Alex Salmond

The EU won’t change: whatever the result of the #EUref, the left has more to fear than the right

imageThe EU referendum campaign has been the weirdest in living memory. One day, David Cameron argues that we should stay in the EU as we “just don’t know” what will happen in the years ahead; the next, George Osborne confidently makes projections 25 years into the future. Lifelong Eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn now embraces his inner Europhile in an effort to placate his MPs. Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, and Boris Johnson now, apparently, want to throw cash at public services. Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon is making the argument that staying in the Union is better for jobs, trade, and investment – seemingly without a hint of irony. But perhaps it’s Alex Salmond, the most famous supporter of Scottish independence since William Wallace, making the argument that we should remain in the EU because otherwise Scotland will become independent, that takes the prize for utter ridiculousness.

However, aside from the somewhat strange positions adopted by politicians, there is a bizarre ideological contradiction at the core of both the “Leave” and “Remain” campaigns. That contradiction, quite simply, is that the politicians whose views are most in-line with the ideological underpinnings of the European Union are campaigning to leave, while those whose views are totally at odds with the EU’s direction of travel are campaigning to remain.

When considering an organisation like the European Union, there are essentially two orders of complaint.

The first order complaint is fairly ideologically neutral: that the European Union deprives the citizens of Member States of any direct say over matters that would usually be the subject of political discourse and division. Invariably, the main proponents of this argument appear to be drawn from the right. Complaints about the surrender of sovereignty can frequently be heard from the Conservative benches of the House of Commons, but seldom heard from the Labour benches.

The second order complaint is distinctly partisan, and from a left-wing perspective more worrisome: that having been deprived of any direct say over matters that would usually be the subject of political discourse and division, we have had imposed upon us a free-market ideology from which we are not at liberty to depart.
Though the preference for free-market ideology has been evident, in particular in judgements of the ECJ, since the early days of the EEC, the abandonment of the façade of ideological neutrality came during the 1980s. During this period we saw the entrenchment of a consensus that arose in the 1980s, when almost every Minister in the Council was drawn from the centre right. This consensus led to both the Single European Act and the Treaty of Maastricht.

In recent years, this ideological preference has become more overt. For example, in two recent cases before the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the Court ruled on a conflict between the rights of workers to withhold their labour and companies’ rights of free movement. Normally in cases such as these where two competing rights are in conflict the Court will grant a wide margin of appreciation to the Member State. However, in Viking and Laval, the Court ruled that the rights of workers were subject to the the rights of corporations, and not balanced by them. In doing so, the Court ruled that workers are only allowed to strike where it’s not too inconvenient for their employers. And there I thought the whole point of a strike was for it to be inconvenient.

The court further ruled in Viking that it was lawful for companies to discriminate between domestic and imported labour, thereby creating an incentive for companies to import workers from other Member States in order to undercut wages.

Of course, the most high-profile recent example of the EU’s ideological preferences can be seen in the treatment meted out to Member States who found themselves in fiscal trouble during the Eurozone crisis – in particular Greece. Having knowingly created artificially low interest rates in the so-called “PIGS” states, the EU institutions turned their backs on these states, insisting that “there is no alternative” to harsh austerity measures. Of course, there was an alternative – but one which would involve unpicking the ideological preferences of the EU.

The left consoles itself with the socialist scraps thrown from the EU’s capitalist table – such as directives on working time, maternity pay, and roaming charges. However, the left ignores the fundamental entrenchment of neoliberalism that the EU mandates.

Thanks to the EU, the most basic instruments of left-wing governments have been neutralised, with the exception of tax and spending (although the Commission’s coming for that next). States are no longer at liberty to nationalise, regulate, or subsidise as they see fit. A left-wing government wouldn’t blink at rescuing Port Talbot steel works – but even if Jeremy Corbyn was Prime Minister there’s absolutely no chance his government would get Commission authorisation for supporting the steel industry. In recent years, too, we’ve seen the Commission clamp-down on airport subsidies, of crucial importance to many in Scotland.

Unlike in domestic politics, this ideological preference cannot be undone by a majority, even a relatively sizable one. A similar uniformity of ideology as was evident in the 1980s would be necessary before a reversal of this ideological choice became possible, let alone likely. Such uniformity becomes less and less likely as more and more states are represented at the Council.

It is surprising, therefore, that so many on the Conservative benches are so antagonistic towards the European Union, relative to those on the Labour benches. If Conservatives don’t like that their political autonomy over the ideological direction of the country has been stripped away, they can at least console themselves with the fact that the levers of power of which they have been deprived are nonetheless being pulled in a manner that is, for the most part, to their pleasing. For example, John Major’s government actually quite liked the EU’s deficit-limitation rules because they represented the entrenchment of “good conservative values”.

By contrast, the left is usually quite at peace with not pulling the levers of power themselves provided that they are being pulled in a manner of their pleasing (the internationalisation of human rights is a good example of this). But in EU Member States control over the levers of power has been surrendered and that power is being exercised in a decidedly right-wing manner. It is astonishing, therefore, that the Labour Party should be the strident defenders of the European Union, while it is the Conservatives who are amongst its harshest critics. The Labour Party has convinced itself that the European Union can be a vehicle for left-wing ideology when sixty years of evidence has shown that the opposite is, in fact, the case.

Normally the place for debating substantive matters should be the internal democratic processes of the organisation – that is to say, European Parliament elections. The fact that these questions have dominated the referendum debate, and not the more relevant question of what power (if any) the EU should exercise is testament to just what a democratic failure the EU really is. Despite the seismic political shifts that have taken place in Member States in the past 30 years – the fall of Thatcher and Kohl, the rise of New Labour and France’s Socialist revival, the end of sixty years of Fianna Fáil hegemony in Ireland, and the annihilation of PASOK by Syriza, to name but a few – the political direction of the EU has never changed. If anything, recent evidence has shown that despite rising disquiet amongst voters, the determination of the EU’s leaders to pursue a right-wing, neo-liberal, free-market agenda has become more trenchant, not less.

So the right should console itself with the fact that they’ll almost certainly be getting their way whatever the result. If we leave there’ll be a Tory government in Westminster unfettered by the interfering busybodies in Brussels and Luxembourg. If we remain the EU institutions will be vindicated, and the free-market ideology will become even more entrenched. For the left, it’s difficult to find a silver-lining in either scenario.

This blog is adapted from an article I wrote for Grapevine – available now. 

Cultural Identity, Sporting Achievement, and selling Scotland to the World

Reports have been swirling lately that the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport is for the chop following the Olympic Games. This, perhaps, is understandable given that the department has been the focus of much of the attention of the Leveson Inquiry. That there are problems in that department is undeniable, with Ministers and subordinates apparently working at cross-purposes. However, while there are undoubtable problems within this department, that does not mean that the various functions of the department are incompatible. I would argue that quite the contrary is true.

In fact, I’m mildly jealous of the DCMS. Not a sort of personal jealousy, but rather that England has a department which co-ordinates these inextricably-linked policy areas in a manner which simply doesn’t happen in Scotland. In 2003, Jack McConnell made Frank McAveety Scotland’s first cabinet minister for Culture, Tourism, and Sport – a role in which he was succeeded by Patricia Ferguson. During that period, the minister led the way in bringing the MTV Music Awards to Edinburgh, successfully bidding for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and the establishment of the Culture Commission which ultimately poposed the establishment of Creative Scotland. However following the 2007 election Alex Salmond scrapped the post and divvied up its responsibilities across a number of ministerial posts:

  • Linda Fabiani was created Minister for Europe, External Affairs, and Culture – outside of cabinet, working beneath the First Minister. Following the first re-shuffle Mike Russell succeeded her and became Minister for Culture, External Affairs, and the Constitution. Fiona Hyslop was demoted from the cabinet, swapping jobs with Russell, to become Minister for Culture and External Affairs. Following the 2011 election she retained her responsibilities but the post was elevated to Cabinet Secretary level.
  • Jim Mather was given responsibility for tourism as Minister for Enterprise, Energy, and Tourism – under the Finance Secretary. He was succeeded in this post by Fergus Ewing.
  • Shona Robison gained responsibility for Sport as Minister for Public Health – under the Health Secretary. Following the 2011 election she retained responsibility for sport as Minister for Commonwealth Games and Sport – again under the Cabinet Secretary for Health.

The logic in this division has always escaped me. Major Events strategy is the responsibility of the Culture Secretary, EventScotland is accountable to the Enterprise Minister. With the exception of the second Homecoming Scotland (largely a tourist focused venture, although why we’re hosting a second when the first was such an abject failure is beyond this writer), sporting events dominate the coming years. The Commonwealth Games are to be held in Glasgow in 2014 and, following that, the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles. In addition to the ministerial dis-joinder, the the administrative organisation of responsibilities in the Scottish Government is even more erratic – the broader question about which requires greater consideration than I can give it on my meagre blog.

“Housing and Regeneration, Culture and Commonwealth Games” is within the Directorate for Governance & Community. Oddly enough despite being in the name, Culture isn’t actually within that division at all! Arts & Culture fall within the Directorate for Strategy & External Affairs. Tourism is within the Directorate for Enterprise, Environment & Digital – which at least vaguely ties in with the responsibilities of the Enterprise Minister.

Anecdotally, I recall an occasion in which the researcher to the MSP for Greenock, who wanted to submit a series of written questions relating to the Tall Ships Races in his constituency but didn’t know to whom the questions should be addressed. Sailing is a sport (therefore the responsibility for the Public Health Minister), I reckoned, but the event is supported by EventScotland (Enterprise Minister), but one of the questions relates to Major Events Strategy (Culture Minister). Stumped, I contacted the Cabinet Directorate who didn’t, initially, know who was responsible either! Eventually I was advised to separate the questions and submit them to the most appropriate minister for each. This certainly does little to instil confidence that government decision-making in such matters is coherent or co-ordinated.

Certainly, I find it astonishing that the minister for the Commonwealth Games and Sport works beneath the Health Secretary, rather than the Culture Secretary (who has no supporting ministers). It also affirms what many within the upper-echelons of Scottish Sport suspect, which is that the Scottish Government is more concerned with sport being a tool for tackling Scotland’s obesity problem than with the development of elite sport, which is inextricably linked to cultural identity and Major Events Strategy.

The job of the Tourism Minister is principally to sell Scotland to the world. For a small country like Scotland cultural identity is crucial to that job. I was lucky enough to attend the Olympics in Sydney in 2000, and since then I have never been in any doubt about the contribution that sport can play, too, in developing and promoting a nation’s cultural identity. London is proving that again. If one asks why we seek to promote culture and sport the connection between cultural identity, sporting achievement, and national identity becomes obvious – to help sell our nation to the world.

A single cabinet minister for Culture, Tourism, and Sport could better perform those three roles together than three ministers working to different ends.  When one considers that cultural identity is as crucial as sporting achievement to selling Scotland abroad,the merits of a single Minister for Culture, Tourism, and Sport become obvious.

By way of background to this post, I previously worked on culture policy in the Scottish Parliament. In addition, my father is a former Olympian and is presently the President of his sport’s governing body – I grew up in a house dominated by the politics of sport. The only thing that qualifies me to write about tourism is that I like going on holiday, I suppose.

Independence: Time for a Substantive Debate

There will be a referendum on Scottish independence. This fact, I fear, so many in my party have yet to grasp. It’s understandable given that the SNP have already been in power for over four years, and were presented with an offer (the sincerity of which I would doubt) of Parliamentary support for a referendum by Wendy Alexander. It’s clear that Alex Salmond’s government aren’t in any rush to hold a referendum, knowing full well what a “no” vote could potentially do to his party, and the present timetable puts the holding a referendum eight clear years after the SNP first winning power. Nonetheless the SNP’s healthy majority in the Scottish Parliament means Alex Salmond has no excuse for not holding one by the end of this Parliamentary session.

With the exception of Henry McLeish’s recent intervention, the constitutional debate thus far has focused on the timing of a referendum, as well as a somewhat binary argument about the merits of separation. Very little regard has been paid to the substantial questions surrounding what an independent Scotland would actually look like. This, I suspect, is largely to do with an apprehension on the part of unionist parties towards accepting independence as a premise for discussions about Scotland’s future for fear of lending it credence. The SNP, meanwhile, are quite content for the details to be deliberately vague, allowing them to focus instead on populist arguments about sovereignty and self determination. I would contend, therefore, that without a serious debate about what sort of society an independent Scotland would actually look like then the unionist cause is doomed to failure.

So far, the only template we have to work from is the SNP’s Constitution for a free Scotland drafted in 2002. Oddly enough this hasn’t received very much attention since the SNP came to power, from politicians or scholars alike – with the exception of Bulmer’s recent study in Parliamentary Affairs. Written by former leader Bob MacIntyre and renowned constitutional scholar Sir Neil McCormick, the document appears at least to have entered SNP canon.

On the whole the document largely follows the Westminster model. It provides for a Constitutional Monarchy, with Crown prerogative being exercised by the Executive who, in turn, are drawn from the unicameral legislature. This approach is understandable given the desire of nationalists to present independence as being as unfrightening as possible. However this in itself poses the question: if you’re going to design a system from scratch, why on earth would you choose the one we’ve got?

My comrades in the Labour Party will testify to the fact that I’m most certainly not a republican in so far as the United Kingdom is concerned however it strikes me that the arguments which are usually proffered in favour of retention of the monarchy, being tradition and tourism, don’t really apply. The Constitution also provides that :

During any period of absence of the Monarch from Scotland, the Chancellor of Scotland (the elected presiding officer of Parliament) shall act as Head of State

Given that we could expect the Sovereign to be absent from Scotland for the vast majority of every year the Presiding Officer of Parliament would inevitably become the de facto head of state. This compromise between the traditional role of the monarch and an indirectly elected head of state seems to be imbued with the worst of both worlds – lacking the legitimacy of a directly elected head of state or the credibility of the British Sovereign.

Alex Salmond regularly asserts upon swearing his oath that he believes in the “ancient Scots Constitutional Principle that the people of Scotland are sovereign” (though where in our present constitution he finds that principle is beyond me) – why, therefore, would we design a system where sovereignty appears to flow from the top? There is no basis in popular sovereignty for the concept of “crown prerogative” and yet that is precisely what this constitution provides for.

Turning to the legislature, the Constitution provides for a single chambered parlaiment with committies similar in character to those in the present Scottish Parliament. It attempts to stymie the power of the majority in the legislature by providing that any measure can be delayed for 18-months by a two-fifths majority in Parliament. This, surely, simply means that governments will force through their least popular legislation legislation early in the parliamentary session and and the tail-end of any session could well end up being gridlocked. Furthermore, the committees appear to have no greater role than they do in the present Scottish Parliament. While the work of some of the committees over the past 12 years is to be commended they have not, on the whole, proved to be the effective check they were supposed to be.

Insofar as local government is concerned the draft constitution says little, but what is does say contradicts itself. It guarantees local government “genuine autonomy” from central government, yet in the same clause gives parliament a general power to legislate for local government – presumably including to potentially scrap it. Surely genuinely autonomous local government would be prescribed by the constitution, with its powers, functions and revenue guaranteed therein?

I offer these merely as illustrations of the various questions that surround Scotland’s constitutional future. Nationalists propose independence as a means of delivering a new Scotland, but you barely have to scratch the surface to see that what’s on offer hardly differs from the Scotland we’ve got. Political parties need to fully engage not simply with the question of whether or not Scotland should be independent but of what that independent Scotland would look like. For the nationalists it’s a chance to paint a new picture, of a daring new political structure where sovereignty genuinely flows from the people. For the unionists it’s a chance to highlight how shallow the change that’s on offer really is. Which ever side of the debate does this first will likely win the argument.