Forty Two Reasons to Support Scottish Independence

42 Reasons Cover blog versionToday the Commonwealth publish Adam Ramsay’s Forty Two Reasons to Support Scottish Independence.

For some time I have thought that the prospect of independence in Scotland is bound to stir up a long-overdue debate about the constitution in the rest of Britain.

Of course, the English in particular will take a lot of persuading that continental innovations like popular sovereignty and embedded rights have any place in this, the land of cosy crime, cups of tea and breakneck shiftiness in the corridors of Westminster-Whitehall. But a new constitutional settlement is coming, I suspect, no matter what the result is in the September referendum. And the Scots now have something of a head start in thinking about the implications of doing away with the Crown-in-Parliament.

Adam Ramsay is one of the most interesting writers that I have come across in the context of the independence debate. He has argued tirelessly for the merits of independence in Scotland on the grounds that independence will be better for the people who live in Scotland, better for their neighbours, and better for the world.

The Poverty of Policy

Yesterday the Sunday Times reported that Jon Cruddas was unhappy about the way the Labour leadership was treating his policy review. On the same day Radio 4’s The World This Weekend invited Matthew Taylor on air to discuss the role of policy in politics. As the former head of policy in Tony Blair’s Policy Unit, Taylor speaks with considerable authority:

… If you’re in opposition, policy is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, if you have a good idea the government party can adopt that. Labour announces an energy price freeze and the Coalition immediately started taking steps to tackle the issue of the behaviour of energy utilities. If you have a bad idea it can be hung round your neck.

What’s striking here is that Taylor doesn’t pause to consider that the Labour party might publicly advocate a “good idea” that can’t be adopted, for whatever reason, by a Conservative-led coalition. Good ideas are, in this formulation, ideas that the two main parties are happy to adopt. Bad  ideas are ideas that “can be hung around your neck” (by and in the media, presumably).

This tells us something important about the status of “policy-making” and its function in public speech; It is a, fairly minor, part of the communications efforts of the big parties. What the parties actually intend to do in government is far too serious to be shared with the electorate.

Labour party insiders, on the rare occasions when they’ve tried to stop me saying disobliging things about them, always tell me that Miliband is much more social democratic than he can let on. Perhaps that’s true. We do know for sure that the Conservatives had much more radical plans for the NHS  than they ever let on during the 2010 election.

The idea that the electorate votes for a party on the basis of a clear understanding of their agenda for the country is a gross simplification. Parties compete for power and then do more or less what they like, within the limits of a contested consensus. Their actions are then assessed by a media system that is closely integrated with the state in general and the political parties in particular. The public’s irrelevance is baked into the process. We have to be told something, for form’s sake. But what we’re told and what the parties end up doing in government have no necessary connection.

If we want to stop austerity and improve matters for ourselves and the great majority of people in the country, we might want to start making policy ourselves. Our ideas won’t be “good”, in the sense that they can be plugged indifferently into the messaging efforts of the Labour and Conservative parties. Instead they will form the basis for a new relationship between society and the state.

As such they will frighten the life out of the creatures that have evolved to prosper in the current arrangements.

A little bit of photojournalism

When the London won the 2012 Olympic Games there was much talk of legacy. The billions were to be spent with one eye on the city’s future.

Doubtless there was something to all this. But a couple of weeks ago I went to the Olympic Park to have a swim. The pool itself is a triumph. But finding it isn’t as straightforward as it could be.

The station itself is fine. I’ve got nothing against the station …

All pretty straightforward ... This way to the park. Forgive the image quality. I am not really a photojournalist.

All pretty straightforward … This way to the park. Forgive the image quality. I am not really a photojournalist.

The trouble is, neither does the station.

Which way to the Olympic Park?

Which way to the Olympic Park?

No sign, I mean. Nothing at all to see, except a gigantic shopping centre on the left and an electronic billboard dead ahead, for gambling. On the World Cup, naturally.

Can there really be nothing to point the visitor towards the legacy?

Ah, what’s that, in the corner, past the smoking area?

Makes you proud ...

Makes you proud …

Aha …

A glorious legacy ...

A glorious legacy …

Here it is, partially visible from the station exit and at least three foot high.

Needless to say, it is not possible to miss the shopping centre from the tube. Because it is massive.

If the Olympic movement is to persuade other cities that the games aren’t a racket, they might want to have a word with London. Having spent £9 billion, the public should really be able to find the swimming pool without having to ask a security guard at the shopping mall that’s parked between the park and the tube station.

As it is, it looks like nobody really gives a fuck about the legacy.

Making the Connections

Marina Hyde writes today in the Guardian about “one of our foremost national characteristics – the absolute insistence on looking at the wrong thing” and wonders if this has now tipped into a kind of madness.

After a series of revelations about mass surveillance the British public has remained infuriatingly stolid. This, says Hyde, is in marked contrast to the response to revelations about hacking by News International:

Over the past few years, Britain has appeared far more concerned with who did or didn’t listen to some celebrities’ voicemails than with what should be the epoch-defining question of who can listen to all of ours, and watch us at home via our webcam, and now listen in on live calls.

Hyde goes on to suggest that we make the connection between the D-Day anniversary and the fact of mass surveillance. Surely the fight against fascism was, in part, the fight to communicate “without some unfettered state snoop in Cheltenham or Maryland being empowered to listen in?” Or, as Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

It’s true that the series of front pages that ran in July 2011 did provoke mass disquiet and a corresponding crisis in the ranks of the deciders. The Snowden leaks haven’t, or haven’t so far. But the two cases are not as distinct as they seem.

For one thing, it took a long time for the News International story to capture the public’s attention. Nick Davies and others at the Guardian were hammering away for two years before it became a scandal complete with calls for action, votes in Parliament and, that penicillin for fevers in the body politic, the establishment of a public inquiry. It took as long as it did in large part because the other newspapers (apart from the Independent) were stubbornly reluctant to wade in. Given that the BBC tends to look to the Mail-Telegraph agenda when seeking a proxy for the public mood, this helped ensure that the story didn’t get much play in the broadcast news, either, at least until the Milly Dowler story broke.

Much the same can be said of the Snowden leaks. The rest of the UK press has been quite muted. The Telegraph-Mail intravenous drip into Middle England hasn’t been pumping it with warnings about an emerging Big Brother state. The broadcast coverage has been similarly sparse. There’s more than one reason for this. Britain is not a constitutional republic, so the public take it on trust that the state isn’t going to trample the rights of the freeborn etc. And the people in GCHQ go out of their way not to draw attention to absence of formal legal restraints and their prodigious will to know. Personal decency, rather than abstract principle, is the animating spirit of the system. It’s terrifically effective in creating the “mouthfeel” of freedom – the sense that we are the authors of our own destiny and that we aren’t about to be shot or imprisoned for no good reason. (It doesn’t convince everyone of course. If you have no money, if you’re black or if you have views that Mr Gove considers extreme then you are likely to have a less rosy view of our immemorial tradition of not writing anything down.)

It’s also true that newspapers don’t always like to make a fuss about other people’s scoops. But there’s more to it than that. The Guardian has come under a great deal of pressure from the state for its Snowden coverage. Newspapers are supposed to keep at least one eye on the national interest as set out by Whitehall. The other newspapers have no desire to upset their working relationships with the permanent administration.

This brings us to another way in which the NSA-GCHQ and News International stories are linked. As Tom Watson MP noted in 2011, “At the murkier ends of this scandal there are allegations that rogue elements in the intelligence services had very close dealings with executives at News International.” At the time Watson expressed the hope that the inquiry would investigate these allegations and the Prime Minister assured him that “the judge can take the inquiry in any direction the evidence leads him”.

As far as I can tell, there are precisely no references to these allegations of “very close dealings” between NI executives and the intelligence services in the published report. This is a little strange, given that a serving MI5 officer was involved in the Max Mosley story. According to the Daily Mail, this MI5 office contacted the News of the World and set up the covert filming of the businessman.

The inquiry doesn’t seem to have asked MI5 questions about what it knew – if anything – about the contacts between serving officers and the News of the World. It also didn’t ask what the Security Service was doing while the paper was hacking the voicemails of politicians and behaving in ways that, at the very mildest, contravened the spirit of the Universal Declaration. Or if they did ask, they didn’t mention the answers in the report.

There’s much more to be said about the links between the secret state and the newspapers and broadcasters. Let’s just say that the moves by GCHQ-NSA to bring the big digital companies into the orbit of signals intelligence supplement the longstanding integration of the intelligence agencies and the mass media. It is possible to spin the News International scandal as the tale of a rogue newspaper and obscure the elements that point to something else, to do with the workings of our unwritten constitution.

The Snowden story cannot help but raise questions about the same constitution. It is constitutionality all the way down. The silence is of the deciders is only to be expected. The imperturbable calm of the public in this respect is what the state-media system is for. It frees up energy to worry about acceptable matters of concern, like benefits scroungers and immigrants. Our “absolute insistence on looking at the wrong thing” requires very careful management.

But News International and Snowden are part of the same story. A story in which we all now have walk on parts.

Quote of the Day

Hannah Arendt has described eloquently how, when political action succeeds in generating real power, the participants experience a happiness different from the kind of happiness one finds in private life.

Public happiness is not isolating but shared. It is the happiness of being free among other free people, of having one’s public faith redeemed and returned, of seeing public hope becoming public power, becoming reality itself … The experience of public happiness is an exceptional one in the politics of our time, but not such a very rare exception. It has been known in many countries in this century, on every continent, in societies of every kind of political, economic and cultural configuration. It has been felt, if sometimes only momentarily, everywhere, and therefore it is possible everywhere.

Doug Lummis, quoted by Alexander Cockburn in The Golden Age is in Us (London/New York: Verso, 1995).

Thinking about UKIP …

Immigrants, welfare claimants, beggars … the temptation to blame the victim is ever-present …

August 3rd, 1988

In the stories I have read or watched about the beggars lately the name of Ronald Reagan has barely been mentioned, as though no known connection existed between slashing funds for public housing, attacking welfare programs of one sort or another, and the consequent effect on the targets of these cuts.

A second remarkable quality of these stories is the tremendous hostility expressed towards the homeless. Like many unpleasant media trends, this one appears to have originated with The New York Times, whose editors and reporters have to complete their journey to work by walking through the seedy Times Square area, soon to be purged of its riff-raff by developers cheered on, naturally by The New York Times.

Today a Times editorial laments the fact that the beggars of yesteryear – ‘the legless man propelling himself on a little wheeled platform and the sightless man asking for help to buy a seeing-eye dog’ – have been replaced by a more aggressive type: ‘Unlike the legless and the sightless, who merely shook their tin cups, the new beggars speak right up. “Give me a quarter”, they order, or “Help me out, lady.”‘ There is a real note of nostalgia, as though the old-style beggars – man on platform, man in need of dog – belong to some ordered universe now gone. They’ll probably show up in wax soon at the Museum of Natural History.

Alexander Cockburn, The Golden Age is in Us (London: Verso), p.43.

Kettle’s Rationalism

This article on the September independence referendum by Martin Kettle is really quite extraordinary.

Kettle, who describes himself “as a rationalist not a nationalist” claims that
“the UK government would have every possible incentive to drive a hard bargain with Scotland … and it would be backed by public opinion.” He asserts this without evidence, in a daring departure from the norms of rational debate.

He goes on to warn that “Nationalist opinion could become more militant if the talks become bogged down. Even acts of violence are not inconceivable in certain circumstances or places, as anyone with a smattering of knowledge of the Irish treaty of 1921 will grasp.” And it isn’t only the Scots who haunt his imagination: “the psychological impact in England, Wales and Northern Ireland of Scotland’s rejection of the union, meanwhile, could be very unpredictable, and possibly nastily so.”

Kettle assures us that he does “want any of these things to happen”, which is good of him. But why does he claim that “the possibility that some of them may happen has moved a bit closer with the shift in the Scottish polls this spring”? Why on earth is independence such a threat?

This is rationalism of a very peculiar kind.