Jurassic Bark

Something strange has been going on beneath the swirling seas of the constitutional stand-off. Yes, of course the sole elected Tory MP looked ridiculous telling the mass-elected SNP majority they couldn’t even get a vote on the biggest issue of the UK’s recent history. (There’s only been one Tory MP, or as in 1997, no Tory MP, from Scotland for 20 years.)

No it was the vehemence of some Labour people that was striking. London dictating to Scotland was bound to offend many beyond the YES community and so it proved with even Unionist voices raised in doubt and protest. But when I tweeted that May’s intervention meant that effectively all those voting against a referendum at Holyrood next week will be supporting the Tory government’s position, the Labour dinosaurs began roaring in denial. How Tom Harris objected to being lumped in with the Tories. Even moribund lord and failed socialist George Foulkes murmured in protest. Labour would vote on its own motion, he said. And of course that’s probably right – there will be a Labour formulation although ultimately it will come down to a Yes or No to an SNP-Green motion.

But the point is that by moving ahead of the vote, May has taken the lead for them all. She has laid out the ground which is no vote before Brexit. That’s what they will be voting on and any opposition will be in support of the Tory position. Her stance is de facto the counter to the SNP, begging the question in the chamber: Whose side are you on?

It gets worse. As far as I recall, Kezia’s last known position (and this is liable to change) was simply no referendum. She has occasionally qualified it with ‘not within five years’ but broadly she has stuck to a direct No. There should be no referendum. Yet yesterday  after May’s declaration, Kezia tweeted…’there should not be another referendum until after Brexit at the earliest.’ In pinning down a timetable this way, she has explicitly followed the Tory Prime Minister’s formulation. Kezia has in effect taken her lead from May who has said the same thing and tailored her own policy accordingly. She is mimicking the Tory government and next Wednesday will vote along with the Tories in support of their rejection and timetable.

No wonder the Labour rump is on the defensive. As a political gambit, this is catastrophic. Having been cast as Tory surrogates in 2014, here they are again, learning nothing and bowing down to Tory diktat.

Is it going too far for Labour to say they both don’t want a referendum and don’t think a London government should block one? Seems logical to me both to discourage another vote and simultaneously stand up for Scotland’s right to call one if the votes are there. That is democratic. Siding with Westminster against the expressed will of Scotland in parliament is suicidal and is the key reason Labour lost the election in 2007 when Scots were sickened with McConnell and his crew kowtowing to London HQ and being told off by Blair’s  ministers. Maybe Kezia missed that period when she was applying for work with the SNP then getting schooled in politics by Foulkes.

Labour tweeters tried to draw a comparison between them backing a Tory position and the SNP getting Tory backing in government after 2007. That’s true – although it was occasional support – but if they can’t see the difference between winning votes to get through domestic legislation and standing up for Scotland against a Tory government on a critical question, they need to examine what the think politics is for.

There is in this the seeds of discontent. These moments are when politicians are tested. Times like this demand to know what you’re in politics for. The dizzying truth is that Labour no longer does know the answer, either in Scotland or the UK. They’ve surrendered Scotland to the SNP and the UK to the Tories through arrogance and ineptitude. I guess the agony of the dinosaurs like Harris and Foulkes is that they know it too. Hence the dying bellows from the Land That Time Forgot.

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The Trap Springs

Let’s admit at the outset that Theresa May is right. She doesn’t have an option except to block a referendum during the Brexit two-year process. Why? Because her government is already in total chaos without an agreed plan, with (according to David Davis) no costings, ready to fall off the cliff and hope for the best. Her most experienced negotiator has resigned. She is hijacked by the extremist wing of her anti-EU party who are leading her into a decision that no moderate Tory is likely to support. She is unelected to the highest office. Her limited majority may shrink or disappear if prosecutions follow the guilty judgment on election fraud. Her closest ally is smarting in humiliation after being overruled on the Budget. By declining to engage fully with parliament she has made Brexit her personal project. If it fails, so does she. She has exposed herself as an anti-democratic leader claiming a dictator’s mandate over the EU exit process while having none herself. Her characteristic dismissal of anything but insincere cooperation within the constituent parts of the union has led to revolt. Ireland, so constant a friend, is in a turmoil of fury and resentment. She is, in short, being overwhelmed by events. As she stands on the blazing battlements sending archers and spear men to the wall, behind her the Scottish savages are mounting a full-on attack on her flank. If I were her, I’d say the same: I can’t deal with this now.

In this she will be guided by her loyal lieutenants in the North – Davidson and Mundell whose combined contempt for a self-governing Scotland is limitless. She will have believed the polling evidence – and their advice – The Scots don’t want another vote so face them down. This, like the decision to hold the first referendum believing a three-to-one win inevitable, is wishful thinking.

The comedy count is mounting. Telling Scots they would be voting without knowing what for is a line straight from Yes Minister given the Brexit vote and the reservoir of ignorance in which she is marooned.To hear the dismal and weak Mundell say it’s no’ fair is pathetic. IT WAS IN THE MANIFESTO. Sturgeon won big time. She has requested engagement, produced a paper, more than May has done, and played a straight game. That it plays to her plan for May to stumble so lamely, is hardly a politician’s  fault. You play the opponent before you. Is she complaining about only having Corbyn leading the opposition?

If she wanted to play the Iron Lady she should have said No. No referendum and left it at that. That’s what a rejection looks like. Instead she prevaricated – knowing she can’t escape for ever. Not being able to answer the inevitable When question looks what it is – weak. She is stalling but as she does so she shores up the idea of an unprincipled and frightened advocate at bay. She has handed the gift of grievance to the best grievance artists in the business.

And what an opportunity she now presents to the EU negotiators. Unelected, undemocratic, in denial, losing command of her country, clueless and in retreat.

Sturgeon need do nothing except hold her ground and appeal to Europe for moral and political support – she is now held hostage, a keen European, in the grip of anti-EU zealots whose denial of democracy would likely debar them from membership of the Brussels club were they applying today. This is not the time to be precipitous. The cards have been played.When the shape of Brexit becomes clear is the time to demand action or to take it without their consent. By then there may be more than the SNP demanding action before the catastrophe which, after the Dutch election, looks like running against the new pro-European tide.

 

 

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One Nil

Poor Theresa sure misjudged this one. The scoffs that Sturgeon was bluffing look limp and laughable now, no doubt based partly on the murmurings of her Scottish outpost where Foghorn Ruth has been bellowing No Surrender.

So used are we to asserting the arrogance of Westminster that it hardly registers today but here it has been on display with a vengeance. Sturgeon cleverly did not threaten independence, rather she accepted the UK vote but wanted Scotland’s separate decision respected. Would it have hurt May too much to have made it known she had investigated with Brussels the possibility of such a deal on separate membership of the Single Mafrket – only to be told it was proving difficult?

Did she openly debate the UK remaining in the European Economic Area where a Norway option might have been used to assuage Scottish opinion?

Could she have brought herself so low as to meet Sturgeon to propose a joint responsibility for ag and fish after Brexit?

Has she given any iota of respect to anyone except the madcap Brexiteers by wilfully bypassing parliament and ignoring the 48 per cent? In a pale impersonation of Thatcher she has stamped her foot. No! No! No!

She cut Sturgeon, and therefore Scotland, out of the thinking and decision-making process so that the First Minister spoke unaware if May was about to make an Article 50 declaration. Such is our place in the Union. So much for 50 MPs. So much for devolved government. So much for respect. A real politician would not make these basic errors. The saddest part of this story is the use of the phrase…’she will ask permission to hold a referendum…’ That is the Union is miniature. Somebody else will decide if we have the right to vote on our European future – us, Scotland, one of the ancient nations of Europe, in supplicant mode to people who do little more than spit metaphorically at our feet.

She has in fact provoked a reaction by her intransigence, goading her opponent into the nuclear option which was spelled out all along in her manifesto. Tory moans  now, led by Davidson, that the promise of indyref2 does not stand up because the SNP lost a majority of seats is cackhanded  democracy. The SNP won the election. Decisively. Davidson did not.

She is in a poor position to complain  about division. Nothing has divided Britain like her party’s suicidal dalliance with xenophobia and narrow nationalism. There is no division greater than removing ourselves from the world’s biggest international power sharing bloc and richest market place.

Sturgeon has done a rare thing – acted like a leader. She has been clear, consistent and committed. She has also retaliated against a two-faced opponent who offered blandishments but reneged when it mattered. Now May will, as I wrote last week, enter the Brexit talks with a broken pencil and carrying someone else’s notes. She no longer commands all she surveys and will be a more shrunken figure viewed from the other side of the negotiating table.

The strength of the economy and the trade balance shows the UK’s muscle, she will aver. Not without the oil and the whisky exports, she will be reminded. Renewable energy sources but not Scotland’s, Prime Minister…etc. All the way through the irritating adjustments will have to be made for the possibility of Scotland’s departure from  one union and remaining in another.

Her job just got a lot more complex and the fact is she’s already at sea and listing in favour of the anti-EU ideologues who’d rather play with Trump than Brussels. She lost what control she had today to a smarter politician. It was a mistake not to engage Sturgeon and try to enlist her in the process however tangentially to appear at least to be keeping her on side for as long as possible. Instead of reading it as a Sturgeon bluff, she needed to realise the impossible position Sturgeon is in given her manifesto commitment and try to help her out in order to rescue the Union. May’s lack of trust in.her equals and her unhealthy abhorrence of parliament are creating a figure of Shakespearean tragedy. As the cost of Brexit unravels before us, today’s sudden thrust of the dagger will be the first of many.

 

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View from Arthur’s Seat

In the early hours, found myself on Twitter – a bit like the President – and found this. It’s from Jackie Kemp whom I criticised for her views on independence not long ago so, to be fair, I reprint now her thoughts after the EU referendum. And most welcome they are. I like the connection between our history and culture with a European tradition and a  more elevated view of the world beyond trade and immigration.

For most of my life when I went home to Selkirk, I was routinely hailed as Graham – my father’s name. I liked the idea that people, who only vaguely knew me nevertheless knew who I was by association. And both my father and I were in the same trade of journalism which made it appropriate – like being known as Jones the Post or Williams the Bread in a Welsh valley.

So, for those who don’t know I’ll introduce Jackie the journalist as daughter of Arnold, late giant of Scottish newspapers, still keenly missed. She won’t mind. She is keeper of his archive and of his memory.

On which point I remembered him when journos gathered in the Jinglin Georgie in  honour of Ian Bell. Arnold was an habituee of Fleshmarket Close, as I was myself, now heading towards the fiftieth year since I first entered the Scotsman’s hallowed doors. We may ponder what both would make of Scotland and our media today.

Anyway., here’s Jackie….

March 11, 2017.
Climbing Arthur’s Seat on an overcast March day, thinking about politics, I wonder if Nicola Sturgeon is going to call a second independence referendum; if Theresa May is going to trigger Article 50 next week. Holyrood Park is busy – the route to the top is thronged and I hear snatches of conversation in many languages: French, then Polish, French again. A group of fit-looking German men files onto the path above me. It seems to me, returning after an absence of a few months, that Edinburgh increasingly feels like a European capital.

Behind me an English student is entertaining a visitor: “This is ten minutes from campus.” They are arguing about whether the rock paths laid on the hillside to protect it from erosion could be considered natural. “Is an anthill natural? Ants modify their environment.”

I move aside to let them pass, looking down at the upturned boat shapes of the Scottish Parliament, designed by Spanish architect Enric Miralles, at the entrance to the park. There, the gold stars of the European flag are flapping in the breeze. I consider the issue of the rights of EU citizens resident here.

First Minister Sturgeon has assured the many European citizens who live and work here that their contribution is valued and their rights will be protected as far as she is able. This is in stark contrast to the mood music coming from the government in London. The situation north of the border is different. Scotland’s population has hardly risen in a century and it needs more immigration not less. The country benefits hugely from the presence of the EU nationals who work in every area of life and it is an issue of general concern that they have had almost a year of uncertainty and anxiety about their status. Friends of mine are in this category and I can only imagine how difficult it is.

EU nationals resident in the rest of the UK have not been treated with respect by their government. It is all very well for Tories, like Lord Forsyth on Any Questions on BBC Radio Four last night, to denounce their worries as needless and say they should apply for citizenship. But that costs almost £1000 for an adult or a child. Some don’t want to do it anyway. And rumours fly – the fact that the Westminster government has not chosen to unilaterally guarantee their right to remain suggests it may be bargained with.

It is a compelling argument for an independent Scotland in the EU that it would mean Scots free to work and trade across Europe and the many amazing Europeans who choose to live and contribute here could do so with confidence.

I carry on with the climb, looking over as a shaft of cool, northern light illuminates the huge dome of Edinburgh University’s McEwen Hall. This place sees an increasing number of Europeans in graduation gowns; it is popular with EU students who can study on more favourable terms than south of the border, and they are now more than ten percent of the intake. Edinburgh’s resounding 75% vote to remain in the European Union, higher than anywhere in the UK, adds to the sense of welcome.

There is a sense of shared belief, shared purpose, shared goals with other European countries. The European project to work closely together to avoid conflict on our continent, to guarantee human rights and to treat people equally, chimes with Edinburgh’s values. Over in the west of the city, I can see the top of another impressively-domed building, the Usher Hall. At the International Festival founded in 1947, when the musicians and artists of the continent strived to replace the guns of war with the language of culture, the Austrian Jewish pianist Artur Schnabel returned from the US to play there. And the Vienna Philharmonic, which contained 60 former members of the Nazi Party, played there too.

I carry on up the hill, this time tuning into the conversation of two locals entertaining a European visitor. “It’s only an hours drive to England, but London is eight hours drive.” They tell their friend that the north of England is being badly managed from the south of England. “They are on the point of rebelling.”

That may be wishful thinking. But it is a reminder of another concern for me: that the current Westminster government is led by the right-wing of the Conservative party and that it’s approach to Brexit is ideological and rankly reckless.

While breakfasting on porridge and tea this morning, I listened to the Director of the Centre for European Reform Charles Grant tell Good Morning Scotland that not enough people in London understand the legal, financial and technical complexity of Brexit: “Our partners in Europe worry that the people with the most influential positions around number 10 and the Prime Minister are not great EU experts, and they worry that the British don’t know what they are getting into. You can’t just cut through all this boring bureaucratic stuff. You can just leave the EU. But then there’s no law governing contracts, there’s no law governing companies working in the EU but based in Britain or vice versa, or the rights of individuals living in the EU or vice versa.”

Boris Johnson is still saying all this will be easy. Does he know what he’s talking about? Johnson and his colleagues are burning bridges and damaging alliances across the continent. Perception is important and they are creating the impression that England is not friendly to Europe.

The Westminster government is also ignoring the spirit of the devolution settlement and all that was said in the run up to the last independence referendum about the UK being a union of equals. In a union of equal nations, the fact that one of them clearly voted a different way would be regarded as an important issue, not dismissed as if this were the same as an equivalent number of voters in the other country. Appearing to treat Scotland’s institutions with contempt may be a dangerous course.

Taking a breather on the edge of the path, I hear a cough and an “Excuse me”, right behind me. A middle-aged English couple, lightly dressed for a muddy afternoon on the hill, seem to be in some difficulty getting out of a rocky dip up onto the path where I am standing. I stretch out a hand and help the woman, who is ahead, up onto firmer ground. They smile and thank me.

My third issue in terms of a second Scottish independence referendum is that the prospect of Scottish independence would be a cause for regret in many ways. We have had a long alliance with the other UK countries, I feel at home down south and would be reluctant to give up my share in it. It seems to me it would be worth considering this challenging course only to preserve our membership of the EU. A future being out of both the EU and the UK sounds like isolation. But I also wonder if Scotland can best exert its influence on the situation by holding a second referendum. If Scotland votes ‘Yes’ this could be grounds for a second referendum on EU membership.

The UK will likely dissolve. If there is a hard Brexit, surely it would be folly for the Westminster government to try to maintain a hard border across 300 miles of Ireland. And Dublin presumably would be reluctant to do so. The obvious answer would be to move the border to the mainland, and create a united Ireland.

For England, if an independent Scotland were going to remain part of Europe, the best hope of managing the future relationships of the former UK countries would be for all to be part of the EU. That would allow the common travel zone to continue, free trade and so on. Surely, England would have to think again?

I reach the rocky summit, worn smooth by legions of feet over the centuries, and look across the city to the blue of the Firth of Forth and Fife beyond. Here is gathered a polyglot crowd of – mostly – the jeunesse of Europe.

Something has shifted in the emotional landscape. In 2014, Scottish independence would not have been welcomed in other EU capitals. It was viewed as divisive. But now, Scotland’s civic nationalism is seen more positively in contrast with the right-wing views populism of ‘Les Brexiteers”.

As I stand here, my dog resting after the walk, looking down towards the port of Leith and the Firth beyond where ships once brought wine from France and oranges from Spain, where a new bridge spans the waterway, I feel perhaps Scotland should seize this moment. I was a No voter in 2014, but if Nicola Sturgeon triggers another independence referendum next year, while Scotland is still a member of the EU, I will vote ‘Yes’. The situation has changed, and I have changed my view.

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Start Talking

I imagine the Leader sweeping into the room, mouth in a tight smile, eyes glinting within intent. She is flanked by officials, carefully fanning out abreast and a step or two behind. ‘M. Barnier. I am here to present the case for leaving the EU on behalf of Britain.’

‘On behalf of Britain, perhaps, Prime Minister. But not surely the case on behalf of the United Kingdom. The people of Northern Ireland voted to remain and have since endorsed that position by returning a majority of pro-EU politicians in the Stormont elections. The people of Scotland also voted to remain and now their government is awaiting your reply to their request for an independence vote in order to assume your place in the European Union. You represent the case of the English people only…and of course the Welsh.’

‘Nevertheless, I speak for my country. I will not tolerate any divide and rule tactics.’

‘But surely division is exactly what your policy amounts to…dividing Europe. And the legacy of history demands that you also address the interests of the Irish people whose peace and prosperity have been anchored by the EU treaties. I must warn you that all of us on this side have very much the interests of all those wishing to retain European citizenship at heart and in mind.’

If Nicola Sturgeon does announce a referendum plan (without date) before the end of March, the unity of the British government position on Brexit will be further undermined. Division within Theresa May’s ‘own country’ vocalised into outright doubt about her strategy, will be a seriously debilitating handicap in the EU talks.

Such a huge undertaking, while inevitably splitting opinion, really needs some mutual accommodation before a united front can confidently be presented. It would be the same if the EU negotiators arrived at the table with a handful of dissenting countries proclaiming their resistance to the EU’s terms. The British problem is that there is no healing, no resolution among the constituent parts of the kingdom. Nicola Sturgeon’s acceptance of the British vote is (was) dependent on a separate arrangement for Scotland which is not forthcoming.  Now we find that the lifeline from political and economic blight still afflicting parts of Northern Ireland that European membership represents is a powerful magnet for voters. The relative decline of Unionism in the North is a stinging reminder to a British nationalist Prime Minister that her country is far from united.

This hands leverage to the Brussels deal-makers who can ask at every stage how arrangements will go down in the unsettled parts of the country in the knowledge that most of it will be rejected. It allows too for mischief-making. How does the May team respond if, out of the blue, Brussels suggests a bespoke deal for Ulster and Scotland?

Worse, the British team will know they don’t speak for the whole country and their efforts are likely to be dogged by protest and demonstration at home.

The Chancellor’s diversion of funds away from public services into a Brexit fund is the clearest sign that sabre rattling has already caused wobbles at Westminster. The very public demands for reparations of up to £60bn as the  cost of leaving – and quite possibly the price of any progress in the talks at all – has forced the government to concede the point without the talks even starting or Article 50 being triggered. (Remember how £350m would go to the NHS each week?)

There  will be no hiding the decisions made as the talks proceed – the 27 will see to that – and the full reality of Brexit will be slowly revealed to the British public. Across the North of England, heartland of Leave voters, opinion has already moved, in some cases dramatically with some polls finding 60 per cent of Leavers now reverting to 60 per cent Remainers.

The scandals of EU nationals being forced to leave and the impact on public services will gather pace at the same time as shop prices, including food, rise noticeably. A fall in net migration is likely but at a cost of lost business and higher prices. Meanwhile the racists will realise that immigration from the rest of the world, notably the Commonwealth, continues.

If May’s intransigence and arrogance thus far are carried over into the negotiations, they could go very badly indeed. Needling the Commission with threats ignores the sheer scope for retaliation that could be forthcoming. Noises off in Brussels could include clear indications that a seamless establishment of Scotland as successor nation was under active consideration. Even – imagine – a joint Scotland-Ulster membership which recognises both in a curtailed Union and removes the need for a border with the Republic.

Instead of Global Britain, we might soon see Little Britain, shorn of all that makes it united, and the decline of the UK as a European nation.

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