the same higher rate as the UK makes sense – the modelling shows the extra income raised from a Scotland-only higher rate will be negligible because of defections. Scotland’s growth is also too low and hitting higher earners is unlikely to help in reversing that.

Does anybody disagree this is an adroit bit of business, skirting the potential pitfalls of tax rises and tax cuts or favouring one section over another while raising potentially another £1bn over the parliament?

Committing, more or less, to no personal tax increases during the life of the parliament is a bold, if not reckless, move but is clearly a vote-winner for all of us watching the pennies. You know what you’re getting – or rather what John Swinney’s getting – however fragile the employment scene is for you.

They even found a neat solution to the retention of control over tax thresholds by Whitehall. By introducing a zero rate they can effectively increase the level of income at which you start paying tax, giving Scots a better deal than the Treasury gives the UK. That really is pushing the Smith envelope – right back across the table and adding: Take that.

That’s what I’m worried about. You see I think this is a mini stroke of genius given the deliberate constraints placed upon the Scottish government from a regime desperate to hold on to as much as they could while ceding only enough rope for the Scots to hang themselves. That’s what the rows were about in the fiscal framework – trying to trap us into raising taxes to make the SNP unpopular and win votes for the ‘tax-cutting Tories.’ But they’ve beaten the British hands down and given Ruth Davidson next to nothing to attack.

I also think there is a naivety from those who see tax rises as a virility symbol of radicalism. Taking money out of people’s pockets in a flat economy isn’t radical. It’s reckless. I’ve written before how Kezia Dugdale’s 1p rise is the opposite of anti austerity. Removing money from everyone’s bank account to give it to government, leaves them less to spend which takes it out of circulation and adds to austerity.

I seem to be in a minority judging by what I read online from respected commentators who seem to think Sturgeon has betrayed her instincts, her promises or her supporters. But when the Times of London, right-wing anti-Scottish organ of the high earners, paints the FM as the same as Osborne, I smell a rat. The Times and its anti-SNP clique of writers would like nothing better than an ideologically-driven personal taxation anschluss from the SNP so they can continue to paint them as extremists ready to sacrifice sensible policies and hard-working taxpayers on the alter of ‘separation’.

RISE and its friends are in the business of higher taxes as a matter of doctrine and in a way they’re right. Taxes in the UK have sunk to some of the lowest in the EU. But that’s where we are and preparing the public for more than meagre rises will take serious re-education after 35 years of low tax as a political priority.

Labour have nowhere else to go except to find ways of distinguishing themselves from the SNP. So promises of rises are designed to make the remaining trusties feel good – and morally superior – but neither anecdotally nor in the polling is there any sign of electoral bounce. (I suspect the same of the bogus ‘replacement of the council tax’ which is nothing of the kind – it’s a reworking of the same property-based system).

So I think this is a good move by the SNP which will play well with the voters. Is there an election coming?

Yet I read that it’s a honking howler by Sturgeon to say that keeping the upper tax rate (45 per cent) the same  across the UK makes sense. Well, it would be, if we were independent. I remember Scotland voting No. For journalists who read here: We are still in the UK. Sturgeon is responding to what is in front of her, not what she wishes to see. To set a higher rate only to watch taxpayers scurry off over the border would be folly – one that would be rightly excoriated by newspapers.

What some journalists out there can’t stand is that the SNP don’t behave the way they expect or want them to. They refuse to fit into the mainstream narrative. Good for them. Who’d ever trust a journalist? And who is constantly proved to be right in its judgment and carries the goodwill of the Scots while the readership of the papers declines year on year?

Sturgeon fails to meet the demands of a rabidly hostile media and a partisan opposition….isn’t that getting it exactly right?

Ah. Just realised what is wrong with me. I’m an SNP apologist living in la-la land bereft of the faculty of logical thinking. I’ll content myself with the knowledge that I share company with over 50 per cent of my fellow Scots.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

We Never Stop

If you only read the papers, you’d think government involved little more than responding to opposition attacks on schools and hospitals. That’s because the purpose of newspapers is no longer to keep you informed but to draw attention to what the journalists and their editors decide on your behalf is newsworthy – that is what will sell the product. Newspapers used to be the main source of information about public affairs but the realm of civil governance has expanded so much while the resources of the media have shrunk (individually speaking rather than across the industry as a whole). The result is that a scan of the daily media would have to think that government has it easy, batting away criticism and swanning around getting their pictures taken. (They do this too).

Like other journalists I’m hooked up to the government’s publicity machine and receive all the announcements released on their behalf…that’s government as opposed to SNP party.

On any given day I am reminded how much work is constantly going on across the whole range of responsibilities as a stream of emails headed SG Communications fire into my In Box. As a guide, I’ll list what I have seen so far today which I would say was typical.

There are – at 2.30 pm – 15 releases from

£2m of criminals’ money going to sporting facilities,

£2m to Strathclyde University to provide clean water in Malawi,

the latest A and E figures,

the state of farm incomes (halved!),

a further statement on how that is out of step with a booming food industry,

£10m for urgent out-of-hours health care,

93 per cent of school leavers going to further education, training or work,

a £315m City Deal for Inverness,

a programme to help vulnerable children find permanent homes,

improved nutrition in hospitals,

a report on sustainable land use,

a £20m scheme to help keep vulnerable groups and long term unemployed into sustainable jobs,

a report on children in care

and the freezing of income tax.

I make no judgment on the content of all this. But there you have Tuesday’s published load of work on your behalf. Just thought you’d like to know

*Added later…The Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm Bill tackles the way modern technology can be used to perpetrate abuse, creating a new offence of sharing private intimate images without consent, or so-called revenge p*rn.

Legislation to modernise the governance and scrutiny of burial and cremation has been passed by the Scottish Parliament

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Who’s in Charge?

Interesting how quickly a leader can be unsettled…no sooner had IDS (or In Deep Shit as he’s known) resigned with an attack on the Chancellor, than all eyes turned to Cameron. It is HIS government and if it’s falling apart, HE’s in the firing line.

Leaders can seem all-powerful, their every movement witnessed from behind a patina of power. But the history of downfalls shows how fragile is the concept of one person in charge and all others subservient.

The Tory turmoil – which also leaves Ruth Davidson exposed because in a binary choice, she has to align herself or lose credibility – does not get close enough to unseat Cameron but it does mean he has to grip the reins tightly and dig into the stirrups to stay aboard. He will be shaken by the experience, rattled by an existential threat to him, and surely also by the sense of losing control at the very time when unity and calm are required to steer the country away from a Brexit. Losing Scotland would have been historic. Leaving Europe would be catastrophic.

That the grounds for the Smith resignation are spurious and contrived only underlines the animus behind them. He didn’t need a genuine point of principle on which to raise his standard, only deep loathing and ambition to wound. He has set loose the dogs of war, removed the muzzles from the anti-EU brigade many of whom despise Cameron’s liberalising edges on the environment and gay rights. Hasty retreat on divisive policy issues and consolidation of support are now priorities. They are also impossible as British Conservatives wrestle the beast that has stalked Little England for a generation – foreigners interfering in the running of their country. That niggle at ‘Brussels’ is the dying echo of colonialism – of course they know the golden age of British authority has gone but there’s still Scotland to boss, power weapons to play with and top tables to occupy. And stout defenders of British pride don’t like being pushed around by Continental functionaries with their qualified majorities and d’Hont mumbo jumbo. As for some of them actually coming over here to live and work…we didn’t fight two world wars just to surrender to foreign occupation now.

It is a kind of struggle to the death to define what the Tory Party is actually for in the modern age.

Which brings me to Labour. They have been going through the Valley of Death much longer and accompanied by wheeling vultures. In Scotland Kezia is the bleating lamb awaiting sacrifice. In normal times a heavy defeat, a net loss of seats, would be the trigger for a swift demise followed by replacement by one of a clutch of appropriate alternatives. So dire is Labour’s position that even election defeat is unlikely to mean she is deemed to have failed. After all, who could have saved them in the absence of a Keir Hardie re-incarnation? And into the calculation must surely go next year’s council elections when the remaining party citadels could be raised to the ground, signalling the effective end of Labour as we have known it. Removing the council base is to lop off the roots of the movement and prevent future growth. Who wants to lead into that maelstrom. Even the ambitious will gladly allow game wee Kezia to soldier on to the end of her suicide mission.

I can forsee only one possible reason why the Dugdale leadership may crumble in May. If the Armageddon Outcome of defeat by the Tories occurs, there can be no stay of execution. It is simply not survivable. Slipping behind the Tories is an unbearable ignominy that would turn Labour from a shambles to a laughing stock. Professor John Curtice has dismissed Labour’s chances of a recovery as ‘Zero’ and floated the possibility that they may get their worst result since 1918. So it says much that Kezia is programmed in still to survive. But the unimaginable embarrassment of Ruth Davidson sitting in the opposition leader’s seat after May would demand a rewriting on an epic scale. Perhaps it will take that for the advice that some of us have been suggesting since 2011 to be accepted. That is for a mass consultation of all Scottish members for views on all aspects of the party to decide who it is for and what its purpose is with no bar or restriction and no guaranteed continuing role for existing payroll people. The objective is the formation of a Scottish stand-alone party with policy agendas produced by the membership with a focus on campaigns rather than parliamentary opposition. Clarification on the constitution is badly needed with at least an adoption of full federal status for the UK nations and a stop made to insulting the independence argument – not because it damages the SNP but because it damages Labour.

But by then it may be too late to prevent the slow decline to the stage where they cannot benefit from a future erosion of SNP support. The Labour brand may be irretrievable with the sole chance of a challenge to the Nationalists contained in the creation of a new entity, if they can re-define what they stand for. By then Kezia will be an elder statesman bringing wisdom and insight to the cause…

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather