Thursday, 26 June 2014

Federal flirtations

Even the No side realise their recent 'pledges' on more powers are not enough to stem the flow of support from No to Yes. That’s the only logical conclusion from the interventions in recent days in support of a federal UK by Gordon Brown and his colleague in the No campaign, Murdo Fraser.

I’m guessing it’s because they are picking up the same reaction as we are to the No Thanks more powers ‘pledges’.

Enough people are paying attention to the detail of this debate and a significant number of them have come to the conclusion that the ‘promises’ made fall well short of what they want (and what Scotland actually needs). These swing voters hold a belief that we need new and real powers over the economy, taxation and social policy. That is their desire and expectation - a threshold that the No parties’ fall woefully below.

There are (at least) two problems for Mr Brown and Mr Fraser. First, no one with actual power in the UK backs their proposal. I bet the Lib Dems, a party that has backed a federal UK for a century and more, would not even take the basic step of making federalism a condition of any future UK coalition deal.

Mr Fraser was out on twitter today talking about the SNP’s response to his proposal (which was to point out that it’s not going to happen) but, as of writing, he’s remained silent on the question of what Mr Cameron’s response is to his idea, despite being asked directly. I’d also bet that Mr Cameron’s view is not only that ‘it’s not going to happen’ but more importantly that ‘it should never happen’.

The second, problem for Messrs Brown-Fraser, is that they are making the case for a Yes. If Scotland needs a new status of sovereignty and equality with Westminster, that is most definitely not coming from a No vote. But it is exactly what is on offer with a Yes. We get the job-creating, economy-growing, welfare-protecting powers we need and a new, more modern relationship between the nations of these isles - a partnership of equals between sovereign peoples.

Added to this, these two No politicians are helping keep the debate, and people’s focus, firmly on Yes ground, which is more powers. And, of course, holding the debate on your ground of choosing is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for electoral victory.

The question is now about the extent of the new powers Scotland gets and how best to achieve them. We can have full powers with a Yes versus incomplete powers with a No. We can take them into our own hands with a Yes versus hoping that the Westminster establishment will, at some point, relinquish them with a No.

Even at our most generous, it would take years, perhaps even decades, for federalism to be delivered in the UK, given that it is a debate that has not even started in England. It most certainly won’t be in either the Labour or Tory manifestos in 2015, pushing even the most wildly optimistic delivery in to the 2020s. Gordon Brown and Murdo Fraser want, therefore, to condemn us to a dismal decade of constitutional debate, with no guarantee of success. That is a depressing prospect, even for someone like me who has been campaigning for Home Rule for most of my adult life. More debate, more campaigning, no thanks!

Much better, surely, to seize the opportunity of a Yes and spend the next decade actually using our new powers to deliver the sorts of advances we know can and should be achieved. Why have vague promises when you can have real power. The time for talking is over.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

People know us by what we do, not what others say about us

Throughout my time with the independence movement, our opponents have tried to label us as extreme, threatening, angry, dangerous, vile, abusive, bigoted etc etc. It’s always been possible to locate an oddball associated in some way with the party or campaign, because Scotland has its fair share of the world’s oddballs.

In days gone by, the oddballs were more difficult to find but in the era of the internet they are only a quick google search away.

Back in the nineties, and even in the early noughties, these attacks did cause some damage to the independence cause, because the electorate knew very little about the SNP and few people had the experience of being represented by someone from the SNP.

By 2011 that had changed and the over the top attacks by our opponents claiming the independence movement was extreme, threatening, angry, dangerous, vile, abusive, bigoted etc not only had no negative impact on SNP support, they began, in fact, to backfire.

Research we undertook in the run up to the 2011 election, which led directly to the focus on the ‘team’ aspect in the SNP’s campaign, showed that the people of Scotland had good experiences of the SNP people they met or had dealings with. From party members or supporters to elected representatives, they saw the SNP team as most like them, most normal, most in touch. And so, when they heard our opponents claim we were extreme, threatening, angry, dangerous, vile, abusive, bigoted etc it just didn’t chime with their real life experience.

They judged us on what we did and who we actually were rather than what opposition politicians said about us. And, equally, they were less trusting in the other claims the opposition were making about the NHS or the economy. The over-egged attacks caused more damage to the attackers.

It is difficult, sometimes, seeing a wall of headlines based on the indefensible behaviour of a few online eejits and to see our movement being tarred with the same brush. However, we should be confident that the best and only way to deal with this onslaught, over-egged once again by our opponents, is to carry on being ourselves in the real world. Carry on leaving good impressions on every doorstep and in every face to face conversation. Show who we are, once again, by our passion, commitment, energy, belief and absolute confidence in the people of Scotland. That is what people will see and what they will remember about Yes.

The No camp think they are causing us damage by highlighting the misbehaviour of a very few online, horrendous as it is. If we in Yes allow ourselves to be dragged on to this ground with recriminations and anger, then they might succeed. However, if we demonstrate, by our actions, the reality of our movement, have no doubt, their tactics, as in 2011, will backfire. Our grassroots are the most important part of our campaign and our most important job in these days ahead is to keep doing what we’ve been doing. Keep the spring in our step. Keep up the open and honest engagement. And, we will win.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Why we need a Yes

David Cameron is on another flying visit to Scotland. But, just as it starts, his trip has been undermined by new statistics published earlier today by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The new figures provide clear evidence that we urgently need a new approach - we can't afford more of the same, with Westminster calling the shots. Instead, we need the power, here in Scotland, to do things differently.

Real Home Rule, that only comes with a Yes, will enable us to choose a new and better path.

Today's statistics show how wealth (pensions, savings, property and investments) are distributed within the UK and they confirm the appalling social and geographic imbalances that have been allowed to develop under the Westminster system (including the fact that the 'bottom' half of the population owns just 9% of the wealth, compared to 44% owned by the 'top' tenth).

Mr Cameron wants us to believe that all is rosy, but instead we see the reality of where Scotland stands today. The statistics offer the starkest proof that Westminster isn't working for the people of Scotland.

As the ONS reports, "the median household total wealth for Scotland is a fifth (20%) lower than the corresponding value for Wales and over a quarter (26%) lower than the value for England."

What the average person in Scotland owns, therefore, in terms of property, pension pot, savings and investments is "over a quarter lower" than the equivalent for Mr or Mrs Average in England.

However, as this ONS image shows, the real wealth gap is not with England as a whole, but with the south - the part of the country that has benefited, and continues to benefit, most from the Westminster approach:


What makes this wealth gap even more appalling is the fact that Scotland actually generates a bigger than average share of the UK's wealth. Recent figures from the Scottish Government, published in March 2014, show that our economic output - the wealth we collectively generate - is 11% higher than for the UK.

Broadly speaking, therefore, people in Scotland generate 1/10th more of the wealth of the UK per person and yet, as the ONS stats confirm, we own 1/4 less of the wealth on average.

We generate more and own less - how can that possibly be the "best of both worlds", as the Prime Minister tries to claim today?

One of the main reasons for a Yes is that we will finally be able to deliver economic policy that makes the most of Scotland's many opportunities - economic policy designed in Scotland, for the people of Scotland. We can make sure our great wealth - economic output 1/10th higher than the UK - delivers more for people living in Scotland, including sharing it more fairly. We can turn what is undoubtedly a rich country into a rich society too and, in doing so, spread prosperity to the northern half of these isles, benefiting also our nearest neighbours in England's north.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Bad timing

The No campaign haven't had much luck when it comes to their scare stories about Scotland's credit rating. You will remember them producing a leaflet with the claim that Scotland would lose the UK's AAA rating and then, a few days later, the UK itself lost its AAA rating. Of course, not people to be hampered by the facts, No continued to distribute the offending material.

Something similar has just happened. A few days ago, No campaigners jumped on a report produced by ratings agency Moody's, suggesting that Scotland might start off independent life with an A rating. This, they concluded, would mean higher borrowing costs for Scotland than the UK.

But, lo and behold, today the Financial Times reports that Ireland's long-term borrowing costs fell below those of the UK and this despite Ireland only just reaching an investment grade rating from Moody's at Baa3, well below an A, never mind a AAA. In fact, when it comes to shorter term borrowing costs, the FT describes the Irish advantage over the UK as significant:

"Ireland’s borrowing costs at shorter maturities are now significantly below those of Britain. The benchmark Irish two-year borrowing cost is 0.406 per cent, compared with London’s 0.725. At five-year maturities, Ireland can borrow at an interest rate of 1.241 per cent compared with the UK having to pay the higher rate of 1.969 per cent."

The No camp seem to work on the basis that potential problems are all too big for Scotland to deal with and that any news that has even a hint of a potential challenge is proof that we must not take responsibility for our own future: their working assumption is that we need someone else (aka politicians at Westminster) to take the big and difficult decisions for us. That's why they jumped on the Moody's assessment and presented it in the darkest possible way. But their approach has been exposed by today's market reality: Ireland's credit rating is worse than the UK's but its borrowing costs are lower.

The No campaign spend much of their time telling us that Scotland would fail or struggle. That doesn't show much respect for, or confidence in, the people who live here. Much better the Yes approach, which is based on an absolute belief in the people of Scotland.

We will face ups and downs in the future (that's life) but, at Yes, we have total confidence that the people of Scotland have got what it takes to overcome the challenges and, most importantly, make more of the many opportunities and advantages we enjoy as a nation. This isn't a blind optimism, but a realistic assessment of our collective capabilities and capacities. It is hope grounded firmly in reality and it is an underpinning conviction that shines forth from all Yes campaigners: as a society and a nation, we can do so much better.

We believe in Scotland, it's as simple as that, while the No campaign constantly cast doubts on Scotland's collective abilities. That, I would suggest to them, is not a winning approach.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Yet another one bites the dust

Ian Davidson, a Labour politician who has become a rather surprising favourite of (some) Yes campaigners, deployed what can only be described as a killer question at the Scottish Affairs Select Committee in the House of Commons yesterday. However, the argument that was left dead and discredited was a favourite claim of the No campaign.

When asked by Mr Davidson whether, after a Yes vote, people "could be assured that their pensions are secure", UK Pensions Minister, Steve Webb MP, answered "Yes".

What people in Scotland have "put in to the UK National Insurance system", he said, "builds up to a continued UK pension under continuing UK rules." People in Scotland, after independence, are still "entitled to that money".

The No camp desperately want older Scots to believe their pension is under threat from a Yes vote, indeed this very claim featured as one of three arguments made in their recent, grim and depressing poster campaign.

"Put our pensions at risk?" they asked. Well, the official UK government answer is a very clear "No, we wouldn't". 

As the Scotsman reported, just last month Alistair Darling was fanning the flames of this particular scare, saying "nobody knows" what would happen to people's pension after independence. It seems the UK government did know and, contrary to the No campaign insinuations that the state pension would be at risk, they also knew that our pensions would be fully secure. Saying one thing to frighten people while knowing the opposite is the truth is a very low form of politics. It is little wonder their tactics are backfiring so badly.

Mr Webb's honesty on pensions is also embarrassing for former PM Gordon Brown who lumbered into the debate last month with a claim that people's pension would be less secure in an independent Scotland.

They say one thing when trying to frighten people, as we've already seen on currency claims. But the truth has a bad habit of emerging. Just as that unknown UK minister confessed to the Guardian last month that "of course" there would be a shared currency and that claims to the contrary by the No camp were just part of their campaign tactics, we have another UK minister blowing a massive and fatal hole in No's pension scares.

Two pillars of the No camp's scaremongering have collapsed in recent weeks. It's one of the problems of adopting a campaign based on fear. Fear is destroyed by information. The more we know the less likely we are to believe the hysterical scares. It is a particular joy when the fear-busting facts emerge from the fear-mongers themselves. Thank you Mr Davidson and good on you Mr Webb.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Top of the Pops

We've become well-used to the No campaign's nonsensical pops at independence so, with thanks to a colleague who pulled this list together, here's an alternative top ten - some of the most colourful and most memorable responses to what has been claimed.

And, in best chart tradition, they come in reverse order. At number . . .

10. “PULL THE OTHER ONE”: 4 November 2013 - Richard Bacon, Conservative MP for South Norfolk, on Sunday Politics East, said: “Well I think, this idea, this, one of the people in the clip said, ‘travel is going to get more difficult’, I mean pull the other one, is it suddenly going to get more difficult to get on a train?"

9. “SILLY”: 29 June 2013 – Tweet by Tory MSP and deputy Scottish leader Jackson Carlaw when the UK government claimed roaming charges would increase with independence: “Some of the arguments against #indy are becoming a bit silly #indyref”

8. “RELENTLESS", “HEAVY-HANDED” NEGATIVITY: 14 February 2014 – Former First Minister Henry McLeish writing in the Daily Record: “Chancellor George Osborne’s ... intervention continues the relentless negativity of the No campaign and runs the risk of pushing more Scots into voting Yes. ... They may come to regret this political miscalculation when Scots get fed-up with heavy-handed tactics.”

7. "SCURRILOUS SCAREMONGERING": 30 June 2013 - Allan Burnett, former head of intelligence and counter-terrorism for Strathclyde Police, reported in the Herald: "Scotland's former counter-terrorism tsar has attacked what he has called "scurrilous scaremongering" about the efficiency of intelligence services in a post-independence Scotland by pro-union campaigners."

6. “PUERILE”: 30 June 2013 – Tweet by Former Tory donor John McGlynn when the UK government claimed roaming charges would increase with independence: “Well I think the mobile phone scare story takes the Independence debate to a new low! Puerile.”

5. "WRONG", "AN AFFRONT TO DEMOCRATIC PRINCIPLES" & "RIDICULOUS”: 17 February 2014 - Tweets by James Ker-Lindsay - Senior Research Fellow in SE European Politics at London School of Economics - on Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso’s comments that membership of EU could be ‘impossible’: (1) "Barroso stance on Scotland is both wrong and an affront to democratic principles! UK accepts referendum" and (2) "So, while an unprepared East Germany could join EU under special circumstances, a fully ready Scotland can't? Ridiculous!"

4. “WRONG” & “NONSENSE”: 30 April 2014 - Dr [David] Toke of Aberdeen University, who was giving evidence at the Scottish Parliament's Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, said that the position of the UK government’s energy secretary on energy costs and independence was: “at best wrong, at worst he is talking nonsense.”

3. “TREATING SCOTS LIKE IDIOTS”: 8 July 2013 – A second entry for Former First Minister Henry McLeish, reported in the Scotsman: “Mr McLeish said the anti-independence campaign was “treating Scots like idiots” as he claimed Better Together was working alongside Westminster in attempting to frighten voters about independence.”

2. “LAUGHABLE”, “DIRE” & “BASELESS” “THEATRICALS”: 17 February 2014 - John Palmer (former political director of the European Policy Centre, and a visiting fellow at Sussex University's European Institute) writing in the Guardian about Barroso’s comments that membership of EU could be ‘impossible’: “In seeking to frighten Scottish voters with dire predictions ... But suggestions that these negotiations might stretch into the indefinite future are baseless. ... When all the theatricals surrounding this debate are set aside ... The idea that the Scottish people could be ejected or indefinitely suspended from the EU for opting for national independence is laughable.”

And, a new entry, from today, straight in at number one:

1. “UNTENABLE”, “CONFUSED”, “INADEQUATE”, “ILLOGICAL”, “FARCICAL” & "UNWORTHY”: 30 April 2014 - Professor Leslie Young of Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, in a report for Sir Tom Hunter's September18 project into the currency options of an independent Scotland (in which he confirms that, after a Yes, a Sterling Area is the best option for Scotland and the rest of the UK), said the UK government’s position is either “confused logic, inadequate economics or subterfuge to frighten Scottish citizens”, that it had “sunk below the untenable to the illogical, and now to the farcical”, and was “unworthy of the Government of a mature democracy like the UK”.

The No campaign have been like a scratched record - as even those outside the Yes campaign have made clear, it is a case of negativity and nonsense on repeat. The big question is, can they change their tune...?

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Choices

Gordon Brown is not a stupid man. He knows that what he is saying today on pensions is nonsense and he has specifically selected his statistics to present a picture that is wildly far from reality. That is a clear and deliberate choice. It is the cheapest sort of negative campaigning, twisting the truth with the sole aim of frightening people.

Mr Brown knows that pensions and benefits are paid out of general taxation and that national insurance contributions are just part of that mix and, yet, according to the New Statesman he will say today that Scotland “will increasingly benefit from a system under which it pays 8 per cent of national insurance contributions but receives 8.8 per cent of the benefits”. However, what Mr Brown knows is that Scotland’s actual contribution, the total of all tax revenues, has been 9.5 per cent, on average, over the past 5 years. So, rather than receiving 8.8 per cent of the benefits and contributing just 8 per cent, as Mr Brown appears to be claiming, we actually contribute 9.5 per cent. He is trying to pretend that Scotland is dependent when the opposite, by far, is the case. 

According to the reports in the media today, later in the speech he makes a similar point, this time suggesting that we can’t afford our pensions and benefits payments because they equal 3 times oil revenues. But again, he knows that these payments are made out of total revenues, otherwise the UK wouldn’t be able to afford its welfare system given that the costs for the UK as a whole are 25 times oil revenues.

It takes a particular mindset to try and pull this sort of political trick, especially as Mr Brown will know that the cost of welfare provision in Scotland takes up a smaller percentage of total tax revenues than in the rest of the UK. The actual numbers show that 42% of Scotland’s tax revenues were required to fund social protection (pensions and welfare spending) compared with 43% for the UK.  That means we are better able to afford to support the most vulnerable in society.

I can’t help wondering, if the Union is so good, why do its supporters have to resort to such twisted claims based on a deliberate misrepresentation of the reality? Mr Brown is trying to take advantage of the fact that some people may not know how the welfare and pensions systems are paid for. But, he does. His misrepresentation, therefore, is jaw-dropping and ill-serves him.

At its root, Mr Brown wants us to believe two things. First, that Scotland is not capable of affording to look after our pensioners and, second, that we should, instead, trust the Westminster Tories (at least half the time) with our pension. He is absolutely wrong with the first, as demonstrated above, and spectacularly out of touch on the latter.

I believe most people in Scotland will trust our parliament - which introduced free personal care and the free bus pass - to do more to look out for and look after older Scots than Westminster. We wouldn’t waste billions on nuclear bombs while thousands of older Scots struggle to heat their homes. Those are the priorities of a Westminster system that is badly and dangerously on the wrong track.

And yet, tonight Mr Brown won’t have much to say (if anything) on the growing state of inequality. Instead, he will base his case on a truly warped presentation of the numbers and a glib description of the status quo of George Osborne’s austerity agenda and welfare plundering as the ‘best of both worlds’.

If this is the best the No campaign can do, they really are in trouble.