South Africa: lessons for the SNP and for Radical Independence

Posted on April 17, 2014 by | No Comments

Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine has become a staple (some might say clichéd) reference point for many on the anti-authoritarian left. However in the lead-up to the Scottish independence referendum, and as the opinion polls show an increase in support for a yes vote, many minds in Scotland are turning to what will happen in the event of a yes vote. How will the negotiations be carried out with the rUK? How will Scotland’s constitution be written? Here, Klein’s chapter, Democracy Born in Chains shows a radically democratic path, and the pitfalls associated with abandoning that path. I should be clear that although there are lessons to be learned from the parallels, I’m certainly not comparing the cause of Scottish independence to the fall of apartheid and national liberation in South Africa.

The question of negotiations and a constitution are particularly pertinent to the left, and to movements such as the Radical Independence Campaign and its associated organisations, including the Scottish Green Party. The vision that Yes Scotland and the Scottish National Party puts forward for the future of Scotland is one which in many respects is not shared by the pro-independence left, most notably in terms of currency, the monarchy, membership of NATO, and other SNP policies outside the constitutional framework such as the lowering of corporation tax. And if promises of a cross-party negotiating team come to fruition, even this flawed SNP vision may well be the best of a bad bunch if Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives have their say.

The process for writing a constitution seems more promising. The White Paper says that the new constitution will be written ‘by the people of Scotland, for the people of Scotland’, but it also makes reference to a constitutional convention, which implies a constitution written by the ‘great and the good’ in consultation with the people of Scotland. There are a lot of fuzzy lines in this area, which will likely become defined by real political power rather than by any particular principle. For the left, the question in both areas becomes how the people can take control and ownership of these processes where we can, and how to hold politicians’ feet to the fire where we can’t take that control. Here, Democracy Born in Chains offers some lessons.

The chapter deals with the transition to democracy in South Africa, and in particular with the principles of the Freedom Charter. This was, and still is in some ways, the document of core principles of the African National Congress and its allies under apartheid. Where the Green Party has its Philosophical Basis, and the Labour Party used to have Clause Four, the ANC has the Freedom Charter. This foundational document was written in the 1950′s in a very radically participative democratic way. As the ANC website itself explains:

In 1955, the ANC sent out fifty thousand volunteers countrywide to collect ‘freedom demands’ from the people of South Africa. This system was designed to give all South Africans equal rights. (…) The Charter was officially adopted on June 26, 1955 at a Congress of the People in Kliptown. The meeting was attended by roughly three thousand delegates but was broken up by police on the second day, although by then the charter had been read in full. The crowd had shouted its approval of each section with cries of ‘Afrika!’ and ‘Mayibuye!’

The volunteers ran through the townships and countryside with demands written on scraps of paper, taken from workplaces and public meetings, where the people were asked ‘what does freedom mean to you?’ The answers were radical and clear – “The people shall govern!”, ” The people shall share in the country’s wealth!”, “The land shall be shared amongst those who work it!” These demands were compiled and written into one document, and agreed by a mass assembly in Kliptown. In 2005 a monument to the Charter was unveiled in the same place – they literally carved the Freedom Charter into stone!

The Freedom Charter Monument in Kliptown.
Image from Kliptown_Freedom_Charter_Memorial.jpg

The Yes Scotland ambassador scheme is a poor substitute for this process. Although their explicit aim is to recruit and train 10,000 volunteers to take the Yes message to the people, the aim is to talk, not to listen, and there are no links at all between it and the politicians who will negotiate the future. Importantly, and just like the impressive community organising that elected Barack Obama, these structures will not continue after the referendum. There’s a gap here waiting to be filled.

What if after the referendum, the left keeps canvassing, we build for public meetings in as many communities as we can and we ask, “the people voted for independence, so what does independence mean to you?” Even now in the ANC, candidates for selection are frequently asked “do you subscribe to the Freedom Charter?” Those who hesitate to say yes are not electedThere are other lessons to be learned from the South African transition. Through incompetence, inexperience or ideology, the ANC’s economic negotiating team, led by future President Thabo Mbeki, gave away the powers that would be necessary to fulfil the Freedom Charter. Mandela’s negotiations on the political transition were much more successful, but without the necessary economic tools, these successes made the ANC little more than a figurehead government, whilst the real power was wielded far away from the political sphere. As Klein explains:

Want to redistribute land? Impossible—at the last minute, the negotiators agreed to add a clause to the new constitution that protects all private property, making land reform virtually impossible. Want to create jobs for millions of unemployed workers? Can’t—hundreds of factories were actually about to close because the ANC had signed on to the GATT, the precursor to the World Trade Organization, which made it illegal to subsidize the auto plants and textile factories. Want to get free AIDS drugs to the townships, where the disease is spreading with terrifying speed? That violates an intellectual property rights commitment under the WTO, which the ANC joined with no public debate as a continuation of the GATT. Need money to build more and larger houses for the poor and to bring free electricity to the townships? Sorry—the budget is being eaten up servicing the massive debt, passed on quietly by the apartheid government. Print more money? Tell that to the apartheid-era head of the central bank. Free water for all? Not likely. The World Bank, with its large in-country contingent of economists, researchers and trainers (a self-proclaimed “Knowledge Bank”), is making private-sector partnerships the service norm. Want to impose currency controls to guard against wild speculation? That would violate the $850 million IMF deal, signed, conveniently enough, right before the elections. Raise the minimum wage to close the apartheid income gap? Nope. The IMF deal promises “wage restraint.” And don’t even think about ignoring these commitments— any change will be regarded as evidence of dangerous national untrustworthiness, a lack of commitment to “reform,” an absence of a “rules-based system.” All of which will lead to currency crashes, aid cuts and capital flight. The bottom line was that South Africa was free but simultaneously captured; each one of these arcane acronyms represented a different thread in the web that pinned down the limbs of the new government.

Although the context is very different, the lessons for the left and for the negotiators are clear. The Westminster parliament and government are utterly beholden to the interests of finance capital and the rich. Independence is an opportunity to cut off some of the control which the capitalist class wields over us through that establishment, but without effective scrutiny and accountability it will be too easy for the negotiating team and the writers of the new constitution to allow those existing channels of power to remain – through the monarchy or a currency union with the Bank of England – or to concede to a different section of the capitalist class the same control over Holyrood they currently enjoy over Westminster.

The SNP and Yes Scotland talk the talk on the sovereignty of the people of Scotland, and on the participative nature of the constitutional process. But action is more important – if they genuinely want the people of Scotland to have power over their own affairs, if they want genuine independence, and if they don’t want their reputations and legacies to lie in the gutter alongside Thabo Mbeki’s, then the following are necessary minimums:

  1. Our political, economic and monetary policies must be set as independently as possible from Westminster
  2. Our new political, economic and monetary institutions must be set up within the political/democratic sphere, and must be run democratically in the interests of the people
  3. The new constitution must be created using a democratic, participative process, and not by lawyers, politicians or technocrats.

Then, once we have these powers, we can begin to decide democratically what to do with them.

Glasgow blows up the post war dream

Posted on April 11, 2014 by | 1 Comment

The news that Glasgow is to celebrate the Commonwealth Games coming to the city by blowing up the Red Road flats tells us a great deal. It tells us about the way we think about cities, it tells us about government priorities, it tells us about how big sporting events are used and it tells us most profoundly about our ideas of progress.

The Red Road flats are one of the most striking examples of Scottish post-war slum clearance. They were built to house those whose lives in Victorian tenements were crowded, unhygienic and scarred by infectious diseases. The desire to build a new world started with destroying the worst of the old world. Slum landlords were to be replaced by democratic control of housing. Cluttered houses with outdoor toilets were to be replaced with comfortable modern accommodation. And this accommodation was to retain the community that had been one of the few positive features of Glasgow’s slums.

When they were built the Red Road flats spoke of a world of community, modernity, equality, democracy and opportunity. That they do no longer is testament of the failure of the post-war dream. The need to provide huge numbers of houses for an expanding population and the lack of money led to poor construction in many of these new housing developments.

Too often this poor construction is misused and abused to undermine the principles the houses were built on. Our new housing is individualistic, nostalgic, elitist, undemocratic and backward looking both in style and in the cities it creates. The sprawling estates built by private sector home builders are the easiest way to see what our society values: a defensive mindset convinced that nothing can ever get better and that other people are a threat.

This reflects the failure of the post-war dream.

The failure to sustain jobs in heavy industry was the beginning of this decline. Government’s inability to replace these industrial jobs exacerbated the problem. But the real failure came with the Thatcher government of the 1980s, who saw working class community as a threat to their individualising, atomising economic project.

No longer was housing to be controlled democratically. Instead much council housing was flogged off to those who could afford to buy their homes. What remained was the worst of the housing stock. And the badly maintained high-rise flats at Red Road ended up being the worst of that housing stock.

This brings us to the demolition of the flats. The destruction of the old and its replacement with the modern is of course essential. So it’s not wrong to demolish the flats. But what is wrong is that these are homes that could be used to house those in desperate need (as the block to be left standing will). More importantly, what will replace these homes will be individualistic, designed to break community down, not build it up. It will be partly privately owned and partly run by housing association. There will be no democratic housing.

The design will be backward-looking and based on elitist histories. It will be about ‘making the East End of Glasgow the new West End’. The aim is to mimic the bourgeois areas of the city. Without of course giving the people who live there the ownership of their companies or control over their lives to actually be bourgeois. The principle appears to be that if the poor live in houses that look like those of the rich, they will behave like the rich.

Perhaps most interesting is what the timing of the demolition tells us about the link between major sporting events and urban regeneration. One of the reasons Ken Livingstone gave for seeking to bring the 2012 Olympic Games to London was that it was the only way he could see to get the money to regenerate London’s east end. The Labour government elected in 1997 spent a lot of money on knocking down homes and rebuilding them. But they realised that this was really very unpopular with the middle class voters whose approval they craved. So the money taps were being turned off.

As with every decaying regime the Labour government resorted to bread and circuses to justify its rule. Except without the bread. To justify investing in some of the poorest areas of Britain the government needed something for middle class people to enjoy. And where London led, so Glasgow followed.

In this context it seems entirely appropriate that symbols of the post-war dream of equality, democracy and opportunity are blown up as part of the opening ceremony. It is increasingly obvious that our cities, rather than being places to live have been captured by elites to be used for their entertainment. Urban renewal is based on attractions for the middle classes. Our parents and grandparents dream of a better future, their dream of progress, has become the subject of a superior fireworks show. And all we’re left with is a couple of weeks of entertainment and cities dominated by a neoliberal elite.

Of course they were bluffing about Scottish currency – when do these people tell the truth?

Posted on March 29, 2014 by | 2 Comments

It should come as no surprise. The extraordinary admission from a government minister that Westminster would find a way to make currency union with Scotland work is, in fact, entirely ordinary. The idea that Westminster politicians have put political convenience ahead of rigorous honesty is no newer than the notion that what they say in public is very different from what they know in private to be the truth.

Let’s review the story. A minister, who the Guardian believe will be very involved in negotiations after a yes vote said to the paper “Of course there would be a currency union”. Perhaps more importantly, the Treasury admitted that:

“Westminster’s emphatic rejection was taken on the specific advice of the former chancellor and Better Together chief, Alistair Darling, and the main Downing Street Scottish adviser, Andrew Dunlop. The Treasury had assumed that Osborne would stick to his position of saying that a currency union would be highly unlikely.

“The decision to toughen up the message was made because Darling believes Better Together needs to do more than win the referendum – it needs to kill off independence with an emphatic win. “Alistair and Andrew are running the show – we just did what they said,” one Treasury source said.”

In other words, the comments from Osborne, Balls and Alexander were a political choice of the No campaign chief, not the economic decision of the Treasury. It was a bluff. It was bluster. They said things not because they believed them to be true, but in order to win the referendum.

None of this should be a surprise. As many people said at the time, the idea that a Westminster establishment so mutually intertwined with a city of London desperate to maintain the price of the pound would want to chop the second richest region of the UK out of its currency union is ludicrous.

But more importantly, what I never understand is why anyone would trust the people saying this. These are the same Lib Dems who promised to vote to scrap fees before trebling them; the same Conservative party which said its NHS reforms wouldn’t mean privatisation; the same Labour party who told us that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction deployable within 45 minutes.

This is the Westminster establishment which five years ago was caught out lying about money in a very different way when the Telegraph published their expense revelations; the same Mssrs Balls and Darling those who flipped their homes repeatedly. It’s the same Mr Alexander who insisted on endlessly repeating lies that pension reforms were about saving money; the same Mr Osborne as the one who claimed in the recent budget that we’re borrowing less because he delayed the repayment of some loans.

The idea that, in the fight to save their beloved union, these people wouldn’t significantly exaggerate the risks over things like currency is absurd. Of course they were always, at the very least, stretching the truth.

But now they have a problem. Because this was the No campaign strategy. As the same article says:

“We went early with the currency union announcement in the hope that a rational, rather than an emotional, judgment will prevail among voters,” one Better Together source said. “But people have got to believe we mean it.”

Now that the cat is out of the bag, these lying liars can spin all they like, but their tied up in their own untruths. The Scottish people would be fools to believe a word they say. And campaigns lose when they take the electorate for idiots. Already, people were fed up with silly fear-mongering. Already, a significant number believed that the government was bluffing. Now, they know that at least one minister at the centre of the campaign doesn’t believe what’s being said either.

The Westminster elite which lied its way into a war which killed hundreds of thousands of people, which cheated on its expenses and bullshits its way through economic data has been caught out putting a desire to fear-monger ahead of a wish to be frank with the people of Scotland. Every time they pop up with some new scare story over the next six months, people will remember that.

Labour’s challenge – a positive case for the union or a positive case for the party?

Posted on March 24, 2014 by | No Comments

The Scottish Labour spring conference was the party’s big chance to put forward the positive case for the union. No campaigners are clearly irritated by constant jibes from the other side that they have nothing positive to say about the benefits of the union. Conference was the best platform between now and September 18 to tell a story, not about the disadvantages of leaving, but about the advantages of staying. So what did they do?

 Well, first of all, there was a lot of playing the man – Alex Salmond – rather than the ball – Scotland’s constitutional future. Even when Ed Milliband did stop the Salmond bashing to try to make the case for the UK and the union, it was actually a case based on the benefits of Labour running the UK. The picture he painted was of a progressive union, built on what he described as Labour principles of justice, fairness and compassion. A vision of Britain under his premiership that would be so attractive, he hoped, that it would provide a compelling case for voting no in 2014 and then Labour in 2015. The problem with this as a case for the union, though, is that Labour might not actually win the next election.

 One of the stronger pro-independence cards from the Yes campaign is the ‘localist’ argument, that it would be always be better if decisions about Scotland were made in Scotland, regardless of who was in charge. This means both the radical left around RIC and the centre right around Wealthy Nation can see independence as an opportunity to advance their cause. Despite the white paper being very much an SNP vision, the wider benefits of independence set out by the Yes campaign do not require an SNP victory. This allows the Yes campaign to try to appeal to voters whose primary political affiliation is not to the SNP.

It is therefore hard for Labour to make a case for the union, based on what a future Labour Westminster Government could use its powers to do in Scotland, while simultaneously attacking the current Westminster coalition for what it is doing in Scotland with those very same powers. If the Labour case for the union rests on Labour always being in a position to run the union it is on pretty shaky ground.

This is a fundamental weakness in the Labour unionist case. Are they making a positive case for the union, even if the Tories are running the union, or a positive case for the party’s management of the union? Labour voters alone cannot win the referendum, and telling non-labour no voters that a no vote will mean the Labour vision of the union is unlikely to persuade them to actually come out and vote no.

The other problem with the Labour case for the union, as presented in Perth, is that it is impossible to make the case for further devolution in Scotland without discussing the impact on the rest of the UK. The Labour argument against a further devolution option on the referendum ballot paper was that, while independence or union was a choice people in Scotland could legitimately make for themselves, further devolution would be a decision for the whole of the UK. Scotland could not simply unilaterally demand more powers short of independence – the consent of people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland would be required. Ultimately, further devolution is an issue for Westminster, as the sovereign UK parliament, to decide.

This is the light in which Gordon Brown’s attempt at a positive case should be viewed. This is the clearest attempt by a Labour politician to make the wider case for a new set of UK institutions to address the concerns of people in Scotland. In his speech in Glasgow a couple of weeks ago he called for a range of measures, including a new constitutional law to set out the purpose of the UK as pooling and sharing resources, a constitutional guarantee of the permanence of the Scottish Parliament, the replacement of the Barnett formula with a new tax-sharing agreement and extra powers for Holyrood. However, these proposals instantly open up fundamental questions about the whole UK, not just Scotland. To achieve what is proposed would require the end of the principle of UK parliamentary sovereignty – the notion that a current parliament cannot bind a future parliament – and its replacement with a very new kind of Constitutional settlement. That would be the only way to ensure the Westminster Act establishing the Scottish Parliament couldn’t simply be repealed. If we replaced the Barnett formula with a tax sharing agreement, who would the agreement then be between? Who would speak for England? If Westminster was expected to play this role, the case for a separate English Parliament would grow very compelling – not least because as Tam Dalyell pointed out in his ‘West Lothian question’, this kind of arrangement would mean Scottish MPs would have a say in England’s bargaining position on these tax arrangements, but not in Scotland’s. In terms of Brown’s vision of a solidarity union, would there actually be a consensus across the UK that this should be the core of what a renewed union would be about? Would it be Gordon’s vision of the union that triumphed – or David Cameron’s – or even Nigel Farage’s?

If Gordon Brown had really wanted to set out a new constitutional vision for the UK he could probably just have dusted down his old copy of the Charter 88 manifesto, which called for a bill of rights, PR, abolition of the Lords, and a written constitution that would include measures to “guarantee an equitable distribution of power between the nations of the United Kingdom”. But this would rather beg the question why he didn’t deliver all this as the UK Prime Minister with a parliamentary majority.

Labour’s biggest challenge here is to find a way to make a positive case for the union that will appeal to the voters it has lost to the SNP in Scotland, while ensuring floating voters in the south of England switch from the Tories to Labour rather than to UKIP. Describing the purpose of a renewed union as pooling and sharing resources may well sound to voters in marginal consequences in Kent like a requirement that they permanently subsidise the poorer regions of the UK. Will the federal settlement required by Gordon Brown’s approach, implying some kind of English Parliament, appeal to voters in England? Labour are still scarred by the rejection of the North East Assembly back in 2004.

Hence the fact that Labour were left with three key messages in Perth – you can’t trust Alex Salmond, this is the best union in history (so why wreck it) and hang on for a Labour victory and it will all be alright. But while Johann Lamont clearly despises Salmond, it is not clear that voters do to the same extent. Turning the referendum into a Lamont vs Salmond attractiveness contest may not be the wisest choice. Also, given widespread support for more Holyrood powers on specific issues among current no voters, it is not clear that they see the existing union in the same glowing terms. Furthermore, if the UK polls continue to narrow – the latest poll in the Times gives Labour only a 1% lead - it is not clear that voters will have enough faith in the certainty of Labour victory for ‘Ed will save us’ to work either.

 Ultimately, Labour are going to need to find a positive case for union that does not rely on Labour being in charge – and opportunities to make this case are running out.

Extreme Energy Inquiry begins in Scotland

Posted on March 18, 2014 by | No Comments

Green Councillor Mark Ruskell with local community representatives and Friends of the Earth members outside the Inchyra Hotel this morning. Photo: Friends of the Earth Scotland.

The UK’s first public inquiry into unconventional gas drilling is underway in Polmont, Falkirk.

The Scottish Government called the inquiry after the troubled Australian firm Dart Energy appealed to speed up Falkirk and Stirling Councils’ planning process for their coal-bed methane drilling proposals.

The month-long process will have major ramifications for new gas drilling across Europe.  Photographers and TV crews gathered as well-wishers welcomed communities members participating in the inquiry (pictured).

Concerned Communities of Falkirk have collected objections to the proposals from 2,500 local residents.  They will submit evidence through a variety of experts, as will Falkirk and Stirling Councils, Friends of the Earth Scotland, and Dart Energy themselves.

The first session begun this morning with evidence from Dart’s own engineers.

John Spears and Andy Sloan, who admitted they expect to work on the developments if the application is approved, told the inquiry:

  • Water treatment facilities will be built with spare capacity to allow considerable expansion beyond the proposed operations.
  • Horizontal drilling already carried out at the site has taken place through un-cased shafts outwith the coal seems.
  • They were unable to say how much gas might be vented in an emergency situation.
  • One tanker a day of toxic sludge will be produced from the site.  They noted this could be reduced, but no assurances were given.

The Reporter (Chair) from the Scottish Government agreed that the closing statements alone will take two days.

While Day One of the the proceedings unfolded at the Inchyra Hotel, MSPs in Holyrood debated the current planning framework.

The Scottish Government have proposed to introduce buffer zones around onshore drilling sites to protect homes and businesses, but are yet to announce how big they will be.

Today in Parliament Claudia Beamish MSP announced Scottish Labour want these buffer zones to be 2km from drilling sites.

The inquiry continues and you can follow events in the room at #dartinquiry.

  • CORRECTION: This article previously stated that “…contrary to previous assurances [Dart] are still considering using the controversial “fracking” process at sites in Airth, Falkirk.” Dart have made it clear in their application that fracking will not be used in currently proposed drilling. Apologies for this mistake.

The missing 10% and the independence of Yes Scotland

Posted on March 9, 2014 by | 3 Comments

The phoney war is finally over. The independence campaign is in full swing. And as it gets going, there is a simple question for Yes Scotland: who are the 10%? Which 10% of people can be persuaded to switch to a yes vote? Answer this question, succeed in persuading most of them, and so long as none of the current supporters switch the other way, we’ve won.

In answering this question, the polling has been pretty consistent. The people who could bring the yes campaign a majority are those who most fear a future Tory at number ten. It’s those who are angry with Westminster and yearn for a country that leans more to the left; those who wish to save public services from austerity and hope for greater equality; those who side with the underdog and believe the future lies with the many, not the few; those who fear UKIP isolationism more than an internationalist independence; those who have least to lose and most to gain.

The rich and the right are voting no. That much, we already know. The whole ball game has to be that 10%: a mixture of people from the missing million, and left voters who can be persuaded to part ways with their party – Labour or Lib Dem – just this once.

I say all this because, of late, Alex Salmond has made a few comments which remind us that though he may sit to the left of Scottish Labour, that isn’t saying much. In particular, his fiscal policies leave much to be desired. And this is a real problem. Because, alongside foreign affairs, tax policy is the main lever he is arguing for.

The famous example is corporation tax – which he has consistently said he would cut. More recently, he told the New Statesman that he would only increase the top rate of income tax to 50p if Westminster did first. The White Paper proposes the abolition of air passenger duty: a tax paid overwhelmingly by the rich.

I am happy to argue until I’m blue in the face about why his economics are wrong. Flights take wealth away as much as they bring it with them. The climate change they will cause will certainly do little for our future economic prospects. Opposition to higher top rates or support for lower corporation tax only make sense if you think that wealth trickles down, rather than understanding that in fact is is hoovered up. But that’s for another day.

The problem for now is the taste that these accumulated policies leaves in the mouth of those who read about them. They give a very clear impression that, for all of their belief in public services, the SNP ultimately think that people are rich because they create wealth, rather than just because they accumulate it. It leaves an underlying impression that while they are happy to do left wing things that no one really objects to – like free education, they aren’t willing to stand up to the powerful when they need to.

And the problem with this is that it makes them look untrustworthy to the 10% identified above. It makes them feel like fair-weather friends.

Of course, I’m a Green member. So from a cynical perspective, the fact that the SNP look like a party which can’t be trusted to stand with the people against the powerful may be a good thing for us in the long term if you measure success in piles of ballot papers. But all of this presents a problem for the Yes campaign.

Because the 10% aren’t the most frequent flyers nor the payers of the upper tax rate nor those who benefit from low corporation tax. They are those who already have to pull in the slack for the wealthiest.

There is, of course, a simple get-out clause. Yes Scotland isn’t the SNP. If people vote yes, then they will have the chance to vote for whatever government they want. They can, if they choose, elect a government which won’t abolish air passenger duty and will increase the top rate of income tax. But this get out clause only works so long as Yes Scotland genuinely isn’t the SNP.

So, here’s my fear. When push came to shove over currency, the statements from Yes Scotland essentially repeated the position of the current Scottish government. This is despite the fact that two of the parties on the Yes Scotland advisory board – the Greens and the SSP – both support an independent currency. Now, of course, the SNP is much bigger than both the Greens and the SSP, and by far the biggest part of Yes’ coalition. But all that means is that they have their own press office, and are more than capable of articulating their own position.

A few months before the referendum, no one on the Yes side wants to fall out. And I have no interest in complaining about past statements about currency: water, bridges, and all that. But it is crucial, surely, that Yes Scotland doesn’t make this mistake again with corporation tax, or the 50p tax rate, or whatever else comes up next. Alex Salmond is welcome to his own brand of centrist politics, mixing in fiscal conservatism with universalist and liberal principles. It’s a mix which has got him a long way in politics, and which brought us this referendum in the first place.

But if we are going to win the referendum we need to put together a coalition that is even broader than that which won the SNP the 2011 election. And the evidence is that, while Salmond may sit in the centre of Scottish politics, the most likely winning coalition will consist almost entirely of people to his left.

In this context, if Yes Scotland just parrots the SNP line, then there is little point in its existence. The SNP are more than capable of doing their thing on their own, and they will bring their own coalition of voters to the ballot on the 18th of September. Yes Scotland’s role has to be to win everyone else – to secure the missing 10%. And thats made up of Labour voters, progressives with a history of backing the Lib Dems, Greens and socialists. This doesn’t mean that they should take particular policy positions. But it does mean they need to steer clear of backing up Salmond’s occasional neoliberal lurches.

If the Yes campaign becomes a parrot of the SNP, it may as well shut up shop. The SNP have got the whole being the SNP act pretty nailed down. Yes Scotland’s job is to reach the other 10%.


Young Greens plan week of action against university pay inequality

Posted on March 5, 2014 by | 2 Comments

The Young Greens are planning actions at campuses across the country as part of a national week of action against pay inequality at UK universities.

The youth branch of the Green Party, which represents thousands of students and young people in England and Wales, has launched the week of action running from the 17th March-21st March as part of its Fair Pay Campus Campaign. The organisation’s Fair Pay campaign is calling on universities to:

1. Publish the ratio between their highest and lowest paid worker

2. Commit to working towards a 10:1 ratio on campus

3. Pledge to pay directly employed workers the living wage

4. Ensure your contractors pay their workers the living wage

5. Publish the pay of vice chancellors and senior management

Chris Jarvis, Campaigns Coordinator and organiser of the week of action said: “Fair pay at our universities is resoundingly on the agenda. As part of our ongoing campaign to make pay in the higher education sector more equal, the Young Greens have called this national week of action to demand universities take the huge pay gap in the sector seriously and to treat institutions of education as public goods – not fat-cat corporations.

“Over the past 6 months, education unions have been rightly taking industrial action over a 13% real terms pay cut since 2008 – at a time when the pay of the average Vice Chancellor has increased by 8% last year alone. It’s time for university bosses to treat all staff fairly instead of stuffing their own pockets.

“Thousands of university staff across the country are lingering on low pay and being shifted from outsourced contract to contract, while university heads earn more than the Prime Minister. Our Fair Pay League report shows that if university heads took a pay cut to £140,000 – still an enormous sum – the money raised could bring thousands of minimum wage workers up to the Living Wage.

“As it stands, the lowest paid in HE currently have to work on average 18.6 years to earn the annual salary of the head of their university. This is a national scandal at a time of cuts to education, and it’s time that universities got behind the Young Greens’ call for maximum pay ratios of 10:1. Our week of action will be calling on universities to do just that.”
The Facebook event for the Week of Action is here:

Read the Young Greens’ Fair Pay League report on university pay:

For more details visit the campaign website at and


Find the Young Greens online at:

The speech that Darling never made

Posted on February 21, 2014 by | 2 Comments

Here’s a strange thing. Alistair Darling is quoted in yesterday’s Telegraph as telling Scottish voluntary organisations that they would lose lottery funding if people vote yes in September’s referendum. Only, there’s one small problem with the story. He didn’t actually say it.

The Telegraph reports that:

“Speaking at the SCVO conference in Glasgow, Mr Darling will say: “As part of the UK we have more funds at our disposal to bring about the kind of change our communities need. Shutting ourselves off from what we know has worked makes no sense.

“Projects and groups in Scotland have received substantial funding from the National Lottery. It’s a cross border relationship that works, but only because we are part of the UK. Leaving the UK would fundamentally change that.”

Better Together pointed to a parliamentary answer showing that only 739 of the 226,000 National Lottery grants – representing one per cent of their total value – have been classified as “overseas” over the past decade.

They were defined as those made to projects located in “all countries outside the United Kingdom”.

Presumably the fact that the story says “will say” is because the story was based on a press release issued before the speech happened.

But sources at the event itself have told Bright Green that he said no such thing. And they were listening pretty carefully.

There’s an obvious reason why he didn’t say it: the comments are idiotic. The implication from Better Together is that Scotland would only have access to 1% of lottery money because that’s the current share that goes to projects overseas. Yet this rational would only work if Scots themselves contributed nothing to the lottery: it is based on the assumption that all of the money spent in Scotland by the lottery is raised in the rest of the UK. Of course, in fact, Scots do buy lottery tickets.

The SNP White Paper suggests that they would like to continue to operate a shared lottery across the old UK. But if the rest of the UK refused to participate, then, of course, the Scots could, if they wanted, choose to set up their own lottery.

Had Mr Darling actually made the comments as reported in the Telegraph, the senior voluntary sector figure told me, he would have been “ripped to shreds” by charity managers who understand that these statements are simply idiotic fear mongering. So, instead, he merely put the comments in a release to friendly journalist, who seem to have published them without questioning. Saying he was going to say them was easier than, you know, saying them to a room full of people who aren’t friendly journalists.

This isn’t the first time this week that the Better Together campaign has shouted “boo” then run away before anyone could ask them why. This week, George Osborne flew to Scotland to give a speech on currency. Bernard Ponsenby, political editor of STV, signed off his report on the speech with quite an extraordinary insight into the total failure of the No side to be accountable. He said

“the Chancellor’s speech… was not the subject of rigorous media scrutiny. Today the Chancellor only took three questions from journalists. Last Friday the Prime Minister made a speech. There was no broadcast interview on its contents. A few weeks ago, the foreign secretary made a flying visit. There was no broadcast interview by the Foreign Secretary for this channel.

“STV News wanted to put a few questions to the Chancellor. We attempted to ask a few questions as he left. His car moved from the front door of the hotel to a side entrance as his press team appeared to want to shepherd him away without taking any further questions. Eventually, after much too-ing and fro-ing, he emerged, flanked by advisers.”

The question “Chancellor, how much is this decision today going to cost businesses in England” went unanswered.

Labour, Tories and the Lib Dems understandably demand serious answers from those of us who support independence. But they don’t hold themselves to the same standards. While they are more than happy to fear monger through the pages of friendly papers you can tell the confidence they have in their arguments by their reticence to answer for them in public, or to say them to the faces of the people who know what they’re talking about.

Update: Third Sector Yes have got in touch with the following quote:

“If it is indeed the case that Alistair Darling didn’t actually say what was contained in the press release, that would give us serious concern.

People should be prepared to back up their media claims with genuine and open discussion with the relevant experts, and be prepared to have their claims challenged. We certainly believe he would have received little support amongst third sector experts for his reported views.’.

To conclude, Joe Biden has a message for Better Together.


An open letter to AC Grayling on his thoughts on Scottish independence

Posted on February 15, 2014 by | 12 Comments

Dear Prof Grayling,

I read your column in the Herald with interest. I think it’s important that people who are based in the rest of the UK engage in the independence debate, and so I am glad that you are doing so.

I do, however, think much of what you say is claptrap. The idea that “Scotland’s history on the world stage began with Union in 1707” is absurd. To talk about the Scots as “the North British” makes you sound like little more than a petty Victorian imperialist who begrudges an accidental arrival in the 21st Century. I think that your accusation that the SNP are a party of resentment of the small for the bigger is a deep misunderstanding of a party which is always careful to express its solidarity with English people.

I think that your claim that the Scottish government wants the normal benefits of being in the EU (free movement of people, for example) and so doesn’t want real independence is pretty laughable. Ireland has free movement of people with the UK. You can travel across Western Europe without brandishing a passport.

I find your implication that smaller countries might lead to more wars absurd, and that it ignores the role that big countries like Britain have played in recent years in invading poorer countries around the world. That you celebrate our historic empire as a place to exercise “North British talents”, but then say that you fear that Europe will return to the bloodbath of the 17th century makes it sound like you think that while the history of Europeans killing each other is awful, the history of Europeans murdering black and brown people for their land was some sort of great romantic adventure.

I think your willingness to evoke 17th century statelets when discussing the independence of a country which is, in population, bigger than most of the independently or autonomously run areas of the earth shows an impressive willingness to ignore basic global geography.

I find the fact that you spend so much time harking back to history, then accuse the SNP of being backwards looking is entertaining.

I find concerning the implication of the fact that you ask if you should get a vote because of some Scottish blood running through your veins. This question comes with worrying hints of ethnonationalism. If these things are decided on the basis of your blood, not where you live, would you also ask if the daughter of Pakistani immigrants ought to have the right to vote removed from her? That’s the logical conclusion. Hinting that there ought to be an ethnic rather than geographical enfranchisement system and then accusing others of petty nationalism seems to me absurd.

I think the fact that you segue from talking about the irrelevance of Bruce to dismissing the SNP argument without engaging with one comment from an SNP leader shows a profoundly shallow understanding of a debate which has largely revolved around how powers could be better used with independence rather than any historically deterministic romantic nationalism.

I find hilarious the fact that you can refer to the “the ghastly political romanticism of the last two centuries” in a piece laden with language about the prosperity and greatness of Britain.

But of course I will disagree with you. And the fact that you, unlike many commentators in England, have at least bothered to express your opinion is a good thing. And people should disagree, and be infuriated by each others’ comments: otherwise, what kind of democracy would we live in?

However, I would like to ask one thing. When entering this debate, please at least do the basic research.

For example, you say “Scotland is a net financial gainer from being part of the UK”. In fact Scotland is a net fiscal contributor to the UK. Not the other way around. Perhaps you mean something different by being a “financial gainer” but if so, you probably need to make that clear, and you probably need to explain why you think this.

Second, you imply that the Scottish government wants to shirk responsibility for various of the elements of a new state, including taking on a share of British debt. In fact, the SNP are proposing to take on a fair portion of the UK debt. They are only threatening to refuse to pay if the Scots are refused access to shared assets.

So, in future, feel more than free to tell us your opinions, and feel free to do so in a way which winds me up. But please, at least get our basic facts right.

Yours sincerely,


ps How’s your £54,000 per student private university going?

A Citizens’ Income could give people power over capital once more

Posted on February 15, 2014 by | 5 Comments

Stuart Rodger is a political activist based in Scotland. He tweets here.

One of the most talked-about ideas at last year’s Radical Independence Conference was a Citizen’s Income – a guaranteed, non means-tested, basic income granted to every adult citizen of the country, regardless of whether they are working or not working. The topic has also been discussed at a recent Parliamentary reception at Holyrood hosted by Jim Eadie MSP, showing that this idea is gaining traction outside of the usual radical circles. It made a very refreshing break from the toxic mainstream media debate about welfare, where the unemployed are relentlessly demonised – usually by very rich newspaper columnists who have no idea what they’re talking about – with very real, very brutal human consequences.

The obvious objection to a CI is – where would the incentive to work be? It’s a view of society which sees value in people only in their ability to serve capital, and which refuses to allocate its resources according to need, but instead uses those resources to physically coerce human beings into work. I regard it as fundamentally immoral, and not without important parallels with slavery, to use human beings as pliable economic tools. Under the wage system, money replaces the whip.

In reality, though, the incentive to work is that everything you earn is on top of your CI. A basic income is just that – basic. The infamous ‘poverty trap’ – where people can end up poorer or no better off in work than out – no longer exists. Furthermore, I think it’s possible we would see an increase in overall employment – part-time jobs that were previously not an option could now be taken on. Some economists now worry that solid, secure, jobs for life are something of the past. A CI is a way of adapting to that.

Risky entrepreneurial ventures that weren’t previously viable could now be launched. Business could boom. Indeed, when a form of the basic income was trialled in Namibia, what they found was that economic activity actually rose, and that people became mini-entrepreneurs. Non-CI income rose by some 200%. Scotland has its own communities devastated by de-industrialization: under a CI and a proper industrial strategy, these communities could be re-born.

And let’s not forget that a colossal amount of work is done in society that is not formally regarded as ‘work’. I am talking specifically about parenting, care of the disabled by family members, and voluntary work in the community. At the moment, much of this work goes unremunerated – and is even regarded as inferior to proper, ‘paid’ work in the formal sense. (”What are those mothers doing at home when they should be out looking for a job?” is a question often barked, usually at poor mothers). A CI finally provides the financial space for this socially invaluable work to happen. What sort of a society are we if we don’t recognise the importance of these tasks?

There is also the class politics of this – how it affects the relationship between labour and capital.    It seems to me that ‘welfare reform’ has a very specific agenda, which is to create a more pliable workforce. If people in work know that there is no longer much of a safety net, then they will hold on more tenaciously to jobs with bad conditions and bad pay. All of that means higher profits. A Citizen’s Income – a new, bolstered welfare state – begins to tip the bargaining power back in favour of labour. This is why a CI should be taken up by the trade union movement.

But for me, personally, the best argument for a Citizen’s Income is to improve public health, through the stress relief that it would bring. I write this as someone who has been on and off benefits for the past few years, and I can personally testify that the stress of it all sometimes made me feel physically ill. As the authors of the Spirit Level suggest, what could fill the explanatory gap between economic inequality and poor social outcomes is, simply, stress. Obesity, depression, addiction – all rooted in the intensely stressful society we live in. A Citizen’s Income – as well as being profoundly redistributive – would, in one fell swoop, lift a corrosive level of stress from our society.

And what of the cost and the politics of it all? Well, it’s far more politically palatable than it may sound – as a benefit that would be universal, the divide and rule strategies used by the right to pit the working poor against the unemployed would be blunted. It’s possible that some people would simply not accept the principle that you can get something for nothing, but that is merely because people have internalised the twisted principles of capitalism: and that’s something we’ll have to fight against. It’s far more affordable than it sounds as well: as the Citizen’s Income Trust have demonstrated, the cost would work out at roughly the same as the current welfare bill, which – we must not forget, the vast bulk of which is pensions, housing benefit, and working tax credit.

These are just initial thoughts. It’s possible there are serious drawbacks I have over-looked. Two spring to mind immediately. First, the definition of citizenship could be open to abuse – excluding those with a criminal record, recent immigrants etc. Second, contrary to my previous point about the class implications of a CI, it could entrench poor working conditions. It would be imperative those industrial battles continued. But for just now at least, I think this is an idea worth fighting for.

There will be an event about the Citizen’s Income with the People’s Parliament project in the House of Commons on the 4th March with Guy Standing (author of ‘The Precariat’), and Matthew Torry (author of ‘Money for Everyone’). Details here

There will be a major National Day of Action against Atos and the work capability assessments on the 19th February, with protests planned outside every assessment centre in the UK. Details here

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