Independence at any cost – 2nd Scottish Independence Bill.

I was one of many Scots that in the aftermath of EU referendum moved from being someone who was sceptical of the benefits of independence to somebody who was willing to consider it. I believed and trusted Nicola Sturgeon when she said she would only act in Scotland’s interests as I assumed this would not lead to “independence at any cost”.

Things have now changed. Nicola Sturgeon has earned lots of air miles and drank lots of espresso in the capitals of Europe, but has received nothing but polite indifference from the EU.

Indeed, it is now clear that if Scotland leaves the UK it will have to apply to re-join the EU – a process which will take several years and may come with conditions such as the Euro, Schengen and no rebate.

As if that was not bad enough, we would be trying simultaneously to deal with the biggest deficit in the western world whist our largest trading partner, which the SNP label as xenophobic and protectionist,  will be busy building a border.

Of course, if Nicola Sturgeon really was “acting in Scotland’s interests” she’d be able to show that these risks were acceptable and she’d have a plan to deal with our deficit. Instead, she has done nothing but amplify any report which raises concerns about Brexit. This reached new depths this week when the SNP tried to scare Scots with a HM Treasury report which Nicola Sturgeon had previously labelled as “scaremongering” during the EU referendum.  Her “positive” Yes movement has transmogrified into a parody of the “Project Fear” they loathed so much.

Within this context, Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement that she will publish a second Scottish Independence Bill is a sign that she is prepared to scare Scots into independence at any cost.

It’s time Nicola Sturgeon stopped this pantomime and started holding the UK Government to account to ensure we get the best possible deal. That, however, would mean working in Scotland’s best interests.

#IndyRef2: Like Kezia and Nicola, I’ll keep all the options on the table.

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The UK now faces its greatest crisis since the Suez debacle. Just like Suez, the situation is of our own making and will, for better or worse, change our standing in the world. The vote to leave the UK  has the potential to reshape and dominate the political landscape for a generation.

The political response so far has been mixed. David Cameron, after announcing he’ll stand down in the Autumn, is keeping a low profile, but I expect/hope his government is working frantically to prepare the UK for what comes next. Boris Johnson looks like a man who just lost a game of Russian roulette, but is now no doubt focussing on replacing Cameron as our PM. UK Labour is turning inward as the campaign has raised more questions about Corbyn’s  leadership.

In Scotland the debate, understandably, is focussing on whether or not Scotland should leave the UK. Ruth Davidson argued that Scottish remain votes do not cancel those cast in 2014 to stay in the UK. Nicola Sturgeon is less sure, but has said a second independence vote is “highly likely” – she’s making herself look busy by holding press conferences. Scottish Labour’s Kezia Dugdale has made it clear that the party will “consider all options”.

An opinion poll today shows a clear majority of Scots now back Scottish independence.  Whilst this poll does reflect the conversations I have had with people since Friday, my view is that it’s too soon to know what’s best for Scotland now. There will always be those who will support independence at any cost and those who support remaining in the UK equally strongly. In 2014 the bulk of Scots were caught in the middle of these opposing groups, but rightly voted “No” as it was clear we’d be worse off outside the UK – the vote was about head, not heart. To be clear, we made that decision knowing Brexit was possible as the EU Referendum was already on the table.

Of course the economic argument for Scotland remaining in the UK has now changed. However, we don’t know how it has changed and will not do so for some time. For that reason, I think it’s too soon to know how I will vote in any second independence referendum. Yes, solidarity with the rest of the UK is hugely important, but the Brexit vote may mean that Scotland may have to choose between that and Europe.  Until the uncertainty is reduced we simply do not know what outcome is the best path to protecting public services and economic prosperity in Scotland.  In my view, the economic argument can’t be made until three things (at least) are known.

Firstly,  we need to know what the UK’s future relationship with the EU would be. It’s clear that the UK will try to establish some sort of a Norwegian/Swiss style EFTA deal. This will, its supporters will claim, give us the benefits of EU membership without the downside. The costs and benefits of this deal are key to the UK’s economic prosperity.

Secondly, we need to understand what an independent Scotland’s relationship with Europe will be. It appears unlikely that Scotland can stay (yes, I know we are not a member right now) in the EU as the rest of the UK leaves:

1.       With one of the largest deficits in the western world (more than double that of rUK), we don’t meet the entry criteria -The EU does not need another country with a huge deficit.

2.       Any country which backs Scottish membership would essentially be triggering the break-up of the UK – a diplomatic minefield.

Can Scotland really leave the UK  due to Brexit only to become an independent state adrift outside the EU without the support of the Barnett formula? The 33% of SNP voters who backed Brexit may think that’s a good idea, but I don’t.

Thirdly, the SNP have several of the usual non-trivial questions to answer on things like borders with rUK and currency.

This uncertainty explains why even the staging of a second independence referendum looks less than certain to me. Until the three points above are addressed I will remain undecided but, like Kezia and Nicola, I’ll keep all the options on the table.

[This blog is based on one I posted on LabourHame]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now is precisely the point at which we should be considering the nature of our political discourse.

In so many ways Jo Cox’s death is shocking. It can’t be rationalised because it is irrational. It defies explanation or justification. This is why it troubles us so much. I earnestly hope the trial of the man accused of her murder provides her family with some answers.  

Her death has, however, raised questions about the risks our MPs face (along with their staff) and the contempt with which our “political elite” are held. Whilst this debate has resulted in much handwringing in England, in Scotland it is nothing new. During the build up to the independence vote we saw the hate and vitriol in politics increase. We saw people assume the moral high ground and from those lofty heights anyone holding an opposing view was fair game. Many MPs were denounced as “quislings” and were subjected to “community justice”.

For many, opposing views could not be respected or even heard. Public meetings moved from heckling (part of our political culture) to people being shouted down. Our great referendum became, for many, about good versus evil.

The EU referendum has done the same in the rest of the UK. People are being told that somebody else is responsible for their problems and that getting rid of them will solve everything… and we’ll all be richer when that happens. The barrier to reaching this nirvana is, of course, a corrupt political elite, so called experts and a biased media. The parallel with Scottish independence debate is clear.

Outside the binary world of our referendums what people don’t see is that the “political elites” of both sides actually work together on many issues and that much of the work they do in their surgeries makes a huge difference to their constituents. That’s why Jo Cox was respected so much locally – she did a good job of helping people with the boring stuff like noisy neighbours, dog crap, bin collections and planning issues.

I’m convinced that if more people met their local MP, MSP or councillor we’d all have more respect for them. Some are better than others, but the vast majority are well intentioned and want to make a difference to people’s lives.

If Thatcher could give students a fair grant in the 1980s, why can’t Holyrood do the same today?

Every Scot knows cutting the attainment gap is key if we want to end the kind of poverty which is handed down from generation-to-generation.  

Nicola Sturgeon says that at the end of her next term in Government she wants  to be judged by her record on attainment. That’s right, after nine years of failing Scotland’s most deprived families she wants a second chance.  

In addition to teacher training being cut by almost 30% (report, 29/03/16) we now have 4,000 fewer teachers under the SNP. We have redundancies in universities and colleges.  We have 140,000 fewer college students. We have cuts to the education budget of every single council in Scotland. That’s their record.

I run one of Scotland’s top university engineering programmes. Studying with us is a huge opportunity. Even with reduced entry standards, it is still hard to fill the places we’ve reserved for students from poor backgrounds because the attainment gap in our schools is so wide.

Even so, getting in to university is just the first hurdle.

The SNP have cut the bursary for the poorest students by a quarter to just £1,750 per year. The cheapest accommodation for term-time only will cost double that. Education is only free in Scotland if you can afford it.

To go to university today the poorest students, more often than not, must work and/or take on huge debt. I have students from the most deprived parts of Scotland  who work in casinos and nightclubs and still make it into classes at 9am.

There are others, however, who can’t work long hours and study at the same time. They will leave university with nothing.  A zero hours contract in a bar, cafe or supermarket to help make ends meet becomes their career. 

That’s why I agree with Kezia Dugdale that it’s time to ask Scots that can afford it to pay a little more tax and invest that money in education. After all, if Thatcher could give me a fair grant in the 1980s, why can’t Holyrood offer students the same today?

The SNP miss their own bed blocking target.

Nobody in Scotland can be surprised that the SNP’s merger of health and social care comes with a financial “black hole”. With both the NHS and social care being underfunded, merging these two public services can hardly be expected to resolve the problems they face.

As it stands, around 5 Scots die each week in our hospitals waiting on our underfunded councils to provide a care package. These plans can be complex, but can also be as trivial as fitting a handrail on someone’s bath at home.

The social care bottleneck consumes NHS resources and leads to “bed blocking”.   To be fair to the SNP’s Health Secretary, Shona Robison, she said cutting the number of people stuck in hospital waiting for a care package to be arranged is an “absolute key priority” for the Scottish government. Indeed, she committed £100m to solving the problem (a few months earlier £5m was claimed to be enough).

On the 25th of February in a BBC interview Ms Robison said: “I want over the course of this year to eradicate delayed discharge out of the system and I am absolutely determined to do that.”

Indeed, the seriousness of the issue led to Ms Robison invoking Nicola Sturgeon’s name a few weeks earlier: “In presenting the Government’s programme for the year ahead, the First Minister made it clear that addressing delayed discharge is one of our key priorities and it is one to which I give my personal commitment.”

How have they done? Rather than eradicating bed blocking, the SNP reduced it by just 12% – Scots spent 580,919 days in hospital needlessly during 2015. Meanwhile in the community our care workers are often not even paid the living wage and home visits last just 15 short minutes.  What ever happened to treating people with dignity?

It’s clear that the SNP are failing and continuing to underfund health and social care can’t be the solution. I hope that in the coming election campaign we see bolder solutions to tackling this problem and realism about the funding it needs.

 

 

 

SNP makes the unfair council tax a wee bit less unfair.

In 2004 John Swinney said he’d “axe” the council tax. In 2007 Nicola Sturgeon said the “hated” council tax was beyond reform. In 2007 and 2011 Alex Salmond said in the SNP’s manifestos he’d “scrap” the council tax.

After 9 years in government, 5 of them with a commanding majority, Nicola Sturgeon has now decided to keep the council tax with minor modifications based on Tory proposals. The council tax will remain regressive, but a system of means tested benefits and increases in the higher bands will make it slightly less unfair.

These changes introduce many anomalies. Kezia Dugdale has said that as she earns £60,000 and lives in a Band D property she will pay nothing extra, but is willing to do so. Conversely, a hardworking family living on just above average income in a Band E property will see their council tax increase by over £100 per year.

These changes will raise an extra £100m next year. That is great, but looks a little insubstantial compared to the £400m of cuts forced on councils by the SNP. What the SNP  is offering is not nearly enough to deliver the transformation in public services Scotland needs, it will simply help manage the decline.

As ever, the SNP are trying to perpetuate the myth that we can have more teachers and less potholes by timidly tinkering with our revenue raising powers.   We can’t.

The Vow has been delivered.

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During the 2014 independence campaign I led over 100 “Better Together” volunteers in an area of Edinburgh which is home to tens of thousands of people. Over that summer each volunteer I trained was told that our message was that a No vote was about securing more powers for Holyrood.  This was the vow we made on literally thousands of doorsteps.

Eighteen months later it is now clear that that vow has been delivered with the negotiations on the Fiscal Framework reaching a successful conclusion. As John Swinney said on BBC Radio Scotland today “the Smith Commission report has been delivered” and as Nicola Sturgeon said in Holyrood yesterday “this deal will ensure that funding  for Scotland will not be changed without the Scottish Government’s agreement ”. This is what Scotland voted for in 2014.

As the party of government,  it fell to the SNP to ensure that more powers were delivered whilst ensuring “not a penny” is taken from the Scottish Government’s budget.  The SNP’s role is ironic given the finical ruin that would have come with their preferred referendum outcome. An outcome which no independent fiscal analysis has shown would be in Scotland’s interests.

We cannot, however, let more powers and fiscal agreements be the end point of Scotland’s political enlightenment.  The SNP have shown themselves to be a timid government which is happy to tinker at the edges of the problems Scotland faces and manage gradual decline in public services. It’s now time for the political class in Scotland to put their constitutional differences aside and draw up bold plans for Scotland’s future.  Let’s talk less about the 1707 Act of Union and more about using Holyrood’s newly won powers to ensure health, education and welfare in Scotland is fit for the 21st century.

The dishonesty at the heart of Nicola Sturgeon’s government.

 

 

Neil Findlay may well have been wrong to call Nicola Sturgeon a “liar”, but dishonesty is at the heart of her politics.

She opposes Tory austerity, but backs the bigger cuts that would come with full fiscal autonomy.

She opposed George Osborne’s budget,  but stands “shoulder to shoulder” with the Tories delivering it in Scotland.

She claims her council tax freeze is protecting household budgets, but her poverty advisor is clear that it is making inequality worse.

Worst of all, she promotes the idea that public services in Scotland can be revolutionised by tinkering at the edges and funded by cutting taxes. This is a Tory agenda.

After 9 years of government, and an unprecedented majority, we have a First Minister who has offered Scotland nothing bold. Despite the breadth and depth of political capital she holds, she is happy simply to comment on issues as they arise rather than implementing any of her progressive rhetoric.

If we are to keep our SNP Government, let’s keep Nicola Sturgeon true to her word and at least expect her to make some of her rhetoric reality.

 

First Minister’s Questions – Sturgeon deliberately misled parliament and Scotland.

Nicola Sturgeon ended First Minister’s Questions this week (report, 05/02/16)  by claiming Scottish Labour was an “utter disgrace”. Those who choose to judge others must think carefully about the example they set.

Several times during First Minister’s Questions Ms Sturgeon deliberately misled parliament and Scotland. She repeatedly claimed that everyone in Scotland who earns more than £11,000 would pay more tax as a result of Labour’s plan to raise income tax by 1p to protect vital public services.  Whilst this is technically correct, she omitted to mention that those earning  £11,000 – £20,000 would actually be better off as a result of the rebate Kezia Dugdale proposed. The First Minister also failed to mention that the estimated 15,000 people who will lose their jobs as a result of her cuts won’t be paying much tax at all.

Ms Sturgeon also used wonky maths to suggest that those on lower incomes would pay a higher amount of tax than somebody like her. Again, this was misleading. The Resolution Foundation, who have said the Labour proposals are progressive and would lessen the impact of austerity, are clear that the “richest will pay significantly more, not only in cash terms but as a percentage of their incomes too”.

On both these points, Nicola Sturgeon is not lying. She is, however, coolly misleading the people of Scotland.    As Alex Salmond once said when modestly praising his own talents: “The art of politics is not to lie”.

Kezia’s test for former Labour voters who now back the SNP

Since the referendum the SNP Government has branded itself as being anti-austerity. However, they have been happy to simultaneously pass on austerity driven cuts to our public services. Scottish Labour have now shown that there is a progressive alternative. We can choose to ask those individuals who earn more than £20,000 per annum to pay a wee bit more tax and use that money to invest in education and social care in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale’s progressive and bold plan to raise the income tax rate by 1p to fund essential public services is a test for the SNP. They can choose to ignore it and commit to thousands of job losses, or they can back Kezia’s plan to  protect the services the vulnerable need. It is up to them, they have a parliamentary majority.

The policy is also a test for former Labour voters who now back the SNP. These are not the intransigents that want independence at any cost, but people who simply want Scotland to be a fairer country to work, live and bring up children. I find it hard to believe that this latter group will choose to back SNP cuts to schools when there is a fair and progressive alternative.

After all the coming Holyrood budget vote and May’s Scottish Parliament election will not be about independence, but about improving Scotland. I would urge SNP supporters, from ordinary Scots to the MSP elite, to look at what Scottish Labour is offering and support what is best for Scotland.