Monday, 29 September 2014

Cameron and the Tory death-wish

Alas for Dave.  His conference is overshadowed by defections and a retro-Major family values storm in the proverbial teacup, with lukewarm backing from the rampaging blond ego and prospective candidate for Uxbridge.  Over the last decade, Cameron's modernisation has been the stone cladding over the rotting frontage of a party whose reason for existence is increasingly hard to fathom.

There is an intellectually-unarguable case for a centre-right party.  Indeed this position has been inherently successful, as Angela Merkel and Tony Blair demonstrate.  For those of us with more radical tastes, this is unfathomable but it does appear to command a modicum of support, not least from the business community and from the ranks of the comfortably-off and fretful.  This would be a legitimate and intelligent position for the Tories to adopt, but instead there appears to be a squabble with Farage for the dregs of the far right.

Capitalising on this self-imposed marginalisation should be the priority.  Paradoxically, despite the predictable self-interested whining from the usual fellow-travelling suspects, Miliband may even have got it right by not highlighting the deficit in his conference speech, preferring to concentrate on the issues that affect the individual.  The narrative of the individual and the community struggling in a world where everything is down to "global forces" and the dead hand of the neo-liberal reconstruction should be one that resonates - and the Tories have missed this by parroting Austerity, gruesome Gideon cheered on by gormless Beaker and the Orange Book Liberals, as a substitute for a genuine political and economic programme.

Watching UKIP's gathering last week was akin to mainlining George Cole at his most spin-like.  Farage's claim to be a party of insurgency is risible, he is merely another tool of the plutocracy and, as can be seen by the calibre of defective Tories he attracts, his claim to be an alternative to Labour is the kind of slurred boast that one encounters at chucking-out time from Wetherspoons.

Labour missed a major trick last week by not tapping into the genuine insurgency that could have spread virally from Scotland to the rest of Great Britain.  The rejection of much of what both Blair and Cameron stood for is clear, and the urgent need to replace the current oligopoly on political power and the client state that decimates accountability, democracy while sucking out taxpayers' resources in the name of profit should be the fighting-ground for the next election.  Instead we have a dull consensus of the need for slow, imperceptible change.  No wonder there is no sense of momentum for Labour at the moment.

So Cameron could steal some of these clothes.  Instead he prevaricates on Scottish devolution - creating the perfect storm for the 2015 General Election - and runs for cover through military adventurism at the coat-tails of the United States.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of the current situation in Iraq, the timing of British engagement looks cynical and short-termist - no-one has learned from the Blair/Halliburton invasion that there needs to be a clear target for a post-crisis settlement.  Sowing the wind is no substitute for a policy.

Instead, he will spend most of the week trying to mollify the swivel-eyed and shore himself up against internal challengers.  Yet the Tories should be looking to external factors if they are to survive.  Electorally they are nowhere in huge swathes of the country, and only because of democratic  representation do they wield any parliamentary presence in the devolved nations.  There are redoubts of the ignorance and bigotry that have sustained the Tory right, but they are gradually becoming too old, enfeebled or enraptured with the yellow-trousered pantaloon to form the rock upon which the Tories move forward.

A modern Conservative party would be prepared to challenge its own assumptions, including the idiocy and venality that creates self-sustaining moral corruption.  Many of its donors benefit from the privatisation of public services, and continue to do so.  In its former incarnations, moral probity and public duty were part of most Tories' make-up - nowadays the only dictum is not to be caught.  It used to stand up for local communities and smaller businesses, never entirely satisfactorily but at least from an instinctive distrust of centralisation and unaccountability, but now its denizens are in the pockets of the people who threaten democracy.

Real insurgency comes from understanding how the political and economic environment has been tarnished - largely since the triumph of the neo-liberals in economics since 1979 and the authoritarians and petty dictators in social and political spheres at the same time.  Taking back control of the state and the community should be the mantra - and a Tory party that is now fully-identified with these forces is part of the problem.  Cameron would have nothing to lose from refocusing on the citizen and the state, but the terms of debate will be bigotry, xenophobia and a further entrenchment of the wealthy.  This is not reaching out to rebuild any Tory links with the electorate - and another week goes by where the realities of the country are set aside in the interests of shoring up internal morale until the next minor tremor sets off a fresh wave of panic.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

An English Parliament could be Salmond's legacy

Finally, the referendum has been held and the result was clear.  It pauses Scottish nationalism in the context of progress towards independence but opens a much wider debate on what a modern constitutional settlement might look like.  Sadly it has already been overtaken by the visceral authoritarianism of the Tories and the opportunism of Labour, rather than allowing the space for an appraisal of what government, democracy and engagement could look like.

Cameron spent two years ignoring the possibility that the Scottish vote might go against him.  The complacent London elites considered that the margin of "no" would be huge, and that the matter was the scale of Salmond's defeat rather than any possibility that the electorate might be sufficiently hacked off to take a risk.  In the last month, he has resembled first a rabbit startled in the headlights, and then a bungler promising gifts that neither he nor his party can bestow.  The desperation of the compact between Miliband and the Coalition leaders to promise the previously-unmentionable "deco max" may have staved off the orderly break-up of the UK, but it does not make for good policy.

Leaving aside Northern Ireland, devolution in the UK has been, principally, a response to the perceived democratic deficit, the dominance of English politics and an assertion of cultural and political identity.  The distance from London, and the Westminster machine, increases both the drive to independent identity and the confidence to pursue it.  Where the model breaks down is assuming that this is solely a manifestation of physical distance, rather than the economic, social and political isolation that the Bullingdon clique, the City and the assorted parasites promote.    Over the last thirty years unequal growth, deindustrialisation, unfair taxation and the democratic deficit has exacerbated the breakdown of cohesion.

For once, Cameron asked the right question - what to do about England.  The problem is that it does not translate into a glib, one-size-fits-all approach, given the scale and diversity of the country.  A top-down solution, as evidenced by Prescott's hapless promotion of regional assemblies, does not work, and will be resisted at all costs.  However, a federal British state is not such a mad proposition, but does require something more than a calculation of how the Commons might be constituted in twelve month's time.

Scottish democracy was a success before the referendum.  The Welsh Government is also moving towards further devolution.  Even the GLA has tended to work quite well.  What they have in common is a more democratic basis than the Commons.  When devolution was implemented in 1999, a modern electoral system and a modern parliamentary format were required for Scotland and Wales (ironically to keep the Scottish Nationalists out of power) - and this has worked without the sky falling in.  The lessons to be learned here are simple.

Getting the right form of devolution in England will take time.  Solving the West Lothian question does not align with the need to get things right.  A modest proposal would be to establish an English Parliament on the basis of the Scottish system.  Using the German electoral system, with constituency MPs and regional lists, would provide a legitimate basis for Labour to remove its objection to the advantages its Scottish redoubts have given it in the past being traded in.  Even if the Tories were to secure pluralities in English constituencies, a top-up list would ensure that the opposition forces would provide representation, and promote a parliamentary basis for more mature politics.

Given that the "devo max" will devolve more power to Scotland and (presumably) Wales, the rump role of the House of Commons will be primarily defence, foreign policy and the maintenance of the royal charade.  It will not need to meet (at least physically) very often.  So, the next stage of the modest proposal is that the Commons be composed of the constituency MPs from national parliaments.  The Lords then becomes a Senate, reflecting national election results and acting as an upper chamber across the national parliaments.  If the English Parliament is outside London, then it also sends a clear message of national integrity.

What happens in England below its Parliament is more complex, and can be given space to evolve.  The principle of subsidiarity is important, but it should be designed to protect citizens and promote communities.  Based on a written constitution, incorporating a strong human rights protection, this could be a model for reform going forward.

Despite Cameron's foolishness and blinkered outlook, he was right in that unlike an election, the referendum was a fundamental choice.  For nine out of twenty voters to want to take an irrevocable step is a warning and a challenge - this is no shifting party allegiance.  Whereas the inchoate rage in England has benefited the canting twattery of Farage, the Scottish rage and anti-Westminster backlash has benefited the SNP.  Ironically, the loss of the nationalist cause could be the principal piece in a jigsaw that brings down over a century of centralising power.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Salmond and Cameron - the love that dare not speak its name

Were I still to be living in Scotland, the binary choice in the independence referendum would be maddening.  Yet, as the campaign continues the intellectual arguments would be countered by the contempt and scare-mongering that the "Better Together" campaign is peddling, effectively making out that Scotland's success comes as a consequence of being shackled to a wise parent dispensing discipline and rationed largesse.  The counter-narrative that Scotland is a unit which can support a civic life, national values and a viable economy, while making its own mistakes, becomes increasing compelling.

A game-changing moment came with the first opinion poll suggesting that the proportion of the electorate prepared to vote "Yes" outnumbered those wishing to remain in the UK.  Against a background of the English xenophobia demonstrated by the anti-European ferment and the adulatory approach to the Kippers, including the recently-revealed love-in between Farage and Murdoch (two odious toads who should disappear into their own morass of hypocritical evil), and the totally unbalanced economy, where growth and governmental largesse is targeted at the Tory shires and the comfortably-off, late-middle-aged whose propensity to vote and possibly even vote for Dave is a cynical calculation before the balloon goes up next year, it is hardly surprising that a country with a pre-existing sense of suspicion and resentment reverts to type.

Despite Scotland being capable of operating not one but two systems of proportional representation (one for Holyrood and one for local government) without the sky falling in, the deal done between Salmond and Cameron was for a one-question referendum.  A binary choice - calculated on both sides.  Cameron assumed, with London arrogance, that the little people could be frightened out of any short-term tantrum, and that as the scare factor increased, that the "No" vote when it came would be so resounding that any further devolution could be kicked into touch for a further two decades.

While the London-based narrative maintained Scotland to be a curiosity on the sidelines, Salmond's calculation is that this will play into his hands - probably correctly.   Whereas the dismissive dominance of the South-East of England plays well with an audience sufficient to maintain the illusion of comfort and security, the inequality and condescension does not play out well.  Without any alternative option on the table, Salmond is able to play on both resentment and pride, and without having a totally-coherent proposition around fundamental issues including currency and the relationship between Scotland and the European Union.

Salmond knows that Cameron is walking a tightrope.  While being the Tory who lost the Union carries political stigma, it also undermines the ability of the majority of the English electorate to be represented or to turf out the Tories.  Gerrymandering and a broken electoral system would certainly provide a boost to Tory fortunes in England, while Scotland could pursue a mainstream European polity based around a centre-left or centre-right consensus.  Therefore Cameron is torn.

In most respects, now that the "No" campaign is having to resort to becoming the cheer-leaders for the option that was not put to the test, that of "devo max", the debate can become much more interesting.  Further devolution would create both necessity and space for discussion over the governance and constitutional arrangements for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as reducing the legitimacy of maintaining current authoritarianism in the face of the need to modernise the entire British state.  A radical campaign would not be frightened of this - and should even put forward a GB-wide referendum when a new settlement was worked through.

Cameron does not want this; the feeble remnants of the Coalition's agreed constitutional reforms do not go that far.  Scared into withdrawing even modest change by the need to propitiate the headbangers and old guard rightists, the Tories cannot countenance the prospect that the precious cronyism that has maintained their prosperity in the light of manifest incompetence could be called into question.  The "No" campaign could become the harbinger of much wider change and much more fundamental upheaval than anything that could be unleashed as a result of a positive result for Salmond.

It is now too late to extend the debate to the level that might engage the whole of the UK, which is what both Cameron and Salmond wanted.  The chance now is to ensure that the strange conservatism does not become a stalking horse for further denial of democracy for the whole of the country - and that if there is a "Yes" outcome, arrangements for a modern, European independence for both states are progressed.  The Tories will deserve much more scrutiny whatever the outcome of the vote, and an opportunity should be seized by all of us who consider that constitutional reform and democracy are the first, vital building block on the way to create a modern politics and economy.