Monthly Archives: August 2012

Being “Better Together” with the Conservatives

Something very significant happened last Saturday, and it happened in most cities and towns across Scotland. Though it probably passed by most of its intended audience, there they were, Labour and Conservatives, actively campaigning together on the streets of Scotland for possibly the first time.

Now, politicians come together on a cross-party basis for any number of issues. In both Parliaments there are cross-party groups, and motions are regularly signed by politicians from across the political spectrum. In councils, proportional representation necessitates coalitions and cross-party arrangements. Occasionally, Governments may need the support of other parties to get important legislation through. I mean, I’m in a cross-party rock group for goodness sake!

All of this is part of the day to day reality of our political process, and all of it a necessary part of our realpolitik.

What was different about last Saturday was that Labour were on the streets of Scotland with the Conservatives actively asking the people of Scotland to sign up to a political proposition about who is best placed to govern Scotland.

What this new and very important cross-party coalition was asking us to endorse is that in Scotland, Conservative rule is preferable to Scottish home rule. That the Westminster Tories are in a better position to make the crucial decisions about Scotland’s future rather than the people who live and work in Scotland themselves.

“But it’s not about Tory rule” our Labour friends will defiantly contend. “Better together means better together with the UK not with the Conservatives” Labour activists will wail. But “better together” must have a context and currently we are being asked to be “better together” within a UK which has a Conservative Government that precious few people in Scotland voted for. Yes, the Conservatives might be replaced by the almost unelectable Ed Miliband, but then again, they might not.

Labour might not like it, but right now it is a Conservative Government that currently administers our social security system and macro economic policies. I bet on Saturday Labour politicians weren’t trying to sell Westminster’s austerity package or its crippling and cruel welfare reforms as examples of being “better together”

I actually think that some in Labour realised what was going down and just how bad this all looked. Whilst the normally toxic Conservatives were absolutely cock-a-hoop about being endorsed and included, Labour politicians were just a bit more embarrassed and reticent. Indeed, Jim Murphy first had to explain why he “hated” the Tories before proceeding to join them on the streets. They are right to be nervous. Just look what happened to the Liberals.

Scotland’s democratic deficit is at the heart of the debate about independence and, unfortunately for the Unionists, it is not going to go away. One of the most powerful reasons for independence is that we will always get the Government we vote for. With independence we will never again get a Tory led Government with a solitary Tory MP tearing the heart out of our welfare system.

“Better Together” might be a campaign about being together in the UK, but they also have to fully explain who, and what, we’re being asked to be better together with.

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NATO – A brief summary of my position

I want an independent Scotland.

I want nuclear weapons off Scottish soil and out of Scottish waters.

I want an independent Scotland to co-operate constructively with international partners on defence.

I want an independent Scotland to have a meaningful role in the debate about world nuclear disarmament.

I want an independent Scotland not just to be safe and secure, but also to feel totally safe and secure.

For all these reasons I will be supporting the resolution by Angus Robertson at conference on NATO.

That is all.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Devo-Max?

What do we do about devo-max? This peculiar, but simple, constitutional option seems to be causing a great deal of consternation amongst all sides in the independence debate and no-one seems to know what to do with this most impertinent of proposals.

Devo-max is either a legitimate aspiration of the Scottish people, or it is an evil nationalist ploy. It is either, what most people seem to want, or it is a sinister “nat-filled” Trojan horse.

It is, of course, the anti-independence parties that have the greatest issue with devo-max. For them, devo-max has become a totally toxic proposal, which must not get anywhere near a constitutional ballot paper. They are prepared to give up all their other “conditions” to get this removed and they have poured scorn over any suggestion that it be considered.

Their main contention is that devo-max is a consolation prize if the main goal of independence isn’t achieved. They want no succour or comfort for us in the SNP in the event of a failure to secure independence.

But we’re supposed to all be for more powers aren’t we? Eh, well yes, but just not now. The Unionists, as one, seem to put forward the consolidated view that the independence question has to be resolved before we can start to deal with the question of more powers. This, therefore, leaves them in the rather uncomfortable position of opposing independence, but offering what can only be referred to as “jam tomorrow”. This isn’t a good place to be and they know it. It would also mean a great leap of faith by the Scottish people who seem to be doing a collective “aye right” after having the hindsight of having been here before.

But what exactly is devo-max? “It is a proposal without a home, which no-one can define” are the usual well rehearsed gripes! Well, let me try and attempt a little clumsy definition of my own. For me, devo-max would be the devolution of all remaining powers at Westminster, barring defence, foreign affairs and international treaty obligations. We would remain part of the United Kingdom, but effectively run our own affairs, including all financial ones. Simple, and surely if this is what the Scottish people want, this is what they should have regardless of any constitutional niceties.

And what about devo-max and the SNP? It is, of course, not our position, we want independence. We also want more powers for our Parliament, so we don’t have the inbuilt hostility of the anti-independence parties to devo-max. We are also democrats, who believe that the Scottish people are sovereign and they are the ultimate masters of their constitutional progress.

I, therefore, have absolutely no problem about a devo-max option being on the ballot paper and would look forward to engaging with “devo-maxers” about the short journey between what we want with independence and the maximum powers they support.

But we are all bound by the Scottish people, and in the Scotland I believe in, they should always secure what they desire.

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This post is Pete’s new article for the Scots Independent newspaper. More information on the Scots Independent can be found on their website at http://www.scotsindependent.org/

Burma and the Hope For Democracy

What do you say to the World’s most iconic female politician when you go calling at her home on the other side of the world?

In the ridiculous multi-billion dollar vanity capital of Naypyidaw, Aung San Suu Kyi greeted us in her new modest lodgings on the edge of this preposterous city and all I was worried about was the mud on my shoes, acquired through walking through the soaking surroundings, courtesy of a Burma monsoon.

Naypyidaw must be about the strangest capital in the world. The military Government decided that they wanted to copy the example of former Burmese dynasties and arrogantly relocate the capital. The infrastructure of Government was therefore moved from Rangoon to a remote rural location 200 miles up the road. Huge buildings were created and what must be the largest Parliament building in the world was constructed with huge six lane highways to link all of this incredible infrastructure together. Except there are no cars are on the highways and very few people in the new buildings, and the huge cavernous Parliamentary estate feels like its constantly on recess. There is nothing to do and the joke kicking round Rangoon is that Aung San Suu Kyi swapped house arrest for city arrest!

I was in Burma as part of a cross-party delegation from the Westminster Foundation of Democracy. We were there to see if the UK could offer assistance to help increase the capacity of the emerging Parliamentary institutions and if there was any help we could give to their numerous new political parties.

Burma’s democratic reform has been as dramatic as it has been unexpected. In just over a year the iron grasp of Burma’s military rulers has loosened and there now seems a very real opportunity for Burma to join the community of democratic nations. Burma offers so much. Sandwiched between India, China and the fast-growing economies of South East Asia it is supremely placed geopolitically. There are natural resources aplenty and the unspoiled Indochina countryside and coast line will be a mecca for tourists determined to find an authentic taste of South-East Asia.

When asked what the catalyst to these reforms was, most people point to the military Government’s response to cyclone Nargis in 2008 when hundreds of people were killed and thousands more displaced. The military Government refused to accept foreign aid, tried to play down the scale of the crisis and even arrested some of those who were on the ground offering help. It was all too much for a population held back for decades, suffering economic hardship in what should be the bread basket of Asia.

Unsatisfactory elections were then held, the Arab spring was unleashed and the military Government faced the prospect of more decades as a pariah state. They instead chose to test the air of democracy and, releasing Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, they started a process of democratic reform. They have now gone so far that it would be almost impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

The first test of the new democracy were by-elections, made necessary by the creation of a new Government. Aung San Suu Kyi’s newly re-registered National League for Democracy won 40 out of the 45 constituencies and, for the first time, Burma’s Parliament had an opposition. There is now a commitment to hold full Parliamentary elections in 2014 where the NLD must be in line for a resounding victory.

Whilst Aung San Suu Kyi is quite rightly the public face of these reforms much credit must be given to the reformers in the military Government – President Thein Sein, who initiated the reforms, and speaker Shwe Mann, who has championed the emerging Parliament. Without either of them taking these first important steps Burma would still be under strict military rule.

Fears still exist though. The military are still reserved 20% of parliamentary seats and 75% of the votes in Parliament are required to amend the constitution. Ethnic tensions and conflicts continue in many parts of this diverse country and it will be a real effort to bring peace and stability.

But there is real optimism. The military have swapped their uniforms for the politicians suit and they will now have to test public opinion. Those that spent so long incarcerated have fully engaged with the democratic process without any bitterness or resentment and, with the positive profile of Aung San Suu Kyi there is enormous international goodwill.

Burma is a fascinating, multi-faceted nation that should regain a predominant position in the region. I am sure that the UK and the rest of the international community will be fully engaged in the democratic restoration of this fantastic country.

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Pete is a Governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and manages the SNP’s WFD programmes.

Why Unionist Attempts to Politicise the Olympics Failed

Whilst everybody was enjoying the spectacle of the greatest Games on Earth there was one group of people who are doing their level best to spoil it for you.  Welcome to the UK Unionists. If there was a gold medal for petty political point scoring up there on the podium would be the anti-independence politicians and commentators. In rhetoric reminiscent of Labour claims that devolution would kill the SNP ‘stone dead’, time and again we heard claims the SNP are opposed to Team GB and that every medal marks a death blow to Scottish independence aspirations.

They condemned the Scottish Government for wishing our Scottish athletes well. They then criticised us for providing a Scottish showcase opened to fully engage with the Olympics. They scoured through ten year old speeches to misquote us out of context to prove that we’re pathologically opposed to the Games. They were even quicker off the blocks than Usain Bolt. Within five minutes of Danny Boyle’s fantastic opening ceremony, there they were, declaring game, set and match for the UK state.

All of it utter nonsense, and all of it grating with the Scottish people who just wanted to enjoy the Games free from politicians trying to hijack this spectacle for their own ends. And after all their incessant efforts, Guess what? Opinion polls show that if anything the Olympics have actually increased support for independence! Talk about getting it wrong and aiming that blunderbuss at the foot. Even when presented with this evidence they just can’t seem to stop. Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander are the latest senior unionist politicians to forlornly mine this empty seam, using the Olympics, because they can’t come up with any compelling or convincing case for the Union themselves.

How people vote in the Independence Referendum will be dependent on many things. Should the Westminster Tories continue to determine Scotland’s future? Would Scotland be better off in control of its own resources? Does Scotland want to make its own peaceful contribution to world affairs without being drawn into illegal wars? These are the issues that will determine the outcome of the Referendum, not a Games, regardless of their scale or success.

And anyway, Team GB is as much my team as it is the most enthusiastic fan from any other part of these isles.

While I would naturally like to see a Scottish team march round the Olympic stadium under the St Andrew’s cross as an independent nation, I cheered on Team GB till I was hoarse. I recognise the immense pride of Scottish athletes in representing their country and of course they should be able to stand under their current national flag and take great satisfaction in being a member of Team GB.

As an independent nation we will be represented by a Team Scotland in any future Olympics. That is what normal independent countries do in international sporting events. But for now we are part of the UK and all of us in Scotland are enjoyed our team’s success, regardless of how we vote or what we think about Scotland’s constitutional future.

But probably the most ludicrous notion is that the Games has shown that we in Scotland will have to choose between being Scottish or British. This is a theme that has gained much currency amongst these anti-independence commentators recently and shows a singular, probably willful, misunderstanding about what independence is about.

What we want with independence is to complete the powers of our Parliament and take responsibility for our own affairs. We want to recalibrate the political relationship of the UK state and it has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘Britishness’. That is the social union and none of it goes anywhere with independence. We will still share a British island and we will still enjoy our fantastic relationship, heritage and British culture.

But in cheering on Team GB did that mean that I was entirely happy or satisfied with all the arrangements for the London Olympics? Of course not. Like the Tories in opposition, and more recently like Labour in raising concerns about the G4S shambles, I tried as much as possible to hold the Westminster Government to account – that is my job as an MP.

But these issues have come and gone, and so, unfortunately have the Olympics. In two years time Glasgow will host the Commonwealth Games where we will compete as Team Scotland. What is as certain as Scottish gold is that those self-same anti-independence politicians who have so valiantly tried to politicise these Games will be screaming blue murder at any perceived notion of nationalist politicisation.

But do you know what? Just as the London Olympics has absolutely nothing to do with the Referendum, neither will the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

A Long Road For Farepak Customers

You may recall in previous Quair articles, I raised the issue of constituents who had lost money following the collapse of Farepak, the Christmas savings firm.  I also held a public meeting in Aberfeldy.  We have now heard that customers and agents of Farepak will ultimately receive half of the money they lost when the company collapsed – after liquidators BDO said that final payments will be made to those who lost out at the end of August.

Farepak collapsed in October 2006 owing £37m to more than 119,000 savers and I was contacted by a lot of constituents who had been affected.  While savers are to recover just half of their money back the final bill for the administrators and their legal advisers has already exceeded £8 million. It is understood that the UK Government will also meet the costs of the company directors who have been cleared – costs estimated as much as £6million.

After a six year wait it is shameful that customers and agents will only receive half their money back while administrators pocket millions and taxpayers pick up the tab for the company directors’ legal costs.  There is something seriously wrong when liquidations can take years to finalise.  Sadly, over 200 of those waiting for compensation have actually passed away while waiting for the insolvency gravy train to come to a halt.

It should be stressed that Farepak’s liquidator has confirmed that dividends will be paid to the next of kin or, where applicable, the estate of the agent or customer.  Also, creditors who have changed their address since submitting their original claim but have not notified the Claims Management Team should register their change of address by sending details of their name, their agent’s number, the amount of their claim, their old address, their new address and their signature to Claims Management Team, Farepak Food & Gifts Limited – In Liquidation, PO Box 3404, Swindon, SN2 9EQ within two weeks.

Having waited for so long, I would hate to see anyone missing out on getting back at least some of what they are due.

I was delighted to be in Aberfeldy recently to perform the tape cutting ceremony to  officially open the new garden green space which has been created from the jungle of weeds that had developed over the years at the back of the Town Hall.  The area has been landscaped with the help of a grant from the Griffin fund.  During the day the Horizon Social Club held their all day garden tea party to raise funds.  Despite the rain, there was a good turnout, and the Horizon Club all day cafe was very popular. Congratulations to all those involved.

I was pleased to give a warm welcome to the announcement by the Scottish Government’s Minister for Infrastructure, that the £3bn programme of work to make the A9 dual carriageway all the way from Inverness to Perth will start two years ahead of the original schedule. This will mean that work on these important improvements will start two years ahead of the original schedule.

Since 2007, we have already seen £50million invested in improving safety and traffic flow on the A9 and once this programme is completed the road will, at long last, be dual carriageway along the whole of that stretch from Perth to Inverness.

The A9 is a massively important arterial route running along Scotland’s spine and giving goods, commuters and visitors access to the many communities along its length.  Any fatal accident is one too many but the number of accidents and the number of fatalities on the A9 have born tragic witness to the need for this work to be done.  I am proud that after years and years of campaigning by the A9 communities, it is our Scottish Government that has put in place the plans, the money and the timetable that will see these important safety improvements brought into being.

I can be contacted at my office in Blairgowrie at 35 Perth Street, Blairgowrie, PH10 6DL, you can call me on 01250 876 576 or email me at wishartp@parliament.uk