25 May 2014

The Scottish Tories: the new "party of devolution"?

One of the most grating and familiar lines to emanate from Scottish Labour politicians is that theirs is the "party of devolution".  This proprietorial claim is at odds with both the history of devolution, and the People's Party's own chequered and divided attitude to the idea of home rule. But it's an amateurish politician who lets fairmindedness and truth arrest the telling of a good tale. Ultimately, I suspect it's just another of the opiating but essentially debilitating myths to which the party seems increasingly determined to succumb. Yet on a range of fronts, Labour's idea that la décentralisation, c'est moi is being challenged.  

As a sagacious soul recently pointed out to me, come May 2015, the party will have been out of power in Scotland for longer than Dewar, McLeish and McConnell served in it between 1999 and 2007. Johann Lamont's recent devo scheme was an incoherent calamity, born of short-term thinking, naked partisanship, and a lack of intellectual application to the legal and political tensions and opportunities represented by redistributing power away from the centre. Another opportunity missed. But when one player forgoes a diamond chance, a window of opportunity opens for another to sneak in and race off with the ball. There are signs - some scuttlebutt - that the Strathclyde Commission may prove surprisingly ambitious, its devo offer comfortably overtaking Johann's plodding proposals.

For an independence supporter to countenance the possibility of further devolution after a No vote isn't exactly popular. The orthodox line is that we'll get nowt, and the turncoat betrayals of 1979 will be repeated by the current generation of neo-Thatcherite centralisers. There are certainly good reasons to be skeptical about (a) whether warm but vague words will really be delivered on, and (b) the extent to which any of the mainstream UK parties (with the potential, but irrelevant exception of the Liberal Democrats) are profoundly committed, in their guts, to distributing power away from Westminster. 

To adapt Better Together's rhetoric of choice, if we bracket the powers coming down the line under the Scotland Act 2012, there are no guarantees that Holyrood will win additional powers. And it looks quite likely that the powers the parliament might win would represent theoretical and illusory gains, rather than practical and effective levers allowing us to follow a distinctive tack on taxation, social security and so on. 

But I think we can afford to be a wee bit more relaxed about admitting (a) the possibility of further devolution while (b) still maintaining that independence has advantages which a tricky negotiation of powers across the UK can't rival. Firstly, none of the devo-schemes on offer come anywhere near the mythic devo-max, which is to say, none of them incorporate the extensive tax and welfare powers Scotland needs if it is to meaningfully follow its own course within the confines of the United Kingdom. And over and above these questions, the No campaign can continue to argue about the virtues and competences of UK foreign affairs and defence policy if it fancies. It's not a record whose recent big ticket items I'd care to defend.

Yet the possibility of an unexpectedly beefy Tory devolution offer throws up any number of unusual political issues and dynamics. Potential ironies abound. One of the major reasons why folk might want devolution of great swathes of domestic policy is Tory governments, but a future Conservative government might represent the best mechanism for delivering the maximum-possible devolution within the UK. It may not be a message which Tory-disinclined Scots are inclined to hear or credit. As a consequence, it may secure few short term advantages for Ruth Davidson, or "detoxify the Tory brand", but it would represent a remarkable reversal in our politics - and an audacious gambit by David Cameron and his colleagues. 

It would also represent an historic opportunity for the Nationalists and the Tories collectively to kick Scottish Labour to the margins of Scottish politics, its status of "the party of devolution" blown to bits, and its conceit of itself as the natural party of Scottish government thoroughly undermined.  You needn't be tartan Tories to find force in the logic that my enemy's enemy is my friend.  Despite their disagreements with the SNP's ideology, I dare say a few Tory corks popped in 2007 and 2011, when Jack McConnell and Iain Gray took their respective drubbings. 

The centralism of Ed Miliband's "One Nation" Labourism, with its vision of uniform social and economic rights, and "pooling resources" across the country, can't accommodate devolution with any comfort. You can't cut a deal for substantially strengthened powers with that vision of the United Kingdom. Pragmatic Toryism, by contrast, confident in its Unionism irrespective of different policy outcomes in different parts of the country, can probably accommodate these divergences. Lightly beguiled by ideas of decentralisation but unsystematic in its vision, the Conservative Party can find resources within itself to get behind devolution. 

Not the whole crew, perhaps. The ultramontane wing will never be persuaded, but it can be left gradually to die out and leave no heirs. There's nothing necessarily incoherent about the idea that devolution was a mistake which emboldened the Nationalists and undermined the stability of the Union, while arguing that the Union can find a new stability in a better settlement for Scotland. The thought may tighten Alan Cochrane's sphincter, an undeserved sop to the Nationalists, but Cochrane's miserablism is an infertile branch of Tory unionism. No green shoots can grow out of the withered stem of that political ideology.

For devo-enthusiasts in the party, the calculation is presumably that the Tories can be coaxed into travelling wherever the leadership ordains that it should go. That the blue rinsers won't cut up too rough. And the siren voices of old time reaction in Westminster will do what they're told, or be sufficiently isolated in parliament for Cameron coolly to shrug off their dissent. What right-thinking soul gives a ha'penny toss what Darth Forsyth thinks anyway?

And if the price exacted in this transaction is the loss of a few Scottish Labour MPs? So much the better. Leave those Scotch communitarians to the folly of their nannying state. If a strain of English nationalism produces Tory indifference about an independent Scotland, surely that sentiment can be mobilised - at least to some extent - to extend the level of self-government which we enjoy within the Union. That, I imagine, is the theory anyway. Quietly. Behind the shutters. 

If the rumour and speculation about the (relative) ambition of the Strathclyde Commission proposals are borne out in practice, and the Tories take the opportunity to try to o'erleap the commitments of their Labour opponents, the response of most Nationalists and pro-independence campaigners can be pre-scripted. Remember 1979. It'll never happen. You can't trust the Tories anyway. Thatcherism. Perfidious Albion

And fair enough - to some extent.  Why rely on the uncertain business of securing the consent of a majority of UK MPs, when you can guarantee that the Scottish Parliament will enjoy all of these powers with independence? Why not exercise your sovereign choice in the ballot box on the 18th of September, instead of waiting for our sovereign parliament in London to devolve powers which it has consistently declined to transfer, despite golden opportunities to do so as recently as 2012?

But if September yields up a No vote, and the SNP are required rapidly to reverse-ferret on the idea that the UK's capacity to reinvent itself is spent, the jockeying for position as "the party of devolution" promises to be fascinating and unexpected scrap. Lord Strathclyde and his colleagues may be poised to give the kaleidoscope of Scottish politics a vigorous shoogle.

22 May 2014

Money, money, money...

And in a single bound, free. The Confederation of British Industry got lucky.  Having accidentally registered as supporters of the No campaign with the Electoral Commission, and created an almighty boorach for themselves, the captains of industry finally got their act together, and wriggled out of it.  While the referendum legislation contains no mechanism to take your name off the Commission's books, it seems a minor flunky signed the CBI's registration papers rather that the bigger wig required under the 2013 Act.  The registration as a No body was legally void and the CBI writhed off the hook they'd spiked themselves on.  None of which seems to have dampened the organisation's enthusiasm for making dire proclamations about the perils of Scottish separation. 

Cue some rhubarbing from independence-supporters online. What is the point in the Electoral Commission having a register, if you can continue to campaign against independence with impunity? If they're not registered supporters of Better Together, how can the CBI get away with its interventions? Shouldn't they be obliged properly to declare their allegiances? If it is good enough for Business for Scotland, National Collective and Women for Independence, why not the corporate lobby? While I can understand where these arguments are coming from, they fundamentally misunderstand (a) what registering with the Electoral Commission is all about and (b) why and when it's necessary under the legislation. 

Firstly, if you or your organisation - or the CBI - want to participate in the referendum campaign in a partisan way, you don't have to register. If you want to appear on telly arguing for or against a Yes vote, make critical comments in speeches, submit letters to newspapers, write blogs or columns, you don't have to present your credentials to the Electoral Commission. And a damn good thing too. Registration is all about money. The Scottish Parliament decided to try to cap the amount of cash sloshing around the independence campaign during the "regulated period" - which starts at the end of May and spans the sixteen weeks before the 18th of September. 

The cap isn't on all forms of expenditure, just on "referendum expenses". These cover many of the kinds of things you'd expect - advertising, literature, press conferences, rallies and so on, but there are important exceptions. For example, salaries don't count towards the permitted total, nor does rent, or vast piles of doughnuts, or fancy interior decoration for your swank campaign office. Unregistered organisations or individuals - like the CBI and me - are entitled to spend up to £10,000 on referendum expenses without reporting to the Electoral Commission. 

If, however, you want to spend any more than this, you've got to sign up as a "permitted participant" in the referendum, submit to the Commission's regulation and declare your major donors on a regular basis. In exchange for submitting to Commission oversight, you earn the right to spend up to £150,000 during the regulated period without being committed to Barlinnie. It was this status which the CBI initially applied for, and then withdrew from.

Other organisations have higher spending totals still. Political parties have their maximum spending totals calculated separately, while the two "designated organisations" - Yes Scotland and Better Together - can shell out one and a half million quid over the campaign period. If individuals or organisations exceed these limits, they're liable to penal fines and prison sentences.  The CBI and its functionaries would have to be daft, or reckless, to conceive of shelling out more than their permitted £10,000 total.

These rules have important implications which may not be obvious to the casual observer. Firstly, if an organisation rakes in significantly more cash than its permitted maximum spend on referendum expenses, it can either sit uselessly on the funds, invest in glamorous office space, a rhinestone diamante sceptre for the campaign head - or hire an additional pile of staff.  Because only some kinds of spending is capped, general talk about organisations' campaign limits is potentially a bit misleading.

For instance, according to its website, the pristine astroturf of the anti-independence Vote No Borders campaign has now secured £248,328 in donations - just shy of £100,000 more than the group can legally spend on campaigning during the regulated period. Unless the organisation sheds a whack of cash before the end of the month, that money would have to be ploughed into payroll. Or rent. Or yum yums. Feel those green shoots sprout.  

The same goes for Yes Scotland, whose campaign spending is capped at £1,500,000. The latest reports suggest that they've taken in over £2,500,000 in individual donations.  While I imagine a chunk of that will go on salaries and premises hire, anything above and beyond its maximum expenses spend could still be used to employ campaign staff. Potential advantages on that score are not to be sniffed at.  But it shouldn't get lost amid talk of the one and a half million total either.

There's also the outstanding issue of a "common plan" under section 20 of Schedule 4, which Ian Smart has been nattering about recently. If different organisations are campaigning in cahoots, that has implications for their spending totals. If, for example, Women for Independence form a common plan with YesScotland, then anything they spent on that plan is deducted from Yes Scotland's total spending under the Act.  But what is a common plan anyway? If, for example, the Yes Scotland twitter account retweets another pro-independence organisation's event, are they engaged in a shared enterprise? What about the inclusion of a distinctive Yes Scotland sticker on a Business for Scotland advertisement in a newspaper? Common plan? Or take a speaker-event, with representatives from a range of separately-organised Yes organisations on the platform. A common plan? 

Under the legislation, none of this is clear and the Electoral Commission are under a legal obligation to produce guidance for campaigners. They've not yet done so, but the nature of their definition of a "common plan" will be of critical importance. If they are strict, holding that every connection and tie constitutes a common endeavour, Yes Scotland is at risk of having its spending total cannibalised by grass-roots activity. This could have awkward implications in terms of strategically allocating the official campaign's funding, not least in the last days of the campaign. If you've got a last-minute advertising bonanza planned, you don't want to be told that half the cash you'd earmarked to spend on it has all been soaked up by an unauthorised and amateurish pro-independence circular plastering the streets of Cumbernauld.

While the Scottish Government 2013 legislation makes a brave stab at regulating the amount of money sloshing around the campaign, the regime has obvious gaps, challenges and opportunities for manipulation. Given the figures currently being bandied about, it is salutary to remember that in the 2011 Holyrood campaign, the total campaign spending of all of the political parties put together was just £2,631,246. Whatever else it will be, the referendum looks set to be best-funded political campaign in Scottish history. The Union only cost Queen Anne £20,000 in bribes and backhanders. A bargain at several hundreds times the price. 

15 May 2014

The Anatomy of Panic

The collapse of old, critically-unexamined certainties can be discombobulating. We've all got them - basic assumptions we make and generally don't question, that keep life toddling on undisturbed.  The sun will rise tomorrow. Labour will win any Glasgow election going. What I'm good at today, I'll be good at tomorrow: my talents and faculties won't desert me.

Often as not, we can afford to take these things for granted.  But when the ground falls suddenly away beneath you, you're generally unprepared for the landing. In my experience, your first reaction is almost invariably the wrong one.  The temptation to overreact, to panic, is acute.

For my part, the experience of working on a doctorate has been a serious salutary one in this respect.  The process of writing has always tended to come easily to me, even as a nipper.  I may run like a hirpling pygmy hippo.  My body may have the accumulated athleticism of an adipose sloth.  My character may be haunted by its share of weird anxieties and frustrating inadequacies. But I have always been confident, and have always enjoyed, turning a phrase in print. To find yourself tongue-tied, fretful, blocked and inarticulate - was seriously disturbing.

As people's troubles go, this is a fairly minor anxiety which I invite no particular sympathy for. But what rendered it dismaying was the discovery that an old immodest conceit was fundamentally mistaken. I am now, I'm happy to say, over the hump, but for a period, this confrontation with the unforeseen collapse in one of life's certainties curdled my spirits and demolished my confidence. I'm doubtless better off for it, but the internal resources had to be slowly worked up, to deal with it.

Why the confessional note, you might reasonably wonder.  In the referendum debate, recent weeks have seen a familiar existential panic grip sections of the Better Together campaign, particularly in Tory circles south of the border.  There are plenty of prudent reasons to be anxious.  The polls have narrowed.  The incoherences and disunities in the No campaign are proving increasingly difficult to manage privately, and are spilling out into acrimonious press briefings and backstabbings. Interventions supposed to have been decisive, warning of the perils of separation, have failed to stir up the animus against independence which was hoped.  

More fundamentally anxiety-provoking is the discovery that the positive case for the Union has proved disturbingly difficult to state lucidly or with confidence.  Folk like Hugo Rifkind, profoundly invested in ideas of Britain and Britishness, lament that "the fat-tongued, rubber-footed, cack-handed, tin-eared uselessness of British political discourse on Scottish independence is beginning to give me the fear." You don't have to be a wizard strategist to discern that this bag-of-ferrets strategy doesn't look good. 

In these unhelpful, public intra-Unionist anxiety sessions, the tone has been by turns hysterical and resigned. It's all Alistair Darling's fault, the dreary so-and-so.  No, that's not it at all. It's all these horrid Tory day-trippers, these coalition ministers with their hectoring tones and messages of calamity. That's not it. It's Labour's dereliction of duty when it comes to activists. Like Wellington at Waterloo, you can imagine senior Tories rattling around empty offices, crying, "where are the Prussians?"

All of which, for the independence-supporter, is fine larks and to be encouraged.  But I do wonder if the pitch of the panic tells us more about the gap which has opened between Scottish and Westminster politics, than it does about the likelihood of Yes carrying referendum day. I've written here before about the phenomenon of being talked at about Scottish independence in parts of England. Surely the idea of Scotland separating is disreputable, ludicrous, laughable, impossible, unthinkable. Surely no right-thinking person could possibly endorse the idea. Oh, if you must. Have your silly referendum, then. But it is a foregone conclusion, my dear chap.  Even explaining that a good chunk of the country had voted for the SNP twice did nothing to shift this basic conviction in those I talked to. I came to realise that our political imaginations occupied two different spaces, and they simply hadn't begun to take the possibility of independence seriously, or pondered why others might find it desirable or compelling.

With the Yes campaign catching up in the polls, that cherished certainty has been annihilated. This is, I'm sure, profoundly disturbing and helps to explain the irrational and excessive alarm now gripping parts of the No campaign. Also in the Spectator earlier this week, Alex Massie was on perceptive form on this point, concluding: 
"Some people seem shocked that the race looks as though it will be a close one. I’m more tempted to be shocked by the fact people are shocked by this. It’s almost as if they’ve not been paying attention."
Crumbling certainties confuse and they upset. And the No campaign across the UK doesn't have the luxury of much time to recalibrate its emotional and intellectual resources.  The imaginative gap, alluded to by both Massie and Rifkind, separating the Westminster-dominated politics and the debate in Scotland, remains one of the Yes campaign's most significant structural advantages.

The best advocates always understand their audience, its quirks and assumptions and reactions.  They know which levers to pull, which switches to turn and which to leave well alone. Now and then, the talented amateur may get lucky, but it is a risky business. For the increasingly-anxious political actor, steeped in London-centric politics and hoping to have an impact on how Scots vote in September, the prevailing disunities within the UK make the job that much harder. For Better Together's supporters, they can but hope that none of their fretful, tinkering amateurs presses any big red buttons before September. 

13 May 2014

For A' That 43 | Tricky Business

Plenty of mischief afoot in the independence campaign. We took a look back over some of the events of the past week or two on episode number 43 of the For A' That podcast this weekend.  

A couple of returning guests joined the regulars: Ivan McKee of independence-supporting  Business for Scotland and Zambian aid worker, Ruaridh Waddell. Up for the gab, "common plan" challenges for organisations supporting a Yes vote: how are organisations like Business for Scotland, National Collective et al going to cope with the fairly strict funding rules set out in the referendum legislation? How can Yes Scotland avoid its budgets getting cannibalised by their excitable and active allies and fellow travellers?

After a thoroughly incompetent series of marches and countermarches, sallies and defences, the Confederation of British Industry finally managed to wrangle its way out of its registration with the Electoral Commission as a No supporting body, by arguing that the forms had been submitted by an unauthorised person. Although they're no longer "permitted participants", able to spend £150,000 in the last sixteen weeks of the campaign, what are the implications of the episode for the organisation's future participation in the constitutional debate?

We also talked about the Sunday Herald's big Yes splash - your unreliable pension - and Better Together's ongoing "bag of ferrets" campaign strategy. Lend the show your lugs here.

As usual, you can listen to the show here, or on iTunes, or download it to your device of choice for later consumption. There are also plenty of other tracks which you can take a listen to through over at the show's homepage, including Michael's ScotIndyPod interviews with a range of interesting characters, sharing their thoughts and evolving sentiments on Scotland's constitutional future. Michael's latest guest was Ash Regan-Denham of the Reid Foundation and Women for Independence.  Happy listening.

12 May 2014

An independent Scotland's representation in Europe

It seems to be Euro-election obsession season on the blog this week. Just a shorter thought for today, I promise. As we were discussing yesterday, on the 22nd of May, a small slice of the Scottish electorate will go to the polls to select the region's six members of the European Parliament.

Europhile Nationalists frequently make the point that for our size, Scotland is actually underrepresented in the European Union assembly. Our Danish friends, for example - estimated population, around 5,600,000 - send thirteen MEPs to the European Parliament: more than double our number. An independent Scotland in Europe could aspire to similar levels of representation.  

But who would we send? On twitter, Owen David Griffiths asked how the 2009 European election would have shaken out, if Scotland had sent its full compliment of parliamentarians to Brussels instead of the depleted band we enjoy under the Union.  That's an irresistible question for the committed bore like me. For simplicity, let's assume that an independent Scotland keeps a single, national constituency for European elections. By my reckoning, an independent Scotland would have despatched 5 SNP, 3 Labour, 2 Tories, 2 Liberal Democrats and a solitary Green across the channel in 2009 to attend to our interests.  (Applying d'Hondt is a lengthy business here. Click on the image below for a clearer snapshot).

Even having more than doubled the number of seats available, the United Kingdom Independence Party (no doubt by this time to be rechristened the "Little Scotlandlander Party") wouldn't get a look in. But that's counterfactual history.  How might the current European election pan out on current polling, if we were electing thirteen MEPs instead of six later this month? Running the numbers through the usual process, the SNP would make considerable gains - and the Liberal Democrat George Lyon would have attended the MEP leavers' party in vain.  (Again, click through for a clearer look at the allocation).

On these numbers, all six of the SNP's European candidates would be elected (+1 on 2009), joined by four Labour MEPs (also +1).  The Liberal Democrats and the Tories would hold onto one representative apiece (both -1), the Greens would also lose their solitary European seat, while UKIP's 10% would gain them one. Congratulations, David Coburn. Enjoy a refreshing biertje and a bucket of moules frites on us.

Here ends the wildly speculative Euro election nerdery. Given the drookit spring weather we're enjoying at the moment, you'll be glad of that anorak, I assure you.

11 May 2014

Europe: through the looking glass

Over the last few days, a couple of my old blogs have been doing the rounds on social media.  As the 22nd of May draws closer, minds are focussing on the European elections. How does the voting system work? And if I'm a less than committed partisan, what strategies might I play with my vote? (Which is almost invariably code for, how best to ensure that the bumptious UKIP candidate doesn't win a Scottish seat?)
As I've done in past posts, the obvious place to start is the available polling. April's European election poll from ICM is the most recent Scotland-wide survey with a decent sample. Here's what it found:

So how would that shake out in terms of seats, when we scooch the numbers through the d'Hondt system used to allocated MEP seats? The short answer is, it produces the same outcome as all of the recent polls - five seats shared between Labour and the SNP, with the Tories snapping up the sixth and final representative in the European Parliament. 

But as you can see from the chart, unlike the ICM poll for March, on these numbers, the wrangle for the final seat in the allocation is a much more close run thing, with UKIP running the Tories very close, leaving the Greens and Liberal Democrats nowhere. Considering these figures alone, the tactical European voter, keen to dent Nigel's aspirations, might consider a vote for SNP, Labour (or even - egad - the Tories) to ensure that UKIP aren't the beneficiaries of the Liberal Democrats' distress.

But are these polls a reliable guide to the likely outcome? In particular, you'd only consider a tactical vote for the Tories if you were confident that the SNP were going to attract enough support to win three seats. But are they? Almost all of the recent polling suggests that the party is in with a shot of doing so - but there's a caveat. A biggie. Although we're used to seeing Scotland's two big parties polling in the 30% plus range for Holyrood elections, since 1999, the highest percentage support achieved by either outfit in European elections was the 29.1% gained by the SNP in 2009.  Here's how things have evolved since 1999.

One lesson we might be inclined to take from this broader picture is that the levels of support for the SNP in Europe which the pollsters are uncovering are either (a) a startling departure from Scots' past voting behaviour or (b) startlingly over-inflated as a reliable guide to the likely outcome. The critical and unknown quantity here is turnout

Voting levels in European elections are dismal. In 2009, only 28.5% of those eligible to vote cast ballots, down 2.4% on 2004's hardly stellar turnout of 30.9%. Nobody likes owning up to a dereliction in civic duty, so it's difficult for pollsters like ICM to catch a realistic sense of whether their respondents really intend to vote on the 22nd of this month. 

My hunch - and it is only that - is that the Nationalists will be doing well if they net over 30% of ballots cast, improving on their 2009 performance. That may well be enough to nab Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh that third seat from the Liberal Democrat George Lyon - but I'd be surprised if we registered anything near the thumping success in the high thirties or forties which some polling companies are predicting.  

Anecdotally, you also encounter a number of SNP-inclined, left of centre, independence supporting voters who are flirting with a Green dalliance. (A reaction, perhaps in part, to Tasmina's dappled career in Scottish political parties of a range of hues.) It is also worth noting that the Greens have tended to do better in European polls than in Scottish Parliament elections. Time will tell, but I wonder if the 4% at which the Greens are currently polling isn't a little on the parsimonious side, as a prediction about their national performance. Although the "Green verses UKIP" narrative is by no means as convincing as its proponents hope, it'd be a mistake to write off Maggie Chapman's chances entirely.

As I argued a few months ago, there's an electoral sweet spot for the Greens, UKIP (and even the ragged fragments of the Liberal Democrats) where both the SNP and Labour win sufficient support to take two seats apiece early on in the allocation, but with insufficient support to remain seriously in contention for a third, once the d'Hondt dividers have been applied and their support diluted. 

If that happens, any party polling in the 10% range has a decent shot at taking one of the two remaining MEP slots. As it stands, of the two big Scottish parties, only the SNP looks capable of taking a third. If the Tories can keep their heads and their votes, this should push UKIP's David Coburn out of contention. If not? I wouldn't care to prophesy.  The contest could go any which way.

While the available polling gives the would-be tactical voter obvious answers, given the turnout wildcard, the reality is likely to be messier and less predictable.  A lesson, perhaps, that the prudent voter should vote as their conscience dictates, and leave the divination to Nostradamus and Mystic Meg.

5 May 2014

Yes Vulnerabilities

When I was a teenager, I went through a phase of being much-taken with Stoic philosophy. We'd been exposed to Plato's Republic in school, and largely overlooked Aristotle. The Stoics I chanced across by myself: aphorisms of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius' Meditations

One aspect of Stoic thought which particularly appealed to me was its emphasis on the power of ideas to shape our responses to life's inevitable troubles, travails and setbacks. It has become a mantra of contemporary cognitive behavioural therapy, but if you can change how you think about a problem, you are half way to enduring it well. 

I also found adolescent lessons there about being yourself. About the importance of not "staking your happiness on the souls of other men." That isn't to say that goodness, kindliness or the assessment of others are inevitably unimportant - but you shouldn't outsource your self-esteem to other people, making your happiness and equanimity contingent on their good or bad conceits of you. As a nation, the Scots could do with a good deal more of this sort of confidence, which finds its expression not in chippiness, but in generosity, empathy and open-mindedness born of a basic existential security.

I was reminded of this over the weekend, as the Sunday Herald splashed with its decision explicitly to back independence for Scotland. The editorial explaining this decision is an impeccable statement of the now-mainstream case for a Yes vote: self-government, responsibility, democracy, justice. The response from Yes bods was remarkable too. The news stands were stripped. Copies tucked away for posterity. Twitter was ababble with excitable, breathless (even, dare I say, pathetically grateful) responses to the Sunday newspaper's endorsement of independence. 

I don't mean that disrespectfully, but I do think that the enthusiasm of the response cannot be explained in terms of the likely impact of the paper's decision. A more familiar phenomenon in the public debate is independence supporters crowing about the melancholy death of the mainstream media.  How can we explain the sudden overflowing gratitude when a mainstream publishing outfit of the "dead tree press" gives independence-supporters the nod?  

"At last, we see our voices reflected in the mainstream press," a number of folk cheered. But hold up a wee moment. Why should this reflection matter? The obvious answer here is an instrumental one. The media helps set the political agenda. It is a key source of information for voters going into this poll. Sympathetic (or much more numerous unsympathetic) voices matter and have the potential to affect the result. Absolutely.  But only up to a point Lord Copper. And not, to my mind, sufficiently significantly to explain the intensity of the enthusiasm with met Alastair Gray's front page. 

As others have pointed out, the Sunday Herald has a relatively limited circulation in the country (around 24,000 copies), and has been perceived as more than characteristically Yes sympathetic for a while. That said, the paper clearly pitches for a liberal, bourgeois audience. We're talking more about the gender gap these days, but we know from recent polling that the Yes campaign also continues to struggle to make inroads and persuade middle class Scots of the virtues of independence. 

At the very least, the Sunday Herald splash may persuade persuadables who read it to give independence serious consideration.  In a campaign which may be decided on the narrowest of bases, the endorsement of a once crackpot constitutional scheme by an impeccably respectable organ of Scottish opinion is not to be sniffed at. Like the sturdy, sensible SNP government, it helps answer the once-dominant, now embattled, idea that independence is unthinkable, lending the campaign a sort of reputability.  But in terms of the overall result, which side the Sunday Herald supports is really of marginal significance. Instrumental arguments can't explain the glee.

It is tempting to look to broader psychological explanations. Glasgow SNP councillor Mhairi Hunter asked a perceptive question recently. Better Together supporters are acquiring the tendency of getting touchy if challenged, hurt if mocked, and anxious if their views are dismissed without being given earnest consideration. For most Scottish nationalists, this is a familiar phenomenon. Mhairi wondered if familiarity bred contempt.  I wonder too. Their own hides toughened by years (and for some, by decades) of less than convivial or constructive responses to their constitutional ambitions, Scottish Nationalists haven't exactly been primed to respond sympathetically to the sudden sensitivity of their opponents. I've blogged before about my own encounters of this kind, where sympathy for Scottish self-government is written-off as a self-evident absurdity. It puts your back up.

You can respond to these testing experiences in different ways. The first simply repudiates any concern for those judging you critically. You may not take me seriously, but I don't care. I take myself seriously enough for the pair of us, as I'm going to win. I don't give a fig what you will or nil. But that sort of emancipation from concerns about how others see you isn't so easily achieved.  There's a quotation which I think is sometimes attributed to Voltaire, that to be free, all we need do is to wish to be so. There's a bit of truth to that, but liberty can be elusive. And we can grow perversely attached, even to our chains. 

You feel a similar glow when Salmond or Sturgeon does particularly well on the UK stage. A winning interview, an ace appearance on BBC Question Time, a flattering write-up. When the First Minister leathers a UK political worthy, trounces Neil or Paxman, or treads the world stage without looking like an inarticulate, over-promoted city councillor, you feel a sort of glad twinge. Biff. That's one in the eye for you, London establishment. Our man (or woman) can hold her own amongst the best you've got to offer, no bother. It's often struck me that there is a certain dubious logic beneath this wriggle of pleasure. A lack of self-respect which feels, however residually, that you've not really made it till you've made it in London and that our own judgement about whether Salmond or Sturgeon are talented or smart isn't sufficient - they've got to impress the very folk we don't care for and express indifference about for us to feel properly proud. 

It is an odd, ambivalent phenomenon, but not perhaps a unique one. History has known many edgy, lifetime outsiders, who secretly long to don the ribban or the ermine, to be recognised as respectable by the very establishments which they rejected and railed against (and vice versa).  Intuitively, the impulse is to some extent understandable, but it remains somewhat strange. I'm not criticising anyone for it, but the psychology of the Scottish nationalist movement is much more ambivalent and vulnerable than the orthodox Yes story of  confidence, hope and optimism sometimes allows.  Perhaps it speaks to the relative immaturity of our political culture, and the fact that many of our ghosts still walk amongst us, unexorcised. 

3 May 2014

Our Constitutional Imagination #1: The Mission

The idea has taken on a quiet sort of momentum. Unheralded, it has become the constitutional common sense. An independent Scotland would have a written constitution, a unicameral parliament elected on a proportional basis, an extensive list of entrenched constitutional rights, including social and economic rights, and strong judicial review of primary legislation, giving judges the power to strike down laws which violate fundamental rights in court. At the periphery, places like Orkney and Shetland might be given more extensive powers of self government, but little in the way of systematic thought has been given to the sorts of government structures which the rest of the country should have, beneath the national level.  

We're racing ahead of ourselves, prematurely closing what should be a more open, imaginative conversation. We know that the Scottish Government propose that a constitutional convention with some sort of populist flavour should be charged with drafting the text.  But how can the people and their representatives make a real choice about the constitution they want, without a sense of the options and the alternatives? I worry that we're being drawn, unwittingly and to little advantage, into a vortex of conservatism, and a constitutional vision for the new state amounting to little more than the Scotland Act plus.

When it comes to the parliament, what are the key advantages and disadvantages of not having a second revising chamber? What benefits might we be forgoing if we carry on without one? What different international models might be borrow from and adapt to our circumstances? The Scottish Government propose to make the Court of Session and High Court of Justiciary collectively our supreme court. Why not consider creating a new apex court, or a distinct constitutional court like other countries elsewhere? What are the arguments on either side? The ability to vindicate your basic rights in court has obvious attractions. But what are the potential downsides and ambivalences?

And beneath the current constitutional consensus, there lurk a whole raft of potential conundrums and disunities. A proportionately-elected parliament, perhaps. But is the current electoral system the best? Against what criteria should the alternatives be evaluated? For example, the additional member system maintains a constituency link, but the d'Hondt method for allocating seats and the current regional structure favours larger parties. Should an independent Scotland fiddle with the system? We might, for example, extend the use of STV from our local to national elections. But that too will involve some compromises, privileging one set of values and principles over others. 

We owe it to ourselves, to our politics, to pause and consider these matters properly. If only to ensure that we embark on building the new nation with a clear understanding of what we're about. As a Yes vote in September begins to look possible, we're going to have to give serious thought to these questions, and resist the temptation to be railroaded into adopting an unsatisfactory basic law by conservatism, simple lack of imagination, or awareness of the alternatives. To that end, over the next four months I'll be writing a series of articles here, touring potential constitutional controversies, exploring the arguments on both sides and gesturing towards some of the informative international parallels which might inspire (or warn) us, as we set out composing our basic law. 

As you might expect, I have views and preferences about many of these issues myself, but the primary function of this Constitutional Imagination series is not to proselytise for particular constitutional causes.  It hopes to serve a more cartographic purpose, mapping some of the alternatives in an accessible way, aspiring to whet your constitutional imaginations, and get the cogs whirring. If Scotland is to have a constitution devised to a significant extent by its people, its people must begin to exercise their minds more seriously about the options.  Through this series, I hope to make a modest contribution towards that goal.  Watch this space.