Alex Salmond bigs up devolution for England

I’ll admit I’ve only skim read the St Andrew’s Day speech by Wendy Alexander, the beleagered leader of Scottish Labour, but this sticks out like a sore thumb:

Most British citizens want to see the Union continue.

A bold assertion, without basis in fact. Is it something that most people are actively concerned about? Considering that most people live in England, and the issue is presented in a distorted fashion by print and broadcast media…

It’s not constitutional arrangements that get people worked up, it’s injustice. First Minister Salmond seems to understand this, the implication being that he’s playing up the injustice of Scotland having devolution and England having no devolution.

In today’s interview in the Telegraph, entitled ‘An English parliament would be a good step’, Salmond comes out for England, as much as he does Scotland.

If Mr Salmond has his way, Scotland will no longer be anyone’s fiefdom, but an independent country. The only problem is that he has to convince the Scots that this is what they want. “We have got a scheme, it’s called independence, it’s nice and clear but if people want another option on the referendum ballot paper, then I don’t have an objection. But it has to be a defined option, such as fiscal autonomy. It can’t just be, ‘A little bit more of what we have got’.”

If his fellow Scots don’t back the idea, his masterplan appears to be to push the English into telling the Scots that they have had enough of them. “If people in England want to have a referendum on Englishness they can ask their representatives. I think it is a good thing to have a developing sense of Englishness,” he says. “An English parliament would be a good step.”

But the leader of the SNP laughs at the suggestion that he is infuriating the English on purpose, by floating the idea of free prescriptions, free university education and free school meals for the Scots at the expense of those south of the border.

“I would put it more positively. My objective is to build the confidence of the Scottish people so they will accept the normal responsibilities of being an independent country. The idea that I would propose to freeze the council tax in Scotland to irritate people in England is ridiculous. I don’t get up in the morning wanting to annoy the English. I’m the biggest practising Anglophile in Scottish politics. I like the English.

So why does he find it so hard to share a flag and national identity with them? “The idea of national independence is about a country standing on its own two feet, governing its own affairs, having the self respect that self determination brings. It’s not whether you like another country or not. I like Americans but I wouldn’t suggest that we should be governed by America.” [Emphasis added.]

That last question implies that British national identity is the same thing as English national identity. This is obviously untrue, one only has to look at the political expressions of English nationalism as compared to British nationalism. Do you regard Gary Bushell as being the same as Nick Griffin? I think not.

Getting back to a comparison between Alexander and Salmond, here’s more nonsense from poor Wendy:

The Union is something for all its constituent nations: the devolved nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. – but for England too. It is not for me, as leader of Scottish Labour to suggest changes there but I do say to Scots that we should support and welcome greater local and regional decentralisation in England, allowing voices in different parts of England to be heard on their issues just as we have sought that for ourselves. Looking to the future the so called English question is properly for UK colleagues to consider. We must resist nationalists of whatever provenance fanning English resentment for partisan reasons.

So, the message is: we ain’t for an English parliament, we’re for regionalisation. Now, an English parliament is popular, according to the best polls we have. Regionalisation has been rejected by one part of England (namely, the North East) in a referendum, and there’s no palpable demand for regional assemblies – they only get a mention by politicians when someone brings up the English question. So, from the Scottish Labour Party, there’s no solidarity being offered to the English…

This news item caught my eye, as it’d be a good idea for unions south of the border to promote devolution for England in a similar fashion:

Trade union leaders have called for a campaign to increase the financial powers of the Scottish Parliament.

Unison’s Scottish Council discussed the issue in response to the Scottish Government’s “national conversation” on independence.

The public sector union wants powers in areas such as equal opportunities, energy and broadcasting to be devolved.

[…]

At the meeting in Glasgow, Unison delegates from across Scotland backed further devolution from Westminster.

Its leaders believe there is potential for some powers to be transferred on immigration and public sector pensions, as well as extending powers over public borrowing and tax-raising.

All of this makes me wonder, what chance is there of a “national conversation” in England? Or perhaps, an English Constitutional Commission?

Might the unions in England threaten Labour with the national question in the row over reforms to party funding?

And is the SNP’s decision to work with the Tories in local government part of the masterplan?

Let me make a prediction: the next leader of the Liberal Democrats in Westminster will jump on the English question. There, now prove me wrong Chris Clegg. Erm, I mean, Nick Huhne.

Whatever.

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The right question

To balance John Foster’s sceptical piece about the “national conversation”, the Morning Star published the following:

Talking about independence (Wednesday 29 August 2007)
KEN FERGUSON on why the SSP welcomes Scotland’s new ‘national conversation.’

THE shock waves from new Labour’s May defeat in the Scottish elections and the advent of a minority SNP government in Holyrood are rapidly rewriting the rules in Scottish politics.

A series of progressive announcements on increased resources for schools, scrapping hospital closures and halting plans for a further private prison have all hit the spot with the public.

While nobody on the left will doubt that, at bottom, the SNP is pro-business, many voters will ask, as they review the record of the last eight years of Lab-Lib governments: “So what?”

Faced with this series of progressive moves, the reaction from the pro-unionist parties has been to form what amounts to an “unpopular front,” supposedly in opposition to independence and in defence of the union.

However, with the coronation of arch market forces fan Wendy Alexander to the leadership of new Labour, a wider agenda has started to break cover.

Earlier this week, press reports – clearly sourced from new Labour – told of moves to form what amounts to a unionist coalition to “seize the policy agenda” when Holyrood reconvenes in September.

The reality of any such moves, which are now being denied in true Mandelson fashion, would be a further rightward lurch, with Thatcher’s heirs and the opportunist Lib Dems linking with Alexander’s neoliberals.

The evidence of public reaction to the left-wing ideas put up by Salmond so far suggests that the public are not likely to find more pro-market ideas very welcome.

The background against which all this is played out is the launch by the SNP government of a white paper on independence – part of which is a “national conversation” on the issue.

Despite some criticism from the pro-unionist left, the truth is that the “conversation” is a deft move by an SNP which knows that it is outnumbered in voting terms in the Scottish Parliament.

By taking the debate beyond MSPs into wider civic society, the SNP is banking on swinging support in the direction of both forcing a referendum on independence and in favour of independence itself.

These developments take place at a point where, in terms of the Scottish Parliament, the forces of the left are at an eight-year low.

The split opened up by Tommy Sheridan’s libel case simply made the already difficult situation worse and contributed to all SSP and Solidarity MSPs – including Sheridan – losing their seats.

The abject failure of the Labour left to muster six MSPs to challenge the recent leadership election speaks volumes of the balance of forces there.

Faced with this difficult challenge, the SSP has both restated its support for an independent Scottish republic and pledged to fully engage with the debate around the national conversation.

Party branches are lobbying MSPs in favour of an independence referendum and raising the issue in street activity and in the party’s Scottish Socialist Voice paper.

The party’s position was set out in detail in a statement from the SSP executive, which said: “The Scottish Socialist Party welcomes the coming ‘national conversation’ on Scotland’s future.

“Unlike the three London-controlled parties, the Scottish Socialist Party is not afraid of a wide-ranging debate, followed by a democratic vote on Scotland’s future.”

Reaffirming support for independence, the statement spells out: “We believe Scotland would be economically, politically, culturally and socially better off making our own decisions and standing on our own two feet.

“We look forward to outlining our own unique vision for an independent socialist Scotland.

“In the meantime, the SSP will also support any steps to strengthen the Scottish Parliament short of full independence. We have called, for example, for Holyrood to have control over broadcasting, energy, fiscal policy, drugs and other matters that are currently reserved to Westminster.

“However, only full independence can rid Scotland of nuclear weapons, disentangle Scotland from the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan, allow us to welcome refugees fleeing famine and persecution and enable Scotland to draw up its own democratic constitution fit for the 21st century.

“The SNP vision for independence would involve a ‘union of the crowns.’ The Scottish Socialist Party, in contrast, believes in sweeping away the remnants of feudalism, inherited power and class privilege which the monarchy symbolises.

“In the coming national conversation, we will be arguing strongly for an independent Scottish republic. The SSP believes that the fight for independence involves confronting powerful vested interests at the heart of the British Establishment.

“When they site their nuclear weapons here and rely disproportionately on our sons and daughters to stock their armies and die in their wars, it would be naive to imagine that the British state will be led gently down the slippery slope to full independence.

“We believe that the forces in favour of independence – including the SNP, the SSP, the Greens, the Independence Convention and Independence First – have a major battle on the hands to win the Scottish people decisively to the cause of Scottish independence.”

Highly devolved?

[Tuesday]

So here’s two items on the slow break-up of the UK as a centralised state.

First of all:

Parties discuss Holyrood powers

Opposition parties have met in Holyrood to begin talks on how to bring more powers to the Scottish Parliament.

The talks between Labour, the Conservatives and Lib Dems were held in response to the SNP government’s plan to hold a referendum on independence.

The topics discussed included the possibility of allowing Holyrood to raise its own revenue.

The three main opposition parties have pledged to oppose the SNP’s white paper outlining plans for a referendum.

‘Work together’

In a joint statement, Lib Dem leader Nicol Stephen, Labour MSP Cathy Jamieson and former Scottish Conservative leader David McLetchie said their parties would work together to fight the SNP’s independence plan.

“Our three parties share the aim of building a strong and prosperous Scotland as part of a strong and prosperous United Kingdom,” they said.

“We reject independence. The real conversation, and the one in which the overwhelming majority of Scots wish to participate, is about how devolution can develop to best serve the people of Scotland.

“Today’s exploratory meeting was to start that process. Our initiative will not be confined to MSPs alone, any single parliament, nor to any one part of the United Kingdom.

“The three parties have agreed to continue to work together on this issue, and will now hold discussions with party colleagues across the UK with a view to meeting again when parliament has reconvened.”

It is thought the opposition MSPs may set up a special committee to consider the parliament’s future.

However, the parties have played down suggestions they will look at forming a shared programme and use their combined total of 78 MSPs to drive through their policies.

In response to the statement, a spokesperson for First Minister Alex Salmond said the talks proved there was now no party at Holyrood opposed to increasing the Scottish Parliament’s powers.

He said: “These talks come in the wake of the Scottish government’s national conversation on Scotland’s constitutional future, which is driving forward the entire process.

“By talking about developing the parliament, it’s clear that the status quo is no longer supported by any party. We are delighted.

“The national conversation train has left the station – it’s a matter for the London-based parties which compartment they want to get on.”

The significance of the meeting is analysed by Brian Taylor, BBC Scotland’s political editor, on his blog:

Here’s what I think they’ll come up with. A formal parliamentary mechanism to consider and consult.

Think they’ll table a motion at Holyrood, jointly, setting up an ad hoc committee of MSPs to look at the devolution settlement, 10 years on.

Think that committee will then open up a public consultation, engaging with civic Scotland, business, unions etc.

Not convention mark two. “So 80s”, as one put it to me.

Plus there is now a Parliament in place with elected members, with real (if devolved) clout. That cannot be sidelined. Indeed, the opposition parties will argue, it should take the lead.

Which leaves the SNP executive where? Watching with interest.

I do not believe the SNP would nominate members of this parliamentary committee. For why? Because, they argue, it is for those of a Unionist persuasion to come up with their alternative to independence.

Nationalists say they know what they want: a referendum on Scotland becoming a sovereign state. It is up to the Opposition parties – Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – to decide what they want.

Potentially, as Alex Salmond envisaged when he launched his “conversation” white paper, there could then be a referendum providing people with three choices: the status quo, independence and the scheme for enhanced devolution adopted by the opposition parties.

There is, of course, one other aspect to be borne, strongly, in mind. If further powers are to accrue to Holyrood, that would require Westminster legislation.

The opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament have already pledged to involve Westminster in their consideration.

From a sluggish start, this is beginning to get intriguing.

Indeed. And the movements towards further devolution in Scotland are having an impact on Wales.

Which brings us to the second item of news:

Plaid independence inquiry on the cards
PLAID Cymru is likely to set up the biggest inquiry ever into the implications of independence for Wales, we can reveal today.

Despite forming a coalition Assembly Government with a Labour Party that is firmly Unionist, Plaid’s national executive will over the next couple of months discuss setting up its own commission on independence.

Llanelli AM Helen Mary Jones, Plaid’s director of communications, told the Western Mail, “My own extremely personal view is that the time is right to update our understanding of what independence for Wales would mean.

“The party has done work on this in the past – Dr Phil Williams (Plaid’s economics guru, who died in 2003) in particular examined the question in detail. But there have been such enormous political changes in Europe over the last 10 years that we need to look again at what an independent Wales would mean, be and look like.

“Things are at a very early stage, but I know that a number of colleagues share my view that setting up a commission on independence would be a good thing to do.

“Obviously it would be appropriate to get expert contributions from people who are not necessarily party members, just like the policy commissions we had in the run-up to the recent Assembly election.

“It would also be worthwhile to look at how newly independent small nations in the EU have managed their new status, like the Czech Republic and the Baltic states. A commission would look at the whole picture, from economic, cultural and linguistic points of view.”

Ms Jones said one of the big bugbears for all who wanted to assess what the economic impact of independence on Wales would be was the lack of accurate information about the amount raised in the country from taxation.

“The UK Government does not have an all-Wales breakdown,” she said. “That is something we would like to see addressed. There are those who argue that independence would be unaffordable. We don’t agree, but there is a clear need to have accurate information about the amount of tax raised in Wales.

“If the NEC does decide to set up such a commission, it would obviously be quite a long time before a report was published.”

Ms Jones said a fresh look at independence by Plaid did not conflict with the terms of the One Wales coalition agreement with Labour.

She said, “It is made very clear in the preamble to the One Wales document that it is a programme for government that lasts for one term. Both parties are committed to campaigning for a Yes vote in a referendum on full law-making powers for the National Assembly.

“But the question of independence for Wales goes beyond what is contained in the One Wales agreement. Plaid Cymru has a long-term aspiration for Wales to be an independent nation, and the time is right to look at all the implications of that in the context of contemporary Europe.”

Opinion polls suggest that only around one in five of the electorate supports independence for Wales.

A poll conducted for the BBC in January this year put the figure at 19%. Some 33% in Wales thought independence would enhance Welsh culture, but 49% believed the nation would lose out economically. Only 14% thought that Wales would benefit financially.

Nevertheless, Plaid MP Adam Price argued last week in his column in the Welsh language magazine Golwg that Wales was likely to be independent by 2020 and that people needed to get used to the idea.

Earlier this month the SNP Government in Scotland launched a White Paper on independence. Although the SNP wants to hold a referendum on independence before 2011, that is unlikely to happen because the party runs a minority administration and opposition parties do not want one.

The wrong question

[Friday]

Worthy of your consideration, this article appeared in the Morning Star yesterday:

The wrong question – John Foster on the SNP ‘conversation’ on independence
Thu 23 Aug 2007

JOHN FOSTER on why the SNP ‘conversation’ on independence conceals the issues facing Scotland

“I AM all for a Scottish parliament,” then Scottish Trades Union Congress general secretary Jimmy Jack told the first Scottish Assembly in 1972.

After a significant pause, he added: “Because – wait for it – there is not the slightest shadow of doubt that it will be a workers’ parliament.”

Edinburgh’s Usher Hall echoed with the applause from the hundreds of trade union and shop stewards representatives and local councillors drawn from across Scotland.

The representatives of the business community from chambers of commerce and the Scottish CBI tried not to look abashed.

They were present in order not to be seen to be absent, but they had nothing to say. They could not figure out how a Scottish parliament could be made to work for them. They feared democracy, as big business always does when the working class is mobilised.

Today, the situation is almost reversed. Big business has got the Scottish Parliament figured. It knows exactly what it wants. It is the labour movement that seems adrift.

This is the backdrop, a potentially dangerous one, to the “conversation” that was launched last week by Scotland’s SNP government in its discussion document entitled Choosing Scotland’s Future. This sets out three options.

The first is that the powers of the Scottish Parliament should continue to evolve within the terms of the existing Scotland Act. This permits new responsibilities to be added by mutual agreement between Westminster and Holyrood. Control over railways and railway franchising in Scotland was added in this way in 2004.

The second option is that devolution should be structurally extended, including, if desired, fully fledged federalism. This would involve a new constitutional settlement granting the Scottish Parliament radically new powers over areas such as taxation, economic policy, trade, welfare, pensions, energy and broadcasting.

The third option is the SNP one – independence. Scotland’s parliament would have full sovereign power and the Act of Union would be repealed.

The “conversation” seeks to engage all sections of Scottish society in discussion over these options. It does so in order to frame the terms for a new referendum in line with the SNP election pledge. The SNP government’s preferred date seems to be 2010.

Since taking office, the SNP leaders have shown themselves to be masters of tactical manoeuvre.

By taking stands on class sizes, nuclear power, Trident, bridge tolls and NHS privatisation, they have consistently thrown Labour onto the back foot.

They have done so again on the referendum. The original SNP commitment was simply to hold a referendum on independence. With support currently fluctuating between 22 and 32 per cent, it was very likely to lose.

By adding a third option, it has both shown “flexibility” and thrown the other political parties into disarray. The Liberal Democrats are inclined to go for the second option, Labour and the Conservatives for the first.

But none of them has any strongly developed rationale. The “conversation” has started and the SNP have already begun to lob in issues that are creating their own bandwagons of local interests. Broadcasting is the most recent.

The other parties are in a quandary. The magician’s box is open. Do they deny everything and enter two years of negative campaigning? Or do they get drawn onto a territory full of booby traps laid by the SNP?

Viewed through the eyes of political commentators, there is little doubt as to who is winning.

SNP First Minister Alex Salmond is portrayed as reasonable, moderate and flexible yet also a man of principle. Labour ex-first minister Jack McConnell’s image was negative and wooden – a puppet tied to the agenda of new Labour in Westminster. His replacement Wendy Alexander will find it difficult to do better.

As played out in the editorial columns of the Herald and Scotsman, this game of political snakes and ladders is mesmerising the Scottish public.

But, in reality, this is what it is. A game. It hides the class issues. Labour’s problem is that its current denial of these issues means that it cannot break the spell.

Put bluntly, the SNP parliament will be a parliament for big business.

The subtitle of Choosing Scotland’s Future is Independence with Responsibility in the Modern World. The SNP-favoured option three is for “independence in the European Union.” And, with quaint sentimentality, the 1603 union of the crowns will also be preserved so that the Queen can continue to reign in Scotland as in England.

The SNP has so far issued no statement on the EU reform treaty. It calls for a referendum on Scotland’s future. But it has no current position on a whether a referendum should be held on a constitutional change of much greater magnitude in terms of the rights of working people.

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein is demanding a referendum. In the Irish Republic, it is campaigning for a No vote on the grounds that the reform treaty will further compromise Ireland’s economic sovereignty and, in particular, the ability of its parliament to place any limits on the power of big business.

So far, the SNP has been silent on the whole issue. As, of course, has the Labour Party in Scotland.

But the big business agenda is clear. It wants the reform treaty to copper-fasten the ability of the EU to pursue neoliberal, big business policies without interference from national parliaments – particularly in the coming years, as it seeks to impose “flexicurity” on the labour market.

But it also wants to be able to manipulate national parliaments in a competitive race to the bottom and reduce the remaining safeguards for labour.

Who can promise the lowest corporation tax? Or the “lightest touch” in terms of business regulation? Or the lowest infrastructure costs in terms of social services – and the most scope for private operators?

The SNP-favoured independent sovereign Scottish Parliament would have no power to decide trade policy or interest rates.

It could not even interfere with Hyster moving its plant from Irvine to Northern Ireland. To do so would be to interfere with that abstraction beloved of all monopolists – the free market.

But the SNP has already promised that an independent Scottish Parliament would use its power to lower corporation tax. Its discussion document raises the prospect of “lighter” corporate regulation and that fiscal autonomy would “make Holyrood more accountable.”

In 1972, “Scottish business” was, in fact, largely owned and based in Scotland. Today, almost all the big companies and finance houses are controlled by institutional shareholders based in London or New York. Their interests are increasingly short term. They look for safe, high-profit niches in privatised provision with public subsidy. Merger, buy-out and asset stripping are their quickest ways of turning a profit.

These are the people who control Scotland’s resources and, by and large, its press and media as well. They will also be predominant in the new Scotland unless the trade union and labour movement mobilises itself to pose the class alternative.

Back in 1972, the power of the demand for a Scottish Parliament was that it could take on the unaccountable power of big business and provide a public-sector alternative.

Then, the anger of a Mick McGahey could shake the Usher Hall.

The ability of faceless men to decimate communities. The irresponsibility of private capital. Is it different today? Who will say it?

Only when they do will the “great conversation” become real and the spell of the SNP be broken.

There’s no power in this union

[Saturday, again]

I reckon that New Labour is regretting devolution. It cannot be reversed, and anything that is done to hold the union together will only cause further damage. If anything is certain, it is that the Barnett Formula will be ditched by Brown and the Tories will continue to play the “English votes for English laws” card – though both parties are for the union, as the unprecedented events of this week have shown, with Labour, the Tories, and the Liberals uniting against democracy in Scotland.

Anyway, here’s what the IPPR are telling New Labour:

Cut Scots cash and MPs, Brown is told
JAMES KIRKUP
POLITICAL EDITOR (jkirkup@scotsman.com)

GORDON Brown should cut the number of Scottish MPs and reduce Scotland’s share of UK public spending, a think-tank with close ties to the Labour Party has argued.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) says that only by altering Scotland’s constitutional and financial position in the Union can the Prime Minister assuage potential English anger. Otherwise, the researchers warn, rising unhappiness in England could ultimately threaten the unity of the UK.

The IPPR is often described as Labour’s favourite think-tank, and its researchers are often consulted by Labour ministers developing government policy.

Its latest contribution to the growing debate about the UK constitution comes only a day after Alex Salmond launched his “national conversation” about the future of Scotland.

In an article published in its own academic journal, the IPPR concludes that with the election of a Scottish National Party administration in Edinburgh, “the benign circumstances into which devolution was born have begun to unravel”.

Mr Brown has also talked of a nationwide reassessment of the UK constitution, promising “a new British constitutional settlement” that gives more power to the Westminster parliament and could even see the creation of a formal “bill of rights”.

But the government has been more reluctant to discuss changes in the relationship between the nations that make up the UK, and the IPPR paper’s authors, Guy Lodge and Katie Schmuecker, warn the Prime Minister that inaction is not an option. “Public support for the Union remains strong; but its maintenance will require reform,” they say.

In particular, the paper identifies an answer to the “English question” as Mr Brown’s urgent priority: “English indifference to the Scots and the Union may be transformed into frustration and antipathy.”

Under the current settlement, not only can Scottish MPs vote on issues that affect only English constituencies – with no matching right for English MPs – but Scotland also benefits from higher per-head public spending. The Conservative answer is a policy of “English votes for English laws”, banning Scottish MPs from voting on “English” affairs. Mr Brown has rejected that idea, and the IPPR brands it “fundamentally unworkable”.

But the researchers do identify other ways of redressing the perceived imbalance between England and the rest of the UK. First, the number of MPs from the devolved nations could be decreased.

“The number of Scottish MPs has already been reduced, but they are still over-represented compared to England,” the paper says. “Such a move would also be justified on the grounds that, since devolution, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs have less to do at Westminster.”

The IPPR also calls on Mr Brown to scrap the Barnett Formula that delivers higher public spending for Scotland. The Prime Minister has pledged to retain the formula.

But describing the current arrangement as a “core injustice”, the IPPR says the formula is “widely perceived as unfair … [and] ripe for reform”. It concludes Mr Brown should look at replacing it with a fairer model.

UNCHARTED TERRITORY
SCOTLAND may have to make a “unilateral declaration of sovereignty” if Westminster tries to block Alex Salmond’s plans for constitutional change, according to one of the founding fathers of the Scottish Parliament.

Canon Kenyon Wright, who was the convener of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which helped to deliver devolution to Scotland in 1999, said the First Minister’s plan for a “national conversation” could potentially lead the UK into uncharted constitutional territory.

Under the current devolution settlement, power is only “lent” to Holyrood and final sovereign authority over the constitution always rests with Westminster.

That means any change in Scotland’s constitutional position, or even increase in Holyrood’s powers, would have to be approved by MPs in London.

According to Canon Wright, that raises the possibility of a direct conflict between Scotland and Westminster.

“If the Scottish process came up with the conclusion that we should have a reformed Scotland, but Westminster says no, then in that case, a unilateral declaration of sovereignty would be justified,” he told The Scotsman yesterday.

He added: “Where that takes us, goodness only knows.”

Salmond Hussein?

[Thursday, again]

This is a delightfully sniffy article – or should I say articles? – about the SNP. Not a smear piece, exactly, it has a little bit more sophistication: it’s a smart-arse smear. But note well the unease at Salmond’s opposition to imperialist wars…

This version is from OpenDemocracy

Scotland’s nationalist-Muslim embrace
Tom Gallagher

Scotland’s establishment has responded to an abortive terrorist operation by reaffirming support for the country’s Muslim minority. The silences as well as the words are politically significant, says Tom Gallagher.

9 – 08 – 2007

The terrorist attack that narrowly failed to inflict mass slaughter at Glasgow airport on 30 June 2007 has had a singular impact on Scotland’s public life. A universal sense of shock was followed by vigorous official efforts to build bridges to the country’s approximately 60,000 Muslims. A week later, on 7 July, the cream of Scotland’s establishment gathered in George Square in Glasgow’s heart to offer them protection and reassurance. The institutions represented included the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP), the police, the Church of Scotland, the trade unions, and the vocal anti-war movement. Nobody wondered aloud about the religious dimensions of the violent ideology that had evidently motivated the would-be massacre. Indeed, Scotland’s health minister and SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon was explicit that “Islam is a religion of peace”.

Muslims at the 1,500-strong rally mixed freely with the representatives of political and lobbying groups who made up the bulk of the crowd. The central spot was reserved for Osama Saeed, an articulate young Muslim activist (and former SNP candidate) whose intensity and fluency have made him a sought-after guide to the mood and concerns of Scotland’s Muslims since the airport attack. Saeed’s argument that the Muslim community’s moderation is a given might be confirmed by the absence (in those parts of Glasgow where most Scots Muslims reside) of the Islamic bookshops, bitter young men and fully-covered women that are characteristic of parts of London and of other English urban conurbations with large Muslim populations.
Tom Gallagher is chair of ethnic peace and conflict studies at Bradford University, northern England. Among his nine single-authored books is Theft of a Nation: Romania since Communism (Hurst & Co, 2005), published in the United States as Modern Romania (New York University Press, 2005)

Tom Gallagher has written extensively on sectarian and religious issues in modern Scotland, including Glasgow, The Uneasy Peace: Religious Tensions in Modern Scotland (Manchester University Press, 1987). He is currently embarking on a research project exploring the reaction of the British state and society to the emergence of Muslim radicalism from the Salman Rushdie affair of 1988 to the present

Also by Tom Gallagher in openDemocracy:

“Understanding Slobodan Milosevic: between the cold war and Iraq” (13 March 2006)

“The European Union and Romania: consolidating backwardness?” (27 September 2006)
At the same time, Osama Saeed is an unapologetic advocate of the hardline Islamism espoused by the organisation whose Scottish branch he heads, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). He has enthusiastically defended the idea of a global Islamic state and urged Muslims not to cooperate with the police. Media outlets which have reported police appeals for vigilance have not raised with Saeed his political track-record; none appears to have approached him in the spirit of sceptical inquiry that animates coverage of other prominent figures (for example, suggesting that there might be a tension between his extravagant condemnation of the Glasgow attack and support for radical Islamism, even that that this combination might be part of an intellectual taqiyya [deception]).A shaken Scotland, it seems, is not in the mood for tough questions.

A story for solidarity

Glasgow’s brush with disaster has proven to be a windfall for Scotland’s left-of-centre pro-independence Scottish National Party, which has led the government since the May 2007 elections to Scotland’s devolved parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. The SNP has assiduously cultivated Scotland’s Muslims, and its historic (if narrow) victory in May included the election of the country’s first Muslim MSP, Bashir Ahmad. The party’s shrewd leader (and Scotland’s first minister) Alex Salmond has used the airport attack as an opportunity to place his party at the foreground of national affairs in much the same way as Tony Blair used the death of Princess Diana in 1997 to project himself as New Labour’s leader of destiny.

At the 7 July rally, Salmond’s chief lieutenant Nicola Sturgeon offered perfunctory praise for John Smeaton, the airport-worker whose presence of mind and unassuming manner on 30 June has made him a hero in many quarters; but she soon moved on and declared that “I wish to particularly praise the Muslim community in Scotland”. On 1 July, hours after the foiled atrocity, Salmond had made a well-publicised visit to Glasgow’s central mosque to assure the city’s Muslim religious leaders of his determination to prevent the community from being an object of attack. Sturgeon reinforced the point, promising that Scotland’s tough legislation designed to stamp out public aggression between feuding Catholics and Protestants would be used against anyone tempted into a twisted form of retaliation.

The tenor of the SNP’s public statements suggests that Salmond, in private conversation, did not ask for greater effort from religious leaders in challenging extremism or disavowing attacks on free speech even when Muslim sensibilities are offended.

The SNP is a grievance party par excellence. Salmond is proving skilful at stage-managing events in which an inept central government based in Whitehall is seen as reluctant to consult with the elected Scottish government. In this light it is not surprising if a party adept at exploiting the real discontent felt by many Scots towards a British state which often seems to reflect English priorities also appeals to increasing numbers of Scots Muslims. Many of the latter have travelled far to settle in Scotland and worked mightily from a starting-point at or near the bottom of the social scale to establish a sustainable life for themselves and their families. A land whose repertoire of national, public attitudes includes on occasion a finely honed sense of grievance can thus offer to a minority a resource which can provide a convenient channel to aid integration – all the more so when the minority itself is not the object of suspicion.

In some respects at least, south Asian migrants to Scotland (many of them Muslim) have found their path easier than in parts of England because they have arrived in a society that often defines itself as a minority culture – one where articulate nationalists (and not only they) have portrayed the national story in terms of a constant struggle to exist in the shadow of a larger, arrogant and sometimes threatening English neighbour. The dominant Scottish self-perception is that of a small outward-looking country with robust anti-imperialist traditions (even though Scots were arguably the main architects of empire in many places during the heyday of Britain’s overseas role). This progressive anti-imperialist image too is one that a significant number of Muslims find it easy to relate to.

An additional factor is that the Scottish establishment’s embarrassment – even guilt – about two centuries of religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants (one that has affected education, housing patterns, sporting rivalries and employment) means that it nowadays makes great efforts to accommodate minorities.

Alex Salmond’s moment

The Glasgow rally on 7 July was the first public opportunity to view the balance of forces in the Muslim community after a week of turmoil. Elderly figures like Bashir Maan, Scotland’s first-ever Muslim city councillor, had their place of honour. But a younger generation of campaigners, who helped organise the assembly in the city’s main square just days after co-religionists almost succeeded in destroying the city’s airport, are now making the running. Osama Saeed declared that the community had nothing to apologise for and roundly criticised the “rightwing press” for asking uncomfortable – and in his view divisive – questions. He called for an enquiry into the root causes of terrorism in Britain and appeared confident that the finger of blame would be pointed at departing prime minister Tony Blair, who was condemned at the rally more often than any bomb-carrying doctor.

Alex Salmond may never have worn a uniform, but he is projecting himself to religious minorities previously loyal to the Labour party – not just Muslims but the much larger Catholic one mainly drawn from past waves of Irish immigrants – as Scotland’s answer to Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt or the Irish leader Michael Collins, who both struck out against an overmighty Britain in the last century with impressive effect. The cause of Scotland’s freedom was personalised in the May elections by a ballot-paper which said “vote Alex Salmond for Scotland’s First Minister”. This natural populist in a country usually known for its colourless politicians likes nothing better to tweak the tail of the mangy old British lion. For Salmond the equivalent of the Suez canal is Britain’s fleet of nuclear submarines whose home base is in a deep-water loch northwest of Glasgow.

A potent aspect of Salmond’s ebullient political persona is his lack of shame, a quality reinforced by an amnesiac media who show no willingness to examine his record in relation to issues where Muslims have been centrally involved. In March-June 1999, for example, Britain was a leading participant in the war over Kosovo in the attempt to halt the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic’s systematic repression of the (mainly Muslim) Kosovar Albanians. Salmond was a vehement opponent of the Nato campaign, and famously described the organisation’s (so far) only military action on European soil as “an act of unpardonable folly”. This capped a decade when he had remained silent throughout years of Milosevic-sponsored aggression against the Kosovars’ co-religionist Bosniaks in former Yugoslavia.

The British foreign secretary at the time of the Kosovo war, Robin Cook – also the country’s most respected centre-left leader at the time of his premature death in 2005 – witheringly branded Salmond as Belgrade’s stooge, “the only European leader to stand side by side with Milosevic” in a way that showed him as “simply unfit to lead”. The SNP’s poor performance in the inaugural elections to the Scottish parliament in May 1999 (while the war was underway) was widely attributed to Salmond’s intervention.

The world’s wind

Alex Salmond’s dream is for Scotland to join an arc of prosperous north Atlantic nations from Ireland and Iceland to Scandinavia. But it might at best prove to be a northern version of Ken Livingstone’s left-leaning multicultural metropolis in London. The party lacks skilled political leaders, other than Salmond himself, and it seems hard to imagine a majority of Scots voting for independence. But perhaps such a scenario could come to pass if the increasingly neurotic mood among large sections of English opinion, as their identity is seen to be threatened in multiple ways, leads to a backlash against the Scots.

Scotland receives considerably more in state subsidies than much of England. It is not beyond reason that Scottish policies, such as the decision to absolve Northern Irish students from tuition-fees at Scottish universities which English ones must nevertheless still pay, could result in a coherent campaign in which Scotland is told to exit via the door marked “Britain” and not come back. Salmond would relish such an outcome,and some believe he is trying to provoke it by upsetting English sensibilities.

A separate Scotland could turn out to be a modern, efficient state that harnesses the energies of its people, including those achievers who previously had to go abroad to make their mark in the world; or it could be a kind of leftist London authority on a larger canvas, committed to redistributionist policies and a neutralist foreign policy garnished with fashionably right-on rhetoric in the hope that a durable patriotic consensus would emerge.

Whatever Scotland’s ultimate fate, the times ahead are bound to be testing. Scotland’s Muslim minority will not be immune from the same attention as their co-religionists elsewhere as long as a terrorist threat persists in western Europe. At least some Scots Muslims may find it difficult to remain aloof from transnational radical currents that see Islam primarily as an ideological tool to create a revolutionary new state. The resources of political Scotland are at present being mobilised on the community’s behalf, but not always in a thoughtful or acceptable way. Whether Muslims will find the Scottishness on offer an acceptable way to combine a religious identity with a national, secular one remains to be seen.

Gallacher defends himself against claims he is a stooge of imperialism in the comments section with this amazing line:

There are other forms of imperialism much worse than that produced by the mangy British lion and whose true potential for causing harm in the world has not been fully realised.

And this is another version of the article from the dire Prospect:

August 2007 | 137 » Web exclusive » Scotland’s radicals

Alex Salmond’s willingness to fish in the wilder waters of Muslim politics is irresponsible and offensive to the heroes of 30th June

Tom Gallagher

Alex Salmond is fast turning into one of the most nimble politicians in British politics since Lloyd George. Since becoming Scotland’s first minister, Salmond has proven not only to be a skilful media politician but a formidable operator in the corridors of power. Since taking charge of the executive in May, with a one-seat majority, his Scottish National party (SNP) has launched a blizzard of initiatives.

Unusually for a nationalist leader, Salmond has cultivated a range of minorities, notably Scotland’s growing Muslim population, which is concentrated in a number of seats the SNP hopes to wrest from the Labour party. On 31st July, Salmond held a reception for Scottish Muslim leaders at his official Edinburgh residence where he declared that, in terms of engaging with Muslims, “We are ahead of virtually every other European country.”

He made more headlines on 7th August when he presided over a civic reception in Glasgow in honour of the men and women whose courage helped save Glasgow from disaster on 30th June, the day when two would-be bombers struck the terminal building of Glasgow airport. One of the heroes that day, 31-year-old baggage handler John Smeaton, later commented that he was only doing his civic duty when he intervened to help the police overpower one of the bombers. Yet there is growing evidence that Salmond is intent on strengthening his support among those members of Scotland’s 60,000-strong Muslim community who are all too ready to champion an ethno-religious identity rather than a civic one.

The chief tactician upon whom Salmond relies to build bridges with Scottish Muslims is Osama Saeed, the Scottish organiser of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAP). Saeed stood as an SNP parliamentary candidate in 2005, and has enthusiastically defended the idea of a global Islamic state in the press, on one occasion urging Muslims to withhold co-operation from the police. Following the failed bombing, Saeed was chosen by the BBC in Scotland to speak for Scotland’s Muslims. Largely excluded from the broadcast media were Muslims such as Glasgow university lecturer Amanullah de Sondy, who appealed in the Scottish press for more attention to be directed at “what I call progressive Muslims, the silent majority who do not wear their religion on their sleeve, and are open to discussion and debate about western dress, gender relations, social norms and other aspects of Scottish life.”

This July, Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, his deputy first minister and close ally, went to great lengths to deny the argument that religious ideology might be motivating Muslims to carry out acts of mass terror. The contrasting position had in fact already been argued in the press with considerable fluency by ex-radicals such as Ed Husain and Hassan Butt. Sturgeon repeatedly stated on television, and at a rally organised by the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) on 7th July, that “Islam is a religion of peace.” While this may be true, Sturgeon’s repeated use of the phrase betrays an unwillingness to offend the sensibilities of religious pressure groups whose value is their capacity to swing voters towards the party that is most amenable to their agenda.

The MAB has campaigned against the British presence not just in Iraq but also in Afghanistan, and is closely linked to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. Salmond, who has a long aversion towards western military engagement, shares many of the MAB’s concerns. He has met with its best-known figure, Azzam Tamimi, who declared in 2004, “If I can go to Palestine and sacrifice myself, I would do it.” In December 2005, while addressing Islamic activists in Glasgow, Tamimi declared that the SNP was the best party in Scotland to represent Muslim interests. He cited the party’s stance on Iraq, Palestine and the war on terrorism, declaring, “We have been impressed by the warm and welcoming attitude of the SNP.”

Salmond’s willingness to fish in the wilder waters of Muslim politics is clever—albeit risky—electoral politics. Despite his tiny majority, he intends to stay in government for a full four-year term by picking strategic quarrels with Downing Street and Whitehall not only over Anglo-Scottish matters, but over British foreign policy too. Yet the strategy conceals a glaring absence of both religious literacy and—I would contend—public responsibility.

There is no sign that Salmond wishes to reach out to those Muslim Scots who are committed to integration. Such people don’t usually form lobbies capable of delivering baskets of votes to parties at election time. They prefer to fit in with the rest of society rather than to emphasise their separation from it.

The message being promoted by Alex Salmond is: in Scotland, Muslim identity is welcome, while British identity is a thing of the past. But surely there is a danger that Scottish nationalism, because it is so clearly lacking in substance, will end up disappointing young Muslims searching for a durable radical cause. The SNP’s obsession with alleged English “overlordship,” and its failure to move beyond gimmicks and slogans on many policy areas, is unlikely to impress idealistic Muslims preoccupied with global concerns.

Salmond’s party is uninterested in engaging with many of the social problems that blight urban Scotland, instead preferring to grandstand on constitutional issues. In 2004, Nicola Sturgeon opposed the plans of the Labour administration in Edinburgh to target gang violence through its antisocial behaviour bill. She argued that it risked causing a complete breakdown in relations between young people and the police. This was not long after “Operation Gadher,” set up in 2002 to confront an Asian gang culture controlling much of Glasgow’s drug trade, was closed down because it was considered politically incorrect in influential quarters. Gangs, including Muslim ones, blight Sturgeon’s Glasgow Govan constituency and the neighbouring areas. There is a danger that the party’s privileging of religious identity could give urban violence a disturbing Islamic edge.

Much though the SNP hates to be reminded of it, establishing a partnership with religious figures and community activists—rather than reaching out to individual Muslim citizens—is a failed English policy. It backfired on a Conservative home secretary, Michael Howard, after he was instrumental in setting up the Muslim Council of Britain, and it backfired on Tony Blair and Jack Straw, who for even longer periods sought to manage Muslim concerns by working through religious gatekeepers.

Salmond seems to be uninterested in the new thinking from Whitehall about the need to treat Muslims as individual citizens, not as part of an amorphous and ill-defined community. This enables the concerns of women and other disadvantaged groups to be noticed, groups that religious campaigners usually prefer to overlook. It will be ironic if Salmond emerges as a social authoritarian eager to remake the face of the biggest Scottish cities, whose voters have vexed the SNP by rejecting it on numerous occasions. Plenty of evidence this summer suggests that this is exactly the direction he is moving in. It may well mean that Smeaton and the other heroes of 30th June will be wondering why Salmond is saluting them for their civic valour on the day the bombers tried and failed to destroy Glasgow airport.

I expect that it is only a matter of time before Gallagher is quoted in the gutter press as an authority on the dodginess of the SNP in power. The day will come when The Sun prints an Islamophobic hit piece on the SNP with the headline, SALMOND HUSSEIN!

PS:
There is another version for The Spectator, luridly entitled The SNP is playing a deadly game with Islam, which includes the following:

Despite leading a supposedly mainstream party, Salmond seems intent on copying Trotskyite agitators who seek to prosper by sweeping young Muslims into their ranks on an ‘anti-imperialist’ agenda. To the chagrin of English revolutionaries, their sects are proving only a halfway-house for young Muslims who prefer a revolutionary cause based on global Islam. Will Scottish nationalism prove a more attractive long-term draw for idealistic young Scottish Muslims? I doubt it.

Well, that says it all, really…

We’ll have to wait and see where he pops up next. Certainly, he is adept at tailoring the message for the audience. A thinking man’s Nick Cohen?

About that North-South divide

[Wednesday]

Dividing lines
The Institute for Public Policy Research’s northern branch put out a press release on Monday, trailing research to be published in an upcoming report (The Northern Economic Agenda by Howard Reed, Olga Mrinska and Michael Johnson), and berating the government for being in denial about the North-South divide:

[S]ince 1997, the North East, the North West, Yorkshire and Humberside and the Midlands have all moved further away from the national average, on the Government’s favoured measure of output per head (known to economists as ‘Gross Value Added’). Over the same period, London has out paced the rest of Britain.

[T]he Government’s target (which was set by Gordon Brown in 2002) has only been to reduce the average rate of growth between two groups of regions:

• on the one hand, the North East, the North West, Yorkshire and Humberside the East and West Midlands and the South West, and;
• on the other hand, London, the South East and the East of England.

At first I thought it odd that a think tank aligned to New Labour would be so critical. But it appears that this is cheerleading in disguise.

The IPPR North’s director, Sue Stirling says:

“The Government needs to get real on the north-south divide. At the moment, it is in denial. The Government has not explicitly targeted the gap between rich and poor, nor the gap between north and south. As a result, the work of Labour’s Regional Development Agencies has only succeeded in reducing the north’s relative decline.

“The standard Government line on the north-south divide is that inequalities within regions are as dramatic as those between regions. This is true but just because you deal with inequalities within regions it does not mean you should ignore inequalities between regions.

“This October’s Comprehensive Spending Review will almost certainly scrap the Government’s current target, and not before time. But we need a proper target to replace it that explicitly focuses on the gap between north and south.”

Don’t answer the question!
The electoral importance of the south east of England for governing UK does not explain Labour’s failure to tackle the North-South divide. Rather, the changes in British capitalism necessitated the continuation of the managed decline of manufacturing: the financialisation of the UK economy has continued in the last decade, moving north and south further along the road of uneven development.

Regionalisation was a way for Labour to sidestep the English question, which is a necessity for both the party and the capitalist class. The argument that a North East Assembly would help develop the region’s economy was rejected by the voters, and the plan for elected regional assemblies was halted, though the assemblies themselves did not cease to function as unelected bodies.

Brown has signalled that there is to be a revival of the elected regional assembly plan, the existing assemblies are to be disbanded, and the Tories might counter regionalisation with support for an English Parliament, if they can get over the Union. In the past, Tory talk of an English Parliament resulted in the solution currently proffered by Dangerous Dave: English votes on English matters. Will there be a change?

Tories and signatories
Tory MP Mark Field has come out in favour of an English Parliament:

I must confess I am wary of the Party adopting an ‘English votes for English Bills’ policy and playing to English nationalism. There is obvious inequity in our current constitutional arrangements as a result of devolution, and there is increasing disquiet from many in England who are concerned about the imbalances left by Labour’s political settlement. But attacking Scottish MPs comes across as partisan and negative. Our mission should be to maintain and strengthen the Union and avoid promoting a solution that could be portrayed by our opponents as putting that Union at risk. This would play badly not only in Scotland (which many Conservatives too easily regard as a lost cause) but also amongst middle class, Middle England voters who continue to value the Union and all it has meant for us. It also runs directly counter to the positive, optimistic messages that the Party is trying to cultivate elsewhere.

[…]

Since the expulsion of most of the hereditary peers, I have, in principle, favoured the option of a fully or largely-elected House of Lords. However, I recognise that such an outcome is unlikely to be within the realms of practical politics, not least as the House of Lords as currently constituted is likely to be hostile and there would be little agreement as to the timing or form of elections. I would prefer to see the creation of a completely new federal parliament. Four, full, national parliaments in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with most of the existing powers of the House of Commons and over them a federal United Kingdom parliament, which would debate defence and foreign affairs, make treaties and administer a cohesion fund for the poorer parts of the UK. It would be funded by a per GDP levy on the national parliaments. There would be no need for extra politicians, as the national parliaments would send representatives to the UK parliament and meet together for its debates, which could be held in the old House of Lords chamber. [Emphasis added.]

Labour MP Frank Field initiated an Early Day Motion on the English question in January, which has so far been signed by only nineteen parliamentarians:

this House notes that those polls that have questioned the English report a clear majority in favour of an English parliament; and further notes that it is this issue, and not Scottish independence or even House of Lords reform, that is the issue that voters now put at the top of their priorities for constitutional reform.

Gordon Brown obviously doesn’t care for Scottish independence and has opted for the House of Lords as his focus for constitutional reform. It is not just because it’s the only option left; there is some political expediency in reforming the Lords. The cash for honours scandal further eroded confidence in political representation, a loss of legitimacy that the political elite can ill afford.

Reformed character
The heredity of political preferences which benefited Labour no longer exists – the party is no longer viewed in class terms and this has resulted in millions of traditional Labour voters giving up on the ballot box. Voting for Labour is no longer something that is learned – as abstention rises, so Labour’s turnout declines.

From the perspective of the ruling class, this means that New Labour has helped kill off class politics, though the party is still seen in class terms – only this time it is representing the interests of the super rich.

This positive development for the British capitalist class is offset by the damage in legitimacy that comes with millions of people dropping out of political participation – be it as party members or as loyal voters.

An English parliament with a fair voting system and recallable MPs on the wages of the average worker, would accelerate the independence struggles in Wales and Scotland, advance self-government in Cornwall, and give positive nationhood to working class people in England. All of this would be a blow to British and US imperialism, the military conquest of the Middle East, the European Union, and the privatisation agenda.

The establishment of an English Parliament will be the last choice for the ruling class in answering the English question, for all of the positive points I listed. There is no reworking the Union, it died when Ireland left.

This is not to say that they won’t try. Yet again the corpse of the British Empire will be reheated.