Thursday 18 June 2015

SNP duck Commons vote on their own EU veto-lock

For the Daily Record

The SNP’s MPs have been accused of a fiasco after failing to put demands for a Scottish veto on the EU referendum to a Commons vote.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has a veto-lock as the SNP’s top priority in the EU referendum bill currently going through the Commons.

But when the SNP amendment in the name of Alex Salmond came to a vote in the Commons the party failed to call for it so the amendment automatically fell.

The SNP claimed yesterday the ploy was a clever move to have the amendment to brought back at the next stage of the Bill.

But experienced Commons observers were surprised by what they saw as a political own-gaol.

Footage of the process registers the bemusement on the face of deputy Commons Speaker Sir Roger Gale when the vote was not called by the SNP benches.

Labour’s Ian Murray MP yesterday accused the SNP “hollow rhetoric” as he laid into the nats for deliberately misrepresenting what was happening in Commons votes.

The shadow Scottish Secretary said: “The SNPs number one policy priority for the EU referendum was to have a double lock so that the UK could not come out of Europe unless all nations of the UK voted to do so.

“So, strange that when their amendment was called for a vote they did not vote for their own amendment.”
“For them ‘standing up for Scotland’ seems to be more about political posturing than actual action.”

An SNP spokesman said: “It is disappointing that Labour don’t appear to understand the rules in parliament.”

The SNP voting shambles came to light as Murray raised a point of order with the Commons Speaker about nationalist MPs repeatedly misrepresenting official votes in the Commons in their online tweets.

Murray said the SNP was “bringing the House into disrepute” after SNP MPs had repeatedly tweeted that Labour MP were voting with Tories on the Scotland Bill an the EU referendum bill, when they were not.

“Certain SNP MPs have tweeted out completely the contrary to what the votes were,” said Murray.
SNP leader of the Commons Pete Wishart mocked Murray by  making crying his eyes out gestures as the Labour MP was at the dispatch box.

Deputy Speaker Eleanor Laing was more sympathetic and  said she hoped “a reasoned report of what happens in this chamber will be disseminated widely throughout the country by many means of communication.”

Tweets claiming that Labour had voted with the Tories were afterwards deleted from some twitter accounts.

The dispute was played out against the backdrop of the Commons voting against giving 16 and 17 year olds a say in the EU referendum. MPs voted down a Labour bid to give teenagers the vote by 310 votes to 265 with the SNP supporting Labour in the lobby.

Footnote: Here's the Common's Deputy Speaker waiting for the SNP to call the veto-lock vote:

Moral high ground proves slippery underfoot

For the Daily Record

That was a thunderous sound of galloping to the moral high ground when Malcolm Bruce declared all politicians tell lies. 

Of course it is not true. Well, not entirely true.

But politicians are adept at bending facts to suit arguments, particularly when they don’t get their own way.

Newbie SNP MPs, and some more experienced ones, took to the internet last week claiming Labour MPs voted against allowing 16 and 17 year olds taking part in the EU referendum.

Labour MPs did no such thing.

True, Labour had not supported an SNP amendment to the EU bill containing such a clause.

At that stage in the proceedings it would have been a vote against the referendum itself.

Labour has amendments granting votes for 16-17 year olds (why not for EU citizens too?) and remains optimistic the case can be won.

But, by distorting a slender thread of voting procedure, the SNP fabricated outrage and shame at yet another Labour “betrayal”.

There’s a tremendous appetite among true believers to accept the such claims as a nationalist gospel, and for contrary explanations to be dismissed as Unionist conspiracies.

So the hunger for treachery keeps getting fed, a classic propaganda tactic. 

This week, on the Scotland Bill, the allegation was Labour had not voted to make the Scottish parliament permanent. Or so it was claimed.

True, a check of the parliamentary record shows Labour withdrew its amendment requiring a referendum to scrap the Holyrood parliament (as if).

But Labour did vote for the measure - in support of the SNP amendment which served the same purpose.

Labour abstaining on Full Fiscal Autonomy, a disaster for Scotland, while the SNP voted on a right-wing Tory motion for it, that also counted as “breaking” the Vow.

Factcheck: the Vow promised more powers and guaranteed the Barnett Formula. Only the SNP claim it now promises FFA, which spells the end of Barnett.

But don’t let the facts get in the way of more SNP outrage in the chamber and online.

You’d think shenanigans over procedural votes in Westminster shouldn’t matter much to the outside world.

But the pattern of chicanery undermines politics itself and, in public eyes, strengthens the Bruce doctrine. 

If they’re not careful SNP MPs will wear down the trust placed in them as quickly as the crumbling limestone of the Westminster halls they inhabit. 

Labour's dark night of the soul

Could there have been a more telling moment for the Labour party this week than Jim Murphy walking out one door as Jeremy Corbyn came in another?

Even stronger symbolism of Labour’s broken keel was the confession Murphy made about the party’s legendary internal feuding.

Glancing backwards in his last speech Murphy said he spoke more to Ed Balls in the last two months of the campaign, as Labour struggled for survival, than he had spoken to his colleague in the two decades beforehand.

Divided on either side of Blair and Brownite factions, Murphy realised in his last political gasp what a good operator Balls was. Both lost their seats.

Two of the most talented politicians of their generation, they sat on the same green benches, played in the same football team, yet hardly exchanged a word.

That silence speaks volumes for the state of the Labour party, and how stupidly macho politics can be.

Unsure of its footing in Scotland, fearful of a UKIP backlash in the EU referendum and scratching the ground like hens for votes in the south, Labour is headed for a dark night of the soul.

The leadership candidates are trapped. Eager to bury Labour’s recent past, they must embrace their history if they are to spell out the future.

At least with Corbyn in the race the SNP as well as Labour’s left-flank has a voice.

He will not win, but when his anti-Trident, deficit-denial agenda is rejected the SNP will say there goes Labour’s “heart and soul”.

Nonsense, of course. The SNP wins power in Holyrood in the middle ground and Labour has to find that shore again.

Wednesday 17 June 2015

SNP "red light" votes for Commons select chairs

NEW SNP MPs are being given a “red light” warning by the party leadership not to back candidates for powerful Westminster committees who have been hostile to independence.

As secret voting took place on Wednesday afternoon among 650 MPs for the chairs of Commons committees it was revealed the SNP has given its new members a “a traffic light system” to approve candidates.

With 56 MPs the SNP has a major influence on the outcome of the cross-party elections.

Although the party has a tight discipline code it has not imposed a block vote on who MPs must choose.

Instead new SNP MPs have been given a traffic light guide to the candidates from their more senior MPs.

Candidates smypathetic to the SNP get a green light and those who have crossed swords with nationalism in the past get a red card.

One new SNP MP said: “The party whips have not told us who to vote for but they have helpfully provided a traffic lights system of green being sympathetic and helpful to us, amber so so and red absolutely not.”

MPs elected by the Commons take on thethe £15,000 a year job of holding the government to account on committees such as culture, foreign affairs and defence

The SNP have two committee chairs for the first time. Perthshire MP Pete Wishart was unopposed for Scottish Affairs and Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil unopposed for energy and climate change.

Monday 15 June 2015

Corbyn on the Labour ballot - cui bono?

Who wins by having Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot paper for the Labour leadership?

The left-wing firebrand is obviously not going to win but having him on the hustings serves the purposes of the leadership favourite, Andy Burnham, quite well.

Burnham supporters appear to have lent their votes to Corbyn, because having Corbyn on the stage makes Burnham look quite moderate and centrist.

If that is Burnham’s thinking it amounts to a one-move chess strategy.

 In a world where there is nothing that can’t be construed as good news for the SNP the real winner of having Corbyn on the ballot paper is, you guessed it, the SNP.

Corbyn’s anti-nuclear, anti-austerity, anti-deficit agenda slots perfectly into the SNP’s own platform.

When, not if, the rank and file of the Labour party reject his prospectus the SNP will rejoice.

One of the big tasks for the SNP over the next year is assuring Labour voters they made the right decision in backing them at the general election.

Corbyn’s defeat will be a signal for the SNP to claim Labour has lost its socialist “heart and soul” while it continues with a determined centrist approach to governing Scotland.

Why would you ever vote for them again, the SNP will ask the former Labour supporters it has peeled off by positioning itself as being more left-wing than Scottish Labour?

Update: Ian Murray, the only Scottish Labour MP was one of these that nominated Corbyn at the last-minute, having not backed any candidate up to now. Perhaps he is determined not be easily out-manoeuvred by the SNP.

Of course any nationalist or former Labour voter  who wants Jeremy Corbyn as the party leader need only pay £3 and join in the process...

Thursday 11 June 2015

2019 could be in Sturgeon's political horoscope

DAVID Mundell’s Commons announcement about the timing of future Scottish elections sent me star-gazing.
Holyrood’s fixed four-year electoral cycle was knocked out of kilter by Westminster’s fixed-term Parliament Act.
It wasn’t possible for Holyrood and Westminster elections to both take place in 2015, so Alex Salmond chose to go long and give the SNP an extra year in government until 2016.
The next Holyrood four-year term will also clash with Westminster’s 2020 election. So, as Mundell announced, the Scottish government are being given special powers to choose the duration of the 2016 parliament.
You might assume Nicola Sturgeon would choose long, another five-year term appears guaranteed on this week’s polling.
But why wouldn’t she be tempted to go short and have a three-year term? Look at the political landscape ahead.
The mood in Scotland is not for a second referendum any time soon. By necessity a 2016 SNP manifesto will have the loosest commitment to staging another vote.
The faithful won’t like it but patience, bravehearts, it is only for three years.
In that time, Trident renewal will raise nationalist sentiment but would that amount to the “material change” (that’s 60 per cent support for independence) Sturgeon needs to trigger a second referendum?
Meanwhile, an EU referendum, next year or 2017, can result in a Yes to Europe vote but leave the Tories divided, spasming in their own version of “neverendum” pain.
Following the Scottish pattern, a reluctant economic endorsement of the EU could spur a patriotic English blowback for UKIP, leaving Labour struggling for traction.
The Tories, renewed in office under fresh leadership, with constituency boundaries changed to their advantage, look like a third term prospect in that scenario.
So, going into a May 2019 Holyrood campaign on a referendum platform to free Scotland from “permanent” Tory rule and the hateful Westminster version of identity politics, English votes for English laws, looks alluring.
Protests of gerrymandering can be dismissed by offering a 2019 plus 2023 election package to restore the Scottish election cycle ahead of the UK ones. Such a timetable, to borrow a phrase, puts Scotland first.
For Sturgeon, who knows she has only one more shot, this calendar is a political horoscope for that mid-Atlantic hiatus in a long flight when thoughts drift to possible futures.
But it is plausible, and she does believe independence is written in the stars.

Wednesday 10 June 2015

I see your bluff and raise you...SNP will push Cameron for Full Fiscal Autonomy

For the Daily Record

The SNP will next week demand full tax and spend powers for the Scottish parliament in a ploy to make the Tory government vote the devo max powers down.

SNP leader Angus Robertson last night confirmed the SNP will table amendments to the Scotland Bill for Full Fiscal Autonomy, which would give the Holyrood powers to raise and spend all its own money.

David Cameron had accused the SNP of bluffing for something they did not really want.

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions Cameron said: “It seems to be that the SNP’s new approach is to demand something they don’t want and then to complain when they don’t get it.”

Experts have warned the devo-max policy would cause austerity-max and lead to the loss of £7.6 billion a year of Barnett funding from Westminster on top of cuts already coming down the tracks.

But in a game of Westminster brinkmanship the SNP will table the amendment to the Scotland Bill as it gets a detailed second reading on the floor of the Commons.

The nationalists will do so confident in the knowledge that the Tory majority in the Commons will vote the measure down.

The Prime Minister goaded SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson on the issue yesterday after he boasted the Scottish government had become a living wage employer.

Cameron said it was unlikely the Scottish Government could afford to pay the £7.85 an hour minimum rate if it got full fiscal autonomy.

Responding to the living wage accreditation, Cameron said : “The Scottish Government has the advantages of the additional funding it has been getting under this Government.

“I do notice that consensus in the SNP has rather broken down over full fiscal autonomy.

“Because of course, if they got full fiscal autonomy, they probably wouldn’t be able to afford to be a living wage employer.

“I have been following these things closely. The new MP for East Lothian (George Kerevan) has called the policy economic suicide, the new MP for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) has called full fiscal autonomy a disaster.

“It seems to be that the SNP’s new approach is to demand something they don’t want and then to complain when they don’t get it.”

The SNP want to see “full fiscal responsibility”, their version of FFA, introduced over a number of years with no sudden cut off of Barnett funding.

Depute Leader Stewart Hosie has confirmed that the SNP will now put in an amendment for a version of Home Rule one step from independence.

He said: "We will be putting in an amendment to achieve it full fiscal. It is just a matter of finding an acceptable form of words.

"We think we have found that but if not we will come back with a different form."

The decision comes after Hosie and Deputy First Minister John Swinney suggested that they would seek to just improve the Scotland Bill and then enter "negotiations for the rest of the powers" after the bill had been passed.

“They want to have their cake and eat everyone else’s” said a Downing Street source.

Tuesday 2 June 2015

Charles Kennedy, a true Highland Liberal

Charles Kennedy campaigning with Willie Rennie on Byres Road, Glasgow, Sept 2014

Sad news from Lochaber this morning.

The death of Charles Kennedy at the young age of 55 will touch a far wider circle than his grieving family and the Westminster political village.

He was a decent human being, flawed like us all, who managed to combine his talent for political oratory with wit and warmth.

There are not many politicians who most voters in the country recognised and responded to with affection. Kennedy, the former leader of the Lib Dems and until last month MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber for 32 years, was that rare kind of politician.

Nick Clegg described him today as one of the most gifted politicians of his generation. In fact Charles Kennedy was one of the most influential politicians of his generation.

Under his leadership the Lib Dems increased their seats in the Commons from 46 to 62, the highest number of MPs they had since the 1920s.

Kennedy managed this by carving out a space to the left of Tony Blair’s Labour Party and by leading the opposition to the Iraq War.

More than any other leader Kennedy connected with the uneasy mood of the public in 2003 and translated it into skillful parliamentary opposition.

His was no mere political calculation, Kennedy’s arguments were principled and recognised by the public as such.

It was the same in 2010 when he opposed Nick Clegg’s move to take the Lib Dems in with David Cameron. Once again, on principle.

Kennedy got it right on the Iraq War and later he got it right on the coalition. How the Lib Dems will miss his wisdom.

Like almost every other Scottish Lib Dem Charles Kennedy was blown away by the SNP earthquake on May 7th of this year.

But Kennedy had caused a political earthquake of his own a generation earlier when he abandoned his post-graduate studies in America and stood for the new SDP in the  Highlands.

A week before the 1983 general election journalists at the West Highland Free Press on Isle of Skye took a phone call from the enthusiastic candidate.

The 23-year-old insisted that he was going to win the seat from Hamish Gray, the Tory Energy Minister and MP for Ross, Cromarty and Skye.

He was politely told his claim didn’t merit as news, and as someone who’d spent summers at BBC Radio Highland under the tutelage of the late Kenny McIntyre and Iain MacDonald he should have known better.

He didn’t get a hearing that week. He did the next week and for 32 years afterwards in Commons chamber, in television and radio studios and homes across the land with his consummate skills as a communicator.

Charles Kennedy cut his political teeth as a debater in Glasgow University, where he was President of the Student Union and won the Observer Mace in student world debating championship.

He would later return to Glasgow for two terms as University rector. The last time I met him was on a walk up Byres Road in Glasgow during the 2014 referendum campaign. On his old stomping ground Kennedy’s instinct, he joked, was to turn right up University Avenue and over the hill to the Union beer bar.

It was one of many self-deprecating references to his alcoholism, which blighted his career, tragically cost him the leadership of the Lib Dems in 2006 and later his marriage to Sarah Gurling.

Glasgow has a fine tradition of producing able political orators but Kennedy came from an older tradition of Highland Liberal radicalism.

Since organised crofting began in the 19th century, the Kennedys have been on the croft across the River Lochy from Inverlochy Castle with Ben Nevis towering in the background.

Local tradition holds that Charles’s forebears were about to emigrate to Canada, when the landowner Cameron of Lochiel intervened and gave them the croft, near Fort William.

Schooled nearby in Lochaber High, Kennedy was the modern day embodiment of independent minded Highland Liberalism which had its roots in the 19th century land struggle and the formation of the Crofter Party.

A bit like the SDP a century later, the Crofter MPs merged with the Liberal Party having achieved security of tenure in the 1886 Crofting Act.

Dogged ill-health meant that Kenendy could not play a leading role in the independence referendum last year. But as one of the most eloquent defenders of the European ideal, a nod there to Russell Johnston MP, he would have been back for the European campaign, you could be sure of that.

In recent times Charles Kennedy had a number of personal setbacks.

His mother died last year and Ian Kennedy, his father and a famous Highland musician, died in April just as the election campaign was gearing up.

In earlier campaigns Ian Kennedy would accompany his son on the hustings circuit from village hall to village hall, sometimes cutting short the oratory  to play another tune.

For his BBC’s Desert Island Discs Charles chose The Cameron Highlanders by Ian Kennedy as the one track he would rescue for life on the island.

He is survived by his sister Isobel, who lives in Canada,  his brother Ian in Caol, his former wife Sarah Gurling and his son Donald.