Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Let's talk proudly of our shared values with England

I recently learned, via a huge reunion bash arranged by my great-great-grandfather's side of the family, that I have Irish roots. There's an immense scroll, somewhere around the length of the Bayeux Tapestry (okay, probably not), with a family tree laid out like an intricate spider's web. I was on it, a little name and thumbnail picture of my smiling doofus face, and with my finger I could trace that line all the way back to Donegal. My dad... there he is! Born in Bolton in 1962. Terrible picture. My mum is right next to him: born in Edinburgh in 1964. Hop a branch and there I am, born in Cardiff, 1989, where I spent the first four years of my life. Is there anyone out there who's more ethnically 'British' than me?

Yet I will be voting Yes to Scottish Independence come September. I will be assiduously campaigning for it. I'll be throwing myself about like a madman for it all summer.

So I'd like to take this opportunity to reject the ugly stuff put forward by some of the No campaign's advocates, such as Tom Morton writing this week in the Guardian, that the Yes movement has 'an ethnic tinge', driven by a notion of us versus them, 'down there'. The Tom Mortons of this world see pro-independence supporters as hyper-nationalists believing in some kind of superiority of Scots' values over anyone else - especially the English. Because as we all know, any references to 'Westminster', 'the Tories' or 'the Establishment' are of course code for 'England', 'the English' and 'bloody Sassenachs'.

The reality is that 'Westminster' is a byword for the political elite in exactly the same way as is 'Washington' or 'the Beltway' in the United States. Westminster is Britain's Beltway. To me, the likes of Scots like Danny or Dougie Alexander, or Welsh politicians like David, Susan or Carywn Jones, are all as much a part of the cosy British establishment as any Balls, BoJo or Blunkett.

I don't believe 'us versus them' narratives particularly achieve much. I don't believe in calling anyone my enemy. But our opponents in the Scottish independence debate are undoubtedly, obviously, the political elite. After we get independence our opponents will likely continue to be the political elite. I believe if such a thing as 'Scottish values' exist, then yes, they are superior to the cronyism, corruption and stagnation practised for decades in the Westminster village. But if we are accepting that, then we must accept there is also such a thing as 'English values', and that they are superior to those as practised by Westminster too. In fact, if both sets of values do exist, both Scottish and English, the likelihood is they're probably not all that different.

It's important to draw a distinction between values and culture. Secretary of State for Scotland, Alistair Carmichael, has of course assured his compatriots that there's no such thing as Scottishness. Try telling that to anyone who's ever spent a nanosecond on the National Collective website, or skim-read any chapter written by Irvine Welsh, James Kelman or Alan Bissett, or ever poked a head into their local open mic.

Scotland's cultural aliveness at the moment is one of the most exciting things about being here. Not that a Scotsman living in the Westminster power-bubble would have a shadow of a clue about that.

But values are different. Values, moral codes, guidelines for living in a peaceful, productive society, are all things that set us apart from the animals. And yet, no one's are exactly the same. They are as subjective as your sense of identity. Just because you're Scottish doesn't mean you believe in Alex Salmond's 'social democratic consensus'. Just because you're a Scot who believes in that supposed Scottish value of 'fairness' doesn't mean you won't disagree with me on the mechanisms for how to create a fairer society. Just because you're English, Welsh or Northern Irish doesn't mean you believe any less in 'fairness' than a Scot. The assertion of any sense of shared national values is always a tricky, esoteric business, as I hope I've illuminated - but the attempt to assert them is an attempt to forge a political identity, not to establish moral superiority. It should be encouraged and applauded, not castigated as ethnic or parochial.
Most regular folk, whether Scottish or English or anyone else, tend to support values like hard work, fairness, honesty and decency. No pro-independence Scot in existence has ever claimed to have a monopoly or even an advantage in any of them. This is quite different to claiming to have a better way to actualise these values.

The British political system has been failing to actualise British values for generations now, mostly because the political elite don't actually share them. The postwar British consensus has been torn down without our consent. Tom Morton wrote in his Guardian piece, with apparently no irony at all:

Civic nationalism defines a community not by its borders or ethnicity, but by a shared set of political values, and the shared democratic visions of its people. Sort of like, well, Britain.

But that's not Britain, is it? Certainly not the Britain we see today. This is the Britain that tells immigrants to 'Go Home'. This is the Britain where a Prime Minister while still in office called for 'British jobs for British workers'. This is the Britain where Scottish Labour MPs talk of family members becoming 'foreigners' in the event of Scottish independence. This is the Britain where the political party on the ascendancy are the xenophobic, homophobic UKIP, whose campaign poster for the upcoming European elections can basically be summed up with the line: 'Dey turk ur jobs!'

I don't blame English people for UKIP. Most of them don't vote UKIP. God knows we've got our own xenophobes, racists and conspiracy loons in Scotland too. An entrenched right-wing political and media elite have skewered British values to such an extent that 'hard work' and 'fairness' have become synonymous for many people with: 'nasty scroungers and immigrants are stealing your hard-earned cash and this isn't fair'. Meanwhile, corporations hire tax lawyers to wriggle out of paying sums of money to the public coffers that the Daily Mail's anti-scrounger columnists can only dream of.

The honesty and decency of people across the British isles never went away, but as such they were easily manipulated. In Scotland particularly, it feels like we are starting to wake up. We are beginning to understand we've been lied to, that the lies continue, and that we haven't been treated decently - far, far too often. The same is true for the English. George Galloway, in amongst his 'nonsense-on-stilts' crap, occasionally makes the decent point that he has more in common with a worker in Liverpool or Portsmouth than anyone in the Scottish political elite. He is right - although, of course, solidarity doesn't end at Land's End.

But the UK political system doesn't like solidarity. It doesn't care for it. Scottish and English groups worked in tandem against Thatcher's poll tax, and to be honest, the UK political establishment of the day would have rather they hadn't. When this argument that Scottish independence will divide the British working class gets trotted out, ask yourself what on earth a No vote is going to do to improve its fortunes?

Any Scots who think, by being Scottish, that they are better than anyone else are (not to mince words) numpties. If you lot exist, please just be quiet. However, it does so happen that we are having a debate in Scotland right now that is becoming more than what it was, more than just a straight debate on the constitution. It has become about values; it has to some extent become about culture, but a living, breathing, forward-looking one; it has become about the possibilities of a different kind of society and politics, one that better actualises our values - as Scots, yes, but as Brits and as human beings too.

We should talk proudly of our shared values with England, and when a similar debate to the one we're having now finds its way to our southern neighbours' doors we should stand shoulder to shoulder with them, as we often have and hopefully always will.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

No country for old Menzies

Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist about my headline, I'm not saying Sir Menzies Campbell isn't Scottish or doesn't belong in or to Scotland, nor is my mention of his age in any way discriminatory.

I'm just a sucker for puns.

But the reality is that Menzies Campbell, along with the rest of the No campaign, don't want a sovereign, fully self-governing country, which is all that line really means. I am casting no doubts on his or any of the passionate advocates of Better Together's "Scottish" credentials - which Menzies devotes the usual prerequisite paragraph towards outlining - nor their genuinely-held beliefs that a No vote is what is best for Scotland and the rest of the UK.

I've always quite liked Sir Menzies, and I thought the ageism which hounded him out of the Lib Dem leadership was appalling. In fact - as far as pro-Union articles these days go - Menzies' recent comment piece for the Guardian was a half-decent, albeit flawed, nor particularly original, attempt at conveying a more positive Unionism.

It's worth a read, if only to show what the No campaign could have been.

It starts off fairly strongly. I have the odd quibble - I believe his invocation of Britain's status as a permanent member of the security council as one of his big pluses is a misjudgement of the Scottish mood, given that the main reason we retain that membership is due to our status as a nuclear-armed state, which many Scots oppose.

He also falls into the commonly-sprung trap of conflating there having been a "Scottish voice" in UK parliamentary and executive politics (the likes of John Smith, Gordon Brown and Charles Kennedy) with Scottish representation. These two are clearly not the same thing. Just because Gordon Brown was born in Kirkcaldy doesn't mean he was representing anything other than the British interest while Chancellor and Prime Minister. That's not a criticism; it was simply his job.

The Scottish and British interest are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but evidently nor are they inherently the same thing, given England's dominance in terms of population, the economy and the make-up of the House of Commons.

Thereafter, unfortunately, Sir Menzies' arguments begin to fall some way into line with the tedium we have come to expect from the No campaign:

"Movements for independence are often based on some form of discrimination - ethnic, religious or economic, a democratic deficit perhaps, or persecution or institutional prejudice. None of these has blighted Scotland's relationship with the rest of the UK."

To pen these two sentences, it must have been necessary to wilfully forget the entirety of the 1980's and the first half of the 90's.

The movement for a Scottish Parliament in the 1990's, and today's independence campaign, was and is built around - as one of its cornerstones - the idea of a democratic deficit, the obviousness of which was brought into the cold light of day by the Thatcher era. Was there ethnic or religious persecution? Was there apartheid? Of course not, and only loonies claim there were. But to deny that a democratic deficit has and continues to blight Scotland's relationship with British governments is unexpectedly daft. Having been denied an Assembly in 1979, Scotland faced a decade and a half of Tory governments it never voted for, which performed an industrial shutdown on Scotland, used its people as a guinea-pig for the Poll Tax and used her oil wealth to prop up the dole queue.

No right-thinking independence supporter, I believe, should be dwelling on past grievances to make their case - but to deny they ever happened insults the intelligence.

Campbell continues:

"Has it been perfect? Of course not, but every few years we have had the unfettered choice to change course at successive elections. We invented the NHS, created the welfare state..."

Again, these first two sentences deny the very existence of a democratic deficit. Sure, yes, on a UK-level there are General Elections once in a while, albeit with an electoral system that hinders proportional results (which he knows all about, given he campaigned to end First Past the Post). But for the Scottish nation, the reality is our votes basically never matter.

As George Eaton wrote in the New Statesman last year:

"On no occasion since 1945 would independence have changed the identity of the winning party and on only two occasions would it have converted a Labour majority into a hung parliament (1964 and October 1974). Without Scotland, Labour would still have won in 1945 (with a majority of 146, down from 143), in 1966 (77, down from 98), in 1997 (139, down from 179), in 2001 (129, down from 167) and in 2005 (43, down from 66)."

Moreover (and this probably goes without saying), Scotland's increasingly large majorities for Labour didn't stop the Tories winning in 1959, 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992 and 2010.

There is also a bitter irony to Campbell citing great postwar British achievements such as the NHS and the welfare state, while the Coalition which his party forms part of is stealth-privatising the health service - in areas like commissioning, hospital management and even frontline services - and has spent the last four years eroding the welfare state and squeezing the poor.

Meanwhile, the Scottish government emphatically defends the British postwar ethos of universalism and fully-funded public services. Would, on current evidence, an independent Scotland actually be more "British" than Britain, in this regard?

Now we must sadly bear witness to the degeneration of Menzies' earlier, reasononable enough arguments into... basically just nonsense. Ready? Here goes:

"We are asked to make a decision that may be reversible in principle but in practice will be, to all intents and purposes, perpetual; to give up intangible benefits such as shared values, mutual respect, common responsibilities and family ties."

This is the same silly level of debate as people who say that after a Yes vote we'll somehow "lose our history", like dropping your keys down the side of the settee, or having Will Smith dressed in black flashing one of those memory-zappers in your face with the timer set to 1706.

Values are subjective. Your "responsibilities", whatever they may be, will stay the same. Your English granny will remain your English granny. All of this goes without saying, except apparently, it doesn't, because proponents of a No vote seem obsessed with bringing up the idea that the British people's values, their respect for one another, their responsibilities and familial bonds are somehow monolithic, and belong to Britain and Britain alone, whereas the truth is that they vary, sometimes rather starkly, from person to person, community to community and culture to culture. Because Britain contains multitudes of all these things.

Independence is about the transference of power, not the changing of culture or values. Please let this be the last time this has to be pointed out (the man said in a bout of naive wishfulness).

And then of course, we get the old Lib Dem favourite - what I like to call the "You'll-totally-definitely-let's-make-sure-of-it-get-more-powers" line of argument. According to Sir Menzies, everything the Scottish Government has proposed is "incapable of achievement", which is foresighted indeed, seeing as it hasn't been tried yet. Lib Dems should maybe avoid the dangerous waters of "Political Parties Don't Keep Their Promises". The sharks that infest it have a taste for Cleggian hypocrisy.

The big-three trifecta that makes up Better Together, however? Of course we can trust them! When have they ever steered us awry? "The Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats publicly acknowledge this reality (that the Scottish Parliament should have more powers)," claims Sir Menzies. But does anyone being realistic honestly think, in the event of a No vote and the removal of the threat of impending Unionist doom, that this calculation would stay the same?

I suppose it depends on your level of cynicism about the parties in question. On a scale of 1 to 10, I'm probably guilty of being stuck on about 12 and a half.

It's all very nice, talking about constructive unity, and how the Secretary of State for Scotland "should" get all three parties around a table in the event of a No vote (although I note a conspicuous absence of any mention of the SNP, Scotland's governing party no matter what the referendum result) and batter out proposals for enhanced devolution. But what exactly are English people and the MPs who represent them - who, remember, have no Parliament of their own and will have spent the last three years listening to Scotland debate breaking away - going to have to say about that?

I wouldn't at all blame them for expressing their disgruntlement in fairly vocal terms.

Sir Menzies Campbell has got it wrong here, numerous times and on numerous levels. He remains a man I like and admire. But the Scotland he loves is changing.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

What has truly been disastrous for the West?


The dictionary definition of "cataclysm":

"an event that causes a lot of destruction, or a sudden, violent change"

Never one to shirk from telling us what he really thinks, Lord George Robertson said today in a speech to the Brookings Institute in the US that Scottish independence would be "cataclysmic" for the Western world and boost the West's enemies. As former head of Nato, Lord Roberston ought to know about sudden, violent changes and events that cause a lot of destruction.

The force of such language as "cataclysmic" and "balkanisation" in the context of Scottish independence is beyond preposterous, which anyone with any sense of proportion can see. Violent language inherently connotes violence and extremity. What is being proposed in Scotland in the event of a Yes vote is an entirely peaceful, democratic, mutually-assured transference of power between two governments that meets all requirements of international law. The Yes movement is built on outward-looking ideals of co-operation, friendship, healthy civic and cross-national debate, and non-violence. The good Lord should know better. Using this kind of language has the potential to stoke unrest and hatred and he should be ashamed.

But what events in the recent history of the West have truly caused death and destruction and violent change? Overwhelmingly, it has been Western actions abroad. Joint military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya that have left all three countries in the grip of turbulent, protracted civil-wars.

In Iraq yesterday, 52 people were killed, 2 were executed and 52 people were injured. This is completely normal.

In Afghanistan yesterday, a roadside bomb killed 15 people in Kandahar.

In remarks published today, the French defence minister stated that southern Libya had become a "viper's nest" for Islamic militants and that they are "acquiring weapons and recruiting".

Lord Robertson talks of Scottish independence raising the "loudest cheers" from our enemies, "the forces of darkness". He misunderstands the West's enemies, which seems a glaring flaw in a former NATO General Secretary. Before the invasion of Iraq, al-Qaeda did not exist in Iraq. Our military campaigns in the Middle East have emboldened Islamic extremism, not deterred it. Every innocent Muslim that dies in one of these countries is a propaganda coup for the fundamentalists; the best and cheapest recruiting tool. Think the beating and killing by British troops of Baha Mousa in Basra. Think the UK's use of white phosphorus as a chemical weapon in Fallujah.

Western policies have actively incited unrest, death and violence in an already volatile region of the world, while increasing the risk of terrorism on our own shores exponentially.

This is not global stability.

Lord Roberston said:

"What could possibly justify giving the dictators, the persecutors, the oppressors, the annexers, the aggressors and the adventurers across the planet the biggest pre-Christmas present of their lives by tearing the United Kingdom apart?"

In fact, some of the best presents many of these "dictators", "persecutors" and "oppressors" receive all year round come from the massive bounties of guns, bombs and military equipment they purchase from British arms companies, signed off by the UK government. American, British and French arms companies dominate the top 30 largest arms sellers in the list compiled by the Stockholm Peace Institute.

The UK Government authorised £2.2 billion in arms sales to the autocracy in Bahrain at the height of Arab Spring unrest. Because of that, innocent Bahrainis died and were imprisoned and tortured. This decision flew in the face of the UK's own declared standard that it would not sell weapons to states where they "might be used to facilitate internal repression”. It did not matter a jot. It never does.

This is the reality of the UK's sanctimonious hypocrisy on human rights. This is why David Cameron just embarked enthusiastically on the first ever visit of a British Prime Minister to the central Asian republic of Kazakhstan, to cosy up to and arrange trade deals with another despot, in another country where suppression of dissent, torture and even state-sanctioned murder is common-place. Most likely with only the most tentative of "come on guys, give it a rest with that dictator-y stuff, would ya?"

David Cameron likes cosying up to dictators with grisly human rights records - not unlike the great invader himself, Tony Blair.

Similarly to Blair again, if David Cameron had had his way we would be at war with another Middle Eastern country right now: Syria.

By any objective measure, the UK's foreign policy taken as a whole, even including the good bits, does not point to a stabilising force for good and peace in the world. The UK is a nuclear-armed, heavily militarised, frequently aggressive state actor that has been complicit in war crimes.

Furthermore, UK foreign policy damages us at home. It has increased the risk of terrorism. 179 British families lost someone in the Iraq war. Iraq and Afghanistan combined are conservatively estimated to have cost the UK Treasury over £20 billion. What if that money had instead been used to improve vital public services? The same argument applies to the £2 - 2.4 billion we spend every year on Trident nuclear missiles.

As Scots and Britons, we need to recognise and acknowledge both the domestic and international implications of British foreign policy, and ask ourselves: what kind of country do we want to live in?

Do we condone civilians in far-away countries getting shot with British guns because it's good for the economy?

Are we willing to take swingeing cuts to social security and the steady dismantling of the welfare state on the chin, even while knowing the UK spent a decade draining away Treasury resources in a decade of war and by bailing out the foolish banks they foolishly neglected to regulate?

Are we happy that the UK's residual post-imperial pretensions to being a great power will always tempt British leaders into starting or entering into bloody, counter-productive  and expensive conflicts abroad, which always seem to make us less secure rather than more so, and in which Scottish and British servicemen and women are likely to die?

That innocent, nameless people in the countries we attack will die too, in their hundreds and thousands, whether by our guns and bombs or those of the forces we unleash?

All in wars that none of us ever asked or voted for?

Do we accept Trident nuclear weapons thirty miles from Scotland's largest city as simply a fact of life, so the UK can retain its status in the big-boys club?

Or do we instead aspire to be a country that promotes peace, nuclear disarmament and the protection of human rights abroad, both in word and in deed?

Are we brave enough to step into a polling booth on September the 18th and say to ourselves:

"I reject what UK foreign policy regularly does in my name around the world, because I reject the enabling of oppression and torture and dictatorships. I reject military aggression. I reject illegal wars and ill-judged interference in other countries' affairs. I reject the harming of innocent people around the world. I reject nuclear weapons, the bully's toys.
None of this is done in my name. I am voting Yes for mine and the nation's pride, not No in spite of mine and the nation's shame."