Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Feedback, and a comment worth sharing

So last Thursday's piece on my concerns for the pro-independence movement seemed to get a lot of people talking. Nearly 9,000 views later (which for me is astronomical) and umpteen comments and shares across a whole range of social media platforms, from Facebook to Twitter to Reddit to -

Okay, I'll stop, at the risk of sounding like a self-congratulatory bastard. Which I am, but still.

My point is, with it getting that much traction, I've had a lot of feedback to chew over.

Before I published, I thought if the piece did well I would be descended on and subjected to a torrent of abuse by the long-mythologised horde of cybernats; that my pro-independence and even pro-Scottish credentials would be questioned; that I would be dubbed a Unionist stooge.

Sorry to disappoint, but none of that has really materialised. Plenty of people have been critical of the piece, from both sides of the indy debate, but the criticism has been overwhelmingly about the piece itself rather than me, nastiness has been limited and most of the criticism has been constructive. Which is incredibly reassuring, and also tells me that things are rarely as bad as hand-wringing opinion pieces suggest (even my own).

Some criticism came from people I rather like.

Masterful tweeter David Halliday thought my use of the word "idiot" was ill-judged and unhelpful. It's a fair point.

However, he seemed to think I was talking about all "existential nationalists" - people who believe on principle that Scotland should be independent, and that indeed, all countries should be independent. As I pointed out to him, I believe Scotland should be independent on principle. I fit this definition of an existential nationalist, and I clearly wasn't writing about myself.

The keyword in what I'll admit was intended as a pithy, attention-grabbing headline was "all". The extreme Scottish nationalism I oppose - which certainly exists and is, in my opinion, growing - is the type which views absolutely everything through the Yes-No prism. I feel like I explained that in the piece - and I do believe that kind of narrow tribalism constitutes idiocy. So I stand by the headline, while also strongly suggesting anyone getting hung up on it reads past it.

Inveterate blogger and poll guru James Kelly of A Scot Goes Pop fame dedicated part of a blog post to the piece, and echoed similar concerns to David. He too thought the use of the word "idiot" undermined my arguments, and refuted that someone I'd described as such - for equating opposition to "Scotland being a nation" with being "anti-Scottish" - was indeed an idiot.

While not agreeing with this person's position, James writes that:

It can seem a little disingenuous for an individual to claim that their commitment to Scotland is entirely separate from their views on the way it should be governed.

I don' think there's anything disingenuous about it.

It might seem like an example of cognitive dissonance to James, but the reality is the vast majority of people who voted No didn't do so because they were against the idea of Scotland as a nation. To a nationalist it might seem self-evident that nations should be self-governing, but as James himself points out, Scotland has managed to maintain many of the characteristics of a nation whilst incorporating political union with a larger neighbour. The referendum wasn't a binary choice between "independent nation" or "not a nation at all" and few viewed it as such.

The most obvious proof of this attitude comes from censuses. The most recent, in 2011, showed that 62% of Scots consider themselves Scottish-only, with only 18% considering themselves Scottish and British. A mere 8% consider themselves British-only. Check that against the referendum results.

Baiting the large numbers of people who voted No, yet strongly identify as Scottish, by questioning their "commitment to Scotland" is wrong-headed on its own merits, but even more counter-productive from a campaigning perspective. Sorry James, but I maintain that guy is an idiot.

Note I'm saying "idiot". Not "my enemy", or "irredeemable monster".

But my "castigation" of such people, James insists, is "depressingly familiar" - and indeed, the fact that the blog was retweeted and shared by pro-Union journalists - "the usual suspects" - is used to immediately rubbish my criticisms. Could it be there is a reason why this tale is becoming so familiar that isn't just "the media/Unionists are dicks"?

While the post was shared without irony by members of the vicious church of #SNPout and their cyberunionist ilk, it was also shared in far greater numbers by Yes voters and supporters, with many of them chiming in agreement and echoing similar concerns. A head-in-sand attitude isn't going to cut it.

There was an implication by some pro-indy tweeters that I was helping Unionists - that I was giving "the other side" a big stick to beat our movement with. That I was giving them "ammunition". But ammunition implies a war footing that I do not believe exists anymore, and nor should it, because the referendum is over. Whenever the next one is, we have a few years yet, maybe longer. That makes this the perfect time for honest self-reflection.

Finally, the always-insightful Alistair Davidson, sometime columnist for Bella and Wings, tweeted that he hated the piece, criticising it for failing to offer a solution to the problems identified. Again, there is something in that. I didn't write it to be prescriptive but to express frustration and concern.

On that front, a commenter under the name of 'None' left a comment that I thought was spot-on, and goes some way towards outlining a few positive changes the movement for independence could make (while also managing to incorporate a simply stunning word: "arsewits"). I'm just going to leave it here, if he or she doesn't mind:

A great article, thanks for writing it. I agree with much of it and it nails a few things that have been worrying me since we lost the referendum. What follows is anecdotal evidence/therapy. 

I certainly don’t think the situation is hopeless, once you strip out the vanishingly small number of out and out zoomers we’re left with a lot of passionate, energetic people who unfortunately don’t have the first clue about effective campaigning but want to do something.

I know a lot of otherwise perfectly nice, reasonable people who come across like total arsewits on social media, who’ll happily sit up all night arguing with an obvious troll but
didn’t chap a door or deliver so much as a leaflet during the indyref. Similarly, even during the referendum campaign there were folk who actually felt they’d made a real contribution because they went to a meeting or a rally, or if they were super active went to all the rallies and meetings they could. Curiously enough these are usually the same folk who think the referendum was fixed but want another one next week anyway. 

So that’s their bad points but they’re also well meaning, as far from blood and soil nationalism as you can get, generally left leaning and I believe people who could prove to be an asset. 

The central Yes campaign, in my view failed to train enough activists and were very fortunate there were so many experienced and talented people willing to take the initiative at grassroots level. Imagine how many activists we’d have now if they’d done more than announce activist training, invite sign ups and go on to train three men, a dog and a shop mannequin or however many it was. 

In addition I think it was a mistake for the official Yes campaign to simply wind down. Had it continued as a scaled down research and activist training organisation, it could have provided a useful place for many who now faithfully trot along to Hope Over Fear rallies. Regardless of what you or I think of HOF, it is providing leadership and activity for the Yes movement. It wouldn’t be that hard to provide better and more constructive leadership, we’re failing to do so and we either address that or leave them in charge. 

Yep, there is a troubling zoomer element but it’s ranks are swollen with folk who have something useful to give. Yes, they’re as frustrated as they are frustrating, yes they get a bit carried away but they’re not useless. They have potential, if someone is willing to realise it. 

Scottish Labour and the terrifying silence

Originally published on Common Space here

In new Doctor Who ('NuWho' for us nerds), 'The Silence' are a scary group of aliens whose powers involve immediately being forgotten after you’ve seen them, and blasting bolts of lightning from their hands Emperor Palpatine-style.
Credit: BBC
It turns out they are a quasi-religious order whose motto is: "Silence will fall when the question is asked."
Going by last night’s Question Time, that question in Scottish politics is apparently: "Fancy voting Labour again?"
I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed anything quite like the dead silence that followed what was presumably intended to be a passionate declaration of Labour values by Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale. It would take a hard heart not to feel sorry for someone suffering that kind of embarrassment on national TV.
Dugdale said: "Believing in the potential of people, and using the power of government to realise that potential - that’s the Labour way. I want to build a fairer, more equal country, and I think over the next few weeks and months you’ll see a Labour policy platform come forward which will inspire you once again."
The Edinburgh audience weren’t even inspired to boo.
Here’s the thing - replace 'Labour' with 'the SNP' in that paragraph, and Dugdale with Sturgeon, and that little speech gets rapturous applause.
People aren’t listening to Labour in Scotland anymore. They just aren’t. They don’t believe what they say, they don’t care what they say. The result is that whenever they do speak there’s a faint air of ridiculousness about the whole thing, like a jokey misjudged funeral speech.
In the run-up to Corbyn’s election I remember opining on the challenge his leadership might pose the SNP. That challenge seems to have dissipated like a fart in the wind. I thought a Corbynite party in Scotland might have been able to steal some of their social-democratic clothes back from the SNP.
But they seem just as naked as they did during Jim Murphy’s tenure, only now, they’re naked and confused. Part of this is down to a strand of implacable opposition to Labour that blossomed and crystallised during the independence referendum - but the reality is Corbyn and Dugdale have rather a lot to answer for.
As sceptical - and, indeed, hostile - as swathes of the Scottish public were to Labour, I believe they were interested in at least giving Corbyn a hearing. Attacking the SNP in the typical Scottish Labour way as he did on national TV - poorly briefed, riddled with factual inaccuracies, and blaming the Nationalists for Tory policies with regards to railway privatisation - did him the sum total of zero favours.
The fact that his first party conference had the air of the Balkans prior to Franz Ferdinand getting shot probably didn’t help. People say Scots are more left-wing, and that might be true, but generally speaking we are hardly radicals - we generally like to see at least a semblance of unity, discipline and credibility in our political parties.
Finally, calling out the SNP’s stance against austerity as tokenistic would probably carry more weight had Corbyn not now jettisoned or put under review an array of key policies, from nuclear disarmament, to free tuition, to the nationalisation of energy companies.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell says "come home". Corbyn says they are "the left-wing alternative". Feeling vaguely patronised and generally unimpressed, Scotland stops listening.
As for Kezia, she is attempting a U-turn of a sales pitch she was never likely to pull off, having previously criticised the prospect of a Corbyn leadership as likely to result in years of "carping at the sidelines".
The leader of a less tainted party might have been able to pull it off. Her Freudian slip last night - "I wouldn’t write Jeremy Corbyn off yet" - simply reaffirmed the notion that she doesn’t believe in her colleague (and boss, whatever they’re saying about 'autonomy').
When speechifying from the Scottish Labour leader causes nothing but an "is that right, aye" silence - not even a heckle - they should start worrying. I mean panicking - apocalyptically.
It points to years of creeping irrelevancy - a long journey into the political wilderness that may not see them return, and the fall of their last local bastions of power in the local elections of 2017.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

If all you care about is independence, you're an idiot

You have to watch ideologies. Once they build up a head of steam, it becomes hard to stop them going too far, at which point they begin to wreck discourse.

It feels to me as if Scottish nationalism is becoming, or has become, one such ideology. 

If Scottish nationalism means thinking that Scotland should be an independent nation, and that Scottish culture and language are a thing, then count me an adherent. For all the protestations during the referendum that none of us Yes supporters were really nationalists, to varying degrees we probably all were.

For those Yes supporters still adamant that there’s not a nationalist bone in their body - fine. But we all have to take responsibility for the direction of Scottish nationalism if we ever want to see the movement for independence succeed.

Maybe today is just one of my bad days, but it seems like the optimistic, outward-looking, inclusive movement I was so proud to be part of in the summer of 2014 has died an ignominious, off-screen death and been reanimated by idiots.

I don’t doubt the existence of nice, smart, sane Nats - indeed, I know many of them. In fact, I know they are in the majority. But the minority are loud. Too loud, very “proactive” on social media (although the word in this case seems counter-intuitive), and obnoxious to boot.

I am losing track of the amount of aneurysm-inducing conversations I’ve had with “my own” side. One such exchange was just the other week, during the unbelievably depressing stramash that occurred on the political twitter-sphere in the wake of Scotland’s Rugby World Cup defeat to Australia.

“Surely,” an idiot tweeted, “if you’re implicitly against the idea of Scotland being a nation, then you are by definition anti-Scottish?”

This kind of coarse logic, completely devoid of empathy for those who disagree, completely unwilling to even try and understand why they might, is more commonplace than many of the nice, smart, sane Nats I know can possibly be comfortable with – the idea of the “90 minute patriot” that Jim Sillars so regrettably introduced into the Scottish political lexicon over 20 years ago.

My girlfriend voted No. My grandmother voted No. Friends of mine, colleagues of mine, classmates of mine voted No. For my girlfriend’s birthday, I put her presents in a tartan gift bag and wrote on the accompanying card: “Sorry about the tartan. I know you hate Scotland.”

For the avoidance of doubt, this is what is called a joke. The idea that people who I might once have considered allies are saying this kind of thing without irony is tragic and dispiriting.

I’m from a middle-class town called North Berwick, a half-hour drive from Edinburgh, which heavily voted No. They were unconvinced by the economic case, by the arguments on currency, on mortgages, on pensions. Polls do not suggest any great shift among these people.

Like it or not, these were and are their concerns, and they were and remain legitimate until we produce arguments that win them over. Lots of people like this rejected the independence proposition because they simply didn’t believe it was the right choice.

If we don’t engage with those 2 million plus and understand their decision, instead of using sporting occasions to castigate them and question their patriotism, newsflash: we will never, ever win.

There’s a similar attitude to the “mainstream” media (THE BIASED MSM©), with the ever-growing sense that anything critical of the SNP government or individuals within the party is a Unionist smear-campaign designed to discredit the Scottish people.

I can’t say I don’t get it. You’d be hard-placed to find a Yes campaigner who wasn’t pissed off at media coverage during the referendum. But snarling at fair-minded, decent journalists on Twitter, like James Cook from the BBC, or Mandy Rhodes from Holyrood magazine, or Kevin McKenna from the Guardian, will do no-one any favours at all. 

A personal favourite example of this is probably the person who called for a boycott of all No-supporting newspapers - including the Guardian, whose pro-independence columnists have included Mike Small, Lesley Riddoch and Irvine Welsh (to name three of many) - as well as The Herald. 

The Herald - whose final editorial line by referendum day was a cautious, qualified No, flirting with neutrality - is, of course, owned by the Herald Group, who also own Scotland’s only pro-independence newspapers, the Sunday Herald and the National. 

I asked if they were planning to boycott them too. Someone responded: “Point taken, but no.”

Media literacy is not the same thing as implacable hostility to the media.


We need to understand the function of journalism in a democratic society. Citizens have a right to hold journalists to account, but dismissing any and all journalism that contains criticism of the SNP as simply another addition to the “#SNPBAD” hashtag is diversionary and pathetic.

It also sends a disquieting message: journalism that contains criticism of the Nationalists or their government is not real journalism, and is not worthy of consideration.

The reflexive mockery of anything critical of the SNP is an understandable response to the sense many Nationalists and other independence supporters have had of being hounded for years by an almost uniformly hostile press.

But the old media is changing before our eyes. For one thing, four of Scotland’s eight newspapers endorsed the SNP at the last General Election.

The old media is also shrinking; ceding territory in the digital era. A minority of nationalists glory in the ever-diminishing workforce of The Scotsman, like their glee at the fate of hundreds of Scots steelworkers. “Karma chumps,” as one of them tweeted, due to the Steelworkers’ Union backing for a No vote. 

However fringe a view this might be, it’s not that hard to come across, and represents a level of spite that will create nothing but alienation. 

Unfortunately, it’s not even just perceived No’s getting this sort of treatment. Other pro-independence organisations are beginning to experience similarly myopic, reductive arguments.  

One friend of mine, part of new pro-indy left-wing alliance RISE, has said he has been accused of being “a splitter” and even “a secret unionist”, and thinks there are “a rising number of ‘you’re either with us or you’re against us’ SNP members.”

His planned SNP constituency vote in next May’s Holyrood elections is now in doubt.

Earlier this year, the Scottish Greens faced accusations of betrayal for daring to oppose Full Fiscal Autonomy, based on a principled position they had maintained throughout the referendum campaign that fiscal powers would be insufficient and potentially even damaging without control over monetary policy.

You can agree or disagree with that, but alienating the Greens for their position is surely detrimental to the cause of the independence movement.

There is a nasty, personal, paranoid and perennially upset politics growing within pro-independence networks, and I do not believe it is merely restricted to a periphery of zoomers on social media.

The never-dull blog ‘A Thousand Flowers’ would be the first to admit that they really, really don’t like Tommy Sheridan – and it is a fair comment to suggest that their reports on the Solidarity-run ‘Hope Over Fear’ rallies might come with an obvious agenda.

Nonetheless, they have made increasingly sobering reading. 

At the most recent, last month, they report “bubbling away not so far under the surface” is “some backwards, worrying rhetoric.”

From one speaker who “furiously bellowed about ‘traitors’”, to another who spoke of “a proud Celtic nation about to break with their foreign masters”, it gets rather hard to dismiss this stuff as the hyperbole of an overzealous fringe when it’s produced on a stage at a rally with thousands of people.

“Oh, but Tommy’s not the independence movement,” you might argue. And you’d be right. But in the space of a year, his ‘Hope Over Fear’ organisation has staked out a large claim within that movement on the back of strident rhetoric of an increasingly ethnic nationalist bent.

This stridency and anger is also exemplified in sections of the pro-independence media and blogosphere – with ‘Wings Over Scotland’ the most well-known example.

Disclaimer: I often enjoy Wings, and Stu has always been pleasant to me. I used his website as a resource during the referendum and thought it contained some of the best analysis anywhere in the media – new or old. 

But with the referendum over, a bitterness permeates his writing, while the negative reaction to his abuse of JK Rowling was laughed off as people getting upset at a bit of potty mouth against a billionaire. His comments section laughed along, peppered with the odd personal attack on Rowling. 

Like most Yessers, I was hardly delighted when Rowling came out for No. But I could at least respect her for putting her money where her mouth was. What is anyone getting out of attacking her personally now?

At such times it feels as though Rev Stu has abandoned any notion of persuasion in favour of preaching abrasively to the converted, while carving out a niche for himself as prince of the ad hominem.

But he’s always been the abrasive sort, courting controversy. That can make for decent or at least entertaining journalism, but whether he (or any of his pro-indy detractors) like it or not, Stu now finds himself an important figurehead in Scotland’s independence movement.

Even in 2013, he was writing posts validating the hardline nationalist view that a No-voter was not a real patriot:

Jim Sillars got in a lot of trouble in the early 1990s for calling Scottish people ‘90-minute patriots’, suggesting that they were proud Scots for the duration of football matches but then happy to meekly submit to UK rule after the final whistle. He quickly backed away from the line under a barrage of criticism, even though it was demonstrably true.

“Happy to meekly submit” is not really very far away from “quisling” in terms of connotative meaning. I wonder how many No voters would merrily agree that they are indeed - “demonstrably” - meek, submissive cowards?

It’s fair to say the Rev isn’t exactly mellowing with age, but his influence since the referendum has grown markedly. He should consider that more thoughtfully.

He is not alone. The SNP too need to watch what they’re doing. This brings us to English Votes for English Laws

Let’s acknowledge a few things here. 

First: up until very recently, the policy of the SNP’s Westminster contingent was not to vote on matters that only affect England - period. Exceptions have recently been made - or threatened - over tuition fees and fox-hunting. 

Secondly, the Tories promised EVEL in their manifesto and won a majority, meaning they have as clear a mandate to put it into law as the SNP did to call the independence referendum in 2011. 

Third: Nicola Sturgeon has already let us know via Twitter that she’s actually rather pleased with EVEL, as she thinks it “will drive support for independence”.

Going by social media, you’d be inclined to agree with her, with every aggrieved nationalist out baying for Cameron’s blood and having hysterical legal debates about whether or not EVEL has breached the Acts of Union.

And apparently, a whole bunch of people who want an independent Scotland now think it is an outrage that a Scot might never again be UK Prime Minister.

But what do the 2 million plus who voted No think? Will spittle-flecked members of the Scottish Resistance be able to convince them that this “feeble, milquetoast” Parliamentary reform (in the words of Lalland Peat Worrier) constitutes the relegation to second-class citizenry that will compel them to cast a future Yes vote?

Colour me unconvinced.

But where are the keyboard warriors taking their cues from? 

Well - the SNP for starters. Nearly all of their MPs have rounded on the long-heralded change with hyperbole worthy of having just had the Enabling Act thrust on them. As pro-indy commentator and former broadcaster Derek Bateman put it

Some of the Nationalist hysteria is enough to induce a wry smile and a knowing wink - this is one we can build a grievance on.

But the people who do most of the brick-work in building these grievances are social media users and activists - and more often than not, they take it to extremes.

That’s what scares me about a Donald Trump or a Nigel Farage - I see the stuff they’re willing to come out with on TV or in print and I think, “Christ, if that’s what they’re saying, I wonder what their supporters are like.”

So when Stewart Hosie seemed to quite deliberately conflate, at his recent Party Conference speech, criticism of the SNP’s record in government with “talking Scotland down”, is anyone surprised that the more ardent nationalists adopt a “you’re either with us or you’re against us” mindset, or wind up using expressions like “traitors” and “anti-Scottish”?

Take a look at any number of the Scottish nationalist groups proliferating on Facebook, many with thousands, some with tens of thousands of members. Paranoia, conspiracism, descriptions of Scotland as enslaved or oppressed, and death wishes against Tory politicians are all rife.

Lifted from one of the ubernat Facebook groups

 Note: the fanatical Unionists are just as bad and often worse, and also take their cues from politicians, journalists and prominent figures. The ugliest example of narrow tribalism I have come across comes from a Unionist, and former Labour MP, David Hamilton, who described “the Nationalists” as “our enemy all of our lives” (before rather more infamously going on to describe Nicola Sturgeon as “the wee lassie with a tin helmet on”).

Talk of enemies and traitors is in the political air now, and it is not only poisonous to discourse but dangerous too. As much as the majority of people don’t think this way, nationalism of this kind is able to breed virulently in the right conditions - in an atmosphere of endless grievance and counter-grievance.

You will never hear me say that nationalism, broadly defined, is inherently bad or cannot do good things. It can and it has, in many countries. I’m not all of a sudden saying Scottish nationalism in of itself is a bad thing - indeed I think, as far as nationalisms go, and certainly until recently, ours has been relatively positive.

But when the “hardcore fringe” begins to number in the many thousands, I believe we need to take a good, long hard look at why that is so. 

For these nationalists, the independence question is all that matters. Everything they think - about politics, about economics, about other people - stems from the binary mindset of “you’re either for independence/Scotland/the SNP or against”. An increasing illogic seeps in, a paranoia that sees media bias in the most neutral, balanced of analyses, and is fed by an echo chamber that pro-independence politicians and the nascent pro-independence media surely have a duty to try and bring back to reality, rather than fan its flames.


If Scottish independence is all you care about then you need to open your eyes and take a look at the world.

We can say all of this is just the preserve of a minority and dismiss it if we like - again. I did this often and loudly myself during the referendum campaign, in the face of the hysterical campaign of harassment against “cybernats” by the tabloids. 

We can point out that the Unionist trolls are just as bad or worse if we like - again. That’s fine, and maybe even true.

We can cast it all as an unfortunate feature of an irrelevant social media echo-chamber - but that would be mistaken. The pro-independence movement was built online, and many independence supporters - including myself - use social media as a vital resource for keeping informed.

People argue that social media doesn’t constitute “reality”. Of course it does. It’s people who use it, after all. Indeed, as a conduit for allowing people to say what they really think, it arguably provides more insight than debating with strangers in a pub.  

Are the people who will dismiss the arguments made in this article so certain that the unpleasant, febrile atmosphere that can easily be discovered within pro-independence networks online has not manifested or will not manifest itself similarly on the streets, in the “real world”? 

Are they sure the prominent voices within the independence movement who function as key influencers for such groups bear absolutely no responsibility for the rhetoric of the “zoomers”?

The reality is that there are idiots in our ranks - and they’re getting louder. The movement for independence needs to get its head around why that is - and then do something about it.

Friday, 10 April 2015

It's not even cost-effective prejudice

Republished with permission by Common Space. Original article here

At the seven-way Party Leaders’ clash last night, UKIP leader Nigel Farage again courted controversy with the suggestion that migrants with the HIV virus should be barred from entering the country. He defended his remarks, as he did the last time, on the basis of the costs of so-called “health tourism”.

The first time Farage caused a furore over this issue, you may remember, was in October last year, when he said to Newsweek Europe that barring migrants with HIV from entering the UK would be “a good start” towards sorting out the UK’s immigration system.

Later he justified his point during an LBC radio phone-in as follows:

If we turn the NHS – and the clue is in the name – into a global health service, we have a severe problem with resources.

At the time, I made a few Freedom of Information requests into this issue, to satisfy my own curiosity that not only was Mr Farage a nasty man deliberately pandering to Daily Mail-reading pond-life, but also that his points had no economic merit.

Even I was surprised at just how lacking in cost-efficiency Farage’s offensive wee plan was.

One FOI request to the Office of National Statistics revealed that, as I thought, there are currently no health-related questions given to migrants upon entering the country. In fact the UK, in contrast to most other countries, has never screened migrants coming in for the HIV virus. What Mr Farage is suggesting would necessitate a fundamental change, in both policy and moral terms: one from a long and proud history of tolerance for people unfortunate enough to be stricken down with a terrible disease, to intolerance.

Do the costs of healthcare tourism justify it?

Another FOI request pointed me to a series of government reports offering detailed figures on health tourism, which it defined in two categories, first as “people who have travelled with a deliberate intention to obtain free healthcare to which they are not entitled”, and secondly “frequent visitors registered with GPs who ‘take advantage’ of routine treatment.” These two categories represent a cost of “between £70m and £300m” to the NHS’ £109 billion budget. Taking the figure at the higher end of the scale, that still only constitutes 0.28% of the NHS budget.

I’m not sure what Mr Farage is talking about when he cites that £2 billion figure, as he did again last night. Well actually, I have a pretty good idea. I guess he is conflating the idea of “health tourism”, which is very specifically assigned to the act of taking NHS care without contributing to the NHS, with the usage of the NHS by all non-permanent British residents. Irrespective of whether they work or study here. Irrespective of their contributions in tax or National Insurance, or what they provide for their community.

That’s the only warped way UKIP can lay claim on that ridiculous £2 billion figure. Really, it’s between £70 and £300 million.

A third FOI request to the Department of Health showed that, of the estimated 107,800 people in the UK living with HIV, around 81,500 people received HIV care from the health service in 2012, with the cost of HIV services to NHS England sitting at £630 million. If this figure sounds large, put into context it represents around £12 per head for the taxpayer in England.

If, at its highest, health tourism costs 0.28% of our healthcare budget, then the health tourism from the HIV services budget can be estimated at around £1.8 million.
Even for a man like Nigel Farage, is saving three pence Sterling per head of England’s population really enough of an efficiency to justify a policy of discrimination against HIV-positive migrants? As BHIVA, the leading national association representing professionals in HIV care, said in their statement responding to Farage back in October: “His stance completely ignores the positive contribution made to society by people with HIV, and threatens to reignite the sort of discrimination and stigma attached to HIV that the vast majority of people in the UK had hoped was consigned to history.”

Or 3p per taxpayer. That’s right, three pennies a year, each. Hardly seems like “a severe problem with resources.”

What we saw in the debate last night was pathetic. It was a man pandering, irrespective of the economics, irrespective of the offence caused, irrespective of morality, to the basest opinions in Britain. He was shoring up his base. That’s Britain First. That’s the EDL. That’s former voters of the BNP. The worst part is, Farage may not even believe in this stuff himself. He may be just saying it. How messed-up is that?

Stewart MacDonald, PPC for the SNP in Glasgow South, said it most eloquently in a piece for Bella:

What Farage has failed to mention is how people live with HIV in the modern age. We now know more about the disease than ever before, meaning that drugs are widely available to those diagnosed with HIV so that they can live an otherwise normal and healthy life. A virus that previously sentenced millions to death is now being contained, meaning that people can still live a life with their loved ones, mothers, uncles, brothers and friends. No longer do we incubate people and manage their death. Instead we treat people medically and empower them to overcome the stigma that is, albeit slowly, dying off. People with HIV are living and working amongst us. Nigel Farage knows this.

Yes, he knows. He just doesn’t care. He wants migrants with HIV gone, irrespective of whether they work or study here, irrespective of their contributions in tax or National Insurance, irrespective of what they provide for their community. And irrespective of the fact that it barely registers on the health service’s bill.

What a sad little man.


Originally published here on Bella Caledonia

That's because Labour wouldn't let the job centres advertise them.

This - though I've paraphrased - was David Cameron's pathetic, weasel-worded explanation for the explosion in food banks his government has presided over, during his recent Battle for Number 10 interview with Jeremy Paxman. He was lying. He was lying wilfully. In the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's analysis on this subject, the number one reason for the use of food banks is benefit sanctions and delays.

This inhumane regime is literally driving people to their deaths.

A father, Benjamin Del MacDonald, who "doted" on his five-year-old daughter, was driven to suicide in East Lancashire after his benefits were stopped last November.

The same month, a woman who suffered from chronic back pain - and founded her own charity for others suffering from chronic pain - killed herself after the DWP threatened benefit withdrawal and also demanded thousands of pounds from her in backdated benefits. On the day the results of the inquest into Julia Kelly's death were announced, Iain Duncan Smith called taking people off benefits an example of "Conservative compassion."

Army veteran and diabetic David Clapson who served during the Troubles, died in Stevenage last July with no food in his stomach, £3.44 in his account, and an out-of-credit electricity meter. He was unable to keep his insulin chilled as a result. He died of diabetic ­ketoacidosis.

Sheila Holt from Rochdale, who had suffered from severe bipolar disorder since childhood, was forced into the Work Programme in 2013. She was sectioned under the Mental Health Act in December of that year, after the pressure from the Work Programme led her into a manic episode. Later she had a heart attack that put her into a coma and caused brain damage. She died last month in hospital.

A man Irvine Welsh described as "the poet laureate of Leith", Paul Reekie, committed suicide only a month after the Coalition Government came to power, after his housing benefit, along with the incapacity benefit he claimed for severe depression, was stopped.

These are just five examples from a heinously long list. The DWP has carried out "60 peer reviews following the death of a customer" since 2012. Some customer service that is.

The Conservatives are not planning to disclose where the £12 billion of further welfare cuts they have proposed are going to fall. Five weeks out from an election and they aren't even willing to lie about it. They're just not telling.

Cameron spoke of cuts to welfare as though they were the only option. Nuclear weapons we'll never use and maintain purely for prestige are more important than society's most vulnerable. A train line is more important than society's most vulnerable. Cutting tax for people earning millions is more important than society's most vulnerable. Burning through cash to bomb what is now a hell-hole, Libya, was more important than society's most vulnerable.

But it's worse than merely not helping them. They've actively fucked them. Benefit sanctions that kill. Nearly a million on foodbanks. The slave labour of Workfare. The closing of all Remploy factories. Their complicity, their participation, in the right-wing press' demonisation agenda, against anyone who's not from round here or has fallen on hard times.

The costs of benefit fraud are completely dwarfed by those of tax avoidance and evasion. It's like being a shopkeeper, getting your till emptied by professional thieves, then rounding on the kid who nicked a couple cola bottles out the pick 'n' mix.

The City of London - and ridiculously, deliberately convoluted UK tax laws - are a huge part of this epidemic. Yes, it's an international problem. But as The Economist put it in 2013:

The City of London, which pioneered offshore currency trading in the 1950s, still specialises in helping non-residents get around the rules.

Everyone knows this. Some call the Square Mile the "tax haven capital of the world". They are the international problem - at the very least, a huge part of it. Along with the politicians they bankroll. George Osborne's tokenistic £5 billion target on recouped avoided tax in his recent budget - only 5% of the black hole avoidance and evasion is estimated to generate -  would have more crediblity had it not come from a man who, as an MP, recommended "legal" tax avoidance to a caller live on national television.

But no, it's welfare that's the problem. That, and funding for local councils. These are the only two areas besides their own Government departments the Conservatives can possibly think to cut - social security and core local services.

Iain Duncan Smith can't tell us where exactly, though - at least, not until the Tories are safely back in power. The same despicable man whose disastrous tenure as leader of the Conservative Party was backed by the pro-Apartheid Springbok Club, while his campaign for leader was vice-chaired by the father of Nick Griffin, Edgar Griffin, a believer in voluntary repatriation for ethnic minorities. The same man who ignored the food bank charity, the Trussell Trust, for a year while they asked for an audience to talk about child poverty, but instead then met JP fucking Morgan to brainstorm the issue. The same man whose Damascene conversion to social justice in Easterhouse in 2002 was revealed as the cruellest and most shallow demagoguery when he actually got a chance to do something about it.

Not even this well-practised forked tongue deigns us worthy of a lie. It's none of our business where they cut. Although DWP leaks suggest restrictions on Child Benefit, tightening eligibility criteria for the Carer's Allowance, and most ludicrous of all, taxing Disability Benefit. Taxing a benefit. You read that right.

But these are just ideas, we're assured. I mean, sometimes I get the idea I'd like to watch PMQ's, but then I remember I'd rather eat my own eyes. However, does anyone think for a nanosecond that the Tories we've seen over the last five years - diluted by the Liberal Democrats, let's remember - would balk at a single one of these proposals?

I am no fan of Labour. They invented the benefit sanction. They laid the groundwork for the bedroom tax. Their complete complicity in the Thatcherite media narrative dominating UK politics is beyond depressing. I am very glad to have the SNP to vote for instead. That said, I'd infinitely rather have a shitty Labour government than the unbearably cruel hypocrites and liars in the Conservative Party.

I was taught that looking after your most vulnerable was the mark of a civilised society. We are not a civilised society. The privileged and comfortable might scoff at that, but the families of people who've killed themselves in desperation, because of a benefits system designed to make their lives a misery of stigma and hardship - I don't think they would.

When Cameron talks about "finishing the job", be afraid. Think what that means in relation to the people in our society who need help the most. There is only one word for this Prime Minister, this Party, this Government.


Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Sinister Salmond's deeply divisive democratic diddling

If you were to sum up the general attitude at Westminster to the prospect of the SNP sending down a legion of MPs, with Alex Salmond apparently leading the charge (because he's the only one whose name they can remember), it's basically a noisy, spluttering, barely coherent shriek of "How dare he? How dare they?"

These prospective SNP MPs can only be elected by the Scottish people in May. So what this really all translates to is: "How dare the Scots?"

The Establishment fear of Salmond and the SNP - and, in turn, the Scottish electorate - has manifested into a rampage of barely concealed bigotry from elements of the UK press, ranging from anti-Scots polemic to outright sexism against Nicola Sturgeon. It's fair to say the SNP probably enjoys this fear; thrives on it, even. Every blustering Tory who tells Alex Salmond that his plans for nuclear disarmament and propping up a Labour government fill them with "absolute horror", the wider the political gulf between Holyrood and Westminster seems.

The Conservatives, a party so blindly lacking in self-awareness one wonders if they should be given politically-astute guide dogs, have slammed as "deeply sinister" the SNP's intent to use their probable parliamentary clout to block a minority Tory government. They even went as far as to call it "sabotaging the democratic will of the British people". This from a party with a single Scottish MP, which nonetheless controls Scotland's social security, the vast majority of its taxation, and its defence. Of course, Salmond's words to the New Statesman were merely a reiteration of longstanding SNP policy. Here's Nicola Sturgeon in November of last year:

The SNP would not impose a Tory government we didn't vote for on Scotland... The SNP would never, ever put the Tories in government.

They've been pretty unequivocal about that for a long time, showing just how bleeding slow Westminster and the media are.

The reason for the lack of compromise is obvious. Scotland doesn't vote Conservative. Scotland doesn't want a Conservative government. It's in the SNP's interest to be seen to prevent a Conservative government, even if the cynic in me argues 5 more years of Tories is more in their long-term interest. But they have to be seen to be willing to block a Tory government. That is essential. It would be a huge electoral blunder not to.

As much as an increasingly irrelevant-sounding Labour Party continue to claim a vote for the SNP is a vote for the Tories, the London media's drive to strike fear into the heart of the common Englishman, at the thought of a king-making horde of Nats sweeping into the Commons, says all that needs to be said to the Scottish people. We've had decades of voting Labour and it basically never mattered - we've only got the government we voted for if England agreed. We've voted Labour and got the Tories so many times that, really, Labour's assertion that voting SNP lets the Tories in is almost impressive in its audacity. Unfortunately, they've not fully understood what Scotland already has: the game has changed.

On the current predictions by Electoral Calculus, a hypothetical Labour/SNP/Plaid/Green agreement would actually command a fractionally higher percentage of the vote than Tony Blair did in his landslide 1997 victory.

More importantly, they would command a clear majority of seats. In fact, by the Calculus' count, Labour wouldn't even need Plaid or the Greens for thatIt's who can command a majority of seats - not who is the largest party - that ultimately decides who forms the eventual government. If it were true that the largest party always forms the government, then why was Nick Clegg in coalition talks with the Labour Party at all after the 2010 election, talks which reportedly only fell apart because Gordon Brown refused to step down as Prime Minister? 

It is patently less democratic to allow a minority Tory government to govern even if they are unable to build a majority coalition, than it is to give two parties, who do carry a majority of seats between them, a crack at it. Especially if you're ardent proponents of the First Past the Post voting system, as the Tories are.

I'd advise the Tories not to hate the player. Hate the game.

Salmond is clearly loving the game at the moment, and why shouldn't he? His prior status as bogeyman during the referendum has placed him perfectly to reprise the role, this time with little to lose and everything to gain. Even leaving aside the running joke that he stopped being leader of the SNP over six months ago.

As for Scottish Labour, what can you say?

A Labour spokesperson said in response to Salmond’s New Statesman interview: “This is not a news story. Alex Salmond has been saying this for months. The only way to get rid of the Tory government is to vote Labour.”

The first part of that is right. Well done Labour, gold star, smiley face. But just saying that last sentence must have given the spokesperson a near-fatal nosebleed.

All the polls uniformly suggest there will be a hung parliament, a near dead-heat between the two largest parties. All the polls suggest the SNP will be the third largest party. The SNP have just said, again, that they will block a Tory government, and have also said they will back Labour unconditionally. Scotland has voted Labour for decades, and wound up with Tory governments over half the time. Why do Scottish Labour keep trying to sell a message that has no credibility? Haven't they learned yet that it's the lies and scare tactics that have got them to where they are today? It's a page out of the old Better Together playbook: keep hammering away at the negative messaging, irrespective of the facts, and hope that some of it sinks in.

Christ almighty, how about giving us a good, dare I say it, positive reason to vote Labour?

The attacks of the Conservative Party and the London media on the SNP - the fear, the outrage that we might make our voices heard in a way that could upset the apple cart, the pressure Miliband felt to rule out a formal coalition with the SNP - it all points to one thing. A vote for the SNP is a vote to rock the establishment. It is not a vote for more of the same. It is not a vote for the Tories; nor is it a vote for an easy life for Labour.

Is Salmond trying to rub Westminster up the wrong way? Most likely. But keeping us in the "family of nations" has its price. That price is the SNP at Westminster - if they get put there at the ballot box, that is. That's not what I'd call a "sabotage" of democracy. That's what I'd call democracy.