Category Archives: Politics

The Brown Tory Trap

In an infuriating, but not unexpected turn of events, Gordon Brown has asked the people of Scotland to sign a petition demanding that the unionist parties remain true to their referendum clinching Vow of devolving significant additional powers to the Scottish Parliament.

It looks like a face saving panic measure from the former United Kingdom Prime Minister who asked the people of Scotland to trust a Labour party that no longer has a sense of its own purpose in Scotland, and a Tory party that has always been crystal clear on its purpose in Scotland, and who now appear to be seeking a way of making additional devolution for Scotland contingent on securing a ruling against Scottish MPs voting on English only matters.

Worse than this, they seem to be seeking a way of selecting the exact combination of additional powers that would have very little impact on Scotland’s ability to make the social and economic changes many people desperately want to see, whilst adding up to a reduction in Scotland’s ability to influence certain United Kingdom affairs.

So to be fair to Gordon Brown, despite the feeling that he tried to sell us out, there is a sense in which he is quite correct: fully devolving certain powers, but not others, would leave Scotland in a difficult position; it would compromise the effectiveness of Scottish MPs in Westminster and would negatively impact their ability to make decisions on key parts of the United Kingdom budget, for instance.

The problem for Gordon Brown is that there are people who believed that he was the lead figure on a promise to devolve significant additional powers, with no strings attached, in return for a No vote. It is not too difficult to imagine that there are many people who now believe that he has betrayed that trust and sold out the country he claims to love.

On the Saturday morning after the referendum, Gordon Brown made a triumphal speech in which he claimed to be too old to return to front line politics and too young to be seen as an ‘elder statesman’.

Regrettably for Gordon Brown, but more for the people of Scotland, you can play an unintended lead role in someone else’s devious game at any age. As far as the former Prime Minister’s career is concerned, he is now stuck in some kind of political no-man’s land. Exactly the state in which he has left his beloved Scotland.

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Cameron, the Queen and the Union

You get the impression that David Cameron would have responded to the outcome of the Scottish Referendum like an overexcited dog that cannot hear your voice.

His smug remarks that ‘it should never have come that close’, and that ‘the Queen purred’ at the news that Scotland would remain part of the United Kingdom, made me feel angry, sick and disillusioned.

Angry that the people of Scotland are now judged to have a settled will that making our own decisions is not in our best interests; sick that the Head of State took obvious delight in endorsing the outcome of the establishment’s relentless campaign of misrepresentation and fear; disillusioned by how easy it was for the Establishment to use its power to influence the democratic process to suits its own ends.

Had the majority of people voted against independence for the reason that they genuinely believed the Union was good for Scotland, and that its traditions and institutions were to be celebrated and preserved, then perhaps it would have been slightly easier to accept the result of the referendum and move on.

Post referendum polls make it clear that this was not the case. The majority of those who voted against independence were in the age group 55 plus; they claimed to have voted no because they were worried about the risks associated with such a significant constitutional change.

Most of the risks were exaggerated, the rest were simply made up.

To spook a country out of taking responsibility for its own affairs is not something for which a Prime Minister and Head of State should be indulging in self-congratulation. Particularly when it led to distasteful displays of victorious Nationalism in celebration of the British state.

The promise of significant new powers for Scotland is unlikely to amount to much, despite having a heavy bearing on the final outcome. Not only can the three main parties not agree on exactly which powers to transfer to the Scottish Parliament from Westminster, they have already started to throw other constitutional questions into the conversation to delay proceedings.

Cameron’s smugness should be tempered by the fact that almost half of the Scottish electorate voted for independence. That must send a very strong message to the party leaders in Westminster: the Union they firmly believe in does not work very well at all for a significant number of people in this country.

And if Her Majesty the Queen thinks she can purr like a cat in her luxurious palace whilst hundreds of thousands of children are growing up in abject poverty, then the Union has already used up eight of its nine lives. Independence is now inevitable for Scotland; it is just a matter of time.

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Promises of Additional Powers and the Fire that Didn’t Go Out

It might be tempting to think that the latest promise of additional powers for the Scottish Parliament would deliver the reality that the unionist parties consider to be best for Scotland – a stronger Scottish Parliament within a secure and stable United Kingdom.

Note that until this last minute promise was made, we had been led to believe that the best of both worlds for Scotland was a strong (not a stronger!) Scottish Parliament within a secure and stable United Kingdom. We already had it, we just didn’t appreciate it.

So which is it? Probably neither. It is difficult to understand how the Scottish Parliament could be strong at all when the United Kingdom Parliament retains the right to legislate on any devolved matter it wishes, let alone dissolve the Scottish Parliament within a matter of days if it felt the need to do so.

The offer of additional powers is just a cynical move designed to discourage the people of Scotland from reclaiming sovereignty, without which the notion of a strong Scottish Parliament is an illusion. A strong Scottish Parliament would be a permanent institution serving a sovereign people; that cannot happen inside the constitutional set up of the United Kingdom and there is no point pretending otherwise.

(For example, this is why the unionist rebuttal of the Scottish Government’s warning that the NHS can only be protected within the written constitution of an independent Scotland is misleading – it doesn’t matter if the NHS is fully devolved or not when the United Kingdom Government can still legislate on any devolved matter it wishes to.)

Alex Salmond is a very clever politician and like most clever politicians he often indulges in the type of spin and rhetoric that leaves even the most able opponent unsure if they are coming or going. Despite that, I think he is absolutely spot on this time. The last minute promise of additional powers for the Scottish Parliament is a sign of panic in Westminster.

I remember someone warning me once that you should never turn your back on a fire. You would never know for definite that it had gone out. A fire of discontent has been smouldering across working class communities in Scotland ever since Thatcher dismantled Scottish industry in the 1980’s and used North Sea oil revenues to subsidise this devastating programme of decline.

Successive United Kingdom Governments have had an opportunity to extinguish it once and for all, but instead they all chose to ignore it. A last minute promise of additional powers will only appeal to those too wealthy to have been affected by Westminster’s negligence in the first place, or to those too spooked by the perceived risk of constitutional change. For the rest of us, hopefully the majority of us, that particular fire didn’t go out.

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Contrary To Their ‘Values’

When Obama admitted this week that the United States did some things that were contrary to their values, he was specifically acknowledging that the CIA brutally abused some suspects and ‘tortured some folks’ in the aftermath of 9/11. Quite what the extent of that torture was would be anyone’s guess.

Yet his admission also seems to ring true with respect to supplying Israel with arms and billions of dollars in aid each year, essentially bankrolling the slaughter of innocent children and families in Gaza today. For obvious reasons, ‘we helped murder some folks’, is not an admission you would ever hear.  

Acting contrary to your values can also be a case of deciding not to take action, when your values demand that you really ought to. The United Kingdom should stand up and take a bow here too – in which possible world is doing nothing to force an end to the devastation in Gaza logically consistent with Cameron urging us to be ‘more muscular’ about the United Kingdom’s Christian values? Is the United Kingdom only a Christian country when being so isn’t damaging to the power its delusional leaders think it still has on the international stage?   

Given their form, it is incredible to think that neither the United States, nor the United Kingdom, have chosen to intervene more strongly to force Israel to stop destroying the lives of the ordinary people of Gaza; given the strategic alliances they have forged, some out of political expediency and others to protect market interests, it begins to make sense why they would be hesitant.

The United Kingdom is a key partner for the United States in Europe, and Israel is a key partner for the United States in the Middle East. Israel was at one point a useful tool for the United States and the United Kingdom in limiting the influence of Russia in the Middle East.

Israel’s democratic process stands out in that region, as does its commitment to the values, rights and liberties shared by the United States and the United Kingdom. Nor should it be forgotten that Middle East stability is a key condition for a strong and stable global oil market, with both the United States and the United Kingdom having special interests in that regard too.

Why have the United States and the United Kingdom not forcefully intervened to stop the atrocities in Gaza, as their form elsewhere would surely suggest that they should? Who knows – perhaps it just feels right to them that they don’t. And in the most sincere words of Obama, perhaps when we look back on this time we shouldn’t feel too sanctimonious – we cannot really understand the extraordinary stress and pressure certain world leaders are under to keep the world organised exactly how they like it.


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‘Neighbourhood Bully’

‘Neighbourhood Bully’ is the title of a song on Bob Dylan’s brilliant 1983 album, Infidels.

Released shortly after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, it was intended as an ironic response to the growing international condemnation of Israel for its tendency to retaliate with brutal and disproportionate force against attacks on its citizens and frequent Palestinian raids into its territory.

The central message was that despite how things appeared through the global press, Israel’s fundamental right to exist, and to defend itself when attacked, should not be denied:

“Neighbourhood Bully, he’s just one man

His enemies say he’s on their land…

He’s not supposed to fight back, he’s supposed to have thick skin

He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in”

Today, given the absolutely horrific situation in Gaza, the title seems less ironic. However, the song itself still serves a reminder that there are two sides to most stories and that we ought to be careful not to allow our judgement to be influenced by state sponsored media.

However, even if you were to take the message of ‘Neighbourhood Bully’ seriously in the 1980’s and find a way of justifying Israel’s heavy handed behaviour at that time – and I think you would need to have been extremely charitable to do so – the utter devastation and unforgiveable loss of innocent life caused by Israel’s current campaign would now make this impossible.

Without question, the situation in Gaza is utterly shameful and the Israeli attacks need to be stopped with immediate effect. Hamas militants also need to stop. Beyond that, however, it is difficult to imagine what a permanent solution would look like that would be agreeable to all parties.

In order to understand the enduring nature of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, it is worth taking a quick look at both sides of the argument, however weak or strong they may be. Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. When you start to dig beneath the surface, it becomes very difficult to unravel the various strands that form this very complex and highly volatile relationship.

Whilst the majority of us may never fully understand the subtleties of each side’s position, either because there are deeply cultural and religious matters at stake that outsiders will always struggle to penetrate, or simply because global politics often obscures local truths, it is nonetheless clear, and worth repeating a hundred times over, that there can be no justification whatsoever for the mass murder of innocent children and families. 

Israel might argue that it is justified in its campaign against Gaza on the grounds that the security of its citizens is under threat due to the intricate network of tunnels used by Hamas militants to gain access to Israel and because of the incessant rocket fire into Israeli territory.

Hamas might argue that these tunnels are necessary to secure access to vital supplies that have been denied to Gaza by the continued blockade of its borders. If Israel states that it wants to neutralise the effect of these tunnels, Hamas states that it simply wants the blockade to be lifted. This is too simple and we are obviously talking about short term objectives.

Scratching beneath the surface, Israel’s bigger concern would appear to be that lifting the blockade would allow Hamas to build up its military capabilities in order to achieve its longer term aim of destroying Israel – “Israel will exist until Islam will obliterate it” – because, as a radical Islamist political party with a militant wing, Hamas refuses to recognise the legitimacy of Israel and considers it a religious duty to struggle against Zionism and its expansionist philosophy.

Hamas’ concern is therefore that Israel wants to achieve a Jewish majority across the entire area within a single and unified state, reaching from Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea. This only hardens the resolve to put right the wrongs of 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were expelled from their ancestral homes and forced to flee consecrated lands, which the Islamic Resistance Movement describes in its Covenant as the Jewish “usurpation of Palestine”. It is most unlikely that they will ever be able to return to their home land, despite the Jewish diaspora being welcome with open arms.

It is all very complicated and there is no obvious solution to the problems here. There is too much distrust on either side to reach a peaceful solution within the existing framework. A radical rethink is required. A new overarching philosophy is needed, which would divorce nationalism from religion on the one hand – which seems impossible in this context, given that they are intrinsically connected in the Covenant – and which would embrace a different understanding of sovereignty and statehood on the other, allowing a complete reorganisation of the political communities in this part of the world – again this seems impossible in this context.

In the meantime, the ‘single state’ and ‘two state’ solutions will be proposed and rejected over and over again, Hamas will continue to attack Israel and Israel will continue to retaliate disproportionately. The rest of the world will continue to look on in horror as Israel continues to hem displaced Palestinians into a tiny strip of densely populated and blockaded land, destroying its economy and infrastructure, and murdering innocent children and families just trying to go about their daily lives.

Bob Dylan’s 1983 album Infidels contains another very powerful song, ‘Union Sundown’, a stinging condemnation of the political and economic practices of capitalist societies and their consequences for ordinary people and their families.

Dylan goes deep to the heart of this particular issue to remind us that those who hold the real power in this world do so, not because they have observed proper democratic process, but because they have the frightening capacity to control, bribe, manipulate or destroy whoever, or whatever, happens to be an impediment to the world being organised in exactly the way that suits their own despicable ends:  

“Democracy don’t rule the world

You’d better get that in your head

This world is ruled by violence

But I guess that’s better left unsaid”

It is worth thinking about this: perhaps there are other significant political communities in other parts of the world which, for a long time, have been content to allow the situation between Israel and Palestine to continue as it is, for whatever reason, and despite what they would have us believe when called to comment.

As long as the ‘world is ruled by violence’, the prospect of a permanent and peaceful solution will never be on the cards, and that is regrettable, shameful and unforgiveable.

I am delighted that the Scottish Government has offered to welcome refugees from Gaza and has also given £500,000 funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to provide water, food, shelter and medical assistance to the people of Gaza.

The Scottish Government has also urged the United Kingdom Government and the international community to do more to achieve a permanent ceasefire and have the blockade lifted…    

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‘Don’t Criticise What You Can’t Understand’?

To those who are deeply immersed in its traditions and institutions, Orange Order parades in Scotland are magnificent celebrations of Protestant culture and heritage. To those not, they are disruptive, offensive, provocative, sectarian and triumphalist.


The Orange Order has been an established part of Scottish life and culture for over two hundred years now. Whilst its annual parades celebrating the Battle of The Boyne are only a small part of what it does – charity work and supporting good causes are rarely mentioned – it is the parades that appear to attract the greatest amount of criticism.

According to Eddie Hyde of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland, such criticism is unfair; sectarianism is a myth in Scotland, and Orange Order parades are only provocative to those who do not take the time to understand why they are in the streets.  


So what are we not getting here? Why are they in the streets? If Orange Order parades are a celebration rather than a form of triumphalism, what exactly do these parades celebrate and why are these celebrations not intended to be sectarian, triumphalist and provocative?  


The Orange Order claims that its parades are celebrations of the ideals of Protestantism, which form the official religious and constitutional values underpinning the United Kingdom state. They are said to include tolerance of other faiths, individual liberty and democracy. Indeed, we have had David Cameron reminding us recently that we need to be more confident in promoting these ideals and values.


If we dig beneath the colourful and noisy surface, the point would appear to be that what is being celebrated is not a hatred of Catholics and Catholicism – despite appearances to the contrary – but the outcome of a series of battles and political events that established Protestantism as the official state religion in this country, thereby cementing a momentous shift in political ideology from absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy, guaranteeing civil and religious liberty for all.


Therefore, it would appear, the criticism that Orange Order parades are sectarian and provocative is unfair – they are not being triumphal about Protestantism being victorious over Catholicism, but are celebrating the Protestant faith, and the fact that Protestant values were central to the defeat of Absolutism and the establishment of Parliamentary sovereignty. That’s not a bad thing, is it?


I think this is as deep as we need to go. It is one thing to talk about celebrating Protestant ideals. It is another thing to consider how these ideals come to be embedded in the minds of some of the participants of the parades, and in some of its hard core loyalist spectators, and how they can manifest themselves in the form of hateful behaviour towards Catholics and symbols of Catholicism – or indeed to anyone who happens to be in the way at the time. In that sense, it can be very difficult to escape the criticism of sectarianism and triumphalism.  


The Orange Order in Scotland is registered as a permitted participant in the Scottish Referendum campaign, actively supporting a vote against independence. It also happily makes the point that it existed before political parties such as the SNP. That the Orange Order supports the continuity of the United Kingdom in its current form is hardly surprising, given that it celebrates the political ideology and religious ideals underpinning the union, in which it still considers Scotland to have a positive role to play.  


Orange Order parades are said to be celebrations of the religious and constitutional basis of the UK state. However, that way of thinking belongs to a period in history from which many people in this country have now moved on, and as such we need to ask the difficult question whether these values still form a sound basis today.


What about the idea of post-sovereignty and the late twentieth century shift in political thinking away from nation states and the unitary concept of sovereignty that is central to the United Kingdom’s constitution, to one in which sovereignty is divisible among multiple political communities, within which different cultures, religions and ethnicities are given space to participate on equal grounds?


The Orange Order is passionately committed to a union that cannot accommodate this shift in thinking. Whilst we are not fully in this new political era, there are signs that things are changing in this direction. Supranational institutions like the European Union are excellent examples of this and it is not too difficult to understand why the United Kingdom and many of its traditional institutions are struggling with it. Scottish independence would not fit well either.


Bob Dylan famously cautioned us not to criticise what we cannot understand, and perhaps this is what Eddie Hyde was getting at in his defence of parades. However, even if we do not, or simply cannot, understand what the Orange Order claim to have the right to celebrate in their annual parades, we should all be entitled to criticise any form of activity that leads to fighting, public disorder, multiple arrests and a twelve year old girl being hit in the head by a bottle.   



Should Scotland’s Catholics be concerned about Independence?

The question, ‘Should Scotland’s Catholics should be concerned about independence?’ has been raised again recently. There are at least a couple of strands to this question that I want to think about. One is whether independence could aggravate sectarian bigotry, and the other is whether an independent Scotland would sign up to a secular constitution.


Angela Haggerty discussed some of the issues in Bella Caledonia a couple of weeks ago:


Channel 4 News discussed the question this week:


It was also the subject of debate a couple of years ago, when the Scottish Government was struggling to get to grips with tackling what it understood to be the problem of sectarianism in Scotland. Many high profile Catholics contributed to that debate, including George Galloway MP, and the late Paul McBride QC. For ease of reference, here is a useful summary of what they had to say on the matter:


The crux of their concern was that independence could aggravate sectarianism. If the Scottish Government were unable to deal with this social problem adequately under the existing constitutional arrangement, how much more serious would things get for Scottish Catholics if the influence, checks and balances of Westminster were completely removed?


According to Paul McBride, this could ‘encourage an atmosphere where sectarianism could blossom’. George Galloway made a similar point, that ‘the break-up of the Union would remove a protection from Scottish Catholics that would lead to greater sectarianism’.   


Whilst I respect their right to hold this opinion, I have never fully understood the fear that existing sectarian tensions could increase, and matters made worse for Catholics living in this country, as a result of Scotland no longer being part of the United Kingdom.


I can understand it to an extent, in that there may be an early backlash and show of defiance from some religiously bigoted unionists who feel that they have had an intrinsic part of their identity ripped out of them. Perhaps this is the fear that George Galloway was expressing when he spoke elsewhere about there being sufficient numbers of ‘swivel eyed loyalists’ to make life difficult for Catholics in an independent Scotland.


However, if the problem of sectarianism already exists in Scotland as part of the United Kingdom, I am not at all sure why leaving the United Kingdom would make it worse.


We would need to be working on the assumption that the political and economic framework that created this problem in the first place has matured to the point that, although sectarianism still endures within it, that same framework has now become a necessary condition for keeping sectarianism under control. It is both the cause and the control. I am not convinced.


In addition to the perceived protection offered within the United Kingdom – absurdly, a constitutional framework predicated on anti-Catholicism – some Scots might feel that the English are generally more tolerant of Catholics, and therefore Scotland’s Catholics would immediately find themselves very much in a minority in an isolated and hostile country. I struggle to share this concern for two main reasons.


Firstly, whilst a large number of Scotland’s Catholics are Irish in descent and generations of Irish Catholics living in Scotland suffered terrible discrimination, particularly regarding social housing, rented accommodation and employment, and even in the streets as encouraged by official Church of Scotland publications, that aspect of the problem has certainly diminished over the years, even if the memory of it is still fresh among an older generation of Scotland’s Catholics.


What hasn’t disappeared are instances of religious hate crimes on some of Scotland’s streets and in social media. However we need to be very careful. Hate crimes judged to have been motivated by religious prejudice are often so intricately tied up with other socially destructive attitudes and circumstances that the true intent may not always be clear cut, despite the context and the type of language used in committing the crime.


Nor can such crimes be taken as a reason to think that things could get worse in an independent Scotland, without believing in the assumption that Westminster provides a higher level of protection for Scotland’s Catholics than the Scottish Government is able to provide on its own. However, when both concerns are taken together, I can understand why some people may think this way – one could be understood as a direct continuation of the other, with no end point in sight. 


Secondly, whilst certain unionist campaigners have been keen to draw attention to the SNP’s historical anti-Catholic roots (clearly forgetting those of the United Kingdom!) in order to raise suspicion about their plans for Scotland, Alex Salmond has repeatedly spoken in favour of faith schools, including Catholic ones, and recognises the positive contribution a faith based education makes to our society. 


There is no evidence to believe that this position would change because of independence, unless faith schools were to be forever abolished by the people of Scotland – including leaders and representatives of various faith groups that make up our society – demanding a secular constitution. Again, I am just not convinced by that concern.


Should Scotland’s Catholics be concerned about independence? Not any more than anyone else should be. Should Scotland’s Catholics be concerned about the future of Catholicism (in Scotland)? Possibly, but that is a different question and I doubt very much that the answer would have anything to do with independence.