Scotland’s lessons from Quebec

By Ian Drummond

The future of Scotland and the rest of our island now hangs on a knife-edge. The SNP have, not for the first time, brought us to a pass where the smallest swings of chance in a very specific and abnormal time may lead to epochal changes for the worse for working people, on both sides of the border they so ardently wish to revive. Given their form in this matter, it is no wonder that Time and Chance was the title James Callaghan, perhaps our last real Labour Prime Minister, chose for his memoirs, for the SNP would make him and the majority of Britons who never voted for Thatcher’s Tories rue the terrible timing and feckless, drunken, almost chance nature of their treachery.

In 1979, with the winter of discontent over, the British economy improving on all fronts, and the Conservatives hampered by an alienating, extremist leader, all serious commentators expected Labour to win a historic third election in a row if it could just make it to the end of the year. And with the likes of Tony Benn and Michael Foot still in government, and the IMF loan having served its purpose even in the eyes of the Labour right, there was absolutely nothing inevitable about the radical shift of wealth and power in favour of the rich which eventually occurred, and much potential and pressure for a very different course. But on the 28th of March, in a fit of pique over the controversial failure of the first devolution referendum, the SNP MPs, “Scotland’s first 11”, first tabled their own motion of no confidence in the Labour government, then trooped into the lobby for Thatcher’s own, turkeys voting for Christmas as Callaghan said, triggering an election at the last point Thatcher could win it. The last real Labour government, ushered in by a victorious, all Britain miners’ strike, was thus ushered out by petty Scottish nationalism, and no-one tempted by such nationalism now, or who suffered the dreadful consequences for Scotland and the rest of deindustrialised Britain of the SNP’s shameful act, should forget it.
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Scottish independence – walking backwards while facing the future

All across the United States you will find Scottish cultural and fraternal societies, where people with a connection to Scotland or an affinity with Scottish culture and history gather to celebrate their shared love of the old country. Also in the US you will find the largest Highland Games events anywhere in the world, including Scotland itself.

I experienced this phenomenon for myself in the mid nineties when I moved to San Francisco for a spell and came across the St Andrews Society of San Francisco while out for an evening stroll with my partner at the time. Her apartment was close by in the affluent Russian Hill district and having just recently arrived from Scotland, where better to make friends and contacts than a society set up to celebrate the very country I’d only just left behind?

So along I went, not knowing what to expect but eager to show off my genuine Scottish accent and be lavished with the attention befitting a bona fide Scotsman. I was the genuine article, fresh off the boat, and I duly breezed through the door of that St Andrews Society puffed up with pride.

It only took fifteen minutes for me to realise that the people there – wealthy, white and right wing – had nothing in common with me nor I with them. The Scotland they held so dear was unrecognisable to me. It bore no relation to the country where I was born and grew up surrounded by the social maladies which flow from poverty – alienation, alcohol abuse, anger, violence, etc. In the end I couldn’t wait to leave, especially when a particular item on the meeting’s agenda came up concerning a campaign to make it easier for landlords in San Francisco to evict tenants with a view to taking advantage of the huge demand for rental accommodation that was prevalent in the city at the time. The good folks of the St Andrews Society of San Francisco, some of them landlords themselves, were fully behind the idea.

By this point my political consciousness was developing, and the very idea of evicting people in order to be able to charge more rent filled me with revulsion.
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George Galloway on Daily Politics with Andrew Neil

Reflecting on the referendum campaign

By Tommy Kane

Reflecting on the referendum campaign it’s clear that it’s degenerated into the most polarising, divisive and diversionary political event of our times. Countering this view, some socialists in the Yes camp suggest that the campaign has engendered hope, inspired a revitalisation of left politics and saw record levels of political engagement. These supporters pronounce independence will bring freedom from subjugation and a renewal of democracy, others proclaim it will allows us escape from the supposedly different Scottish and English political cultures, while others assert firmly that a Yes vote can go some way to ‘smashing the British state’ (incidentally not at the top of people’s concerns on the doorsteps). Amongst some there also resides a belief that, at the very least, independence will bring social democracy and a fairer and more just Scotland, because, whisper it, ‘we are more progressive up here’. In order to sustain a clean and seamless Yes campaign these left proponents of this missive appear to have suspended their critical faculties, especially in relation to the SNP’s White Paper, and whether they like it or not, have encouraged a discourse that has appears to have focused predominately on the liberation of ‘Scottish nationhood’.

Coming from a diverse range of views they all have one thing in common; a coalescing of grievance and anger at every recent failed policy or foreign adventure, a belief that solutions can only be found through the construction of a border and a seemingly faith based conviction that everything bad will, in time, become good but only if we vote for independence. If we don’t then, so the story goes, we are all doomed.

These assertions really need some interrogation. This message of hope is actually wrapped in real despair and pessimism that says nothing good can ever come from Britain. This is despite the fact that all material gains won over the past 70 or so years have come from a united Labour and Trade Union movement forcing them through. This fight back and material advancement for working people through the Labour and Trade Union movement is a force that has, incredibly, been written off by far too many sections of the left during this debate as they focus on the bad and ignore the good. All too easily they forget where the NHS, welfare, public services, social housing, and even the Scottish Parliament, emerged from
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Scottish independence: how did it come to this?

With under a week to go to the most important election in this country in 300 years, across Scotland the tension is palpable. Families, workplaces, communities, and friends are divided, some irrevocably, and whatever the result on September 18 there seems little likelihood of things ever being the same.

In his On Ideology Louis Althusser reminds us that, ‘The class struggle does not go on in the air, or on something like a football pitch. It is rooted in the mode of production and exploitation in a given class society.’

Thus the complete collapse of a large section of the left in Scotland with its embrace of a nationalist project as a shortcut to what they believe will be a socialist dawn has been tragic to behold. As I wrote in my article in the Guardian recently, ‘Nationalism, unless rooted in national oppression, is a perniciously hollow doctrine. It succeeds to the extent that both left and right embrace it as a vehicle to advance their own economic and political interests, and works by substituting the past for the present. But this is a mythological past that invites us to negate a consciousness forged through our engagement with the world in favour of a cause rooted in nothing more than an accident of birth.’

The economic arguments in favour of independence have been completely blown out of the water by now. On the issue of the currency alone we know beyond doubt that Salmond and the SNP are arguing for Scotland to become a de facto colony of England, stripping away their vision of independence to reveal dependence in truth. Add to this the recent announcements by the Standard Life, RBS, Tesco Bank, John Lewis, Asda, and other major businesses and financial institutions operating in Scotland, warning of the deleterious impact of a Yes vote, and anyone with a mortgage, pension, and/or a job will surely have pause for thought regarding the implications of their vote when they go to the polls next week.

Whether we like it or not we live in a capitalist society and there is little appetite among the overwhelming majority of working people in Scotland to take the leap in the dark they are being invited to by the SNP/Yes campaign.

People like Tommy Sheridan and Jim Sillars, who I debated a couple of months ago on independence, have been touring the country delivering speeches short on analysis and long on hollow emotionalism and vacuity. To watch Sheridan screaming into a microphone with a Saltire pinned to his chest puts you in mind of a bad audition for Braveheart. The Hampden Roar has supplanted the Internationale as the fulcrum of the politics of many in Scotland, with Sheridan and others turning into examples of what Nye Bevan described as ‘people walking backwards with their faces to the future’.

When this is over, and at this stage I remain convinced a silent majority will deliver a No vote, there will have to be an inquest into how we reached this point and how we move forward. The Labour leadership both in Scotland and the UK has proved utterly inept. The ideological hollowing out of the party that occurred throughout the Blair years has brought us here, giving rise to cynicism and anti politics among a large swathe of the population, specifically the poor and low waged. Complacency and hubris led Labour to make the disastrous decision to join with the Tories in the Better Together Campaign, a campaign which history will record as one of the most uninspiring, limp, and ineffectual ever fought in British politics.

A No victory will be won in spite of Better Together not because of it. That the issue remains neck and neck in the polls, given the glaring weaknesses and holes in the Yes campaign’s assertions and arguments, is testimony to the paucity of the official No campaign. It has been left to George Galloway to make the progressive case for No almost singlehandedly, arguing the politics of class rather than nation and shaming Labour in the process.

That we need a Labour government in 2015 is not in doubt. But it will only be certain if redistributive policies are placed front and centre in its manifesto. People are crying out for change not just in Scotland but throughout Britain. It is a desperation measured in support for Scottish independence among a large section of the Scottish working class, most of them Labour voters and/or supporters at one time or another.

Unless the right lessons are learned from this near disaster Tory ideas will continue to prosper and sow despair. It is this despair that has driven support for the Yes campaign. It is this despair that Labour must address as a matter of priority going into the next general election.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Labour must address casualisation

Mark Carney’s speech to the TUC Congress yesterday was interesting, and it was right for the unions to invite him. As major civil society institutions with mass membership, the trade unions can and should seek to influence the parameters of democratic debate unmediated by political parties, alongside of course the different strategies for engagement through political parties that some unions engage in.

Carney spelt out that both the American economy, and the Euro zone have their own problems:

German driven austerity in Euroland has been catastrophic:

The results have been dire. Euro-area unemployment has risen sharply over two successive recessions to its current rate of over 11%. It stands at over 14% in Portugal, 20% in Spain, and 25% in Greece. Over 6% of the euro-area labour force is now long-term unemployed and in danger of becoming detached from the labour market.6 And despite high unemployment, there is evidence of labour shortages.

However, The US economy suffers from lack of investment, leading to a drop in the umber of people economically active.

The number of Americans in work has only just returned to where it was before Lehman failed, even though there are now 14 million more people of working age. Much of the fall in the unemployment rate is the result of workers in their prime leaving the labour force. Far more vacancies remain unfilled than usual, indicating big mismatches in the labour market. And fewer people than normal are switching jobs, suggesting an ongoing reluctance to take risks.

Interestingly, Carney observes that lack of capital investment is also a feature of the UK economy

There are now one million more people in work in the UK than at the start of the crisis. But … that exceptional employment performance has come at a cost. Wage growth has been very weak; in fact adjusted for inflation wages have fallen by a tenth since the onset of the crisis. And in order to find such a fall in the past, you would have to go back to the early 1920s.

Carney acknowledges that this expansion of employment, has not led to wage growth:

wage pressures based on past relationships are as low today as if the unemployment rate were 10%, not the 6.4% rate it currently is.

In fact, the Other Resolution Foundation has found that while real weekly wages have fallen by 6% since 2007, the drop in real income for the self employed has been 20%, leaving a self employed person paying 40% less than someone in employment.

Although Carney dicusses the structural change in the UK workforce polarizing towards high skill and low skill sectors; he fails to factor in the shift towards casualisation, which has been a major paradigm shift in employment practices over the last 5 years.

According to a new pamphlet published by LRD, public sector outsourcing alone has seen a 168% year on year increase in the first quarter of 2014, for example, seven out of ten home care providers now only offer zero hours contracts. The office of National Statistics (ONS) published figures in April this year which shows that 1.4 million workers have contracts that fail to guarantee a minimum of working hours, and 1.3 million workers were provided with no work in their 2 week reference period.

The workforce in stable, standard employment is stagnant outside London; so the biggest growth areas have been those on zero hours contracts, or fixed contracts for only a set number of short hours.
The apparent shift towards self employment is also illusory, although it makes up for a full 40% of the rise in the number of people working since 2010; as this includes a variety of odd-jobbers, those getting sparse work at very low income; and those in industries like construction and airlines forced into false self-employment; or personal services contracts; such practices facilitated by payroll companies and sharp practices by employment agencies.

Carney is deluded in stating that any economic recovery based upon the growth of such casualised and precarious employment can lead to stability:

… although this adjustment has been painful, trading off lower productivity and lower wages for much higher – and it is much, much higher – employment, on balance that trade – that trade-off provides a solid foundation for a durable expansion. By staying in work individuals retain and learn new skills, and they are better placed to participate in the expansion as it gathers force.

This is over-optimistic. Firstly, much of the casualised workforce systematically underpays tax and national insurance, and also represents a ticking timebomb of underfunded pensions, which hardly helps with the government’s deficit; but secondly, all the evidence suggests that workers in precarious employment are less likely to have access to training, and are likely to be working in less safe condition, and the terms of their contracts either seek to exclude them from employment rights, or make them too scared to enforce their rights.

The British economy has founded its recent apparent recovery on a return to the precarious employment practices of the Victorian era. I have had GMB union members explain the practices of unethical employment agencies and payroll companies who offer workers contracts of 7 or 9 hours, and then call them in by text message only hours before their shift is due to start; and who give workers “rest days” when they are ill, to avoid paying sick pay.

One payroll company I have locked horns with employs a supervisor who has put 5 or 6 agency workers into an aisle in a warehouse, and then the one who gets the lowest pick rate has their hours reduced. When I approached the company, they claimed that this practice could not be happening because no one had complained to them using their grievance process! Of course they hadn’t complained, because workers who raise grievances get their hours reduced. The client is a household name retail chain.

The next Labour government has already committed to several welcome reforms of employment law, but there are grounds for concern that the original suggestion, made at last year’s TUC, that people on zero hours contracts would have a right to regular hours after 12 weeks, has been watered down to 12 months.

Precarious employment is one of the greatest problems facing millions of working people, and the Labour Party needs to be seen as their champion. As Ed Miliband correctly said during his speech at last year’s party conference, Britain cannot succeed in a race to the bottom, we can be better than that.

Scotland and the risks of independence to EU membership

The referendum process for possible Scottish independence reveals some of the best and worst aspects of Britain’s political culture.

The potential withdrawal of Scotland from the UK would bring to an end a constitutional settlement that has endured for more than 300 years, and yet the commitment towards constitutionality has meant not only that the issue is being decided via democratic debate and voting, but the UK government avoided any legal complications by passing the necessary legislation to give effect to the wishes of the Scottish parliament to hold a binding referendum.

This means that the people of Scotland are being given the opportunity to decide whether or not a new independent state is established in a process governed by law. We only need to look to the forthcoming referendum in Catalonia, and the hostile response to that from the Madrid government to see that such an approach was far from inevitable.

However, the passions invoked in the debate have also revealed the worst, as YES campaigners have seemingly sought to hoodwink the electorate about the potential risks; and thus inhibit people from making an informed decision.

The half-truths about currency and expected North Sea Oil revenue reveal a tendency to adopt the most optimistic outcome as not only likely, but almost inevitable.

The issue of EU membership is another area where the Scottish government, the SNP, and the official YES campaign are seeking to pour sand in the eyes of the electorate.

Scotland has been a member of the EU, and its predecessor organizations, for 40 years; but it has been so as a member of the United Kingdom, and should Scotland become independent, then it will be rUk that is the successor state that inherits the existing membership, and terms of membership, including the opt-outs negotiated by previous UK governments, over, for example, rebates, and Schengen.

There is no provision in the existing law and treaties for deciding whether Scotland will be permitted to continue with EU membership without interruption, and on the same terms as the UK.

The YES campaign takes a very bullish approach to this:

As explained in its “independence roadmap” and in its white paper “Scotland’s Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland”, the Scottish Government proposes to agree the terms of Scotland’s continued membership of the EU between the date of the referendum, and the proposed date of independence on 24th March 2016.

In that way questions relating to our ongoing EU membership can be settled before we become independent. Scotland already is part of the EU – so there is no doubt that we meet all the requirements for membership, and with our energy and fishing resources it is clearly common sense, and in the interests of the EU, that Scotland’s place in the EU continues seamlessly.

Even the UK government’s expert European legal adviser has accepted that this timetable is “realistic”. So Scotland’s EU membership will be secure by the time we are independent.

They might be right, and I am sure that in the event of Scotland becoming independent, then the UK government will seek to acheive such an outcome, in the interests of business stability.

However, they may not be right. In a letter from Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission sent to Christina McKelvie, Convener of the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee this March, her official view spelt out that:

The Treaties apply to the Member States. When part of the territory of a Member State ceases to be a part of that State, e.g. because that territory becomes an independent state, the treaties will no longer apply to that territory. In other words, a new independent region would, by the fact of its independence, become a third country with respect to the Union and the Treaties would, from the day of its independence, not apply anymore on its territory.

Under Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union, any European state which respects the principles set out in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union may apply to become a member of the EU. If the application is accepted by the Council acting unanimously after consulting the Commission and after receiving the consent of the European Parliament, an agreement is then negotiated between the applicant state and the Member States on the conditions of admission and the adjustments to the Treaties which such admission entails.

This agreement is subject to ratification by all Member States and the applicant state.

The Scottish government would therefore need to negotiate, and seek agreement from all 28 existing members. Many of these member countries may favour the approach advocated by the Scottish Government, but it is reasonable to suppose, as Ruairi Quinn, former president of EU’s finance council has predicted, that, for example, Spain and Belgium might ‘veto an independent Scotland’s EU membership’

Certainly, the continuity of Scotland’s EU membership cannot be guaranteed, and the terms of its future accession would need to be negotiated. Any negotiations may well also reveal that Scotland, divorced from the UK, does not have a strong bargaining position; and some areas might be highly problematic, and – for example – commitments to keep an open border with England may conflict with requirements that other EU states might seek relating to Scotland joining the Schengen area.

Of course for those committed to independence, any risk, and almost any cost, will be justifiable. But it is immoral to seek to hide the risks from the electorate.

Twenty years on the political process in Northern Ireland is in trouble

Gerry Adams

The Guardian

Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of the historic and groundbreaking 1994 IRA cessation of military operations. At the same time, however, the political process is facing its greatest challenge since the Good Friday agreement negotiations of 1998.

An anti-Good Friday agreement axis within unionism, the pro-unionist stance of the British secretary of state, Theresa Villiers, Downing Street’s refusal to honour its obligations and its efforts to impose cuts in the welfare system have combined to create the most serious threat to the political institutions in the North in recent years.

No one should underestimate the changes that have taken place since the 1990s. Back then, armed conflict was part of everyday life, and this spilled over at times into Britain.

Looking at other conflicts around the world, I have a profound sense of relief that we are beyond this. However, a process of change needs continuous nurturing to succeed. If it is not going forward, invariably it goes backwards.

Last month, with Martin McGuinness, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle Gildernew, I met David Cameron in London. The meeting took place following numerous requests. It was the first time that Cameron had met the Sinn Féin leadership since he became prime minister. That speaks for itself.

Most worryingly, there is no evidence from Downing Street, the Northern Ireland Office or unionist leaderships of any likelihood of a negotiation on outstanding issues, although Cameron has agreed to meet us again in September, and I welcome that.

The anti-agreement axis within unionism has been active in asserting a negative agenda. In response to this, the Democratic Unionist party has increasingly demonstrated an unwillingness to participate positively in the institutions. It has adopted a tactical approach aimed at serving a fundamentalist rump in the party rather than the needs of the whole community.

As McGuinness noted: “We are in government with unionists because we want to be. They are in government with us because they have to be.”

Political logjams have been reinforced. This is seen in a failure to support the Haass compromise proposals on dealing with legacy issues including flags, symbols and parades, and in the speed with which the Cameron government acquiesced to Peter Robinson’s demand to establish the Hallett inquiry into so-called “on the runs”.

The British government has made no effort on outstanding issues including a bill of rights, an Irish language act, the north-south consultative forum and the inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane. These are not matters for negotiation, but agreements made.

In addition, the Tory-led government wants to impose changes to the welfare system mirroring those introduced in England, Scotland and Wales with disastrous consequences for the disabled, unemployed and the low paid. These changes are part of a Thatcherite agenda designed to dismantle the welfare state. Sinn Féin will oppose them.

During the London visit, Sinn Féin also met the Labour leader, Ed Miliband and the shadow secretary of state, Ivan Lewis. We set out our concerns and made the point that Labour should be proud of the Good Friday agreement. A government is only as good as its opposition. Labour must be a watchdog for the values of power-sharing, partnership and equality, and for the full implementation of the Good Friday and other agreements. The majority of citizens in Ireland, including grassroots unionists, value the progress made. Sinn Féin is committed to the Good Friday agreement and the political institutions. We will resist efforts by unionist leaders to roll things back.

The deepening political crisis puts the onus on the Irish and British governments to create a different political context. This requires the two governments, in conjunction with the US administration, to establish a pro-agreement axis among parties in the north. It means the Irish and British governments making progress on issues that are their direct responsibility. Twenty years on, it is vital that positive change takes the place of political inertia.