Politics gotta have soul!

Did you hear Kezia Dugdale’s statement announcing her departure from ‘front-line’ politics to become a name on the letterhead of the John Smith Centre for Public Service? Did you manage to hold on to your breakfast?

Her career having suffered a catalogue of self-inflicted setbacks and evidently weary of being just another British politician squatting in the Scottish Parliament on the seats nominally reserved for an effective opposition, Ms Dugdale informs us that she is now off to “lead” the organisation which bears the name of a Labour politician who, being dead and therefore immune to scandal, has been elevated to almost mythical status. If Kezia Dugdale’s role as director is more than a sinecure then I fear we may be about to discover that the name of John Smith is not as impervious to tarnish as some suppose. Where she leads, embarrassment and disgrace tends to follow.

With apologies to those of a delicate disposition, I offer Dugdale’s statement in full.

I have devoted my working life to public service, and this is an incredibly exciting new opportunity for me to lead the work of the John Smith Centre.

Throughout my career I have taken on tough and challenging tasks, and my next task is to help rebuild faith in our politics.

Disruptive events and the rise of populism has led to increasingly polarised and emotional politics where rational, evidence-based thinking has lost its standing.

Faith in public service, politics and the political process has to be restored and that progress must be sustainable.

Once we’ve waded through the cloying smugness and got past the self-congratulatory pomposity, perhaps we can see what is actually being said here. Kevin McKenna, writing in The National, has helpfully translated it into “no-bullshit English”.

Let’s all calm down and stop being nasty to each other. You won’t solve multi-deprivation, child poverty and health inequality by going on protest marches and shouting. These sorts of things will always be with us. Best to keep your voice down and train for a nice job in politics to ensure that Britain is protected from radical change. That way we all get to keep our nice second houses and find fancy non-jobs in places such as this.

Superficially, this just another of those exercises in self-righteous virtue-signalling bemoaning the asserted fact that politics has become too polarised and confrontational and aggressive. Typically, such utterances lament ‘division’ as if division wasn’t an essential characteristic of politics and deplore “disruptive events”, such as referendums, as if they weren’t a vital part of the democratic process by which we manage those divisions.

But listen more closely to the rhetoric of politicians and public figures who trundle themselves onto the media stage riding a bandwagon whose passengers are all trying to outdo one another in the shrill condemnation of ‘abuse’ and what you hear is a desperate desire to dictate the terms of debate and ‘manage’ political debate. It’s not about improving political discourse. It’s about controlling it.

It is surely no coincidence that the thinly disguised language of control over the political process used by Kezia Dugdale is also to be found on the website of her new employer.

Politics has become a discredited and disrespected process. This acts as a huge disincentive to talented people choosing to enter politics. People passionate to effect change will go elsewhere, and we will all suffer as a result. We need to act now: it is critical to the social and economic wellbeing of our country that the most able and willing to serve represent us.

The John Smith Centre

It may be my understandable distrust of anything associated with the British political system, but I cannot be comfortable with the thought of public policy being in in the hands of people who are being ‘prepared’ for this role by an organisation with a very particular idea of what public service means and how politics should be done. To the extent that “politics has become discredited and disrespected” not the least of the reasons for this is the rise of the professional politician. People who know much about political theory, and precious little of political ideals. People thoroughly trained in the method of politics, and little grasp of its fundamental purpose. People who are who are more concerned that politics is done in a particular way than than it is done for the right reasons.

Will political discourse be improved by being constrained by arbitrary rules contrived by people for whom political passion is anathema? Will political representation be improved by making it the exclusive province of people with degrees rather than people with dreams? Doesn’t it all seem desperately, depressingly soulless?

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Snakes and ladders

Kevin McKenna’s merciless excoriation of Kezia Dugdale in today’s National is well worth reading. His ire has been provoked by the revelation that Kezia Dugdale – one of the people best placed to rival Chris Grayling in the area of brass-necked ineptitude and unabashed self-aggrandisement – is to join what Mr McKenna calls the “travelling troupe of political opportunists who feed off our ever-increasing political sector”.

It’s a familiar story: an individual with vaunting delusions of competence, a sense of entitlement massive enough to sink the Isle of Arran and a cold, dark void where their self-awareness should be, manages, by the arcane processes of party patronage, to achieve some high office, Said individual almost immediately discovers the limits of their meagre capacities and proceeds to screw up in ways which are manifold and often quite inventive.

Eventually, either one particularly unfortunate cock-up or the aggregate of a proliferation of lesser ones, renders the situation untenable and obliges the individual to remove themselves from high office – or be removed.

By virtue of their undeserved elevation and the process by which it was facilitated, the individual is now part of the British political elite. (The term ‘elite’ having a special meaning in this context.) One of the defining characteristics of the British political elite is impunity. So, unless they are irrefutably guilty of an offence so heinous as to rule out a sideways move and make rehabilitation, at least in the short term, a bit of a challenge – running down old ladies with the SUV for sport; barbecuing babies (and serving them with the wrong wine!); cheating at croquet… that sort of thing – our individual cannot be seen to be suffering the consequences of their inadequacy.

Rather than being consigned to obscurity, the individual is ‘head-hunted’ by one of the think-tanks, consultancies or agencies which make up that “travelling troupe of political opportunists” mentioned by Kevin McKenna. Alternatively, and if the individual in question is sufficiently ‘high-profile’, they might launch their own consultancy… or whatever. The only requirements – aside from that all-important public recognition factor – are a modest but well-appointed office in the right location; a slick website laden with glittering generalities but so devoid of actual information that you actually feel it sucking the enlightenment out of you with every mouse click; and a handful of inexplicably generous ‘clients’ channelling monthly ‘retainers’ through the Murky Money Corporation of the British Virgin Islands.

It should be noted that this is seldom, if ever, a serious career move. It’s a stopgap. The purpose of the private-sector role into which the individual is parachuted is, not to provide long-term employment, but to be the base-camp for another attempt to scale the heights of the British ruling elite. Sooner or later, those practised in the manipulation of public perceptions will manage to waft away the stench of whatever shit-storm necessitated the temporary departure from high office sufficiently to allow a sleekit insinuation back into the public sphere. An appointment to a Royal Commission, perhaps. Or a sinecure with some quango. Maybe a seat on the Board of Governors of the BBC.

Like I said, a depressingly familiar story. The British political system is like a game of snakes and ladders where all the ladders are equipped with stair-lifts and all the snakes’ tails take the player to a point high on another ladder.

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BLiSsful ignorance

If you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperilled in every single battle

There are many reasons why British Labour in Scotland (BLiS) is so lamentably failing to address the electoral challenge of the Scottish National Party (SNP). But the ancient Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu, may have captured the essence of this failure in the aphorism quoted above.

As a political campaigning organisation pretending to be a political party, BLiS lacks that essential attribute – a clear vision of what it is and what it stands for. Like any organisation which so completely loses sight of its purpose, BLiS has come to serve only its own perpetuation. It no longer has any objective other than survival. It has no focus outside its own organisational structure. It has no locus other than the machinery of the British political system. It exists only because it has existed. And because its continued existence provides some sort of career prospects for a certain clique.

It’s not clear at what point BLiS ceased to be defined by the core principles of a socialist movement. With hindsight, it is possible to see how the Blairite obsession with power and expediency so weakened the links to these core principles as to leave BLiS ripe for transition to an organisation absolutely defined by jealous resentment of and visceral opposition to the party which offended its towering sense of entitlement.

Whatever the historical process involved, there is no denying where BLiS is now. It survives as an empty, hollow thing suspended in a limbo of political pointlessness; anchored to Scottish society only by the increasingly frayed and brittle lifelines provided by the British media. It has no political identity. It has no ethos. It has no plan.

From out of this void come voices every bit as vacuous as the organisation from which they emanate. Voices which speak, only to emphasise the absence of any meaningful message. To hear these voices is to understand just how bereft of ideas BLiS is. There is no coherence. Everything sounds as if it is being spouted on the spur of the moment. Not thoughtful responses, but impromptu retorts and off-the-cuff interventions.

There is a pervasive sense that, every time Kezia Dugdale opens her mouth, she is like an ill-bred child rudely interrupting a serious conversation between the SNP (along with a few others) and the people of Scotland.

As little as BLiS know themselves, they know their ‘enemy’ – the SNP – very much less. Because they know less than nothing. Here is Dugdale at her fatuous best addressing the BLiS conference,

That’s the difference between socialism and nationalism.

I know that where you are born is an accident of birth, a geographical lottery.

I can’t base my political vision on that.

I didn’t come into politics to help those at the top of Scottish society, just because they are Scottish.

Nor would I turn my cheek to a child living in poverty just because they are born on the other side of a dotted line on a map.

I came into politics to make sure that where you are born doesn’t matter.

I want a country where the place you are going in life isn’t determined by where you began your life.

That’s what being Scottish means to me.

It’s not the idea of Scotland that I love.

It’s the people of Scotland.

How to make any sense out of this! Never mind the fact that she can’t seem to make up her mind whether the people of Scotland are insignificant or all-important. Never mind the confusion in the argument that Scotland doesn’t matter and being Scottish doesn’t matter, but being a person born in Scotland does matter. Or does it? Who the hell knows?

There are rather disturbing hints here of distasteful ethnic nationalism desperately trying to disguise itself with sugary rhetoric.

But it is also clear that Dugdale is not addressing the SNP as we know it but, rather, some grotesque caricature of the party conjured in the minds of British nationalist zealots and those whose rancorous hatred of the SNP has crippled their intellect. It is clear that Dugdale does not know her ‘enemy’. It is obvious that she has completely failed to grasp the concept of civic nationalism.

What we have from Dugdale is, not so much a speech, as a collection of noises made by someone with nothing to say. Not only is there a complete lack of understanding of the SNP and its appeal to voters, there is not even an attempt at understanding. It is evident that neither Dugdale nor, as far as can be discerned, anybody else in BLiS has made any effort to understand their electoral foe. And this is why they are, in the words of Sun Tzu, “imperilled in every single battle”.

Such analysis involves asking questions. Most of all, it requires a willingness and capacity to question ones own assumptions. If Dugdale would better know her ‘enemy’ then she could do worse than ask herself this; if the SNP is as she imagines it to be, what does this say about the 115,000 people who have joined the party? Or the thousands more who have declared their intention to vote for the SNP – including members of other parties? What does it say about the 73% of Scotland’s people who say that they trust the SNP administration?In the heat of her anti-SNP fervour, Dugdale grossly insults the very people she claims to “love”.

BLiS has no clear idea of what it’s for. BLiS has no idea at all of what it’s against.

I’m pretty sure Sun Tzu would advise Dugdale to desist from mindlessly lashing out at the SNP at least long enough to have a stab at identifying what it is about the party that has struck a chord with the voters. He might even suggest that, having identified this factor, she attempt to emulate it in some way. We might suppose that he would counsel her to reflect on the possibility that it is not the larger par of the Scottish electorate which is wrong – as she persists in implying – but the SNP that is doing something right.

It’s a radical idea for BLiS, but they might consider respecting the judgement of Scotland’s people. The people know both sides. Only their assessment of the political contestants is of any consequence. And their verdict is pretty clear. BLiS might do well to heed what the people are telling them. That way, they may just get to better know their ‘enemy’. And themselves.

That’s the difference between socialism and nationalism.
I know that where you are born is an accident of birth, a geographical lottery.
I can’t base my political vision on that.
I didn’t come into politics to help those at the top of Scottish society, just because they are Scottish.
Nor would I turn my cheek to a child living in poverty just because they are born on the other side of a dotted line on a map.
I came into politics to make sure that where you are born doesn’t matter.
I want a country where the place you are going in life isn’t determined by where you began your life.
That’s what being Scottish means to me.
It’s not the idea of Scotland that I love.
It’s the people of Scotland.
– See more at: http://www.scottishlabour.org.uk/blog/entry/kezias-speech-to-scotlab16#sthash.WOYLRUSr.dpuf

Being irrelevant

I find it intriguing that we should be expected to take such a close interest in the views of the Scottish Tories’ leaderette. How things have changed! Only a few weeks ago, the Tories were generally regarded as a toxic irrelevance in Scottish politics. Now, due to the continuing precipitous decline of British Labour in Scotland (BLiS), Ruth Davidson seems almost significant.

But look at the underlying issue here and we find that it is the same problem that besets all of the British parties in Scotland. The question being asked of Ruth Davidson is to what extent she toes the line drawn by her bosses in London. The very same question as constantly hangs over Kezia Dugdale.

Take the analysis a stage further and we come to an even more pertinent question. Does it matter? Supposing the British Tories’ leaderette and/or the BLiS office manager in Scotland were to disagree with their respective superiors down south, what difference would it make? In both cases, it is what London says that matters. It is what London decides that will be effective. In every instance and in all matters, the Davidson/Dugdale double-act will be overruled by the Westminster elite. They don’t decide what party policy is. Neither is a real leader of a real party.

Davidson’s views on the British state’s latest round of punitive measures against the vulnerable matter only to the extent that disagreement with her bosses might offer a titillating diversion. It’s an opportunity for some finger-pointing and taunting. It’s no more than that.

Ultimately, Davidson’s policy preferences are of no more relevance than Dugdale’s. Both are mere front-persons for the British establishment parties’ operations in Scotland. They do not make policy. At most, they attempt to splash a bit of tartan paint on the policies set by head office.

Which begs our next question. How can the British parties in Scotland possibly have any meaningful role in Scottish politics when they are unable to formulate policies that are relevant to Scotland’s increasingly distinctive political culture?

Does it really matter to the people of Scotland which of the British parties occupies the seats reserved for the official opposition at Holyrood when, to coin a phrase, they are mere ‘conveyor belts’ for the policy agenda of a British ruling elite completely in thrall to neo-liberal orthodoxy and British nationalist ideology?

Dugdale dumps on doctors

Once again British Labour in Scotland takes the pish out of the people of Scotland with ill-thought, half-baked pronouncements that have more to do with grabbing headlines than offering cogent policies. Pretendy wee party loyalists and British nationalist fanatics will lap this up like Pavlovian dogs. Thinking people, on the other hand, will ask the pertinent questions.

Questions such as: is there actually a ‘crisis’ relating to GP appointment waiting times? British Labour in Scotland (BLiS) and their allies in the other British parties declare a fresh ‘crisis’ in NHS Scotland almost daily. And yet our health services continue to function rather well. Users of those services are, according to surveys, reasonably satisfied. While the British parties and their friends in the media constantly paint a picture of NHS staff of failure and a system in a state of collapse, the people who actually use NHS Scotland appear bafflingly oblivious to the catastrophe unfolding around them. You’d really think they’d be the first to notice.

Alternatively, we might conclude that the ongoing denigration of NHS Scotland by BLiS and their Tory allies is all malicious, politically motivated distortion, exaggeration and downright lies. So, when Dugdale starts screeching about yet another ‘crisis, we’d be well advised to be sceptical. Very sceptical!

The reality is that the majority of people get to see their GP in good time. Not all visits the the doctor are urgent. If it is, then most GP practices have arrangements for emergency appointments; or early/late sessions; or facilities to refer the patient to another doctor.

In many cases, it isn’t even necessary to see your GP. Increasingly, practice nurses are the appropriate person to see. Many have specialist skills. Some even have the authority to prescribe. Others have rapid access to persons who may prescribe on the strength of the nurse’s recommendation.

Pharmacists offer a Minor Ailments service and will often be able to provide advice and access to medication without the need for an appointment.

In short, there may not even be a problem, far less a ‘crisis’. And to whatever extent there is a problem, measures are already being taken to address this. I don’t doubt that there is scope for improvement in GP services, as there is in any endeavour. But I see absolutely no reason to put my faith in politicians who are all too evidently concerned mainly with petty politicking when we already have an administration which seems to be doing a passable job.

We might also wonder how feasible Dugdale’s ‘plan’ is, even if there was any pressing reason for it. We might ask pertinent questions such as whether GPs were consulted before she started making commitments on their behalf? At present, each practice has its own system for appointments. As must be the case with every practice being different in terms of number of doctors; number and qualifications of ancillary staff; facilities for various treatments etc.

Is Dugdale proposing that a Scottish Government under her leadership [a shiver runs down the spine] would impose on GPs a unified system for handling appointments? How would this work? Have GPs given their consent?

What about the cost? There surely will be a cost. Talk of online booking suggest yet another big government IT project. Experience tells us that those tend to be very expensive.

And the costs may not all be financial. What about the additional pressure on GPs and their staff? At present, people will be reasonable about appointments. If it is a non-urgent matter, they will be content to wait a week or more. A guaranteed 48hr waiting time changes the landscape completely. Bad enough if there is only the expectation of an immediate appointment regardless of need. Much worse if there is a contractual requirement for doctors to see patients within 48hrs without regard for clinical considerations.

This is reckless, irresponsible stuff from Dugdale. Once again she demonstrates that she is unfit for office. And that BLiS is unfit for government.

Honest debate?

It would be gratifying if the worst of the drivel in Kevin McKenna’s article was the stuff about the Scottish Government’s independence White Paper “over-stating oil revenues”. The term “overstate” implies wilful exaggeration. Which is, of course, utter nonsense. The kind of foolishness that can only come from those incapable of grasping the concept of a conditional statement. Many have sought to address this particular manifestation of stupidity. But it persists, nonetheless, among British nationalists and those journalists who unthinkingly subscribe to the cosy consensus of the British media.

But surely the worse folly is to suppose that the so-called tax ‘plan’ from British Labour in Scotland should be taken seriously.

I was at BBC Radio Scotland’s Big Debate in Kinross yesterday and, inevitably, this topic was raised. In the course of the discussion, various of the panellists mouthed words about the “need for a debate” about tax. Politicians resort to the “need for debate” rhetoric when they want to convey the idea that there is something wrong with current policy, but have no considered critique to offer and nothing constructive to suggest in terms of an alternative.

Cue British Labour in Scotland and their back-of-a-fag-packet tax proposal.

The media connive in the charade by pompously congratulating Kezia Dugdale for broaching a previously taboo topic. Like the subject of taxation has never in living memory been part of an election debate! Aye, right!

Let’s inject a bit of honesty into this “debate”. Let’s acknowledge what the real motive was behind this obviously fatally flawed tax proposal from Kezia’s kiddies. Let’s recognise that they knew damned well that it would be voted down by SNP, Green and Tory MSPs – each for their own reasons.

Let’s be clear that the sole purpose of the exercise was to give muppets like Blair McDougall and Duncan Hothersall an excuse to run around the social media playground pointing at the SNP and chanting, “You voted wi’ the Toh-rees! Ah’m tellin’ on you-ou!”, like the players in some obscene parody of Dennis Potter’s wonderful ‘Blue Remembered Hills’.

Let’s face it! This has nothing whatever to do with a serious debate on taxation. It is nothing more than yet another instance of the kind of infantile, petty, unworthy politicking that we have come to expect from the British parties in Scotland.

Next time will be very different

Willie Rennie MP addressing a Liberal Democrat...

It seems that both Kezia Dugdale and Willie Rennie have realised that there is definitely going to be another referendum. And that it is not going to be possible for British nationalists to deploy the same lying, scaremongering tactics as before. I suppose they are to be commended for their willingness to change. But let’s not be fooled into imagining that they do so with any enthusiasm. They really had no choice.

To a very considerable extent, the divide in the first referendum campaign was not so much between Yes and No as between those who had questioned the political union between Scotland and England and those who had never even thought about the matter. That is why there was never a coherent case for the union such as we were constantly being promised. You can’t make a persuasive argument for (or against) something unless you have first examined it; scrutinised it; challenged it. The Yes campaign was built on the foundation of a long tradition of asking awkward questions about the constitutional settlement. It drew on three centuries of internal debate concerning every aspect of the political union. The anti-independence camapign had nothing remotely similar.

The initial Better Together message was no more sophisticated than an imperious command to, “Just say NO!”. No need to think about it. The union is fine because… well… because it’s old! It’s all any of us have ever known. What’s the point in changing anything? Besides! Everybody knows that “Bigger is Better!”.

From there it descended into the grindingly negative litany of mainly economic doom-mongering (because nobody does doom-‘n’-gloom like a hired economist) that it remained right up to the final stages when, in a fit of panic, the infamous “Vow” was cobbled together, adding empty promises to the “smears and fears”. It was a campaign which would have shamed all who were involved, but for the fact that they were rendered impervious to shame by their arrogant self-righteousness.

The No vote was a triumph of fear over hope. But it was a hollow victory. At one of the counts in the miserable early hours of the Friday morning when the outcome was clear, I recall speaking to a senior figure in Scottish Labour who had the good grace to shake my hand and offer his commiserations. In my exhausted and distracted state, I don’t recall whether I actually said the words or merely had the thought, but it certainly occurred to me at that point that they had fought what was essentially a party political campaign. They had won that campaign. But, in the process, they had lost the country. How true that has turned out to be.

In the whole of the two years of the last referendum campaign the unionists never once addressed the fundamental constitutional question. The whole purpose of their effort was, not to win people over, but to brow-beat them into submission.

The next referendum campaign will be very different. To whatever extent there may be a single anti-independence campaign along the lines of Better Together, it will not be able to rely on the methods of Project Fear. It will be less able to avoid the fundamental constitutional issue. It will be forced to face intense scrutiny of the union, and try to come up with satisfactory answers to penetrating questions.

The No campaign, if there is such a thing, will be obliged to campaign on the basis of what the union actually is, rather than on the basis of luridly dystopian fictions about what independence might bring.

Dugdale and Rennie appear to have had it brought home to them that leaders who attempt a rerun of the earlier anti-independence campaign are highly likely to part company with members and voters who are now better informed and no longer susceptible to scare stories. They will be dealing with people more inclined to question the worth of the political union. They will be addressing an electorate that is less likely to be unthinkingly enamoured of the British state.

Dugdale and Rennie have had to accept that independence can no longer be represented as unthinkable. Because there are just too many people thinking about it.