Friday 7 June 2013

Votes for prisoners

"Two men looked out from prison bars, one...
"Two men looked out from prison bars, one saw the mud, the other saw the stars." Frederick Langbridge (Photo credit: antonychammond)
It's not very often I find myself at odds with Nicola Sturgeon, but on the matter of votes for prisoners I simply cannot agree with her hard-line stance. It is, she claims, a position informed by reasons of "principle, law and consistency". Perhaps not surprisingly she left political expediency off that list.

The consistency argument is valid only if one supposes that continuing to do things in a certain way is entirely justified by the fact that this is the way they have always been done. Or that conforming to what is done elsewhere is an overriding priority. But bad habits do not get better with practice, they merely become more ingrained.  Those who would call themselves progressives must always be prepared to question established procedures. Consistency in the sense of avoiding arbitrary and frivolous variation is entirely laudable. Consistency in the sense of being hidebound by tradition is rather less so.

Ms Sturgeon has a case, of sorts, when she cites consistency as a reason for maintaining the blanket ban on prisoners voting. But it may not be quite the case that she supposes. We shall return to this.

Citing existing law as a reason for not changing the law seems glibly circular. The law is what the law is. But what is the purpose of government if not to oversee and guide the evolution of the law within the context of an ever-changing society? There is, self-evidently, some measure of pressure for change. One might readily argue that it is part of government's function to resist such change. To serve as the (small-c) conservative brakes to the impetus of radical forces that might otherwise be overly precipitate. Brakes must be used judiciously, however, for they will not forever hold against the momentum of social reform whose time has come.

Prohibiting prisoners from voting may well be lawful. But that is not to say that it is right.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Balkanisation blethers

George Robertson
George Robertson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Former general secretary of Nato, Lord George Robertson, fairly characterised the inanity of anti-independence scaremongering when, at a recent Royal Society of Edinburgh conference, he raised the spectre of the "Balkanisation" of Europe as a consequence of the democratic process of self-determination being played out in Scotland and elsewhere.

Foolishly eschewing the option to draw a discrete veil over his Balkanisation blethers in the hope that it might be soon forgotten, Robertson later sought to clarify what he meant in a letter to The Scotsman in which he wrote,
"I cannot see why Scotland’s separatists recoil at the entirely appropriate use of the word separatism, and why the word ‘Balkanisation’ is also too potent for them. The dictionary definition of Balkanise is ‘divide (a region or a body) into smaller mutually hostile states or groups’. That seems to say it all. If the break-up of Britain was to become the model for tomorrow’s Europe, then our future will be bleak indeed."
The following is the text of a letter responding to Robertson's reported remarks which The Scotsman declined to publish. I publish it here with the permission of the author who prefers not to be identified.
Dear Sir,

My dictionary provides the same definition of "Balkanisation" as Lord Robertson's but Lord Robertson makes the unwarranted assumption that Scottish independence (or indeed independence for Catalonia, Flanders or anywhere else in Europe) will automatically result in the mutual hostility that is part of the definition of Balkanisation. I would suggest that the way in which the UK government has recognized the right of the Scottish people to choose their future and the way in which to date the process has been agreed means that others are looking with interest to Scotland as an example of just how Balkanisation can best be avoided.

In a united Europe I would suggest that Balkanisation is far more likely to result from others seeking to copy the British approach to participation in the European Union than from Scotland, and others perhaps, seeking to join that Union on equal terms with the other member states.

Well said, that man!
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Monday 3 June 2013


Should Scotland be an independent country?
On Thursday 18 September 2014 the people of Scotland will go to the polls to answer the question, "Should Scotland be an independent country?".

Fundamental to an adequate appreciation of the debate on Scotland's constitutional future is a thorough understanding of the terms of that debate. Most importantly, we need to understand what is meant by "independence". One might be forgiven for thinking that even to pose such a query is to labour the obvious. Wikipedia tells us,
Independence is a condition of a nation, country, or state in which its residents and population, or some portion thereof, exercise self-government, and usually sovereignty, over the territory.
On the face of it, this seems perfectly clear and uncontroversial. But notice that in this single-sentence definition there are no fewer than five links to other terms that are, to a greater or lesser degree, presumed necessary to an understanding of the concept of national independence.

Consider, too, the different ways in which the term "independence" is represented within the context of the referendum debate. It is clear that the word means different things to different people. This variation in understanding would probably exist anyway simply by virtue of the nature of language. But the situation is aggravated by the anti-independence campaign's strategy of seizing any opportunity to create as much confusion and uncertainty as possible.

Few will have failed to be struck by the inconsistencies and contradictions that pervade the arguments advanced by Better Together, the UK government and sundry anti-independence propagandists. For example, they will cheerfully acknowledge Scotland's economic viability while at the same time telling some tale intended to suggest that any change to the existing constitutional arrangements would lead inevitably to economic melt-down. The representation of independence is similarly convoluted and disordered.

According to unionists, independence both changes everything and alters nothing. It both takes us into a frightening "year zero" scenario with unknown and unknowable implications, and it makes so little difference that it's a pointless exercise. Independence is simultaneously condemned as a "leap in the dark" and as having consequences that are inevitable, predictable and unfailingly dire.

Most curiously, independence is accepted without question as the normal, rightful status for all other nations, but as something outlandish and unthinkable in relation to Scotland and something which is both impossible and meaningless in the world of the 21st century.

Those who follow me on Twitter may have seen a series of short statements which seek to clarify just what independence means. This articles sets out to explain and expand upon those statements.

Democracy is pooled sovereignty. Independence is the power to decide the terms on which sovereignty is pooled.

Human beings are social animals. But there are limits to our sociability. Broadly speaking, we have not evolved to live in groups of more than about 200 individuals. At some point, frequently well short of this upper limit, groups start to undergo a process of fragmentation, often accompanied by conflict.

Over time we have developed ways of overcoming these natural limits. This is not the place to go into detail on this. Suffice it to say that modern civilisation is crucially dependent on our capacity to function as a society. In particular, it is essential to have in place arrangements which resolve the conflict between  self-interested individual autonomy and a functional, cohesive society capable of delivering the benefits only attainable with a certain critical mass of population.

Few would dispute that democracy is the most effective way yet developed for overcoming the problems associated with co-existing in groups vastly larger and more complex than nature has equipped us for. Democracy works by pooling individual sovereignty. In a democracy, each individual provisionally concedes some part of their personal autonomy to a common agency in return for everyone else doing likewise. In an ideally functioning democracy each individual then has equal access to this common agency and is satisfactorily served by it.

For some, even those who profess to wholeheartedly embrace all the fundamental principles of democracy, the concept of pooled sovereignty is problematic. There is a mindset that equates sharing with losing. A world-view that, were it to be generalised to all of humankind, would make civilised society an impossibility. It is therefore important to stress that pooling involves no sacrifice of sovereignty. Just as the individuals in a democracy continue to "own" themselves, so nations in a modern form of international union - such as the EU aspires to be - do not forsake or forfeit any part of their national sovereignty but, rather, lend it to the common agency in return for a share in the use of the aggregate sovereignty of all the other member nations in a joint project to facilitate optimisation of economic, social and political relationships between and among participating states.

What is crucial is that the nations involved enter into this pooled sovereignty arrangement willingly and on terms that they have freely negotiated within the constraints that are necessary for the union as a whole to work, and that the individual member states continue to function as sovereign states in their regular dealings with other members.

Clearly, this is not what is happening in the case of Scotland. Within the UK our national sovereignty is subsumed rather than pooled. We neither have the power to freely negotiate the terms on which we engage with other nations nor the power to appropriately exercise our national autonomy in our day-to-day dealings with those nations. Only independence will rectify this deficit.

Independence is the default status of nations. The condition to which the people of all nations will always aspire.

Nations are independent by definition. That is the starting point no matter how one conceptualises either the nation or independence. Where nations are not independent it is because their independence has been taken away by one means or another. Where independence has been denied, the tendency will always be for nations to revert to their "natural" condition. This is true even where the denial of independence does not involve overt oppression.

To put it as plainly as possible, and with all the usual caveats about generalisation and oversimplification, the nation-state is a necessary level of socio-political organisation in a global context. The nation remains the largest unit of human social organisation with which individuals can meaningfully identify. That's why nations survive. They serve a useful purpose. Nations work better if they are independent. And the world works better if independent nations find workable, liveable arrangements between and among themselves.

Some people decry the concept of the nation-state. But the fact is that we have not developed anything better. They denounce the nation-state as the source and cause of international conflict when the reality is that such conflicts have, without any exception that comes to mind, been occasioned by efforts to deny or obliterate national identity and autonomy. It is imperialism that has been the bane of civilisation, not nationalism.

Scotland's civic nationalist movement seeks for Scotland no more than the status and powers which normally accrue to a nation.

Independence is normal. It's the contrivance of inequitable devolution within an asymmetric union which is anomalous.

Unionists try to portray Scotland's present constitutional settlement as perfectly normal. But the truth is that it is very far from normal. Ask yourself whether you would vote to join a union such as the UK on the terms that currently pertain. The stark reality is that nobody would think it fitting to offer such terms, far less imagine that anyone might accept them. The UK simply could not come into existence in the 21st century. Why then should it be preserved?

The union was forged in a different era. It is a relic of a bygone age. An anachronism. While being represented, at least at some levels, as a voluntary partnership of equals it was, in fact, part of an ongoing project to remove the "problem" of Scotland by absorbing it into a Greater England. A process which mirrors that indulged by nations with imperialist ambitions throughout history as they seek to defend the centre by controlling the periphery.

Far from being a partnership of equals, the union was, from the outset, necessarily and inevitably asymmetric. It could only have been otherwise had England voluntarily relinquished some of its power. And that just doesn't happen in the real world. The balance of power within the union has always massively favoured England. Such imbalances do not rectify themselves. Rather, they become more and more entrenched over time as part of a process that requires neither overt conspiracy nor malign intent. Power accrues to power as power defends itself. It's just the way things work.

The world has moved on in the last three centuries. Much as the imperialist powers - old and relatively new - would like to cling to the past, they are, nonetheless, subject to the relentless processes of history. The UK has reacted to change in diverse ways over time, but always for the purpose of preserving the existing structures of power and privilege rather than implementing meaningful reform.

Recognising that Scotland would not so easily submit to being subsumed into Greater England, one of the more effective ploys was a re-branding exercise that created the synthetic nation called "Britain". Then there were various bits and pieces of constitutional tinkering such as the establishment of the Scottish Office and, latterly, devolution. None of this altered the fundamental imbalance as evidenced by the fact that, to this day, Scotland still tends to get governments at UK level that we didn't vote for. In fact, devolution may be said to have aggravated an already increasingly untenable situation by creating further democratic anomalies that had the effect of making the union almost as unsatisfactory for England as it had long been for Scotland. The so-called "West Lothian Question" being but the most obvious example.

No amount of further constitutional tinkering will resolve the inherent structural and systemic flaws in the union. Only independence will allow Scotland and England to form the true partnership of equals that the union has so signally failed to deliver. A relationship for the 21st century, not the 18th.

Independence is not conditional and may not be constrained or qualified other than with the informed consent of the people.

Independence is, by default, absolute. The reality, however, is that no nation can exist or function in isolation. Nations interact in all manner of ways and interaction would be impossible if every nation insisted on a rigid, fundamentalist interpretation of its own independence. All of politics is compromise. But for compromise to be acceptable it must be freely entered into by those affected. Compromise cannot be imposed and remain compromise. Imposed compromise is subjugation.

Only with independence will the sovereign people of Scotland be able to give their consent to the compromises that they find acceptable.

Independence is about the freedom to make choices, not the choices that are made.

The referendum is about the principle of independence and not matters of post-independence policy. It is not about the decisions that are made, but who makes the decisions,. It is not about the character of an independent Scotland, but the forces that will shape that character.

However much the anti-independence campaign may wish to portray it as such, a Yes vote in the referendum is not a vote for Alex Salmond or the SNP or any other political party. A Yes vote does not set in stone any policy that will not be subject to the authority of the government that is duly elected by the people of Scotland in 2016 and all subsequent Scottish governments.

Independence is a perfectly legitimate end in itself. But it is also a starting point for progressive reform.

Quite simply, a Yes vote brings all decision-making power back home to Scotland to be exercised by the people of Scotland through the democratically elected Scottish Parliament. A No vote is a vote to relinquish that decision-making power and leave it in the hands of a government over which we exert no effective influence. A government which only rarely and incidentally represents the will of the people of Scotland.

Personally, I am at something of a loss to understand how this gets to be a difficult decision.

Independence is not isolation but the capacity to freely negotiate the terms on which a nation engages with the world.

We've all heard the inane unionist scare stories about Scotland being cut off from the rest of the UK and hence the rest of the world should we presume to insist upon restoring our status as an independent nation. But it is never explained why this would apply uniquely to Scotland when, as is clearly evident, no other independent nation is any more isolated than it wishes to be.

Being independent is not an impediment to engagement with the world. Being independent facilitates better engagement because it allows nations to engage on terms which are mutually acceptable rather than on terms imposed by another power.

Neither does independence in any way preclude internationalism. Indeed, as has frequently been pointed out, there is no internationalism without independent states. True internationalism involves sovereign nations freely seeking mutually respectful engagement with other cultures and peoples.

Independence will be achieved when people realise that the things they aspire to will not be delivered by devolution.

It has been truly said that power devolved is power retained. Devolution is neither a form of independence nor a substitute for independence. Devolution, as it has applied to Scotland, is the conditional granting to a nation of powers that rightfully belong to that nation in any case. Devolution is effectively a denial of the sovereignty of the people of Scotland in their own country and an affirmation of the alien concept of parliamentary sovereignty.

One of the anomalies of our current constitutional arrangements lies in the fact that the UK parliament can only have just (rather than lawful) authority to devolve powers if that authority is sanctioned by the sovereign people of an independent Scotland. No such sanction has ever been granted and cannot be unless and until Scotland can act as an independent nation.

But there are many less esoteric and more practical arguments against devolution as a permanent settlement rather than a process that must ultimately lead to independence. Not least the fact that as more and more powers are devolved it becomes harder and harder to rationalise remaining powers being reserved.

Devolution will always fall short of what people demand because devolution will always prompt more demands. The converse of this is that any offer of "more powers" will necessarily be premised on an assessment of the minimum that might be conceded without serious risk to the ultimate authority of Westminster. Within the context of the British state devolution is always about preserving established power rather than seeking the settlement that best meets the requirements and aspirations of Scotland's people.

Ultimately, devolution must fail. It is a matter of deciding whether this failure leads to significant and ongoing repatriation of powers to Westminster, or the return of all the rightful powers of a nation to the Scottish Parliament.

Only with independence will the people of Scotland be able to fully exercise the sovereignty that is theirs by right.

Independence is not given, it is taken. It cannot be given because it is not in anyone's gift. It is not requested or even demanded of any power. It is asserted by the sovereign people. It is not independence that requires justification but the continuing denial of independence.

By foregoing the opportunity to assert and affirm our sovereignty in the independence referendum the people of Scotland risk strengthening and emboldening those who, for the sake of their own power and privilege, would seek to deny that sovereignty. Just as there is great promise in a Yes vote, so there is serious peril in a No vote. We must vote Yes. Not because independence is easy or profitable or glorious, but because it is normal, it is ours and it is precious.
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Sunday 2 June 2013

It's OK to get angry!

Make your anger work for your cause
On March 19 2003 as I watched the horrifying images being beamed to our TV screens from Baghdad - images which signalled the launch of the cynically brutal Bush/Blair assault on the sovereign nation and people of Iraq - I shed tears of bitter, impotent, frustrated anger at the appalling crime that was being committed in my name.

I am not ashamed nor even slightly embarrassed to admit this. On the contrary, I am quietly proud of the fact that, as I approach my mid-sixties, I still retain some remnant of the capacity for justified outrage that tends to be somewhat condescendingly dismissed as the province of youth. I am rather pleased not to have succumbed totally to the world-weary cynicism that life, experience and long observation of the political scene can so readily entail. And more pleased still to have avoided falling into that feigned world-weary cynicism which some hope will be taken for sophistication.

Sometimes, it's OK to get angry.

It's OK to get angry when pathologically self-righteous, self-serving politicians embark on insane neo-imperialist military adventures that are as unjustifiable and pointless as they are murderous.

It's also OK to get angry when confronted with evidence of growing inequality driven by unthinking adherence to a failed and outmoded ideology that demands we pander to the powerful by penalising and stigmatising the powerless.

It's OK to get angry when you witness the mindlessly callous injustices that flow from socially corrosive policies such as the ill-thought and utterly repellent bedroom tax.

It's OK to get angry when faced with the devastating consequences for people and communities of an economic system geared entirely to serving the bloated centre of the British state at whatever cost to the deprived periphery.

It's OK to get angry at the politicians who, having been entrusted with the task of standing between us and those who would exploit us, instead are to be found standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them in serial acts of blatant, unabashed betrayal.

It's OK to get angry at the way the institutions of democracy whose role is to aid informed decision-making are instead being turned to the task of demonising dissenting voices that dare to challenge the structures of power and privilege which define the British state.

It's OK to get angry at all these things and more. Let no-one tell you that your anger is inappropriate. In the face of injustice, perfidy and corruption anger is always appropriate. But it must be appropriately used.

There is power in your anger. We must not fritter that power on the of kind puerile condemnation and denigration of individuals and groups that only serves the purposes of those who would divide us the better to control us. We cannot allow our anger to be diffuse and directionless. Most of all, we must not let that anger be so misdirected as to fuel hatred of others, intolerance of dissent and contempt for the principles and processes of democracy.

Anger on its own is a self-defeating thing. Nelson Mandela - a man with more cause than most to be angry - tells us that,
“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
Anger serves a purpose only when it is harnessed to action. Our aim must be to ensure that our anger is harnessed to a constructive purpose. Throughout history, every socially progressive movement has had two parents: anger at that which is perceived to be wrong; and the dream of a world where such wrongs are righted.

If, like me, you are angered by what is being done in the name of the British state; and if, like me, you have a dream of a better, fairer, more usefully prosperous and socially just Scotland, let us apply the energy of that anger firstly to the task of restoring our nation's rightful constitutional status in order that we may then set about the task of realising our dream.

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