Trusting our politicians to trust us with more powers

Having banged my English drum for Scottish independence on this blog for the last few months, I am sad and disappointed at the majority “No” result which I watched come through earlier this morning.  I can’t compare my feelings to those in Scotland who have worked so hard for independence and yet are probably facing the day with deep hurt and sadness.

However, we can all be united in praise of the amazing turnout, which reflects an incredible revival of interest in politics in Scotland which none of us have ever seen anywhere in the UK.  I think we must give much of the credit for this to Alex Salmond and the SNP who secured the mandate for the referendum in the first place.  It would be nice to hear the “No” parties also give credit to the SNP for this.

Over 1.5 million votes to leave the UK, including “Yes” majorities in Glasgow and Dundee are a mandate for changing the status quo.  Given the promises made by Gordon Brown and his “Better Together” colleagues in the last few days of the campaign, every “No” vote is also a mandate for change. As to what those changes might be, I await the detail with bated breath.

Watching the BBC coverage in England, politicians from the “No” parties as well as pundits were almost unanimous in predicting major constitutional change across the UK on the back of the “No” vote.  This seems to involve the possibilities of :

  1. a UK-wide constitutional convention
  2. English MPs having the exclusive right to vote on English issues in Westminster;
  3. an English parliament (perhaps preferred by English Conservatives);
  4. regional assemblies in England, with or without an English parliament (the latter perhaps being a Labour preference);
  5. a devolution of powers to English city / regions;
  6. more powers for devolved assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland;
  7. a federal UK incorporating one or more of the above options.

When I say that the commentators were “almost unanimous”, a note of strong scepticism was sounded by Simon Jenkins of the Times who predicted that Westminster leaders will revert to type within 6 months or so and come out with a reform package which, in practice, makes little dent in their own huge array of powers.  Milder scepticism was also expressed by most pundits on the tight timetable laid down by Gordon Brown for new powers for Scotland, especially as detailed proposals may not get the backing of all English Tory MPs.

I agree with Mr Jenkins.  Like him, I would like to see huge constitutional reform which ensures that local people are much more involved in the decisions that affect their daily lives.  This was the kind of reform that the “Yes” campaign were credibly promising.  But at the same time, I do not see Westminster politicians changing their spots any time soon, or in fact at all.  Westminster is a sovereign parliament.  Its politicians are used to exercising centralised power over the nation with little accountability between elections.  It has devolved powers only when necessary and to the extent which was necessary.  There is no natural appetite for constitutional reform in Westminster. Far-reaching constitutional reform requires a deep commitment to interactional, grass-roots politics which no longer exists within the ranks of most Conservative and Labour Party MPs.  Neither David Cameron, Ed Miliband nor Nick Clegg talk like politicians who have emerged from the grass-roots.  Their approach is to sell their party-produced policies to the passive public.

The failure of the Westminster politicians to engage with constitutional issues with the Scottish people (never mind with the rest of us) in an interactive way during the 2 years of the referendum campaign gives the lie to their sudden interest in constitutional reform.  Westminster is likely to go about the issue of constitutional reform across the UK in the same top-down, transactional manner as it does with every other issue. I predict that the main proposals will be drawn up by senior party leaders. They will be dressed up to look like major power-shifting proposals but in fact will not be.  There will then be an official consultation process which will result in some minor tweaks.  Parliamentary sovereignty is not likely to be seriously challenged by the end-product.

Why is there such little appetite for challenging Westminster dominance and implementing constitutional reform among the English?  The concentration of power in Westminster is one reason.  The weakness of solidarity and identity among the English is another.  The banality and mediocrity of local democracy is another.  Here in Birmingham, our council’s entire children’s services department has been officially condemned.  What else is wrong with the city council, I ask myself?  Are they fit to ask for, never mind take on further powers that Westminster suddenly feels they need to bestow on them for wider political reasons?   If our city’s best politicians want to go to Westminster where the real power lies, then will we ever have a professional cadre of local politicians?

I recently stumbled across proposals for a new “Magna Carta” from the House of Commons Select Committee on Politics and Constitutional Affairs.  They are currently running a consultation on the need for and the nature of a written constitution for the UK.  This includes a public competition to write a preamble.  Curiously, they have made no reference to the Scottish referendum and wider publicity for their consultation is lacking.  I have not heard it mentioned by any party leader and it seems to be an initiative of that committee. This again tells me that the desire for constitutional reform among our leaders is minimal and their Damascene conversion to it is purely reactionary.  The driving force behind their commitment to “devolve” more power is their desire to hold on to as much as possible.  It is a PR-response to the huge “Yes” vote in Scotland.

Two years ago, David Cameron refused a third option on the ballot paper which could have prompted widespread discussion on and moves towards widespread constitutional reform.   He is not likely to apologise for this mistake.  He is not really interested in constitutional reform, does not have much experience in it and does not have good judgment on constitutional issues.  He is likely to give it the minimum attention possible and continue to react to discontent in Scotland, Wales and his own backbenches on an ad hoc basis.  He is not likely to take sound advice from people who really know about grass-roots political involvement and constitutional reform.  He is totally the wrong person to be in charge of our country during this process.

So now we are waiting for fractious and confrontational Westminster leaders, who feel obliged to devolve some of their powers, to open a consensus-building dialogue with local politicians most of whom have not recently requested any new powers. This process will take place in the name of the de-politicised ordinary English people who don’t know much about why this is all happening, except that it must have something to do with Scotland.  I don’t know where this process is going.

Last nights’ pundits were right to point out that effective constitutional reform takes a long time and should not be rushed.  Looking only at the English situation, we need to start with a discussion among ordinary English people as to how they feel about democracy in general and why they care so little about it.  A constitutional convention, along the lines of the Scottish one in the 1990s, is the right way to go.  Again, this should not be rushed.  We need sensitive politicians to facilitate this process so that we are really listening to ordinary people, and not just going through the motions, or getting a quick snapshot.  The process must take its own time.  We could do with some advice from Scottish activists however they will have different priorities at the moment.


Referendum Editorial

At the start of the referendum campaign, Scottish politics featured nowhere on my radar.  Support for the union was well over 60% in the polls.  As the polls showed increasing support for “Yes”, indignation kicked in at the prospect of a rupture in the union and my British identity.  I have explained in other articles my journey to “Yes” since that time, and going into the final few days of the campaign, I am still firmly of the view that a “Yes” vote is what is best for England and Scotland.

This referendum campaign has been a chance for the British political establishment to shine and show how much the union of our countries means. With good support for the union in the polls, and all the advantages of incumbency, this was not a campaign for “Yes” to win but only a campaign for “No” to lose. 

I have eagerly awaited the positive case for the union.  It has never come.  Instead, I have witnessed the unfolding of perhaps the most dismal political smear campaign I can remember.  It has included: 

  • smears on Alex Salmond
  • threats of political consequences from voting “No”
  • trying to get foreign leaders to back the union
  • ruling out a devo-max option on the ballot paper which many wanted
  • rushing out devo-max proposals as polling for “Yes” grew
  • digging around for anti-English sentiment
  • celebrities putting a pure “emotional case” for the union
  • patronising Lego promotional material and political broadcasts
  • creating every possible uncertainty over SNP policies
  • accusations of ugly nationalism and comparing SNP leaders to fascists
  • a terror among senior unionist politicians of debating with ordinary Scots
  • scaremongering e.g. border guards, an absolute no to currency union long before the need for such a decision, massive expenditure cuts, Scotland being undefended against terrorists etc.

This campaign has shown the British political establishment at its very worst.  It need not have done.  A healthy body of politicians could have engaged much more positively with the “Yes” groups and ordinary people, listened to them seriously, worked towards consensus and compromise if possible, and retained honour and principle while opposing independence.  I believe that such a positive approach would have produced a convincing “No” vote.  But the people who could have led such a campaign have been missing in inaction.

There have been no walkabouts in Scotland from David Cameron, Ed Miliband, or Nick Clegg – the leaders of the parties who want to rule the Scots after the next general election.  Unless I have missed something, I have not seen any Scottish appearances by Tony Blair, John Major, Michael Heseltine, Neil Kinnock, Paddy Ashdown or numerous other senior politicians.  Until yesterday – with less than 2 weeks to go until the vote – there had been no move by rank-and-file MPs to visit Scotland, and even then it will be only a 100 odd Labour MPs and no Tories.  Either Better Together told English and Welsh politicians to stay well away because they would be a liability or they just didn’t care enough to put in the effort to save the union.   Given that Better Together has been paying ordinary English Labour activists to canvas in Scotland, I am assuming that it is the latter.

The lack of unity and leadership among the pro-union forces has been painfully obvious.  English politicians simply thought that saving the union required minimal effort and consequently made a minimal effort.   We are not talking about a few months of political ineptitude – we are talking about 2 years with ever-increasing alarm bells.  And the evidence of these 2 years is what we have to take into account when predicting the attitudes and behaviour of the Westminster establishment in the years to come. 

Politics is about creating a better future – but it is done in the here and now.  The process of politics shows its integrity or lack thereof. I simply don’t believe politicians’ promises when they go about their daily dealings with their political opponents and the people they rule with such contempt and indifference.  And when the stakes are the very future of the union itself, I am all the more dismayed by these attitudes. 

Scottish people have no reason to believe Westminster politicians any more, no matter how fine the sentiments they express may be.  And why should we English be taken in by them either, just because we are the majority nation in the UK?  If they are able and willing to turn on the contempt and indifference when it comes to dealings with the Scots, why should we trust them in their dealings with us?    

The rotten heart of the union has been attacked by the SNP for years now.  But it has been exposed for all of us to see by this referendum campaign.  We should not let them off the hook and a “Yes” vote will be a good start to a more radical reform of our political institutions.









Trident : the elephant in every room of every house

If you run over the various political issues, it can be tempting to put them on the same level – health, education, welfare, transport etc.  When it comes to immigration, most of us can spot that there is something wrong when a party like UKIP gives so much prominence to it.  But sometimes, it is necessary to grade one issue much more highly than the others, at least until major progress is made in it.  I’d like to persuade you that nuclear weapons is such an issue.

A few facts from a quick search of Wikipedia reveal that the UK has a stockpile of around 225 thermonuclear warheads, of which 160 are operational.  (This is dwarfed by the US and Russia both of which have 7,000 to 8,000 warheads.)  Nevertheless, as each dropped warhead will kill most people within a 20 mile radius, the UK’s operational nuclear warheads alone could wipe out 160 cities the size of London.  If London has 7 million people, then that’s over a billion people. The further damage to other people from radiation, loss of food, employment, shelter and clean-up costs are incalculable.

It is abundantly clear to me that the use of nuclear weapons is unjustifiable in any circumstances.  I would never press the nuclear button.  If I would not do so, I should not expect any moral being to.  The damage that even one warhead would cause is way out of proportion to any threat against us.  Even if an aggressor fired a nuclear missile at the UK, retaliation would only be revenge – it would not neutralise the attack.  The chances of facing a nuclear threat would in fact be much reduced if we disarm.  Perhaps someone can correct me, but I know of no non-nuclear power which has been threatened with a nuclear strike.

If the use of such weapons is immoral, then so is the threat to use them.  It is a basic principle of morality that threatening to do something immoral is also immoral.

If we ruled out the use or the threat of using nuclear weapons, but told the world that we just wanted them for “research” or some other non-military reason, then we would probably not be believed.  The fact is that there are systems in place for political leaders to activate warheads.  Even if our deceit were believed, we would still be guilty of a colossal waste of money.  This again is immoral. 

The UK’s nuclear weapon system – Trident – “needs” replacing by 2020.  Estimates of the cost of Trident replacement are in the region of £20bn to £30bn.  Adding in the running costs over its lifetime, overall costs are estimated at up to £100bn for Trident Mk 2.   The three Westminster parties have committed themselves to replacing Trident, despite the end of the Cold War and despite no predicted threat from any other nuclear power.  So much for multilateral disarmament commitments.

The problem with the UK having the means to kill around 1 billion people is that it corrupts us all. All of us who pay taxes and somehow contribute to the British state, co-operate in this evil to some extent.  We can’t avoid it unless we leave the country, refuse to work or engage in civil disobedience.  As the level of co-operation of any one of us is low, then we can weigh it in the balance and decide that we can make enough of a positive contribution to the UK to justify tolerating the evil of nuclear weapons. 

I would say however that the evil of nuclear weapons is so great that it is hard for any of us to justify voting for a party which supports their retention i.e. the Lib/Lab/Cons.  Voting is a deliberate act.  There are electoral alternatives, at the least spoiling the ballot paper or not voting at all.  I have been a member of Liberal Democrats and Labour in my time and so I need to change my ways.    

And if voting for such a party is immoral, joining it is even more so, and running for office yet more.  I don’t accuse all elected Lib/Lab/Con officials of being evil – I can’t judge anyone – but I am making an objective point that they are materially co-operating in evil.  The more and the longer they tolerate this evil, the more they will be corrupted by it.  And the more they are corrupted, the less moral authority and energy they will have to use their office and their energies for the common good.

At some point in their recent careers, Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband made an active choice to replace Trident.  No doubt, the choice was shared with fellow cabinet and shadow cabinet members.  They could have made the opposite choice, saying that there was no longer any credible nuclear threat to the UK and that the costs of replacement would be prohibitive.  They would not have had to lose face to so-called “loony lefties” for having had nuclear weapons up to now.  But no, for some reason, they persisted in believing that nuclear weapons were still justified.

Perhaps they were beguiled by the language of defence.  There is no merit to examining the pros and cons of different options to implement immoral policies.  It is a waste of time.  But defence-speak quickly moves into discussions of threats, military “capability” and technical analyses of different weapons systems. It can be easy to be drawn into this world i.e. corrupted, and lose sight of the fact that the whole system is immoral. 

The choice that Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband made was for a very serious moral evil.  It is probably one reason why I am totally uninterested in anything they say, no matter how high-sounding their words are.  They lack moral authority. 

I am coming to the conclusion that, whenever I am able to get involved in a political debate with an elected representative from one of those 3 parties, I will ask them the same question:

“How can I take seriously your commitment to e.g. reduce inequality, relieve poverty, create jobs etc, when at the same time, your party is committed to a nuclear weapon system which can kill around 1 billion people?”

When gangland bosses remember to give their mums flowers on Mother’s Day, I am not impressed by their support for the flower industry or by their demonstration of filial love.  It may salve their consciences for a while but no-one is fooled.  But we allow ourselves to be fooled if we take seriously party leaders when they talk about e.g. social improvements, while at the same time, they commit themselves, our country and our money to maintaining weapons of mass destruction.  Talk to the hand.

If we want to find just one reason why we lack political energy in the UK, look no further than nuclear weapons.  If we want to find just one reason why we are cynical about politics and politicians and why we can’t be bothered to vote, look no further than nuclear weapons.  These weapons are a stain on our nation and our values.  They drain the life and respect out of democracy. What is a democracy for if we use it to pose a threat to world peace?

Perhaps a Yes-voting Scot can set me straight on this, but I think that there is more positive energy released from rejecting individuals, parties and institutions which endorse nuclear weapons, than even from embracing the idea of national independence.  I have never fully experienced it, but I believe that, over time, rejecting the structures which keep nuclear weapons in the UK will be liberating – intellectually and emotionally.  I certainly already feel that I have a greater clarity of thinking since more explicitly rejecting nuclear weapons, and their supporters.

Nuclear weapons have created a huge cloud over and in our minds which saps our energy and unity. It is because they are evil.