Monday, 17 March 2014

No Pudding Until You Eat Your Sprouts

Filling time before yesterday's League Cup Final (Aside from Willie Miller, was there ever an Aberdeen Captain more deserving of lifting a trophy than Russell Anderson?), I watched some of the Sunday Politics report on the Scottish Tory Party Conference. In her pre-recorded interview with Glen Campbell, Ruth Davidson refused once again to be drawn on what 'more powers' - if any - her party would be devolving northward in the event of a 'No' vote in September.

So far, so dull. Other commentators have described the absence of any kind of interim report from Lord Strathclyde's Commission as being the 'hole at the heart' of the conference. Given Davidson's earlier stance during her leadership campaign of "drawing a line in the sand" regarding more powers, you don't need to be overly cynical to sense the ghost of Lord Home haunting proceedings in the call for Scots to vote 'No' and get something better.

However, one snippet on the conference coverage did grab my attention, if only for its mind-boggling dim-wittedness. In a Q&A on the constitution, two Tory delegates took to the microphone to denounce further powers on the grounds that the Scottish Parliament 'hasn't used all the powers it already has.'

It's an argument which has plenty of proponents who should know a great deal better, including my own MP, Lib Dem Malcolm Bruce, who is trying to make just such a point this week in his column for the local papers. Because of the currency which the argument seems to get in certain circles, it's worth exercising a few screen pixels to unpack this argument and to expose it for the nonsense which it is. To do so, I'll use two examples of Westminster Coalitions policies - one of which I happen to agree with and the other which I disagree with.

One Westminster coalition policy which I agree with wholeheartedly is the increasing of the income tax threshold to remove lower earners from paying tax. However, as things stand and even once the new 'Scottish Income Tax' is introduced through the Scotland Act, no Scottish Government will be able to alter the threshold at which income tax will begin to be payable.

One Westminster coalition policy which I disagree with wholeheartedly is the 'Bedroom Tax'. Although the Scottish Government has found money to mitigate its impact, this involves the Scottish Government making money available to cover the financial liabilities which it creates. The Scottish Government has no powers currently, nor are any being proposed, which would allow Holyrood to reverse the legislation which introduced the policy.

By the shared logic of Mr Bruce and the aforementioned Tory conference delegates, neither power should be devolved at all, and certainly not until the Scottish Government has used all the other powers at its disposal, whether it is beneficial to do so or not. So, no powers to reduce the tax threshold until -presumably - you've increased or decreased the tax rate within the already permitted margins. And no powers over anything else which might be useful, at least until you've passed a whole load of unnecessary laws which serve no purpose other than to satisfy this piece of devol-unionist dogma.

As a supporter of Independence, my foremost constitutional principal is that the people of Scotland are best placed to take decisions over their own affairs. From this, the powers reserved under Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act 1998 should be transferred to the Scottish Government, even those which a Scottish Government might have no intention of ever using, such as those over changing the date of Easter or those pertaining to Outer Space.

On the other hand, supporters of devolution take the view that the preservation of the United Kingdom is the principal which overrides all. The balance of powers between Edinburgh and London is one which is to be settled, not on grounds of principal or efficiency, but on grounds of expediency. Specifically, in terms of only offering the minimum devolution thought to be required to blunt the challenge of Independence, without undermining the essential power of the centre in Westminster.

The 'no more powers until you've used all the ones you've already got' is just a superficially plausible obstruction being placed in the way of transferring any 'more powers' beyond the level which our many elders and betters at Westminster think we can be trusted with. It's the equivalent of telling a child that they've to eat their Brussels Sprouts before they can expect any pudding, and it's being delivered in exactly the same, patronising 'nanny knows best' manner.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

A Man Who Never Sells Himself Short

Published in the March 2014 Scots Independent

A Man Who Never Sells Himself Short 
A few months ago, the Head of Communications for ‘Better Together’, Rob Shorthouse, wrote an article setting out why he'd decided to leave the SNP several years earlier. It was a well-written piece which explained how, over the course of the 1997 party conference in Rothesay, he’d come to realise that he was a devolutionist and that the SNP had, for him at least, nothing further to offer. 
It was a neat - perhaps too neat - explanation of the political journey he had embarked upon since and of the shortcomings he perceived both then and now in the SNP. As a way of deflecting what could have been an embarrassing revelation for the ‘No’ campaign about one of their top team’s previous history, it must be said that it was executed with a fair amount of skill. 
He almost certainly remembers more about those debates at Rothesay than I do. However, one cameo I do remember was the carnage of the FSN chalet. Trying to sleep in the living room despite the party which raged on round about, I got up for a pee, only to find on my return that he had pinched my sleeping bag and was now ensconced inside with one of my cans of lager. 
After a few seconds protesting that both were his, he realised he wasn’t going to bluster his way out of it and peace broke out as beer and sleeping bag were restored to their rightful owner. Thinking back, I don’t recall him even being invited to stay far less offering to pay for his space on the floor once he was there. Still, nae cheek nae chance, as they say, and it’s a philosophy which seems to have carried him a fair distance ever since. 
Throughout that conference, he gave a good impression of being far from a man in turmoil about his developing politics. In fact, about the only vaguely political conversation I can remember having with him was about how he thought the SNP needed to ‘rebrand’ to appeal to a ‘younger’ generation, and how he, as an elected student representative of that younger generation would be just the man to do it. 
In fairness, drink had been taken. I’ve also heard far worse pitches for business than his that night. However, I never did get to understand exactly what it was he wanted to do to the SNP given the chance. To be perfectly honest I’m not sure he ever really understood either. 
So, with Shorthouse outgrowing the party he once aspired to remodel and rebrand and having carved out a career as one of Scotland’s top communications professionals, I have to confess that he still has me scratching my head. Since his appointment to the ‘No’ campaign in June 2012 he’s had ample opportunity to model their campaign message in virtually any way he liked. This being so, is this really the way that he wanted their campaign message to develop? 
Firstly, it’s only fair to point out that doing comms for Strathclyde Police or the SFA is a world away from running a serious political campaign. Nevertheless, as the side supporting the most popular position of ‘not independence’, he and they obviously thought all that had to be done to hold on to those voters until September 18 was to give them reasons not to vote ‘Yes’. So long as there was no poll movement and the media played ball, there’d be no worries.

Operating on the basis of ‘what we have, we hold’ through consistent denigration of the position of your opponents must have seemed like a good, even a safe idea at the time. However, with the polls now tightening, all the evidence suggests that there is movement towards a ‘Yes’ vote amongst the persuadable. If those ‘aye, but’ voters keep moving towards ‘Yes’ as they appear to be at present, despite the best efforts of 'Project Fear', then we’re in for a very interesting run-in to September.
It could have been so different. They could have run a ‘big tent’ campaign which aimed to broaden support for the union. A campaign which reached out to supporters of more powers, even one which would have made ‘yes’ supporters feel more positive about the outcome of a ‘no’ vote. A campaign which in contradistinction to where they are now, would have made Scots of all stripes feel good about themselves and their place in the world, which could have won big and won with some class.

Instead, Better Together would be better named ‘Worse Apart’. Their campaign lurches from one under-scrutinised stunt to another with little sense of coherence, offering voters no reason to feel in any way positive or empowered about what they are being asked to do.

Seven months out, their key communicators sound shrill, brittle and rattled. Their supporters in the press fair drip with contempt, while the worst of their online supporters could rival any Cybernat for sheer nastiness. This might cater well to the prejudices of their core vote, but increasingly, it appears that they have nothing other than shouty aggression and bureaucratic obstructionism with which to try and retain a hold over the undecideds and soft ‘No’ voters. 
Frankly, even allowing for his lack of relevant political experience, I’m still not certain if I would have expected better from Rob Shorthouse or not. One thing’s for sure - whatever the outcome - he won’t allow it to get in the way of his next job.