Category Archives: Columns

At Christmas Time, Let’s Remember That All The Major Problems We Face Need International Solutions; And That A Purely National Politics Has Become The Refuge Of Those Who Would Deliberately Obscure Reality – Column 24.12.15.


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 24.12.15

TWO LEADING London newspapers are spread across my desk, on the day before Christmas Eve. One one front page, there’s an image of a British soldier sheltering his face from a dust-storm in Helmand province; it accompanies the news that a year after our final departure from Afghanistan, British boots are back on the ground near Sangin, the Afghan town now once again in danger of falling to the Taliban.

And the other newspaper carries an image – the image of the year, many might say – of another boatload of refugees making landfall on the Greek island of Lesbos. They are blonde, dark, mostly youngish men, with a few young women and chldren; and soon, they will be making their way north and west, to Germany, Sweden, Britain. Some of these refugees – or their cousins from camps on the Syrian border – may eventually make their homes here in Scotland, or will join the steady flow into the south-east of England, changing UK domestic politics for both good and ill.

For this has been the year when – to paraphrase Trotsky – you may not have been interested in world affairs, but world affairs began to seem ever more interested in you. Even when we were not watching images of war in Afghanistan or Syria, or of refugees risking their lives to reach Europe, it was a year when we felt our global connections and responsibilities tug at us every more keenly and painfully, from the twin Paris tragedies of the Charlie Hebdo shooting and the 13 November attacks, to the great climate-change conference, also in Paris, that ended the year; ask a shop-owner in Cumbria, flooded out for the third time in a month, whether he or she has any interest in the climate talks, and you may get a very different answer from what you might have expected a decade ago.

Yet if the sheer scale of these crises is beginning to change our news agenda, it often still seems barely to impinge on our politics. Last month, when Britain made its decision to join in anti-IS bombing raids in Syria, Britain’s political class discussed the matter almost entirely in terms of what the debate revealed about the depth of the current split in the Labour Party.

And although our leading politicians now spend a huge proportion of their time in international meetings, negotiating joint responses to these various crises, it stiil seems that for many – both politicians and voters – the first reaction to any global trouble is to suggest that we can sling up a political and psychological drawbridge, “bring power back home”, “get control of our borders”, and keep a troubled world at arms’ length. Anti-immigrant parties do well in elections across Europe – although not so well as some eagerly predict; some countries in south-eastern Europe, notably Hungary, have even shamed themselves by rebuilding the kinds of physical walls and fences from which our continent, after 1989, was supposed to be free at last. And even in Scotland, despite a widespread understanding that any form of nationalism is best combined with a robust internationalism, we still tend to look inward in our daily politics; as if the austerity budget just delivered by John Swinney was some mere domestic problem that could be solved by independence, or by a more robust use of devolved powers, rather than a symptom of a Europe-wide malaise.

It looks, in other words, as if patriotism – long recognised as the last refuge of a scoundrel – has now become something worse: the deliberately deceptive politics of those who wish to obscure the reality of the world we live in, and to offer the false prospect of a nation somehow protected from global change. Almost all mainstream parties, in all nations, are guilty of peddling this illusion to some extent. And because they are made up of representatives from these same parties and governments, our international institutions – the bodies which should be powerful enough to take on and solve the global problems we face – are both weaker than they should be, and perilously short of the kind of scrutiny that might be provided by a genuine international grassroots politics, with media to match.

None of these ideas are new, of course; my father and many of his generation returned from the Second World War convinced that “world government” was the only real answer to the huge issues of justice and freedom they had glimpsed in that global conflict. And although there have been so many bitter and catastrophic failures since then, it’s perhaps worth remembering two things, at Christmas, about the global institutions – still relatively new, in the long view of history – that were founded in the aftermath of that war, including the United Nations.

The first is that for all their flaws, these institutions do also have their successes; it’s simply that when when they succeed, we hear nothing of the absence of war and catastrophe that is their greatest achievement. And although agreements like the COP21 climate deal reached in Paris are deeply flawed, they represent a level of international recognition of a shared problem, and an intention to deal with it, that surely signals progress, however dangerously slow.

And the second is that a global politics will only really emerge when there are millions upon millions of global citizens actively demanding it, and increasingly rejecting the brittle and strident old lies about national power and self-sufficiency that still so distort our politics. The truth is that there is not a single problem mentioned in this column that can be solved entirely at national level. If they are solved at all, it wil be by vigorous coalitions of the local and the global, supported by regional and national governments that use their powers well, to put themselves on the right side of history. And as we look, this Christmas, into the faces of those arriving refugees who could – but for the grace of God – be ourselves, or our loved ones, we should know this: that human kind is a family, however vast and fractious; and that sooner or later, we must sit together around the same table to solve our problems, lighting our traditional candles of meeting, celebration and talk, against all the forces of the dark.


This Week’s Scottish Budget Reminds Us That Governments Can Now Do Little But Pass Their Disempowerment Down To Communities And Individuals; Paradoxically, Re-Empowerment Has To Begin From The Bottom Up – Column 18.12.15


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 18.12.15

IN A SMALL PARLIAMENT of just 129 members, in a small northern country, the finance minister stands up to deliver an annual budget statement for an age of “austerity”. He’s a good enough technician, this finance minister; and he delivers a budget that balances the books within the legal parameters of his job. There’s no evidence, of course, that he wants to make most of the spending cuts he is making; indeed less than year ago, his gifted party leader ran a stunningly successful election campaign based entirely around their party’s total opposition to the cult of austerity. Yet he makes them anyway, slashing local authority spending here, trimming the arts and culture budget there.

And although the pressure of day-to-day politics compels the opposition parties in the chamber to talk as though these cuts were entirely the consequence of this particular government’s malice and incompetence, the truth is that this finance minister is not alone. All across Europe, since 2008, this kind of scene has been played out in many small nations and national regions, often with far greater levels of despair and acrimony; in Greece during the summer of 2015, or in Ireland in the bitter winter of 2010-11, when a nation that had once fought so doggedly for its independence had to watch as the high officials of the IMF and European Central Bank walked into their corridors of government, and started – as a condition of the nation’s bailout – to ask the most detailed questions about why they had not cut this rural bus service, or that element of GPs’ pay.

There was, of course, no real “need” for any of these cuts; if Europe had adopted the same path of mild expansion taken by Barack Obama’s United States in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, most of these corrosive attacks on basic household incomes and essential social infrastructure could have been avoided. Instead, though, Europe – including the semi-detached UK – chose to make the public sector, and the poorest citizens who depend most on it, pay for the failures of the world’s largest financial corporations and institutions; and the scene was set not only for the humiliation of Greece and Ireland, but for the much less dramatic – but perhaps equally humiliating – scene played out in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday.

And the question that arises now is exactly how those of us who reject the austerity mantra – including what now seems ike a majority of the world’s senior economists – can do to help governments at any level escape from this trap of institutionalised miserabilism. The opposition parties at Holyrood, of course, would say that the answer lies in John Swinney’s own hands; he has the power to raise the basic rate of income tax, and should use it. Yet the fact that that is his sole other major policy option only highlights his impossibly small room for manoeuvre; a rise in the basic rate of income tax hits hardest at average earners, and after three decades during which any surplus value in our economy has been steadily shifting from ordinary wages into bonuses and dividends, average earners often now struggle to make ends meet.

The truth is, in other words, that for all the talk of “new powers” for Holyrood, it’s a stench of fundamental disempowerment that hangs over most of our elected political authorities today. And it’s no accident that John Swinney’s most striking single act, in this year’s budget, was simply to pass that misery on down to the next layer of increasingly discredited government, Scotland’s once-proud local authorities; now utterly bereft of their own financial powers, hemmed in by regulatory and financial restrictions, and largely reduced to the status of an under-funded delivery agency for central government policy.

And if it’s at local level that the consequences of this negative cycle of disempowerment can be seen most clearly, then it’s also at local level that the fightback against it has to start. At the moment, the parlous state of Scotland’s local authorities – often mirrored across the UK – has a profoundy negative effect on the self-esteem of citizens; they come to believe that they live in a community of numpties represented by numpties, that they and their neighbours are powerless to improve their own shared lives, and – in a profoundly authoritarian and anti-democratic shift – that we are therefore better to leave decision-making to the big boys of the planet, such as the Westminster and US governments, and their friends in the corporate world.

Yet as we learned during last year’s Scottish referendum campaign, there is also positive alternative to that vicious downward spiral of disempowerment, in which ordinary citizens – once they glimpse the possibility that they might actually be able to change their communities for the better – unleash huge waves of political energy, capable of transforming political landscapes, re-empowering the politicians who represent them, and, given the right alliances, perhaps even eventually winning the changes we need in global and international structures. No one imagines, of course, that harnessing and sustaining those energies will be easy, particularly in a nation sharply divided over the issue of independence.

Yet if we want a resilient, progressive and democratic politics for the 21st century, there is no other route than to rebuild it from the bottom up. At the grassroots, Scotland is a nation with strong civic traditions, and huge potential for local action in areas from green energy to food poverty, and the loving care of the elderly. And if we want to reclaim some element of power over our shared lives – through revitalised and much more “local” local institutions, through a Scottish government that gains positive power from the people rather than passing negative decisions down to us, and through more democratic and creative layers of government beyond that – then the grassroots is where we have to start: first, by saying a firm internal “no” to the authoritarian technocrats of the current world order, who tell us our role is to stay at home and take our medicine; and secondly, by putting our feet on the ground in the communities where we live, believing in the dignity, capacity and creativity of the people around us, and getting to work.


COP 21 In Paris Was A Festival Of Fine Talk: But Real Moves To Tackle Climate Change Need Long-Term Policy And Strong Government, Unafraid Of Corporate Lobbying-Power – Column 11.12.15.


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 11.12.15

IT’S JUST ONE online report on this week’s huge climate change conference in Paris, universally known as COP21; but the headline seems to sum up the whole strange event, with its fine words, and conspicuous lack of guaranteed action. “No-one here believes this deal will save the world,” it says, before going on to outline a few positive outcomes.

Yet in truth, since “saving the world” from a catastrophic global warming of more than 2 degrees was precisely the aim and remit of the conference, the fact that it has not agreed the necessary rapid and enforceable decline in carbon emissions means that it has failed, in a way that may have horrifying consequences for future generations.
When it comes to the politics of climate change, though, contradictions on this scale are the name of the game. During the Paris conference itself, David Cameron was to be heard boasting of the British government’s green credentials, while at the same time, back home, drastically reducing government support for the development of renewable energy. Major oil companies declared themselves all signed up to the 2% global warming target, but in private admitted that if that target was to be reached, most of the untapped oil assets they own would have to stay in the ground, with catastrophic consequences for the shareholder value on which their business plans depend.

And here in Scotland – well, our own government is no slouch in the contradiction business, as the First Minister takes the train to Paris to talk a brilliant game at COP21 on her government’s ambitious carbon reduction targets, greatly enhancing Scotland’s “green” image abroad, but comes home to reply only with evasions to a well-phrased question from Labour MSP Malcolm Chisholm about the likely environmental impact of the government’s planned reduction in Air Passenger Duty. And she goes on to talk not only of the importance of continuing economic growth, but also of the absolutely vital importance not only of speedily re-opening the stress-fractured 50-year-old Forth Road Bridge that has become the defining symbol of Scotland’s current over-dependence on road transport, but also of opening the Scottish Government’s second Forth road crossing, itself once opposed by Green groups on the very reasonable grounds that whatever Scotland’s long-term sustainable transport future involves, it cannot be ever-rising volumes of road traffic, with ever more roads and bridges built to accommodate it.

As many leading Green campaigners have noted, though, when it comes to climate change, “cognitive dissonance” is still the norm, as governments and corporations increasingly recognise the reality of the phenomenon, but remain locked into systems that prevent them from dealing with it. There are still deniers around, of course. Yet this week, even Dame Julia Slingo, the Chief Scientist at the UK’s famously cautious Meteorological Office, confirmed on BBC radio that it was likely that climate change was causing Britain’s usual westerly winter weather to produce much higher rainfalls than in the past, sometimes by a factor of six or seven; and that will not come as news in parts of Cumbria and the Borders, where more than half of Edinburgh’s annual 26-inch rainfall fell in a single night last weekend.

It seems obvious, in other words, that we urgently need to break this climate Catch-22 between understanding and action; the trouble is that every aspect of our current politics seems designed to make it ferociously difficult for govenments to escape from this trap. In the first place, our governments are all but lobbied to a standstill by big energy and other corporations which may talk the talk of environmental responsibility in public, but which tend privately to oppose most of the practical measures that might actually place a higher price on the environmental resources they use, or destroy.

Then secondly, our electorates have themselves, a bit like the Forth Road Bridge, been robbed of resilience and flexibility by decades of corrosion of the public sphere, and deliberate reduction of the public investment that cushions people through rapid social change. In an age of institutionalised pay-cheque anxiety, where housing is expensive and employment insecure, most people are fearful of any change that might push their precarious finances off the rails, and inclined to vote for short-term stability, whatever the eventual cost.

And then finally, there is the growing structural weakness of our governments, which renders them unable to resist the huge lobbying and popular pressures they face, even when it is clearly their duty to do so. It is no accident that the most rapid growth in renewable energy on the planet is taking place in China, where the government, once convinced of the need for a certain course of action, can simply go ahead.

And if democratic governments are to recover the power to deal with this crisis, then one thing that must stop, and stop now, is the reckless drive to reduce the size and power of the state still being touted by orthodox neoliberals across Europe, and driven in the UK by George Osborne’s frightening determination to reduce the British state to a pre-war level of 36% of GDP.

Every statistic available suggests that the best-performing nations on earth, in terms of both human development and GDP per head, have public sectors that account for around 45-50% of their economy; that balance enables the support of the kind of the kind of infrastructure a modern state needs, and makes space for innovation in public policy, whereas the Osborne route only leads to growing inequality and public squalor, and a paralysing politics of fear.

What’s needed now, and urgently, is a Europe-wide and global alliance of those polticians and parties, campaigners and emlightnened business leaders, who want to call a halt to this age of destruction in the public sphere, and to empower governments to take the steps all speakers in Paris now agree are urgently needed. And if anything useful comes out of this week’s Paris talks, then it might be that: a growing recognition that when it comes to climate change, we are all in the same sinking ship, and that if we don’t rapidly strengthen our collective and public capacity for decisive action, it may soon – and finally – be too late to bale ourselves out.


Tories Cheer As Unedifying Debate Over Bombing In Syria Exposes Depth Of Labour Divisions – Column 4.12.15.


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 5.12.15

IT’S DIVISION TIME on Wednesday evening, in the House of Commons; and Tory MP’s are clustering around the new hero of the hour, asking him to sign their order papers. The man in question is the Labour Party’s shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn, whose summing-up speech in favour of bombing in Syria has just been received with an unprecedented round of cheers and applause in the chamber.

In terms of content, it was actually a fairly undistinguished speech, although passionately delivered; a single paragraph of serious argument about the role of western air strikes in helping to halt the advance of Isis or Da’esh in Iraq, surrounded by a cloud of distressingly vague generalisations, from both current establishment thinking and Labour history, about the importance of fighting fascism. Of course, the Commons debate was not about whether we should fight fascism, but about whether dropping bombs on northern Syria would materially assist that fight.

Yet Hilary Benn’s overblown historical rhetoric – which included a particularly breathtaking analogy with the International Brigades who fought in Spain in the 1930’s – was just what pro-bombing MP’s wanted to hear. And it came, naturally enough, as particularly sweet music to the ears of Tory MP’s, in that it not only highlighted the current savage divisions within the Labour Party, but was delivered by the son of that great standard-bearer of the anti-war British left, the late Tony Benn. The sight of them breaking into delighted applause over his call for bombing was not edifying; but in the political pressure-coooker of Westminster, it was completely predictable.

About the military action to which the UK, as a nation, has now committed itself, there are many things worth saying, if we wish to keep the whole sorry situatuation in Syria in perspective. In the first place, it’s worth noting that our allies seem in fact to have been much less concerned about our decision than we were led to believe; eight tornado bombers more or less will not make or break the western effort in Syria, and the British political class urgently needs to adopt a more mature and realistic attitude to our role in the world.

Secondly, we should consider the truth that if it had not been for the lethal attacks in Paris on 13 November, the House of Commons would not have been debating this issue at this time at all. Attacks like the 12 November assault which killed more than 40 people in Beirut, or hundreds of deaths inflicted by the same fundamentalist forces in the cities of Iraq, do not move us to change our policy.

Yet one attack in a western city does move us; and what’s more, moves us to take a form of action we would not even consider, if those civilians likely to die as “collateral damage” to the bombing were British, American or French. And it’s that unexamined hierarchy of sympathy and humanity – that profound, unthinking double standard about which lives matter and which do not – that surely acts as the most effective recruiting sergeant for every kind of anti-western fundamentalism, in the west and far beyond.

Then thirdly, whatever else we are doing in this matter, we should be clear that 99% of us here in Britain are not remotely “going to war” in the sense that our parents or grandparents did in 1939, or for that matter in 1936, when brave individuals left for Spain, to become the ultimate “boots on the ground” in a bitterly-fought war against fascism.

What we are doing, by contrast, is settling down to what is becoming the routine spectacle of 21st century warfare, where small groups of British servicemen and women take part in military action far away, while we continue with our lives as normal, give or take some distressing images on the evening news. On Sunday night an enthralling session at Edinburgh Castle by a company called Theatre of War highlighted the huge pressure this kind of warfare places on the tiny minority who go into action on our behalf, and on their families; and we should never forget that they often pay, through their own pain and trauma, for our society’s profound confusion about whether it really wants to fight for its values, or just to watch others fighting, from the comfort of the sofa.

And then finally, we have the not unimportant question of the long-term political implications of Wednesday’s Commons debate, which seemed to mark a defining moment of schism in the Labour Party. In allowing Labour MP’s a free vote, Jeremy Corbyn may have felt that he was striking a blow for a new and more adult form of politics- treating them as elected representatives with a duty to make up their own minds, rather than party hacks to be whipped into the lobbies.

In the end though – and despite Mr. Corbyn’s success in winning majority support among his MP’s and Shadow Cabinet – Wednesday night’s events marked a clear defeat for any idea of a “new” politics. Instead, the disciplined ranks of the anti-bombing SNP looked good and even statesmanlike in the cockpit of Westminster, while the Labour Party looked a mess; worse, like the SNP during last year’s referendum campaign, the pro-Corbyn elements of the Labour Party are now being smeared by association with a few online loudmouths who have apparently been sending rude texts and emails to Blairite MP’s, threatening them with deselection.

It is, of course, more than ridiculous to hear Westminster MP’s complaining of “bullying” by vocal constituents, in a parliament whose internal whipping system has historically been based almost entirely on fairly crude forms of strong-arming and blackmail; some bullies, it seems, are much more acceptable than others.

On Wednesday, though, in the national theatre of the Commons chamber, Mr. Corbyn failed to find a way of making his new narrative work, for any but his most devoted admirers. And once again, a nation that desperately needs a strong, principled, and sensible opposition was left apparently without one – except, of course, the SNP, ever more open to question on its policies in Scotland, but now playing an undisputed blinder at Westminster; while the Labour Party stares into what looks increasingly like a final abyss of division, bitterness, and disarray.


John McDonnell’s Little Red Book Misjudgment Lets Handbrake-Turn Chancellor Off The Hook – Column 27.11.15.


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 27.11.15

ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL, this should not have been a good week for George Osborne. As he rose to make his autumn statement in the Commons on Wednesday, he was essentially about to add to his “omnishambles” budget of 2012 the “hand-brake turn” autumn statement of 2015; his plan was to ditch his crushingly unpopular decision to cut tax credits for low-income working households, and – in the aftermath of the Paris attacks – to abandon the forthcoming round of cuts in police spending, while still claiming that £12 billion a year could be cut from the welfare budget by 2020.

And if all this erratic road-work made his handling of the economy seem a shade like a Bullingdon Club night out, he had an excuse at the ready, albeit a fragile one. The Office for Budget Responsibility, he would say, had identified an additional £23 billion available for spending over the five years of the current parliament, to 2020; and although it amounts to little more than one-half of one per cent of all UK government spending over that period, the figure, totalled over five years, would sound impressive enough enough to spare the Chancellor’s blushes.

It was a seat-of-the-pants kind of plan, in other words, put together since the defeat of the tax credit proposals in the House of Lords last month; and the Chancellor must have been bracing himself for the kinds of u-turn headlines he did indeed get, in the early editions of some newspapers – the Telegraph’s funereal “The End of Austerity”, and the Mail’s “What Happened To Austerity?”.

Yet just at the moment of maximum political danger, for George Osborne and the Tory front bench, salvation appeared, in the shape of a dire tactical misjudgment by the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, tasked with replying to the statement. For instead of focussing ruthlessly on the Chancellor’s spectacular policy reversals and missed targets – and on the generally poor quality of the OBR’s recent forecasting – John McDonnell started waving a copy of Chairman Mao’s little red book, in a visual juxtaposition of left-wing Labour poltician and handbook for communist tyranny that could hardly have been less fortunate, from an image-making point of view.

Mr. McDonnell was trying, of course, to make a perfectly valid point about the Chancellor’s bizarre ideologically-driven conviction that it is OK for the communist government of the People’s Republic of China effectively to own large parts of Britain’s infrastructure, but not OK for the British government and people to own it.

In the course of making that point, though, the Shadow Chancellor not only flourished the book but read from it, and then chucked it towards the Chancellor, all but guaranteeing that his familiarity with the Little Red Book – and not George Osborne’s litany of economic disarray and misjudgment – would become the story of the hour. “Ooh look,” said the Chancellor, seizing the moment like the sharp debater he is, “it’s his own personal signed copy.”

Now of course it is infuriating for Labour supporters to see such a relatively minor incident blown up into a smokescreen to cover the Chancellor’s embarrassment; but the truth is that not offering such hostages to fortune is one of the first rules of successful political leadership, and one that John McDonnell comprehensively broke on Wednesday. After George Osborne went so far as to describe cuts in the UK government’s arts budget as “a false economy” – echoing an argument the Scottish Government has been making for the last five years, while Osborne slashed arts spending south of the Border – the political goal was wide open, for any opposition worth the name.

Almost every public spending cut George Osborne has ever proposed, after all, from the winding-down of the Sure Start scheme to this week’s slashing of preventive public health services delivered by local authorities, has been a “false economy”, the kind of disinvestment in people, services and communities that always creates greater social costs down the line. All John McDonnell needed to do was to point out that truth, bemoan the suffering that has been caused by George Osborne’s extremely slow – and far from complete – getting of wisdom on these matters, and sit down, to roars of approval from most on the opposition benches.

Instead, though, some imp of mischief made him think of Chairman Mao; and it’a hard not to feel that his gaffe is in some way a consequence of the current truly shocking disarray in the parliamentary Labour Party, where the leader can barely open his mouth, either in public or in private, without being briefed against by kind of Blairite MP’s who clearly feel that while their friends are in the offices of the right-wing press, their enemies are elsewhere on their own party benches. Whoever is most at fault, in other words, the truth is that the Labour Party at Westminster is currently in highly emotional meltdown, divided from top to bottom along the deepest and most bitter faultline in modern western politics; and is therefore all but unable to oppose a Chancellor whose economic policy looks increasingly chaotic, and bereft of real justification for the human damage it undoubtedly causes.

Under these circumstances, finally, a heavy burden falls on the SNP at Westminster – still relatively unified, and able to claim both substantial experience of government and high levels of popular support – to provide an alternative centre-left voice that is both more moderate and more credible than that of the current Labour leadership.

And it’s striking that even as Nicola Sturgeon’s administration in Scotland faces increasingly sharp questions about its record in government, and its plans for making use of Scotland’s imminent new tax powers, the First Minister’s stock at Westminster continues to rise; perhaps because she now fills such an obvious gap in the UK political landscape where a canny, sensible and electable leader of the Labour Party should be – the kind of centre-left Labour leader Nicola Sturgeon herself might have been, if British political history had worked out differently; and the kind who understands that you never get anywhere in the politics of this island by waving a little red book, and making yourself seem like even more of an ideological extremist than the Chancellor himself.


The Case For Scottish Independence Is Not Dead: But It Does Need Remaking – Column 20.11.15


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 20.11.15

THE FIRST MINISTER celebrates her first anniversary in the job, following Alex Salmond’s post-referendum resignation; and her celebration gift, from former Salmond policy advisor Alex Bell, is a blazing piece of polemic pronouncing the case for Scottish independence “dead” – at least as it was argued by the SNP between the publication of their White Paper, Scotland’s Future, in November in 2013, and the referendum on 18 September last year.

His words are seized upon, of course, by a triumphant Unionist lobby led by Murdo Fraser for the Tories, who speculates that the Union is possibly now safer than it has been for a long while. Alex Bell’s argument is essentially that the White Paper was always optimistic, and has now been overtaken by events, notably the spectacular slump in the global oil price. He does, though, use the word “deluded”, to describe the SNP’s current stance; and goes on to accuse the party of “dishonesty” in taking an anti-austerity line, when it has no financially credible alternative to offer in an independent Scotland.

Now it’s unfortunate, in a way, that Bell’s emotive language – hell obviously has no fury like a former advisor – obscures the common sense of most of his argument. The idea that the SNP is being dishonest in opposing George Osborne’s current austerity policies is an obvious red herring, given that Scotland remains part of a UK which could well afford not to impose such cuts.

When it comes to the case for independence, though, Bell is clearly right that the Scotland’s Future white paper was an optimistic document at best, that its obvious weaknesses in areas such as currency options represented a major reason for the ultimate defeat of the “Yes” campaign, and that it is now out of date. And the most important question arising is surely the one about how any sensible citizen who cares about Scotland’s future should respond to this state of affairs; starting with the truth that for all the merit of Bell’s argument, news of the “death” of the case for independence may have been slightly exaggerated.

In the first place, the UK’s current party of government remains overwhelmingly unpopular in Scotland; and the long grind of being governed by a party comprehensively rejected by Scottish voters has never done anything other than drive up support for independence, in the long term.

Then secondly, the meltdown in the UK’s main opposition party is growing more profound by the hour. Nicola Sturgeon is not in an enviable position, as she tries to navigate a path between the wave of “war fever” now sweeping Westminster, and the traditional anti-bombing stance of her own party. The Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, though, is in an intolerable situation, as his attempts to inject some rationality and respect for the rule of law into the discussion are caricatured not only by his opponents but by many in his own party as evidence of his cowardice, treachery, and sympathy for terrorists. And the lack of a credible opposition to the Tories at Westminster is another factor that is hardly likely to increase Scottish enthusiasm for the Union.

Then finally, there is the question of the case for the Union itself; for there is now no disguising the glee with which the SNP’s opponents seize on any evidence of Scotland’s economic weakness, and on further proof that we are forever doomed to depend on the largesse of the UK’s economic “powerhouse” in the south-east – that is, on the tax take from the city of London, and from the property-bubble paradise (for some) that is London and its travel-to-work area.

For even if this is true, it represents an image of our national future so unattractive that it is bound to repel at least as many voters as it attracts. It is true that Scotland was driven into the Union by poverty, and that we remain there largely because of the fear of many voters that we still lack the wealth, expertise, ingenuity and clout to make it on our own. In an age of popular democracy, though, it is surely both dangerous and destructive for pro-Union politicians to depend on an argument so relentlessly negative, insulting and depressing; and therefore, incidentally, so vulnerable to any future upturn in Scotland’s economic fortunes.

The SNP, though, should also acknowledge that the argument from fear is a powerful one; and that if they want to defeat it, they must start work now on preparing a vision of a future Scotland that is not just a little better than the White Paper of two years ago, but in a completely different league for clarity of thought and quality of arguments. That the SNP now has an opportunity to raise its policy-making game in this way is obvious. With a dominant position in the Scottish parliament, a popular leader, a divided opposition, and a new mass membership all paying into the party’s coffers, it has the time and resources to set up one or more new think tanks, or other projects, to develop policy for a viable Scottish future, to rethink the economic arguments, and – perhaps most importantly of all – to demonstrate how Scotland can move from its past as a coal, oil and gas-producing industrial nation, to its eminently possible future as what one independent expert called “the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy”.

Since she came to power a year ago, Nicola Sturgeon gives a strong impression of having become immersed in the day-to-day detail of government, the decisions, the public appearances, the demands of the hour. But in a Britain on the slide towards an ever more reactionary future – in a world darkened by the politics of escalating violence – much more than that is now required. We need a new, well-founded and credible prospectus for a better future. And if the SNP truly shares that aim, now is the time to prove it, with people, with resources, and with genuine support for a new phase of public debate – not so that Scotland will inevitably become independent, but so that if and when we do, we will know exactly why that step was necessary, where we are aiming, and how, and with what allies, we intend to try to get there.


The Alistair Carmichael Case: Lies, Misdemeanours, And What Politicians Need To Do To Regain Our Trust – Column 13.11.15.


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 13.11.15

THURSDAY LUNCHTIME; and while heavy November skies hang threateningly over the city, the social media remind us that all is happiness and good cheer in Edinburgh’s Rose Street, where the mighty Hollywood mega-star George Clooney has dropped by for a coffee at the Social Bite, a coffee shop which encourages its customers to buy an extra meal or drink for a homeless person, when they pay for their own snacks. Clooney, of course, is not only a hugely successful actor, but a forceful campaigner for human rights; and to say that people love him is to understate the case – indeed if he were to run for President of the United States, he would no doubt win in a landslide.

The truth is, though, that a large part of Clooney’s appeal resides in the fact that he is a showbiz star, and not – for all his campaigning activity – a professional politician; for if successive polls are to be believed, politicians are now the most disliked and least trusted professional group in our society, given even less credence by the general public than estate agents, bankers, or journalists.

This profound contempt for politicians is, of course, partly the result of a long-term campaign against politics itself, conducted by some of the most powerful vested interests in our society. Politics, in their book, is something that can sometimes get in the way of corporate power by actually daring to reflect the views of the kind of “little people” who usually don’t matter; so the more they can sell the idea that politics is bunk, and that all politicians are “just the same” and “in it for themselves”, the less political scrutiny they themselves are likely to face.

If big vested interests are likely to leave no stone unturned in diminishing the respect – and therefore the power – enjoyed by politicians, though, it’s impossible to deny that many politicians play straight into their hands. The Liberal Democrats’ broken pledge on student finance, for example, is still haunting the party, five years on from the 2010 general election; the mass culture of petty and not-so-petty greed and dishonesty exposed by the 2009 MP’s expenses scandal was truly shocking to an electorate struggling with the impact of recession.

And it’s against this backdrop, I think, that we have to understand the current case of Scotland’s sole remaining Liberal Democrat MP, Alistair Carmichael, the former coalition Secretary of State for Scotland who has now been caught red-handed not only authorising the leaking to the press of an inaccurate report of a private meeting – a report which alleged that Nicola Sturgeon said she wanted David Cameron to win the UK general election – but then flatly denying his own involement in that leak, first to Channel 4 News, and then to a Cabinet Office inquiry. A group of outraged SNP supporters in Alistair Carmichael’s Orkney constituency have identified these untruths as a possible breach of the Representation of the People Act, and have crowd-funded a court action against him; cue much tribal grandstanding on either side of Scotland’s yes-no political divide, with SNP sympathisers roaring as if Carmichael’s actions represented perfidy on a previously unknown scale, while some of his supporters – notably the former scottish Liberal Democrat leader Malcolm Bruce – argue that such “bare-faced lies” are the normal stuff of politics, and not to be made much of.

And about this fierce little hurricane in the Scottish political teacup, there are perhaps two things worth saying. The first is that voters probably do not expect complete transparency and honesty from their leaders in all matters. Most doubtless understand the need for confidentiality in some areas of policy-making, and for playing cards close to the chest in certain negotiations.

What’s clear, though, is that voters are also wary of that traditional flexibility with the truth, and inclined to accept it only from politicians who have proved themselves trustworthy in big-picture terms. If Carmichael’s untruths about his effort to smear the First Minister have been received with special outrage, for example, that perhaps also reflects some pent-up anger about the Liberal Democrats’ over-enthusiastic acceptance, in coalition, of a right-wing austerity programme that betrayed many of their own founding principles and priorities.

Then secondly, politicians who feel inclined to defend Alistair Carmichael’s actions should note that the growing reluctance of voters to accept this kind of behind-closed-doors manipulation is reaching a series of tipping-points, of which the two most significant in the UK so far have been the spirited rebellion of 45% of Scottish voters against the politics of shut-up-and-put-up conservatism advanced by the “No” campaign in last year’s referendum, and the hugely decisive election of outsider Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. The truth is that voters across the western world are showing signs of having had enough of the business-as-usual assumptions of the existing political class, including its weary cynicism about the “reality” of human nature and political possibility – a “reality” which in fact amounts to the lazy acceptance of a dominant ideology that is both depressing and reactionary.

To win the long-term trust of voters, in other words – and the room for manoeuvre that comes with it – politicians have to put in the hard work involved in mapping out the way to a better, more sustainable future, and then clearly showing themselves both willing and able to start moving in that direction. And what finally matters here is therefore not whether the judges in the Carmichael case will force a by-election in Orkney.

It’s rather whether UK politics, in the Corbyn era, can now dig itself out of the grave of cynical right-wing thinking to which it has recently consigned itself; and produce a new generation of politicians who – instead of disgusting the public with their ever-more vicious media spats over a steadily diminishing quantum of power – can actually build support among the people for real progressive change, and restore to themselves and the nation the kind of political life in which senior politicians have better things to do than to scan dodgy dossiers of misreported conversations, in a desperate effort to destroy their most lively and vivid opponents, and reduce them to the same banal and depressing establishment greyness they have so comprehensively achieved themselves.


The Unnecessary Misery And Danger Of Putting The Clocks Back: Time For Scots To Lead The Campaign For Change – Column 6.11.15.


JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 6.11.15.

A FEW EVENINGS AGO, just before six o’clock, I nipped out to the shops round the corner from my flat.  The night was damp and foggy; and even on a well-lit Edinburgh street, the atmosphere at the height of the rush hour seemed confusing and just slightly dangerous, as pedestrians darted through the traffic, lights flashed everywhere, and everyone  tried to travel just that little bit faster than is sensible in a complex urban environment at dusk. 

And after a minute or two, I began to recognise one reason why I was feeling particularly disorientated.  Two or three weeks ago, it would have been broad daylight at that point during the evening rush hour; but now, thanks to the end of British Summer Time, it was pitch dark, as we lurched suddenly into an evening darkness far more abrupt than nature intended.

We all know why the clocks change, of course.  As we approach midwinter, the amount of daylight available in the northern latitudes becomes very short; and the idea is to maximise the usefulness of the daylight we get by placing it at the right point in the day, which, for central Scotland, is currently deemed to be between about 9 am and 4 pm.

There is, though, a rising tide of evidence that we have simply got this timing of our daylight wrong; and that while some people benefit from the earlier morning daylight that comes with the turning back of clocks, absolutely everyone loses because of the impact of early winter darkness.

The most compelling arguments are the ones involving road safety, and particularly the fate of the most vulnerable road users.  The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents estimates that changing to Central European Time, which would give us an extra hour of evening daylight both summer and winter, would save 80 lives and prevent 212 serious injuries each year, while statistics from Britain’s last experiment with year-round British Summer Time, between 1968 and 1971, showed a much larger effect, with almost 2500 deaths or serious injuries prevented each year, and the positive effect significantly greater in Scotland and the north than in the south.

The arguments for more winter evening daylight go far beyond road safety, though.  Health researchers argue that a change to Central European Time would increase the daylight leisure time available to the average British worker by 28%, with huge potential effects on everything from general fitness, to depression brought on by Seasonal Affective Disorder, or lack of sunlight.  The tourist industry is unanimous in its belief that an extra hour of evening daylight would have a major positive effect on its performance.

Environmental campaigners believe that an extra hour of daylight, at a peak time for power consumption, could reduce carbon emissions in Britain by the equivalent of all the emissions of a city of half a million people.  And campaigners for the elderly describe older people as being effectively “curfewed” by the darkness that falls in late afternoon, and likely to benefit disproportionately from evening rather than morning daylight, as they rarely leave their homes until the morning rush hour is over anyway.  

The arguments for an end to this annual moment of misery are overwhelming, in other words; and the counter-arguments involving dark mornings are increasingly weak, given the evidence that even if we have to rise early, we are better able to cope with darkness in the morning than in the evening.

So why don’t we just get on and make the change?  Because the time we use, and the time-zone we adopt, is a matter of emotion and allegiance, as much as reason.  Only this year, for example – in the midst of an emotive general election – Turkey abruptly decided not to put its clocks back at the same time as the adjacent European countries, but to wait until after the election; chaos ensued, particularly at airports, but presumably some kind of national pride was served.  When Britain experimented with year-round BST, in the late 1960’s, what was actually a hugely successful trial was engulfed in a mounting media campaign again Harold Wilson’s Labour government, and immediately reversed, amid roars of irrational triumph, by Ted Heath’s incoming Tory administration.  And the last time a change to Central European Time came up for debate at Westminster, it was proposed by a Conservative MP from the south of England who was immediately shouted down by a chorus of Scottish voices asserting that while CET might suit the south of England, it would somehow be intolerable in Scotland – whereas in fact, what evidence there is suggests that Scotland would benefit more from the change than any other part of the UK.

So here is my modest proposal for any future debate on this subject: that instead of adopting the ridiculous position of vociferously and tribally opposing a change from which we could only benefit, Scotland and all its representatives should from now on take the initiative in campaigning for change, and making the case either for CET or for year-round BST, whichever seems most positive in its likely effects.  The Scottish Government should adopt it as policy, Scottish MP’s at Westminster should start to argue for it, and the Scottish people should get behind it, as a simple way to save precious lives, reduce energy costs, boost our economy, and brighten up all our lives. 

And if MP’s from the south start to resist this modest proposal simply because representatives from Scotland are making it – well, at least this time we will be the ones making the reasonable argument, and they will be the chauvinistic fools, flying off the handle without pause for thought.

Which might make a pleasant change, in the long and over-emotional history of this debate: but should also act as a reminder that no UK political party, including the SNP, has a record to boast of when it comes to the petty politics of this issue; and to the coarse art of cutting off your nose to spite your face, instead of welcoming a change that would benefit everyone in these islands, regardless of who raises the proposal, and which part of our storm-tossed archipelago he or she happens to represent.


This Week’s Tax Credits Row Between The Commons And The Lords Demonstrates How The Unfair Westminster Electoral System Distorts UK Politics, And Blocks Other Constitutional Reforms – Column 30.10.15


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 30.10.15

EARLIER THIS YEAR, soon after the general election, the Electoral Reform Society published a well-argued report pointing out the extent to which the result of that election failed to reflect the reality of the votes cast across the UK.  The first-past-the-post system, so beloved by Britain’s two main parties, had awarded an overall Commons majority to a party that won less than 37% of the vote, caused the apparent complete humiliation of a Labour Party that ran in barely six points behind them, and failed to reflect voting intentions in Scotland to the extent that the SNP won 95% of our seats with barely 50% of the vote; to say nothing of the plight of UKIP, which won 12% of votes, but only 0.2% of seats – one MP out of 650.

The Electoral Reform Society can, of course, be expected to point out these anomalies, with a slightly monotonous regularity.  This time around, though, they were right to argue that the distortions inherent in first-past-the-post had reached new extremes.  And one phrase used in the report is beginning to ring ever more true, as the story of David Cameron’s majority Conservative government unfolds; the election result, said the ERS, represented “a return to single party government… but not necessarily a return to stability.”

For there was no disguising the anger and discomfiture of the Conservative front bench, this week, as a House of Lords alliance – composed mainly of Labour and Liberal Democrat peers, bishops, and cross benchers – united to defeat their key proposal on the drastic reduction of tax credit payments to low-earning households, from next April.  That the policy itself is a bad one, involving an extremely harsh attack on the incomes of the government’s beloved “hard working families”, now seems almost beyond dispute.

The truth is, though, that British governments have become unused to having their policies rejected simply because they make no sense; the cult of “strong government”, encouraged by our electoral system, means that they routinely expect to be able to force them through regardless.  And although the Prime Minister tried, in a well-spun phrase, to dismiss this week’s Lords defeat as an alliance of “the unelected and the unelectable”, the whole debate nonetheless exposed both the very slender size of his Commons majority, and the wider truth that the politics offered by Cameron and Osborne do not really command majority support in the country; indeed it’s an uncomfortable fact that the current composition of the House of Lords – with 249 Tory peers, 212 Labour ones, 112 Liberal Democrats, and 244 assorted “others” – actually comes closer to reflecting the real party preferences of the British people than the Commons does.

Now of course, this is not an argument for the continuation of the Lords in its present form; if their Lordships’ party allegiances happen to reflect public opinion relatively accurately, the Lords are hopelessly unrepresentative in many other ways, and their method of appointment highly questionable.  What’s clear, though, is that a House of Commons elected by such a disproportional system is both in desperate need of the balancing power provided by an upper house, and unable to sanction any reform of the Lords that would involve it being elected by a method visibly fairer than that used for the Commons.  The Commons’ traditional electoral system not only distorts the outcome of its own elections, in other words, but acts as a permanent barrier to meaningful Lords reform; and the furious reaction of the government, this week, only demonstrates just how rare it is for the Lords to succeed in striking any serious blow against  government policy, however flawed.

Yet if this has been an uncomfortable week at Westminster for the Tories, it also poses difficult questions for Britain’s centre-left parties, who have this week found themselves cheering on the unelected house, as a last line of defence against Tory excess.  Labour, as the UK’s main opposition party, has no coherent policy for the reform or replacement of the Lords, precisely because of the issues such a move would raise about the democratic credentials of the Commons itself.

And the SNP, which supports electoral reform at Westminster, and has no truck with the Lords in its present form, shares with all the other mainstream parties in Scotland an apparently complacency about the functioning of our own parliament, and about the limits of what can be achieved through electoral reform, that reflects little credit on any of them.  The people of Scotland would be well advised, of course, not to take for granted, or to cease to protect, the Bundestag-style electoral system included in the devolution settlement of 1999, which ensures that the balance of parties in the chamber will broadly reflect their real electoral preferences.  

Yet it’s also true – and should surely be of interest, if anyone at Westminster cared to analyse the Scottish experience since 1999 – that proportional representation alone does not guarantee the close scrutiny of legislation, or, in itself, provide fail-safe constitutional checks and balances.  A more powerful Scotland might well need an upper chamber of its own, to help refine legislation and hold government to account; and it’s certainly arguable that despite the electoral system, the current Scottish Parliament is just too small, and perhaps too complacent, to operate the kind of powerful and autonomous committee system once envisaged for it, as a vital check on executive power.

For the moment, though, all sensible talk about constitutional improvement seems to be suspended, replaced at Westminster by an ugly mix of rampant traditionalism and government aggression, and at Holyrood by a general intellectual laziness, accompanied by occasional calls either for complete independence, or for a complete end to the independence debate.  And while organisations like the Electoral Reform Society work away at the task of suggesting improvements that might actually strengthen our  democracy, we scan the horizon in vain for a major political party prepared to take up the cause; or to learn serious progressive lessons from events like this week’s tax credit row, rather than simply rejoicing at the sight of George Osborne being briefly unseated from his austerity high horse, before he climbs back aboard, and resumes the hunt.



On Incomes, On Steel And On Future Energy Supplies, The UK Government’s Free Market Dogma Is Suffering A Severe Reality Check: But The Centre-Left Is Not Ready With A Convincing Alternative, In Scotland, The UK, Or Europe – Column 23.10.15.


JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 23.10.15.

ONE DROP OF RAIN on your window-pane doesn’t mean to say there’s a hurricane coming; but all the same, there’s been a loud, insistent pattering and beating, in this week’s British politics, that suggests times are changing, at a rate that many western governments are struggling to match.  The first great, ominous splash – from the Tory government’s point of view – appeared during last week’s BBC Question Time, when a tearful woman victim of George Osborne’s planned tax credits cuts forced what was, for many Conservatives, a belated recognition that large parts of our labour market are now so dysfunctional that huge numbers of UK families – 3.3. million households, or one in six of all working households in the country – simply cannot afford the basic necessities of life without substantial government subsidy, to the average tune of around £100 a month. 

And then, with an ever-louder rattle on the panes, came the announcement of continuing severe job losses in the British steel industry, including closures in Motherwell that may well mark the final curtain for steel-making in Scotland; neatly paired with a state visit to Britain by the president of the country seen by most experts as the immediate cause of the British steel industry’s current crisis, the People’s Republic of China.  Over the last generation, following a series of market-style reforms, China has grown into a huge commercial and trading giant, not only helping to reduce wages and prices across the developed world, but developing a growing interest in overseas investments.

So this week, even as Chinese “dumping” of cheap steel on the global market led to a new wave of closures and redundancies in the UK, Britain and China ceremonially signed a deal which will enable EDF, the huge energy giant mostly owned by the French and Chinese governments, to build and operate the next generation of British nuclear power stations, and to reap huge profits in the form of a sky-high guaranteed energy price, while the British taxpayer shoulders most of the risk.

And the point about this tale of top-level global deal-making is that it signals the undeniable triumph, in key strategic areas of the economy, of a Chinese economic model which, while it has some market features, is a million miles from the kind of competitive free market in basics like energy or steel that the British people were promised in the 1980’s.  We know, of course,  that China is not a “free” country; its human rights record is dire, and its economy obeys market rules only when they do not conflict with the priorities and decisions of the Communist Party of China.

Yet now, western governments have come face to face with the truth that they either have to let the global market – with China as its leading player – dictate the end of industries like, say, European steel-making, or they have to take traditional protective action in the form of tariffs and subsidies; and they are facing those decisions at a time when they no longer have a strong ideological framework for taking such protective measures, since all of them are at least formally committed to a world of free trade, and the steady reduction of such barriers.  Like the Scottish Government, they build a bridge with Chinese steel on one hand, while on the other vowing – under the pressure of events –  to “leave no stone unturned” to save domestic steel-making capacity that is not commercially viable.  But it seems that not one of them, after a generation of exaggerated free-market rhetoric, has a plan that would clearly set out the bottom line in terms of basic industries and capacities that must be protected, and that would act as a basis for negotiation with international trading partners – inside the EU or beyond it – over any tariffs or subsidy involved.

It’s been a week, in other words, when the age of prevailing free market dogma has encountered a severe and serious reality check, in relation to real wage levels in the UK, to the survival of our steel-making capacity, and to our ability to build and maintain our own energy supply; and it has found us – even those of us who have long been aware of the weaknesses of the prevailing orthodoxy – completely unprepared with any strong and coherent  alternative model of how an open, competent and thriving 21st century economy should work. 

In London, they try to fill the void with marching bands and golden coaches, and the ceremonial bravado of former Empire, as they allow large chunks of our infrastructure to be renationalised by almost anyone, so long as the nation involved is not the UK.  Here in Scotland, we continue to snipe at one another along last year’s referendum battle-lines, as if either continuing UK government or complete Scottish independence could possibly provide all the answers to problems on this scale.  And in Brussels – the EU capital that should be a key starting-point for any intelligent and workable international response to this moment of change –  they seem to have entirely forgotten that there was once an alternative “European social model”  to be proud of, designed to take account of human needs, as well as of economic efficiency.

Over the next few years, the battle over the European Union  will dominate UK politics, with the kinds of EU rules that make it difficult to protect Britain’s steel industry a main point of contention.  Yet as we join that battle, we should recall two things.  First, that a global economy in the grip of profound change requires not a pulling up of drawbridges, but a new international politics, designed to protect the human at regional and global level.  And secondly, that unless the EU soon rediscovers its own humanistic mission – the carefully-negotiated social democracy that once gave its international structures a richer meaning – it will become not a linchpin of that new international politics, but a bureaucratic and dogmatic obstacle to it; and one that will have to be swept aside in any effort to re-empower the people, and to bring the international trade deals that increasingly shape our lives under new kinds of democractic control.