Who are the Nationalists in Scotland?

Like most people in Scotland, I have been thinking a lot about nationalism over the last few years.  Scottish politics has been dominated by the independence debate, a state of affairs which shows no sign of receding; last week’s election merely confirmed this trend, seeing the Scottish Parliament dominated by the Scottish National Party and the unashamedly pro-British Conservative Party.

I am particularly interested in the positions taken by parties with a clear stance on the debate yet who do not identify as nationalists – most prominently, Labour and the Greens.  Most Green activists recognise they are allied to a nationalistic cause in pursuing independence, but justify this ambition by emphasising the possibilities for social justice and decentralisation independence could bring.  Labour, however, has seemed to portray itself as fighting against an exclusively nationalistic cause. Their support for the Union rests on the possibilities of pooling and sharing resources and workers’ solidarity across the British state.  This is a completely valid and perhaps even noble outlook – although not one I find very convincing – but it is not, at its heart, anti-nationalist.

To be anti-nationalist, the British state the Labour Party supports would have to be a non-nationalistic identity, whereas it instead, like most states, derives legitimacy from continually-enforced state nationalism.  The only difference is that this nationalism is British rather than Scottish.   Many in Labour pretend the debate in Scotland is between nationalism and anti-nationalism rather than between two competing nationalisms.  This is why I have found Labour’s position so unconvincing and disingenuous in recent years; they have presented the Union as an entity which supersedes ‘petty nationalism’ rather than advancing its own variety of it, while the Greens on the other side of the debate have had to constantly defend their association with a nationalist cause.  If you support either an independent Scotland or a British state you are supporting a nationalist cause, even if for non-nationalistic reasons.  The only anti-nationalist position would be to advocate a stateless society – or, perhaps, a federal European/world state which dissolves national boundaries.

By writing this short ramble I don’t mean to argue there is no valid basis for support of the Union, just as I believe there is a valid basis for supporting Scottish independence.  What is not valid is to contrast this debate as one between the forces of nationalism and of opposition to nationalism; whether we like it or not, two nationalisms are in fierce competition for Scotland’s future.  Each side is supported by genuine non-nationalist arguments and viewpoints, but it is dishonest to claim these avoid propping up a nationalist vision for statehood.

Scotland Votes No; Now it’s Westminster’s Move

I knew from the moment polls closed that Scotland would deliver a ‘No’ vote.  I just had a gut feeling.  The polls suggested it would be a close No vote, while there was evidence of a last-minute swing away from Yes.  Ultimately the result was 44.7% for Yes and 55.3% for No – a safe victory for the Union, though much closer than it looked to be just a year ago.  The Yes vote achieved a majority in Glasgow, Dundee, West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire, while missing out by just 86 votes in Inverclyde.  The referendum may have been lost, but for the first time in centuries there is widespread support for an independent Scotland.  This in itself may constitute a victory for the SNP and the wider Yes campaign.

So, where do we go now?  I was one of the 1.6 million Yes voters because I believed Westminster incapable of instituting the type of reform I would like to see – creating a federal UK that would devolve all domestic powers to Scotland, meet the demands of voters in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and that would solve the West Lothian Question once and for all in a fair way.  I was also put off by the complacency in the No campaign, large parts of which basically rested solely on “vote Labour and everything will be ok.”  When that poll suggested Scotland may actually vote Yes, the last minute scramble to offer more powers lacked all credibility and reeked of desperation.

Yet, before voting, I made a commitment to myself to respect whichever way the vote went and work with the majority of Scots in creating a better future.  This now means I’m committed to making the UK work and will suspend my support for an independent Scotland.  To clarify, my support for independence has only ever been a means to an end; I believed independence to be the best route towards achieving the political and social reforms I wanted.  Now the referendum is lost it would be a distraction to continue focusing on independence alone at the present moment.

However, crucially, this does not mean I am prepared to give Westminster a blank cheque.  All three major parties promised further powers for Scotland and a genuine overhaul of the British constitution.  Now a No vote has been delivered the ball is very much in Westminster’s court.  I plan to put as much pressure on politicians as possible to deliver real reform; this can be done by voting carefully for parties and candidates that genuinely want change, by writing to MPs demanding they go ahead with reform, by signing petitions, and so on.  I plan personally to become much more active within the Scottish Green Party to force change both within Scotland and the UK at large.

The Westminster parties will need to carefully weigh up where they go from here.  Many English voters are (rightfully) demanding that Scottish, and perhaps Welsh, MPs should be barred from voting on issues that don’t affect their own countries – essentially, upon ‘English issues’.  If more devolution is delivered, the number of issues Scottish MPs can vote on becomes very small indeed.  This could present an acute problem if, for example, we get a Labour government elected with a wafer-thin majority (not unlikely according to polls for next year’s election), that’s in office but unable to deliver on many of its policies because it relies upon MPs from Scotland and Wales.  This is why I believe simply giving more devolution to Scotland and Wales is an untenable solution.  There must be devolution within England as well, spurring a transition to a much more federal structure where Westminster becomes the equivalent of the federal government in other countries around the world.  As I see it, this is the only solution.

I’m giving the Westminster establishment a year to bring forward proposals on how to do this.  I don’t mean to actively introduce these reforms – they need time to be carefully considered – but there must at the very least be a commitment to a detailed plan of reform and a timetable for implementing it.  If this is not the case within a year’s time, if Westminster produces more half-hearted sticking plasters to the issue of Britain’s constitutional mess, then my only conclusion will be that my initial instinct was right and that Westminster is incapable of reforming itself.  Now we’re committed to remaining in the union for the next generation I really, genuinely want the UK to work for all its citizens, but if Westminster will not or cannot provide real reform then I don’t see any other alternative than returning to the cause of Scottish independence.  I’m not a nationalist – this is not a cause I will triumph if I don’t need to.  Westminster, please don’t let us down.

The early movements aren’t looking positive.  David Cameron has still yet to commit to any details, instead appointing Lord Smith of Kelvin to oversee vague reforms (I can just hear 45% of Scots shouting, “Have you learned nothing over the last two years?!”).  The No campaign promised there would be a cross-party motion delivered to the House of Commons today laying out the groundwork for further devolution.  This has not happened.  Ed Miliband has seemingly refused to go along with David Cameron’s proposals, perhaps because he has other plans – although it’s worth noting that of all three parties’ reform pledges, Labour’s have consistently been the most limited.  I shouldn’t be surprised that this post-vote period is messy, given how plain it is that these devolution pledges have been cobbled together at the last minute.  As I said, I’m giving Westminster a year to sort out a plan.  During that period I shall be watching and commenting attentively upon that process.

The Union is in your hands, Westminster.  If you want to avoid a re-run of the independence referendum in fifteen years, one where you’d have a much harder battle according to demographic figures, you’d better not mess this up.

Image credits:

Why I’m Voting Yes to Scottish Independence

This has been a long campaign.  Three years ago, when plans for an independence referendum for Scotland were first being drawn up, my instinctual response was hostility.  I viewed myself as being British and didn’t see the point in becoming independent.  As the campaigns properly began I found myself veering away from a clear ‘No’ position to becoming much more undecided until, about a year ago, I realised I had ended up broadly supporting the idea of independence, though still not feeling that strongly about it.  In the last couple of months – like most people in Scotland, I would imagine – my feelings have strengthened, and I have few doubts at all that I intend to vote ‘Yes’ on September 18th.  Yet I do sometimes still ask myself: why exactly do I plan to do this?  It isn’t a question I can have a simple answer to as there are many reasons, which I hope to detail here.  But first, just to clear up any confusion, I think it’s helpful if I list the reasons that aren’t drawing me towards a ‘Yes’ vote:

  • Nationalism.  A few times when I’ve told someone I plan to vote ‘Yes’, they’ve responded along the lines of “Oh no, you’re a nationalist!”  To which I’ve had to reply “But I’m not a nationalist!”  I mean, I love Scotland and I’m very proud of it – it’s my home – and I have no plans to emigrate elsewhere, but I don’t see it as being superior to any other country.  The things I love most about Scotland – its tolerance, democratic institutions, culture and beauty – aren’t unique to this one country, and can be said to be largely circumstantial; in fact, much of our democratic institutions in particular came from the Union.  If anything, I’m an internationalist; I believe in creating international bonds and cooperation with the rest of the world.  As I’ll explain a bit later, this isn’t incompatible with support for independence, but actually can go hand-in-hand with it.
  • Anglophobia.  This hopefully goes without saying.  If we’re looking at ethnicity I’m three-quarters English, having had three English grandparents, while my mother herself is English.  The other quarter comes from Shetland, which probably has the least ‘Scottish’ background in the whole country.  Wanting to end a political union with England (alongside Wales and Northern Ireland) doesn’t mean I want to break the cultural and economic unions which benefit us all; on the contrary, I hope these can be strengthened following independence.
  • Alex Salmond.  Hopefully also goes without saying.  I’m not a member of the SNP and, although I like him more than many of our political leaders (not difficult to achieve) I wouldn’t want to see him continue as First Minister following independence.  I think it’s regrettable that we’re not seeing any prominent debates featuring other voices for independence, instead of simply Alex Salmond’s party-political SNP view.

Now that’s all cleared up, I’ll launch into the main reasons that are causing me to support a ‘Yes’ vote:

  • Democracy.  This is the standard one you hear, but it’s so important.  Essentially, I want Scotland to both get the government it votes for and have a national parliament that represents its views.  During the last fifty years Scotland has consistently voted Labour at the ballot box, yet has been encumbered with Conservative governments for over half this time, forcing disastrous decisions upon Scotland which our population have rejected.  The most recent examples are the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and privatising the Royal Mail, both of which Scottish MPs voted against but we’ve had to endure anyway.  We’re powerless to change the government if we disagree with its policies; the only time our vote made a difference was in 2010, and that merely caused what would have been a Conservative majority to require a coalition partner that would essentially rubber-stamp many of its policies anyway.  There’s been an undeniable political shift between Scotland and the rest of the UK during the last few decades.  Current polling suggests that the Conservatives and UKIP combined could get close to receiving over 50% of the vote nationally, yet linger at 25% in Scotland, where centre-left parties tend to dominate.  Why should we have to put up with governments making decisions for us we didn’t vote for?

    -I’ll admit, there are decent counterarguments to this.  The first is that in a democracy we should accept the will of the electorate and not ‘throw out toys out of the pram’ when we lose an election.  I think this argument comes down to a fundamental difference of opinion towards Scotland’s position in the Union.  As I see it, Scotland’s participation in the Union has only ever been voluntary from the beginning, and we’ve never had any reason to remain within it other than the fact we benefit from it.  And make no mistake, Scotland has benefited from the Union immensely.  But it’s my belief that, as a result of this divergence in political viewpoints, since around the 1970s the Union has no longer been of benefit to Scotland, instead holding it back from taking the more social-democratic path its electorate have been clamouring for.The other argument goes that, with a strong Scottish Parliament within the UK, we can have the ‘best of both worlds’ that helps fix the democratic deficit Scotland faces.  This is also a good case, but I’m not convinced this vision could truly become reality.Almost 70% of Scots want more powers for the Parliament, and I’m certainly one of them, but I have my doubts that we’ll see any significant powers devolved in the event of a No vote.  None of the major parties’ promises would go as far as fully devolving tax and welfare to the Scottish Parliament, and they’re not even bound to the promises they’ve already made (though I expect there’ll be at least some limited further devolution – it would be utter stupidity to renege on these promises altogether).  Another factor is that Scotland never gets the opportunity to vote for these different visions of devolution, since only the Westminster government can devolve these powers and, as we’ve already established, the Scottish vote makes little difference to which party gets to form a government.  Only a ‘Yes’ vote can guarantee Scotland gets the powers that its population desires.
  • Scotland’s Electoral System.  This may seem like a minor point, so it’s possibly surprising that this is one of my main reasons for voting ‘Yes’.  I’ve become so irritated by the two-party politics that have emerged in Westminster as a result of its First-Past-The-Post electoral system, where two increasingly identical parties seek to claim the centre ground and genuine opposition parties on both the left and right have no chance to win many seats.  Polls show 30% of the electorate will reject both the Conservatives and Labour, yet these other parties are unlikely to win more than around 7% of the seats.  This system stifles true political debate.  Scotland, in contrast, has a semi-proportional system which allows smaller parties to gain the representation they deserve.  Currently only the Scottish Green Party are represented, but in the past we’ve seen MSPs from the Scottish Socialist Party and even the Scottish Senior Citizen’s Party.  To be clear, this isn’t because Scotland is more progressive than the rest of the UK – we rejected electoral reform of Westminster alongside the rest of the country in 2011 – but the fact is, Westminster is unlikely to change anytime soon, whereas Scotland, for whatever the reason, has a working system now that will carry over into independence.  Simply put, I want my national parliament to represent all views, not just those of the two very similar parties.
  • Europe. As someone who is generally in favour of the European Union, I believe independence is the best route of safeguarding our membership.  The ‘No’ campaign have argued that independence may require years of delay as we have to seek membership all over again and, although I doubt it will truly be this difficult, I can’t deny that is a possibility.  But the point is, this would only ever be a short-term difficulty.  The political will exists in both Scotland and the EU for us to become a member – no fewer than 86% of MSPs are from a party with pro-EU policies, while even against the UKIP surge 70% of Scots voted for pro-EU parties in the European Parliament election.  With this political will, whatever the procedure, Scotland will end up joining the EU eventually.  The real, long-term threat to Scottish membership comes from a Westminster that more and more is pandering to the UKIP agenda, where an in-out referendum in 2017 is a very real prospect.  This is another instance of Scotland’s priorities diverging from the rest of the country; only 40% of the rest of the UK voted for pro-EU parties, and UKIP came first place in the last election compared to only fourth in Scotland.  This is backed by polls – only 29% of Scots support leaving the EU (with undecideds removed), compared to anywhere between 45% and 55% in the rest of the country.  What if, in a potential referendum, Scotland votes to stay in the EU but is dragged out by voters in the rest of the country?  This is why I believe independence is essential to safeguarding our place in Europe.
  • Immigration.  This is another issue where I believe Westminster’s policies shame us all.  A further part of this pandering to the UKIP agenda I mentioned earlier is an almost unanimous agreement that immigration is a Bad Thing.  The major parties are tripping over one another in announcing ever more harsh and discriminatory policies against immigrants; only the Liberal Democrats and the Greens advocate treating migrants with respect and protecting their human rights, but we’ve already established that the UK’s electoral system pushes these voices to the sidelines.  In Scotland, however, we have a government that appreciates the benefits immigrants bring to a country – not only through the incalculable cultural benefit of multiculturalism, but also in simple economic terms, even creating jobs in the long term.  Granted, Scotland’s greater ageing population and sparse population gives it a greater need for immigrants than the rest of the UK, but even so there is little ground to oppose immigration in principle – and thankfully we have a government that recognises this.  It’s my hope that an independent Scotland would introduce much more humane immigration policies.
  • Welfare.  People on benefits are perhaps the only group of people demonised more by the British press and politicians than immigrants.  Sure,there are problems with Britain’s current welfare system – anyone can see that.  It’s needlessly complicated and bureaucratic, for the large part.  Unfortunately, the current British government’s reform policies are doing little to help the problems.  Backed by the right-wing press, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s policies seem intent upon labelling people in need of welfare as ‘benefit scroungers’, tarring everyone with the same brush and cracking down on everyone’s benefits to target the minority who abuse the system.  The government propagates the myth than people on benefits could support themselves if they just found work and became less ‘feckless’, when in some parts of the country there just aren’t enough jobs to be found, while also failing to recognise that structural poverty is much more complex than simply being unable to find a job.  We need a system that does recognise this and makes real efforts to lift people out of poverty.  Sure, there is no guarantee that Scotland would establish such a system, but from reading the Scottish Government’s White Paper on Independence this seems to be the direction they have in mind.  A small point, but I was heartened to hear Alex Salmond refer to the issue as ‘social security’ in a recent debate – a phrase I doubt Iain Duncan Smith has uttered in his life.
  • Nuclear Weapons.  A fairly simple reason: Scotland is encumbered with Europe’s largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, a matter of miles from its most populated city, against the wishes of its people.  Polls show a clear majority of Scots oppose Trident nuclear missiles, while our democratically-elected Parliament has consistently voted against Trident.  Yet we continue to have these weapons we don’t want forced on our territory by successive British governments.  Even if you’re in favour of nuclear weapons, you ought to recognise that given this strength of opinion they should not be based within Scotland.  Only a ‘Yes’ vote can rid Scotland of these weapons – even the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament recognises this, and is actively campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote because of this.
  • Republicanism.  Okay, this is a very minor point, but worth mentioning anyway.  For those of us who would prefer to see a democratically-elected head of state rather than one born into the job, Scottish independence provides an opportunity to see this reform happen later down the line.  The Scottish government’s plans would keep the Queen as head of state, but I believe there is more likely to be a referendum in an independent Scotland than as part of the UK.  True, 60% of Scots support the monarchy (with undecideds removed), but this could easily shift in favour of republicanism, particularly if we end up with an unpopular monarch further down the line.  This is much lower support than in the rest of the country, where only 15% believe Britain should become a republic when the Queen dies or abdicates.  That said, if you do support the monarchy this isn’t a reason to vote No; there are no immediate plans for Scotland to transition to a republic – this would require a further referendum where arguments from both sides can be given due consideration.  The point is, this is another instance where Scotland can become more democratic if independent, being able to decide for ourselves whether we wish to keep a monarchical head of state or not.

There are other smaller reasons I’m planning to vote ‘Yes’, but these are the main ones. Are you able to vote in the referendum?  Let me know which reasons are causing you to lean one way or the other!  Or if you live outside of Scotland, what do you think about the whole debate?

Also, here’s a poll, just for funsies.

2014 European Parliament Election Analysis

I’ve decided to mark my dramatic return to the blogosphere with a couple of election analyses for both the European Parliament election and the UK local elections (coming in a later post) held in the last week.  The media in Britain has been awash with stories about a political ‘earthquake’ that has seen the emergence of a four-party system with the rise of UKIP.  Yet, from the way it’s being reported, you would think that the entire European project has been brought to its knees.  This is not the case.  The media, particularly the BBC, has failed to adequately report the Europe-wide picture beyond picking select examples of countries which have seen a dramatic rise in Euroscepticism.  There has been a growth in Eurosceptic feeling across Europe but, to be clear, the countries which have seen UKIP-style breakthroughs are in the minority.  I’m far from an expert in European politics but I will try to present the general picture as the dust settles across Europe and fill in the gaps that the mainstream media has missed.  I will also aim to take a balanced look at UKIP’s electoral victory and argue that why the results show that the major British parties would be wrong to seek to ‘out-UKIP UKIP’ on issues regarding Europe and immigration.

I’ll analyse the results from a progressively larger scale, beginning with Scotland and Wales, passing through the UK and ending at the European Parliament itself.

Scotland
The European Parliament election in Scotland has inevitably been analysed through the prism of the upcoming referendum on independence, it being the last electoral test for the political parties before September.  It would be inaccurate to pin the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP)’s electoral fortunes to support for a Yes vote, given that many SNP voters do not favour independence while several supporters of independence come from other parties.  Furthermore, the turnout of 33.5% is well below the approximately 80% expected for the referendum.  More accurate would be to view the election as a test of the SNP’s popularity after seven years in power.  Here are the results:

2014 European Parliament Scotland

From a result like this it is difficult at first glance to ascertain which party has ‘won’.  If we’re going simply by vote share then it proves to be yet another instance of the SNP topping the polls, yet I doubt that’s how senior strategists shall be interpreting it.  Since the Liberal Democrats entered into a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, the SNP have consistently been taking significant shares of the vote from the Liberal Democrats in both elections and the polls, but that hasn’t happened here.  Where did the Lib Dem vote go?  You could argue that it’s gone to UKIP, however notice also the 7.04% lost by the ‘others’ – which in 2009 were primarily composed of anti-EU parties like No2EU, or the more extreme British National Party.  I’d imagine this would account for around half the UKIP vote.  Therefore the unavoidable truth arises that the former Lib Dem vote seems to have gone to Labour rather than the SNP.  That said, there is the not insignificant counterargument that the SNP has managed to remain in the top position of what is traditionally an anti-establishment election seven years into power.  This is a record neither Labour nor the Conservatives in the rest of the UK can claim within the last twenty years, nor most governments in Europe (Angela Merkel springs to mind as one of the other few exceptions).  The result may have been disappointing for the SNP, especially as polls suggested they might attain the mid 30%s, but it’s far from disastrous.

Perhaps a slightly more clear cut image emerges if we look at seats won.  The only change here is that the Liberal Democrats lost their only seat to UKIP, who saw David Coburn elected as not only their first MEP in Scotland but their first representative anywhere.  Both the SNP and the Greens had been hoping to snap up this third seat, and the fact it’s ended up going to UKIP – a party opposed to many of the SNP’s and Green’s values – will be a disappointment to both.  The Scottish Greens can take small consolation that their vote has increased for the four European election in a row, with 8.06% providing them their highest result ever in a national election.  We must also not overstate the scale of UKIP’s victory in Scotland.  Not only did UKIP receive the lowest vote share in Scotland of any of the UK’s electoral ‘regions’, but also the lowest growth of their vote share anywhere in the UK.  Given the national context, the big shock isn’t that UKIP finally broke into Scotland but actually that they still only managed to achieve fourth place.  Scotland is no longer immune to UKIP but it still remains well behind the rest of the UK in its support of the party.

In terms of the wider implications, it’s interesting to look at how these results might reflect Scotland’s views towards Europe – if we are to assume that the election results can tell us anything this detailed, of course.  70% of Scottish voters voted for pro-European parties (which can rise to 77% if we evenly split the Tories into pro-Europe and Eurosceptic positions).  This contrasts with the UK as a whole where the figure is only around 43%.  This will be welcome to supporters of independence, who can use these figures to argue that Scotland is less Eurosceptic than the rest of the country and that there is less demand here for a renegotiated relationship.  A less welcome figure would be the fact that the pro-independence parties, the SNP and the Greens, only achieved 37% of the vote between them, though in an election dominated by debate over the country’s place in Europe rather than independence it’s hard to view these results as any reliable indicator of voting intention come September, especially given the low turnout.

Wales
Wales is a very small ‘region’ for the European Parliament, electing only 4 MEPs.  If the four main parties manage to achieve very roughly similar levels of the vote then they will all gain a seat and, because of the way the system works (it’s fairly simple – you can see a guide here) there’s quite a large margin of votes which would produce the same result.  This is what we saw happen in this election.

2014 European Parliament Wales

As you can see, despite there being a rather dramatic trend to UKIP and a less so but still significant trend to Labour, the seat distribution is unchanged.  This does betray one problem of the European electoral system: the D’Hondt system of electing MEPs, although marginally favouring larger parties, will generally give a proportional seat distribution; however when there’s only four seats to distribute it’s impossible to do so in a way that’s completely fair.  The regional system the UK uses is essential in ensuring that parties which don’t contest ever seat get represented, otherwise Plaid Cymru would win no seats, the SNP be severely unrepresented while the national parties would be over-repesented.  I can’t see a solution to this other than increase the number of seats for each country – which would make the European Parliament a complete mess – but this should be kept in mind.  This will be a welcome result for Labour, which suffered a terrible defeat in its traditional stronghold in 2009, though it’s still failed to make up all the ground lost.  It’s more bad news for the Liberal Democrats, who have gone from being an already minor force in Wales to virtual wipe-out.  The result also confirms UKIP’s position as a major party in Wales.  UKIP has grown in Wales during the last decade but it’s always been a step behind the rest of the country, whereas now their vote share is almost directly in line with the national average.  But perhaps the greatest relief is for Plaid Cymru, which managed to hold onto the seat by the skin of their teeth after numerous polls suggested they’d lose it to Labour.  Nevertheless, this result is more evidence that Plaid Cymru is failing to tap into discontent with the major parties in the way the SNP has achieved up in Scotland.

If we then take our European lens to this result, we see that 51.9% of Welsh voters voted for pro-European parties (around 60% once the Conservatives are split) – not as high as in Scotland, but still above the national average of 43% and a clear majority.  Once more, this fact brings to light the limitations of the UKIP ‘earthquake’.

Northern Ireland
I won’t pretend to have anything resembling an adequate knowledge of Northern Irish politics (I don’t think any outsiders truly understand what goes on over there!) so I’ll just make up a pretty table and give some basic observations.

2014 European Parliament Northern Ireland

There don’t seem to be many big changes here.  Sinn Féin and the DUP have both reasserted themselves as the major parties of Irish republicanism and unionism respectively, at the expense of the UUP and the SDLP.  UKIP have failed to make particular inroads into Northern Ireland, presumably because there’s not the gap in political nationalism it’s managing to fill in much of England and Wales.  The overall nationalist vote was 38.5% (-3.7), the unionist vote 50.9% (+1.9) and the ‘other’ vote 10.5% (+1.7).  The unionists achieved a majority, though the politically neutral parties have also managed to make gains.  Given demographic trends I doubt the population is becoming more unionist in ideology, so I suspect any other trends are quirks of turnout and represent no real change in political feeling within Northern Ireland.  Once again, the problem of seat distribution is raised, given that unionist parties took 67% of the seats compared to just 33% for the nationalists, but I also can’t think of what would be an easy solution to this.

United Kingdom (excluding Northern Ireland)
Watching region after region declare spectacular gains and victories for UKIP would either have been an exhilarating or thoroughly depressing experience depending on your perspective.  There is no doubt that UKIP won the election, this being the first time neither Labour or the Conservatives won the most votes in a national election since 1910.

2014 European Parliament UK

In some ways, these results aren’t particularly surprising.  Both the coalition parties took the standard ‘anti-government’ hit to their vote, with the Liberal Democrats bearing the overwhelming brunt of this as usual.  The official opposition, Labour, picked up a strong anti-government vote.  UKIP soared ahead as polls predicted.  Yet it’s being portrayed by the media as a UKIP landslide, labelling every single other party’s performance as a defeat.  This isn’t entire untrue; as previously mentioned, this is the worst result for the major parties in a century, achieving less than half of all votes between them (though, despite the media narrative, their combined share actually increased by over 6 percentage points).  This is an unprecedented result for UKIP and leaves them in very strong stead for the general election.  The Liberal Democrats have been wiped out, barely clinging onto 1 MEP of 11; Nick Clegg’s position as party leader appeared tenuous at best the following morning and, while he seems to have partially secured his position since, there continues to be dissent within the party over the viability of his leadership.  Despite a strong improvement on their 2009 result Labour had hoped to do much better, beaten into second place and only slightly above the Tories.  This prompted panicking among Labour commentators and, I’m afraid, has increased pressure for the party to take an even harsher line on immigration in a foolish bid to ‘out-UKIP UKIP.’  The Greens will welcome their extra seat, and enjoy the prestige which comes of having triple the number of MEPs as the Liberal Democrats, but the drop is national vote share will surely be a disappointment.  Despite losing votes, David Cameron seems to be in the best position of all major party leaders.  If he can count on much of the UKIP vote returning to the Conservatives next year, this result indicates the party has a decent run at winning next year’s general election.

The parties will respond to this in different ways.  The Greens and the Liberal Democrats, assuming the latter doesn’t suffer a coup in the next year, will probably stick to their pro-EU, pro-immigration messages, and rightfully so.  The Conservatives have already made attempts to placate UKIP voters by offering an in-out referendum which, despite apparently failing to stem the rise of UKIP, will probably be the route they continue down.   Labour, in contrast, appears poised to take a much more UKIPesque line on various issues.  In the last couple of decades Labour seems to have become a party intent upon chasing the centre-ground rather than leading public opinion, and if it assesses that anti-immigration feeling is the current centre-ground I would fully expect the party to adopt such policies.  This would be a mistake.  I know you’re not supposed to agree with Tony Blair these days but he hit the nail on the head when arguing Labour should confront UKIP, not pander to it (while also correctly diagnosing the Lib Dems’ problems as being unrelated to their stance on Europe but instead a result of their lurch to the right within the coalition, something Labour strategists seem to have forgotten).

Here’s why.  Across the UK, 43% of voters supported pro-EU parties (55% when the Conservatives are split) compared to the 31% which is avowedly anti-EU (44% once the Conservatives are split).  Opinion seems to be divided in half across the country, though the pro-EU vote still has an edge over the Eurosceptics.  It is not true that a vast majority of the British public support withdrawal, and Labour should realise this.  Rather than join the side of the Eurosceptics, Labour should seek to dominate the pro-EU ground.  If it doesn’t, it should expect to see much more of its vote slip away to parties which do offer a counter to UKIP’s policies – most likely to the Greens. Over half of the UKIP vote came from former Tories, compared to just 20% from Labour; it would be foolish to seek votes from a group whose natural persuasion is not Labour.  Furthermore, this result cannot claim to be a fair representation of opinion in the UK with merely 34.19% turning out to vote – only just over half of the people who tend to vote in general elections.  Chances are, the majority of people who have strong anti-Europe, anti-immigration views would have turned out to vote for UKIP, but there’s still that whole 75% of voters who didn’t feel strongly enough to vote at all.  This is the group Labour should be targeting.  No matter how hard they try, they’ll never be able to take a stronger line on Europe and immigration than UKIP, but they can appeal to the majority of people who currently see no purpose in voting.

There is no doubt that the European Parliament has proved to be an anti-establishment vote in the UK, but that’s evident more from the dismal turnout than UKIP’s electoral gains.

European Parliament
It disappoints me that the greater picture of the European Parliament election hasn’t been adequately represented in British media.  The mainstream media, especially the BBC, have been intent on painting it as a great revolt against the EU, pointing to examples of countries which had a strong rise of anti-establishment parties such as the Front National in France and Syriza in Greece.  We hear less of Germany, where the ruling Christian Democratic Union dominated the election and kept the only significant Eurosceptic party down at 7%, or of Sweden where the Social Democrats and Greens, both pro-European, together came close to taking a majority of the seats.  Nor do we hear about the success of Europhile parties in eastern Europe, where attitudes towards the EU tend to be much more positive.  Here’s the overall result of the European Parliament election:

2014 European Parliament

Majority = 376 seats.

It’s impossible to deny that there has been a shift away from the four major pro-European parties, collectively losing 89 seats.  Many of these seats have gone to parties like UKIP and the National Front, though it’s worth pointing out that the group UKIP sits in only gained 7 seats (which is much less of an ‘earthquake’ than much of the media would have you believe).  This anti-establishment backlash has most greatly harmed the EPP and, to a lesser extent, the Liberals; the Socialists and Greens have more or less held their ground.  Although the EU will undoubtedly come under pressure from national leaders who faced domestic defeats, including David Cameron and Francois Hollande, it must be acknowledged that 69% of the European electorate voted for parties in groups with a positive attitude to the EU.  Yes, this is down from 80% in 2009, but given the scale of Europe’s successive economic crises in the last five years it’s remarkable the drop wasn’t greater.  The European people have not voted against the EU.

Therefore, the EU mustn’t let Eurosceptic national leaders seek to portray this result as a mandate for unravelling the European project.  This is already happening with the debate around who will be the next President of the European Commission (effectively, the European Commission).  A candidate for this position must be nominated by the Council of Europe, which comprises the 28 heads of government across the EU states,  which must then be approved by the European Parliament.  As of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty the Council of Europe have been instructed to take into account the democratic will of the people, as represented by the elections to Parliament, in selecting their nomination.  It is unclear exactly what this means, but as each political group selects their own candidate to be the new President (unless they decide to be awkward) I think the assumption is that the group with the most votes ought to have its candidate be elected.  In this case, then, the next President should be the EPP’s Jean-Clause Juncker.  However I see David Cameron already seeking to prevent him from achieving the Council’s nomination on the grounds that his policies are too  supportive of greater expansion for the EU.  I believe Francois Hollande has taken a similar position.  The collective leadership of the Council should not acquiesce to these leaders reeling from their own domestic humiliations when the democratic will of the European people is for a pro-European President, of which Juncker received the greatest mandate.

————-

Okay, reaching 3,000 words is usually a good place to stop.  I’ll finish with another disclaimer that I’m not an expert on anything I’ve written about; these are simply my responses to both the election result and the way it’s been portrayed in the media.

Joining the Electorate (plus 2014 election predictions)

Earlier today I voted for the first time in my life, for the European Parliament election.  It’s an event I’ve been looking ahead to for several years now.  In a strange way, it was like some rite of passage that finally confirmed me as an adult in the view of society.  I felt very powerful emerging from the voting booth with the ballot paper, as though I held the political future of the country in my hand.  I knew that my vote only counted for 0.0000066% of the overall result (add an extra 0 if you include Europe) but for a political geek this is one of the highpoints of political engagement.  Waiting until Sunday for the results is going to be painful indeed.

Until then, I will have to satisfy myself by making predictions for the result.  Or rather, as accurately predicting the election is nearly impossible, most of the time I can only say what won’t happen.  So please don’t hold me to this if I get anything spectacularly wrong!

Scotland
I’ll start with Scotland, as it’s the part of the EU I know in most depth.  The general trend of opinion polls has had the Scottish National Party in the lead by varying margins but typically passing the 30% threshold, tailed fairly closely by Labour though I find it hard to envisage Labour actually taking a lead.  If it did that would certainly be an interesting moment for the independence campaign, proving to be the first non-Westminster defeat for the SNP in twelve years.  The Conservatives have been wavering at the 12-15% margin, with UKIP, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats each rolling beneath 10% competing for fourth place  – though recent polls have shown it being a tighter race between the Greens and UKIP, as Scottish voters seem poised to continue punishing the Liberal Democrats for their record in government.  

In terms of seats, it gets rather interesting.  Right now the SNP and Labour have two seats while the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have one each.  Votes are distributed proportionally using the D’Hondt method, a practice that in theory should produce proportional seat results.  Scotland, however, only has six seats to distribute, too small a number to divide in an exactly proportional away.  Going by the polls, the SNP and Labour will easily keep hold of their two seats and the Liberal Democrats will almost certainly lose theirs.  That leaves two seats up for grabs.  There’s a strong possibility, though by no means a given, that the SNP might pick up a third seat.  I would be surprised if the Conservatives lose theirs, but there is the slight chance of a UKIP surge taking their votes and grabbing the seat by a narrow margin.  Alternatively, if the SNP don’t pick up a third seat and the Conservatives manage to keep theirs, the final seat could be a direct competition between UKIP and the Greens.  I really can’t say which way this would go – the Greens have a deeper level of support in Scotland, but if turnout is as low as predicted then things could be tight indeed, given the tendency of UKIP supporters to be more likely to vote (not entirely sure how what works, but it seems to be widely accepted).

United Kingdom
I’m not knowledgeable enough about the local workings of each region so I can’t offer much comment on seat predictions, but this will be an interesting election to watch for national shares.  UKIP have form for performing well in European Elections, coming second in the last election of 2009 with 16.5% of the vote.  The main source of discussion for this election (bar Scotland) is on how well UKIP will do; they’ve been consistently reaching the high twenties, even frequently passing 30% in opinion polls.  Considering the Conservatives ‘won’ the 2009 election with just 27.7% of the vote, this is nothing short of staggering.  With Europe being UKIP’s main source of policy it’s not surprising that their vote will be inflated above their performance in other elections and in comparison to other parties, but even with that in mind this is an impressive level to reach.  There’s no reason why they shouldn’t reach this result in the actual election.  Whether they will actually surpass Labour’s vote, also predicted to rise dramatically, and reach first place is more uncertain.  More polls have shown UKIP ahead than Labour.  I think the turnout could prove to be vital – Labour tend to benefit from high turnouts, UKIP low turnouts.  Could the thunderstorms across the south of England be in UKIP’s favour?  Time will tell.  If Labour are robbed of first place by UKIP, expect some severe discontent within the party as it prepares to fight next year’s general election.

Although the Conservatives have undoubtedly been relegated to third place, which must be quite a humiliation, their vote share hasn’t actually fallen that much in polls, consistently reaching around 20%.  That’s only a fall of about seven percentage points, and is still above what both Labour and UKIP achieved in 2009.  Despite this fact, I don’t envisage Sunday being a happy day in Tory HQ when the results come in.  They can rest assured, however, that the tone in LibDem HQ will be considerably worse.  The Liberal Democrats have never performed well in European elections, gaining only 13.8% in 2009, but polls now suggest they will struggle to even reach 10%.  There’s a real risk to the party that it could be beaten by the Greens into fifth place.  I reckon the Greens may, in fact, be the dark horse of this election.  The party has been experiencing a bit of an unreported surge recently, over doubling its polling share for the next general election and frequently surprassing the Liberal Democrats in Europe.  I’ve heard suggestions that the Greens might struggle to keep their two seats even with a rise in their vote – it depends where their votes are distributed.  It’s also possible they could pick up a seat or two elsewhere.  As with Labour, expect much discontent within the Liberal Democrats over the question of nothing less than if they’ll ever be electable again.

Europe
I know even less than politics across Europe as a whole than I do the UK so this will be a very short section.  Polls have suggested the European People’s Party and the European Socialists and Democrats (which includes Labour) will by vying for both places, though the EPP appears to have a slight advantage, though its plurality would be largely reduced.  In the wider picture of the European Union’s existential doubt this probably won’t have significant repercussions considering both groupings broadly support the European project.  The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and the Greens-European Free Alliance have both shown small reductions in support but nothing catastrophic.  The European Conservatives and Reformists may well suffer the most of all European groupings, predicted by polls to lose a quarter of their seats.  This will be a result of the poor performance of the British Conservatives, the main party in this grouping.  The European United Left-Nordic Green Alliance group will probably do quite well, as will the Europe of Freedom and Democracy grouping, supported by UKIP, though polls have shown conflicting results regarding the extent of this improvement.  The biggest shock to the European Parliament could be the growth of the number of MEPs not represented by any grouping, known as ‘non-inscrits’.  Worryingly, far-right parties verging on neo-Nazism, such as the National Front in France and Golden Dawn in Greece, are likely to do very well as a result of continuing poor economic conditions across Europe and a perceived lack of legitimacy of the EU.  As many as 1/7 seats could go to these non-inscrit parties.  They are unlikely to hold a balance of power and the other groupings will most likely be able to work around them, but it will pose significant implications for the future of the European project.

All in all, I await the results on Sunday with great interest.  I could be completely wrong with these predictions, or perhaps I shall be vindicated.  I look forward to finding out.  Exciting times lie ahead!

A Political Day in Edinburgh

Sorry, this is going to be another one of those cobbled together ‘recounted a somewhat interesting day I had’ blog posts.  I promise I’ll try to get a more coherent program of output sometime soon, but for the moment my life’s still rather hectic (university’s utterly mad!).

The first round of excitement was a protest outside the Scottish Parliament I decided to attend, organised by the University of Edinburgh Amnesty International society.  I wasn’t involved in the planning but I gather it had also been put together in less than a week which, given the result, was very impressive indeed!   We were protesting against human rights abuses in Sri Lanka by the government of President Rajapaksa, specifically aimed at convincing David Cameron to raise the issue during an upcoming Commonwealth meeting hosted in Sri Lanka.  This was my first proper protest and I wasn’t disappointed.  We set out a fake beach for people dressed as Cameron and Rajapaksa to lay upon, wearing scarves (this is a Scottish beach), while the rest of held banners and shouted exciting protest chants.  The Amnesty Facebook page has a picture of the event here! (I’m the one in the bright yellow jacket who happens to be blinking at the moment of capture).

Then, even more excitingly, we were joined by some MSPs.  My political hero Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Green Party, came out and had some pictures taken with us.  Fellow Green Alison Johnstone was also there, along with Scottish National Party MSP Marco Biagi and Labour MSP Patricia Ferguson.  It was thrilling to see so much support from within the political establishment; we weren’t shouting at a deaf parliament.

So that was all very fun indeed – if ‘fun’ is the right way to refer to a protest – well, it was fun!  My second political event of the day was a debate on Scottish independence hosted by the university.  Speaking in favour of independence was MSP Marco Biagi, whose schedule today appeared to be as busy as mine, and University of Edinburgh rector Peter McColl, representing the Green Party.  Speaking against the motion was a Labour-Conservative partnership, something becoming increasingly common in Scotland, featuring Labour MP Sheila Gilmore* and Conservative MSP Gavin Brown.  Not much new was raised I didn’t know previously, aside from the startling fact that Spain has suggested it would veto an independent Scotland’s membership into the EU purely to quell Catalonian aspirations.  Considering this behaviour, I have every sympathy for Catalonian secessionists.

The voting was very interesting, however.  The initial audience vote turned out to be –

Yes: 17 votes (21.25%)
No: 30 votes (37.5%)
Undecided: 33 votes (41.25%).

Compared to national polls the Yes/No divide was very similar but there were far many more undecided votes than I expected.  Glad most people went into it with an open mind.  Even more interesting was to be the post-debate results:

Yes: 36 votes** (42%)
No: 37 votes (45%)
Undecided: 9 votes (11%)

I certainly didn’t expect the Yes vote to make such progress, which was very interesting.  Of course it’s worth remembering that the room had a significant number of international students in it, who I’d presume would tend to be more positive towards independence (internationalism was a central theme of the debate; I was particularly impressed by Peter McColl’s “I’m not a nationalist; I’m an internationalist” speech).

So, yeah.  I really enjoyed my engagement with politics today and, in a bit of a post-political high, decided to stop putting off something I’ve been considering for a while and finally joined a political party – the Scottish Greens.  I share so many views and aims with the party that it makes sense.

To many more exciting days like this!

*It’s probably a bit unfair to lump Sheila Gilmore together with the Tories, as she seems one of the more principled members of the Labour Party and earned my respect through the debate.
**I somehow got it into my head that the Yes/No final result had been 46/47, but this would have added about 20 people to the audience so I’m assuming I just misheard.  The No result definitely only had a lead of one vote, either way.

A Brush with Nationalism

flying flag

As I mark two weeks of living in Edinburgh I finally have something to  post!  I’m planning to write a summary of my ever-growing experiences at some point, but as I walked through the bustling crowd of today’s independence march I knew this post would have to take priority.  Also, I apologise for the quality of the pictures – I only had my phone with me and I later realised that I left my USB connector back at Shetland, so I had to take second photos with my other camera.  Not the most efficient method…

activityI was only able to briefly witness the initial gathering before the march to Calton Hill, which seems to have become a focal point for Scottish nationalism, as I was due to attend an ‘activism training day’ (I love Edinburgh).  Even so, with the march in a semi-formed state, this was still the most significant political event I have ever witnessed.  Flags were waved, some in frantic excitement, others rippling gently in the wind; whistles blew all round, often by children too young to understand the politics but clearly enjoying the carnival atmosphere; and bagpipes filled the air.  I once wrote about a fictional demonstration – which is, admittedly, a completely different context to here – and I’m glad I at least got the tone right.  Such joy, hope; visions and dreams were palpable through the crowd.  Whether these are justified is a different matter, yet almost didn’t seem important at that moment.  This march created an idyllic vision; cold reality can come later.

greensI was also struck by the vast variety of groups coalescing into this unlikely alliance.  I was most excited to see the Scottish Green Party who had a section in the crowd, though I was too shy to say hello.  In addition I came across the Scottish National Party, the ‘Radical Independence’ group, the Socialist Worker newspaper, the Scottish Socialist Party and even a ‘Christians for socialists independence group’.  Some single-issue organisations were there too, including anti-Trident pressure groups.  I think I even saw some Catalan flags, perhaps as a bid for pan-European solidarity.  Yes, a quick Google search tells me this was the Estelada, a flag used by Catalan nationalists.  I wonder if Saltires have even flown in Barcelona, then?

policeWhat is most impressive about my experience of the march is how peaceful and ordered it was.  This feels that it should go without saying, yet my studies of history indicate time and time again this isn’t the case.  For a movement so at odds with the interests of the ruling elite to be granted such freedom must be virtually unprecedented in the majority of human history.  There was a notable police presence* but even this seemed relatively relaxed, their prime concern being to prevent overcrowding.  There wasn’t even a hint of violent tension, which again would have been unimaginable for most comparable political movements in history.

I continue to be impressed by the optimistic vision advocated by the pro-independence cause.  Whether there’s reason to be optimistic is up for debate, but I can’t imagine anywhere near a similar atmosphere at a unionist march (do these even occur?).  I wouldn’t say this brief brush has changed my view of the debate but it has made it seem all the more real and, certainly, all the more exciting.  I am thrilled to be spending the next year here at a time of such debate and political activity.

speaker

“What do we want?”
“INDEPENDENCE!”
“When do we want it?”
“NOW!”

lonely jack

A lonely union flag despairs.

Related articles:

*I’m aware of section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act 2008, which brings into doubt the legality of photographing police officers.  Since I’m neither directly or indirectly helping terrorists by the publication of these photographs I know I’m acting perfectly within the law, but it’s unfortunate we must worry about such things in the first place.