Saturday, September 27, 2014

The man is obscuring the message

My take on a less than satisfactory week for Labour's Ed Miliband.  From today's Journal.

While on a personal level I was relieved at the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum, there can be no doubt what the more interesting result from a journalistic point of view would have been.

The counterfactual question ‘What would have happened if the Scots had voted Yes?’ will, I suspect, become as moot a debating point in years to come as ‘What would have happened if JFK had lived?’ or ‘What would have happened if Thatcher had lost the Falklands?’

My guess, for what it’s worth is that David Cameron would by now be an ex-Prime Minister, his status as the man who lost the Union having finally provided his backbenchers with the longed-for excuse to send him packing.

His replacement at No 10 would have been William Hague, one of the few Tories to command respect across the spectrum and a convenient stopgap for those seeking to block the claims of Chancellor George Osborne while keeping the seat warm for Boris Johnson.

And Ed Miliband?  Well, I suspect he might soon have been on his way too.  After all, had the Scottish vote gone the other way, it would have been primarily down to his failure to connect with Labour’s traditional supporters north of the border.

It took an eleventh-hour intervention by Gordon Brown to deliver Labour’s voters into the no camp, though the former Prime Minister remains such an unperson in senior party circles that Mr Miliband did not even see fit to thank him in his conference speech this week.

But of course the Scots voted no, and both Mr Cameron and his Labour opposite number lived to fight another day, albeit with their reputations badly scarred.

And with the general election now less than eight months away, it is clear that both men face an uphill battle to convince the public of their Prime Ministerial credentials.

Mr Cameron, of course, has the advantage in this regard in that he is already doing the job, but he seems to be held in growing contempt by an increasing number of otherwise natural Tory voters.

His casual failure this week to observe the first rule of Prime Ministerial conduct – that you don’t drag the Monarch into politics – was seen by some as indicative not just of a lack of gravitas, but a lack of basic intelligence.

As for poor Mr Miliband, everyone I speak to who is unconnected with politics seems to regard him as quite simply the dullest man in Britain.

His keynote conference speech this week was perhaps his last big chance before the election to shift that perception – but sadly for him, it appears to have further cemented it in the public mind.

Perhaps he wasn’t actually trying.   Mr Miliband is smart enough to realise that the he is never going to win on the personality stakes and, rather than attempt to sell himself to the electorate in Tuesday’s speech, he set about trying to sell an idea.

This, encapsulated in a single word, was the idea of togetherness – a refinement of his ‘One Nation’ pitch of two years ago which aimed to build on the success of the ‘Better Together’ campaign in Scotland.

Of itself, it’s a strong message, if one that – like his £2.5bn pledge on funding the NHS - seems aimed more at shoring up Labour’s core vote than reaching out to those of a more rightward-leaning disposition.

But it all got rather lost in Mr Miliband’s torpid manner of delivery, while his failure to mention Labour’s plans for tackling the deficit handed further plentiful ammunition to his opponents.

If renewed faith in the concept of ‘togetherness’ was one upshot of the referendum, another was of course the revival of interest in English devolution.

Mr Cameron’s plans for an English parliament within a parliament met with a predictably dusty response this week from North-East MPs and council leaders this week who realise it will do nothing to devolve power and funding to the Northern regions.

The Labour leader, by contrast, spoke of the need for a wholesale decentralisation of power throughout the country in what in may yet become a major theme of his party’s election campaign.

In this, too, Mr Miliband’s instincts are entirely correct.   But sadly for Labour, the man is currently obscuring the message.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The English Question: Let battle commence

Today's Journal column on the aftermath of the Scottish referendum vote.

AND so….as one of the big arguments in British politics is settled – perhaps for a generation or more – another, potentially even more fractious one begins.

Scotland may have voted no to independence on Thursday by what, in the end, was a bigger-than-expected margin, but the debate over what to do about the ‘English Question’ is only just getting going.

David Cameron will no doubt have been mightily relieved as he appeared on the steps of 10 Downing Street shortly after 7am yesterday to express his delight at the Scots’ decision to stay.

Had the vote gone the other way, the Prime Minister could just as easily have been announcing his resignation, such were the catalogue of tactical blunders which almost led to the break-up of the 307-year-old Union.

But it was not what Mr Cameron said about Scotland yesterday morning than what he said about England that was chiefly of interest in this part of the world - or, more precisely, what he didn’t say.

The morning after the referendum, in an impressive show of unity, The Journal joined together with its traditional rival on the news-stands to demand increased powers and funding for the North of England

Significantly, those now making the case for this also include the Tory MP for Hexham, Guy Opperman, who said on Wednesday that the region must be “first in line” for devolution following the Scottish vote.

But it is far from clear from Mr Cameron’s comments yesterday whether, at this stage, the option of additional powers for England’s cities and regions is even on his radar.

For all his talk of wide-ranging constitutional change, Mr Cameron appears instead to favour a rather minimalist answer to the English Question, namely ‘English votes for English laws.’

This idea, which would essentially bar Scottish MPs from voting on English-only matters at Westminster, was part of the last Tory election manifesto but vetoed by the Lib Dems from inclusion in the Coalition Agreement.

But while this may be the solution favoured by most Tory MPs, it is unlikely to find favour with the Labour Party and will emphatically not address the “democratic deficit” within the English regions.

Indeed, without some corresponding measure of regional devolution, it would leave the North even more at the mercy of domination by London than has hitherto been the case.

The other big point at issue in the fallout from Thursday’s vote will be the future of the Barnett Formula, which still hands Scotland an extra £1,623 in public spending per head than the UK average.

The three main party leaders’ absurd last-minute pledge to continue it in perpetuity will surely - and rightly – be blocked by English backbench MPs.

The formula – as its creator Lord Barnett has long realised – has been out of sync with relative need for many years and is long overdue for abolition.

In any case, a genuine ‘devo max’ settlement for the Scots, with full control over levels of income tax, would surely render the formula unnecessary in the longer run.

But while this vexed issue will doubtless fill many more columns before it has run its course, it would be wrong to conclude this one without some mention of Gordon Brown.

If Mr Cameron, through his initial complacency and inattention to vital details such as the wording of the question, came close to the being the man who lost the union, then his predecessor at No 10 was the one who saved it.

In the closing days of the campaign, the former Prime Minister managed to do what nobody else had managed up to that point – to make a compelling emotional case for Scots to stick with the UK together.

By appealing to traditional Labour values of solidarity and sharing, he managed to stem the haemorrhaging of support to the Yes campaign that had briefly threatened to become an avalanche.

As others have pointed out, it is time for some historical reappraisal of Mr Brown, who as ITN’s Tom Bradby said yesterday, can now credibly claim to have saved both the financial system and the Union.

Tories may deride him as a “failed Prime Minister,” but he was not, he was merely an electorally unsuccessfully one.

It was his great misfortune to get the job in an era where presentational skills had become increasingly important, and sandwiched between two showmen like Tony Blair and Mr Cameron, those were skills he self-evidently lacked.

One thing he has never lacked, though, was passion.  And he certainly put it to very good use in the cause of keeping our country together.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The man who saved the union....and the one who nearly lost it

"Gordon Brown emerged as the only genuine statesman in this whole sorry business. He embodies the very qualities that makes the rest of the world admire the Scots: integrity, decency and an unshakeable belief in the ability of public service to bring about a better society,"

Paul Routledge in the Daily Mirror.
"I think history is going to be pretty kind to Gordon Brown, a man who can credibly claim to have saved the financial system and the Union."

ITN political editor Tom Bradby on Twitter

"Even when rumours began flying that it might be a firmer no, you could still find Tory MPs wholly unable to forgive a leader who many feel did too little for too long, before panicking and doing too much too late.

"Cameron has resembled nothing so much as the husband who only remembers his wife’s birthday with minutes to spare, and then chucks a bucketload of cash at the problem while praying she never sees the credit card bill."

Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Barnett calls for his formula to be scrapped (again)

Poor old Joel Barnett.  He would no doubt like to be remembered for being an effective Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the Callaghan government and for being, along with his old boss Denis Healey, one of two surviving nonagenarians who served in that administration.

Instead his name is forever linked to the wretched funding formula which he devised in 1978 as a short-term fix and which, 36 years later, still ensures average public spending per head in Scotland is some £1,600 more than in England and Wales.

Barnett has long been embarrassed by his formula and first called for it to be scrapped when appearing before the Treasury Select Committee in 1998.

In 2004, he went further, calling for his name to be taken off it.   This was reported at the time by myself and my then Journal colleague David Higgerson and our story can still be found at an online archive.

Now he has repeated his call in the wake of the absurd pledge by Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband to guarantee the formula's survival in perpetuity in the event of a no vote to independence in tomorrow's referendum.

He told The Telegraph: "It is unfair and should be stopped, it is a mistake. This way is terrible and can never be sustainable, it is a national embarrassment and personally embarrassing to me as well."

Lord Barnett is now 90.   Is it too much to hope that he may yet live to see his wish fulfilled?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Barnett Formula pledge is undeliverable and wrong

I was dismayed to read that the party leaders - and Gordon Brown - have pledged to continue the Barnett Formula as part of their three-point 'guarantee' to Scottish voters ahead of Thursday's referendum.

The formula, which gaurantees Scotland a higher level of public spending per head than anywhere else on the British mainland, has been out of sync for many years and, as the former Welsh Secretary John Redwood points out, is particularly unfair to Wales and the Northern English regions which have similar levels of need.

It won't alter my support for the Better Together campaign, but the future funding arrangements for the different parts of the UK need to be based on a new assessment of relative need, not a short-term political fix.

My suspicion is that the pledge will actually be undeliverable.  I can't imagine for a moment that
English MPs will stand for it in the long run, even if they are keeping their mouths firmly shut at the moment for fear of playing into the hands of the Yes campaign.

The politician who should be most ashamed of himself for allowing this absurd pledge to form part of the last-ditch appeal to wavering Scottish voters is Nick Clegg, whose party has previously called for the replacement of Barnett with a needs-based formula.   Given Clegg's track record of U-turning on previous agreed party policy, however, perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised by this.

In any case, the new powers envisaged for the Scottish Parliament, including the ability to raise their own taxes, ought to enable Scotland to move closer towards financial self-sufficiency rather than continuing to rely on block grants from Westminster.  In this sense, maintaining the Barnett Formula in perpetuity would fly in the face of the moves towards federalism that Gordon and others are now belatedly advocating.

3pm Update:  It seems they are not keeping their mouths shut after all.   I very much fear that the pro-Union campaign is going to fall apart over the next 24 hours as a result of this stupid and unnecessary attempt to bribe the Scots.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Thatcher, Blair, Brown, Cameron...All are to blame

Today's column in The Journal, tying together some of the independence referendum threads I have blogged about this week.

SOON it will all be over.  By the next time this column appears, the debate that has dominated British politics for the past six months will finally have been settled, and Scotland will have voted yea or nay to independence.

It has been, without doubt, the hardest vote to call in living memory.   For a long time the ‘Better Together’ campaign appeared to hold an unassailable lead, but as was always likely, the gap began to close as the emotional case for independence began to sway the hearts of voters.

Belatedly, the No campaign has this week tried to come up with some emotion of its own, temporarily setting aside all the dry arguments about currency with a series of impassioned ‘Please Don’t Go’ type appeals.

Prime Minister David Cameron has even joined the fray, despite having previously concluded that such direct personal involvement would simply play into the hands of the Yes campaign with its adroit portrayal of him as the representative of an out-of-touch, English Westminster elite.

Writing as a committed unionist, these have been worrying days indeed.   Many of a similar persuasion have asked the question how on earth we got into this mess, and specifically, how Mr Cameron allowed us to get to a point where the break-up of the UK is now a very real prospect.

To my mind, the answer is clear.  What we are now seeing is the inevitable outworking of the Conservative Party’s decision, after 1979, to eschew One Nation politics in favour of a free market ideology that found little favour with the Scots – or, for that matter, the Northern English.

It is easy to blame Margaret Thatcher for the country’s ills, but it was her government’s abandonment of the post-war political consensus that began the progressive estrangement between Scotland and Westminster that could now lead to outright separation.

It may have won her three elections, but it was done with no regard for how it would affect the social fabric and essential political unity of the UK, and no thought for whether the Scots would still want to be part of the country she was creating.

Three and half decades on, the differences over the future of the National Health Service provide perhaps the clearest illustration of the growing disconnect.

Mr Cameron’s decision to enact the 2012 Health and Social Care Bill, which potentially paves the way for the future privatisation of the NHS, has been exploited to the full by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond.

It matters little, as Gordon Brown pointed out this week, that health is already a devolved matter for the Scottish Parliament and that a Westminster government would therefore find it hard if not impossible to privatise health services in Scotland.

The fact that the legislation was passed at all is tells Scots all they need to know about the gulf in values that now exists.

There was a brief, evanescent moment, in May 1997, when I thought that Tony Blair was going to restore that lost sense of shared values, to stitch the country’s frayed political bonds back together and forge a new consensus.

Asked to describe the new Prime Minister’s mood following his landslide victory the night before, Alastair Campbell responded:  “He realises he has been given a remarkable opportunity to unite the country.”

Alas, he chose instead to triangulate Labour’s own values out of existence to the point where even a relatively left-leaning leader such as Ed Miliband is now no longer trusted by the party’s traditional voters - in Scotland most of all.

It is too late to put Humpty together again now.   The only thing that will now save the union is rather by recognising the distinctive political cultures that exist within different parts of the UK and allow them to go their own ways, within the overall UK umbrella.

Mr Brown, belatedly, has come to realise this, although his intervention in the debate this week rather begs the question why he did not do more to decentralise the UK while in office.

Devolution could have been his Big Idea.  But though we waited and waited and waited for him to “set out his vision,” his government had become so politically enfeebled by then that it seemed in a permanent state of intellectual stasis.

So he, too, is culpable along with Thatcher, Blair and Cameron for what has been a collective failure of leadership over many, many years. 

One thing is certain whatever the result on Thursday.  The country over which they presided will never be the same again.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Should The Queen speak out?

Nigel Farage thinks so, and with the independence referendum vote still poised on a knife-edge, I can see his point.

Yes, it's important that the monarchy remains above politics, but the question which I think needs to be answered is whether that principle of constitutional impartiality is actually more important than the survival of the country itself?

I would argue not.  Even if it were to ultimately cost her the throne, then surely that would be a price worth paying to maintain the integrity of the country she has reigned over for 62 years?

After all, it's not as if she has never made her views know on this issue before. As we have been reminded this week, she made an avowedly pro-Union speech during the 1977 Silver Jubilee celebrations when she said:  "I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland."

In my view, the line from the Palace this week should have been: "In response to suggestions that the Queen should intervene in the current debate over Scottish independence, Her Majesty made her views clear in her speech to both Houses of Parliament during the 1977 Silver Jubilee. She does not intend to add to them."

This would have made clear beyond any doubt where she stands on the matter without getting actively involved in the referendum campaign.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Why weren't expat Scots given a vote?

Here's a front page from the Northants Telegraph that we featured this morning on HoldtheFrontPage as part of our latest round-up of how regional newspapers are covering the independence referendum.

It's not only a great regional newspaper front page, it makes an important point about the forthcoming referendum: namely, that hundreds of thousands of Scots who now happen to be living outside Scotland do not have a vote in it.

I'm not entirely sure how we ended up at this pretty pass, or why David Cameron agreed to a referendum which allows English people living in Scotland to vote on whether Scotland should be an independent country but not Scottish people living in England.

A much fairer solution, surely, would have been to allow anyone born in Scotland who meets the age criteria for the referendum to apply for a postal vote, so long as they were able to provide documentary evidence of their place of birth.  It would also, as Mr Cameron seems to have failed to realise, have made it much less likely that there would be a 'Yes' vote.

As Prime Minister, Mr Cameron could have insisted on this course of action. Had he done so, it would have been very hard for Alex Salmond, as a Scottish Nationalist, to argue that anyone of Scottish birth should be denied a vote.

It is tactical blunders such as this that have led some people to argue that Mr Cameron's position would be untenable if, God forbid, the Scots do vote to break away.  I am afraid I am one of them.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Doing my bit to save the union

I've been thinking for some time about starting blogging again.  When I put the blog on hold last October, I said that the level of interaction no longer  justified the effort, and to be honest I don't expect that to change in a hurry.  But I have missed having an outlet for my thoughts on the political scene, and the current state of play in the Scottish independence debate, with the United Kingdom facing a real threat of break-up, means it's all hands to the pump as far as I am concerned.  And while I am not expecting the traffic on this blog to reach the levels it achieved eight years ago when political blogging was all the rage, if just one person - just one - reads anything I've got to say over the next eight days and votes no as a result of it, then it will have been worthwhile.

Why do I care about this? Well, fundamentally because I consider myself to be British.  Indeed, with Highland Scots ancestry on my father's side and Jersey ancestry on my mother's, I think my antecedents can claim a fairly wide geographical spread of Britishness!   But it's also because I believe in the idea of Britain - not just as a geographical entity but as a political union.  And as a man of the centre left, I believe the Scots - as well as the Northern English - bring something to the UK politically - not just Labour MPs, but a belief in the value of collective effort that helps to balance out the more individualistic culture prevalent in London and the South.

It is the juxtaposition of these essentially contradictory values that makes Britain what it is, but the problem is that those on the right of politics have by and large failed to appreciate this for the past 35 years. What we are seeing with the way the referendum debate is playing out is the outworking of the abandonment of the post-war political consensus after 1979 - the imposition of free market ideology by the Tories with no thought for how this would be perceived in Scotland, Wales and the North and seemingly no regard for how it would affect the fabric and essential political unity of the UK

I gave an example of this on my Facebook page today in a link to David Cameron's otherwise welcome defence of the union in today's Daily Mail. I wrote:
Welcome from Cameron, but if he really wants to save the union, he should announce the immediate repeal of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act which potentially paves the way for the future privatisation of the NHS and make clear that a future Conservative-led government would never do this. It is clear  to me that it is fears about the future of the NHS - particularly among traditional Labour voters - which is driving the Yes campaign and has brought this country to brink of disintegration.
I don't really expect Cameron to do this of course, but the point is that he should have realised that the NHS is part of the glue that holds this country together, and that embarking on a road which seems likely in the end to turn it into no more than a brand operated by multifarious private providers was always likely to weaken those bonds.

I will develop some of these thoughts this weekend in my column in The Journal - still going strong after 17 years but still only available in the paper's print edition - and this will also be posted here.