Monthly Archives: August 2017

FEDERALISM

Jeremy Corbyn’s been back in Scotland and that can only mean a renewed debate about federalism in the UK. Where there’s been talk of a new Act of Union and maximum devolution it is federalism that can always be relied upon to be brought out when something needs said about Scotland and the UK’s constitutional future. Only ever referred to in the vaguest of possible terms very few people actually seem to know what Labour mean when they use the F word.

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What we do know is that they want a UK wide constitutional convention which will consider ‘federalism’ along with the other big intractables of House of Lords and voting reform. What this constitutional convention lacks in detail it certainly doesn’t lack in ambition but as yet there are no terms of reference about what it would actually consider.

But can Labour deliver a federal UK, would this be a good thing and what would it possibly look like? Labour are certainly feeling encouraged just now with what they see as the success of the modest amount of devolution that has taken place in the English regions. They also seem to have recovered from their last disastrous dalliance with English constitutional change when the North East decisively rejected their plans for an assembly by 77.9% to 22.1% in 2004.

But maybe we’re getting a little bit ahead of ourselves because any federal solution for the UK would have to take into account the fact that we are a union of nations. There are four nations of the UK and any federation would have to start with them. This leads to the first very obvious problem in that England dwarves all the other nations combined with 53 million people out of the UK’s total population of 65 million.

However, even with this in-balance it isn’t impossible to achieve and the realities of scale are what they are. That great example of symmetrical federalism, the United States of America, secures equal representation on its senate for tiny Rhode Island with giant California. A trans national ’Federal Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ would certainly be the easiest and most elegant way to secure a ‘federal’ UK. The House of Commons would become the English Parliament and powers other than foreign affairs, defence, international treaties and macro-economic matters would be transferred to the new state Parliaments. We would then all send representatives to the UK Senate (occupying the House of Lords) to look after the federal powers. Where this would be a positive progression from the asymmetric devolution of the current UK I get the impression that this sort of trans national federal solution is not what Labour are intending.

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What they really seem to hanker for is more ‘devolution’ particularly for England. I’m suspecting that what Labour are looking for is some sort of solution that creates regional assemblies in England to then send representatives to a new UK wide senate (along with the devolved assemblies) that would replace the House of Lords. I also suspect that they pretty much want to leave the House of Commons as the UK’s sovereign Parliament. This may be lots of things but federalism it ain’t. If this ‘federalism’ is just Labour getting confused with devolution we can forgive them and let them get on with it, wishing the very best of luck. But if they are actually serious about creating ‘federalism’ and intending that new ‘regional assemblies’ should have parity of status with the nations of the UK, then we do have a real problem.

That would mean that Scotland as a nation would be given the same status as a ‘region’ of England and would have equal clout with (and with no disrespect to them) the West Midlands. This would have an enormous impact on our place in the world. And how is this to be done? ‘The West Midlands’ would have to be practically re-invented, with institutions replacing Whitehall departments created from scratch. Again, not impossible, but realising the West Midland-ian Parliament as a legislative body would not be ‘issue free’. Now, it might just be me, but I’m also not detecting a huge enthusiasm in England for any sort of constitutional reform far less one that would deliver the equivalent of the German Lander.

Not for the first time I suspect that Labour are just getting a little confused with all this constitutional lexicon and have absolutely no intention of creating the ‘British Federation’. Yes Labour, get on with reforming the House of Lords (it would help if you didn’t take places in it) and by all means let’s see your plans to transform it into an ‘assembly of the nations and regions’. But please stop all this talk of federalism. It really isn’t helping anyone.

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NATIONALISM

With an international interest in what is described as ‘nationalism’ it should be no surprise that Scottish ‘nationalism’ is once again being forced in to the spotlight of political debate. Indeed, such is the interest in the word that the First Minister has conceded that the term is ‘problematic’. Sensing the mood unionist politicians and columnists have therefore wasted no time in trying to once again suggest a dark side to Scotland’s relationship to this most enigmatic of terms.

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Probably the best summary of how many unionists perceive the Scottish variety of ‘nationalism’ has come from Douglas Alexander the former Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary. In response to the FM’s remarks, in a series of tweets, he suggested an equivalence amongst all ‘nationalist’ movements. According to Douglas’ definition all nationalisms are characterised by ‘grievance, othering, victimhood and exclusion’. He ended his return to Scottish political debate by concluding ‘patriotism needs no enemy while nationalism demands one’.

For Douglas there are no apparent exceptions to this ‘nationalist rule’ and all nationalist movements are therefore undesirable. Even Gandhi, George Washington and Nelson Mandela along with the movements that brought independence to former British colonies and democracy to nations once controlled by the Soviet Union are all a product of ‘grievance’ and ‘victimhood’. The sheer stupidity of this position needs no debunking from me other than to note with astonishment and regret that someone as thoughtful as Douglas Alexander can seriously believe this.

But Gandhi and Mandela are not the targets in this extraordinary recasting of historical heroes as grievance nurturing villains. The target is what is happening in Scotland and the campaign for Scottish independence. A critical part of defeating Scottish ‘nationalism’ is to suggest that it is motivated by the most sinister of motives. Unionists who peddle these arguments take no interest in the many interpretations of Scottish ‘nationalism’ as an entirely civic affair which puts at its core the simple belief that the people who live and work in Scotland can make a better job of running Scotland than Westminster. The democratic argument at the core of the case for Scottish independence is the one feature they can’t acknowledge and must be discarded and ignored.

What in fact the movement for Scottish independence has done is to practically recast the arguments about what we understand as ‘nationalism’. Contemporary civic nationalism was only an academic theory until it was adopted and put into action during the independence campaign. Scotland’s nationalism has no ethnic association and it is a nationalism where culture is also pretty much a side feature. People involved in the movement for Scottish independence wave saltires and express pride in Scotland because they are the patriots that Douglas Alexander praises and are pretty much the same as patriots right across the world.

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Then there is the suggestion that those who do not support Scottish independence and enthusiastically favour continued membership of the UK are somehow not ‘nationalists’ themselves. A UK that has just demonstrated its own ‘nationalism’ by voting to leave the EU, mainly on an argument that wished to restrict immigration, would surely rate much higher on any ‘nationalist’ scale than an independence movement that wants to abolish nuclear weapons and end austerity.

But it is in the use of the word against supporters of Scottish independence that will continue to consume our debate in an almost pointless and self defeating way. The 45% of Scots who voted for Scottish independence will simply not recognise themselves as ‘grievance seeking victims’ in hock with Radovan Karadzic. People who voted for Scottish independence simply saw independence as a better way for Scotland to be run and a means to make our own positive contribution to world affairs and the international community. They imagined a better future for our community and saw the opportunities that the full powers of independence would give us to achieve that. If unionists really believe that independence supporters are the equivalent of Steve Bannon it might go a long way to explain why Douglas Alexander lost his seat.

Finally, like most Scots regardless of their view on independence I believe in inter-dependence, international solidarity and social democracy. Like everybody who lives here I am a passionate Scot who loves this country and fundamentally believes in the abilities of the people who live and work here. My political motives have never been motivated by ‘nationalism’ and if I had my way I would rename the party the ‘Stop the world Scotland wants to get on Party’. I simply believe that my country would be a better place if we had the normal powers of self-Government. It is that, and only that, that separates our approach to politics, and yes, our differing ‘problematic nationalisms’.

This is Pete Wishart’s article for next edition of the Scots Independent. 

LABOUR’S SHAMBOLIC BREXIT POLICY

Rarely has a policy on a major issue of the day been as shambolic and vacuous as Labour’s policy on Brexit. Intellectually incoherent, contradictory and politically inept it is quickly becoming the defining feature of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. It is a policy that has singularly failed to unite the Labour Party and it is a policy that Labour seem so uncertain about that they barely make any attempt to promote at all.

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Labour’s policy (as far as I understand it) is to leave the single market and customs union to ensure that ‘the referendum result is respected’. Their biggest single issue and concern is with freedom of movement which they believe has to be ended to halt what they describe as an ‘erosion of workers pay and conditions’. But it is an ever changing Brexit position because the definitive Labour Brexit policy depends on which part of the Corbyn leadership has the misfortune to answer questions on it on any particular day of the week. Some days it is a definitive ‘I think we’re leaving the single market’ other days it’s a bit more confused than that. What we do know about the Labour leadership position is in how they have voted in Parliament. There, they voted for the triggering of Article 50 and opposed a motion, brought by some of their own backbenchers, opposing a Tory hard Brexit sacking any MP who dared to vote against Corbyn.

Corbyn’s position seems to be a throw back to the historic antipathy to the EU that has defined so much of the Labour left since the 1970s. The Bennite left forged this anti European line in face of what they saw as some sort of anti workers cartel in the then Single Market. Since the days of Benn and Wilson Europe has totally transformed almost unnoticed within the Corbyn left. There has been the introduction of the social chapter, championed by social democratic/Liberal Governments in the face of opposition from conservatives, usually from the UK. Directive after directive gives more protection to workers across the continent and let’s not forget the critical work done on protecting the environment. The ‘anti-workers’ Europe lampooned by some of the Corbynistas rushing to defend their man bares little relation to the EU of 2017. Try as I might, I also can find no compelling evidence that freedom of movement somehow conspires to drive down the wages and condition of working people. With unemployment at an almost historic low ending freedom of movement can only in fact damage the economy impacting on all of us.

And Labour’s Brexit position is so politically inept. Currently in the ascendancy the Corbynistas hope to bring down this Government as quickly as possible and get their man into number 10. Now, it might be possible to achieve this by beating them on the Driverless Cars Bill or the bill to regulate the provision of travel insurance but it is highly unlikely. This is a Government that has produced a legislative programme as opaque as possible determined to ensure that there is nothing of substance that can be defeated in parliament. Sure, Labour have non binding opposition days and can call votes on meaningless amendments to these meaningless bills, but these don’t bring down Governments. The only meaningful votes we will have in parliament will be on Brexit and here Labour agree with the Tories on practically all of the main themes in leaving the European Union. The Repeal Bill may offer opportunities but again I struggle to see where Labour diverge from the Tory Government on what they hope to achieve. Legislatively, Labour have almost given the Tories a free pass in this parliament and will have few opportunities to test the Tories minority position when they agree with them on the big issues of the day.

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But it is the impact of their Brexit policy on his newly created constituency that will probably finish him off. Young people flocked to Corbyn in huge numbers but I’m pretty sure none of the banners proclaimed ‘end freedom of movement’. The rights enjoyed by Jeremy and I to live, work and love freely in Europe without borders will be denied to our children as the Corbynistas work with the Tories and the UK right to stop people coming here. Jeremy’s young supporters will face the inevitable reciprocal restrictions on their freedom of movement as European Governments respond in kind to the UK’s Faragist approach. It’s also hard to see how the Labour voting international city of London is going to readily go along with leaving the single market and ending freedom of movement.

As the reality of a hard Brexit sinks in more and more people will be paying attention to Labour’s Brexit approach and they will not like what they see. To be virtually undistinguishable from the Tories on something that is so immensely damaging to the UK will eventually take its toll on Jeremy’s support. Corbyn supporters did not buy into a Tory hard Brexit but it is that which is increasingly defining their man.

On a programme with so many commendable features that has inspired a new generation into politics wouldn’t it be ironic if Corbyn fails because he has thrown his lot in with a failed Tory Government pursing a failed Brexit policy.