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”.

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

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”.

“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?

Boris Johnson; not offensive, just wrong – and foolish

You’d think experienced politicians would know that you don’t use analogies involving Hitler or the Nazis to make a political point unless you’ve got a clear, relevant and closely argued line of reasoning. Even in those cases the consequences of going nuclear by pressing the Hitler button can backfire badly. The debate can switch away from the controversy in question as the media focus on the Nazi jibe. Usually it’s a simple choice. You can keep some measure of control over the debate, or you can invoke the Nazis.

Ken Livingstone blundered into this particular rhetorical mantrap the other week with his assertion that Hitler was at one point a Zionist. The left’s rather uncomfortable history regarding Israel, Zionism and Jews isn’t my concern here, however. That is just one of the issues Labour needs to sort out on its long march back to power.

What prompted this blog was Boris Johnson’s much trumpeted comparison between Hitler’s ambitions for Europe and the 21st century European Union. In fairness to Johnson he wasn’t saying the EU is in any way similar to the Nazi regime, merely that the EU’s vision of Europe is consistent with a long and sorry history of failed attempts to recreate a European state.

“The whole thing began with the Roman Empire,” he says. “I wrote a book on this subject, and I think it’s probably right. The truth is that the history of the last couple of thousand years has been broadly repeated attempts by various people or institutions – in a Freudian way – to rediscover the lost childhood of Europe, this golden age of peace and prosperity under the Romans, by trying to unify it. Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically,” he says.

Well, so far so reckless. It’s a point of view with which I’d disagree, but I don’t find it offensive, just silly. Dragging Hitler into the debate over our EU membership is rather like flinging a decomposing rat onto the table during a meeting. Whatever point is being made is rather lost while people recoil. Debate ends and disgust takes over.

Aside from the obvious objection that the EU’s vision of a closer Europe isn’t merely a difference in tone, but is a radically different vision of the destination, Johnson’s analogy disintegrates when it is picked apart in the context of the UK’s referendum on EU membership. That becomes clear when you consider Johnson’s follow up to the quote above.

While Mr Johnson is not arguing that the bureaucrats of Brussels are Nazis attempting to bring back Hitler’s Reich, his comparison is startling. Clearly, he sees parallels between the choices that confronted his beloved Churchill, and Britain, during the Second World War and the decision facing voters next month.

“This is a chance for the British people to be the heroes of Europe and to act as a voice of moderation and common sense, and to stop something getting in my view out of control,” he says.

“It is time for someone – it’s almost always the British in European history – to say, ‘we think a different approach is called for’.”

Johnson sees the Brexit campaign as analogous to the UK fighting for the soul of civilised Europe in the Second World War. I can see why he thinks that is an attractive picture, but he has got the argument exactly the wrong way round.

Hitler’s vision for Europe wasn’t a superstate running from the Hebrides to the Urals in which Britain was a western province. Hitler looked east, and he expected Britain to remain a maritime nation, with its non-European empire. Hitler’s navy was a tiny force compared to the Royal Navy and, pre-war, was never seriously intended to challenge Britain. Hitler’s admired the British Empire and, uncomfortably for modern Britons, saw it as a model for German rule of eastern Europe. German would dominate mainland Europe, and Britain would withdraw from any involvement, or interference in that German sphere of influence.

It was only Britain’s determination to remain involved in mainland Europe by declaring war in 1939 then refusing to negotiate peace in 1940 that turned the war into a fight to the finish and persuaded Hitler that Britain must be invaded and crushed. The comparison between the Nazis’ European vision and that of the EU fails most obviously because invasion and mass murder are fundamentally different from peaceful union and co-operation, rather than alternative means to the same end, as argued by Johnson. But the comparison fails even on its own narrow terms; the vision of the Brexit campaigners would result in a Britain detached from mainland Europe, lacking influence in a structure increasingly dominated by Germany. Such a Europe, with Britain isolated and irrelevant to the big events on the mainland, has more in common with the Nazis’ European vision than the current EU of which Britain is a member with considerable, if erratic, influence.

The British Empire is long gone, thank goodness. This is not the 18th century. A Britain outside the EU and isolated from the European mainstream wouldn’t be a maritime nation swashbuckling around the high seas. Britain would be a confused, more insular place, unsure of its role in the world, having antagonised and irritated its friends and erstwhile partners, while the USA is increasingly looking to its west, across the Pacific.

The Brexiters have no clear and credible vision for the future, only a yearning for a past that can never return. Does Johnson know this? I’m not sure he cares. His vision for the future is one that will enrich and empower one Boris Johnson. Everything is subordinate to that vision. His invocation of the Nazis was politically inept and, I fervently hope, will fatally undermine his personal and political campaign. I want to see a Britain committed to Europe. That is our future, and it is consistent with our past to a far greater extent than Boris Johnson is prepared to concede.

Ruth Davidson & party loyalty

Last week Ruth Davidson criticised Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour leader, and Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, for being weak because they will allow candidates to stand for their parties even if they believe in independence.

Either Ruth Davidson is taking an indirect swipe at David Cameron or she has no idea how ridiculous she looks. If Dugdale and Rennie are weak for allowing candidates to disagree with party policy where does that leave Cameron who is allowing cabinet ministers to campaign against government policy? We are watching the astonishing sight of UK government ministers publicly fighting the Prime Minister whilst remaining in the cabinet. Is Ruth Davidson unaware how absurd her party appears? Or is she distancing herself from her boss by implying that David Cameron is a weak leader of a bitterly divided party?

Has there ever been a time when the two main UK parties were as fundamentally divided? Many Labour MPs seem increasingly detached from their own leader and from the party activists. The Tories, meanwhile, look in danger of repeating the trauma suffered by Labour in the aftermath of the last EU referendum when an equally divided party saw the SDP split off in 1981.

It’s four years till the next UK General Election. By the time 2020 arrives UK politics might be utterly unrecognisable.

Vile trolls and eminently respectable trolls

In addition to this blog I have one for professional purposes and I use Twitter for work. Both are vital for my public image. Potential clients will search for me and decide whether to hire me based on what they see. Before I post any tweets I always think “what will this look like, what will clients think?”. I try not to go to the extreme of bland dullness on Twitter. I want my personality to be visible. I do allow politics to stray onto Twitter but I keep most of my political opinions away from that Twitter account. This blog, however, is for personal statements that I wish to keep separate from my work.

I cringe when I see other people using social media in a way that makes them look stupid, offensive or vindictive. It baffles me that they either don’t know or don’t care how they appear to the world. In some cases the reason is simple stupidity. In others it is arrogance. It is always unattractive. I despise trolling. It goes against my nature and upbringing. It is the height of bad manners. Yes, it really is that bad!

There has been endless discussion and condemnation of trolling in Scottish politics over the last couple of years. Most of the concern has been about Yes campaigners and SNP supporters, the famed “vile cybernats”. I have no time for the idiots who fling around epithets like “traitor” and “quisling”. The same applies to those on the other side who cheerfully smear with “fascist”, “Nazi” and “Stalinist”, or draw inane comparisons with North Korea and Zimbabwe.

There may be no significant moral difference between the two groups, but there is a significant practical distinction. The cybernats are angry, bitter outsiders. The unionist trolls may be angry and bitter, but there is a smug and arrogant complacency about them. The reason is simple. They have been taking their lead from the establishment. Prominent journalists and politicians have been able to insult and abuse in the comfortable knowledge that they will not be held to account.

The rule is that cybernats troll, but the bold unionists exercise free speech in a admirably trenchant manner. Well, I don’t buy it. Trolls troll, and offensive idiocy isn’t any more acceptable because it comes from the well connected and influential.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There really is a problem with offensive SNP supporters, but the problem will never be solved if the press and establishment pretends that the problem is confined to the SNP and the successors to the Yes campaign.

That was why I am concerned that the distinguished composer James MacMillan has been given a knighthood. MacMillan, by any reasonable standard, has been an offensive troll over the last couple of years, but a troll in defence of the Union.

MacMillan has consistently smeared the SNP, and its supporters, as fascist. He has accused them of being Stalinist, compared the SNP with North Korean and Zimbabwean politicians, and claimed Islamic State supporters would probably join the SNP. The pro-independence artists group National Collective was dismissed as “Mussolini’s cheerleaders”. MacMillan has also hounded the playwright Alan Bissett for having alleged fascist tendencies. It would be insulting to Bissett to say that the evidence was even thin. The journalist Joyce McMillan complained about patronising and rude comments made about her on Twitter and that she would never be so hurtful to him. James MacMillan simply replied “tae see oorsels as others see us”. Well, it’s all robust, free speech I suppose, but it is cheap and unpleasant behaviour that diminishes public debate about important issues. It is trolling.

I therefore found it deeply dispiriting to see a man who has behaved in such an irresponsible fashion rewarded by the establishment. I don’t accept the theory that he has been rewarded for supporting the Union. That’s nonsense. He’s an eminent figure in the arts, perhaps the pre-eminent Scottish musical figure. In ordinary circumstance he would be well qualified for a knighthood. However, these are not ordinary times in Scotland. The country is finding its place again in the United Kingdom, and it may not be possible to accommodate Scotland in the Union in the long term. People are hyper-sensitive and hurting. Whatever route Scotland takes people will feel genuine pain.

We do need to be sensitive to the views and needs of others, and we need to isolate the extremists and trolls, making it clear that their behaviour is unacceptable. Knighting James MacMillan sends out the clearest, unambiguous message that the establishment, and those who back it, can play to different rules from the rabble, from the outsiders. Any public figure backing independence who had behaved as offensively as MacMillan would have put themselves well beyond the pale, and rightly so. SNP politicians would have been challenged to condemn the culprit and distance themselves. The narrative sold by Better Together and most of the print media during the referendum campaign was that in the absence of evidence one way or the other, Yes supporting trolls could be safely assumed to be under the control of the SNP.

“Cybernat” trolls will interpret rewards being given to their unionist counterparts as compelling evidence of double standards, proof that the establishment hates not trolling, but threats to its position. It is hard to disagree with them. When they see confirmation of their long-standing belief that the establishment is cynical and hypocritical they will feel absolved of any moral responsibility to exercise restraint themselves. It is a depressing prospect, and it is made even worse by the knowledge that the establishment really has shown itself to be cynical and hypocritical. Those on the side of the establishment can do no wrong, because they can decide what is right and wrong.

So the spiral will continue downwards. The nationalist trolls will get worse. The professionally outraged hypocrites in the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and Daily Telegraph will be outraged and respond in kind. Both sides will seethe in righteous fury. In the middle ordinary citizens will shudder and turn away from the mess. We will all be a little bit poorer in spirit, and we will know that the establishment and populist press care not one jot.