Ruth Davidson takes inspiration from Marx (Groucho, not Karl)

This is the immigration policy of the Scottish Tories, as explained this morning, 26th May 2017, by their leader Ruth Davidson on Radio Scotland (2:08 in). I doubt if I’ve ever heard a less convincing or coherent explanation of a policy from a leading politician.

The UK Conservative Party is committed to cutting net immigration from the hundreds to tens of thousands. Ruth Davidson supports this policy, but believes Scotland has “about the right number of immigrants”. Scotland must not let the number of immigrants fall, but neither can it have a separate immigration policy from the rest of the UK.

The Scottish Tories assert there is no contradiction in this stance. As Davidson explains, they simply want a larger slice of a smaller cake. The Scottish Government should resolve any problems and attract a higher percentage of immigrants to the UK. Davidson explains that Scotland has not had its full share of immigrants because it has not been an attractive destination, in particular, because it is “the highest taxed part of the UK”. The problem with that argument is that Scotland’s income tax rates and bands have diverged from the UK’s only since April this year and can have had no effect on the immigration figures currently available. Anyway, the difference in income tax is marginal, and income tax is just one part of a far larger picture (according to the Fraser of Allander Institute).

Trying to make some sense of Davidson’s stance, Scotland, with 8% of the UK population, would need to attract a bizarrely implausible 20-40% of total UK immigrants while the UK government, with its hands on the real levers of power, is working hard to slash numbers. The actual number Scotland would have to attract is anyone’s guess, anyone except Ruth Davidson of course. She would not be drawn on figures; she is not “hung up on numbers”, in spite of having already said that the current level of immigration is “about right”. The important point Davidson seems desperate to convey is that the Tories, neither in Scotland nor the rest of the UK, have any responsibility for this incoherent shambles. At the UK level they are merely executing the wishes of the electorate for lower immigration, and in Scotland it’s the SNP’s job to carry the can if they can’t ameliorate the policies of the UK government – even if it is a Conservative one.

For some reason Ruth Davidson has acquired a reputation for competence and charisma. That has been largely engendered by an admiring London based press, which has been beguiled by her skilled stand-up shtick. They seem to have missed her spectacular volte face over the UK retaining free movement of people and staying in the EU Single Market; she was firmly in favour of both even after the EU referendum but she is now equally supportive of Theresa May’s hard Brexit ambitions. Her fan base must also have missed her unconvincing flailing when subjected to mildly sceptical questioning by journalists.

Ruth Davidson’s ludicrous stance on immigration marks her our for what she is, an opportunist lightweight, bereft of credible policies and who has a distinctly Marxist approach to principles. That’s not Karl, but Groucho, who said “these are my principles; if you don’t like them I have others”.


Dundee FC 2 Dundee United 1 (the Doon Derby), May 2nd 2016


I am the match reporter for Dundee FC’s website. It’s just an unpaid hobby and it’s hugely enjoyable. The club implemented a new website for the start of the 2016/17 season, which meant that the old reports on the former website were lost. I was chatting about this to Kenny Ross, club historian and chairman of the Dundee FC Supporters Association. I suggested that it would be a good idea to publish some of the old match reports on my blog. Where better to start than the final derby of last season when Dundee beat their city rivals United to consign them to relegation? Kenny agreed enthusiastically, so here is the report, exactly as it appeared on Dundee FC’s website on the night of May 2nd 2016.

The report

Dundee defeated local rivals Dundee United 2-1 in the final derby of the season, and for at least a year, at Dens tonight. On a night of emotion, drama, elation and tears Edward Ofere put United ahead early in the second half only for the Dark Blues to peg them back with Kosta Gadzhalov’s first goal for the Dee. A draw would still have sent United down to the Championship, but local lad Craig Wighton hammered the final nail into their coffin, and lifted the Dee back to 7th place in the table, with a winner three minutes into injury time.

The Dark Blues were unchanged following their win at Partick Thistle last week. United made three changes; Blair Spittal, Simon Murray and Edward Ofere replaced Guy Demel, Ryan Dow and Billy McKay.

United kicked off in a fever pitched atmosphere with both sets of fans turning the volume up to 11. Paul Dixon’s early bad foul on Greg Stewart left the Dee forward dumped on the touchline requiring treatment, a sight that only cranked up the noise.

The Dee made all the early running against a nervous United defence that always looked accident prone. Kane Hemmings had the first shot on target, from a Nick Ross cutback, but it lacked the power to trouble Kawashima.

Dundee’s dreadful luck with injuries in this season’s derbies continued when Paul McGowan took a heavy tackle and was forced out of the game after 15 minutes. Julen Etxabeguren replaced him and moved straight into midfield to leave the formation unchanged.

Dundee were keen to feed the ball as much as possible to Stewart on the right where United looked vulnerable. When Stewart moved inside Paul McGinn was always keen to exploit the vacant space on the wing. A good run and cross by the full back had United’s defence all at sea, but Dixon just managed to turn the cross out of danger.

Five minutes from the break the Dark Blues passed up their best chance of the first half. Dixon lost the ball to Stewart, who quickly moved it on for Nick Ross to send Hemmings clear. With only Kawashima to beat the Dee’s top scorer lashed his shot over the bar from 15 yards.

At half time neither set of fans could be entirely happy with the first half. United had done little to suggest that they would secure the win they needed to avoid relegation on the night. Dundee, on the other hand, hadn’t created as much danger in the away penalty area as they should have done after dominating the first 45 minutes against an unhappy United defence.

Dundee looked like maintaining their dominance in the first few minutes after the break, but it was United who took the lead after 53 minutes. Simon Murray broke down the left and found John Rankin whose low cross was stabbed past Bain by Edward OFERE from eight yards out.

The goal transformed the game. A nervous and diffident United team were given a huge injection of confidence and energy. The Dark Blues were rattled and struggled to get back into the game. Dundee managed the odd attack, but for the next 20 minutes United looked fully capable of killing the game with a second goal.

United attacked aggressively, but Dundee’s defence prevented them creating clear chances, though there was no shortage of nervous moments for the home fans when the ball was in the Dee’s penalty area. Mark Durnan got his head to a corner, but his effort was too gentle giving Ross ample time to clear it off the line.

With 15 minutes to Scott Bain made the save that turned the game and allowed the Dee to seal their neighbours’ fate. Kyle Knoyle’s through pass sent Ofere clear, but Bain spread himself to block. Dundee might have been two goals down, but within a minute they were level.

Gary Harkins won a corner, which he floated into the goalmouth, where Kosta GADZHALOV’s downward header found its way through a ruck of players and into the net, with Hemmings getting involved to distract the defenders.

United have often been accused of lacking spirit and reacting badly to adversity this season, but there was nothing wrong with their determined response to the goal.

The Dee were forcred on the back foot for a few minutes. First, Scott Bain pulled off a superb save to touch Erskine’s blistering shot over the bar. Then Dundee had to survive a frantic couple of minutes as a series of United corners had the home defence under furious pressure.

Dundee soon got to grips with the game and looked increasingly dangerous as United opened up pushing for the winner they desperately needed. It was Kawashima’s turn to pull out a great save, denying Hemmings whose header from Stewart’s cross seemed destined for the top corner. The Japanese keeper saved again from Etxbeguren’s header from a corner as the tension mounted.

The pressure affected the players in the last few minutes as the game became increasingly bad tempered, with a series of bad fouls, bookings and angry exchanges.

In injury time Hemmings broke clear on the right, but couldn’t find Harkins with his pass inside. In the Dee’s next attack Hemmings tried to go outside Sean Dillon but was fouled just outside the right side of the penalty area. With the defence expecting a shot or a cross into the goalmouth, Greg Stewart caught everyone out by rolling the ball across for Craig WIGHTON to score with a crisp low drive across goal and inside the far post from 16 yards.

With 93 minutes on the clock the goal triggered utter jubilation in the home stands. There was no time for United to fight back, and next season the Dee will be playing in a higher division than their great local rivals for the first time since 1960.

Dundee were some way short of their best, but they showed great character to dig out a win that keeps them at the top of the bottom six and means they have matched their highest points total in the top division since the inception of the 38 game season with a split back in 2000.

Paul McGowan’s injury was a big blow and certainly affected Dundee’s play tonight. His partnership with Nick Ross in central midfield has been vital. When that pair play well the whole team plays well. Julen Etxabeguren did well as a makshift holding midfielder, but he lacked McGowan’s ability to set up attacks.

This was a tough and emotional night, and ultimately it was the Dundee players who held their nerves to earn the win. For the fourth derby this season the team that scored first failed to win. Dundee have come from behind to win both derbies at Dens. That is always special, but tonight such a spirited fightback was particularly prized by the Dark Blues’ noisy and gleeful support.

Dundee FC 4-2-3-1

McGinn, Gadzhalov, O’Dea, Holt
McGowan (Etxabeguren 15), Ross
Stewart, Harkins (c), Wighton

Unused subs: Mitchell (gk), Konrad, Meggatt, Arturo, Colquhoun, Curran.

Goals: Gadzhalov (76), Wighton (90+3)

Booked: Bain (dissent), Stewart (foul on Dixon), O’Dea (confronting Paton).

Dundee United FC 4-4-2

Knoyle, Dillon, Durnan, Dixon
Fraser (Dow 61), Paton, Rankin, Spittal (McKay 85)
Murray (Erskine 72), Ofere

Unused subs: Zwick (gk), Morris, Anier Donaldson.

Goal: Ofere (53).

Booked: Dixon (foul on Stewart), Paton (foul on Wighton), Kawashima (confronting Stewart) Dillon (foul on Hemmings).

Referee: Willie Collum. Assistants: Frank Connor, Dougie Potter. Fourth official: John McKendrick.

Attendance: 10,088 (1,940 away fans)

Report: James Christie

A disgraceful abuse of power

On October 8th 2016 the Dundee Courier printed a letter I wrote (see below) following the Conservative Party conference. Theresa May had suggested that she would take the UK out of the EU’s Single Market. Yesterday she confirmed that stance, and clearly intends to sideline Parliament who will have no say in whether the UK stays in the Single Market. In October I wrote that “this would be the most disgraceful abuse of power by any British politician since the introduction of universal suffrage”. I stand by that, and everything that I wrote in this letter.

My letter was edited by the Courier. The original version said, “to her the will of the people means what a majority of Leave voters want, ie a minority of those who voted. The 48% and less extreme Leave voters don’t count“. The highlighted text, which the Courier removed, is important. May, without any mandate, intends to transform the UK and its relationship with the EU and the rest of the world even though she knows that she lacks the support of the majority of the British people. This is indeed a disgraceful abuse of power and a travesty of democracy, all in the interests of her career and her party rather than the country.

no mandate

I was in prison and you saw the chance for a cheap story (a reprise)

A couple of years ago I criticised a shoddy article that the Dundee Courier carried about prison meals over Christmas. There does seem to be a pattern of papers printing mean and graceless articles at this time of year, the very time when we should be celebrating the good news of Jesus and goodwill to all men. Sadly some newspapers think it’s a good time to stir up resentment and moaning.

The Daily Record was at it yesterday with an article suggesting that large sums of money are being wasted on Scottish Prison Service (SPS) chaplains, and that prisoners are “milking the system”.

There are any number of criticisms that could be made of the article. It misrepresents the role of the chaplains, and the most powerful counter-argument would simply be a full explanation of the good that these chaplains do. I’ll leave that to someone better qualified to tell that story. The article assumes, ridiculously, that the only two reasons why prisoners might meet chaplains is because they have had a religious awakening or they are milking the system. The Record ignores the valuable support that chaplains provide to prison staff, who are doing an extremely tough and stressful job. The story also tucks away at the end an explanation of the figures for open prisons that undermines the assertions about their costs earlier in the article.

However, what struck me, as someone with professional experience in teasing out useful information and insights from contradictory, confused and biased narratives, was the lack of context to the figures. Governments inevitably deal with huge sums of money, so anything written about them will have VERY BIG NUMBERS. Without context VERY BIG NUMBERS can look seriously impressive, but they are as meaningless as simply capitalising words for dramatic effect, as I just did. The Record’s article would be a good case study for journalism students who should be asked to analyse it along with the latest annual report and accounts for the SPS (PDF, opens in a new tab).

Here are a few facts gleaned quickly and easily from the report, which is publicly available, even to Daily Record journalists.

  1. The chaplaincy costs are 0.7% of the SPS’s expenditure. So where’s the evidence that this diverts money from supposedly more valuable work? The next point suggests that it doesn’t.

  2. The cost of the chaplaincy service is 7% of the SPS’s underspend last year, i.e. the SPS spent £33 million less than its budget allowed for. Suddenly £2.4 million spent on chaplaincy services doesn’t seem hugely significant. By the way, I’m happy to acknowledge that budgeting for a prison service must be extremely difficult. Prisons have to take whatever prisoners the courts send them. They have no control over that.

  3. Wages paid to prisoners came in at 30% more than the cost of chaplaincy. Are prisoners coining it in? Are they milking the system by working? I doubt it. The average weekly wage of a prisoner in Scotland last year was £7.84, only 64p more than the hourly minimum wage. Chaplaincy services cost 86p a day per prisoner. Meanwhile, incidentally, prisoner canteens (which cover additional services like access to TVs) take back an average of £1.57 a day from each prisoner. Are you still worked up about the cost of chaplains?

Putting a little context around the Record’s figures prompts the response; so what? What reason is there to believe the SPS and prisons could be improved by eliminating such a tiny proportion of its expenditure – and losing all the proven benefits of the chaplains? If the Daily Record really believes that then they should put their figures in context and argue that the costs are not justified by the great benefits of the chaplains to the prisons, staff, prisoners and families, and through them to society at large. In the absence of any intelligent analysis by the Record it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is just another mean spirited, cynical attack on an easy target by a paper that seems indifferent to the consequences.

Looking back at the article I wrote two years ago I think my conclusion then is equally relevant now. I still stand by every word. Happy Christmas!

These articles are particularly disappointing at Christmas. This is the time of year when we are reminded of the wonderful gift that we all received but which we don’t deserve; the love of God shown in Jesus, who came to save us all from our failures and failings. Surely as a society we should recognise the humanity of all people, those in prison or not in prison, and allow prisons to mark this event as much as possible, like the rest of us do.

What a pity that a paper like the Courier [or the Daily Record] can’t run a piece about the wonderful work that prison officers, chaplains, medical professionals and other staff do over Christmas to meet the needs of people who find themselves in prison. In Jesus’s words, “I was in prison and you came to visit me”, Matthew 25 v 36. Wouldn’t that have been a more appropriate, and inspirational, message for Christmas?

An overwhelming mandate?

In the House of Commons on Thursday December 8th David Lidington, the Deputy Leader of the House, made an interesting claim; “40% of the population of Scotland voted to leave” the EU in the June referendum. Actually, and I hope I’m not being pedantic here, the figure was 19% of the people living in Scotland. Nearly 1.4 million people in Scotland were not allowed to vote, mainly because they were foreign nationals or too young. Lidington clearly meant 40% of those who voted. 40%? Yes, it’s accurate more or less. The exact percentage was 38%, but I don’t have a problem with him rounding it like that.

The problem for the bold Brexiteers is that they have been insisting that they have
“a clear, overwhelming and unarguable mandate”. Now if it is reasonable to round up from 38% to 40% isn’t it equally reasonable to round the UK’s remain vote from 48.1% to 50%? Suddenly that overwhelming mandate in an advisory referendum looks awfully like a verdict that the electorate was split down the middle. Sure, 51.9% is more than 48.1% but given the flaws in the referendum, the overwhelming preference of younger voters to stay in the EU, the inability of those most directly affected (i.e. British expats in the EU, and EU expats in the UK) to vote, is that really a convincing justification for the disruption of Brexit?

As David Lidington would undoubtedly say if he were being consistent, “we must not forget that, throughout the UK, 50% of the voters chose to remain”.

My grandmother’s war

In a sense I am a product of the two world wars. If they had not taken place it is unlikely that I would have been born. The wars shaped the lives of my parents and grandparents. Both sides of my family were extremely fortunate. No close relatives died. My two grandfathers volunteered for the Army as very young men at the start of the First World War. They survived the Western Front and served till 1919, returning to Scotland, eventually marrying and starting families. They were the only sons in their family old enough to fight. In the Second World War the children on my mother’s side were too young, and on my father’s side only he, the oldest child, was old enough.

Grandpa Christie was in the Territorial Army between the wars. Shortly before the start of the Second World War his regiment was mobilised and he was a full time soldier once again. His regiment was stationed in Fife, across the River Tay from his home in Dundee. On Sunday 3rd September the UK declared war on Germany. Grandpa was granted an afternoon’s leave and Grandma took the three children over the river to see him. Dad had turned 16 a couple of weeks earlier. His younger brother Duncan was nine and sister Dorothy was six. The family went for a walk together and Grandpa said something I’ve often thought about since Dad told me the story. Reflecting on the start of another war Grandpa said to Dad, “the only consolation is that you’re going to be too young for this one”. I wonder if Grandpa really believed the war would be over that quickly, or if he was trying to be as optimistic as possible in front of the children.

Sadly it was not a short war. In 1942 the time came for Dad to join up, just after his 19th birthday. My grandmother took it badly. It was hard for that generation of women who experienced the horrifying casualty rates of World War One, then saw their children having to fight the next war. Grandma was a music teacher, an intelligent and educated woman, who wanted only the best for her children. She was very distressed at the thought of her firstborn child going off to war. For Dad’s last meal at home Grandma blew the family’s whole meat ration for the week on a huge plate of bacon and eggs for Dad. Once in the Army Dad volunteered for airborne forces and was assigned to a glider artillery regiment. I suspect he didn’t consult his mother about that decision!

Two years later in August 1944 it was Dad’s 21st birthday. By then he had been in North Africa and Italy. His regiment was recalled to England and was stationed in the south ready for the invasion of North West Europe, for D Day. Dad told me of his astonishment on 6th June 1944 when he woke up and discovered D Day had taken place without his unit, 1st Airborne Division. Britain’s other Airborne Division, the 6th, had been used in the Normandy landings and 1st Division was being held in reserve for the next big operation, Arnhem as we now know.

Dad in 1944, aged 20

Gunner Robert Christie, 1st Airlanding Light Regiment, Royal Artillery, in 1944, aged 20

Grandma was very upset when the day of his 21st birthday came. She took her youngest child, my Aunt Dorothy, and they went down to the main railway station in Dundee, just to watch the trains arriving with soldiers coming home on leave, thinking of their son and brother. Meanwhile, Dad had unexpectedly been given leave at short notice. There was no time to send a telegram, and the family didn’t have a phone. He jumped on a train north, but missed Grandma and Dorothy at the station. When he got home Grandpa, who had been discharged from the Army on health grounds, told him that Grandma and Dorothy had gone down to the station, so he dashed back to find them for an emotional reunion.

A few weeks later when the 1st Airborne Division was surrounded and cut off at Arnhem my grandparents knew that Dad must be there. They were following the grim news with horror as the lightly armed and equipped airborne soldiers fought for their lives against the tanks of the Waffen SS. At the end, after Dad escaped across the Rhine, the survivors were issued with special pre-printed postcards saying that they had been in action. They filled in their families’ addresses and simply ticked a box to say whether they were unhurt or were wounded. Dad had been lightly wounded. Shrapnel had penetrated his steel helmet, gashing his scalp and concussing him, but he told a white lie, that he was unwounded. The postcards were then rushed back to the UK, to be delivered with the highest priority. My grandparents received theirs the next day confirming that Dad was safe. I doubt if the mail would get through that fast even today. It’s hard to imagine the relief and joy that families would feel when that postcard arrived, instead of the telegram from the War Office that they dreaded every day.

This simple account tells all I know about the experience of my grandparents seeing their son go off to war. They are just a few scraps that my father told me at various times. When I was a child Grandma was a loving grandmother, but she could seem rather stern and austere. These stories give a poignant insight into the strain parents had to endure in wartime. My family was extremely fortunate, far more so than most. Yet they lived with fear and stress of a sort that I have never had to deal with. For women like my grandmother life in wartime must have been hard and painful. We never forget the men who fought, but we should remember their families who suffered quietly at home.

“The healthy will of the people” – a lesson from history

English has probably not imported as many words and phrases from German as it has from French, but quite a few have made the journey; kindergarten, schadenfreude, flak, zeitgeist, vorsprung durch technik. One German phrase that we haven’t adopted is “Gesundes Volksempfinden”. It might be a mouthful, but it is painfully appropriate for the current frenzy surrounding Brexit. It literally means the healthy feeling (or sentiment) of the people. A more useful translation would be the will of the people.

Gesundes Volksempfinden is a highly loaded and sensitive phrase and would not be used lightly by German papers. It is a Nazi legal concept. When the Nazis came to power they had a problem. They had inherited a working legal system. Judges tried cases according to the law and could acquit, or find in favour of, the wrong people; Jews, Social Democrats, dissidents. Sure, there was an ample supply of uniformed thugs willing to break windows, beat up undesirables, and even kill them, but that was a tad vulgar. It was hardly an efficient way to run a modern state and earn a nod of approval from the 1930s Daily Mail.

The problem was resolved simply. First, in 1934 the Nazi regime issued a decree that civil claims should be settled according to Gesundes Volksempfinden, the healthy feeling of the people, regardless of what the law actually stated. In 1935 the German Criminal Code was amended in the same way.

Where the written law was in conflict with the “healthy feeling of the people” (as interpreted by the Nazis, and ultimately Hitler himself) judges were required to convict, regardless of what the statute actually said, even if the law did not cover the actions of the accused. The phrase was picked up as “the healthy will of the people” by an approving Oswald Mosley, the British fascist leader, and poster boy of the Daily Mail.

After the war US Army legal officers took a close look at how the Nazi legal system had operated. Their report described a case that illustrated how Gesundes Volksempfinden worked. In the days when it was still possible for Jews to seek redress through the courts a group of Jews had contested a decision that stopped them receiving rations. They won, only for the decision to be overturned for the following reason.

The judge should have asked himself, ‘What is the reaction of the Jew to a decision which, without devoting one word to the healthy folk attitude [i.e. Gesundes Volksempfinden, the will of the people] toward this insolent and arrogant Jewish conduct, takes 20 pages to prove that he and 500 other Jews are right and victorious over a German authority?’

Even if the judge was convinced that the Food Office had arrived at an incorrect judgment he should have chosen a form for his ruling which avoided at all costs harming the prestige of the Food Office and thus putting the Jew expressly in the right toward it.

This is reminiscent of a famous English legal case I will come to in a moment. But first I will turn to the press hysteria that followed the decision of the High Court in London finding that Article 50, starting the UK’s exit from the EU, could not be initiated without the approval of Parliament. The central reason for the court’s decision was that the Prime Minister cannot use the Royal Prerogative to remove our rights. Only Parliament can do that. This point was widely ignored in the right wing press, which instead accused the judges of defying the will of the people and taking a pro-EU, anti-Brexit, political stance.

Daily Mail front page

The Daily Express indulged in laughably hysterical hyperbole. The Daily Telegraph was rather more subtle, printing photographs of the three judges with a sinister blue filter, under the headline “The judges versus the people”.

It was the Daily Mail, however, which launched the most offensive attack on the judges. The headline was “Enemies of the people” and invited us to disapprove of utterly irrelevant and harmless details about their private lives. The front page was compared with an edition of the Nazi paper, the Illustrierter Beobachter, depicting a group of Social Democrats as “Traitors to the people” and reporting that they had been deprived of their German citizenship. They were usually identified incorrectly as judges on Twitter but there was a valid underlying point; opposition to “the people” had put them beyond the pale, beyond the law.traitors to the German people

In an editorial the Mail called the judges “an out of touch clique” who were guilty of “an outrageous betrayal of democracy”. The Mail then went on to make an intriguing argument, that deserves more discussion.

On a blinkered reading of statutes… it is possible to argue that the Government lacks the authority to trigger Brexit without the go-ahead of the Lords and Commons. But from every other viewpoint, the ruling flies in the face of justice and common sense. Wouldn’t any judge of real stature (the late Lord Denning springs to mind) have picked a way through the dust-encrusted legal textbooks to see the wood for the trees and come down on the side of reason? … The High Court yesterday betrayed common sense and the people.

So the Daily Mail grudgingly conceded that the ruling might have been correct in law, but that it offended the will of the people. They argued this even though the judges explicitly stated that the law allows the courts to recognise the will of the people only as it is reflected in laws passed by Parliament. Nevertheless, the Mail used language, and an argument, that is entirely consistent with the Nazi ruling I referred to above. To hammer home their point they invoked Lord Denning, who acquired an unfortunate reputation for being too inclined to favour the executive arm of the state over the liberties of the individual. He is now chiefly remembered, by non-lawyers, for his remarkable conduct in the case of McIlkenny v. Chief Constable of the West Midlands in 1980. This was a case brought by the Birmingham Six, alleging police brutality at the time of their arrests in 1974. Denning dismissed the case.

Just consider the course of events if this action were to go to trial… If the six men win, it will mean that the police were guilty of perjury, that they were guilty of violence and threats, that the confessions were involuntary and were improperly admitted in evidence: and that the convictions were erroneous. That would mean that the Home Secretary would have either to recommend they be pardoned or he would have to remit the case to the Court of Appeal… This is such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say: it cannot be right that these actions should go any further. They should be struck out.

All these dreadful allegations about police misconduct turned out to be true, but they could not even be considered by the court. In 1980 Lord Denning was very much in touch with the public mood. Following a succession of terrorist attacks there was an ugly anti-Irish mood in Britain. The case of the Birmingham Six was just one of a series of miscarriages of justice in which the state acted illegally, but in line with the will of the people. This is the justice that the Daily Mail is calling for; their argument and that of Lord Denning is exactly the same in principle as that of the Nazi judgment on food rations for Jews. Call it the will of the people, or Gesundes Volksempfinden, it is the same thing.

What sets free and prosperous societies apart is reliance on the rule of law. Without that nobody can be confident about anything. No-one has an incentive to work and build for the future. State power is arbitrary. People keep their heads down and don’t take chances.

When Mikhail Gorbachev was planning the reform of the USSR his adviser Alexander Yakovlev wrote to him.

For a thousand years we have been ruled by people and not by laws… What we are talking about is not the dismantling of Stalinism but a replacement of a 1,000-year old model of statehood.

Throughout the 1990s Russia struggled to introduce the rule of law. When he came to power Vladimir Putin reversed the process. Russia today is a land ruled by Putin, not by law. Putin is an autocrat, admired by aspirational demagogues such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage.

Needless to say the ineffably gormless Farage has led the assault on the rule of law, insulting the judges, calling for street protests, and bizarrely saying the judges’ rejection of the government’s case caused him to doubt their independence.

Farage, the Mail and the Express are not Nazis, but they have scant regard for, or even understanding of, the forces they could unleash. Once the rule of law is undermined we will not be ruled by the consensus of sensible chaps discussing politics over a gin and tonic at the golf club. We will be subject to the vagaries and rages of the mob, which can be manipulated by an autocratic leader. That mob includes violent extremists who have picked up the message from the right wing press and UKIP politicians that their views are no longer peripheral, but are now mainstream. Farage is so lacking in sensitivity and awareness that little more than a week after the MP Jo Cox was murdered by a gunman, who called her a traitor, he could crow, during a referendum victory speech, that Brexit was a victory for decent people who had won “without a bullet being fired”.

What, meanwhile, has the UK government done to shore up the rule of law, and the independence of the judicial system? Liz Truss, the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, has merely issued a bland defence of the principle of independence, without commenting on the campaign of intimidation. The Prime Minister has defended the press despite its appalling behaviour and government ministers have been queueing up to attack the High Court.

The rule of law and an independent judiciary protects us from violent mobs and from arbitrary state power. When the Daily Mail and Nigel Farage use language like “enemies of the people”, and argue that “the will of the people” should take precedence over the law we should reflect on history. We should remember Gesundes Volksempfinden, the healthy feeling of the people, and we should shudder.

“You lost, get over it, respect democracy”

I have been challenged on several occasions since the EU referendum on June 23rd over my attitude towards democracy. “You lost. Get over it. That’s democracy. We’ve got to leave. We’re all Brexiters now”. I am firmly a democrat, and that is why I’ve continued to argue the case for the UK to remain in the EU. In some circles, sadly including the UK government, democracy now means complying with the demands of the owners and editorial staff ouf our most unpleasant tabloids. They represent “the will of the people”. I don’t buy that, and I don’t accept the rather childish definition of democracy that means if you get one more vote than the other side then you can do whatever you want.

This article sums up my arguments why I think leaving the EU on the basis of the referendum result, and especially leaving the Single Market, is not necessarily democratic.

  1. David Cameron was two faced in telling the country that it was a straightforward in-out referendum. However, Parliament was asked to legislate for an advisory referendum. If the proposed referendum legislation had stated that a Leave victory would require the government to invoke Article 50 then there would have been debate about the safeguards that a mandatory referendum would need.

    This is a particularly important point in a referendum that will lead to us losing our rights as EU citizens. It is not a simple matter of choosing an MP to represent us and giving the job to the candidate who received the most support. Brexiteers insist that winning one more vote than Remain allows them to take away our rights. Out of every 100 voters 48 wanted to retain these rights as EU citizens. 52 did not want these rights and many of them are taking malicious glee in insisting that the 48 have to suck it up and lose some of their civil rights. Mature democracies don’t work that way. Removing people’s rights is a big deal and needs suitable safeguards.

    As it transpired, only 37% of the UK electorate voted to leave and 63% did not. The Trade Union Act 2016 stipulated that any industrial action by workers in “important public services” requires support by both a majority and at least 40% of the electorate. No Tory MPs voted against this act, or against the EU Referendum Act. If the referendum act had had a 40% safeguard Remain would have won.

    The question every Conservative politician should answer is why the party considers a one day train strike more important than the UK’s future, its EU membership and our rights as EU citizens. The obvious answer is that the government dared not confront its backbenchers or UKIP who would have been furious at any safeguards. Until the Conservatives can provide a more persuasive reason I shall assume that under David Cameron’s disastrous leadership they put the party before the country.

  2. If it had been merely an opinion poll the result would have had no validity because of the ambiguity over what Leave meant. People voted leave for many different reasons. Theresa May is proceeding on the assumption that the question asked “Do you think the country is pretty shit these days?” and gives her the right to do what she likes now to placate the frenzied headline writers in the Daily Express and Daily Mail.

    The most bizarre aspect of the current mess is the widespread acceptance of May’s autocratic behaviour. She, like all Tory MPs, was elected on a manifesto “to safeguard British interests in the Single Market”. The EU referendum was a mandate to leave the EU. The question did not ask about the Single Market, immigration or free movement, yet she is acting as if this vague question, with no indication of the options or consequences, gives her an overwhelming mandate for drastic action, including taking us out of the Single Market.

    Only 52% voted to leave the EU. Amongst those are many voters who believed the promises we could stay in the Single Market. Conservative MPs are honour bound to apply that decision in a way that is consistent with their electoral mandate and their duty to act in the national interest. They should therefore press for membership of the Single Market from outside the EU, like Norway. They won’t, because they are spineless or happy to put party before country, but they should. Of course that outcome would obviously be worse than we had before, but it should be up to the Brexiters to justify that. They shouldn’t be allowed to go straight for a far worse option to hide the fact they had no coherent plan that could have won a majority. If they can’t justify the only outcome for which they have a mandate then we have a reasonable right to ask whether we should leave the EU at all.

    Sadly, Mrs May’s priority is to appease euro-sceptic backbenchers and keep her tanks parked firmly on UKIP’s lawn to make it clear to Tory voters that there is no point defecting to the right now that her Tory party has morphed into UKIP. To May the will of the people means what a majority of Leave voters want, ie a minority of those who voted. The 48% and less extreme Leave voters don’t count. If she uses the Royal Prerogative to bypass Parliament and remove us from the Single Market she will be doing so with no democratic mandate and against the wishes of the British people. Remember that the Brexit majority was so small that if even 4% of those who voted Leave want to stay in the Single Market that wipes out the Leave majority. There is only a mandate for leaving the Single Market if more than 96% of Brexit voters wanted that. Since they were not even asked the question it is ludicrous to assume that they all want it. Leaving the Single Market on the basis of this referendum would be the most disgraceful abuse of power by any British politician since the introduction of universal suffrage. All politicians who take democracy seriously have a duty to fight this.

  3. Following on from that point, Leave voters want wildly different outcomes, none of which could have beaten Remain in a straight fight. There is no mandate for any one of them. Remain is the most popular option, but that has been excluded because of a spurious definition of “democracy”. If David Cameron had had sufficient nerve and integrity he would have insisted that Leave campaigners come up with an agreed vision of what Brexit would mean, and that would have been put to the country as an alternative to continuing membership. He should have rejected outright any attempt to offer a “pro having cake and pro eating it” manifesto, as offered by Boris Johnson.

    The Leave campaigns learned from the Scottish independence referendum, in which the SNP led Scottish Government produced a detailed white paper about what independence would mean. This was dissected, debated, and ultimately rejected by the electorate. Leave therefore took a strategic decision that they would offer no detail, nothing that could be challenged, and simply exploit the confusion. This was politically brilliant, but it was utterly unprincipled and far from democratic.

  4. By structuring the referendum in this way with a flawed status quo being matched against a nebulous alternative, in order to pacify Tory backbenchers and UKIP, the government provided the Leave campaigns with every incentive to lie; they could do so with impunity. This further confuses what the result means. After the poll the Leave campaigns slipped away into the shadows and their public faces all brazenly disassociated themselves from the contradictory, dishonest claims it had made, and cheerfully cherry picked the aspects of Brexit they favoured, ignoring all the promises and reassurances.

  5. We have a representative, parliamentary democracy in which MPs have to balance their different objectives in a coherent programme that their party has persuaded the country is for the national benefit. Treating the EU referendum as mandatory means that MPs are instructed to act in a certain way, even if they believe it is against the national interest, and inconsistent with the other policies for which they already have a mandate from the electorate. The result is a mess that we have not even begun to work our way through.

  6. Millions whose future is affected were not allowed to vote. If it had been on the same basis as the Scottish independence referendum (ie EU nationals and 16/17 year olds allowed to vote) Remain woud have won. Incidentally, if the Scottish referendum had been on the same basis as the EU one then Scotland would be independent now. Which basis is right? Which is “democracy”? For what it’s worth I believe EU citizens and these youngsters should have been allowed a vote because they live here, have a stake in the country and this deeply affects their future.

    UK citizens who had left the country more than 15 years ago were also excluded, although it was a commitment in the 2015 Conservative manifesto that they should be allowed to voted in all elections.

    The UK government chose to disenfranchise all these people, for cynical rather than principled reasons. They were too scared to have a fair vote. They hoped they could concede everything to UKIP and still win. That was a political decision. There is no natural, correct, democratic answer about what the correct electorate should have been and that is what the Brexiteers implicitly assumed; of course foreigners, ex-pats and kids can’t have a say, they might not give the “right” answer.

  7. The result was so close, with older voters favouring Brexit, and younger voters wanting to remain, that demographic changes will mean there’s a majority to stay in the EU by the time we eventually do leave, even if no-one changes their mind. So even setting aside those who regret their decision, and there are already enough of them to reverse the result, we will leave the EU with a majority of the electorate wishing we could stay. That’s democracy is it?

  8. A simple, binary referendum is totally unsuitable for this sort of complex decision with huge, far-reaching implications. The decision, either way, was always going to produce results that made people who were ostensibly on the winning side say “but I didn’t want that”.

These are just some of the reasons that insisting on leaving the EU isn’t necessarily a democratic decision. There are other good reasons why the referendum should never have been called, such as the effect on Northern Ireland, and the possibility it could result in Scotland leaving the Union. It was an incredibly reckless act in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, in which a constant theme was “vote No to safeguard Scotland’s place in the EU”. It’s not a matter of calling for a re-run of the referendum. I’ve long experience of being on the losing side of elections. This is different. The UK, if it survives, has been hijacked by a faction of the Tory party, with no mandate. The consequences could be irreversible. This is not democracy.

If Salmond had acted like Cameron

I was challenged the other day for calling David Cameron a dreadful Prime Minister who gambled our place in the EU to try and save a few Tory seats. In doing so he put his party before his country. The response was that Cameron simply offered the country the chance it was clamouring for, to have a say on the EU. He was therefore no different from Alex Salmond. Both merely fulfilled manifesto promises.

I disagree, and strongly. The country was not crying out for a say on the EU. The right wing of the Tory Party, UKIP, the Daily Express, the Mail and the Telegraph were, but these don’t constitute the country, though sadly they’re the only voices the current UK government wants to hear.

Cameron’s career has not merely ended in failure. History will show it collapsed in disgrace. He sacrificed his country to keep his party united. That is a shameful legacy. He brought about an outcome he believed to be wrong for the country, though good for his party. There may be legitimate reasons to wish to leave the EU, but Cameron rightly believed that it would be deeply damaging to the country. Yet he persevered with a seriously flawed referendum that will leave long term scars on the UK if it doesn’t hasten its end.

Cameron could have insisted on a rational, fair referendum that would have forced the Brexiteers to state a clear alternative destination after leaving the EU. The electorate would then have had a clear choice. He could have insisted on sensible safeguards to ensure a lasting decision wouldn’t be taken on a hasty whim based on a tiny majority, with many voters taking the chance simply to register a protest against his government. Leave were allowed to argue for totally contradictory outcomes that cannot be delivered. The result, at best, will be a poor compromise that will be supported by a minority of the electorate, and certainly fewer people than wanted to remain in the EU. Cameron opted for a simple, binary choice between the status quo and wishful thinking because he lacked the courage to confront his back-benchers and UKIP, who would have howled that a fair referendum was an establishment stitch-up. Instead Cameron chose to gamble the country’s future. Not only did he lose, but future generations will lose.

The comparison between Cameron and Salmond doesn’t work for many reasons. As a thought experiment consider what would have happened if Salmond had acted just like Cameron.

During the first SNP administration from 2007 Alex Salmond lost faith in the independence vision and decided that it was impractical. As a compromise with the party hardliners he persuaded the SNP to campaign at the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections to ask Westminster for devo max, with the promise of an in-out referendum on staying with the UK. There seemed little chance of the SNP winning a majority, so this seemed a sound tactical move to keep the SNP together. Unexpectedly the SNP won a majority. The UK government told Salmond to take a hike, and offered minimal, token changes (The Vow?). Chastened, Salmond then called the referendum, claiming that the concessions were the real deal, and campaigned, along with his close ally Sturgeon, to stay in the UK on these terms. He allowed his cabinet to dissent and campaign for independence, knowing the SNP would tear itself apart otherwise.

As FM, Salmond instructed the Scottish Civil Service to make no preparations for possible independence, and the Yes campaign lacked access to these civil servants. There was therefore no plan for independence, just a contest between a flawed but tweaked status quo and a wide variety of competing and inconsistent visions of independence. The referendum became partly a popularity poll on an increasingly beleaguered FM, with the Scottish press attacking Salmond at every opportunity, giving voters the impression that voting Yes was a safe protest against Salmond because No was bound to win.

To everyone’s surprise Yes won narrowly. Salmond immediately resigned, leaving a total shambles. The independence hardliners imposed Kenny MacAskill as SNP leader and Sturgeon was sacked. We had total chaos because there was a narrow mandate for independence, but no-one knew what that meant, or how it could be achieved. Periodically MacAskill surfaced on the TV uttering the profound words “independence means independence”. The only thing everyone was agreed upon was that Salmond had made a disgraceful mess of things, putting party before country. Salmond’s place in history as an incompetent gambler, obsessed with short term tactical gains rather than the long term benefit of his country would be secure.

Cameron, meanwhile, went on as Prime Minister having wriggled out of his committment to an EU referendum. Suddenly referendums had become vulgar displays of popular prejudice in which the careers of nice posh boys could get seriously damaged by an ungrateful and unpredictable hoi polloi.

The only difference between Cameron and the counter-factual Salmond is the outcome of Cameron’s blunders happens to suit the current mood of the UK tabloid press and that sets the whole media agenda. History will catch up with Cameron, eventually. Maybe the real Salmond was and is wrong? At least we know what he believed in. Cameron? He believed only in winning, and as a result lost catastrophically. Just how badly we have all lost we have yet to see.

The EU referendum – are you feeling lucky?

Introduction (18th October 2016)

I wrote this a few weeks before the EU referendum. As political analysis it is rubbish. I was right that a leave vote would produce a mess and the UK government would have little idea what to do. What I had assumed was that it would try to react responsibly and rationally. I took it for granted that the government would make every effort to keep us in the Single Market. I was hopelessly wrong.

I could have just deleted the article, but I’m leaving it here as an illustration of how the electorate collectively did not have a clue what a leave vote would entail. I think I was paying more attention than most people but I didn’t grasp that the government would be so stupid and reckless as to go for a hard Brexit, tearing us out of the Single Market, as its Plan A.

The article assumes that access to the Single Market means membership. That was a widespread shared assumption before the referendum, and if that was a mistake it was one that the Leave campaigns were happy to exploit and did not wish to clear up. Now, they claim that access means selling to the Single Market from outside, just the same as any other country like China or Chile. That is a meaningless piece of quibbling. What they are describing is simply selling to the EU. No-one ever talks about other countries having access to the UK’s single market; we all just talk about exporting to the UK. The Leave campaigns were happy to create the impression that access and membership were synonymous. Only now they have their dishonest victory do they wish to explain what they meant.

By early October it is looking increasingly likely that we will get a hard Brexit. The Brexiteers who swamped us with lies, evasions and inconsistencies during the campaign are determined to present the result as a mandate for a hard Brexit that cannot even be debated. It’s a pity they didn’t introduce that to the debate before the referendum when they assured us, utterly implausibly, we could have everything.

The article (written on 12th June 2016)

Increasingly, as the weeks roll by in Britian’s EU referendum debate, I am bemused by the brazen tone of the Brexit campaigns. They are repeatedly trounced in the detailed arguments. They claim we can guzzle every last crumb of cake and simultaneously save it all for tomorrow. When the Remainers point out that this is nonsense the Brexiteers respond with breezy assertions that everything will be alright on the night, that everyone will be happy to cut us a great deal, and that, anyway, documenting the workings of the real world is no more than scare-mongering. The Brexiteers have nothing to offer but vague assertions, blatant distortions, and crazed optimism, yet when they inevitably lose the arguments they simply claim they have won and utter more tripe, or worse they repeat proven lies like “£350 million a week goes to Brussels”.

A specific, huge problem with the Brexit case is the claim we can simultaneously retain access to the EU’s Single Market and “take control of our borders”. Access to the Single Market requires free movement of people to work anywhere in the Single Market. Nobody, not Norway or Switzerland, is able to trade in the Single Market and stop EU citizens moving to their countries. Norway is in the Schengen area and has proportionately higher immigration than the UK. Switerland is also in Schengen. A few years ago I was cycling in Austria with my wife, Mary. We were uncertain of our whereabouts one day and asked two women we passed. We were in Switzerland. We had crossed an EU frontier without even noticing. Free movement is one of the founding principles of the EU’s Single Market, yet we are expected to believe that the EU will happily abandon that principle if we walk out the door. They won’t. There’s nothing to suggest they will.

If there’s a vote to leave the EU then Brexit campaigners will claim a mandate to cut immigration. They will almost certainly force David Cameron out of office so that the exit negotiations are led by people who believe in their cause. What will the UK do when the EU insists on a hefty price for any compromise on free movement? The UK negotiators will be desperate to secure access to the Single Market, but even more desperate to cut immigration. These are fundamentally inconsistent aims. They will have to throw some some very big and costly concessions onto the bargaining table to get any sort of deal.

Immigration is perhaps the most important factor in the referendum debate in England, especially in the south and east. These are largely Tory areas. Will a Conservative government tell their supporters that they will have to pay the price for cutting immigration? Will the concessions to the EU be spread equally across the UK? Or will the Tory government sacrifice the parts of the UK where there will be no electoral retaliation? The Conservatives have little to lose in Scotland.

Bertie Armstrong, Chief Executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Association, might be considered a natural, enthusiastic supporter of Brexit, but he has similar concerns. On the BBC’s
Countryfile on 5th June 2016 he said.

It seems self-evident that recovery of sovereignty and jurisdiction of some of the best fishing grounds in the world would be a good thing so it looks like a no-brainer. However, what would the UK do with that sovereignty and jurisdiction? We don’t have much economic muscle when it comes to arguments about resetting everything with our relationships with Europe, and we would be fearful that in a reset fishing would be used as a bargaining tool.

Scottish fisheries were sacrificed when we joined the EU. It was seen as a price worth paying for entry to the Common Market. In those days the Conservatives had 23 seats in Scotland. Now they have only one. Can we really expect them to take a more altruistic attitude now they have only David Mundell to lose?

It won’t just be fisheries. Giving the EU its current access to UK waters won’t buy much in the negotiations. There will be more, and painful concessions required. As a self-employed consultant I value my ability to move freely around Europe. I don’t take that for granted. All the noises from experts suggest that the UK will be more likely to gain access for goods than services in the Single Market. People like me could be cut off without a moment’s hesitation.

The Economist and Financial Times have disssected the Brexit case repeatedly, in detail, and at length. These are not reactionary, capitalist papers attempting to trash an idealistic, dangerous, socialist insurgency. They are the expert commentators on the free market game that the Brexiteers want to play, and their verdict is damning; the leave case is deluded nonsense. The Brexiteers have not won the arguments. They are brazenly ignoring them, fingers in ears.

The Brexiteers tell us not to worry. We can have it all. We can walk out of the club and still have all the benefits of membership with none of the costs. Why should we believe them? Ultimately it’s a matter of trust. The Brexiteers are asking us to believe Nigel Farage, a motor mouthed fantasist, and Boris Johnson, who has been sacked twice in his career, both times for lying. So, do you trust them? Are you feeling lucky? Any deal we reach with our erstwhile partners is likely to prove a bitter disappointment to those who voted for Brexit. What will happen when people realise they’ve voted for a damaged economy, without any significant change in immigration? It won’t be pretty. When the pain comes following Brexit are you hoping it will fall on someone else? Are you still feeling really lucky?