Scottish Fabians website 29 May 2017

The local election results suggest we could have reached ‘peak-Nat’, but they also suggest Scottish politics could settle into a ‘nationalist v. unionist’ duopoly.  That’s somewhat like Northern Ireland.  And like Northern Ireland it leaves little room for Labour and makes progressive change harder to achieve.

Labour, and Scottish Labour, desperately need a new story to tell that will allow us to re-find our place in the forefront of politics, a place which is neither nationalist nor unionist. Understanding Brexit and seeking to protect people from the worst of its consequences could help us begin that story.

“A truly global Britain” is the goal Theresa May entices us with.  As if somehow membership of the EU and all the trade agreements it has with nations around the world somehow made us less-than-global.  Her vision, spelt out at Davos, seeks to strengthen “the forces of liberalism, free trade and globalisation that have had – and continue to have – such an overwhelmingly positive impact on our world, that have harnessed unprecedented levels of wealth and opportunity”.

This newly-energised Britain of hers will assume “a new leadership role as the strongest and most forceful advocate for business, free markets and free trade anywhere in the world.”  In her speech at Lancaster House she said she wanted “to remove as many barriers to trade as possible”.

A truly global Britain?

A world of global, open opportunity, a new golden age, awaits us all post-Brexit, it seems.  And yet – at the Mansion House – she recognised that as a result of her lauded liberal globalisation the British people “see their jobs being outsourced and wages undercut. They see their communities changing around them and don’t remember agreeing to that change. They see the emergence of a new global elite who sometimes seem to play by a different set of rules and whose lives are far removed from their everyday existence.”

Opportunity for Britain, it seems, equals vulnerability for its people. With minimal “barriers” powerful outside players can seize their opportunity, undermining our control over our own economy and so exposing our vulnerability further. For a small country, like Scotland, by its very smallness and thus consequent powerlessness in the global marketplace, the effects of our vulnerability might easily overwhelm any opportunity we have.

Our vulnerability is all the greater because our performance in Scotland is already poor, in part caused by uncertainty surrounding the independence issue. Scotland’s recent economic performance tracked the overall UK level until the first quarter after the independence referendum of autumn 2014, since when GDP has been largely static at 5% over the 2013 base. The UK is now 8% over that base.  The once-great resource of oil and gas is past its peak and with just one major petro-carbon plant in the country the whole of Scotland is vulnerable to any disruptive event there.

Other non-economic factors make Scotland vulnerable too. Our long term health inequalities show little sign of improvement, leaving too many in poor health, and our once-envied educational standing is in serious decline.  We have one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world but our local government is weak and over-scaled, with, therefore, only marginal impact on the well-being of its citizens.

Brexit and a sense of vulnerability

Increased economic and social vulnerability will be the result of Brexit. Feelings of increased vulnerability seem also to be the main cause of Brexit.

People no longer feel secure, no longer have faith that their children will be better off than themselves. Real wages, except for the privileged few, have not risen for nearly a decade; “jobs (are) being outsourced and wages undercut”. Zero hours contracts, freelance work and ‘self-employment’ are on the rise with all the uncertainty and vulnerability they bring.  The security of house ownership is out of reach for most wage-earners.

Large international corporations, some larger than nation states, increasingly dominate how we live. They have no local loyalties and so undermine patterns of work, weaken structures of communities and flout national taxation.  Not knowing what to do with their profits many of these corporations sit on large piles of cash, often making as much if not more profit from financial trading than they do from their core business.  When finance rather than real production dominates the world’s economy it makes us all more vulnerable, as the past decade shows.

The response of conventional economics, believing money to the only measurement and markets, left to themselves, to be the best way to produce results, is to decry the role of government. Reduced public investment and diminished public services become the instruments of a vain attempt to ‘balance the books’ and ‘end the deficit’ for government.

The state is no longer a protector

Weak local government, big corporate dominance and mis-guided public sector reduction have all combined to endanger the livelihoods of the working people of this country, to undermine the supportive cohesion of neighbourhoods and to squeeze public trust in politics and communal action. The places people live have been changed beyond recognition “and they don’t remember agreeing to the change”; familiar local businesses close, public space deteriorates, strangers appear on the streets. More than that, the state is increasingly seen no longer as a protector in times of trouble but often a threat and a burden.  The ‘bedroom tax’, the ‘rape clause’ and SATS tests all put pressure on individuals and families.

Meanwhile those with wealth live separate lives, out of touch with the struggles confronting most people.  It’s no wonder people are angry.  It’s no wonder they are prepared to blame whatever remote set of forces they are told to blame.  No wonder that they will want to kick over the traces to get something to change, anything to change.

Take Back Control

To families and communities that have lost control over their own destinies, “take back control” is the most potent of political calls.

That call is at its most disturbing over immigration. Immigrants, as we all know but rarely acknowledge, pick our crops, staff local business and care for our sick and old. But immigration – the presence of the stranger, the ‘other’ – is the perfect receptacle for feelings of vulnerability, loss and threat.  Immigration is ‘uncontrolled’ meaning ‘we’re not in charge any more, someone else is making the rules’. Immigrants ‘take local jobs and undercut our wages’  meaning that workplace protection has largely disappeared, unions are weak, wages have stagnated and the respect and standing that came with a ‘proper job’ has gone. ‘The country is full up’ meaning the public sphere – from schools to hospitals, from housing to transport –  is overstretched and under-resourced and where we live just doesn’t work for us the way it used to. ‘I’m not racist but’ means things are changing too fast, there is no longer a strong sense of who ‘we’ and ‘us’ are in this place, no one seems to care about MY self-respect, the sense of worth in MY community, and so every newcomer – their colour, their language – is noticed more, diluting that sense of OUR place.  And so it becomes the Brexit call of ‘if only one of us were back in charge it wouldn’t be like this.  We’d run our own country again’.  Someone who understands us, speaks our language.

For the SNP this is familiar and productive ground. Scotland is not the more open, europhile country that its Remain vote perhaps suggested; it’s simply that the resentments and vulnerabilities  were absorbed by the cry for independence a couple of years before Brexit came along.  Replace ‘Brussels’ with ‘Westminster’ and the words  ‘we’re not in charge any more, someone else is making the rules’ and ‘if only one of us were back in charge it wouldn’t be like this.  We’d run our own country again’ take us right back to the Scottish referendum . (If only the SNP had thought of ‘take back control’ rather than ‘stronger for Scotland’ they might well have been onto a winner!)

Of course, leaving the European Union won’t ‘bring back control’.  The proposition that somehow we had ceded control to an unelected body in Brussels was always a lie.  But leaving could easily make things worse. Open for business as a “truly global Britain” will likely become ‘up for sale’ as yet more operators owned by foreign government run our transport, yet more foreign corporations supply our energy, foreign investors buy our houses and foreign companies own our companies.  It’s already happening.

A story of economic, social and political failure

The story of the years, perhaps decades, that pre-dated the Scottish referendum and the Brexit referendum is, for the left and for Labour, a story of economic, social and political failure. The proper and necessary attention we paid to changing racial and gender identity somehow blinded us to changes in identities of class and place. The proper and necessary attention we paid to raising and using the revenues from then successful liberal economics to renew public services somehow blinded us to the need to also act as a bulwark against those same liberal economics. Instead of using the strong moral sense that founded the Labour movement to bind people together in common purpose we left ourselves constantly open to the charge of ‘broken promises’ by simply saying what ‘we’ would do for ‘them’ – saying how we would spend their money for them. Instead of being the voice of the voiceless in places of power we became the voice by which power spoke to the voiceless.  And so when the chance came in two referenda, as the man in Sunderland said in June last year – “well, you’re listening to us now”.

A new story

Labour needs a new story about what makes us ‘us’. A story which which satisfies the need to bring back control without blaming the ‘other’.  It is a symptom of our weakness that we find that hard to do, but it is, after all, the essence of our history – working people gaining control over the direction and betterment of their own lives.

So we have to begin again. The only place to begin is where people are every day; begin with what they feel about their lives living where they live, how their families and friends and workmates feel about it.  Labour’s history tells us all politics is local – or at least starts there.

Then, knowing the anger, we should ask – what is it that eats away at the dignity and prosperity and sense of worth for a neighbourhood, a town and the lives of people in it?  Why is it that there’s a feeling that things are falling apart in their immediate vicinity? And what would make those places – and their inhabitants – flourish once again?

We don’t ask those questions of ourselves.  We don’t ask them of the people we’d like to represent again.  If we did we’d be confronted with tales of the closures of local shops and businesses, mediocre new housing schemes, too much traffic in the wrong places, kids getting stressed at school, too far to travel for health care.  We’d find that people are desperate to defend something about their lives and where they live that isn’t quite gone yet but they fear might be soon.  And –  nobody is listening. Hence Brexit.

If we did ask those questions, we’d find they weren’t answered by top-down policies like ‘a thousand more nurses’ or ‘ten thousand more police’ good that those things might be. We’d find they weren’t answered by simply opposing ‘austerity’ either; things were beginning to worsen before the deficit reduction story was spun. We’d find that it made no sense to claim that GDP is increasing or the numbers in work are going up. Who owns that extra GDP?  What kind of worK?

Asking the right questions

The answers we want would arise from asking questions like ‘how do we find out how to care for and improve the health of this neighbourhood, where do we start and how will we make sure it continues to be what was wanted’? Or ‘how do we find out what kind of education would make this place prosper, how do we re-shape local resources to start realising that and how will we know if we succeed’?

Or how do we make this town job-rich in a way that can continue over generations? How do we restore and protect the special character the inhabitants of this place love?  How do the voices of the people here get to make a difference? How do we take back control over our place and our lives in it?

The answer isn’t in our slogan for the past couple of years: ‘stop the cuts’ – that’s a top-down answer, an us-doing-things-for-you answer (though stopping public sector cuts is certainly needed).  It’s not four more public holidays nor a million more homes.  Gifts from politicians are no longer listened to. ‘Take back control’ is a bottom-up answer and that’s its power.

Labour’s own ‘take back control’ story?

Can Labour develop its own ‘take back control’ story?  Could we develop ways to rectify the vulnerabilities, heal the long-standing injuries, in people’s everyday lives that caused Brexit and then build ways to act as a bulwark against the vulnerabilities that will accrue as its result?

Could we, for instance decide we are deadly serious about creating ‘a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few’?  That’s a serious take back control statement.  It doesn’t work if, as now, we interpret ‘the many’ as one broad mass of people across the country whose needs only we politicians can interpret and fulfil. That creates dependence not empowerment. It ignores that word ‘community’ at the beginning.  However, if power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many at a scale at which individuals can comprehend, use and exercise those things for themselves and their families and neighbourhoods then that is very different and hugely radical.  It stands against everything neoliberal economics wants, everything the power-brokers of the few claim as theirs by right.  It’s not what the Tories, UKIP and the Daily Mail would like, but it could resonate in towns and villages and city neighbourhoods.

Can Labour develop a vision of work, place and community that can speak to people who’ve lost their sense of belonging – to class, to place, to work and the status it brings?   At a time when things that are meaningful to us are falling apart can we re-invent and take ownership of the social glue that will bind family and work and place and community back together again?  Glue in the form of all that we value communally and can only properly provide collectively?

Two economists

First a big focus – and then back down again – for which I rely on two economists.

Kate Raworth is re-shaping the story and the model of what economics should be if it is to sustain the planet and serve its people.  She calls it ‘doughnut economics’.
There is a foundation which is the minimum we humans need to build a good life for ourselves and our communities.  Raworth calls it the ‘social foundation’. It is what is necessary to meet the physical, social and political needs of individuals within a good society.  And then there is what the ecosystems of the planet, upon which our lives are even more fundamentally founded, can carry.  She calls it the ecological ceiling.  Our present political economy is failing to provide the social foundation and is already overshooting what the planet can carry.  There is a sense in her work which, if economics can be so organised to provide the social foundation, then there’s a much better chance of preserving our essential ecosystems.

Karel Williams and his colleagues at the Centre for Socio-Cultural Research have developed the notion of ‘the foundational economy’ in response to what they see as the failed experiment of the last four decades in promoting competition and markets in government.  This foundational economy – the provision of essential goods like health, education, social care, water, energy, housing, refuse collection, transport, prisons and food distribution – constitutes by far the biggest source of employment in many towns and about 35% of the entire working population.  And it is pervasively mis-managed by public as well as private sector providers because they seek the best value at each separate transaction, destroying the sense of mutuality and purpose upon which the foundational economy depends

If a way could be found to bring the foundational economy back into the public sphere, then to ‘re-territorialise’ it so that its focus and ownership were local rather than national or international, and then to ‘re-democratise’ it we would find the ‘common good’ could replace profit extraction as the guiding policy framework.

And there would be a chance that it could develop into the filling inside Kate Raworth’s doughnut.

Beginning the story

This then is the beginning of story to take back control: to regain public governance of the local foundations of our economy,  to re-entangle that economy in its locality and to put local people in control of it.

The story goes on to recognise that a local economy is housed, not in a blank open field, but in the physical structures of the locality – its buildings and streets and public spaces, its weather, its soil – which in turn affect the nature and quality of the local economy.

And it is a story which understands a local economy and environment exists too within the social institutions of its locality – its democracy, its information networks, its organisations.  Local economy, local environment, local institutions all combining into a sense of whether the place in which people live their everyday lives serves them well or not

As the voters know, that doesn’t happen. Today those places are worn out, eroded, unequal, divided.  Coming face-to-face with that reality everyday is what angers people. The places people live have been changed, damaged beyond recognition “and they don’t remember agreeing to the change”.

So, if our country and its people are to thrive, it is about Labour finding – re-finding – our new story of this place we call home.

Where to start?

It starts with the fundamental demand that the dismemberment of the state that the political right have been engaged upon for four decades is halted and that the common good and the collective voice, and therefore the state, re-assert itself.  It continues with the basic understanding that expressions of collective voice and common good are at their most effective locally as part of everyday lives. And it knows that it relies upon power, wealth and opportunity being in both our hands – through the local state and the national state.  It needs both hands to hold on to our rights and freedoms, to protect and defend our communities, and to mould and shape the future.  It needs both arms of the state – local and national – to be of equal strength, with neither dominant over the other, with rights and roles guaranteed in law, holding each other to account.  And it needs the functions and services of the state to be provided and governed at the level closest to the people who use them, close to home.

That is the great opportunity opened up by Scottish Labour’s initiative for a federal Britain. To find the right balance and relationship between national and local, each with a right to have their voices heard, each with their places in the constitution agreed and guaranteed.

The role of the national state – dispersed through parliaments in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast – is crucial in forming that new constitution, restraining special interests, providing the resources, bearing down on inequality, guarding and raising standards, building the national infrastructure, managing the larger economy and reforming our institutions. It is a challenge that the parliaments barely know how to face and will demand extraordinary political leadership.

Renewing the local state

The local state has been hollowed out over decades mis-rule from the centre and needs complete, first-principle renewal.

How do the people who live and work in a place take back control over their own future?  How do they improve the health in that place, supply the educational needs, make it job-rich, sustain its character, shape its environment, renew its institutions?   The answer is not in electing someone to a distant parliament and relying on its civil servants and managers to come down and achieve those things.  It is by re-empowering and re-building the local arm of the state, under vigorous local democratic control, to return the foundational economy of towns, cities and shires across the country to local public and communal ownership and to provide those services of health, education and social security which are best provided close to home.

Neither nationalist nor unionist

That is Labour’s place – neither nationalist nor unionist, but – if a word is needed – communitarian, socialist.  Building a community, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, where, with the support of a re-invigorated state, both national and local, people have the power, wealth and opportunity in their own hands sufficient to grasp their own future together.

This is not the 1980’s ‘nationalisation of the commanding heights to the economy’ nor its current Corbyn version.  It is not “for the many not the few”, as our election slogan now has it, but  “in the hands of the many not the few” as our constitution says.  That’s very different.  It’s not top-down, statist. It stems from a different mutual, co-operative Labour tradition, holding tight to freedom and self-renewal. It is the socialisation of the foundational roots of the economy, upon which all else can be built.

The opportunities for transformational policies to protect, build and improve the lives of neighbourhoods, towns, cities and shires are many.

The foundational economy

Local economic prosperity does not rely on inward investment from ‘come and go’ multinationals wooed by national agencies.  It is about designing bespoke local policies which play to the characteristics of local economies and sustain local economic resilience in the face of Brexit-induced global pressures.  The local foundational economy – from local buses to local waste collection, from local health services to local energy generation, from water supply to housing – can be brought back into the public sphere, locally, through direct municipal ownership and a variety of social franchises or mutual enterprise.  Locally owned they can initiate a local multiplier effect by buying from local suppliers, as Preston Council is already doing in a necessarily more limited way. In the same way local businesses, seeing the benefit, can be encouraged to reciprocate by using local supply chains too.

Localising public services

Our public services of health, education and social security, driven as they are by national targets and national plans, are not serving their users and their communities as they should.  The many negative outcomes of their failure drive public spending as ministers seek to rectify them.  Housing policy must deal with failures in the housing market; health provision struggles against our failure to maintain the health of families, many sick with the diseases of poverty;  schools, with too many children disadvantaged by family ‘failures’ again associated with poverty, slip behind standards in the rest of the world while attempts to ‘fix’ that with centrally imposed targets and methods causes stress and mental health damage to our children. Studies show up to 80% of what is done in local authorities today is driven by what is called ‘failure demand’.

Central control of budgets, targets and methods is not working well enough. Public services, part of the foundational economy, will be better provided if they are devolved to the local level where the governance of their provision can be in the hands of direct representatives of their users, where local people, assisted by professionals, will audit and guide what is done, where users and providers together will ‘co-produce’ their services.  They will be cheaper because ‘failure demand’ will lessen.  Imaginative collaborations, centred on individual or community needs, can only happen locally:  perhaps local apprenticeship providers, job centres, FE colleges and social security funders together securing meaningful youth employment.  The multinational outsourcing companies, loyal to their bottom line and distant shareholders, will no longer have a place.

The quality of a place

That lively engagement and entanglement of the economy with its location is hard to make happen if the place itself is downgraded, disheartening, dysfunctional.  And for much of Scotland, especially the older, smaller urban areas, that is the case. Our places are not as good as they ought to be. Almost all the professionals involved in making or re-making the built environment in Scotland , even he Scottish Government’s own Council of Economic Advisers, say that, by and large, the best and the average places in Europe are a very long way ahead of the best and the average places in Scotland. They work better for the people who live and work in them.

Things will change only if our thinking about local economic policy is entwined with our thinking about our local physical development and regeneration policies. Then local leaders can begin to discover how to:

  • sustain existing local work, in the first place by the purchasing polices of local institutions
  • find and exploit opportunities for new work — through ‘import replacement’ and ‘export’
  • enhance the knowledge and work skills of local people and remove the personal barriers to working
  • retain or provide low-rent local business premises integrated within the locality
  • provide easy access to low-interest, small-scale risk capital
  • ensure there is a deep concentration and mix of people and uses in neighbourhoods to support demand for local enterprises.
  • provide the local internal connections between people through sustaining or providing local institutions and places for meeting and interaction
  • sustain or provide good connections to the wider economy.

Regeneration of a local economy through policies like these will not happen through sitting back and waiting for some invisible hand to appear. They happen through coherent action by the public sector.  That’s not possible at the national level; only the local state can do it.

Local state and local market

The physical context of a place is made through the interaction of public and private institutions and interests, the state on one hand and the market on the other.  At the moment the market is either strong or absent, the local state weak. So local democratic leadership needs a range of new legal instruments to allow the local state to effectively shape the market and there are plenty of practical existing examples throughout Europe on how to do this.  New tools need to be provided to allow the provision of collective goods – the infrastructure of utilities, public transport, public realm and open space – in advance of development. These tools must include means to enable the local state to acquire at least temporary ownership of significant development sites. And greater upfront resources, perhaps acquired from later participation in site value uplift, could be put to use to enable local leaders, with their communities, to create effective plans that ensure development is for the common good. Lastly, new local public institutions can be devised to spread risk and enhance, even realise for the public good, the increased long-term value from creating successful places.

Renewing close-to-home institutions

Our story about rebuilding resilience and prosperity in local economies and local places as a bulwark against the vulnerabilities revealed and increased by Brexit only makes full sense if we talk about how to sustain and enhance the social institutions in a locality too – its democracy, its information networks, its organisations, its culture.  Because economy and environment can be sustained and changed only if the local institutions encourage leaderships to emerge to provoke those actions.  That may mean public support for local independent media outlets, for new initiatives in local organisations, for communal co-operation for child care or building repair, for municipal banks and credit unions, evening classes and enterprise clubs, private sector tenants associations and public halls for theatre, cinema and the other arts.  All of these contribute to social cohesion, to individual and communal well-being and to the stake people have in their own future.

This is a transformational agenda – but very few of all these actions to make people satisfied and proud to live in the the places they do can be done by the local democratic state today.  Which is why our places fail and why people are angry.  It needs a re-imagining.

It needs a wholesale devolution of power on the principle that everything should be done locally other than those things which must, by their nature, be done centrally.  And more than that – it needs the creation, in Parliament, of a set of new local powers that enable and encourage real change.  This sounds daunting but it is not:  it is done all over Europe. And one of the fights that we have on our hands after Brexit is to continue, even to start learning from others in Europe how to do things better.  Scotland is a good place to start that fight – we’re a small country with a strong sense of itself, with a first-hand knowledge of how devolution works and with local government that is already urging change.

The people must shape that future

Fundamentally, we need a reconfiguration of our state – and our minds – from the bottom up.  It is the only way in which we can create a community where power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few; the only way on which we can learn the lessons of Brexit and protect our people from its consequences.  I have not written thoughts about that reconfiguration – deliberately.  It should be the people who shape that new constitutional future. That is why we really must heed CoSLA’s call last year for a people’s convention to re-make the constitution inside Scotland.  We can add that agenda to the people’s convention we’ve already mooted to re-make the constitution inside the UK.

Britain is a slow sluggish country when it comes to change. We are happier with the certainties we discover in our island isolation and our great ability for nostalgia.

But, as Roberto Unger says, “Constitutional arrangements should hasten the pace of politics, the facility for structural change, as well as raising its temperature, the level of popular engagement in public life.”


Trevor Davies is a Fabian member and honorary professor in Urban Studies at the University of Glasgow.  As a councillor he was Convener of the Planning Committee for the City of Edinburgh Council from 2003 until 2007.

This article was written after the local elections and before the Westminster  general election.

He has relied on ideas from a wide variety of sources and in particular acknowledge Marc Stears at NEF, Liza Nandy MP, Polly Toynbee and David Walker, the late Jane Jacobs, Neil McInroy at CLES, the Fraser of Allander Institute at Stirling University, John Seddon of Vanguard Consulting, David Adams at Glasgow University.  Kate Raworth of Cambridge and Oxford Universities and Karel Williams of Manchester University are named in the text.



Labour Hame 15 February 2016

Another year.  Another referendum.  Then it was Indy.  Now it’s Brexit.  So once again we’ll be assailed with fanciful economics, grass-is-greener politics and straw-man enemies beyond our borders. Above we’ll be treated to another surge in nationalism.

And nationalism is seriously bad for us.

Writing this in Scotland I know that not all nationalists are SNP supporters and not all SNP supporters are nationalists.  But nationalism is what drives the SNP, as it does for UKIP (and many Tories) over Europe.

I need to be clear.  Patriotism and nationalism are not the same thing.  Indeed, if we follow George Orwell writing way back in 1945, they are opposites.  Patriots identify with a place and a people which they value and want to nurture and protect, simply because it’s theirs and they believe it good.

Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.  We see that desire in those in the EU debate who want to ‘bring back powers to the British people’.  And we see it in the SNP who consistently argue for more powers to ‘come back’ to Scotland and, in their case, not just some powers, but every power.  But it’s more than just power.  It’s about prestige too – about not wanting to be ‘dictated to’, by Brussels or Westminster, even though there’s no evidence of any dictator. Look through the social media or the noisier newspapers and the thoughts of nationalists constantly turn, as Orwell noted seventy years ago, on “victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations”.  A win by a Scots sports star in the British team is a ‘victory for Scotland’. Criticise the SNP for a policy failing by their government and you are ‘talking Scotland down’.  When the desire for prestige is so strong, criticism seems close to humiliation, and so becomes an attack on the whole idea of the nation not on that single policy.

And that’s really bad for us because when policy is so infected with considerations of prestige, then debate, discussion, and so improvement, becomes impossible.  And if we can’t debate and improve that’s bad for us.  Nationalism is not just unpatriotic, it’s anti-patriotic.

For nationalists, the welfare of the place and the people isn’t paramount. The nation is. The nation, its powers and prestige, is what matters.  And in the minds of nationalists that’s because the Scots are somehow special.  Or the British are somehow special. They truly believe the rules that apply to the rest of the world somehow won’t apply here once we’re ‘free’.  Even when the facts are overwhelmingly against, nationalists stick to their position.  Their hunger for powers and prestige is tempered only by self-deception.  Orwell says it better than I can: “Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also – since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself – unshakeably certain of being right”.

That’s bad for us, especially when a party espousing those views is in government, because it leads at the very least to foolishness and cronyism.   Only a nationalist government would spend money on changing the name of a major institution from the National Gallery of Scotland to the Scottish National Gallery.  Only a nationalist government – strengthened by their belief that distinctiveness of language enhances national prestige and feeling – would introduce, at great cost, invented Gaelic station names in places where that language has never been spoken.

Foolishness we see daily. Cronyism and small incidents of petty corruption we are now familiar with as well. Because if nationalists are unshakeably ‘right’ then others must be wrong. And if nationalists are ‘right’ how can their behaviour be anything other than right too, especially when in pursuit of ‘the cause’. So we see talented people of other persuasions excluded from public appointments; we see a pressure to conform, both monetary and political, applied to those reliant on government patronage; we see the kind of minor corruption where small amounts of public money are given to organisations just because they are run or supported by other nationalists; and wrongdoings by other nationalists either condoned or unreported.

The unshakeable conviction of being right and the desire for powers and prestige above all else prevents consideration of any half-way house.  It is all or nothing at all.  The UK has the full power of a nation state and yet sharing that sovereignty with other European nations is seen by UK nationalists to remove all power to progress; we must leave and regain our independence if we are to be whole, free and powerful again.  It is the same in Scotland. Being provided with what was agreed and signed for by the SNP in the Smith Commission provokes cries of ‘betrayal’ because it falls short of the ultimate aim of independence. Falling short subverts prestige and so must be rejected. So we see the painful reluctance of the SNP Government to use the full powers that make the Scottish Parliament one of the strongest devolved legislatures in the world.  Like Oliver Twist they simply stand and ask for more – a habit which deprives the people of progress.

The nationalist need to identify with a single ‘nation’ appears to confer on them no other duty than that of advancing what they see as its interests.  Actions or ideas therefore come to be seen as good or bad, not on their merits, but simply by their origin. Thus the power to see resemblances between similar circumstances is lost to them.  The SNP, believing Scotland deprived, restricted and dictated to by the UK, nevertheless enthusiastically desires to share power with European nations other than England and Wales.  And UKIP steadfastly defends the merits of the multi-nation state which is the UK but refuses the very idea of a looser union with other Europeans nations.

Nationalism is a predominant force in our times, just as it was in the middle of the last century. The reasons for its re-emergence are real enough – the experience of seeing power and wealth being appropriated by the self-serving actions of a tiny corporate and governmental elite, destroying our common welfare.  Its prescription of separation, however, can only deny to us the collective actions which are the sole effective means to overcome that destruction.


First published in the Scotsman 22 December 2012

Thanks to Lynne Truss we all now know the joke about how a simple comma changes a panda from a cuddly black and white vegetarian that eats shoots and leaves into a mysterious gun-toting, but hungry, restaurant killer who eats, shoots and leaves.

That’s four words. Even single words can carry huge meaning.  One simple Twitter hashtag caught everything I felt after President Obama’s victory – #phew.

Even more powerful are emotions generated simply by choosing what word to place alongside another. Those simple word pairs can push us into opposing frames of mind.  For many years clever conservative politicians here and in America were successful in always associating the word “tax” with the word “burden” – the “tax burden” on individuals and the “tax burden” on companies.  Most of us don’t actually enjoy paying tax so the association of tax with “burden” easily took root. Then they were able to introduce the natural follow-on idea of “tax relief” – throwing off the tax burden and setting companies and individuals free from its cumbersome weight. And of course, because wealthy individuals and companies have a larger “burden” to carry, they conclude it’s right they should also have larger “relief”.  It’s that idea of ‘setting free’ which underlies George Osborne’s decisions to cut corporation tax on companies and income tax on top earners.

That’s beginning to shift now. Others are taking the idea of “burden” and saying of wealthy companies and individuals “those with the broadest shoulders should bear the biggest burden”.  This rings true because it holds an idea of fairness. UK Uncut and others, in criticising companies and individuals who use all kinds of methods to avoid tax, can now even associate the word “tax” with the word “cheat”.  And again it rings true; we all know paying tax is a common investment in common benefits, like hospitals, roads or the army. If you benefit from that investment, but don’t pay your share, then you’re cheating on the rest of us. Starbucks, Amazon and Google are suffering from that “tax cheat” accusation right now.

Everyone, politicians included, try to change the way others think by careful choice of words.  Here’s another example. “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”

As the SNP government’s proposed referendum question it’s short, plain, and to the point.  And, as we would expect, very clever in its use of words.  It almost makes us feel it would be somehow wrong, unpatriotic, to say no. There’s a ‘Braveheart’ emotion in there which is about standing tall, planting our feet in the promised land, strong and free.

Take it apart and look at it.

For instance, why even use the simple word “be” rather than the word “become”? “Be” assumes independence is just a simple switch over from one state of being to another and that the result of that switch somehow can only be benign. But Scotland’s been part of the United Kingdom for 300 years; independence for Scotland wouldn’t simply be a switch over – it would necessarily be the result of a lengthy and perhaps difficult period of adjustment and negotiation with the remainder of the United Kingdom. “Become” would better reflect the real world and the often messy process of political change; it implies that there’s a process, a transition that may or may not hold hidden pitfalls. Therefore, from the SNP’s point of view, “become” is a word to be avoided. “Be” is much more comforting and avoids all those ideas of process and difficulty.

The word they can’t avoid is “independent” and why would they – it’s a strong, forthright, stand-up-for-yourself sort of word.  Those on the other side of the argument, who argue that Scotland and the rest of the UK are all better off if we stay together, see the word “separation” as much more descriptive of what is being proposed – the separation of Scotland from the rest of the United KIngdom.  It’s an accurate description of the choice we’ll have to make, just as “independent” is accurate. But it carries with it quite a different set of emotions – of uncertainty, of going it alone, even of pain – the emotions of the negative answer to the referendum question.  Even though that answer is, at the moment, the one most people in Scotland seem to favour, “separation” is a word the Scottish government will avoid at all costs.

Even the word “country” in the question is chosen with care.  The SNP government could have used “nation” or even “state”.  Any would have been accurate, so why choose country?  Perhaps because the UK is made up of four countries anyway and most agree that Scotland is a different, even separate, country from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Then, of course, it’s not too big a mental step from “different” and “separate” to “independent”.  But use the word “nation”, and especially the word “state”, and our feelings change. If Scotland becomes an independent and separate state from the rest of the UK it could be just like its other neighbour France – and the implications of passports, ambassadors, trade arguments and illegal immigrants all come to mind. That’s not a prospect that the SNP government want us to dwell upon, so “country” is the favoured word.

Even “do you agree” implies more than a “yes” or a “no”.  “Well, it depends…” or “not right now” would be more realistic answers when so much of the success or failure of the independence project would depend on the details of the deal negotiated, out of public view, between Scottish and UK governments after the referendum is done and dusted.  But “yes” or “no” is all we’ll get.

Is there a better alternative question? Maybe. And the Electoral Commission will have to think about it. But one of the arguments against referenda is that it is almost impossible to craft a completely neutral question – and that those in power will seek to influence the answer by manipulating the words. As we see.


First published in ‘The Scotsman’ 11 December 2012


It’s in very tasteful green and red hand-painted tartan and it sits at the front of my kitchen shelf – my small 1997 ‘Yes Yes” souvenir mug. “Yes” to the question on whether there should be a Scottish Parliament and “yes” to it having powers to vary the rate of income tax up or down.  I’m still proud to see it there. Winning that referendum was a great achievement and, I remember, brought hope and excitement to me and to many people in Scotland.

But today, fifteen years later, there’s a sense of disappointment that ordinary Scottish people have not seen  those hopes fulfilled. There haven’t been the economic and social changes we hoped might start to flow.

The 1997 devolution settlement was a good one. Fundamentally it said that everything was devolved to the Scottish parliament except those things that were better dealt with together at a UK level – like our common security through defence and diplomacy and the social security we all share, or the policies to manage and develop our shared economy.  Otherwise a whole chunk of the apparatus of the state was taken and moved from London to Edinburgh. Still thinking of my kitchen,  it was like breaking off a big piece of oatcake and putting it on another plate.

But that wasn’t meant to be the end of the matter. To my mind devolution was meant to trigger something more, a different and renewed form of government within Scotland that would bring benefit to Scottish people. That hasn’t happened.  It’s just like we’re still operating the big old Westminster state – but from Edinburgh.

The first two Scottish Parliaments had Labour and Liberal Democrat coalitions and there seemed neither the understanding nor the will to break out from that old Westminster mould. So much time was taken up with making coalition work; and coalition rarely does anything radical, always compromising downwards. That only left room for small pet policies, trying to make the big bureaucratic Westminster ways work better. Perhaps if devolution’s godfather, Donald Dewar, had lived to lead those early parliaments for longer then things would have been different  – but we’ll never know.

The second two Parliaments have been dominated by the SNP who, of course, don’t want devolution to work and have done little with it, using and reinforcing people’s genuine sense of disappointment to press their case for independence and separation.

So it’s encouraging to see that Labour’s ‘Devolution Commission’, promised by Johann Lamont when she was elected leader a year ago, started meeting a few weeks back.  It could be the beginning of some new thinking.  But from reading what it is setting out to do and looking at its limited membership, my fear is that it will simply be trying to move a few more crumbs of the oatcake from one plate to another. There’s a really good case for moving more power to Scotland and for making the boundaries between Westminster and Edinburgh clearer and that all needs to be worked out. But if that’s all, then it’s just nibbling at the edges of the issue: trying to make the old big bureaucratic Westminster ways work better in Edinburgh.

The opportunities are bigger and more exciting than that and it would serve Scotland, and Labour, better if it’s Commission could show both imagination and courage to grasp hold of them.

Let’s look at what we have now, fifteen years after I bought my “Yes Yes” mug.  We have a government in Edinburgh which has taken powers away from our local democracy to itself. We have a Parliament which  mostly manages what we have, rather than legislating for the future. We have communities where people’s health is still the worst in Europe.  Our dependence on alcohol is still wrecking lives. We still build places to live which are mediocre at best. Even our education, once the envy of the world, is beginning to slip away.  That wasn’t how it was meant to be.  And nibbling at the edge of the oatcake isn’t going to address those things.

To my mind what is needed is to now take the radical idea of devolution seriously and take it to its next, deeper, more transforming stage – and that is devolving all that can be devolved to local communities, local organisations, local councils, local people. I say that simply because I believe it will achieve better results than trying to make the big bureaucratic Westminster model work better.

There’s a story I tell which shows why.  Many years ago when I was first a councillor in Edinburgh, Wester Hailes was being built to house people displaced from rotten homes in the city centre.  (Again good intentions that didn’t quite work out the way they were meant to.) At the time the Council thought, rightly, it would be good to have trees in the big open spaces between the housing blocks.  So workmen would come and plant saplings – but within days they’d all be uprooted, bashed or broken as local kids set about them for whatever reasons of resentment or distrust.  Again the Council workmen would plant the saplings and again they’d be destroyed.  And again. One day, by accident, a trailer load of saplings was left out overnight and next morning they’d all gone, to be found in the days that followed planted outside people’s homes, watched and watered.  Those trees flourished and grew. A sense of personal ownership, care for what they could see, brought community benefit in a way the Council on its own never could.

Radical downward devolution is something nationalists are unlikely to do. It’s not in their nature. They believe in putting power into the nation state. It’s happening in Scotland today. But there’s hope in a strand of Labour thought which is quite different  – of co-operatives, self-education, trades unions and municipal enterprise – that says by doing things together at a local, workplace or community level we achieve more than either individuals or a big bureaucratic state can do. Trees planted in the care of local people grow.


First published in “The Scotsman’ 15 September 2012


“We are now approaching Falkirk High”.  On the train from Edinburgh to Glasgow that’s what you expect. Same journey. Same announcement.  You’d be insane if you got on that train one day and expected to hear “We are now approaching Lochaber”.

That’s my take on Albert Einstein anyway.  The great genius once said “Insanity is this: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Same journey. Same results.  If you want something different you have to do something different.

Does anyone dispute that our country and our economy really need something different? The British people don’t.  Polling in Britain by eminent American pollster Stan Greenberg found that two out of three people think our economy is “too harsh on ordinary working people”.  And by a margin of 47% to 35%, British people think “we need to fundamentally change the way our country and economy work”. Those are clarion calls for change.

And what does David Cameron do?  Well – he has a re-shuffle and he proposes to change some planning laws.   The same old idea that cutting ‘red tape’ somehow produces growth hasn’t worked before and won’t work now. He’s fallen into the Einstein insanity trap.

And what does our First Minister do? Well –  he has a re-shuffle and he thinks about changing some planning laws.  With almost all the powers of a full nation state at her command, his re-shuffled Deputy has just commissioned some of our Scottish great and good to consider how to perk up town centres. Alongside David Cameron, Alex Salmond has fallen into the Einstein insanity trap.

The only difference between them is that Cameron falls in out of misplaced ideology, while Salmond does it for a rather better reason: strategy – the less he does the more he can blame ‘lack of independent powers’ as a reason for nothing much happening.

They ignore the urgent need to think differently, act differently and seek out different results.  There’s another hugely important scientist, a physicist like Einstein, who fifty years ago wrote a book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, introducing the world to a new idea: the paradigm shift. Thomas Kuhn’s great notion was – and here I extend it beyond the world of scientific research – that for a while everyone shares a common ideas framework and works away within that trying to solve all the puzzles that it throws up, make it work better.  Until something happens which shifts everyone over to the other side of the street:  a paradigm shift. That’s what the British people in that poll are asking for – a fundamental shift in the way our country and economy work.

Instead our leaders – Cameron and Salmond – sit inside the old political paradigm.  A re-shuffle here, a policy review there. They are, good for them, trying to solve the puzzles, trying to do things better – but they’re trying to do the wrong things better.  And it’s not just them. There’s not much sign Liberal Democrats or Labour in Scotland are making efforts to shift their thinking either.

We live in a time of almost unprecedented global financial and economic decline and a public spending drought. And, to our shame, we live in a country, Scotland, which has the widest gap between the richest 20% and the poorest 20% than any other country in Europe.  So it’s time to stop trying to do the wrong things better, time to stop believing, insanely, that we’ll get better results without doing different things, time to make that paradigm shift.

Not every change requires money throwing at it: we could make efforts to break down the power of vested interests, from the banks to our largely foreign-owned press; we could enhance our freedoms by giving the poor better access to justice and employees equal rights to shareholders in running big companies; we could make public services better by making them local and sharing their control with people who use them.

The most urgent matter, though, is to shift the way our economy works. It’s insane to think that doing what we’ve done until now is going to get the different results people want. It’s insane to believe, as Cameron and Salmond both do, that cutting regulation, reducing business taxes and ‘freeing up markets’ is going to get more people into productive and useful work when all the evidence says doing just that was at the root of our economic collapse. Insane to think that more and more growth is possible without the ice-caps melting away.  As economist Kenneth Boulding says: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman – or an economist.”

The New Economic Foundation ( is out campaigning now on what it calls ‘The Great Transition’. It sets aside the foundation of orthodox economics, and what you and I often believe, that more is always better.  There’s no doubt that the poorest in the world need more – but you and I? More stuff? Really? I doubt it.  What many of us want is more security, more fairness, more time, satisfying work and enough to raise our children well and look after ourselves when we get old.  We want clean air, good relationships, health.

And it is a valuation all those good, but outside-the-market, parts of our lives that marks the starting point for NEF.  Normal more is better economics is turned on its head. By squeezing that gap between rich and poor and taxing unearned wealth, by making markets work for all of us not just the top 20%, the well-off will consume less and the headline indicators we’re used to, such as GDP (which measures ‘stuff’), will fall. But the ‘real value’ in the good, sociable, secure, healthy parts of our lives will grow at the same time, exceeding the drop in GDP.  Happiness and satisfaction, in place of ever-increasing ‘stuff’, is the great transition we need, say NEF.

Now that’s called changing trains.


First published in The Scotsman 15 August 2012


Are we at one of those moments? One of those moments in history when the world might shift?

It happened in Britain after the 1939-45 war when all the common trials and tribulations of conflict suddenly opened the door for the NHS, state pensions and the welfare state.  It happened in the 1960’s when personal expression and freedom suddenly blossomed.  Could something, we know not what, be about to shift again soon?

We need it.  The scandals of overweening corporate power and incompetence are all around us. It isn’t just that the incompetence of G4S over their Olympic guard duties is followed by their still claiming their full £57m fee. The sense of being ripped off by big over-powerful companies – banks, utilities, airlines – is personal, felt by each one of us. Some we sense, may even be crooks. HSBC, and they are not alone, knowingly laundered the money of big time drug dealers. Other banks fixed interest rates. Rich investors bought the debt of the poorest countries in the world and then went to court to suck from them great multiples of what they first owed.

The richest 100,000 people in the world, no more, have salted away in tax havens well over $20,000,000,000,000 – more than the whole American economy – depriving us all, and especially poor countries, of prosperity. In Britain the richest 1000 have boosted their total wealth in 10 years by an extra £250,000,000,000 – enough to pay off our debts.

That eye-watering transfer of wealth to the rich has happened over the last 30 or so years.  If we’d kept the same income distribution as we had in 1979 then most people in this country (but not the top 1%) would be nearly £2000 a year better off.

How did we get to this dreadful state? That 30 years is interesting. Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979. Shortly, she and Ronald Reagan decided to stop regulating the banks, the finance houses, the investment funds.  Their “Big Bang” in global financial markets of 26 October 1986 is the reason we have our troubles today.  Their actions were based on the hugely mistaken but hugely powerful economic doctrine of ‘get government off our backs and give markets the freedom to work’ – a doctrine that created vast wealth for the top few, destroyed investment in the real economy and left the rest of us to pick up the pieces.

And we all fell for it.  When decent and good building societies converted to banks most of us rushed to vote yes and pocket the ‘windfall’. Without exception those new ‘banks’ failed or have been swallowed by bigger banking failures.  Most of us, in one way or another, bought into the doctrine that free markets are the best markets.  We’ve let the voices of the rich and the voices of the big company bosses become the dominant voices in our world. We’ve allowed the poor to be blamed for their own poverty, allowed a society to grow where disabled people are called scroungers to their face, allowed trade unions to dwindle and be vilified. And that suits the super-rich no end.  Few challenge the claim of right by the mega-rich to move millions around the world to avoid tax – because we’ve all done it a bit, moved our savings to the Isle of Man or bought ‘VAT-free’ CDs from Jersey.

Like all of us, politicians too have fallen slave to those loud selfish voices and the doctrines they peddle. It would be surprising if they didn’t. But are we at one of those moments when the world might shift?

Perhaps we are. When even the ministerial successors of Thatcher in today’s Conservative-led government can suggest fines for accountants who don’t divulge their fancy schemes to keep rich people from paying tax, then perhaps we are seeing something new.

The public mood – that’s you and me – is certainly changing. Look at the success of protest group 38 Degrees in persuading McDonalds and Coca Cola not to use the tax dodges set up for them to milk their exclusive Olympic franchises.  Look at the successes of UK Uncut and the Occupy movement in shaming corporate bosses about their tax doges and financial excesses.

But more than a few fines and bad publicity are needed if we are to make the most of this moment. Let’s aim to rid ourselves of those pernicious dominant voices and find a way to where every voice of every citizen is equal, where our economy serves all and not just the rich. In other words – re-assert our democracy.

First, let’s make every tax return from every citizen a public document.  That scares us.  Our income is private between us and the taxman, we say.  But it’s not. Paying our taxes, and paying them equitably, is the price we each pay for a fair and civilised society and a sign of our citizenship. If tax returns of the rich are open to scrutiny, alongside all the PAYE workers, then, if they cheat, the consequences of the law are there.  It’s done in Sweden – and their democracy has not exactly collapsed.

Second, let’s try and manufacture a rule whereby we can tax every accountancy firm every time they devise a new tax-dodge scheme and every time they recruit someone to it.  If it’s legal but ‘morally wrong’ then here’s a way to deal with it. It was Jimmy Carr’s scheming accountants who should have been in Cameron’s ‘moral outrage’ dock more than him.

Third, we’ve pretty well nationalised the Royal Bank of Scotland now – we own 82% of it.  So let’s just take that bit and turn it into a genuine public investment bank, where manufacturers and traders around the country can get the long-term investment they need.  Let’s divide it up and make it regional so local managers get to know their local businesses. Something of the same happens in Germany – and they still have an economy to shout about.

Let’s put workers on company boards, like Germany, put proper power into the hands of towns and cities, like Norway, give tax breaks to co-operatives and mutuals as they do in Spain.  There’s a moment to seize and to shape.


First published in the Scotsman 3 August 2012


When Niccolò Machiavelli, in 1513, needed to get out of early retirement and find a government job he didn’t write out his CV for possible employers. Instead he wrote a book.  Then he sent “The Prince”, with a grovelling covering letter, to Lorenzo di Medici in Florence. ‘Lorenzo the Magnificent’ was a ruthless autocratic prince of great wealth and power and our Niccolo, as any good civil servant should, wrote how such a Prince could maintain and increase his power. It has two really good things about it. It is written in shockingly plain language about the real politik of renaissance Italy. It is also commendably short.  Magnificent Lorenzo probably wasn’t a great reader.

But Niccolò doesn’t deserve to be called ‘machiavellian’.  His best book is much longer and, so, today rarely read.  “The Discourses on Livy” is about republicanism and the beginnings of democracy. It is pertinent, learned and often witty.  Politicians today should read it.

Our Prime Minister, for instance, the best public relations expert we’ve had in government for a long time, might benefit from Machiavelli’s rendering of the Roman praetor Annius’s view on government.  “It seems to me of the utmost importance….”, he said, “that you should consider what is to be done rather than what is to be said. It will be easy, when you have arrived at a decision, to accommodate words to acts.”

And more than just David Cameron would learn from Machiavelli’s description of how tiny Syracuse just couldn’t make up its mind whether to ally with Rome or Carthage during their great war. There was delay and indecision. It was clear this would bring first isolation and then destruction by one or both of those big powers “whereas, should they arrive at a decision, whatever way it went, they might expect good to come from it.”  In other words – any decision you make is better than no decision at all.

If the wise Machiavelli is right – why do our politicians today so often plump for no decision?  Is it dangerous dithering or ‘masterful inactivity’?

There are plenty of reasons.  Let’s take a few from today.  Reason one for preferring ‘no decision’ is that, as in poor Syracuse, or in our own coalition government, there are strong influential people pushing in opposite directions. The LibDems want us to ally closely with the European Union, many Tories want to strike out for independence; so there’s talk, but no action. Then there’s welfare, the health service, the House of Lords, green energy.  When opposing forces on different sides of the argument are strong enough to cause problems if the decision goes against them, the ‘long grass’ of no decision is luscious and tempting.  Bad for the country, probably, but holding on to political power is more important.

Reason two for preferring ‘no decision’ is carefully considered and strategic – don’t do much, don’t upset people, don’t divert attention, steady as she goes.  Our SNP Scottish Government is really good at this.  In government for five years, with almost all the domestic powers of any nation state at their fingertips, full of complaint about how Scotland has been held back from being all it could be – they’ve done what? Letting the Lockerbie bomber out of jail and trying to end football violence. But for the SNP this is the right path. By not doing much, no one’s upset and the big to-do list is still there to do ‘if only we could govern ourselves’.  Bad for the country, probably, but achieving their one political aim is more important.

Reason three I saw for myself in local government.  Every decision you make hurts someone. Approve a late-night kebab shop licence and the shopkeeper and weary customers are pleased, but the neighbours upstairs, fearful of noise and fumes, are hurt.  Approve a planning application for new homes and the builders and first-time buyers are pleased, but neighbours looking out over what once was green fields are hurt.  The political problem is people just pocket and forget about the good things as being the proper course of events.  The hurt they hang on to and turn into resentment. Because of this I’ve seen councillors turn down a good planning application because the neighbours, voters all, would be pleased and the eventual blame would rest with a civil servant who would, rightly, in the end of the day approve the application on appeal.  Bad for local democracy, but gaining party votes is more important.

Reason four is surprising.  Sometimes politicians actually think making decisions is not their job. For the LibDem councillors leading Edinburgh Council before the last election, making decisions on running the city, or sorting out the tram fiasco, was for the Council officials, not politicians elected like them by the people. The Prime Minister said something similar after a government minister got too cosy with the Murdoch TV empire. Even though press and media ownership affects the health of our democracy, he thought it could be decided by an unaccountable official, not ministers.  Bad for our democracy, but keeping clean hands is more important.

All those are sad, but understandable in their way.  The really dangerous reason why politicians don’t make decisions is fear of their own leadership – an uncertainty about what they believe and an inability to chart the way ahead. This is really worrying. When David Cameron was asked why he wanted to be Prime Minister and replied “because I think I’d be rather good at it” rather than saying what he wanted for the country, we should all have trembled a little. And Scottish Labour now looks like it might drift to the same place. A party that knows for sure it has to change, that has said it must, and yet has shown little sign yet of doing so, despite the eagerness of members and electorate for it to speak with a loud and fresh voice about what it sees as the way ahead, could well run into more problems.

All need to heed the words of Liverpool poet Roger McGough:

I wanna be the leader
I wanna be the leader
Can I be the leader?
Can I? I can?
Promise? Promise?
Yippee I’m the leader
I’m the leader

OK what shall we do?


Published in ‘the Scotsman’ 8 June 2012


Yo-Yo Ma is one of the world’s great cello players. He’s at the top of his profession because, although he is incredibly expert, he doesn’t worry too much about making mistakes.  “If you are only worried about making a mistake, then you will communicate nothing,” he says. “You will have missed the point of making music, which is to make people feel something.” (from J Lehrer Imagine)

Same with politics. The point of political leadership is to make people feel something, to rouse their imaginations, to dig deep into stories and values that matter to the nation.  Feelings are what change peoples behaviour – including voting. That’s why the appointment of Jon Cruddas to Labour’s front bench in Westminster is to be welcomed.

Neal Lawson, who has worked closely with Jon Cruddas in the left-of-centre Compass group, says: “Jon has a grasp of an emotive, some would say romantic, human sense of politics – not a dry, arid, mechanical approach.  So why give him a dry policy thing? Because he will make it come alive. He will give some kind of narrative and framework on which we can eventually hang dusty policy.”  He knows that policy is not about ‘to-do’ lists for this or that department of government. Policy is about people’s places and stories; a light on the hill.

It’s a tough job and one that really needs doing. If the credibility of policy on the political right, the neo-liberal policy dominant for the past 40 years, has now been destroyed by the biggest economic crash since the end of the nineteenth century, so has policy on the political left. The left in the UK and throughout Europe are being proved right about the failings of austerity, but all are searching for the way to create and talk about the alternatives that will resonate both with economic reality and the feelings people have about their lives.  The policies that do emerge will have to be illustrations of a deeper and real story about our country and our people.

The left in Scotland has an equal challenge.  Devolution, thirteen years old now, and established with great expectations it would engender a better life for Scottish people, has failed to live up to those expectations.  Not because the Scottish Parliament doesn’t have sufficient powers – it does.  But because our MSPs simply continue to do in Scotland the same things in the same way they’d been done previously through Westminster – and they didn’t work well then. They are trying to do the wrong things better. So we still have the worst health in Europe, near the worst education, lots of poverty and some dismal places to live.  Those dashed expectations are the reason why the dangerous notion of complete separation from the rest of the UK has become more attractive, even though, in reality,  like Ireland and Greece, it would mean real power over the big things that matter sitting, uncontrolled, with rich and powerful neighbours, not with us.

So the left in Scotland has a big policy job to do.  But is it learning the lessons of Yo-Yo Ma?  Am I the only one to suspect that many MSPs worry too much about making small mistakes and miss the point of political talk which is to make people feel something?  That there is too much worrying about details of their ‘to-do’ lists of policy as if they’re almost in government? That there is too much attachment to a parliamentary view of the world and sitting behind the walls of their opposition ‘briefs’? That sometimes the right people don’t get into the right jobs because of worries about small differences in policy or outlook (a.k.a their “mistakes”)?

Detailed policy certainly can be important. But perhaps not now.  A ‘safe pair of hands’ is always valuable, saving face or holding to a line sometimes necessary and watching your, or a colleague’s, back an occasional requisite for survival.  But perhaps now is the time to tolerate mistakes, which largely go unnoticed anyway, and concentrate on making the people feel something, which is always noticed.

I moved to Scotland from London as an adult over 40 years ago. I’ve contributed to public life and the common good over those years.  A (native) friend once said to me my blood runs tartan by now. But I have family in England as well as here and I really don’t want to live in another country from them, which is what Alex Salmond offers me, turning my grandsons into foreigners. There must be many that feel the same as me and that needs given voice.  I know for sure, in a time of great uncertainty in our world, a time when the forces of money are so big that we need strong democratic powers to oppose them,  it’s the height of folly for Scotland to think it’s right to turn its back on England, Wales and Northern Ireland and attempt to row against that storm on its own. And I want that said with louder voices than mine.

And I want those voices to speak of everyday things too. I have a friend who once had important work in public service; but poor health lost her the job and for years she’s stayed at home. I read what medical experts told us just a few days ago, something my friend well knows, that our Health Service has for so long been so concentrated on fixing sick people in hospital that it fails to help people at home with chronic conditions get back to be part of the world again.  What those experts want, and what I know we really need, is a transformed health service that is local, close to home, helping us all be healthy, preventing sickness and disease, not simply waiting for people to turn up in super-expensive hospitals sagging under the weight of ill-health caused by alcohol, smoking and the wrong food. I want us to stop trying to do the wrong things, better – and start doing the right things.

I need our politicians, with a loud voice, to imagine that future with me, to delve into the deeper story of our country and people, to make me feel that politics is not just about avoiding mistakes. That talking politics is like making music.