Place your trust in politics tomorrow

Tomorrow’s the most important election I can *ever* remember, and I’ll be strolling along to the polling station as soon as it opens – then spending most of the day doing everything I can to make sure other people vote.

It’s a cliché, but I’ll never forget people protested and even died for my right to place a little piece of paper in a tin box with a pencilled cross on it – and fought battles to be recognised for their part in democracy in a way that you can’t even begin to believe. So, putting it another way, it’s a hard-won privilege, and if we’re to be perfectly selfish about it, it’s an investment in my future.

I can’t pretend that every UK politician is the most honourable and decent person, but I’ve met and do know a few of them. And I don’t buy this nonsense that ‘they’re all the same’. It’s the most cynical and illogical argument, and it breeds a dangerous apathy that ends up creating the likes the UKIP and the BNP. You’ll not be surprised that I put those people in the dishonourable and not decent category, and the people who vote for them, at best, deeply misguided.

Our relationship with politics and politicians can be frustrating, just like our friendships and relationships at home and at work. But above all, politics embodies hope because it’s the only damn thing that can change the way things are.

Why do I care? Maybe I’m just hard-wired for this stuff, but governments have made a huge difference to my life, like giving me the opportunity, should I wish, to marry my partner of the same sex. I’ve been to university, and studied what I wanted to get ahead in my career – because someone’s decided that it would be a good idea to fund academic institutions that allow not just a few people to have a high quality education, but everyone. And I’m pretty keen on all those other big things that we take for granted like railways and roads, and subsidies for things which are important but not necessarily fashionable like green energy, but also the arts in the form of museums, galleries, libraries, theatres and swimming pools. They’ll always be there in some way, but without the necessary funding will be cut substantially, withering away to nothing.

But I’ve also lived in houses owned by rogue landlords who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near property ownership – and been the victim of violent and property-related crime, several times, perhaps because ultimately, someone’s made a decision or created an environment that’s allowed that kind of behaviour to happen.

All of that comes down to politics, and I need to make decisions based on what kind of a country I want to live in (it’s a pretty civilised one, to be honest).

Tomorrow…

I’ll be voting for the National Health Service, the brilliant institution that played a part in bringing me into the world in the first place, patched me up when I hit my head, and cared for my family when they’ve been unwell in all stages of their lives.

I’ll be voting to stay in the European Union, because we’re better when we’re not at war with each other like we were for hundreds of years before the middle of the 21st century and we share a lot in common with our neighbours, and much as though I admire the anti-austerity politicisation of Scotland, supporting the United Kingdom not least because I think a federal UK would be a better option.

I’ll be voting for a party that’s serious about ending poverty, whoever you are and wherever you live, because no-one in 21st century Britain should be forced to rely on food banks, penalised for where they live or face the indignity of having every possible tiny income stream turned off simply because they face misfortune.

I’ll be voting for a party that above all has recognised who I am and who I choose to have relationships with.

I’ll be voting for a party that has promised to take on big corporate interests in a way that no government has done for years, not least because I believe politics shouldn’t be dominated by mega-corporations, but also because I don’t think politics should be dominated by a handful of egotistical newspaper owners.

That’s me decided. I’m not naïve enough to believe any government is perfect or has all the answers, although I’ve got pretty good instincts for the sort that I prefer. Above all, the prospect of a fairer economy appeals to me pretty strongly. The alternative is a brand of politics that is about division, greed, resentment and isolation that frankly just terrifies me.

You’ve got as many answers as you’re going to get now, whether you’ve pored over websites that help you decide which party best matches your views or leafed through the piles of leaflets that may have come through your letterbox. The difficult bit is placing your trust in a politician and their party tomorrow based on what they promise (and what their record is). And trusting someone, particularly when they’ve let you down, isn’t always easy. But the brilliant thing about democracy is that in a few years time, or maybe even sooner, you’ll be able to make that decision all over again.

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A moving memorial

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East Coast 91111 – The Fallen.

There is something quite special happening this year around the centenary of the First World War. The social history of what happened to people who either served in or lived during WW1 – and the huge opportunities for storytelling and reporting elements of our past that we’d otherwise have buried away in archives – is fascinating.

Whatever your views on matters war and peace, it’s surely right that the railway – which as a public service lost 20,000 of its own men during WW1 – has reflected not only on its own role in the war but in the case of the naming event I attended today, the broader sense of loss and the historical and geographical links. Michael Portillo’s excellent The Railways of the Great War shines a light on this, and like so many of his programmes, provide a great commentary about Victorian and Edwardian society and how the railway, as one element of it, played a part in the war.

The train operator East Coast, has made a particularly poignant and – literally – moving tribute as a manifestation of those links. The dedication of inter-city workhorse 91111 For The Fallen is hardly a glorification of war, but rather a reflection of lives lost. 91111 is specifically linked with the four Tyneside Scottish batallions – which in total lost 2,286 soldiers in wartime, the majority of whom met their ends in the Somme. They all meant something to someone. Imagine any community losing that many people.

A great deal of time and thought has clearly gone into the artwork and messaging that has wrapped the entire locomotive, by people who have a great dedication in getting these things right. Even the chosen number of the locomotive reflects the name, the individual digits of each ‘1’ a sombre, symbolic representation of the casualties. Yet with something like a million military and civilian deaths directly attributed to WW1 in total, the scale of tragedy is still almost too big for us to comprehend. 91111 is really just a number, and not a representation of the true tragedy.

War is still a pretty futile and awful exercise, and you only need a basic grasp of twentieth century history to realise that WW1 hardly led to lasting peace and prosperity, despite what Michael Gove says. We continue to make the same bloody mistakes in 2014 – but in other countries rather than in Europe, and ‘progress’ means we’ve simply developed more efficient ways of killing people. The human tragedies are still happening across the world, and until we can work out a way of avoiding military action to solve our problems, we aren’t .

But if you’re zipping up and down the East Coast line, as I do frequently, keep an eye out for the locomotive, and take a moment to take in the detail of the artwork – you can’t miss it. As a mobile banner for public education, it’s a timely and thoughtful contribution to marking the WW1 centenary. The railway’s pretty good at teaching us history.

State of the Union

4293985426f011e39a6e22000a1fab27_5It all feels unthinkably surreal. A quick scan of my Facebook feed shows the emotional outpourings, thoughtful analysis and plain opinion of friends on both sides of the border. In some cases, they’re angry and upset at the movement in the campaign to either Yes or No. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has for over 300 years included Scotland as part of its family, and yet it is threatening to leave quietly, without too much fuss, packing its bags and saying a dignified goodbye.

There has been no civil war, or political crisis. No coup d’etat, nor mass criminal act. Yet, even if they eschew the opportunity this time around, it’s looking more likely than it ever has in my lifetime that Scotland will want to go it alone.

New nation states don’t often get hived off very often, not least in the Western world. They are usually the product of bloodshed and civil war, of anger, of bitter, rancourous division. And yet it is not implausible that the cause of Scottish independence could become very real in just a few days’ time.

The most astonishing thing has been the lack of genuine conviction from the No campaign, and a reticence to really get stuck in and make the case for the Union, of which we’ve been told has an overwhelming case to continue existing. Why something should continue to exist for the next 300 years simply because it’s been around for the last 300, I don’t know. But there are benefits to the existence of the United Kingdom in the defence and representation of the British Isles. There is the permanent UK seat on the United Nations Security Council, which we’ve held since 1946. Similarly, we’ve been a signatory to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation since 1949, and we remain a member of the European Union, at least for the time being. Ultimately, the UK punches above its weight in terms of population in foreign affairs, in negotiating on the world stage at geo-political level. None of those relationships is without tensions, but the UK is considerably stronger for being party to them.

Using that logic, the decision of Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to campaign as ‘Better Together’ – was on paper, a no-brainer. After all, Britain likes to be involved in big international clubs to further its interests – and surely its own domestic union could not be undermined. Yet, the perception of the UK abroad as a strong, united voice must look somewhat different to how it appears to its own citizens. The election of the Scottish National Party government in Scotland in 2011 provided a vehicle to some of the disquiet over the relationship between Westminster government and one of its constituent parts. The SNP were after all elected in part to question that relationship, and a referendum on future independence has been duly delivered.

This family of nations has never existed in a trouble free relationship. Rather, they are like ordinary families, in being somewhat dysfunctional in the way they relate to each other. Like some dysfunctional families, the internal tensions of the United Kingdom are suffocated from a patriarchal centre. It’s not just some people in Scotland saying so, either. Many people outside London and the south east of England agree. Come to think of it, many people inside London and the south east of England think so too.

Reflecting the political dynamics of recent times, a Conservative Prime Minister made an extraordinary statement (compared with perhaps even ten or fifteen years ago) in recognising that he has few friends north of Berwick-upon-Tweed. “If you don’t like me – I won’t be here forever” said Cameron on September 15. “If you don’t like this Government – it won’t last forever. But if you leave the UK – that will be forever” he told an audience in Aberdeen.

Those few words are the surest reckoning yet that Westminster realises the game is up, and as a result David Cameron has even promised further devolution, although I’m sceptical that any concrete promises regarding devolution will come from his party, with literally nothing to play for north of the border.

In many ways the public recognition of that tension is no surprise. The ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland proved that point dramatically and often murderously, while other geographical extremities from London have also expressed unease at what they see as English rule (conveniently disregarding a fair few Scottish MPs and quite a few ministers and civil servants). Yet, if the exercise in power through geographical difference was the problem, a game changer to address those tensions was inevitable at some point. Devolution endowed Scotland with its own Parliament once more, Wales with its own Assembly Government and eventually Northern Ireland. The all-important Union was surely undermined forever?

We’re sentimental about the Union, because we associate much of it with some of the nicest things about Britishness – the BBC, the NHS and the wider concept of the welfare state (and not in a perjorative sense). Even the most derided and long-deceased institutions like British Rail seem to invoke a wave of almost unfathomable nostalgia. Many people, and I’m thinking particularly my grandparents’ generation, relate those warm fuzzy feelings to the boom post-war years of full employment, rising wages, stable pensions and a relatively unburdened public sector (that was rarely concerned with things like mass university education) that could deal with your ailments and everyday needs. It just worked well for quite a while.

Having grown up under Thatcherism, I’m unsure as to whether I’m supposed to associate the Union with positive things. I find it especially bizarre that the supposedly pro-Union Conservatives, in power for over half of my life (and with another pretty strongly Unionist party being in power for the remainder) failed to promoted the case for its continued existence. Both Conservatives and Labour wrapped themselves in the flag when it suited them (the Falklands War, Cool Britannia), rejected it when it got a bit too close to fascists and extremists (the British National Party), and set it to music and sport when a national identity was necessary on the world stage. Some of that stuff’s pretty harmless, and while I don’t have a problem with cultural patriotism, I can see why the concept of the Union can be problematic when its identity is thrown all over the place.

The constituent national elements of our cobbled together flag all want something a little different, and so
I find it increasingly hard to justify the Union as it stands. So much of the fabric of that flag has been worn away. It barely attempts to knit together a threadbare patchwork of flailing state institutions, threatened with cutbacks, privatisation, treated with sheer indifference and outright scorn. That surely makes it harder and harder for any of us to positively and coherently identify with the idea of the British state. In other words, what’s being British for?

Perhaps that is a question we need to turn on its head. The English may still have many shared values with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but like the Scots in this instance, we must have a range of ideas about how governing can be done differently and more democratically. We need desperately to look at the legitimate exercise of power, and the institutions that we all need to facilitate a civilised society that can be pushed away from Westminster as far as possible. I’m open to the idea of a federal state, with all of the checks and balances and things like written constitutions which enshrine civil and human rights, and make clear what the obligations of both the citizen and state are. And while I’m not entirely sure what my conclusions are about all this, I’m fairly sure that our democracy needs to grow up.

Westminster has been far too arrogant about the state of the Union for far too long, and the question of independence looks like it’s going to be yet another factor that will realign our political system – referenda or not. The rise of UKIP is another, but that’s a topic best dealt with another time.

I can’t speak with any authenticity about how badly Scotland has been treated by Westminster. I didn’t bear the brunt of industrial decline in the 1980s, or grow up in the inner-city Edinburgh of ‘Trainspotting’. I wasn’t obliged to pay the Poll Tax. I’m not particularly exorcised about nuclear weapons in Scotland, but I didn’t vote for the war in Iraq. And yet like most people I use the NHS, and I’ll fight for it to continue existing. But I’ll do that where I live now because it’s the right thing to do on my doorstep where I can hope to make a difference.

If the strength of feeling among Scots is strong enough that they feel they need to put these issues about welfare, Westminster dominance and war to rest once and for all, and allocate their own resources (for that’s what a lot of politics is about), then that’s their right. I have no place to say any more, let alone a vote on September 18.

I have a lot of sympathy with the Yes campaign. I’d probably be voting Yes if I were living in Scotland right now, because regardless of whether Alex Salmond is the saviour of social democracy or an arch-Thatcherite, my instincts about democracy tell me that it would be the right thing to do. But as an English citizen, I don’t have a vote, and aside from the arguments, insights and thoughts that I’ve outlined above, I’m not being asked to ‘self-determine’ right now.

Your move, Scotland!

Missing the point about Falkirk

I’d had this post all worked out over lunch, earlier today, as I pondered my re-entry into the left-wing blogosphere on the subject of the almighty row in Falkirk over alleged Unite interference in the selection process to replace Eric Joyce as the Labour candidate in 2015. I was going to question and criticise why the whole debacle has been treated with so much contempt by a mainly Conservative-supporting press. Same old story, you might say.

But then the Sky News tickertape flashed up: LABOUR TO HAND FALKIRK FILES TO POLICE. Time to think again.

While Andy Murray did battle with Jerzy Janowicz on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, arguing about the rules of the roof, another battle was raging for the heart of the Labour Party. Ed Miliband is now said to be considering cutting formal ties with trade unions, which would seem like using the proverbial mallet-like tool to shatter something small and seed-like, if he’s not careful.

I don’t know what the real problem is in Falkirk, although I suspect this is a wake-up call for Labour to look again at its rules on how members are recruited and what rights they have when it comes to voting in internal elections and selecting parliamentary candidates.

Whatever happens, it shouldn’t be used as a reason to tar all trade unions with the same brush, based on the tactics of one albeit very large union. There is a danger that Labour completely jettisons any true working class heritage that remains in the party if the positive influence of trade unions on its membership is forcibly rejected. Miliband would do well not to alienate key supporters at this stage.

A wider point, completely lost in the (perhaps justified) accusations of corruption in Falkirk is that there is a genuine need to ensure that Members of Parliament are from as diverse a range of backgrounds and circumstances in life as possible.

I’ve been a member of the Labour Party for nearly 15 years, was active as a student set up a Labour club at university, stood for council as a Labour candidate* and attended countless conferences. I was even offered a job with the Labour Party, which I ended up turned down.

But about five years ago, I gave up any desire of seeking any kind of political vocation or elected office. I had a very good couple of years as an young Labour activist in London but I soon realised there were a whole generation of ambitious younger people wanting to swiftly elbow me out of the way. If I was being uncharitable, I’d call them careerist.

In the main, these people meant well and knew their A-Z of British politics. It was an inevitable drawing together of young, enthusiastic people in the heart of London but with some honourable exceptions they weren’t the sort of people I thought should be running The Party. Ultimately, that included me as well, except I was never driven enough to devote my all of my waking hours to the service of The Party.

The easy route from university Labour clubs and accessible internships into poltical stardom (if you’re lucky enough to live in London) has helped mean that the Labour party has lost sight of the sort of candidates it needs. It’s not enough to say it wants all-women shortlists (which are a good start). It’s insufficient to simply encourage gay and lesbian members to become candidates (which I’m absolutely supportive of, being gay). It’s not even about wanting more candidates from diverse ethnic backgrounds. But still there are plenty of people like me, journalists and media types, who want to make that move into politics and there’s little standing in their way apart from complete devotion to the party machine. My guilt at being educated and middle-class removes me from the pool of people I think should be representing Labour constituencies in the House of Commons.

Statistics from the 2010 General Election intake (see page 5) point to a House of Commons stuffed full of university educated barristers (38), lawyers (48), a fair smattering of those in business (156), and a burgeoning category of enigmatic ‘white collar’ workers (84). My own profession equals the number of barristers. In other words, argumentative types elbow their way in somehow.

While there are precious few scientists, or at least none listed, another big omission is working-class jobs. These are few and far between, with miners (7) the only representation from that past bastion of union-represented working class job (the token Tory ex-miner, Patrick McLoughlin, is now Transport Secretary, which maybe balances things out a bit and confuses the hell out of old Labour types). With such an unbalanced makeup of professions represented in Parliament – we don’t really know without asking every one of the ‘miscellanous’ category (222) – where will the MPs of the future come from if they’re not from a relatively affluent, formally educated background?

Yes, there will always be the need for a mix of professions in Parliament, but the question that should be burning on trade union organisers lips is how do today’s call centre workers, coach drivers and cleaners become the MPs of the future?

Allegations of corruption aside, which of course will need to be dealt with, the wider Labour movement needs to get its act together when it comes to ensuring politics is accessible to people from all socio-economic groups. The Falkirk row, while serious, is an annoying distraction from highlighting a much more profound chasm – the gap between who we want to represent ordinary people, and who actually does.

* I came third in the Canterbury City South-West poll for Kent County Council in May 2005.

This is the age of the train…

I’ve moved to ‘the other side’ in the past few months, in more ways than one. My first piece of significant news is that I’ve found full-time paid work in journalism, after spending eight years or so as opposed to working in a corporate communications role or writing on a freelance basis. At the beginning of March I joined RAIL magazine, a respected railway industry fortnightly, as News and Features Writer, which among other things, has meant a move out of London to Peterborough.
The other piece of significant news is that I’ve moved my entire archive of work to WordPress – as you may have already gathered by now, I haven’t updated Blogger for quite some time. Now I’m established on RAIL – my work for the magazine appears in print every fortnight rather than online at the moment – I intend to continue writing on a regular basis on this website as well as other places.I hope that you, dear reader, continue to enjoy my writing, which will, when possible, be published here. And if you don’t see anything for a week or two, pop into your nearest branch of WHSmith and look under the ‘Transport’ section.

Work needs to be fair: and for work experience to pay, it needs to be paid

“We should not say that one man’s hour is worth another man’s hour, but rather that one man during an hour is worth just as much as another man during an hour. Time is everything, man is nothing: he is at the most time’s carcass”  – KARL MARX
Real-life experience of work can only be a good thing. There is absolutely no doubt about that. It was, therefore, a relief to hear that Tesco have said they’ll offer people on work experience a choice of doing the government scheme, or a job: as long as they “do OK” on a four week work placement. That’s progress.But the government’s “sector-based work academy scheme” has, predictably, been challenged by critics mainly on the left. “Exploitation”, they cry. “The modern equivalent of slavery” they say – something we supposedly abolished 200 years ago. Not even Hitler went this far, says the Daily Mail. And they’d know about that.
There is, however, something of concern to capitalism as a whole if we are to remove the right to payment for work in an environment where everyone else is getting a wage for their labour. After all, it’s hardly a radical left-wing statement.

Whereas I’m not against a work experience scheme per se, I’m deeply uncomfortable with the presumption that it is right that an enormous, billion-pound company like Tesco can get away with not paying people for work that paid workers will get a wage for. I can speak with some authority, having worked in Tesco myself, shelf-stacking as a student, many years ago. The people I worked with would be appalled that others would be expected to do the same job for no financial recompense, aside from jobseekers’ allowance. And unfortunately there’s little opportunity for promotion in places like supermarkets – aside from back office or managerial work. Much of the work is menial, arduous and physically exhausting. It’s not job snobbery to criticise an arrangement where people do work that is unpaid, mainly because it isn’t community service.

These schemes are supposed to that helps give people a routine preparing them for the world of work. There is much merit in the principle of doing work-like activity, but how might you be expected to actually search for work while undertaking a 10-hour shift?

So who really gains more? The “employee” or the employer? There may be some expectation of an interview at the culmination of an individual’s placement – which, importantly, Tesco has said it will do, and also offer a job. But for all of those other employers that are still on the scheme, could it be possible that the scheme simply doesn’t serve the individual jobseeker’s interests whatsoever, but rather provide the employer with a source of cheap (i.e. free), desperate, casual, unpaid labour? What’s more, non-attendance at the voluntary job coming with the threat of cutting off JSA is just inhumane.

To me, the whole thing is rather an unimaginative solution. It’s not Stalinist or totalitarian to expect government to step in and provide meaningful work schemes where the private sector has failed to create new jobs in the void created by public sector cuts. If Tesco are successful and continue to open new stores – and in turn, hire new staff, that’s great. But they should pay the people who put products on their shelves, and haul roll-cages in an out of warehouses, freezers and stockrooms, cleaning up rotten food while being on their feet all day long. Everyone will be happier for being recompensed for the work we do. And we do society at large no favours by demonising the unemployed, wilfully denying them proper work.

There is much about modern working life that is unrewarding; not least because the division of labour from the goods that we produce and the services we provide has never been greater. We can do much better as a society to make work meaningful.

Scotland’s future: reduced to opportunistic tinkering and simplistic choices

Rather like the Prime Minister’s spurious and self-seeking arguments against electoral reform, the Scottish people have now been told they must have a “straight choice” over independence.
In other words, the prospect of any kind of constitutional settlement aside from staying in or out of the union – in other words, ‘devolution max’ – is considered so unpalatable that the Westminster elite would like any referendum to be as simplistic as possible. David Cameron’s recent hint that he might consider more powers for Scotland, in the event of a referendum deciding against independence can be considered as a mere sop to nationalist sentiment.
The Scottish National Party is minded towards holding a straightforward yes or no ballot, and although it is thinking about including a ‘devolution max’ question – an evolution of the current powers vested in Holyrood. Yet Cameron, playing his finest colonial statesman, has made it perfectly clear that he does not intend to endow such choice to Scotland’s voters.
That range of options, however, is something that should be self-determined by Scotland’s people, and not dictated by Westminster. After all, creating interest in a debate on Scotland’s future among English and Welsh voters would be an uphill struggle, to say the least. Yet Westminster politicians of all hues remain of the view that Scotland’s destiny is theirs to shape.
Holyrood and Westminster are currently negotiating on what form the referendum might take, and when it might be held. In the meantime, the Lords’ constitutional reform committee has already expressed its feeling that devolution should not just be a matter for the Scottish people. That might well be true, as any dis-entanglement would need to involve the other constituent parts of the UK to some degree. Its main concern is “the potential to create different and competing tax regimes within the UK”. That may be true, but that’s the whole point. Further devolution or independence would invariably mean tax-raising (or lowering) powers, and internal revenue arrangements which would suit Scotland rather than the UK as a whole. The noble Lords’ argument is weaker still considering the haphazard constitutional tinkering which has blighted the UK for the last fifteen years in fact; a perfectly adequate way of describing the future of their own half-reformed chamber. We just don’t do constitutional consistency in this country, and that’s the way our politicians have always wanted it.

Meanwhile, establishment parties at Westminster plod on with the same, tired old view that Scotland’s future is a political plaything, influence over which will occasionally be swapped between competing elites. Cameron considers Scotland as a somewhat romantic appendix to England where he occasionally visits his posh mates to go shooting; he can’t possibly be seen as anti-union in his party. Ed Miliband is petrified of losing Scottish MPs after Labour’s Holyrood wipeout in 2011. Nick Clegg doesn’t really seem to have a particularly distinctive view of his own, aside from saying that he believes in “greater discretion” and “freedom” for Scotland, pulling out antiquated labels like “home rule”.

Political elites are doing their patronising best to ensure the status quo is retained. Every one of them is going against the grain of popular opinion. Good luck to the SNP.

The phone-hacking scandal: journalism at the crossroads?

Lord Justice Leveson is only halfway through his inquiry, but the first book on the phone hacking scandal has already been published.

To mark the launch, the Media Society joined forces with Coventry University, bringing together a panel of contributors, industry veterans and experts, for a debate on the state of the press – with particular focus on the tabloids. Raymond Snoddy once again chaired the debate in his admired humorous and democratic style.

Starting with the case for the prosecution, Kevin Marsh, the former editor of Today and a contributor to this book was “struck by the day that Sienna Miller gave evidence”.

Continue reading

Originally published on the Media Society website (co-written with Deni Kirkova)

Scottish independence: to be or not to be?

Alex Salmond could be toasting with more than a Scotch whiskey sometime in the next few years
 
The fervour for celebrating nationhood in the run-up to Burns Night may or may not have been coincidental, but the debate over the future of the United Kingdom ramped up a level in January. David Cameron seemed to have caught many commentators unawares in giving Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond an ultimatum – making it clear that his government would welcome a binding referendum on Scottish independence – and only on Westminster’s terms.Salmond and his Scottish National Party colleagues argue that the Scottish Parliament already has the right to hold a referendum without any interference. Yet Cameron’s government has already set itself in conflict with the Holyrood administration. Salmond had previously stated his intention to hold a referendum ‘in the second half of the parliament’, but Cameron is keen that it be held ‘sooner rather than later’ – possibly as early as 2013. The government’s position can be summarised thus: don’t let Alex Salmond get away with breaking up the Union by giving him 1,000 days to make his argument for independence to the people of Scotland. What’s more, Cameron’s call is for a somewhat simpler affair – a straightforward yes or no rather than asking about the preference for two varying degrees of devolution or independence, which is the SNP’s preference.Publicly, Alex Salmond is portrayed by his opponents as a bully, perhaps in daring to defy Westminster in setting the terms of the debate.
Yet, although they might not admit it, many British politicians of all hues secretly admire Salmond, who became Scotland’s fourth First Minister in May 2007. They adore the gumption of the man, a formidable parliamentarian and debater who has somehow managed to take both left-wing and right-wing positions, culminating in what the Spectator called ‘an extraordinary victory’ against eight years of Labour and Liberal Democrat rule in the Scottish parliament. Salmond has managed to steal both the clothes of social democrats while also appealing to conservative tendencies, helping to ensure that the Conservative party itself remains an irrelevance north of the border.
Seeking to get one up on Salmond, it is Cameron who has decided that an urgent debate on the future of the union is needed. And, with little regard for broader constitutional questions, Cameron would like the Union question dealt with once and for all, in order to bolster his own party’s credentials as defender of the United Kingdom, and arguably, present a distraction from the government’s other troubles. As a result, some have argued that Cameron, rather than Salmond, is playing fast and loose with the make-up of the UK. Little thought has been given to the consequences for England in a UK bereft of Scotland under the current settlement. Independence could, however, provide a resolution of sorts to the so-called West Lothian question, famously posed by the former Labour MP Tam Dalyell, whose constituency gave its name to the issue. This particular issue centred around Scottish MPs being able to vote on English matters – such as funding for the NHS – a peculiarity of the British constitution seeing as English MPs have no such powers in Holyrood.
Major constitutional issues aside, support for independence has jumped to 45% in recent weeks and edging ever faster to 50% in favour. With the Scottish question likely to be dealt with in the next three years, attention would inevitably turn next to Wales, itself emboldened with a devolved government although unlikely to survive without its larger neighbour.
Are we nonetheless witnessing the second act in the break-up of the union? As it stands, it could be remarkably easy for Scotland to decide to go its own way. Some Conservative backbenchers seem already resigned to a seemingly inevitable breakaway, with heightened suspicions of the Prime Minister’s true intentions only exacerbated by renewed tensions with Eurosceptic backbenchers.
Yet if Scottish MPs were to leave Westminster en masse, it would have a profound impact on the make up of the UK Parliament overall – and with vastly different outcomes for all political parties. As Gerry Hassan noted in the New Statesman, ‘many Tories have already given up on Scotland and dream of losing the burden of Labour’s 41 seats north of the border’. With the impact of proposed Westminster seat boundary changes taken into account, Labour would lose out regardless. Coupled with the current First Past the Post voting system, the prospect of permanent Conservative rule at Westminster may seem almost certain.A complete evacuation by Scottish MPs from Westminster would, of course, be the ultimate development. Variants on a theme have included ‘devolution max’, giving Holyrood the full range of powers over tax but with Scotland asking that defence and foreign affairs remain under the control of Westminster. The SNP has previously also said that it would wish to retain the Queen as head of state, and the pound sterling as currency, meaning that full independence for Scotland with its own tax system, foreign secretary and army may still be some way off.
Regardless of the final settlement, all mainstream party leaders have demonstrated their ‘unity over the union’ – whatever that means in the current environment. Desperate to not appear anti-union, Labour leader Ed Miliband’s position has seemingly reflected the Prime Minister’s own: preserve the union at all costs. Yet Scottish nationalism isn’t the preserve of one single party and never has been – meaning that the right to self-determination cannot be ignored. The late Labour politician Donald Dewar (the first First Minister of Scotland) had nationalist sympathies but without the ideological zeal of his SNP rivals. Once again, it may well suit Labour to moderate its position given that not all its supporters in Scotland – or those who may vote for the party in the future – will all be quite as positive about the United Kingdom in its current guise as the Labour leader is.
This piece was originally published in Mauritius News in February 2012.

Government refuses pardon for Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing

The Enigma codebreaker and founder of modern computer science, Alan Turing

The government has refused to grant a pardon for homosexuality convictions to the wartime codebreaker and computer pioneer Alan Turing.

A parliamentary motion noted the vital contribution made by Turing to Britain’s war effort by inventing the machine that tackled the problem of solving the German Enigma naval code, which became the subject of books and a film.

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