30 March 2016

Ruth Davidson's damaging rookie error

I was out last night, tripping the light fantastic, and so conspired to miss STV's leaders' debate and David Coburn's splendid periscope broadcast in parallel. Having read this morning's notices, and caught up on last night's highlights, you can't help but be struck by the clatter Nicola Sturgeon gave Ruth Davidson. As is often the case, it all began with an innocuous question.

The combative STV format gave political opponents the opportunity to cross examine one other in detail. While the First Minister is put on the spot every week, the Scottish Tory leader generally benefits from asking the question. Her own agenda has been generously sheltered from equivalent scrutiny. I make no complaint about that. Decisions taken by Nicola Sturgeon's government impact on people's lives. Ruth Davidson's policies, with the best will in the world, are tomorrow's chip wrappers, influential only in the sense that they propel her ailing party forward or are smuggled into the governing agenda of other parties.

Harsh, perhaps. But there it is. But an election campaign suspends this obvious point. Instead, we have to pretend Ruth Davidson might, somehow, seize Bute House and find herself in a position to enact her ideas. And trapped in this parallel reality, we saw a different, faltering version of the Scottish Tory leader, contrasting rather sharply with the bluff, affable version which has dominated the headlines hitherto.

So what did Nicola ask? The Nats have already excerpted and punted the key exchange with Davidson.

"You've said you would tax graduates of university education and restore prescription charges. So will you tell us tonight exactly how much your graduate tax would be, and how much people will have to pay for their medicines, if you get your way?"

This is an evil question on a couple of fronts. Firstly, contrast the simplicity of the SNP's position with the complexity of her opponent's. Sturgeon has asked about two separate schemes here, which have their universality in common. Every student, fees covered. Every prescription, paid for. If we dig into these policies, there are more challenging trade offs and implications. But if we remain on a superficial level? It is an easy sell.

Inevitably, Ruth Davidson's position on these questions will be more complicated, and accordingly, harder to explain. She will want to argue that the absence of tuition fees and prescriptions doesn't represent the best and fairest distribution of limited resources, which should be targeted and means tested, towards those with least, while those with greater disposable income make their contribution. She will want to argue this is fairer.

But even in summary, this is a complex message. And even worse, even if she manages to impart this message clearly, she hasn't begun to explain the detail of her own scheme, and the precise rules about the winners and losers it will create. These challenges would apply if Sturgeon had only asked about tuition fees or prescription charges. But by pressing Davidson for a detailed answer on both, with no time to develop her case and explain her thinking, Sturgeon laid down two bear traps for the Tory leader.

And entertainingly, Davidson blundered into both of them.

"Well, first of all it is not a graduate tax. it is a contribution after you've graduated --""How much?"" -- once you're earning money. We expect it to be  - erm - within the region of [swithering gesture] just over - eh - just over £1,500 per year. So that's a lot less than England."

And on prescriptions, again harried for precise numbers, a now rattled and embattled Davidson said:

"We will raise it over the course of the parliament, up to about £8."

"About", "in the region of" and "just over" are not phrases which instil much confidence. But let's not overemphasise that. Davidson was knocked off beam and struggled to think on her feet, as many folk would in parallel circumstances. That's what these debates are for: a chance to shine, and an opportunity to stumble.

But what struck me particularly about this exchange is how politically maladroit Davidson's response to Sturgeon's specific query really was. She offered a sketchy defence of both policies, and left the hard-sell bottom lines ringing in electors' ears. Inevitably, these bottom lines were picked up in the media this morning, without much explanation of why Davidson is pursuing these goals. This is not, I fancy, how she envisaged selling her tricky education and health policies in this election.

Sturgeon's question tempted Davidson into anticipating her manifesto in a way that was both fuzzy on detail, and nevertheless, simple and clear enough to be damaging.  She might have responded to Sturgeon's question evasively, and answered the question in terms of general principles while skirting the detail. In the moment, this would have had some costs. Imagine Davidson had said the following instead:

"We'll be publishing our detailed plans shortly in our manifesto. I won't anticipate that detail here tonight. But what I can tell you, Nicola, is that any Scottish Government I lead will be focused on the interests of the worst off in society. I'll prioritise investing in bright young Scots with potential, not in subsidising rich Scots who can already afford it to send their kids to university. I'll protect the funds available for cancer victims and those suffering from long term conditions -- not subsidising the viagra of merchant bankers from Edinburgh or featherbedded NHS managers from Glasgow. Why won't you?" 

Sturgeon's response to this would have been predictable -- "why won't you be straight with us now? Give me numbers!" Davidson might have suffered a boo or two for such evasions -- but she could have turned the the rhetorical tables on the First Minister and prevented her policies on these two highly visible topics from being presented, from the outset, in a muddled and easily caricatured way. Once her plans had been produced, in a day or two, everyone would have forgotten her early diffidence and evasion in the debate.

But Davidson didn't make that calculation. Instead she blundered in with rough and implausible sounding numbers, and neglected the more important bit -- foregrounding and explaining why she believes these policies are better for Scotland. Feart of a few noises off in the debating hall, Davidson has allowed the political initiative to slip from her, handing her opponents a loudhailer with which to characterise - and crucify - her education and health policies.

Davidson had her moments elsewhere in the debate. Asking Kezia Dugdale if she’d stand “shoulder to shoulder” with her again in the event of a second referendum was extremely funny. But overall? This was a sucker punch from the First Minister, and from the young and untested Tory leader, a damaging rookie error.

28 March 2016

Just As Planned

I'm fond of John Dryden's line, that "even victors are by victories undone." It contains a germ of hope for those who find themselves defeated, and it cautions those who appear to have carried away the prizes that a scorpion may lurk somewhere, undetected, in the silverware. Life, and politics, rarely work out just as planned.  

Our recent experience throws up too many examples of the best laid plans going agley fully to relate, but you can detect a few major threads in recent political surprises and disappointments. Measures adopted in the hope of weakening your opponents end up perversely strengthening them in unanticipated ways. You sometimes find short term measures which boost your fortunes lay down the railway tracks which ultimately engulf you in calamity. A swing which brings your opponent onto the punch might give you a welcome opportunity to draw some blood - but it isn't worth it, if the satisfaction of inflicting a little injury leaves you vulnerable to a knock-out blow in response. The art of politics can be deuced tricky. There are some black and white days in politics, some palpable setbacks and some undeniable triumphs. But as Dryden saw, all too often, our victories and defeats are two-edged. Most swords are. 

I approach the Scotland Act 2016, and the Holyrood election debate which it has prompted, with this kind of attitude. There is an intelligent debate to be had about the limits of the current devolution settlement, and the economic wisdom of a new model Scottish Parliament, whose tax analysis and decision-making is focused disproportionately on income. Economics is not my forte, and I'm not your man for that discussion. But let's look at the politics of this. 

Although Holyrood has, for some time, enjoyed a little theoretical wiggle room on taxation, since the SNP's abortive "penny for Scotland" policy in the early days of the parliament, Holyrood's tax raising powers have been posted missing in our election campaigns. Decisions on spending have predominated. Already, as the new Scotland Act powers march slowly towards us, serious questions of income taxation and welfare are colouring and directing the 2016 race. Bracket the economic question of the wisdom or unwisdom of devolving income tax in this way, what are the political consequences of this shift?

One analysis would see this as a cunning Unionist trap, designed to expose the SNP government to the kind of scrutiny it has allegedly long avoided. The argument goes something like this. Look at those cunning Nationalists, claiming credit for their spending decisions, but avoiding responsibility for hiking income taxes to pay for them. They claim credit when devolved Scottish services prosper, and blame Westminster when cuts are imposed.

Now, the new powers ensure Scottish ministers will take their share of potentially unpopular decision-making, which creates obvious winners and losers. Their hands are - finally - being dipped in the blood. Although income tax makes up a smaller percentage of the overall tax take than most folk probably assume, save for your council tax bill, your PAYE deductions are the most visible form of taxation going. 

If Nicola Sturgeon hikes your rate, you'll know about it, and hold her government responsible for its choices. See how long your popularity survives in the rougher winds which will blow then. Devolution might also have opened a window on the right wing for Ruth Davidson to champion lower rates. In the event, she seems to have retreated entirely to an "I agree with George" position on the rights of disabled people and the rates and bands of Scottish income taxation.

And - who knows? - this cynical argument may have something to it. Income tax devolution has already altered the political debate, and exposed the First Minister's government to some awkward choices. On one interpretation, the teeth of the trap are closing.

But for myself? I remember my Dryden, think like a calculating gradualist, and take a slightly different view. Might income tax devolution create headaches for devolved governments? No question. Might it expose the SNP to new and uncomfortable situations, inviting missteps, and making some parts of the population unhappy? For sure. But the creation of Revenue Scotland and a distinct agency to administer devolved benefits for the disabled are classically gradualist nationalist innovations. They help to bridge the chasm between the status quo and a future independence. They shorten the "leap in the dark" it might be seen as representing.

Many of the more critical, post indyref postmortems have focussed on questions of policy. How does the slump in global oil price alter the economic strategy and thinking? Does the currency policy need reappraising, in the light of hard experience and defeat? What about Europe? This is all well and good, and important, but I was to make a dumber, perhaps more obvious, point. For independence supporters, contemplating the situation in which we find ourselves, wanting usefully to bide our time, bridging that chasm isn't just a question of institutions and policy -- it is also a question of political culture and political capital. 

Yes, income and most welfare devolution will expose Nicola Sturgeon's government to sometimes harsh and unforgiving headwinds. But much more importantly, it will gradually acclimatise our political culture to talking about tax and spend decisions much more seriously, on a peculiarly Scottish economic scale. Comparisons with England and Wales are likely to continue. But given sufficient time to percolate and mature -- this has the potentially radically to revise the status quo, building greater fiscal capacity in our politicians, and among the wider public of electors. This may also build skepticism towards the Scottish Government from some quarters, but collectively, it has the capacity to build confidence too. And as a calculating, gradualist Nationalist, this seems to me a fine and useful thing.

One aspect of the devolution settlement which long concerned me was the limits it imposed on our politicians' policy visions and their industry. MSPs and ministers have an incentive to focus on questions within their competence, and to give only scanty and superficial thought to issues falling outside them.  The SNP were, for the greater part of the last two decades, uniquely exposed to this tendency, as first-past-the-post Westminster elections ensured that only a very limited cohort of Nationalist politicians were in place in the palace, scrutinising and thinking about reserved matters day to day. 

2015 represented a radical break with this modest representation. You can't expect six souls with limited support and funds at their command to engage in a comprehensive and thoroughgoing operation on critical reserved questions of taxation and welfare, foreign policy and defence. This observation is intended as no criticism of the folk composing the SNP's Westminster delegation in earlier years. There are only so many hours in a day, and only so many briefings a small cadre of advisers can assemble. 

Being the minor opposition, grounds can always be found to oppose the government of the day. But this kind of deconstructive, oppositional mode of thinking about reserved matters is not conducive to state building and advancing a considered and positive programme of your own. If the extent of your public scrutiny of government policy is a single question at PMQs, you're not going to try to present your own comprehensive plan. You'll look for the more focused, stinging, laugh line. Meanwhile, in Holyrood, as an MSP, you have no real incentive either to pick up the slack, and ponder the detail of social security or tax policy. It is a reserved matter, and your party will never be in power in Whitehall. Why bother? 

But this kind of dynamic should strike serious minded independence supporters as potentially pernicious. If the principal party of independence neglects to build its thinking beyond opposition to particular measures, and the formulation of superficial but superficially winning soundbites about Westminster perfidy, you're goosed. From this kind of material, winning campaigns for Scottish independence are not made.  

But I'd argue these two recent developments offer a route out of these understandable historical cul de sacs and leave the SNP simultaneously more politically exposed, and ultimately strengthened. In contrast with the handful of representatives whose minds are set to the analysis of reserved matters, the SNP now benefits from a massive Westminster delegation whose resources it must deploy with cold-eyed intelligence. Some of the new parliamentarians are plodders. Others stars. But aided by its short money war-chest, the party's serried ranks of MPs, and the little elves and sprites which surround them, are gradually intensifying their understanding of reserved matters, and the depth and complexity of many of the issues involved. This is unprecedented.

But I wonder if the Scotland Act "trap" might not make its own significant contribution to sharpening Nationalist thinking, focussing minds, and forcing Scottish voters to think about tax and spend - and greater independence - in a more comprehensive and programmatic way.  As you cackle as Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues are put on the spot - think on that. And remember Dryden. And wonder if it is all, really, going just as planned.

26 March 2016

"She wore a blue collar..."

Every politician has their schtick, their story. Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson's, is that she is a ‘good, old-fashioned’ working-class Conservative, seasoned with a good pinch of socially liberal, unstarchy modernity.

As Peter Ross' Times profile puts it this morning, "Ms Davidson grew up in two traditional small towns, Selkirk and Lundin Links. She went to Buckhaven High and lacks silver spoons and old school ties." And there is clearly a good deal of truth to this. Davidson is not one of the born to rule brigade. She seems amiable, ordinary and doesn't take herself too seriously. She wasn't privately educated. Flattering profiles tend to describe her as a "champion of blue collar Tories" - which is just an Americanised way of saying - working class Tories. 

And yet the foundations of all this remain remarkable shaky. Bark at Ms Davidson that the Scottish Tories remain a party devoted to the service of the wealthy, of established privilege and property, and she'll almost inevitably dip into her biography rather than her policy catalogue to try to refute the point. The election campaign represents an admirable opportunity for Ms Davidson to move beyond an immature identity politics, and to produce some policy calculated to benefit the workers of "middle Scotland" who she says uniquely preoccupy her.

But thus far? All we've really seen is the same old, same old. Her education agenda seems authentically felt. But on tax and spend? Recent developments in SNP policy have represented a calculated provocation to Davidson’s party. And damagingly, if she wanted to prosecute a consistent blue collar agenda for her party, her troops are proving either indisciplined or ill-led. Mr Osborne’s upper rate tax cut, cancelled. Local taxation, hiked on the Georgian villas of the New Town and the corniced apartments of Pollokshields and Kelvinside. Threats and menaces continue about the additional rate of taxation. 

Each provocation has been met with the same old unreconstructed response on behalf of interests Tories have long represented: the high earners, the landowners, the large homeowners, the prosperous middle classes. And for the real “middle Scotland” – squeezed or unsqueezed, delete as preferred? For "aspirational" folks, taking home between £20,000 and £30,000 a year, and hoping to bump up their salaries over the coming years? Next to sod all, as far as I can see. Certainly nothing distinctive from what the more traditionally patrician leadership of her party in Westminster has come up with.

We await the party manifestos for May's elections with interest. But we're gradually getting a clearer picture of where the parties will stand on key issues, including taxation. And if the speech Ms Davidson gave this morning is anything to go by, beyond the warm words and the attractive biographical annotations, Ms Davidson seems most exercised by the pocketbooks of the richest 5% to 10% of Scots. Here's the key section of her speech: 

Last week, we learned the full cost of the SNP’s plans. Firstly, middle earners in Scotland will be forced to pay £3000 more in tax than people in England over the next five years. By the turn of the decade, the difference in take home pay for someone touching£50,000 will be £800 a year. And secondly, the additional rate may go up too. On Wednesday, the First Minister rightly declared she would not be increasing the additional rate of tax – because we know Scotland will lose money if she does. But by Thursday night, we learned that, actually, she’s had second thoughts – and that she may do so in future years. In short, we now have a Government which we know will make middle earners pay more – and which may make higher earners pay even more too.

We can discuss the merits of tax banding. We can have a meaningful debate about when the 40% banding ought to bite, and what the consequences of higher taxation at the upper and additional thresholds are likely to be. There was some good discussion below the line in last week's blog on this. But for all the Daily Mail's wishful thinking - which Ms Davidson appears to have swallowed whole someone earning £50,000 is not a middle earner.  

The point cannot be underscored often enough. The median full time income in this country is £27,000 a year. Someone earning £50k a year may sit midway between the very rich and the very poor in our society, but most working people do not. In Ms Davidson's Edinburgh region, the median salary is higher - £35,784 - but still well short of the figure £50k figure she cites in her speech today.

If this is Ms Davidson's definition of a "blue collar" Tory, good luck finding many of those outside of Edinburgh's more prosperous enclaves. In fairness, you can understand the politics of this. Ms Davidson has a core vote to whom she must also tend. The Conservative Party - like all big, governing coalitions - has competing forces and inclinations within it. I'm sure Davidson is sincere - in a fuzzy way - about wanting to give a leg up to those who begin life with few advantages. But if your main policy objectives are to protect those who are already well off? If you offer sod all to those you claim to champion? If you claim you have a working class agenda, but all you talk about is protecting the pocketbooks of a relatively small minority of higher earners at the top? 

Then, to be honest, I don't give a fig whether you've pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, or whether you are the first person in your family to go to university. Your autobiography has become a convenient mask, to distract the people - and perhaps, to distract yourself - from the gulf separating your political ideals and the priorities you are actually pursuing. 

There was an interesting, human moment when Andrew Marr interviewed Iain Duncan Smith last weekend. The former Work and Pensions Secretary was confronted with the gap between his stated aspirations and what the government of which he had been part had actually achieved. Duncan Smith found his passion, defended his principles, and ultimately - failed credibly to bridge the gap between what he said he wanted to do, and what the record showed about his term in office. 

When pressed in a similar way, Ms Davidson has also got into the habit of retreating into her personal story, just as Iain Duncan Smith retreated to his principles. The former Work and Pensions Secretary invites us to judge him, not on his failures and his achievements, but on his good intentions. In Ruth Davidson's empty "blue collar" Toryism, we can already almost hear the dull echo of the Quiet Man's aspirations, and his regrets.

23 March 2016

John Deighan: sans class, sans gorm, sans everything

I have a confession to make. Among the great shifting and disputatious tribes of Scottish public life, the sinners and the redeemed, there are relatively few people for whom I feel absolute, crushing contempt. In brash newspaper columns and in stressed television appearances -- we only see a glancing, partial depiction of the whole soul. But one of the few characters I've come to despise in the public life of this country is Mr John Deighan. I don't know the man personally. He may be a loving father, and a loyal friend. A faithful husband and a benevolent ally. He may engage of countless acts of kindliness and charity. He may be gentle and thoughtful. He may have a heart full of love.

But since Mr Deighan has swum into my consciousness, he has been this country's most consistently nasty and consistently nit-witted spokesman of wounded Christian feeling. Mr Deighan was formerly Parliamentary Officer for the Bishops' Conference of Scotland, in which role, you might have encountered him prosecuting the case against gay marriage.  He is now chief executive of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children ("SPUC"), Scotland’s pro-life organisation".  Today, CommonSpace report Mr Deighan's latest nittwittery which, even by his high standards, outstrips all recent efforts by some measure. It is all there. Prosecuting women who secure abortions. Crackpot pseudo-science. Magic condoms. LGBT teen suicides used as "a rhetorical device to gain sympathy."

Now, as long-standing readers will recall, I was a supporter of equal marriage. I don't share his view on abortion. I'm godless. I don't share Mr Deighan's understanding of the cosmos and the moral plan etched by some higher power in its essential fabric. But being an academic sort, I am perfectly prepared to sit down and listen to arguments with which I fundamentally disagree. If you're prepared to use your imagination, and enter into a Christian theological world view, you can sketch out logical arguments, arguments which make complex and interesting claims about what human flourishing really means.  You don't have to take it personally, even where you profoundly disagree. 

But what do we get? Who is the natural law's spokesman on earth? Who brings hard won human reason and tradition to a doubting world? Who is to act as the moral tutor to a wayward people, deaf to the Lord's word? John Deighan. Fucking John Deighan. John Deighan: a man incapable of formulating a coherent sentence, never mind sketching a nuanced point. A man who manages, somehow, to be both vulgarly tabloid, and crushingly pretentious. A man whose public remarks suggest a mind of such bluntness, of such nastiness, of such mendacity -- well, Saint Anselm would blush. The heavenly doctor, Thomas Aquinas, garbled by this poisonous, illiberal, thick-as-a-stump jobgobber? You weep.

I have intense, immense respect for the intellectual traditions of the the Christian and Catholic tradition. There is a crude, and often self-satisfied atheistical vision of the intellectual history of Europe, which seems the dawning enlightenment as the first flourishing of skeptical, searching, intellectual life after the collapse of the great Grecian republics and a long uninterrupted darkness of ignorance and superstition. This is nonsense. I reject it utterly. 

Within their cosmological frameworks, great Christian thinkers were above all great thinkers. They scrutinised their beliefs with emotional and intellectual energy and doubt. The doctrines of natural law are rich and considered, complex and nuanced. In terms of my intellectual development, one of the most important books I ever read was Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue. MacIntyre is a wonderful bag of contradictions. A Marxist Thomist Aristotelian thinker, born in Glasgow, but who made most of his career in the United States, in Notre Dame. 

He embodies the key point. Catholicism is a pensive, rich, self-aware and intelligent tradition. It is a tradition which I, to a great extent, find myself in disagreement with. But that this semi-literate toad is its spokesman is an insult to its history. This is a - perhaps uncharacteristically - harsh appraisal. Perhaps he is - somehow - a grand man in private despite it all. But from his public echo? Ignorant, inarticulate, mendacious, unpleasant, John Deighan is a man sans class, sans gorm, sans everything. Read the piece. Reach your own conclusions.

18 March 2016

Notes from "Middle Scotland"

Who are Scotland's "squeezed middle", and what, precisely, are they supposed to be in the "middle" of? The right wing press have begun to do their collective dingers about Nicola Sturgeon's hints yesterday, that George Osborne's decision to hike the threshold for paying the higher rate of tax looks unlikely to apply in Scotland once the Scotland Bill powers are enacted. 

In the current tax year, individuals across the UK pay 40% tax on earnings over £42,385. Come 2017/18, the chancellor intends to shift the threshold for the higher rate to £45,000. The First Minister has said cutting income taxes for "those on the highest incomes at a time when support for the disabled is being cut and at a time when our public services are under pressure, is in my view the wrong choice.”

For Alan Roden, and the Scottish Daily Mail, this is an outrage and a scandal. "Middle Scotland will pay highest tax in UK" their headline this morning screams, a "family tax grab". Mr Roden goes on to flesh out his indictment of this supposed Scottish Government larceny. 

"Nicola Sturgeon yesterday confirmed that Scotland's squeezed middle will be punished with the UK's highest taxes to pay for the SNP's vote-winning policies. The First Minister said George Osborne's tax give away for nurses, teachers and police is "not a choice I am going to make."

With the paper's characteristic combination of sentimentality and nastiness, this opening paragraph summons up a ghoulish mental picture of the SNP government, persecuting the ordinary bobby, picking the pocket of self-sacrificing and industrious ward sisters, and shellacking that lovely, soft-voiced primary school teacher you cherished as a youngster. It implies that fairly ordinary workers, earning fairly ordinary pay cheques, will be "punished" if John Swinney decides not to make the richest sections of this country even richer. Even a little rummaging shows that this a breathtaking distortion, a falsehood, a flat out, old-fashioned lie. 

First, start with the basics. The latest official figures suggest that the median annual earnings of a Scottish worker before tax is £27,045 - a mighty £15,370 short of any liability to pay the higher rate of income tax. Most Scottish workers need a pair of binoculars to see the upper rate of tax, never mind to benefit from Mr Osborne's unnecessary cuts. And what do you know? Precisely the same thing goes for each of the professions Mr Roden mentions in his forked-tongued news report. Nurses, teachers, police officers - the overwhelming majority of these public sector workers won't gain a single penny from Osborne's upper rate hike and won't lose a single penny if John Swinney refuses to play copy cat. 

First, take nurses. The NHS in Scotland helpfully publishes workforce information, including data on the salary bands of its staff. Even more helpfully, they break down the data for nursing staff and midwives. So what does it tell us? At the end of December 2015, the NHS employed 59,287 nursing and midwifery staff. These staff are paid on nationally negotiated pay scales, running from £15,385 at the bottom of band 1 to £100,431 per annum at the top of band 9, depending on their seniority. 

But the overwhelming majority of nursing and midwifery staff are employed on contracts of band 7 of lower.  And - yes, you've guessed it - the highest point in band 7 for nursing staff in Scotland is a salary of £41,373 - still just  over £1,000 short of paying the higher rate of income tax at its current level. In fact,  according to official stats, at most, only 2% of Scottish nursing staff are in a position to benefit from Mr Osborne's upper rate tax cut. 58,111 staff are employed at band 7 or lower compared to just 1,176 above that, while the overwhelming majority of nurses and midwives (36,570) are employed on salary bands 5 (£21k - £28k) and 6 (£25k - £35k). Point to me, I think, Mr Roden.

So what about the teachers Nicola Sturgeon is supposedly "punishing"? Oopsie daisy. Same problem. Scottish teachers have their own nationally negotiated bands of pay, running from £22,416 for probationers, up to £35,763 at band six. Different rates apply for principal teachers, and for the higher ups in the head-teachers' offices, some of whom would benefit from the chancellor's upper-rate tax cut. But the overwhelming majority of Scotland's 48,000 teachers? Not a sausage. Even without a hike, they're still earning £6,622 a year shy of the current threshold to pay 40% income tax. 

And police officers? Surely Mr Roden must have called at least one of these right? Surely the bollocks cannot be entirely unmitigated? Alas, alas. First, look at Police Scotland's pay and grading rules.  Police constables take home £23,493 on their first year on the job, increasing to £36,885 over long service. There are no higher rate tax payers here. But what if you are promoted to sergeant? Then your pay jumps from £36,885 to £41,451 per year. Even on the current threshold of £42,385, police sergeants still wouldn't be paying a single penny of the higher rate of tax. By contrast, the Chief Constable (salary, £212,280), and his higher ranking subordinates would have to contribute more if Osborne's cuts are not implemented north of the border. 

But just like nursing staff, and just like teachers, the overwhelming majority of police officers are not employed in senior positions, earning fatter pay cheques. The most recent statistics suggest that over 90% of Scottish police officers serve and are paid at constable or sergeant level who will not pay a penny more income tax, even if Osborne's tax plans are not implemented by the Scottish government. English police forces show a similar breakdown, by the by, with 93% of officers holding commissions as sergeants and constables.

So let's summarise. Reality, according to Alan Roden, is that George Osborne's tax cuts for the top 10% - 15% of highest earners represented a "tax give away for nurses, teachers and police" and that "Scotland's squeezed middle will be punished" by the SNP if a matching cut is not made to Scottish rates of income tax. Reality, according to the evidence, suggests that 90% of police officers would not be worse off, 98% of nurses would not be worse off, and the overwhelming majority of Scottish teachers would not be worse off, if the higher rate of tax was simply maintained at its current rate. Misinformation doesn't cover it.

So where do we find this fabled "middle Scotland"? If the Daily Mail's analysis today is anything to go with, wedged deep, deep in the midst of naked self-interest, rampant delusions, lies about our economy and and a fog of utterly misplaced self-pity.

17 March 2016

Nicola's new appeal to self-interest

I've got out of the habit of watching First Minister's Questions, but I tuned in with interest this afternoon to see how the parties responded to yesterday's budget and the challenges it throws up for Scottish policy. Heckled by Kezia Dugdale, there were encouraging signs from the First Minister that the SNP are up for prosecuting the social democratic case that better services are worth fighting - and paying for - even if that involves maintaining higher levels of income taxation for the 10% to 15% of the population who are higher rate tax payers. 

The right wing press have responded this morning in their usual risible style, bleating about the cruel fate to be endured by "middle class families" in Scotland under this separatist government. If the First Minister's answers today are anything to go by, the richest look unlikely to be receiving Osborne's unnecessary tax bungs from Nicola Sturgeon's treasury next year, as the basic support which is extended to disabled people is ruthlessly hewn away. 

But perhaps the most interesting thing in Sturgeon's #fmqs performance today? For the first time that I can remember - she explicitly linked the idea of levying higher Scottish taxes with the provision of better public services not available in England.  Since 1998, we've existed in a curious kind of policy limbo in this respect. Scottish governments of all stripes have taken spending decisions which distinguish them from the priorities in Whitehall, whether it is the reduction and elimination tuition fees for Scottish domiciled students, or Henry McLeish's funding for personal care for the elderly, or the SNP's decision to roll out universal free prescriptions. 

While Westminster held the purse strings, these distinct spending decisions have not been linked to any argument about whether taxes ought to be higher or lower. One consequence of this output oriented analysis of public spending has been disgruntled Tory politicians south of the border, arguing that Scotland is feather bedded and claims an unfair share of public spending, allowing its politicians to distribute "free stuff" to its people which the harder pressed English representatives simply cannot afford. But we rarely ever talk about the investments Scottish Governments did not and could not make, as a result of prioritising personal care, tuition fees, and access to medicines. Or for that matter, how that surplus was spent in England and Wales. But if Sturgeon's asides this afternoon are anything to go by, all of that is about to change. 

Significantly, the First Minister appealed not only to altruism, or concern for the worst off and the vulnerable today, but also to a kind of enlightened self-interest. Short version? "Tax isn't just a sacrifice, reluctantly made for the good of others. Here's what your higher taxes get you. These things are worth paying for." Her remarks put me immediately in mind of this piece from the Atlantic magazine yesterday on Bernie Sanders' campaign for the Democratic nomination. Written by a Nordic-American journalist, Anu Partanen, the piece neatly echoes the argument Nicola Sturgeon just began making this afternoon and which I suspect we'll hear much, much more of in the coming months and years in Scottish politics. Here's the key passage:

"A Nordic person myself, I left my native Finland seven years ago and moved to the U.S. Although I’m now a U.S. citizen, I hear these kinds of comments from Americans all the time—at cocktail parties and at panel discussions, in town hall meetings and on the opinion pages. Nordic countries are the way they are, I’m told, because they are small, homogeneous “nanny states” where everyone looks alike, thinks alike, and belongs to a big extended family. 
This, in turn, makes Nordic citizens willing to sacrifice their own interests to help their neighbors. Americans don’t feel a similar kinship with other Americans, I’m told, and thus will never sacrifice their own interests for the common good. What this is mostly taken to mean is that Americans will never, ever agree to pay higher taxes to provide universal social services, as the Nordics do. Thus Bernie Sanders, and anyone else in the U.S. who brings up Nordic countries as an example for America, is living in la-la land. 
But this vision of homogenous, altruistic Nordic lands is mostly a fantasy. The choices Nordic countries have made have little to do with altruism or kinship. Rather, Nordic people have made their decisions out of self-interest. Nordic nations offer their citizens—all of their citizens, but especially the middle class—high-quality services that save people a lot of money, time, and trouble. This is what Americans fail to understand: My taxes in Finland were used to pay for top-notch services for me."

In terms of the tax and spend debate which is coming to Holyrood - perhaps a straw in the wind. 

16 March 2016

For the SNP, taxing problems lie ahead...

In university, I had the misfortune to study the law of tax. In fairness to my teachers, they were learned, talented and clear. I didn't do badly. But the arcane, shifting, three dimensional geometry of tax law hurt my head. I had no real talent for it. At the time, jobless, incomeless, it all seemed a little arcane, gesturing towards a fantasy world of money which - as an undergraduate - seemed fantastical and remote. 

But now that I find myself holding down a job - and, ye gad - putting in tax returns - these old lessons which I neglected seem more interesting and urgent. In the House of Commons today, George Osborne presented his budget to MPs. From the headlines, it has all the hallmarks of another Tory budget chock full of unnecessary cuts to tax for folk who're already doing perfectly well, while screwing over folk with nothing. In Holyrood, in parallel, MSPs were debating the Scotland Bill, which will invest Scottish ministers with the responsibility, all too soon, with taking key decisions on taxation. Under the 2012 Calman powers, Holyrood is only entitled to set a single "Scottish rate" of income tax, which will apply across all the UK bands. 

MSPs have no control over tax allowances, or over personal allowances. This, as we've discussed before, is a famously blunt instrument. If you want to hike the tax obligations of the wealthiest in Scotland, John Swinney must also increase the bills of anyone earning more than the personal allowance. Understandably, the SNP have decided not to increase the bills of folk earning significantly less than the median, full-time salary of £27,000 per annum. Scottish Labour continues to promise a £100 workaround for the low paid via local government, but no further detail has been produced about how they would achieve this.

But in the near future, John Swinney or his successor will have the power to create a more nuanced Scottish system of income taxation. But critically, their decisions will continued to be framed in vital ways by decisions, taken by the UK treasury, over which they have no power. Scottish Finance Secretaries, with the support of the parliament, will in future be able to introduce new bands of taxation and thresholds, departing from the current UK dispensation, with its basic rate, higher rate, and additional rates of tax on income over £150,000. The economics of this are beyond my ken. But in terms of the powers themselves, Mr Swinney will have much more flexibility. 

Under the current rules, set by the UK treasury, the 40% rate kicks in £42,385. In the near future, Mr Swinney might pick a different threshold, or a different percentage. He might, for example,  introduce a basic Scottish rate of taxation, a higher Scottish rate, and an additional rate, and new, fourth, Eat the Rich rate. But the starting point for all of Mr Swinney's calculations will remain the personal allowance, which remains the UK chancellor's plaything.  Under the new Scotland Bill, George Osborne retains control over the personal allowance.

And the proverbial "direction of travel" on the personal allowance is clear - onwards and upwards, with more and more folk, and more and more income, being taken out of the income tax system altogether.  When I started studying tax law, the personal allowance was a slender £4,895 per year. Having cannibalised Liberal Democrat tax policy, the Chancellor today projected a personal allowance of £11,500 for 2017/18.

Why does this matter? Because continuing UK government control over when income taxation begins to bite means that even if John Swinney wanted to maintain the same level of tax liability in Scotland, he'd have to shift the thresholds or increase the rate of tax owed. The Smith Commission compromise - effectively - means that in order to maintain the status quo of tax in the teeth of a tax cutting UK government, Scottish ministers would be obliged - visibly obliged - to put taxes up in Scottish budgets. No harm in that, you might well think. You can't triangulate your way to social democracy. But I'm not sure this is a point everyone following Scottish politics has fully understood.

Confused? Let's try a very simple example. Imagine you are a Scottish taxpayer. Imagine also that the new Scotland Bill is now in force, and your Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Finance can decide what rates you pay, and then they bite. Say also that you earn £27,000 a year. In tax year A, you enjoy a personal allowance of £10,600, set by the Treasury. Your Scottish rate of income tax, set in Edinburgh, is 20% owed over this threshold. Your taxable income is £16,400, and you'll be handing over £3,280 to Revenue Scotland.  

But imagine that in the next year - tax year B - George Osborne decides to boost your personal allowance to £12,000. Even if John Swinney preserves the Scottish rate of income tax at the same 20% rate, your tax liability will fall significantly. Now, your taxable income will be £15,000, with reduced revenue for the Scottish exchequer of £3,000 (-£280). Small beer, you might think, but add all of these basic rate taxpayers up -- and Mr Swinney might end up with a substantial hole in his budget, as a result of the Chancellor's tax-cutting agenda.  

The key point? If you have a UK governing using the personal allowance to cut tax, then deciding to keep the Scottish and UK taxation rates at the same level is effectively a decision to cut taxes. You might pray nobody notices, and quietly give effect to it. But to paraphrase Orwell, it would be objectively pro austerity. There are good reasons not to invoke the Calman tax powers this year. But those reasons begin to evaporate very soon. This doesn't mean the Scotland Bill powers are a trap, but it does mean that Nicola Sturgeon will almost certainly find herself obliged to defend higher Scottish rates of taxation just to maintain the current tax take.

This remains one of the essential political instabilities of the United Kingdom. At least from a rhetorical point of view -- the UK and Scottish Governments have significantly different ideas about how large the state should be, and how much public money should be spent on collective projects and redistribution and responsibilities. The new Scotland Bill doesn't resolve these incoherences. Barnett leaves the two governments' spending decisions yoked together, for good or ill.

But given the ongoing direction of UK government policy expressed in today's budget, the SNP government must brace itself. With the passage of the Scotland Bill, a whole series of awkward questions arise for any Scottish Government, determined to preserve current levels of taxation, and public spending. 

And there's no triangulating your way out of that one. Very soon, the SNP will have to decide whether they are a proper social democratic party, or a nest of fearties.

9 March 2016

Bin lorry crash: Matheson's populist move

This morning, Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson, announced that the Scottish Government has decided to extend legal aid to the families seeking criminal letters to prosecute Harry Clarke privately. The precise charges they want to press against him remain undisclosed, but may include causing death by dangerous driving, and fraud. The Crown Office announced it could not support the case against him in January. The final decision on whether or not to allow the case to proceed will now be taken by the High Court of Justiciary, after hearing legal argument. 

What judges will do remains unclear. In law, the families must demonstrate not only that they have a criminal case against Harry Clarke. They must persuade Lord Carloway's court that there were "very special circumstances which would justify taking the now exceptional step of issuing criminal letters at the request of a private individual". I've blogged on these matters extensively before. Here's what Mr Matheson had to say today, in justifying his decision to spend public money on this private action:

“Private prosecutions are, and should remain, exceptionally rare in Scotland. However, in light of the unique and special circumstances of this case, which raises fundamental questions that have not previously been tested in case law, Scottish Ministers believe it is in the public interest that all parties are adequately represented.

“As such, Ministers have agreed to make legal aid available for the families of the Bin Lorry tragedy.

“In line with human rights requirements that anybody facing potential criminal prosecution must be legally represented, legal aid will also be made available to the driver of the bin lorry, Mr Clarke, and to Mr Payne in relation to another potential private prosecution in separate case.  
The issue of whether there are exceptional circumstances to justify a private prosecution is a matter for the High Court alone and do not form part of this legal aid decision. 
Responsibility for deciding whether or not to prosecute an alleged criminal case in Scotland rests clearly with the Crown Office which has a strong record in prosecuting crime. 
The determination is not being made on the basis that Ministers agree that there was any error in law in the decision by the Crown. The Lord Advocate has set out publicly the basis for the decision not to progress a prosecution following the Bin Lorry tragedy.”

A few immediate reactions to the decision and the justification given by Mr Matheson for it. Firstly, this is a decision many folk will welcome. Public understanding of what Harry Clarke did and did not do, and did and did not know about his health when he passed out at the wheel in December 2014, remain lamentably poor. Open a newspaper. Talk to your cab driver. Misconceptions are everywhere. But misconceptions can be powerful social and political forces. 

Few people, I think, are liable to be troubled by the idea of bereaved people getting their opportunity to state their legal case in a clear and well-founded way. Even if you think their action is fundamentally misguided -- that the state is putting these families in a position to state it and state it clearly is no bad thing. There is, clearly, a public interest in this case. By giving the McQuaid and Sweeney families the chance to pursue this action without incurring ruinous costs is likely to contribute something to public confidence in the judicial system - win or lose. 

But beyond that, I think Mr Matheson's reasoning for granting the money seems pretty shaky. The first limb of his argument is that this case "raises fundamental questions that have not previously been tested in case law", and therefore ought to be supported. What these questions might be are far from clear.  Having followed this case closely, and scoured through the jurisprudence of Scottish courts on criminal letters, I've no idea what unlitigated fundamental questions Mr Matheson is alluding to.

He also says the Crown decision not to prosecute Mr Clarke gives rise to a case of "unique and special circumstances". But what precisely are these circumstances? Mr Matheson doesn't elaborate, but he must know there is nothing unique, or special, in the Crown deciding criminal cases will not be taken, that insufficient evidence is available, that the public interest wouldn't be served by a prosecution. Cases of this kind accumulate day after day after day - every day - in the offices of procurators fiscal from east cost to west. Disappointments of this kind for complainers are not the exception: they're routine. 

Are all such actions now to be supported from government funds, when complainers disagree with prosecutors? And what about questions of equity? Are all private prosecution bids to secure financial Scottish Government backing? If not, on what criteria? Is it simply decisions which are liable to get Scottish Ministers thwapped on the front pages of the Daily Record which are to attract the support of public money, while would-be private prosecutors in less notorious cases are to be left to fend for themselves? 

The Cabinet Secretary says private prosecutions "should remain exceptionally rare." Deciding to fund this action seems likely to generate precisely the opposite outcome. The fact that folk can be privately prosecuted in Scotland will have come as a revelation to much of the public. Public awareness of the criminal letters route is higher than ever. If you feel the Crown hasn't secured justice for you, and you have a good chance of getting ministers to foot your legal bill, why not pull together criminal letters against someone you feel escaped prosecution unfairly? Why wouldn't you do it? Despite his rhetorical wriggling about in his statement, has Michael Matheson precisely established a precedent with this decision?

Beyond the Scottish Government's stated reasons, the cynical among you will inevitably see the political side of today's announcement. With an election approaching, extending legal aid to these families is an easy choice. In terms of the public purse, the cost of the action is small beer. Tomorrow will no doubt bring positive rumblings in the media, about justice being well served by Nicola Sturgeon's government. 

If, by contrast, Michael Matheson had vetoed the use of public money to support those who lost loved ones in December 2014, you could expect a counterblast of editorial and comment, depicting ministers as closing ranks behind their handpicked prosecutor, slamming the door shut in the faces of victims, of cover ups, skewed priorities and heartlessness. You don't have to be a canny politician to spot - and take - the path of least resistance. And if, in future, a big pile of applicants stick in funding bids for their criminal letters? You can always quietly reject them down the line. The decisions are very unlikely to be publicly reported.

Although today's statement is at pains not to undermine the Lord Advocate's decision not to prosecute Clarke - you also wonder if ministers are hedging their bets here, squaring the families and the media, and subtly distancing themselves from contamination by unpopular Crown Office decision-making. Logically, I suppose, this is the flip side of prosecutorial independence. It's Frank Mulholland's call. If the families lose? Well, the Scottish Minister did their bid. But if, for some reason, the High Court of Justiciary does grant criminal letters against Harry Clarke - today's decision leaves the finger of blame pointing solely at the Lord Advocate, the animus engulfing prosecutors, and not politicians. 

Whether for high minded reasons of access to justice, or the low animal cunning of anticipating public opinion and avoiding the flak -- this is a neat, perhaps cynical, but populist move.

5 March 2016

#SP16: Ruth Davidson's blue collar, still washed whiter

On the 23rd of June, the British people will cast their verdict on the UK's membership of the European Union. On Thursday the 5th of May, folk living in Scotland will determine the shape of Holyrood for the next half decade. With two months to go until the Scottish Parliament ballot boxes are opened, life is only now, only just, beginning to stir in the campaign. But for most of March and April, it seems likely that the dominance of UK media in the Scottish scene will ensure that there is an inevitable spill over of the EU referendum race into devolved elections. 

This conjunction of political events prompted a grouchy letter from the heads of the devolved administrations some weeks back, concerned that the issues in their respective elections would be obscured by the EU poll. Nicola Sturgeon urged David Cameron to pick some other day, some other time, to put his compact to the test of popular opinion. SNP MPs groused about it extensively, in the first EU debate on the Prime Minister's draft deal with the governments of other EU states. 

For my own part, I struggle to get worked up about this. From a - horrifically cynical - tactical perspective, political stasis remains Nicola Sturgeon's friend. The distractions of a parallel EU punch-up will, I should have thought, tend to help the Scottish Government perpetuate the political stasis which has gripped Scotland since 2014's indyref, and help the SNP to retain office. Is it pretty? No. Uplifting? Not a jot of it. 

Kezia Dugdale is still gasping for political oxygen, gasping for a hearing, gasping for recognition. The antipathies towards Labour which recent events have engendered show no signs of abating. In parallel, the Liberal Democrats continue to hobble along, the walking wounded, bumping along the bottom of bare political viability. 

The Greens have benefited from a merited boost from their new membership and cash and indyref advocacy -- but don't look likely to make swingeing inroads into the Nationalist vote. They'll peel off a few folk who'd like the government to be bolder in key areas, but they don't seem primed to carry off a substantial share in May. And despite winning the backing of a few SNP members like Jim Sillars -- RISE's ascent seems likely to be electorally minimal, and to win them no seats. As most of its harder-headed supporters recognise, on the current evidence, its fate in 2016 seems likely to mirror my last abortive attempt at a soufflé. 

But one name we didn't find on Sturgeon's letter to the Prime Minister was self-proclaimed "blue collar Tory" and all round "good egg", Ruth Davidson. Not a peep of disgruntlement have we heard in public from the Scottish Tory leader. But I wonder if she has more cause than the First Minister to feel hacked off by the Prime Minister's decision to chuck her fragile Holyrood campaign under a bus. 

Huge expectations have gathered behind Davidson. She represents more than a transitory Scottish Tory leader. She is the last best hope of the whole company. In defeating Darth Murdo Fraser, who insisted his comrades had to pack up and start again, Davidson contended that the Tories north of the border were not doomed to a slow death. Above and beyond everything else: the 2016 election campaign are the days that will try Ruth Davidson's soul. They represent the empirical testing of Darth Murdo's thesis. And if she can't win? If this leader can't make any significant progress? Then what? 

Despite these undernotes of anxiety, Ruth Davidson continues to benefit from a marvellous press. Her chances in 2016 have been generously - or maliciously - talked up for some months now. For gentlemen of a certain age in the media, she remains irresistible. She has obvious talents. Drawing on her experiences as a broadcaster, she does a good turn on the radio and telly. She has an eye for an entertaining photo shoot. She doesn't seem to take herself deathly seriously. She tweets amiably. Her open and relaxed and public sexuality makes the whole thing feel contemporary in a way that a sixty year old Rotarian in a double breasted royal blue blazer inevitably could not. These are good things.

But strip away the veneer and the twinkle of the individual personality who can survive Have I Got News for You with credit -- and how far does it really go? We are told she is a new kind of Tory, a revelation, who has swept away the dead wood from her Holyrood group, and who is primed to lead a new generation of Scottish Conservatives into their best ever performance. Scratch the story, and you still find relatively little evidence (a) that the Scottish Tories on offer in May are radically new, or indeed, (b) that they are likely to find favour with a radically enhanced chunk of the electorate. 

If pressed, Conservatives will often point to Professor Adam Tomkins as evidence of radical renewal. And whatever you make of him, Adam is a smart guy who would bring something idiosyncratic to Holyrood. But one professor does not structural change make. If depth and breadth is the thing: who else is new? There are stragglers. Individuals. But overall? Scrutinising the party's regional list, with its dismal lack of women of any stripe, and over-representation of the usual host of lawyers, bankers, business persons and land agents -- well, colour me skeptical. Blues, they may be, blue collar? Gie's peace. 

And as far as I can see, Scottish Tories have made next to no effort in policy terms to lend much substance to the idea that they've reorientated their priorities from the very top of the economic tree to the bottom of middle. There are the "aspirational" grace notes around education, but beyond that? Understandably, and to some extent effectively, when Davidson is pressed on these issues in broadcasting studios, she reaches into her own biography. 

"I'm not one of these snooty bastards", she says. "I'm not privately educated." I don't doubt this is true, and in Davidson's head, the argument well-meant and sincere. But if your platform remains consistent with playing servitor to the richer parts of society? If your policy priorities remain shifting social burdens away from a small slice of wealthy folk? This seems a fairly grisly way to use your working class biography. Scrub Ruth Davidson's blue collar - and the familiar whiter than white collar priorities of Scottish Toryism are quickly revealed. Perhaps her party's 2016 manifesto will dynamite this -- but I rather doubt it.

The reaction to the Scottish Government's recent council tax announcement seemed to me characteristic of the skin deep, merely rhetorical renewal which Davidson has - thus far - represented. Darth Murdo and others took to the airwaves to fill the political space they have traditionally occupied -- the spokespersons of wealth and established privilege.  "Will nobody think of those in houses worth half a million quid?" *sniffle* "What about the 'squeezed middle' of folk earning many multiples of the average Scottish income of £27K a year?" Ruth Davidson's all new Conservatives: still washing those blue collars whiter. 

But beyond this, I wonder if the EU poll date isn't more of a problem for Davidson than folk have recognised. Margaret Mitchell seems likely to be the solitary Scottish Tory to come out for Brexit. Davidson and her more prominent "new faces" are all lining up behind the Prime Minister, to argue that the UK should remain part of the European Union. For different reasons, I agree with them. 

But you can bet your bottom dollar that many of Davidson's natural electors do not, wooed by the Euroskepticism of Boris and of Duncan Smith, and of Nigel Farage. For them, the whole Scottish election may seem to be framed by the wider context of the EU debate, its preoccupations and its priorities. And so imagine you are a EU skeptic Tory sympathiser, considering who to lend your vote to in May 2016, with the referendum pending. Do you plump for the squishy and provisional pro-EU position of your party leader? Or might you be tempted to splash out on a UKIP vote instead? 

In terms of the final outcome of the EU referendum, none of this might matter. But the future of Scottish Conservatism is being judged by slender margins. If Davidson and her colleagues lose even a few percentage points to UKIP, the boasts of unprecedented successes, and Davidson's own status as a fundamental jolt to Tory fortunes in Scotland, risk being dramatically undermined.  Sturgeon may have put her name to the letter, protesting about David Cameron's choice of date for the Euro poll, but I wonder if - privately - it isn't Ruth Davidson who has most cause to curse her party leader.

3 March 2016

Peat Worrying at DeclarationFest

As reported in the National this morning (thanks for the punt, lads), in Glasgow tomorrow, I'm compeering a session as part of a new human rights festival - Declaration.  Each of the sessions is organised around one of the Articles of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Mine is Article 10 - the right to a fair, public hearing. We've interpreted that generously, and the session will focus on the critical, politically urgent, question of access to justice in the UK and Scotland. 

How would you get on defending yourself in court, cobbling together a case? Article 10 of the Universal Declaration provides that “everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.” The session will take a critical look at access to justice in the UK in a time of unprecedented strain, as more and more people are falling back on their own resources, being priced out of justice, and trying (and frequently failing) to vindicate their rights.

There will be contributions from a range of speakers, from academic voices, to those who have been involved in litigation, high profile and no profile, on the very human challenges these produce. I'm delighted to confirm that we'll be hearing from the talented and committed young lawyers from our Law Clinic as part of the programme, who bring with them some really interesting insights about the struggles and strains of trying to crack open a justice system which can seem to price out very many of our fellow citizens. Technical and dry, it won't be.

We'll also be hearing from Phaemie Matheson, one of the four petitioners who put everything to the touch, to launch the election petition against Alistair Carmichael. Our purpose here isn't to relitigate the rights or wrongs of the action, but to consider again the human scale of it, the risks and the incentives. For anyone who has been following the case - do come, and bring questions. It should - hopefully - be an engaging and informative session. And if you have comrades and friends around Glasgow who you think might be interested in attending, do give them a punt. It'd be lovely to see some of you there.

What is it? Article 10: Right to a Public Hearing, Declaration Festival
When is it? Friday 4th of March, 12:00 noon, Club Room, Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow.
What does it cost? Sod all. Tickets are free. You can register for the session here.