Johann Lamont

Sturgeon’s astonishingly risky EU intervention

SturgeonThe EU referendum was always going to be a tightrope for Nicola Sturgeon. The risks are manifold: saying something that could ultimately be used against her in future Scottish independence referendum; drawing attention to some of the more unpleasant elements of the independence cause; and appearing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Prime Minister, having previously denounced (and demolished) Labour for doing the same. I always therefore assumed that come the independence referendum Sturgeon, being more risk-averse than her predecessor, would restate her position that she favours British membership of the EU and then stay out of the debate. However, on Monday she delivered a most astonishing speech on Britain’s membership of the European Union – exposing herself to risks on all three fronts identified above, and more.

She acknowledged, though did not dismiss, the inconsistencies in arguing for a “pooling of sovereignty” with other EU Member States while not applying that same logic mutatis mutandis to the United Kingdom. The submission that “there is nothing at all contradictory about independent nations recognising their interdependence” is so packed with contradiction that only a true-believer could fail to spot it.

In the independence referendum the SNP hoped that we would suspend our better judgement and vote with our hearts, rather than our heads – and dismissed the pleas of those who urged us that we do opposite as cynical and negative. The irony of now making the instrumental case for a political union while dismissing the more emotive, nationalistic case for Brexit is clearly lost on her.

Sturgeon made the case for the EU imposing certain certain social standards on the UK (purportedly) against its will:

“In 2013 the UK only increased the minimum entitlement to parental leave as a direct result of European directives. There are other cases – for example minimum annual leave, and conditions for agency workers – where the UK complies with the European minimum and no more. Which begs the question without European regulations would minimum standards be meet the regulation at all?” [sic]

In other words, it’s OK for the European Union to impose laws on the UK that the UK has not voted for, but it’s not OK for the United Kingdom to impose laws on Scotland that Scotland has not voted for. I wrote previously about how the left was generally fine with surrendering control over the levers of power provided the levers are nonetheless pulled in a manner of their pleasing (such as the internationalisation of human rights). However, pulling the levers of power is the core purpose of the SNP and the independence movement. The SNP didn’t give up its pursuit of independence when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister even though Brown clearly enjoyed overwhelming support in Scotland. The fact that the levers of power were being pulled in a manner Scotland chose mattered not one jot to the SNP – what mattered most was who was pulling the levers of power, not how they are pulled – which is where the contradiction in Sturgeon’s position lies.

She continues:

“In fact, when you consider some of the UK Government’s other policies – for example its attempt to further weaken trade union rights – we should be thankful that the European Union sets some basic social standards.”

The 2015 General Election was remarkable for a number of reasons, though one result seldom commented upon is the fact that right-leaning parties won a majority of the vote for the first time since the war (though it was close in the 1950s). For Sturgeon to claim that we Britons should be thankful to the EU for imposing policies upon us that the people of the UK voted against at the last election, while simultaneously crying foul every time the UK pursues policies which “the people of Scotland did not vote for” is bare-faced hypocrisy, and impossible to credibly sustain. The very nature of a political community is one in which individuals and groups subjugate their own desires to the will of the community. The fact that Sturgeon is apparently OK with the principle of laws being imposed against a nation’s democratic will provided those laws come from Brussels and not London, is a conflict that cannot be resolved without exposing some fairly unpleasant truths about some aspects of Scottish nationalism.

Sturgeon further claimed that

“[t]he European Union is good for the prosperity and wellbeing of individuals, families and communities across our country.”

This is a questionable assertion, but whatever the truth of it in the UK, it is most certainly not the case in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, or Italy – where the EU has imposed swingeing austerity on these nations, usually against their will, in order to protect (primarily the financial industries of) Germany and France from contagion. How can a party that claims to be “anti-austerity” be so enthusiastically supportive of political institutions that have imposed the harshest austerity Europe has seen since the war? Sturgeon’s narrow, self-interested, view of the beneficiaries of the European Union doesn’t square with her support for a social Europe. I would also ask this question of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, though their support for the EU is, at least, considerably more tepid. This is a contradiction that Sturgeon conveniently glossed over in her speech.

Sturgeon tail-ended her extraordinary foray into the EU referendum debate with an interview with Channel 4 News. Sturgeon was asked what her supporters might think about her fighting on the same side of a referendum as the Prime Minister. She replied

“[i]f he can appeal to those who agree with him, I’ll appeal to those more inclined to my progressive social democratic view of the European Union – if that maximises the vote to stay in, all the better!”

Substitute “United Kingdom” for “European Union” and that line could as easily have been uttered by Jim Murphy or Johann Lamont.

None of this is explosive, though it certainly provides the SNP’s critics (for what they’re worth) with some ammunition. What’s most remarkable is that such a risky speech is entirely out of character for cautious Nicola Sturgeon. Plenty of other political leaders who have won landslide victories became over-confident. Ultimately, it was their over-confidence that was their undoing.

How the Scottish Labour Leadership contest should look (but won’t)

Perhaps the greatest service Tom Harris has ever done for the Scottish Labour Party is to try to flush out contenders for the Scottish Labour Party’s leadership, by declaring that if no one good stands – he will. While Deputy Leader Johann Lamont is widely expected to run others potential contenders like Ken MacIntosh, Jackie Baillie and Hugh Henry seem to have gone off the idea – and who can blame them?

Despite resistance from some MSPs the expectation is that the review led by Jim Murphy and Sarah Boyack is to recommend that the leader of the Scottish Labour Party can be drawn from elected representatives in The Scottish Parliament, Westminster, or the European Parliament. In theory that could mean a busy leadership contest with a wide variety of candidates, and a genuine debate about the future of the party – but I fear that may be wishful thinking. Here’s who I think should run, but probably won’t:

David Martin MEP

David is one of the most senior Members of the European Parliament, having been elected for the Lothians Constituency in 1984. He was Vice-President of the European Parliament and is currently a senior member of the Parliament’s influential Trade Committee. He could certainly take-on Salmond in Statesmanliness, having been one of Scotland’s overseas representatives for the best part of 30 years.

Now based in Bearsden David straddles the East-West divide quite nicely. He’d make an ideal candidate for Strathkelvin and Bearsden, as well as the West of Scotland list. Though he can often appear decidely middle-class he’s imbued with the sort of thoughtful socialism which the party has sorely lacked in recent years. He also appears to be well regarded by the press which, if this year’s election taught us anything, is a must.

Duncan McNeil MSP

My real outsider. A former colleage once said to me of Duncan McNeil that “along with Frank [McAveety], he has the very best grasp of ordinary voters out of everyone in the Scottish Parliament” – I couldn’t but agree. Absolutely no-one is suggesting Duncan as a potential leadership candidate but in my opinion, they should be.

Though he’s not necessarily a household name, Duncan is popular and often father-like figure within the Labour Group in the Scottish Parliament. A former organiser with the GMB, he was Government Chief Whip under Jack McConnell and was elected Chair of the Scottish Parliamentary Labour Party in the last Parliament. Duncan also played a prominent role in the recent Inverclyde by-election, and I’m pretty certain that were it not for his personal popularity Labour would have lost Greenock and Inverclyde to the SNP in May.

At 61, Duncan is unlikely to have the appetite to run, however were he to do so he’d bring a much-needed dose of reality to the debate about the future of the party.

Margaret Curran MP

Margaret Curran has been touted as a potential leader of the Scottish Party since she was Communities Minister in Jack McConnell’s Government. She was one of the favourites to succeed Wendy Alexander until she was harangued into running in the Glasgow East by-election, all-but ending any change of her ever leading the party. With the north-east of Glasgow losing a seat in the Scottish Parliament Margaret’s eventual election to the House of Commons helped avoid a messy selection battle between herself, Paul Martin and Frank McAveety.

Though she’s only been an MP for little more than a year Margaret has settled well into the Commons (and eventually got out of the habit of call the Speaker “Presiding Officer”!) Word on the street is she’s Ed Miliband’s go-to-gal on matters north of the border, and should receive the backing of Westminster if she were to throw her hat in the ring.

In government and in opposition the Party’s media team carved out a highly unpleasant “attack dog” image for Margaret, which in my opinion put-off more voters than it impressed. Since leaving the front bench Margaret’s managed to soften her image somewhat to reflect the warm and witty character that she is in reality. She has the experience and fortitude to be credible against Salmond. In addition to being popular with activists (in particular Young Labour and Labour Students) she has the vigour required to shake the party up internally, something which is sorely needed.

While Tom Harris may not be alone in wishing Douglas Alexander or Jim Murphy would stand, they’ve set their sights on senior jobs in the UK Government. If the party wants MP as its leader, it has to be Margaret Curran.

Ken MacIntosh MSP

In the days that followed the election in May Ken emerged as an early favourite for the leadership, though as I mentioned above he seems to have gone off the idea. He recorded an impressive result in May, regaining his notionally Tory Eastwood Constituency and turning a notional 2,000 vote deficit into a 2,000 vote majority – though it must be noted that in a Tory/Labour marginal Ken was fighting a very different fight from most seats in the country.

Prior to his election Ken was a producer with BBC News in London. His experience with the media is immediately apparent, and he impressed many with his witty-yet-considered stint on BBC Scotland’s election coverage. Yet despite his being the Labour Group’s star-performer with the media Ken’s talents have seldom been acknowledged by successive party leaders. Overlooked for ministerial office, the only post he ever held in government was as an unpaid parliamentary aide – a position from which he resigned over hospital re-organisation. Though having never been a minister could actually work in his favour.

From a tactical perspective, I believe that Alex Salmond would find it difficult to work out how to handle Ken. With his cheery persona and ‘family-man’ image (six kids, and counting) Ken could deflect the bluster of Alex Salmond far more effectively than anyone else. If the MSPs are determined to be led by one of their own then they should be doing everything they can to make sure Ken runs.