Saturday, 19 May 2012

A straight debate

A few weeks ago Stuart Campbell, who blogs at Wings over Scotland, invited me to debate with him in the restricted format he proposed in this post. We've now held that debate, and the result is below.

Question 1

I'm a devolutionist. I see great value in the devolved legislatures of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Devolution has been embraced most firmly in Scotland, not least because of our already established separate legal and social structures which were always painfully administered from the old Scottish Office and are far more effectively led from our parliament. The 1998 Scotland Act's system of reservations rather than devolutions means the vast majority of Scotland's every day leadership comes from Holyrood. And the 2012 Scotland Act has reduced those reservations still further. The present Scottish Government has an absolute majority who are incredibly loyal to its leadership. It has a legislative free-rein and a budget of £30 billion a year. And it claims to be determined to act in the interests of Scots.

So my question is this: is it not utterly transparent, and grotesquely hypocritical, for that government to be effectively sitting on its hands for the last year and the next two, to continue to blame Westminster and paint a picture of a nation held back, to ignore - and even allow to wither - the economic levers at its fingertips, and to instead gamble the welfare of Scots on the prize of independence (which a majority of Scots have consistently said they do not want) rather than to work as hard as possible to improve the lot of Scots right now, with the extensive powers it already has?

No. It's a bit disappointing that you've opened with a "Have you stopped beating your wife?" question, because clearly I absolutely disagree that the Scottish Government is doing any such thing at all. What are these levers it's allowing to wither? There are currently no tax-varying powers available to the Parliament, for example, and there won't be for several years. The budget is decreasing in real terms, and costs are rising. If you know where a few billion extra pounds can be located, I'm sure the Scottish Government will be extremely keen to hear from you.

It seems to be the consensus of opinion that the SNP was re-elected so comprehensively in 2011 not as a result of a surge in support for independence but because it had done a good job of running the economy in the preceding four years, in difficult circumstances. Your assertion, then, wouldn't seem to be supported by the electorate thus far, and your claims about what's going to happen in the next two years are obviously pure speculation with no basis in fact, so I'm not sure how useful they are to a constructive debate.

The fact is, independence would put billions directly back into the Scottish economy BEFORE you start talking about oil or renewables or other such variable income sources. The likely savings on defence alone would be in the region of £5bn plus in a single Parliamentary term - enough to pay for GARL, EARL, the new Forth crossing and the dualling of the A9, with probably enough left over to finish off the Great Tram Folly that Labour insisted on foisting on Edinburgh, spitefully setting fire to almost a billion pounds purely to give the SNP a bloody nose.

(On top of the hundreds of millions the Lab-Lib administrations of 1999-2007 handed back to London because, astonishingly, they couldn't think of anything to spend it on. What a shame they didn't invest it in, say, building social housing that would have alleviated some of the pressure currently being piled onto the poor. How many houses was it in Labour's last term of office? Six, wasn't it?)

As for whether "the majority of Scots don't want independence", we'll find out whether that's true or not pretty soon - the SNP, after all, aren't the ones who've desperately fought tooth and nail to avoid having it put to the test all this time. But I have no intention of taking their answer for granted.

It was more of a "why are you still beating your wife?" question, since the beating is going on in full public view. The Scottish Government's inaction and picking of fights has been clearly observable, and it's a pity you're in denial about it. But you are certainly singing from the same hymn sheet as Scottish Ministers, constantly regurgitating different versions of the argument that Scotland's devolved government is powerless and independence would solve all.

"There are currently no tax-varying powers available to the Parliament" you say. This must come as some surprise to the Scottish people, who voted in the referendum to grant Parliament tax varying powers. And indeed a quick check of the Scotland Act 1998 confirms that those powers remain in place, despite the SNP's efforts to denude Parliament of its right to change tax rates by refusing to fund the administrative upkeep of that power. You want to pretend that the only economic levers the Scottish Government has are coming under the new Scotland Act in 2015. You want to pretend that the Scottish Government cannot act. These things are simply untrue.

It's a choice. The Scottish Government's overriding aim, confirmed time and again, is to secure a yes vote in 2014. It has made it abundantly clear that it prefers to blame and pick fights to bolster its chances in 2014 rather than knuckle down and work at solving problems with the powers it has. It prefers to highlight differences and separations rather than find common ground and improve the lives of Scots.

Economic development in Scotland is entirely under the control of the Scottish Government. SE and HIE are having their budgets cut while failing to deliver the entrepreneurship growth which the Scottish economy desperately needs. Their biggest output is not new companies or new markets, but a band of mostly publicly funded experts in grant applications, who have cultivated the personal contacts and bureaucratic gymnastics to win grants, creating a self-supporting circle of established companies living off the state and the EU. The Scottish Government could and should take action here, but they aren't doing so.

The Scottish Government's budget can also be used, as was shown in the cynical bribe just before the local elections, to fund employment support schemes. But instead of a strategy across Scotland, we have a media campaign, re-badging monies already committed and giving the appearance of action while taking no responsibility for outcomes. The Scottish Government could decide to take this seriously across the country, but they are choosing not to.

There are hundreds of other examples of areas where risks could be taken and success sought. The plain truth is that the Scottish Government's avowed policy for this term is to do nothing to prejudice their chances of a yes in the independence referendum. That selfish single focus is a betrayal of those who voted for them to lead the devolved government of Scotland. It is in my view utterly transparent and grotesquely hypocritical.

Holyrood's tax-varying powers are of course NOT in practice available at present, whoever you blame for the fact. And you know as well as I do that any party which stood on a platform of raising tax to pay for services would get slaughtered at the polls - presumably you recall the SNP's "penny for Scotland" campaign that was such a resounding success in 1999. So what you appear to be suggesting is that a party should stand on a dishonest manifesto of not raising income tax, then sneakily whack it up the minute it gets into Bute House. Hmm, honourable.

I also don't think it helps the debate if you just tell flat-out lies like "The SNP's avowed policy is to do nothing to damage the Yes vote." Firstly, I'd love to see you quote the SNP leadership actually "avowing" that anywhere. And secondly, the first 12 months of the majority government have seen the passing of two hugely controversial and divisive bills - minimum pricing and the anti-sectarianism act - with another one hot on their heels in the form of the gay marriage consultation.

Every one of those threatens to cost the SNP substantial amounts of support, or already has done - my personal view is that the anti-sectarianism bill contributed significantly to the worse-than-expected result in the Glasgow council elections, for example. And gay marriage will beyond much doubt be the most contentious bill EVER brought before the Scottish Parliament. So accusing them of doing nothing to frighten the horses before 2014 is a quite staggeringly dishonest reversal of the plainly-visible facts.

To be honest, though, it's hard to see any material arguments to constructively respond to in amongst the above - it's just vague, empty rhetoric of the sort Labour specialises in while it's trying to come up with a solid definable policy position on anything. Or perhaps more truthfully, to *avoid* coming up with any - it's hard to have your policies subjected to scrutiny and criticism if nobody knows what they are. Tuition fees? Dunno. Replacement for the Council Tax? Dunno, spent five years talking about it and then gave up. Council Tax up, down or frozen in the meantime? Dunno. Trident replacement? Dunno. Which additional powers should come to the Scottish Parliament? Dunno.

Scottish Labour's rallying call is "We don't know what we'd do, but it wouldn't be whatever the SNP are doing." Blanket kneejerk negativity might, in a very limited sense, be a useful opposition strategy, but it doesn't make much of a debating position, let alone an inspiring manifesto for government. And even after the 2011 result, that's a lesson Labour still don't seem to want to learn.

Question 2

The thing I really don't understand about Scottish Labour is why you're so determined to have the South-East of England choose Scotland's government. All the most important decisions concerning Scotland - taxation, excise duty, welfare, defence, etc - are still made in London by a government that by definition is overwhelmingly elected by English voters (outnumbering everyone else put together by 5 to 1). Those voters are much more inclined to vote for the Conservatives than Scottish ones are, which means that Scotland spends years suffering needlessly under Tory governments it overwhelmingly rejected at the polls.

An independent Scottish Government would - and this is of course an assertion, but it's beyond any *sensible* argument - be a centre-left social-democratic one for at least the foreseeable future. (I'm going to slightly generously grant that Scottish Labour, unlike the UK party, are still just about on the left, and also to assume, perhaps optimistically, that you're not going to be so blatantly disingenuous or at odds with reality as to claim that the UK as a whole is no more likely to vote Tory than Scotland is.)

Even you can't realistically believe it'd be possible for Labour to win every Westminster election, so why are you so absolutely insistent on inflicting Tory governments on Scotland? Is it a triumph of blind ideology over practical reality ("We CAN win every election!"), or do you just think Scottish Labour are so abysmally inept that they couldn't be trusted to run a convivial evening in a brewery, let alone a nation you lived in?

That's a little leading, of course, so let me ask it in a fairer way: To you as a Scottish Labour activist, is the (rationally indisputable) increased risk of having a Tory government make all the most important decisions about Scotland really a price worth paying to keep Scotland in the Union?

No. And if your hypothesis bore any relationship to reality that might be a fair criticism of "unionism" in its broadest and least existent sense. But it doesn't, so it isn't.

Firstly, you associate geography and nationality with political belief. This is frankly ludicrous. The political beliefs of individuals are constantly changing - as current UK-wide polling shows - and are affected by a whole range of factors, including prejudices, life experience, study, local, national and international events, and so on. The idea that we can carve up chunks of land and call some of them left wing and some of them right wing is one of the fundamental untruths at the heart of the independence message. People move, areas change, events happen. And parties also change and remould themselves to follow the people. One needs only to note the recent surges in SNP support and plunges in Lib Dem votes to see that describing any geographical area as being inclined one way politically is pure folly. This is as true for a nation as it is for a suburb. Politics does not change at Berwick. Presume political allegiance at your peril.

Second, you ignore the distorting effect on the traditional left/right split exerted by the existence of a party focused on the separate axis of nationalism and independence. The SNP may have adopted the mantle of a centre-left party in order to take on Labour and the Lib Dems at the domestic polls, but it is in reality a rainbow alliance of left and right, united by that single shared aim of independence. So it has a skewing effect on any assessment of how right- or left-wing Scots in general are. To put it simply, there are plenty of Tories in Scotland; not all of them currently vote Tory.

(And in case you protest that the SNP is truly left-wing and social democratic to its core, let's not forget that it has a relentlessly centralising agenda against local government, and that its leadership is on record calling for lower corporation tax and the laughable absurdity of Laffer curve economics.)

I believe passionately in Labour ideals. I'll fight to make Labour relevant and effective, and I'll work hard to take that message to voters across the UK in UK elections, across Scotland in Scottish elections, and across Edinburgh in local elections. What I will not do is give up on the UK in order to make it easier to win in Scotland. Because everyone counts.

The argument that says we should vote for independence to avoid Tory rule is an utterly broken one. We should not be trying to win political arguments by drawing new lines on the map excluding places where the people we don't like tend to live! We should be trying to win political arguments by addressing the issues at their heart. Unless we're going to do that, then it's time you guys were honest and drew your Tory exclusion line north of Dumfriesshire.

"Firstly, you associate geography and nationality with political belief."

Yes, I do, because *that's the way it is*. For my entire life (and yours), Scotland has consistently rejected the Tories - the best they've ever done since I was born was 22 MPs out of 72 in 1979 - while England has regularly elected them. That's not nationalist propaganda, it's not some wild assertion plucked out of the air, it's a plain and simple measurable fact. To clarify: I'm NOT saying there's something inherent or genetic about being born or living in Scotland that makes you left-wing - I'm merely saying that's how it's been for all of your life and all of my life, it's how it is now, and it's how it's going to be for the foreseeable future, so we might as well deal with the reality rather than railing against it.

Weirdly, it seems to actually *upset* you that Scotland so consistently votes for left-wing parties, because it blows apart your ideological myth of internationalism. Sure, it'd be lovely if everyone lived together in one giant global brother/sisterhood and there were no borders - but we don't, and there ARE borders, so we might as well take advantage of them when the opportunity arises. Nobody, contrary to your somewhat bizarre claim, is proposing drawing any new lines on a map - as far as I'm aware independence would start on the current line from the Solway to the Tweed that's been there for hundreds of years - but I don't see why someone in Arbroath should have to endure the misery of a Tory government just because someone in Halifax has to, or why you would condemn five million of your own people to needless suffering just to make a point.

I do agree, though, that "we should be trying to win political arguments by addressing the issues at their heart", which is why - as someone currently living in England - I'm desperate to see an independent social-democratic Scotland set an example that would demonstrate how socialist values CAN work, and thereby inspire the left down here to abandon the neo-Tory "consensus" it's so cravenly adopted in its desperate pursuit of power and offer a genuine alternative to the current three flavours of Conservatism that are dragging the UK into the abyss. You, on the other hand, appear instead to have some masochistic attachment to being tied to a vastly bigger country that's been stubbornly resistant to Labour values for a third of a century and shows no sign of changing any time soon.

(The lack of self-awareness, incidentally, in your protestations that the SNP encompasses relative left and right factions is mindboggling. Of course it does - ALL parties have a spectrum of internal views - but there isn't a single SNP MP or MSP anywhere near as far to the right as Tony Blair, James Purnell and David Blunkett were, and the likes of Tom Harris still are. If you're deluding yourself to the contrary, you may be beyond help.)

And just by the by: Are you embarrassed that Ed Miliband - leader of a party whose emblem is a red rose, whose banners are red and which still closes its conferences with a rousing rendition of "The Red Flag" - is so ashamed and horrified by the notion that anyone might call him "Red Ed"?

Hmm. We seem to have lost the high-minded ideal of debate here, with you reduced to traducing individuals in lieu of actually having an argument. I can immediately think of several SNP MSPs far more right wing on economic and social issues than any of those you mentioned, and I'm entirely confident in my view that the SNP has a far broader spread to the right than Labour does. The notion that the SNP is a centre-left party is a convenience. The SNP is, and always has been, a single-issue pressure group, and it will do anything to achieve its sole aim. Including doing harm to Scots by picking fights instead of solving problems if it thinks it can get away with it.

The central point here is that, protest as you may, Scotland has never voted with one voice for anything. Scotland does not have a single political affiliation, or even a predominant one. We are a plural society with a wide range of views represented, just as the whole of the UK is. We have a history of more social conservatism than the rest of the UK. And it is utterly foolhardy for anyone to predict that an independent Scotland would be left aligned. People will vote for the leaders and policies they think are best and this assessment will change over time. It is monumentally more likely that, like the UK and almost every other modern democracy, an independent Scotland would enter a swing cycle between left and right, alternating between Labour and Tory governments once the SNP had served its purpose and dissolved to a rump.

I find it incomprehensible for anyone who claims to be left wing to want to create another island of self-interest in the world - another market, another reason to justify limiting workers' rights in the name of remaining competitive, another government giving bungs to multinationals to pinch jobs off its neighbours - an island of self-interest with no influence at all on a global scale.

You originally asked if I thought allowing the possibility of Tory rule was a price worth paying. The truth is that wherever you draw your borders, democracy means you cannot prevent the Tories being a threat. The way we will defeat the Tories isn't by retreating into a corner; it is by fighting for our values in union.

Question 3

The Scottish Government's consultation into the referendum has just closed. While the public were allegedly being asked about the timing of the vote, the Scottish Government leaked the date it would be held, so it's fairly clear that decisions on the referendum will be made exclusively in the interests of attempting to achieve a success for the SNP, rather than on the basis of the opinions given by the public.

With that in mind, and with Labour riding high in the UK polls, the 2-question option which was seemingly dismissed by senior SNP figures including Nicola Sturgeon some months ago rears its head again. The thinking is, apparently, that the "keep the Tories out" argument which we were just discussing will have far less potency in 2014 if it looks like Labour will win the UK election in 2015.

So my question is a simple one. Do you agree with me that the referendum question should be a simple choice between a clearly defined independence and the status quo, with no "devo max" or similar to muddy the waters?

Yes. And so, I promise you, do the SNP leadership (who I've never met or spoken to). I've explained why on Wings Over Scotland many times, and it baffles me beyond words that anyone who's thought about it for more than 30 seconds could ever genuinely imagine otherwise.

Again, though, I wish you'd stop saying things that are flat-out untrue. The Scottish Government did NOT "leak the date". The Sun took a guess, the SNP didn't - and indeed, couldn't, because the consultation was still going on - either confirm or deny it. We can argue the toss, but I'll happily bet you 50 quid here and now that the referendum WON'T be on the day the Sun claimed, for any number of reasons. Deal?

The date printed by the Sun was leaked by someone in the SNP. It may or may not turn out to be the actual date of the referendum, so I'll decline your deal thanks, but I'd happily take your 50 quid on it landing within a month either side of that date. The idea that on launch day of a paper born out of the shame of the lies and criminality of the News of the World, during the Leveson inquiry, the Sun would make up something so deniable, is laughable. And indeed the lack of a denial from the SNP that the source was theirs speaks volumes.

In any event, I'm glad to have established common ground on the need for a simple choice between a clearly defined independence and the status quo. I look forward to the clear definition of independence emerging as a firm proposal well in advance of the date. Too many flags have been flown and u-turns made in recent months for Scots to have any certainty as to what independence would really look like. And it's vital that we can judge on the facts, not on some hand-waving definition of a land of milk and honey.

So what do you think will happen if, as I predict, come 2014 Labour's UK poll strength continues to be high, and referendum polling continues to suggest that Scots favour being part of the UK? Do you agree with me that Alex Salmond, ever the shrewd operator, will far prefer to find a reason why the vote cannot go ahead, than lose and have nowhere else to go? Do you think a reason will be found to tie up the referendum in the courts and delay it beyond 2015, and if so, what do you think it might be?

No, I don't. (In what's rapidly becoming a Scottish Labour trademark, I've repeatedly offered a wager to that effect to your compatriot Ian Smart, who keeps loudly insisting that the referendum isn't going happen. He won't put his money where his mouth is either...) And as for the poll being within a month either side of the Sun's date, well, duh - of course it will. There's only about a two-month window it could POSSIBLY happen in.

Salmond said it would be "well into the second half" of the Parliament, which takes us to early summer 2014 at the minimum, and it can't go into 2015 because that would run uncomfortably close to the General Election. (Plus you don't want to be holding a referendum in the Scottish winter, when there's a good chance of people getting snowed out of polling stations.)

Allowing for all the stuff that's going to be happening in spring/summer (World Cup, Ryder Cup, Commonwealth Games, school holidays, plus the desire to avoid having it around the Bannockburn anniversary because even Brian Taylor recognises that the SNP aren't that stupid), mid-September to mid-November 2014 is pretty much the only period that fits the required criteria.  (In fact it's hard to see it being as late as November, again because of the danger of bad weather, but the first half is just about feasible. I originally guessed at St Andrew's Day, but on reflection that's just too late in the year and too close to Christmas.)

The Sun are just as capable of working all that out as I am, without needing anything to be "leaked" by anyone, and amazingly enough they plumped for a date bang in the middle of that range so they'd be as close as possible whatever happened.  But you made an allegation based on a groundless assertion about a specific date so that you could smear the SNP, rather than reaching the obvious, logical and altogether less sinister conclusion. I don't know if it's cheap and cynical opportunism or if Scottish Labour are just genuinely so paranoid that they see evil wee Salmond-faced demons everywhere they look - both would be entirely in character for the party - but either way it's predictable and boring.

Question 4

I'm intrigued by your comment back in Question 2 about "fighting for our values in union". The independence debate isn't really a fight between "nationalists" and "Unionists", but one between Scottish nationalists and British nationalists. You've described yourself as an internationalist, and as far as I know you subscribe to the much-repeated Labour line that there's no difference between a low-paid worker in Barnsley and one in Banff, yet you exclude ones in Bruges or Boston from your "union" - I've never seen Labour or any other so-called "Unionists" advocating a World Government, or a single European super-state, or a 1984-style Oceania uniting the English-speaking world.

The inescapable conclusion is therefore that "Unionists" DO still accept the concept of individual nations, it's just that they've decided Britain rather than Scotland is their own one. That being the case, can you tell us how you arrived at this seemingly-arbitrary choice? Are there specific criteria (eg nothing below, say, a 30m population counts as a legitimate nation), is it just a gut feeling, did you toss a coin, or is there something else?

My view is that the fewer islands of self-interest we create in the world the better. Since Scottish independence would create a new island of self-interest, I'm against it. Uniting helps ordinary people and shares effort; dividing pits ordinary people against each other and wastes effort. It's a simple as that as far as I'm concerned.

You're flat out wrong to claim that everyone is a nationalist. I'm not one, and indeed I'd estimate a substantial proportion of folk on both sides of the independence debate aren't nationalists either. The fact that I have a nationality does not make me a nationalist, just as the fact that I have a race does not make me a racist.

As far as world governments go, I'd like to see the workers own the means of production everywhere on earth; we could then see where that might lead. I'm comfortable with the idea of a federal Europe in time. I believe that the richest countries can and should unite with the poorest and share the world's resources. None of these things are as ludicrous as the scorn in your opening paragraph seeks to pretend.

The fundamental point is simple: co-operation is good for people, bad for profits; competition is bad for people, good for profits. I'm on the side of the people. The union is on the side of the people. The last thing we need is more islands of self-interest in the world.

I was with you all the way up to "the Union is on the side of the people". Where in the name of Wee Archie Gemmill do you get an idea as wildly at odds with reality as that when you live in Britain, one of the most unequal countries in the civilised world, and which is getting more unequal by the day because all three of its main political parties are business-friendly, profit-worshipping neoliberals?

You do know that inequality ROSE under 13 years of a UK Labour government, and is heading into the stratosphere under the Tories, yes? At some point aren't you going to have to come to terms with the fact that the idealised 1960s-style Labour Party in your head bears almost no resemblance whatever to the one that actually contests elections?

(Then again, if you honestly believe that the richest countries are going to "unite with the poorest and share the world's resources" any time between now and the end of eternity, perhaps not - are you interested in purchasing some magic beans, by any chance? I'm aware that this debate is becoming more of an argument, but I really don't know if it's possible to hold a sensible discussion with anybody who could say that with a straight face. As pressure on resources starts to really mount in the next 50 years and the world population goes through the roof, most rational people are predicting a dramatic upsurge in wars, not the sudden outbreak of a new Summer Of Love. The world is completely incapable of getting along even when there's plenty of food and water and oil for everyone - you really think those things becoming scarcer will make the people who have them MORE inclined to give them away?)

What an incredibly disappointing response. Not only have you ignored almost all the points I raised including my direct answer to your question, but you've resorted to the sort of sneering self-satisfaction which typifies so much of SNP and nationalist politics. At best, your argument can be summarised as "there's no point in trying to make the world better, let's pull up the drawbridge on our little patch and sod the rest".

I would point out that while the gap between rich and poor rose under the last Labour government, which is an important measure, the more significant fact is that over a million families with children were lifted out of poverty thanks to the redistributive policies of Labour during the ten years following 1997. That's not profit-worshipping neoliberalism, that's the biggest redistribution of wealth this country has seen in more than 60 years. And every time achievements like the minimum wage and tax credits are ignored by someone like you trying to tar all parties with the same brush, I know I'm talking to a point-scorer not a debater.

In my time debating with pro-independence folk I have come across a lot of people who can at least justify on principle why they think independence for Scotland is a good idea. I have disagreed, on principle, but I can respect their views. I was wary of entering into this discussion with you because from past interactions I suspected that you would not be one of those people. How right I was. We're done.