Welsh FM calls for end to devolution ‘tinkering’
I find Carwyn Jones, the Labour First Minister of Wales, completely maddening. He simply refuses to adopt, on the constitution at least, a set of positions that cohere with my likes and dislikes. He appears a staunch unionist, to a certain value of that term, whilst also a committed devolutionary who has precious little good to say of a role for London – i.e. Britain – in most Welsh affairs.
His latest intervention is a case in point. Jones believes that devolution has been implemented in a slapdash fashion and needs to be brought to a stable, sustainable conclusion – to be made ‘an event, not a process’, in a reversal of the old maxim. This is a position I hold myself, and outlined in March both here at ConHome and as part of ITV News’ ‘Wales in a Changing UK’ series. It’s a fine thing to see a senior politician, especially one from Labour, if not quite stepping outside the “more powers” camp then at least articulating a point at which he will do so.
The problem with this position lies in actually coming up with proposals for stabilising the constitution and moving politics and public expectations on from the era of fragmentation. One, mooted on ConHome, is the notion of a ‘new act of union’. Jones prefers a codified British constitution, which would carry a US-style presumption against central government in any case where the balance of power between London and Cardiff was in doubt.
Personally, I cannot for the life of me fathom why a codified constitution is preferable to what we have at the moment. Currently our constitution is constantly updated, with the power to do so vested in Members of Parliament elected by us. A codified constitution would be drawn up by people elected either at one point in time or not at all, and would be maintained thenceforth by judges attempting, with varying levels of sincerity, to scry the intentions of its ever-more remote drafters.
So it’s scarcely perfect. Nonetheless, with any luck Jones’ move will prompt other figures, both within Wales and without, to respond with their own proposed solutions. If enough people do so, we may alight on a good one. Stranger things have happened.
Northern Irish grammar schools speak out against abolition
Northern Irish grammar schools have come out fighting against proposals which they believe may see them forcibly merged with non-selective neighbours. The heads of four such schools met to discuss their deep concerns about area-based reforms proposed by Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd. His predecessor, Caitríona Ruane (also of Sinn Fein, who appear always to get education), was also an opponent of selective education, which persists in the province on a level unseen in Britain outside Buckinghamshire and other such strongholds of selection. She abolished the ‘eleven plus’ transfer examination.
Unionists, traditionally allies of the grammar school system, have stepped up. Although Peter Robinson publicly defended the ‘Dickson Plan’, within which two popular grammars fear they’ll be forced to merge with comprehensives, he took pains to point out that if a proposal was unpopular with the community it would be open to challenge by the executive. Both and UUP and DUP appear to support such a right of appeal right across Northern Ireland, which would if implemented most likely place every grammar beyond harm’s reach.
Labour and SNP choose by-election candidates
The nationalists have an opportunity to shore up their majority in the Scottish parliament coming up, as both they and Labour announce their candidates for the upcoming Dunfermline by-election. The election is to replace outgoing nationalist MSP Bill Walker, who has eventually been forced to resign after being convicted of 23 domestic abuse charges.
He had previously been suspended and then expelled from the SNP, but refused to resign his seat, thus putting another dent into their parliamentary majority following their seizure of the speakership and the resignation of two backbenchers over a u-turn in nuclear policy.
After falling short at the Aberdeen Donside by-election in June, this is Labour’s second opportunity to take a nationalist seat – and whereas Donside had an SNP majority of over 7,000 after the 2011 election, Walker only beat his Labour opponent by 590 votes last time around.
US public largely considers Northern Ireland conflict ‘resolved’, according to diplomat
According to Dr Richard Haas, formerly American envoy to Northern Ireland and now chair of an all-party commission on parades and other ‘divisive issues’, claims that Americans were surprised when he was asked to do the job as most of them thought the conflict in the six counties was resolved.
Perhaps they’ve been looking at the polls – the latest, commissioned by the Belfast Telegraph, revealed that less than four per cent of Northern Irish citizens would vote for the immediate abolition of the border and union with the South, and only a further 22 per cent would vote for it ‘in twenty years’. Despite all of Ulster’s local parties being fixated on the constitutional question, there are small yet hopeful signs that their public is moving on without them – and may in time drag the politicians along in their wake.
Although a segment of the US population and political class – consisting mainly of Irish Americans – has historically taken a great interest in Northern Ireland (to the extent, in a tiny minority of past cases, of funding and equipping the Provisional IRA), according to Dr Haas the recent tensions in the province are not high on America’s priority list. Looked at one way, that’s a sign of progress in itself.
Maze peace centre ‘killed off’ by Castlederg republican rally
Peter Robinson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and First Minister of Northern Ireland, has stated during a TV interview that it was the backlash against a rally held in memory to two IRA terrorists that led to his party withdrawing its support from plans to build a peace centre in what used to be HM Prison Maze, on the site of the former Long Kesh Detention Centre.
The rally has garnered headlines for a speech made by Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly, who said of two Provisional IRA members slain by their own bomb:
“They were ordinary young men in the extraordinary circumstances of the early 1970s who rose to the challenge of the time. They had a vision of equality and freedom and they knew the risks they were taking to achieve it but they could not stand idly by or leave it to others.
“It is a harsh reality of resistance that we lose some of our best activists during armed conflict and Seamus and Gerard along with their other comrades whom we remember here today, paid with their lives.”
Kelly claims that people who oppose making this sort of speech about PIRA militants creates a ‘hierarchy of victims’ with ‘republicans and nationalists’ at the bottom, notwithstanding that most of his critics are objecting to his subjects’ terrorism rather than their nationalism and would, one hopes, place loyalist murderers alongside their republican counterparts at the very bottom of whatever ‘hierarchy of victims’ exists. Unionists have accused him of giving succour to dissident republican terror groups – a charge Kelly denies.
The cost of such rhetoric, on top of the pain it causes to the relatives of victims of terror and the damage it does to inter-communal relations, now includes (for the moment, at least) the Maze peace centre initiative. This should hardly come as a surprise to a politician of Kelly’s experience: for both the DUP and Sinn Fein, its more than their jobs are worth to be seen to be letting the other wide get the better of them.
Welsh teachers ‘demoralised’ by assessment and reform
According to a poll by the Times Educational Supplement, three quarters of teachers and head teachers in Wales disapproved of reforms brought in by the Labour administration there. One head described the sorting schools into bands by results (which sounds like a sort of vague, compromise-style league table) as “worse than a waste of time”. Teachers also objected to the introduction of standardised tests in mathematics and English to allow for accurate progress comparisons.
According to TES Welsh reporter Darren Evans, quoted by the BBC, “the "overwhelming message" from the survey was "listen to us, trust us, we're the experts - just let us teach".”
There’s a reason the Welsh government isn’t going to do that, though.
To find it, look no further than this article from the Economist’s Bagehot column published last March. It’s generally a rollicking attack on some leftist pandering Clegg indulged in at the Liberal Democrat Welsh conference, but one section on Labour’s legacy on Welsh education really stands out. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, here’s the gist:
In 2001 Welsh Labour, looking for an alternative to England’s nasty and ‘consumerist’ education policy, scrapped league tables. The result:
“Welsh exam results fell so precipitously during the Labour era that academics from elsewhere flocked to the principality to investigate what had gone wrong. They discovered not a funding gap but a man-made crisis triggered by Welsh politicians, who bowed to bullying from teachers' unions and scrapped examination league tables.”
The full article is well worth reading in full, as it quotes extensively from one of those academic surveys. Since league tables were the only portion of the pre-devolution education system that had changed at the time, England and Wales essentially served as a controlled experiment on the virtues of publishing school data and letting parents make informed decisions.
Controlling for all other variables – including the usual excuses like resource disparity – the Welsh disaster was laid square at the feet of the decision to render educators completely unaccountable to their consumers. As Bagehot put it: “Trust me, in education and public sector reform circles, the self-inflicted Welsh education debacle is famous, the stuff of dinner-table conversation.”
It’s good to see the Welsh government has started to take steps to put power back into the hands of parents and make education provision more transparent – uncomfortable as that may be for some of the providers.
An independent Scotland would ‘not have rejected military action’ in Syria
You read that right. According to Alex Salmond, an independent Scotland would not have ducked out of taking action on Syria as the UK has done. The fact that an independent Scotland would have avoided getting caught up in ‘Blair’s wars’ is also an SNP talking point, so they’ll have to forgive us finding this new hawkishness surprising.
Of course, reading further into it reveals that the tough talk isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be. The SNP backed a Labour amendment that did not rule out further action via the UN, but the Conservatives tabled a similar amendment which means that whilst parliament may have voted both down, the sentiment clearly carries the endorsement of most of the UK Commons.
Moreover, since an independent Scotland is apparently going to have a ‘Defence Force’ rather than an army and a fairly miniscule defence budget, the unstated fact is that an independent Scotland might have had an easier time voting for ‘action’ on Syria because there would be considerably less riding on it.
Unless I’ve completely misread Scotland’s post-Union defence situation, there’s no real risk that it will have to send troops anywhere except as part of a UN taskforce or a vast coalition. The UK, on the other hand, has one of the world’s largest defence budgets and globally-capable Armed Forces which are capable of being a genuinely useful partner to the US military in any theatre of operations.
It is this that, as David Blair put it for the Telegraph, elevates us above other Western countries in American eyes – at least until recently – and it means that when the UK votes for ‘action’ it faces the serious prospect of having to put its money where its mouth is. Salmond can claim that Scotland would “work with our allies to help the victims of conflicts, contribute to conflict resolution and ensure that war criminals are brought before the international criminal court”, but he’s basing that claim on his party supporting an amendment that keeps on the table the option of sending the British army into Syria – the one option independence would certainly deny him.
Upcoming election cycle ‘most important since 1998’ for Northern Ireland
Alex Kane, a commentator for Belfast’s Newsletter, provides an interesting analysis of the upcoming major cycle of elections due across the UK in the next three years – local government and Europe in 2014, Westminster in 2015 and devolved in 2016 – which covers each of the Province’s myriad parties.
The most important trend is that, whilst ‘green’/nationalist politics seems to be solidifying around Sinn Fein, the pro-Union side is fracturing into lots of competing alternatives – great for voter choice, but opens the (still somewhat remote) possibility of SF overtaking the Democratic Unionists as the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly. That would have a truly seismic effect on politics there, although not because it would make a united Ireland any more likely (the border poll guarantee prevents the decision being made as a result of a fluke election).
Kane thinks that this will likely be the ‘last hurrah’ for the once-dominant UUP and SDLP, with the latter increasingly hard to tell apart from SF and neither really carving out a distinctive case to put to the electorate compared to their larger rivals. Meanwhile the Alliance Party are pitched against NI21 for control of the ‘nice’ pro-Union vote. The NI Conservatives are dismissed as “to all intents and purposes, dead”. Alas.
Separatists warn against ‘flag raising exercise’ as Armed Forces Day returns to Scotland
Independence campaigners outside the SNP – including independent nationalist MSPs and the Scottish Greens – have voiced concerns at the decision by the Ministry of Defence to host 2014’s Armed Forces Day national event in Stirling, a mere three years after Edinburgh held it in 2011.
Given the potentially sensitive timing – soon after the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn and close to the referendum – they are wary of an event which will put an emphatically British institution, and likely the British flag, in the Scottish media spotlight.
It isn’t hard to see why: many separatists are hoping to get a boost from building the Bannockburn celebrations into the nationalist narrative. A military event could skew that completely by offering unionists the chance to emphasise that, whilst seven hundred years ago English and Scots young men were fighting each other, they’ve spent the last three hundred fighting side by side in the British armed forces.
Unionists and the SNP administration, on the other hand, welcomed the news.
McConville family suing Ministry of Defence and the PSNI
The family of Jean McConville, a mother of ten who was “disappeared” and murdered by the IRA more than four decades ago on suspicion of being a government informant, are suing the Ministry of Defence and the PSNI, the successor to the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
The family claim that the RUC investigation into the abduction was inadequate, and that the PSNI have subsequently “failed to assist the family’s quest for the truth”. The PSNI replaced the RUC in 2001, as part of the peace process.
The case comes ten years after her remains were finally discovered in 2003, buried on a beach in County Louth in the Republic of Ireland.
Gwent PPC attacks MPs over scrutiny role
Ian Johnston, the independent Police Complaints Commissioner for Gwent, criticised MPs for allegedly treating him unfairly at a parliamentary enquiry into his sacking of his chief constable, Carmel Napier. Johnston claims that MPs had decided to make him the “villain of the piece” before the committee met.
Mrs Napier resigned after being given an ultimatum by Johnston, who took issue with her management style. The dismissal highlights the powers wielded by PCCs – often on very small electoral mandates due to disappointing turnout. Member of the Home Affairs Select Committee were quick to point out that Johnston received only 8 per cent of the vote, and accused him of having “a disdainful attitude to scrutiny by Parliament” as well as “a clear over-sensitivity to criticism”.
Mr Johnston maintains that he obeyed the letter of established procedures, and that PCCs are not accountable to parliament.
Unionist disgust at compensation for family of Real IRA member
Tom Elliot of the UUP and Jim Allister of the TUV are two prominent unionist politicians to express shock at the news that the family of Kieran Doherty, a RIRA member stripped and assassinated by that same organisation three years ago, are to receive “substantial compensation.”
Elliot claimed that the members of some murdered members of the security forces receive a “pittance” in comparison, and that “it really does sicken me to hear the difference. Michael Gallagher, whose son was one of 29 killed in the 1998 Omagh bombing, carried out by the RIRA and called by the BBC “Northern Ireland’s single worst terrorist atrocity”, revealed that the families of children under 18 killed there received only £7,500 each.
Yes Scotland email hacking: ‘Yes’ paid academic for favourable article
Last week, I wrote about the police being called in after an alleged hack of the Yes Scotland email system. What had tipped the separatists off was receiving media enquiries that were, apparently, based on information that could only have come from a private email account.
Those enquiries have since proved to be about the Yes campaign paying an academic to write a comment piece for the Herald newspaper about a post-Union constitution. Controversy has been sparked by the fact that this payment was not disclosed to the newspaper, which published the article under the author’s own byline and mentioned their work at the supposedly-neutral Scottish Constitutional Commission.
Although Bulmer, a PhD student, was writing in a personal capacity, his article thus carried the implied weight of the SCC whilst making no mention that it had been commissioned with political funds. Unionists have called for the resignation of the Yes campaign director and suggested that other pro-separatist articles may also have been paid for by the campaign.
Yes Scotland insist that they have been perfectly open about the payment – a notion disputed by journalists who claim they were told they couldn’t mention it due to the ongoing investigation – and that the fuss being kicked up was an attempt to distract attention from the “assault on democracy” that was their own cyber-attack.
Treasure hunter uncovers Belfast weapons cache
In what police are describing as the largest find in years, a metal detector user has unearthed 16 semi-automatic handguns and over 800 rounds of ammunition at Labreeny Walk, Belfast.
The guns were not buried deep, and suspicion has fallen on loyalist paramilitaries involved in the recent flag protests over Belfast City Hall.
Henry McLeish supports the Union - but not if it includes Conservatives
Henry McLeish, formerly Labour First Minister of Scotland, has claimed that with “Tory extremism” in control south of the border Scots might reach the ‘tipping point’ they need to vote for independence.
The tone of his contribution is very much “a Labour Britain, or none”, with the idea of having to accept being outvoted by other members of a larger polity an unacceptable state of affairs. In line with this thinking, he condemns the ‘discredited’ Westminster system and opines that a Tory majority is the “nightmare scenario” that might push Scots into voting against the union. Following that logic, he has called on Labour to withdraw from the ideologically impure Better Together campaign.
Coming from a self-identifying unionist, that position is scarcely tenable.
The fact that Scotland may well end up sometimes seeing a British government that didn’t win a plurality in Scotland (very possibly a Conservative government, even) is a fact of the Union. The legitimacy of a government elected on a pan-UK vote to govern reserved matters in Scotland is something that anybody who purports to oppose independence (as does McLeish) has not only to accept but to argue for in public debate.
The essence of union is the pooling of sovereignty and yes, that means that sometimes ‘you’ (whichever smaller collective you identify with) will lose out. Selling this notion is the big challenge that might throw unionist politics into McLeish’s supposed ‘crisis’.
McLeish, on the other hand, takes a different tack. The rules for his fantasy-land, hyper-conditional unionism are simple: no cooperation with the Conservatives in Scotland, and no Conservative governments in London – or else. His approach to the knotty issue of persuading Scots of the legitimacy of institutions shared by people with different inclinations is not to attempt persuasion at all, but instead attempt to wish those differing inclinations out of the picture.
Labour being part of Better Together is nothing less than a concession of the blindingly obvious: that maintaining the Union involves sharing a house (whether a campaign or a country) with Conservatives. If McLeish can’t reconcile himself to that, the utopian-socialist wing of the nationalist movement would doubtless be happy to have him.
Former SNP leader calls on Salmond to go negative and challenge ‘southern cancer’… and all whilst calling Better Together ‘racist’ for their negative, ‘anti-Scottish’ campaign
In a report described by a Yes spokesman as “an interesting contribution”, former Dundee East MP and SNP leader Gordon Wilson awarded the separatist effort a mere three out of ten (against Better Together’s four), and accused it of taking a ‘homeopathic’ approach to the role of Scottish national identity in the debate.
According to Wilson, the SNP should try to win the ‘moral support’ of northern England before launching an all-out assault on the evil, prosperous south and its dread capital, London. Or as he put it, “Scotland, with the moral support of the North, should strike at the southern cancer”. Quite why Northern England would want to make common cause with the SNP in getting six million mostly social-democratic voters off the Westminster roll isn’t stated.
Despite giving the unionists credit for being better organised, he claimed that they had overreached and run a campaign “disparaging to the point of racism”. I can’t find any record of unionists referring to nationalist Scots as a cancer, though.
Even if they can’t bring themselves to condemn his language, Yes Scotland ought to take Wilson’s recommendations with plenty of salt. He led the party from 1979 to 1990 and oversaw two poor general election performances, so his record hardly stands up to Alex Salmond’s.
Clash between Welsh Assembly and UK government over rural wages bill
Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, has referred a Welsh bill to the Supreme Court, arguing that its measures fall outside the Assembly’s competence.
The legislation, which gave Welsh ministers the power to set agricultural pay, was intended to guarantee agricultural wage levels (which are apparently set centrally and above the minimum wage) following the abolition of the Welsh Agricultural Wage Board (AWB). The Welsh government had opposed the abolition of the AWB but was unable to block it as it covered mainly reserved employment issues rather than agriculture.
It will now take several months for the challenge to work through the Supreme Court. An earlier UK government challenge to an Assembly bill, this time on local government, was defeated by the Court. A Plaid spokesperson argued, naturally, that a defeat for the Welsh administration would be clear evidence of the need for more powers in Cardiff.
No Silver Bullets: Better Together warns against complacency after US pollster’s intervention
His findings were a source of hope to Democrats – and deep concern to Republicans – during the US presidential election. Now US polling wunderkind Nate Silver has weighed in on the Scottish independence referendum, to pronounce that the nationalists have ‘virtually no chance’ of winning.
Naturally this has upset the Yes camp, as well as pundits who, like their US counterparts, dislike the notion that the study of polls well in advance of a major political event can predict it so accurately as to take all the fun out of it.
But the Better Together team, far from taking public comfort in Silver’s remarks, has warned that doing so would be a ‘dangerous mistake’. One of the big concerns of the pro-Union campaign is that its voters and activists, lulled by confidence in a ‘No’ victory, won’t turn out and give it their all in the actual campaign. From that perspective, the idea that Silver’s predictions make a No win almost inevitable is the last thing they needed.
Unionists demand investigation into Sinn Fein MLA and Castlederg rally
Unionist politicians from the DUP and TUV have asked Stormont’s Commissioner for Standards to investigate Gerry Kelly for his attendance at a Castlederg rally in remembrance of dead republicans – including two IRA terrorists killed by their own bomb, raising concerns about the ‘glorification of terrorism’.
Others have challenged the parades commission and PSNI over the loose restrictions placed on the event. Listed breaches include the depiction of weaponry on banners and, more strikingly still, the wearing of paramilitary-style political uniforms (which, regardless of the Parades Commission, I thought were made illegal by the Public Order Act to counteract the British Union of Fascists).
Neither the PSNI nor the Parades Commission has yet taken action, although both have acknowledged and started processing the various complaints.
Scottish media ‘overwhelmingly pro-union’ and other dastardly ‘No’ advantages
For a slightly different perspective on the race, here’s an article from Al Jazeera on the ‘uphill battle’ Scots face for independence. It strikes an odd tone. The British state is accused of giving “scant support to the independence cause”, which seems a very strange complaint indeed (‘scant support’ is still more support than you’d think a state would give to the campaign for its own disintegration).
The article’s three sources – a Salmond biographer and two Yes-sympathetic authors – also imply between them that the UK’s conduct has been “a great validation” of the SNP’s conspiracy-theorist wing, that the No camp has made “almost every mistake possible” in their ‘dire’ prosecution of the pro-Union case (including the suggestion we might create a Clyde colony to save having to move our nuclear weapons, one crazed outburst I’d not heard before), and that the only reason our ghastly tactics haven’t fallen apart is a grossly pro-Union media ‘back-pedalling’ such stories.
Perhaps such shadowy forces in the UK’s corner explain Nate Silver’s confidence.
UKIP select Councillor Henry Reilly as their Northern Ireland Euro-candidate
Councillor Reilly, who leads UKIP’s Ulster wing and represents the party on Newry and Mourne council, will be the party’s only candidate, since it is a near-certainty that the province’s top two seats with go to the DUP and Sinn Fein.
Despite earlier speculation, there is no mention of his being a joint candidate with the Traditional Unionist Voice, whose own leader and current MLA Jim Allister is a former MEP with a strong local profile. However, in a non-FPTP election the need to avoid poll splitting is diminished, so UKIP-TUV transfer votes seem very likely. It remains to be seen whether or not the two parties will cooperate in other ways during the election campaign.
Tearing the veil from the ‘YeSNP’
‘Yes Scotland’ is, in theory, a broad-based, non-party campaign for the breakup of the UK – a place where people from all parties, and none, can come together to pursue the dream of an independent Scotland. It is a completely different thing to the SNP. Really it is.
That assertion has always seemed a little dubious. Even if you accept the Yes campaign at face value – and as we’ve seen, there’s every reason not to do that – the SNP always feels a bit like the Russia to Yes Scotland’s Soviet Union.
As this graphic from FB campaign page ‘Vote No 2014’ shows, the SNP’s erstwhile allies (the Scottish Socialists and the Scottish Greens) are real minnows. That is probably why, as this second graphic illustrates, so much of Yes Scotland’s funding, staff, and policy positions are the SNP’s.
(Looking at the first image, any theories as to the cause of the disparity between Scottish Conservative local/devolved performance (substantially stronger than the Liberal Democrats) and the poor Westminster performance?)
Yet that’s not a huge deal – it’s not a surprise that the SNP are such an overwhelming force in the separatist campaign, and it seems unlikely that people minded to vote for independence will mind all that much, hard-core SSP/Green members aside. At least the SSP and Greens, small as they are, are genuinely separatist allies. It’s not as if the SNP are actually pretending to be members of other parties to artificially inflate the perceived breadth of their coalition…
‘Labour for Independence’ an SNP front
In the aftermath of Falkirk, stories of the Labour Party being infiltrated are a lot less surprising than they might have been not long ago. Even so, the unfolding story of Labour for Independence (LFI) is astonishing.
The Yes campaign have made quite a fuss over ‘Labour for Indy’, a group which purports to be a band of Labour voters and members who happen to oppose the party’s ironclad unionism. It apparently demonstrated splits in the Labour Party and that their vital voters were open to the Yes message.
Yet thanks to some solid journalism from Euan McColm and the Herald newspaper, it appears the whole thing may be an SNP sock puppet.
First, there was the uncomfortable revelation that most of the people standing behind ‘Labour for Indy’ banners in promotional literature were, in fact, paid-up and sometimes prominent members of the SNP. The golden rule – as demonstrated here and here – appeared to be that so long as you had one non-SNP member somewhere in the middle, the rest were just some sort of supporting cast.
Elements of the Yes camp mooted that this was simply a coincidence – that a couple of lonely separatist Labour member were each wandering about, alone with a giant banner, and local SNP activists posed for photographs as a comradely gesture. Nothing untoward about that, Yes Scotland being the paragon of pluralism that it is.
Yet the plot continued to thicken. More evidence emerged of SNP members sourcing and distributing Labour for Independence leaflets and even manning an LFI stall. Meanwhile some of the group’s paid-up Labour members – a commodity with which it is not well endowed – turned out to be people who had very recently resigned from the SNP in order to agitate for independence inside Labour.
An SNP spokesman insisted that the whole story merely highlighted that there are ‘card carrying’ members of the Labour Party preparing to vote Yes in 2014. If the present evidence is anything to go by, most of them haven’t had those cards very long.
Sinn Fein Mayor of Belfast cuts short engagement after being ‘jostled’ by loyalists
Community tensions in Northern Ireland showed themselves once against as the Lord Mayor of Belfast, a member of Sinn Fein, was mobbed by loyalists at the re-opening of a park inWoodvale, a deeply unionist part of the city.
Nine members of the PSNI were injured in the clash and the mayor, Mairtin O Muilleoir, was taken briefly to hospital.
As the News Letter reports, city officials in Belfast have increasingly started to attend events of both communities in recent years, in a marked sign of progress from the Troubles, and the Woodvale incident marks a depressing step backwards in that regard. Yet the complaint of the Woodvale protesters – that SF is waging a ‘cultural war’ against their symbols and identity – is one that is deeply felt, especially since last year’s flag protests, and not confined to the riotous loyalist fringe.
It will be interesting to see if, and how, O Muilleoir attempts to reach out to those areas of his city so deeply distrustful of him.
All three main parties lose in Anglesey by-election
Last week, I wrote about the upcoming by-election in the Welsh Assembly seat of Ynys Mon, which corresponds exactly with the isle of Anglesey, to those who are not sufficiently familiar with the Welsh language or Welsh constituencies. Now the results are in, and they are most disheartening for all three of the main parties.
For Labour, it simply need be said the Plaid Cymru held the seat, thus denying Carwyn Jones’ devolved administration an overall majority in the Assembly. Worse still, from the point of view of Labour’s bid to hold the corresponding Westminster seat in 2015, the nationalist majority has more than tripled, from just under 3,000 to over 9,000 votes.
It’s also dire news for the Conservatives. That 3,000 Plaid majority in 2011 was not over Labour but over us. One year into the Coalition, with cuts biting, we pulled a solid second in this seat with almost 30 per cent of the vote. Last week our share slumped to just 8.5 per cent, with UKIP breaking into the seat with 14.3 per cent (despite this, the combined Conservative/UKIP vote was well down on the Conservative 2011 vote).
And the Liberal Democrats? The BBC summed up their performance thus: “the Liberal Democrats lost their deposit while being beaten into last place by Socialist Labour”. The Socialist Labour Party is led by Arthur Scargill. Enough said.
The most recent article in ConHome’s ‘Majority’ section is entitled “Why our Party is making progress in Wales”. Hopefully someone better informed on the specifics of the campaign will tell us why we’re seeing the opposite in Ynys Mon.
Scottish ‘militant separatist’ extradited to UK to face terror charges
The founder of the ‘Scottish National Liberation Army’ is being extradited from Dublin to the UK to face terrorism charges, which included a threat to contaminate the water supplies of English cities and poison Gordon Brown.
Adam Busby, 64, is also wanted in the US for a similar litany of offences, which look like they mostly consist of sending false claims to the media about bombs, toxic packages and other terror attacks.
He has been jailed for similar activity before, and originally fled to Dublin in 1983 after a letter-bombing campaign which targeted amongst others Margaret Thatcher and the Ministry of Defence. He continued to organise campaigns from there. His son has aldo been convicted of sending suspect packages, including one to Alex Salmond, of all people.
Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales welcome their future sovereign
Despite much American news coverage apparently forgetting that they existed, politicians from the UK’s devolved administrations have, for the most part, welcomed the news of the birth of the new prince.
Alex Salmond, who publicly claims to support the continuation both of the Scottish monarchy and the union of the crowns if he wins the independence referendum, described himself as “absolutely thrilled” at the news. His congratulations join those of many other Scottish figures, including Ruth Davidson, Anas Sarwar, and church figures. Public and military officials in Edinburgh apparently restrained themselves from making a fuss, which is a pity.
In Northern Ireland the news was, predictably, greeted with less unanimity. Big-R Republican Martin McGuinness joining such small-r republicans as the leader of the Green Party in extending his best wishes to “all parents and new babies born today”. SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt struck a similar tone: “Many thousands born today will someday share their birthday with a King.”
Amongst the traditionally-royalist Protestant and unionist sections of the province, things were much less equivocal. The difference in emphasis is perhaps best exemplified by Democratic Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson, who hammered home that “a Prince and future King of our United Kingdom is born”. First Minister Peter Robinson, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt and NI21’s John McCallister all offered the Duke and Duchess their best wishes.
Edward Stevenson, Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, was particularly fulsome: “The new-born’s arrival will be celebrated across the whole of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and indeed the wider world.
“Today’s announcement will be met with great joy particularly here in Northern Ireland, where the Royal family is held in such high esteem and unrivalled affection. Members of the Orange fraternity around the globe, including the Republic of Ireland, will also be heartened by this magnificent news.”
My thoughts go out to the Republic of Ireland’s royalists, whoever they may be.
In line with recent tradition, Northern Ireland marked the royal birth with a flag dispute. Due to being governed by different legislation, Belfast City Hall flew the Union Flag to mark the occasion whilst Stormont, home to the Northern Ireland Assembly, did not. The former is subject to guidelines set by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport whilst the latter is governed by a piece from legislation from 2000. Happily, riots were avoided and Stormont is apparently looking to review its own flag-flying rules.
With the inevitable exception of Plaid’s republican leader Leanne Wood, the news was warmly received by the Duke and Duchess’s “adopted homeland”, with both Welsh Secretary David Jones and First Minister Carwyn Jones offering their congratulations. Yet neither of them topped the generosity of Anglesey’s Asda, which has gifted the royal couple with a specially-reserved royals-only parking space and in so doing offered perhaps the strangest commentary on how the younger generation of royals are adapting to modernity.
SNP woo oil companies whilst downplaying their importance to Scotland's post-Union future
Yet despite the happiness over the birth, politics doesn’t stop. The SNP have marked the latest step towards 2014 by producing a paper outlining what they envision to be the role of North Sea oil in the future of an independent Scotland.
The future of the resource, and its centrality to post-Union Scottish government finance, is hotly contested. For many nationalists oil is a foundation stone of independence, whether as simply an alternative to current UK investment or the key a golden, Scandinavian future, where a Nordic-style social state coexists without growth-choking taxation due oil revenues. The emotive cry of “It’s Scotland’s oil!” has long been prominent in the nationalist hymn sheet.
Yet with North Sea extraction on the wane and fossil fuels going out of fashion, the idea of an independent Scotland dependent on oil taxation to maintain even current spending is less palatable than once it was. So the idea of selling oil as a ‘bonus’ to Scotland must be appealing – it downplays the risks of having a resource-dependent economy whilst keeping the promise of oil riches to lure voters towards separation.
Yet the Treasury have issued a “detailed rebuttal” which claims that Salmond’s estimates are 12 times those of the Office of National Statistics, whilst others have accused him of conflating the total worth of the remaining oil under the North Sea with the amount that the Scottish government will see in tax revenue.
That oil will be vital to an independent Scotland’s immediate prospects was further confirmed, in another blow to those who see independence as the vehicle for a radical new left-wing alternative to British government, by the new plans the SNP announced alongside their paper. These include an ‘open door’ to government, advance warning of any relevant legislation, and the promise of no tax increases.
PSNI prepare for ‘Northern Ireland’s Olympics’
Northern Ireland is gearing up for its largest ever sporting event, as over 7,000 competitors from across the world converge on the province to take part in the World Police and Fire Games. Entrants are serving and retired police and fire officers from 67 countries. PSNI officers taking part in the games (over 700 of them) are being given three days paid leave to do so.
The PSNI have also announced they will not be throwing a ‘ring of steel’ around the event, despite recent violence over Twelfth of July parades and the ever-present threat of dissident Republican terrorism. Despite weeks of off-putting news reports there have apparently been no cancellations, although several contestants have requested that their names and pictures not be used by the media when reporting the events in which they are competing, citing safety concerns.
Salmond looks to the Isle of Man to support his currency ambitions
In a speech at the invitation of the Manx government, First Minister Alex Salmond has reiterated his intention for a post-Union Scotland to ‘use our sovereignty to negotiate a formal currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom’ – a ‘united kingdom’ which, according to a speech he made to workers in Easter Ross, his Scotland will remain a part of, in a very real if not quite literal sense.
Salmond compared the position of Scotland to that of Man, a crown dependency which, although not a sovereign state, operates its own currency and has one of the world’s oldest surviving legislatures in the House of Keys. It even has a local wing of the Liberal Democrats.
Farage plays down Northern Ireland pact…
I reported previously in this column about a possible alliance between UKIP and the Traditional Unionist Voice, a small right-wing party in Northern Ireland, during the European elections. The TUV is led by Jim Allister, their sole MLA and a former MEP, and his local profile and the TUV’s on-the-ground infrastructure, combined with Farage’s star power (such as it is), might have made for an intriguing wildcard bid for the province’s third European seat.
Although according to UKIP’s internal structures the final decision rests with the local party, according to the Newsletter Farage himself is playing down the idea, claiming to prefer UKIP standing on its own as a distinct entity.
It isn’t difficult to see his point. As province-wide proportional election, the Euros are an opportunity for minor parties without concentrated support to demonstrate virility by garnering a respectable vote (a fact of which groups such as the NI Conservatives and NI21 will be very aware). Unless it has a clutch of very promising council wards in its sights, this might be the party’s best chance to demonstrate it is on the rise as a political force in Northern Ireland.
Furthermore, whilst linking up with an established local force could boost UKIP’s likely remote chances of actually capturing the seat, it risks losing the UKIP brand (and any rise in awareness thereof) behind the TUV. The Conservatives technically have a Northern Irish MEP in Jim Nicholson, an Ulster Unionist elected under the now-dissolved UUP-Conservative pact. Yet the NI Conservatives don’t feel like a party who have won a real political battle.
That’s because they haven’t. As his website makes clear, Nicholson is an Ulster Unionist, not a Conservative. Since the TUV would be the senior partner in any local pact the joint candidate would likely be theirs, and Farage will be wary of squandering UKIP assets and opportunities to bolster a likely temporary ally and potential rival.
…whilst his devolution policy draws dissent in Wales
Meanwhile, retiring UKIP MEP for Wales John Bufton has dropped hints about setting up another ‘traditional unionist voice’ of his very own, born from opposition to Farage’s “relaxed” attitude towards devolution and federalism. Bufton has talked of setting up a party to represent Welsh people opposed to the Assembly.
Despite the closeness of the initial referendum, I’m not sure what hope such a party might have in a part of the country where the constitution is not a dominant day-to-day political issue. But it’d be nice for people have the option on the ballot paper.
Irish Taoiseach challenges Adams over IRA ‘disappearance’
Enda Kenny, leader of the Republic’s ruling Fine Gael party, has challenged Sinn Fein TD and former Member of Parliament Gerry Adams to make a statement to the Irish parliament about the disappearance of Jean McConville, a Belfast resident, during the Troubles.
This comes after IRA bomber Dolours Price accused Adams of ordering McConville’s kidnap and murder. Recorded conversations with price, taken for posterity and study by the University of Boston, have been given to the PSNI after being acquired by the US Justice Department.
Both Kenny and Michael Martin, leader of the opposition Fianna Fail, disputed Adam’s insistence that he was never involved in republican terrorism. Martin was particularly direct: “Nobody except Deputy Adams believes he wasn’t in the IRA.” How true.
Better Together: What positivity problem?
Is Better Together, the official campaign for a ‘No’ vote in the upcoming referendum, too negative? That’s the thesis posed by a contributor to the Scotsman. Peter Geoghegan moots that the apparent shrill relentlessness of ‘project fear’ may drive agnostic Scots into the arms of the separatists.
To my surprise, the accompanying poll (displayed automatically at the time of writing on most pages of the Scotsman website) suggests that their readers disagree with his suggestion that BT is too negative by a whopping 90 per cent to 10. It’s not that a handful of vigilant unionists spotted the poll in its early stages, either:
Is the tone of the Better Together campaign in the independence referendum too negative?
Yes: 3375 (10%)
No: 29023 (90%)
Since there’s no well-organised online pro-Union activist base, one has to assume that either there’s been some sort of computer error or the No campaign are getting something very, very right – measured by that particular metric, at least.
They have certainly paid enough attention to the matter. Even before the separatists stole the march by registering ‘Yes Scotland’, unionists have realised that they’d have to run a positive ‘Yes to the Union’ campaign alongside the negative ‘no to separation’ one. Better Together events, logos and literature are drenched in assurances that they don’t believe that Scotland couldn’t make it on its own. Instead, they want to sell the UK to Scotland, as it were.
The problem, as Daniel Hannan wrote recently, is that for many the UK is fundamentally a ‘head’ thing, whilst romantic nationalism is much more a matter of the heart. This makes falling into negativity much easier because, whilst it is perfectly possible to maintain that Scotland and Britain have their own subjective upsides, a graph that demonstrates Scotland is better off in the UK is also a graph demonstrating that Scotland is worse off outside it. The SNP proceed to look at every fact-based case for the Union through that end of the telescope, and lo! ‘Scaremongering’.
Yet stray from economics and the ‘positive case’ for Britain becomes harder to agree upon and articulate, since many of us are ill-versed in defending the Union in such terms. Due to the evolution of how history is taught in Britain, we aren’t raised with the British national story. This means the nationalists have a novel, peopled with heroes and villains, whilst unionists are left holding a civics textbook. Until that changes it’s going to be very hard to make the UK a ‘heart’ matter in the same way it was to generations past.
Despite that handicap, however, the Scotsman’s readers seem to have given Better Together a clean bill of health.
Scotland brings an end to ‘right to buy’
‘Right to buy’, the savage Thatcherite policy of turning poor people into homeowners, is apparently to be scrapped completely by the SNP government. Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is going to confirm the administration’s decision during a visit to a Glasgow housing development. The scheme has already been closed to new tenants – and in some places, there has even been talking of buying back ex-council properties.
All of this contrasts with England, where the government has injected new life into the programme and seen results.
The article above linked suggests the reason for the SNP’s decision is that right to buy has reduced levels of public housing stock (which it almost certainly has), and thus increased waiting lists for low-rent accommodation. This connexion between right to buy and housing shortages was also made last Thursday on Question Time: Extra Time, where I was a guest.
Surely the greater problem is that there simply isn’t enough housing stock, public or private, to match demand in the places that need it. Blaming right to buy for this is puzzling as, were that programme not in place, many right to buy tenants would still be occupying their council houses. The notion that every council house sold represents people who could have moved out into the normal private housing market is surely wide of the mark.
Labour’s Falkirk branch in “special measures” due to fear of trades union infiltration
The national Labour Party has taken control of candidate selection for the constituency following concerns that trade unionists might have been “packing membership lists” in order to secure their preferred candidate.
Sitting MP Eric Joyce was suspended from the party after admitting to assaulting four people in the Commons. The party plan to select his replacement from an all-woman shortlist, but has decided to exclude any member who joined after Joyce announced that he was stepping down, in order to “preserve the integrity of the Labour Party” following the presumably dire results of an internal enquiry.
When I was still a student at Manchester, I read a fascinating book – whose name sadly escapes me now – about the struggling between moderates and Militant infiltrators in a constituency Labour party (I think it was Lincoln) during the 1970s. One of the book’s biggest themes was an overwhelming sense of frustration that the party proved ill-prepared to defend itself against well-organised entryism.
Dan Hodges has reported on moves by some of Labour’s larger union backers to get more directly involved in candidate selection and policy formation, hot on the heels of clinching the leadership for ‘Red Ed’, and comparisons to the Seventies and Eighties have been drawn in all sorts of circles. Yet in Falkirk at least the central party machine has moved decisively against the mischief makers, a state of affairs which opens up a real gulf between today’s far-left manoeuvring and the struggle against Militant.
Unite’s response, apart from getting the name of the constituency wrong, blames this action on the shadowy influence of “Blairite pressure”, which apparently aims to totally exclude trade union influence from the party. Given the current state of the Blairites, that seems hard to believe.
Sinn Fein spinners shoot themselves in the foot
The running down of two nationalist members of the Northern Ireland Assembly by an armoured PSNI land rover sounds like a compelling story, especially since one of them even walked away with injuries. Such would have been the hopes of Sinn Fein spinners after Gerry Kelly took an impromptu ride on the front grill of a police vehicle during a public disturbance.
However, the nationalists overreached themselves by releasing a video of the incident which does their case no favours, as this article in the Belfast Telegraph spells it out. Quite aside from the fact that it shows Kelly trying to order the police around (which he has no authority to do), the video shows the eminent reasonableness of the police response from start to finish.
Far from cruelly running Kelly down, the PSNI truck nosed into him – almost certainly expecting him to get out of the way – and when he elected to cling to the front carried him forward for all of six seconds before stopping and, upon request, giving him the driver’s details. Callous police brutality this was not.
SNP plan pre-poll closure of the Scottish Parliament
The SNP have drawn up plans to suspend the Scottish parliament for a month in the run up to the independence referendum next year.
According to the Scottish government, it is intended to help manage the restrictions placed on parliament and other public bodies in the “short campaign” before polling by moving the recess into that space. SNP ministers will also enter a form of purdah, where they can’t make public announcements in a governmental capacity which might influence the result one way or the other.
On the other hand, the opposition claim that Salmond is bringing the business of devolved government to a halt in order to allow the SNP to focus all their resources on the referendum campaign, rather than legislating and being scrutinised by the opposition. They also maintain that it means there will be nobody to hold the SNP government to account during the sensitive period before the vote (when it will still be governing, parliament or not).
I’m quite sure that Scotland will manage to survive, somehow, if temporarily robbed of its devolved chamber. Yet given their previous form it is hard to give too much credit to Nationalist indignation at the suggestion that they might be using their government position to try to skew the referendum playing field.
Petition against naming children’s park after IRA member
Henry Reilly, the UKIP representative on Newry and Mourne District Council, has publicly backed a petition against the naming of a children’s playground after a convicted member of the IRA. The park is currently named after Raymond McCreesh, who was convicted in 1977 for multiple offences including conspiracy to murder, and died in the 1981 hunger strikes.
The petition, which can be found here, states that signatories are in favour of so naming public spaces in Northern Ireland that “every person in Northern Ireland feels welcome”. The council say that they are cooperating with an enquiry by the Equality Commission into the name.
The Aberdeen Donside by-election result is in…
…and according to Labour blogger Ian Smart, everybody lost.
The SNP held onto their wafer-thin majority in the Scottish parliament, albeit with a much reduced lead over Labour. Mark McDonald’s majority is just over 2,000, down from the almost 7,200 vote lead secured by the SNP at the 2011 election. Meanwhile Labour apparently selected badly and failed to attract enough switches from other unionist parties to put them over the top.
Alas, the Liberal Democrats overtook the Tories for third place, but in happier news at least our vote didn’t seem to go anywhere else – there was only a 0.44 per cent swing away from the Tories, despite a potential twofold squeeze on our vote: first UKIP sallying into the seat (falling just short of retaining their deposit, much to Alex Salmond’s delight); second Labour apparently making a hard unionist pitch to Tory voters as the viable anti-nationalist option. So either our voters simply weren’t much moved by these appeals, or there were some fascinating switches happening.
The Scottish Democratic Alliance brought up the rear with 35 votes, suggesting the comments section of Tory Hoose was out in force in Aberdeen.
Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist, and author of the blog Dilettante. Follow Henry on Twitter. He is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.
Escape and evasion
Despite standing tirelessly against European fascism during the war, a decade of wrangling over Home Rule wearied even Winston Churchill. He observed in 1922:
"The whole map of Europe has been changed ... but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again."
That might be an uncharitable description of what is apparently, geographically if not always politically, a lovely part of the world. Ten years of stalemate will do that to a person. Yet David Cameron appears to have taken it to heart, at least when it comes to putting off troublemakers.
According to Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, whilst taking the opportunity to show Northern Ireland off to the world the PM elected to hold the G8 summit in Fermanagh in part because of its remoteness from anywhere that the largely urban protesting sort might be willing to travel to.
Villiers credits the smooth running of the summit to this cunning stratagem, so perhaps we’ll see more exercises in evasive tourism from the government in future.
Question Time is a British political programme, even in Scotland.,.
...and that irks the SNP no end.
I fell out of the habit of watching Question Time whilst in Ireland, as BBC iPlayer is not available outside the UK (although 4OD, the rival service of a largely for-profit channel, is). Tuning in on Thursday reminded me what I’d been missing.
For those you didn’t see it, it was in Edinburgh, in front of an audience composed entirely of newly (and temporarily) enfranchised 16 and 17 year-olds. The panel consisted of representatives of the Conservatives, SNP and Labour in addition to George Galloway of Respect, Nigel Farage and a pro-independence newspaper columnist, Lesley Riddoch.
There were several stand-out moments: the young nationalist who appeared to sincerely believe that whenever a Scot sets foot south of the border, they are treated to much the same sort of angry mob that Farage met in Edinburgh, perhaps. Or the immense surprise that is finding yourself nodding along as George Galloway tears into the nationalists; firing on all cylinders on what I suspect is probably our only source of common ground. Or the latest re-emergence of the surreal notion that an independent Scotland would have its pick of pan-British arrangements and its representation therein.
All in all, it was pretty good television. Yet the SNP weren’t happy with it, and have gone so far as to propose a motion criticising Question Time in Holyrood, for having the nerve to put together a panel for a British audience, rather than treating a Scotland-based episode as Scottish domestic television.
The nationalist complaint was that the panel was not divided evenly on the issue of independence, notwithstanding the fact that QT is about bringing together a panel to debate lots of issues in an episode that was not a ‘Referendum Special’. (The audience, meanwhile, was split 50/50 on the issue).
They also lambasted the failure to have the panel reflect, for want of a better term, electoral Scotland. Thus their ire fell on George Galloway, a Scot, and Nigel Farage, a public figure who recently had a politically-interesting and widely reported run-in with protesters in Scotland.
If the criteria were “relevant and interesting”, they both qualify. Yet both Angus Robertson and Lesley Riddoch, the Scotsman writer and the panel’s second separatist, were obsessed with (Scottish) vote share. UKIP and Respect don’t have elected representatives in Scotland yet, ergo they were of no interest to the Scottish people, the thinking seemed to run.
Meanwhile, since Question Time was broadcasting from Scotland it ought to have the decency to act as if it were running on BBC Scotland rather than broadcasting to the whole nation, and put together a panel targeted entirely at Scots. If I recall correctly, Robertson even suggested that in an independent Scotland, all the panel shows will have proper Scots on them, or something along those lines.
Freedom of speech is not portioned out by the voters
A little bit of rather silly political whinging is par for the course, and would warrant little more than a humorous aside had this fixation not reared its head when the subject of Nigel Farage’s mobbing came up. Neither Robertson nor Riddoch could manage to express an unqualified, wholehearted and sincere defence of freedom of speech. Instead, both focused on the fact that UKIP is at best a very marginal presence in Scottish politics.
Why does that matter? It is surely ridiculous to suggest that freedom of speech and assembly be restricted to the electorally popular and those they approve of, but that appeared to be exactly what they appeared to suggest. Thus viewers were left with the spectacle of (the wholly unelected) Riddoch and Galloway in a shouting match, with the former bellowing UKIP’s tiny vote share to justify their treatment and Galloway, matching decibel with decibel, maintaining that freedom of speech didn’t work that way.
I’m sure it’s possible to be a sincere, unabashed and generous-minded liberal and be a nationalist, somehow. Yet if the independence camp contains such people, it isn’t deploying them on Question Time. When George Galloway is facing you down from the liberal side of the field, you’ve gone badly astray.
Former Plaid Cymru leader announces retirement from the Assembly
Ieuan Wyn Jones, the Welsh Assemblyman and former MP who was from 2000 to 2012 the leader of the Welsh nationalists, has announced his retirement.
The Welsh nationalists have never been quite the threat to the UK that the SNP have managed to become, so Jones has never enjoyed anything close to the profile of Alex Salmond in the rest of the UK. Yet whilst they haven’t rocked the boat Plaid have certainly established themselves as the second or third force in Welsh politics, chasing the Conservatives and well ahead of the Liberal Democrats, and Jones can likely take much of the credit for that. It will be interesting to see whether his successor, the more strident, avowedly socialist and republican Leanne Wood, can maintain that position.
Jones’ retirement has been met with warm sentiments from all sides of the Assembly (if its consensual layout has sides at all), which Betsan Powys summarises in a profile for the BBC.
Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist, and author of the blog Dilettante. Follow Henry on Twitter. He is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.
NI21 “looking for fresh voices rather than defectors”. Ouch.
John McCallister and Basil McCrea launched their new party last week, and the event itself seems to have gone down rather well. Although still small and lacking the resources that the Conservatives might have offered, they appear to have pulled together an energetic group of volunteers, some members, and a fairly clever logo that plays on their (still to my mind rather tragically) modern-styled name.
According to Slugger O’Toole, McCrea even took pains to point out that they are looking for fresh voices and pitching to people who have stopped voting, rather than building a strategy around the hope of defections. That’s one in the eye to the NI Conservatives, then. Our Ulster wing was also mentioned by the Newsletter, who pointed out that NI21 had ‘stolen the march’ on us beneath a picture of John and Basil that wouldn’t look out of place in a wedding album.
Speaking of weddings, the party chalked up another milestone with their first media gaffe. In this instanceit was McCrea’s intensely relaxed, state-out-of-the-bedroom attitude to consensual polygamy that raised eyebrows in what remains by far the most socially conservative part of the UK. It did at least make a refreshing change of pace from the recent rash of Conservative and UKIP gaffes, though.
Nobody seems very sure of the party’s long-term prospects. With its emphasis on niceness and modernity it as the whiff of the SDP about it, and despite claims to be pitching at people who don’t vote (which seems unlikely to be particularly fertile soil) it will undoubtedly be hoping to win seats and voters off of the UUP and the Alliance, whilst denying any breathing room to whatever the new NI Conservative strategy is.
Better Together strike new note in London launch
The Better Together London launch was a great success. The venue, larger than that originally booked, was full, which always augers well. The speeches were good too. Alistair Darling naturally represented Labour, whilst Danny Alexander took the podium for the Liberal Democrats. Although David Mundell, our lone Scottish MP, was in attendance, we were represented by Lord Strathclyde, who proved a good speaker. The Telegraph reports that the London branch is “the first of several such groups that will be set up south of the border”, which is what I’ve been arguing for, and they even laid on decent non-alcoholic drink for we teetotal types.
Beneath the organisational level, Fraser Nelson detected an important tonal shift in the Better Together message. Instead of focusing purely on bookkeeping matters – the ‘policy fire-fights’ I’ve mentioned before – the whole event tried to take a slightly more poetic, identity-based note. Although the video Nelson mentions is as old as the Better Together campaign, this is the first time it really seemed to mesh with what the rest of the campaign was doing. Only Danny Alexander really gave the traditional Union-by-numbers speech.
The Q&A was good too, with Darling reiterating that he’s more than willing to go toe to toe with Salmond in a debate if the First Minister wasn’t “feart”. Salmond instead wants to debate David Cameron, despite the SNP’s insistence that the referendum be a purely Scottish affair.
Let’s hope Better Together can keep this up, and have more branches south of the border set up soon.
A lesson from the French
Walking from the Better Together launch to the pub, I noticed an eye-catching display in Parliament Square: the flags of all our Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies. I didn’t know what event had prompted their being broken out, but to see them all collected there looked splendid regardless.
As I passed I mulled over the fact that, if the British imperial remnant were run on French lines, then this eclectic collection of islands and archipelagos would return a troop of MPs to parliament, and I’d get to write about them more often. Perhaps even land myself a subsidised junket or two. For research purposes only, of course.
Another week of separatist woe
Whilst I maintain that the dry practical aspects of the debate are less important than fundamental questions of identity, there’s no denying the allure of the policy fire-fight when the unionists have such a good track record in them. The SNP’s shakey vision of independence without the downsides took another series of blows this week.
First, we have Theresa May pointing out the surely obvious fact that if Scots vote for independence they will be a separate state to the UK and will have no say in whether or not they are entitled to hold or retain British passports – a fact which outraged SNP MP Pete Wishart, who insisted that Scots would be allowed both passports and that the Scottish government was preparing a white paper saying just that. For good measure, he pointed out that when Scotland is an independent, oil-rich kingdom of peace and harmony nobody will want a British passport anyway – whilst separatist campaigners insisted that Scotland will still be “British” post-independence.
Speaking of British things, a report commissioned by the SNP government suggests that the British benefit system is so complex that it would be best for it to continue to be administered on a UK-wide basis in the years following separation. The big downside of this, they note, is that it would restrain the Scottish government’s freedom of action regarding welfare policy in the transition period. As in banking, currency and so much else, the SNP’s version of the word “cooperation” is markedly more one-sided than any I'm familiar with, as Nicola Sturgeon claims that any cooperative policy would only be on Scotland’s interests if it allowed Scottish ministers total freedom from day one.
The biggest benefit of these policy attacks, however, is that they open up the fissures in the separatist coalition. The SNP itself is a very broad tent that ranges from the centre-right to the left, and its various allies add yet more potential schisms. Forcing a battle on the shape of a separate Scotland has the socialist utopians looking askance at the low-corporation-tax, business-friendly nationalists, and the levels of interconnectedness the SNP are having to concede is irking those who envision a more complete, if impractical, breakaway.
In all, it was another week of setbacks for the nationalists. Little wonder then that Margo Macdonald suspects that MI5 might be behind it.