Open Letter to Labour Comrades Who May Vote Yes.

Dear Comrades

In my 36 years membership of the party, I have seen many people who have disagreed with party policy, which they usually address in one of three ways.

The first is to simply leave: no-one is forced to join or remain a member of any political party in the UK (unlike for example, in the Soviet Union or 1960s Chicago.) However, this is the worst approach, as taken by the SDP Gang of 4 and Jim Sillars.

It is far better to take either of the alternative approaches. The first is these is to seek to change the policies with which one disagrees, through the machinery that exists for that process.

Indeed, one of the ways in which the weakness of such outfits as Labour for Independence can be measured is its lack of activity in CLPs or even at last weekend’s conference. The contrast with the 1980s when activists were (successfully) pressing for Labour to commit to devolution is remarkable: it was impossible to get away from pro-devo enthusiasts in those days. 

The second positive approach is to realise that one is in a minority, and continue to support that majority of the Party’s policies with which one agrees.

This is what I do myself, and is based on two principles: that I would not have joined Labour had I not agreed with the general principles and direction of travel; and that my opinion is likely to come back into fashion again eventually. In the meantime, I keep my complaints in house.

This is called loyalty, by the way, and is part of simple respect to my fellow members, whose view on independence is summed up in the phrase: “by the strength of our common endeavour we achive more than we achieve alone”. (It is on the back of our membership card, if you ever need a reminder.) You can also see the real achievements of Labour in power elsewhere on my blog, and I will not waste time on repetition here.

It is hard not to catch a note of regret for the passing of an old working class Labour Party in some of the views of longtime comrades . This is puzzling: back in the old days, Labour was run by public school educated grandees like (Wykehamists) Hugh Gaitskill and Richard Crossman. The left was led by similarly privileged people like Tony Benn and Michael Foot. Now the Leaders of the Party at both UK and Scottish levels were each educated at state comprehensives. 

Since then, it is true that there are fewer people at the head of the party from a trade union background, who were in many cases right-wingers like Jim Callaghan and George Brown. Interestingly, the presence of working class people in Parliament declined when they were replaced in the 1970s and 1980s by more left-wing candidates who were overwhelmingly middle-class and university educated, which was summed up when Hackney North selected Diane Abbott over Ernie Roberts.

I share your regret, and hope that the new arrangements put in place by Ed Miliband will bring more trade union members into active membership (and with it influence) of the Labour Party.

Finally, I am sure you know your Labour history, and so should be able relate to what Ernie Bevin said about George Lansbury: that he was “taking his conscience around from body to body to be told what he ought to do with it.” No-one is bigger than the Labour Party, and nor is their conscience, be they leader (like Lansbury) or you or I or any other member.

Yours in solidarity,

Peter A. Russell

“Devolution is what Scottish Labour does” – my latest on Labour List (with thanks)

Herbert Morrison once said that “socialism is what the Labour Party does.” 

In other words, Labour is a party of pragmatism, and there are few of us who have been around longer than 20 years who does not remember tedious discussions with all sorts of ideological comrades being decried for that position. However, an emphasis on what works best, and not being beholden to any greater wisdom or theory has since then been shown to be the best way forward in national and local policy making. This is what we expect from Labour policy makers.

In contrast, when a Liberal Democrat grandee produces a document, we have other expectations. Inevitably, it will be praised for its elegance -either in its prose or the logic of its ideas – in the manner of Roy Jenkins’ proposals for electoral reform (“AVplus”) or indeed Sir Ming Campbell’s  Declaration of Federalism. The next expectation is that it will go un-noticed by the general public then be forgotten even by the politically involved.

So it is refreshing to see Morrison’s legacy enshrined in Scottish Labour’s proposal for further devolution Powers for a Purpose. Above all, this promises that extra powers for Holyrood will not be dictated by any contrived political high ground other than the utilitarian philosophy of “how can we make government work better for Scotland.”

So it sets out the areas which can be best exercised at Westminster on behalf of Scotland:   monetary policy, currency, regulation, debt management and employment law, without which a single economy (or indeed currency union) is not possible; foreign affairs (including international development) and defence; the core of the Welfare State – above all the universalist issue of pensions and most cash benefits; and the constitution.

The Barnett Formula would stay intact. There are also proposals for intergovernmental arrangements and entrenchment of the status of Holyrood.

It also sets out new areas of devolution to be exercised by Holyrood: above all, on a calculation that health and education as 60% of expenditure are best funded from UK resources  (including taxation of the metropolitan ultra-rich) the remaining 40% should be subject to Scottish control.

This means that Labour would raise the level of income tax set by Holyrood to 15p in the £, with 5p being set by Westminster. In addition, Labour would give the Scottish Government the power to vary the higher rate of Income Tax with the condition that it could only be reduced if the Standard Rate is also brought down.  

In terms of the use of that revenue, Labour would add to the devolved settlement  a number of Welfare Benefits: Housing Benefit, Attendance Allowance, as well as administration of fairness at work issues: Health and Safety, employment tribunals, equalities, and consumer protection.  It is also proposed that legislation be changed so that Scotland could choose to take its railways into a “Not For Profit” form of ownership. Holyrood would also have control over its own elections, in what looks like a tidying-up exercise.

Powers for a Purpose also lives up to its name by looking beyond Holyrood, and recommends “Double Devolution” of powers to local authorities. This is an explicitly political proposal, which seeks to seize some political initiative along the lines of “the SNP wants to give more power to Holyrood, Labour wants to give more power  to the people of Scotland.”

In between these “Westminster only” and “Holyrood only” proposals is a large grey area of powers and responsibilities which could be devolved, but which the Commission has decided should be retained: immigration; drugs, drug trafficking etc.; betting, gaming and lotteries; broadcasting; the civil service; and abortion and analogous issues. To this can be added taxation which might be possible to devolve, but which it is proposed should be retained: VAT, national insurance contributions, air passenger duty,  corporation tax, alcohol, tobacco and fuel duties, climate change levy, insurance premium tax, vehicle excise duty, inheritance tax, capital gains tax and tax on oil receipts should remain reserved (with a derogation to allow a lower rate of fuel duty to be charged in remote rural areas.)

It is these areas of “could but won’t” that most controversy is likely to occur, and it easier to see the immediate rationale in some examples than others. Two legislative examples are drugs policy and abortion. Drugs are major issue which affects devolved responsibilities such as health, law and order, and education – why not devolve the issue to Holyrood? Likewise, abortion: Holyrood already deals with end-of-life issues – so why not beginning-of-life issues too? Two taxation examples are air passenger duty and alcohol duties. To devolve air passenger duty would be a valuable tool for tourism and island communities. Holyrood control of alcohol duty could mean increased revenue from the minimum unit price of drink (rather than extra profits for retailers.)

It is easy to think that the Devolution Commission has left some of these powers in its locker for future use, if necessary. No doubt some of them have good technical reasons for retaining at Westminster, and there are obvious candidates where this is obvious, including not only VAT and NI, but also Corporation Tax (much coveted by the SNP as a pro-big business sop) and inheritance tax (to avoid cross-border avoidance.)

On the other hand, a realist might see that Holyrood control of some of the grey areas might be just too much trouble. It is likely that religious and other anti-choice groups would demand an annual abortion debate: and that drugs campaigners will seek to liberalise or get tougher according to whatever headlines prevail. Likewise, no level of APD would be low enough for Michael O’Leary or Sir Richard Branson, so there would be constant campaign for its abolition. Holyrood would find it difficult to balance the wishes of the Scotch Whisky Association with those of the health experts.

So what are we to make of Powers For Purpose?

It is not elegant, and it is not part of a greater commitment to any ideology; it has not been drawn up as a step towards independence or even federalism. These are not Labour’s policies, and it is therefore entirely mistaken to judge its proposals by the yardsticks of these other objectives.

Instead, it is a set of non-ideological  proposals, designed to improve the governance of Scotland by devolving a further set of responsibilities both to Holyrood and from Holyrood to local councils and communities. Its outcomes are is unlikely to be perfect but nothing is unimprovable, above all in public policy. However its proposals are based on pragmatic utilitarian principles, and if enacted, they will achieve its intended ends .

Herbert Morrison would probably approve  of  Powers for a Purpose, and indeed it may have coined a new watchword for the Scottish Labour Party: “Devolution is what Scottish Labour does.”

Ballad Written After Visiting Lindisfarne.

For my poetry class I needed to write a ballad in traditional style. I was really stumped for a subject until I had two strokes of luck. The first was finding this gravestone:


The second was a stroke of “writer’s luck” – I thought I had finished but maybe a final verse would work? It turned out the best of the poem, I think!

Holy Isle churchyard bears a stone
For the Holmbrook none could save
All of its eleven crew undone
And lost to a sailor’s grave.

Baines was captain, man of good stead
Master of tide and shoals
But he grounded on false Emmanuel Head
So now the sad bell tolls.

And sadder still on that shared stone
For whom no mourner cried
The eleventh a sailor name unknown
Save for one unidentified.

But he like his master was a mother’s son
He like Baines was taken
By peril of the seas his soul undone
And by his name forsaken.

Lonely is the drown’d sailor’s wife
And wrecks deserve ill fame
But lonelier still a man’s lost life
As a ghost who bears no name.

(March 2014)

LabourList Article in Full: Why The SNP Is A Centre-Right Party (and Billy Bragg Is Wrong)

I found myself one Saturday evening recently arguing the toss on Twitter with Billy Bragg about the Scottish independence referendum. This is the upside of social media – discussion with people whom you otherwise would not get to meet. Does this make me friend to the stars? No, because I disagreed with him and his position that independence would be a good thing, as the constitutional shock of Scotland leaving the UK could lead to devolution for the English regions.

Since then, a further need has arisen for a corrective to the rUK (remainder UK – keep up at the back) perceptions of what is going on in Scotland, which was prompted by the New Statesman Lecture given by Alex Salmond on 4th March this year. In the Q & A session afterwards he was asked by the NS’s George Eaton whether the SNP would follow the lead of Labour and re-introduce the 50p rate of Income Tax.

His answer was of course no. This is the other misapprehension non-Scots need to address when viewing Scottish politics: they should know that the SNP is a centre-right party, and it has not superseded Scottish Labour as the voice of the left in Scotland.

In 2002, the SNP stood on a manifesto to the left of Labour, and lost heavily. Its response was two-fold: first it recalled Alex Salmond to its leadership – despite his vow a few weeks previously that “if nominated I’ll decline; if drafted I’ll defer; and if elected I’ll resign” thus setting the bar high for duplicity early on.

The second response was to move right and to exploit Salmond’s undoubted charisma to front what was essentially a Scottish Labour tribute act. By playing our greatest hits better than we could, the SNP took advantage of the electorate’s understandable urge to reject perpetual one-party rule and became the minority government in 2007. This was followed by 2011, when Labour’s failure in opposition and its lack of electoral competence, plus the near total defection of the LibDem vote, led to the overall majority which the SNP now enjoys.

As a result, the SNP’s support now includes its greatest ever number of middle-class (mainly ex-LibDem) voters, whom the Scottish Government needs to keep sweet to maintain its political grip on Holyrood. The result is that policies that most favour their interests have been fetishised by the Scottish Government: for example “free” university tuition, “free” elderly care, and freezing the Council Tax.

The latter is of course recognisable in England as the flagship local government policy of that well-known leftist, Eric Pickles. And neither are the other examples all that they seem. Free university tuition is paid for by raiding the funding for Scotland’s FE colleges, which have lost tens of thousands of places – in other words, vocational courses and those most useful to returners are axed to pay so that rich kids can go to St Andrews free. Free elderly care was introduced by an earlier Labour/LibDem coalition, and at the time attracted scepticism from the left as it committed increasing amounts of public expenditure which would have the unintended effect of protecting unearned inherited wealth. This has indeed happened, while doing no good whatsoever for those with no assets.

What the SNP has achieved in government has been mainly a conservative and regressive package of middle-class perks. In contrast, a socially progressive party would have delivered the SNP’s own transformational “Scandinavian-style” childcare provision by now instead of using it as a bribe for a Yes vote in September; and it might also have taken steps towards ending the religious segregation of Scotland’s schoolchildren.

And a truly left-wing party might have used its tax powers to redistribute wealth within Scotland; or redirected economic policy away from ‘backing winners’ to job creation in areas of high unemployment; or introduced a progressive alternative to the Council Tax which allowed local government the freedom to set, collect and keep its taxes to meet local needs. The SNP has done none of these things, and shows no sign of moving in a progressive direction.

Incidentally, nor should anyone doubt that the industrial policy of an independent Scotland, based on undercutting Corporation Tax by 3%, will be anything other than disastrous for employment in the cities and regions of north of England. Which bring us back to Billy Bragg and the idea that Scottish independence would be a good thing for the English regions.

There are two things for him to take into account. The first is that all of the polling evidence indicates that the people of Scotland will vote No, possibly by a margin of 60-40. The second is that it took some 25 years of hard political struggle to develop a position whereby devolution which accepted as the settled will of the Scottish people, and there is no sign of a counterpart movement taking hold in England.

So we can come to three conclusions which the rUK left should understand.

The first is that no-one should believe that the SNP Scottish Government is a beacon of progressive politics in the North.

The second is that Billy Bragg’s proposal is that Scotland should have independence (which its people do not want), so that English regions can have devolution (which they in turn do not want either).

And the third is that the downside of social media is that it takes more than Twitter’s 140 characters to explain it all.

An angry wee man wrote to the Herald…

….but did not get published this time:


Ian Bell writes with apparent passion about the plight of the poor and disadvantaged in Scotland (Herald 5th March); however, he fails to note that if the Scottish people had wanted a radical left-wing government to address these ills, they would have elected a radical left-wing Scottish Parliament.

Instead we have a right of centre SNP administration which wastes our money on a laughable White Paper rather than spending it on the poor, and which is wedded to buying office by ensuring middle class perks: these include free tuition for rich university students (while cutting FE places for working class kids), the preservation of unearned inherited wealth through “free” elderly care and the regressive Council Tax freeze. Put another way, if the Scots want redistribution of wealth to address poverty and disadvantage, why does Scotland’s second most left-wing party (the Greens) have only 2 seats at Holyrood, and the SSP has none whatsoever?

Like all of my Labour Party colleagues, I of course support all attempts to rid people everywhere of the scourge of poverty: that is the “social” bit of being a social democrat. However, unlike Mr Bell (and his fellow fantasists in the Yes camp) I believe that there is a need to gain electoral support for that enterprise: it is wrong to take people’s money off them without their consent. That is the “democrat” bit. And there is no evidence that Scots want to pay more tax to fund redistribution, either under Westminster or Holyrood.

The task of gaining the consent of electorate to transform society is a battle which needs to be fought for years, decades, generations, indefinitely; and its enormity is such that it is also one which is worth winning not just in Scotland but throughout the UK. (And through whatever influence we have, elsewhere in the world.) The 1997-2010 Labour governments showed what could be achieved, although their work was cut short by the world financial crisis and hampered by the length of the road back from nearly two decades of Thatcherism. In this enterprise, New Labour was supported consistently by Scots over all other parties, including at the 2010 General Election.

To throw in the towel and write off the poor and disadvantaged of the rest of the UK is at best a counsel of pessimism and despair. At worst, it assumes that their poverty is of a lesser degree than that of Scots or perhaps that they are less deserving of our support. Despite his apparent passion about poverty, Ian Bell obviously does not care about them, or the lack of action by the SNP Scottish Government on inequality, which he signally fails to condemn.


Peter A. Russell

Scots Myths (5) – “Either Scotland or the UK” or The Fallacy of the Zero-Sum Game

The more sharp-eyed followers of this blog will have noticed that in the background of the photograph of my poetry performance debut here the blackboard announces the appearance of Lesley Riddoch. This was in fact on the same night, and provided an interesting exercise in several ways.

The first was a good opportunity to hear in person some of the arguments for Yes in the independence referendum campaign; a second was an exercise in personal restraint, patience and courtesy being good for the mind and soul. (Nicola Sturgeon might try it, especially in televised debates.)

Having said that, it was testing to those virtues to hear Ms Riddoch say some things which were just plain wrong – “there is not a single opt-out school in Scotland” (while speaking in Thornwood, which just a mile or two from Jordanhill) and “Sectarianism is not a problem in Scotland outside Glasgow” (explained in terms of “No Catholics = No sectarianism”, which is what they might think in East Belfast.)

Lesley Riddoch featured those parts of her book Blossom which refer to culture and the Scottish sensibility, and what was most striking was the binary nature of her vision: everything was framed within an “either/or” framework. Her two examples were those of cultural sector funding, and the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.

The second of these seems to be mostly a grievance against the curatorial polices of the gallery’s management, which could certainly be solved by measures well short of independence. These could include reforming the governance of the gallery or sacking the director, and maybe replacing them with someone more like, well, Lesley Riddoch, if that is what is wanted.

But the funding issue is more worthy of examination.

Her issue was that funding bodies are more inclined to favour events and bodies which represent establishment  or British rather than Scottish culture: in evidence, she called the case of Gaelic and folk music. Her case was that even where budgets are controlled by Scots, these favour non-Scottish culture disproportionately.

This appears to misinterpret several important points. The chief of these is an assumption that culture is only defined in terms of that which receives subsidy.

This is the cultural equivalent of the social policy fallacy which defines ‘community’ as ‘somewhere that has community workers,’ ignoring the strength of functioning and middleclass communities. Examples include when Jordanhill School was faced with local authority takeover in 1990s, or when the people of Milngavie objected to the extension of the treatment works which provides Glasgow with clean and safe drinking water. Mobs with pitchforks and torches in Southbrae Drive or at Bearsden Cross are a fearsome sight indeed.

Likewise with the case of music and culture: a lack of public sector subsidy for local and voluntary events and companies can be a sign of the strength of the cultural scene rather than the opposite.

For example, a quick visit to the Scottish Community Drama website shows its vigour and extent, while that of Creative Scotland appears to show that it receives no public subsidy from that source.

Likewise, it is a mark of the local strength of folk culture that it survives and thrives locally solely on the merits of its local support. Scotland is an especially good example of this: uniquely Scottish folk music includes a non-portable instrument in the piano, which firmly roots it in the church hall and village dance, as opposed to being based on itinerant (and frequently paid) musicians.

In short, it is quite wrong to assume that if there is no public subsidy for the arts, it is being discriminated against and will therefore suffer the agonies of suppression. Scotland is not, after all, Iraqi or Turkish Kurdistan.

The true position is not that the “approved” (in this case, British) culture squeezes out the “popular” (Scots) culture. On the contrary, these co-exist and indeed support each other: again the SCDA website shows actors and dramatists of UK prominence among its current and past patrons, and that winning productions have covered a vast range of Scots, British and international plays and playwrights. The fact is that there is space for both community arts and the subsidised sector, and that Scottish culture is richer for the presence of both: culture is not a zero sum game.

To take a further specific example, we can look at the career of one theatre director: Sir Michael Boyd. No doubt he is one of the people denigrated by the likes of Alistair Gray (quoted by Lesley Riddoch) as a “settler” –  born Belfast, educated in London and Edinburgh (and Moscow), trained at Coventry and Sheffield before serving at the Tron, Glasgow from 1982-96, and going on to the RSC in London and Stratford. His career can be judged in two ways.

One is that Sir Michael has been a self-interested English careerist, exploiting his opportunities in Scotland at the Tron as a springboard for his own British-determined ends and at the expense of Scots directors. The other is that he has committed himself to a wide range of theatrical settings and used these to explore and develop his art, sometimes in Scotland and sometimes in England.

In the end, it is a matter of our personal political views as to which of these views we take: whether we look for the merit of work such as Boyd’s in its (and his) national origin, or in its artistic achievement.  The difference is that between a nationalist and a theatre-lover: the former sees the presence of an English director as the displacement of a Scottish counterpart, while the latter sees the value of creating something with a value greater than the sum of its parts, and bringing its benefits to Scotland and beyond.

The same applies  to politics. It would be easy to trumpet the virtues of the nations of the UK working together by quoting the foundation of the NHS, when  Bevan applied the principles of the Tredegar Workmen’s Medical Aid Society to England, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as his native Wales. However, just as important in his work as Minister of Health and Housing was the second part of that portfolio, and the influence of John Wheatley, born in Ireland but who was brought up in Braehead and politically ascendant in Glasgow Corporation.

His great achievement was of course the popularisation of Council housing, which was founded on his own breakthrough proposals as published in 1913 in Eight Pound Cottages for Glasgow Citizens. As Minister of Health in the first Labour government in 1924, he paved the way for the transformation of working class housing across the UK, which was taken further in the reconstruction for which Bevan was responsible in the post-war years.

The outcome was that the ideas and policies of a Scottish pioneer and a Welsh minister became the achievement of UK governments, and hundreds of thousands of families across the whole country had modern homes and secure tenure, in many cases for the first time ever.

And it cuts both ways. In 1967, the UK Parliament, responsible for law in England and Wales, passed  the Sexual Offences Act, which legalised homosexual acts between consenting adult men. However, it required a further 13 years before Robin Cook introduced his amendment to the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980. Nonetheless, in this case, Scotland had benefited from the cross-pollination arising from proximity to its more liberal and progressive neighbour.

A more recent example is afforded by the Tory Party in government. In 1996, Professor Hugh Pennington headed an investigation into the outbreak of e. coli centred on Barr’s butcher shop in Wishaw.  His findings and recommendations for new food safety procedures were accepted by Michael Forsyth, then Secretary of State for Scotland and put into force as regulations. Forsyth then took these same recommendations to the UK Cabinet and argued successfully for them to be similarly adopted as regulations for the rest of the UK, with a result of preventing much risk of illness and death by food poisoning, benefiting not millions of people but tens of millions.

A final, and crucial, instance of the positive effects of seeing beyond the either/or binary perspective is that of the influence of not only politics but also politicians. There can be no doubt that the flow of individuals between Scotland and Westminster has made them more influential than they would have been had they stayed home.

The Labour Governments 1997-2010 boasted Scots in all of the great offices of state: Prime Ministers Blair and Brown, Chancellors Brown and Darling, Foreign Secretary Cook, Home Secretary Reid.  Earlier John Smith had served as Trade Secretary in the Labour government of 1970s; earlier still, the first Labour Prime Minister (and a Scottish Home Rule enthusiast) was Lossiemouth’s Ramsay Macdonald. The Tories had fewer MPs but again these punched above their weight: Rifkind (Foreign Secretary), Lang (President of the Board of Trade), Ancram (Northern Ireland Secretary) and more recently, the Liberal Democrats have had Danny Alexander (Chief Secretary to the Treasury.)

These are of course in addition to those who have brought their talents and a Scottish perspective to the Cabinet table as Secretary for State for Scotland:  historically such figures as Tom Johnston, Willie Ross and Bruce Millan, and then George Younger, and of course Donald Dewar and in the post-devolution era, Helen Liddell and Jim Murphy.

It is unlikely that the achievements of such a varied list would meet with full approval as successes by any single readership: however, what is not in doubt is that all of these have made their mark, and that this has been good both for them and especially for Scotland’s standing in the UK and the world.

This picture is also reflected in the further and wider element of the success of Scots in the United Kingdom: their presence in UK elites.  One needs only to see their influence in the media and journalism (e.g., Jeremy Isaacs, Andrew Neil, Kirsty Wark), the law (e.g., Helena Kennedy), the arts and literature (e.g., Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Neil MacGregor,  David Tennant, Billy Connolly, William Boyd, C J Sansom) and the military (in form of the numerous generals, admirals and air chief marshalls) to appreciate how much Scots have gained individually from the UK, and how both Scotland and the UK as a whole are better off because of their successes.

As Orwell showed us in his masterpiece Animal Farm, another UK hybrid (penned in Scotland at Barnhill on Jura), the mind is shackled by binary thinking: “4 legs good, 2 legs bad” is in essence the flaw which ensures that the animals’ ambitions will never be realised. In the same way, the dogma of UK or Scotland serves little sensible purpose in either culture or politics.

Finally, a further footnote demonstrates the mutually beneficial nature of the union. One of Lesley Riddoch’s contentions is that the Scottish mentality is one of being inhibited by undue deference, which she ascribes to Scotland being a “nation of tenants”. In other words, a nation of owner-occupiers would be much more self-assertive and confident. We can be sure that Michael Forsyth and every other follower of Margaret Thatcher’s Right-to-Buy policies would agree wholeheartedly, although these were rejected as “unScottish” at the time.