Visiting Culloden Battlefield

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I recently visited the site of the Battle of Culloden, the final battle of the 1745-46 Jacobite rebellion against the British government and Hanoverian dynasty.  Located a few miles east of Inverness, I had long appreciated the importance of this location, having studied the rebellion both at school and at university.  Here – so the narrative goes – the Jacobite Highlanders engaged in a valiant last stand against the British redcoat army, who had pursued them north from their advances into England the previous year.  It marked the end of Charles Stuart’s, or Bonnie Prince Charlies’s, rebellion, and the end of a fifty-year-long attempt to restore the Stuart dynasty to the British throne.  The Jacobite defeat also led to a government campaign to pacify the Highlands, dismantling the clan system of governance and suppressing Highland culture through banning clan tartans and suppressing the use of the Gaelic language.

So, a very important moment in Scottish history.  For a site which was essentially left over two centuries as a field full of mass graves, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  However the visitor centre, opened in 2007, does an expert job of providing the historical background for the battle.  There are the standard museum displays showing Jacobite- and Hanoverian-branded items, 18th-century weapons, clothing and so on, annotated by boards chronologically detailing the events of the rebellion.  These are interspersed with more visual illustrations of the conflict, including an animated map showing the movement of armies throughout the eight-month insurrection, an instalment which particularly appealed to me.  Perhaps the best design decision was to display the opposing narratives of each army on either side of the wall, combining primary sources from soldiers with the wider historical context.  At the end of this rather traditional museum experience, although expertly put together, we entered a room with video footage of a battle re-enactment projected on all four walls.  With surround-sound, it felt as though we were in the centre of the battle itself.  We watched and listened as the armies lined up against one another, began to fire cannons, and finally as the Jacobites charged into the slaughter.

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Afterwards, we were able to explore the battlefield itself, guided by useful – if temperamental – audio headsets.  These were helpful as it’s difficult to appreciate how the field would have looked during the battle, a problem worsened by the fact that the battle site was simply a random field neither side had particularly chosen.  I had always imagined a grander setting for the end of the rebellion.  We followed paths cut through the field, including two particularly long paths along the army lines, giving a sense of how many people fought in the field that day (15,000 in all).  These were annotated by flags to illustrate the distance between the opposing forces as they lined against one another.

The most shocking and, for me, unexpected feature of the battlefield were the mass graves.  I hadn’t realised the bodies, overwhelmingly Jacobite (about 1,500 compared to 50 on the government side) had been buried on the battlefield itself.  I was touched to discover that they been buried by clan; at least the governing army awarded them that final respect.  These would have remained anonymous mounds had it not been for the local landowner Duncan Forbes who, in 1881, placed stones marking the clan buried in each grave.  Somewhat amusingly, a stone described these graves as marking the brave Highland soldiers who had fought against the ‘English’, despite many clans having actually fought on the government side, most notably the Campbells.  I found it interesting how Forbes, perhaps along with many of his Victorian contemporaries, had chosen to remember the battle.  Through a celtic romanticist prism, the battle may have appeared as a final showdown between English/British modernity and Scottish traditionalism.

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By Shadowgate, via Wikimedia Commons.

In fact, the conflict had even less nationalistic undertones than I had been led to believe.  After seizing Edinburgh, Prince Charles was urged by several nobles to reconvene the Scottish Parliament, abolished in 1707, and to consolidate Jacobite control over Scotland.  Charles, however, had no interest in such an action and instead pushed southward into England.  While there were undoubtedly elements of conflict between Scottish and English identity, it seemed to me that the most useful means of framing the uprising is a dynastic power-struggle precipitated by political disagreement over the role of the monarchy, with the British government favouring a Whiggish, constitutional view, and the Jacobites arguing in favour of the divine right of kings.  It’s fascinating how many different historical angles can be applied to the conflict.  The role of the clans and their relationships with the state must also be considered: did the uprising constitute the final assertion of the dominance of the British state and the end of clan sovereignty?

I would highly recommend a visit to the Culloden battlefield to anyone that finds themselves in the Inverness area.  It would be of interest to both avid historians and the less knowledgeable alike, bringing to life this crucially important episode of Scottish history.

 

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The State of Scottish Parties

Scotland’s decision to vote No in the independence referendum will have fundamental consequences regarding it’s relationship with the rest of the UK, but it will also prove to have far-reaching implications for politics at home.  Here are some of my predictions for how Scotland’s five major represented parties, significant  but largely unrepresented (the SSP) and others (UKIP) will fare over the next couple of years:

The Scottish National Party
In pure electoral terms, the SNP may end up becoming one of the big winners in the post-referendum fallout.  This may seem surprising given that they lost the referendum, however it’s important to remember how close the result ended up being.  Including nonvoters, around 38% of Scots voted for independence, far more than the 22.7% who voted for the SNP in 2011.  This extra 15% of Scottish voters who support independence must have come from somewhere.  Granted many will have been members of the other pro-independence parties, the Greens and Scottish Socialists.  However others will have come from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who saw perhaps as many as a third of their former voters support independence.  I’m not suggesting these people will convert en-masse to the SNP but if they’re willing to go against their parties on such an important issue as this, it’s very likely they may be swayed to go against them again in 2016 and vote for the SNP.  Meanwhile a substantial portion of these Yes voters most likely came from people who don’t normally vote, but who may be likely to SNP in future.   I also believe the SNP could get significant support from the 46.8% of Scots who voted ‘No’.  Now independence is off the table, many No voters who support more devolution may end up backing the SNP as a guarantee for extra powers, especially if the Westminster parties are seen to be reneging on their promises.

This isn’t just idle speculation; in the last 48 hours the SNP have reportedly gained almost 5,000 new members, an increase of approximately 20% bringing them up to 30,000 – far and away the largest political party in Scotland (Scottish Labour refuse to publish their membership numbers but they’ve been in decline since 1997 and probably number no more than 13,000 people – though they still somehow claim to be ‘Scotland’s Biggest Party’).  Such a surge in membership in so short a time is virtually unprecedented.  For these reasons, and in this context, I’ll be very surprised if the SNP don’t remain the largest party in the Scottish Parliament after the 2016 election.  Another downright majority may even be within their grasp if the situation south of the border is perceived to be particularly dire.

Labour
I could be wrong, but I think Scottish Labour is in trouble.  The party has been in decline throughout the last decade, losing seats in every election for the Scottish Parliament to date.  As mentioned earlier a third of Labour voters may have backed independence, who could end up drifting away from the party if the devolution settlement doesn’t go far enough.  The Yes vote was particularly high in Glasgow, Labour’s stronghold in the country – I’ve heard rumours that it touched 60% in Pollok, Johann Lamont’s own constituency (indeed, there have been opinion polls suggesting she might lose her own seat at the next election).  The poor performance of the No campaign will also undoubtedly have harmed Labour due to its overwhelmingly negative tone, while firmly creating the image of Labour as a party of the establishment.  If Labour wins the 2015 general election, manages to avoid any major controversy and is able to bring forth a truly inspiring programme of reform under Ed Miliband the party may earn a reprieve – though probably not enough to actually win the 2016 Scottish election.  Otherwise, if the party fails to deliver on its promises or if a potential Labour government at Westminster has a very bad year, then they’re finished in Scotland.

Conservatives
I don’t think the Conservatives’ electoral fortunes will change much following the referendum.  They’ve consistently won within 12-17% of the vote throughout the last decade, not moving greatly in either direction.  Given that an overwhelming majority of Conservative voters are thought to have voted No, there aren’t many grounds for defection in the immediate future, except perhaps to UKIP – though they’re unlikely to do well enough in Scotland for this to make a major difference.  The Conservatives will probably remain the third largest party in Scotland for some time, unless the Greens begin to do particularly well or the Liberal Democrats see a reprieve.

Green Party
The Greens could emerge from the referendum in a comparatively better state than even of the SNP.  Within the last 48 hours the party has gained an extra 2,000 members, more than doubling its membership count.  Even before this surge the party has consistently been polling at between 7-9%, up from 4.4% in 2011.  If this extra support lasts I could imagine the party easily reaching at least 10% of the vote in 2016.  The party is no doubt also benefiting enormously from the publicity boost it gained from the referendum, giving figures such as Patrick Harvie a much greater profile.  The future looks bright for the Greens.

Liberal Democrats
Like their compatriots across the UK, the Scottish Liberal Democrats are in a state of continual meltdown in Scotland since the Westminster party entered a coalition with the Conservatives four years ago.  At the 2011 election they lost 12 seats as their vote halved, while they’re now consistently polling even lower than they did back then.  I’m not sure they could possibly lose any more support even if the referendum had made a negative impact upon them.  Though I’m not sure it will really have made much difference.  The party – as in most current issues – has largely been ignored throughout the debate.  It was also the only unionist party calling for a full federal solution across the UK, and perhaps therefore the only party to recognise that the current system is broken.  Since the party has lacked a platform to get these ideas across I don’t know how much of a difference this will have made, but it certainly won’t have done any harm.  I expect the party to continue its position at around 5% in the polls, maybe climbing back up to the 7% or so they achieved in the last election by 2012, largely unaffected by the referendum.

The Scottish Socialist Party
As with the Greens, the referendum has proved to largely boost the profile of the SSP as one of the few parties to support independence.  Also like the Greens and SNP, the party is reporting a rise in members by around 600.  During the last year the SSP has risen to around 3% in the opinion polls – not a great position, for sure, but enough to potentially win a seat in Parliament.  The party lacks the base that the Greens and the SNP have – it’s only elected representative is one councillor in West Dunbartonshire – so there’s perhaps a risk that this boost could fizzle out, though the fact it’s had 600 members in the last couple of days suggest it is perceived as a genuine option for voters.  Winning a seat or two is definitely a possibility for 2016.

UKIP
I don’t expect UKIP to see its electoral fortunes changed much except to have become even more unelectable among the 45% of Scots who voted for independence (though I can’t imagine such an English/British nationalist party ever gaining any traction to anyone who’d consider independence in the first place).  It’ll continue gaining votes from the small section of Scottish society it appeals to, which may be enough to win a few seats in Parliament, while remaining incredibly toxic to the 90+% of the rest of the population.  UKIP is currently polling between 4% and 7% but it wouldn’t surprise me if this decreased by 2016 as the Greens and SSP become more attractive protest options.

For updates on polling in Scotland, which may or may not shift dramatically after the election, keep an eye on my election blog, The Election Stalker!

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.

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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.

Jean-Claude Juncker: A Victory for Democracy?

The nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker by the Council of Europe to become the next President of the European Commission has received an unusual amount of coverage in the UK for a matter concerning European politics.  David Cameron’s opposition to Juncker because of his commitment to greater European integration fits the narrative of the UK being dragged into a political union it has no desire to be in, while also allowing Cameron to show the electorate that he is capable of being ‘tough’ on Europe.  This is how an overwhelming defeat of 26 votes to 2 on Juncker’s nomination has been seen as a victory for Cameron.  However the vote’s implications have far greater implications than simply for domestic politics; it was also a victory for democracy within the EU.

A near-universal criticism of the EU is that it lacks democratic legitimacy and accountability.  This is in part what the European Parliament was aimed to solve; a directly elected chamber which has a say on EU legislation can provide accountability to the indirectly elected European Commission – though the Parliament still lacks powers possessed by most of its national equivalents.  The 2009 Lisbon Treaty sought to further the powers of the European Parliament as a way of boosting confidence in European institutions.  Whether it has been successful is up for debate, but one important tenet of the treaty was that, in nominating Presidents of the European Commission, European leaders must ‘take account’ of the results of the most recent European Parliament election.

Like many aspects of the EU, the way in which account should be taken of these results hasn’t been clearly defined.  The consensus has been that the grouping which wins the most seats in the Parliament would have its candidate become President.  This is the interpretation that has been sold to the European public, largely through a series of debates featuring each European grouping’s candidate to become the next President.  The European People’s Party ultimately won the most seats and thus, by this interpretation, Juncker as their candidate should become President.  It’s true that most voters didn’t cast their vote with these candidates in mind but, nevertheless, to renege on this assumption would render the debates a farce and be an affront to the EU’s only democratically-elected institution.  Cameron’s much looser interpretation is that the results show a desire for reform away from closer integration and that the President’s selection should reflect this.  This may be true in the UK – although UKIP’s success is more an indictment on the current state of British politics than of the EU – but he cannot project this message across the rest of Europe when pro-European parties won 70% of the seats in the European Parliament.

That EU procedure can provoke such drastically different interpretations is due to its half-hearted approach to democratic legitimacy.  Power still resides with the unelected commissioners of the European Commission.  If we wish to remain in the EU and for it to be more accountable, there are two main options: either have a directly elected President or allow Parliament to nominate the President.  The former is unlikely to be suitable for most eurosceptics but the latter may be feasible.  And this, essentially, is the precedent created by Juncker’s nomination.  Both his own European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats group have backed him, thereby giving him the support of a majority of MEPs.  A general consensus appears to have developed that this is the appropriate way for the position to be selected, which may become enshrined in law within the next five years.

To be clear, Juncker is far from the perfect candidate.  His preference for closed-doors diplomacy will do little to increase the EU’s transparency while his support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) won’t benefit democracy either on a national or a continental level.  Yet for the first time the President’s nomination has a degree of democratic legitimacy and indicates that, though there is still much to be done, the EU is continuing down a path which gives its citizens the final say on how it’s run.

Image credit: by Jean-Claude_Juncker_(2006).jpg: Martin Möller derivative work: IgnisFatuus (Jean-Claude_Juncker_(2006).jpg) [CC-BY-SA-2.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Review: My 2013 Predictions

Last year I wrote a list of predictions for what I expected to occur across the world stage in 2013.  I’ve been looking through it over the year, pleased with some predictions, while despairing as other world events swept passed my expectations.  Here I’ll review each prediction, one by one, and tally up my score to see whether I should become a professional psychic or not.

UK Predictions

  1. Our next Holy Monarch of Divine Highness to Rule Over Us All Forever blah blah will be born.  Everyone will go nuts and the republican minority will grumble.
    Prince George (‘of Cambridge’) was born on the 22nd July 2013 in good health.  The BBC and other broadcasters had around the clock coverage; he was on virtually every newspaper front page; and we republicans did indeed grumble.
  2. The coalition will continue on its path, though plans to create individual identities for the parties will become clearer in preparation for its end.
    Economically the coalition government has continued to assault the country with austerity upon austerity.  Just this month, chancellor George Osborne announced another billion pound cuts from government departments.  The economy does seem to be improving, at long last, however Labour leader Ed Miliband is rightfully bringing to attention a ‘cost of living crisis’ (perhaps because he has few other policies worth discussing).
    In terms of party politics, there doesn’t seem to be the separation of identities between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats I’d expected.  The Liberal Democrats have been highlighting their key policies of this government, such as raising the income tax threshold for low earners and pushing free school meals.  Yet, if anything, they’ve seemed to me to be moving further to the right.  When Nick Clegg stood in for David Cameron during a recent Prime Minister’s Questions, he sounded more and more like a Tory with each passing question.

 World Predictions

  1. The war in Mali will see some form of conclusion: Northern Mali will return to government control.
    Correct!  In January, following an Islamic rebel advance upon the south of the country, when it looked as though the capital Bamako itself might be under threat, France began a military campaign against the rebels on 11th January.  In one of the more successful Western interventions of recent times, the rebels were driven out of most major settlements in the north by February and had returned to government control.  Violence is persisting but the government remains in control with the help of French and African Union peacekeepers.  Elections came soon afterwards, during which Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, former Prime Minister from 1994-2000, became the President.
  2. The Assad regime will fall.  Failing that, the rebels will increasingly control Syria.  I expect them to receive more support from the West and the government to lose Russia’s backing.
    Uh, no.  No.  And no again.  News stories coming out of Syria during 2013 and have been getting more and more depressing, with no prospect of change coming soon.  The Assad regime did not fall; in fact, it looks stronger than at any other point during the course of the war.  In May, Lebanese Shia armed group Hezbollah entered the war on the regime’s side.  Its fighters flooded across the border and helped the government seize control of the strategic city of al-Qusayr and the surrounding countryside.  The rebels have also made gains, however more and more militias have been swearing allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al-Qaeda linked Islamic fundamentalist organisation which has been making advancements against more moderate rebels in what’s described as a ‘civil war within a civil war’.  The death toll continues to mount: in September France estimated 120,000 people to have died, while the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights currently puts it at 160,000.
    In terms of international support, Western powers have continued to supply non-lethal equipment to the rebels, while in June US President Obama announced military aid would be supplied to the rebels, although it’s unclear how much ever arrived.  Recent developments concerning the rise of Islamists have caused even this aid to be suspended.
    Meanwhile, Russian support of the regime has only strengthened.  This became clear following the increased reports of chemical weapon use across the country.   Both sides blamed each other, of course, but after particularly horrific attacks in the Ghouta area of Damascus the international community seemed to demand action.  It looked as though Western nations – primarily the USA, UK and France – were preparing to launch military strikes against Syria to send a message to Assad.  However, when the UK Parliament voted against action and Obama looked close to defeat in Congress, this never came to be.  At the last minute, Russian President Putin came to the aid of both President Assad and Obama by proposing an operation to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.  Despite difficulties accessing all the chemical weapons depots, some in contested areas of the country, the process of destroying them seems to be going successfully.  This has had the effect of restoring legitimacy to the Syrian regime, which is seen as an equal partner in these negotiations, and the West effectively giving up on Syria.
  3. Obama’s next year as President will not be dramatic.
    In hindsight, it’s probably a bad idea to predict anything won’t be dramatic.  Alongside the aforementioned Syria crisis,  he’s had to put up with threats of war from North Korea, the failure of his proposed gun law reform, the shutdown of the US government after political gridlock in Congress, a botched roll-out of his key ‘Obamacare’ policy and, perhaps worst of all for Obama, massive leaks about the level of the National Security Agency’s surveillance of US and international citizens by whistleblower Edward Snowden, which has brought international condemnation and affected relations with countries including Brazil and Germany.  He’s probably very glad for a new start next year.
  4. A war will not start over Iran.
    Correct!  There’s actual much cause for optimism over out future relations with Iran.  Everything seemed to change with the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani in June.  Though far from a radical – he’d never have been allowed to run otherwise – the fact that so many Iranian voters opted for the least conservative candidate has sent a clear message to the ruling elites that they want change.  Perhaps this is why Rouhani has been given something of a free reign to pursue his policies.  He held a phone call with President Obama in September, the first time the presidents of either country have spoken directly since the 1979 revolution which brought the current Iranian regime to power.  Then came a historic agreement in which Iran finally agreed to curb its nuclear activities in return for the easing of sanctions.  There’s much progress to be made, but also reason to be optimistic.
  5. Angela Merkel will be re-elected in Germany.
    Correct.  Merkel achieved her best ever result in September, gaining 41.5% of the vote and nearly achieving a majority in the Bundestag, ensuring her a third term as chancellor.  After months of difficult talks, her Christian Democratic Union agreed to enter into a ‘grand coalition’ with the opposition Social Democratic Party.  Merkel certainly seems to be bucking the trend of European leaders being brought down by the financial crisis – she’s in a stronger position than ever.
  6. Libya will finish its transition into democracy on paper with success.
    Um.  Not really.  Kind of?  Well, Libya has avoided descending into complete anarchy, but there are still many incidents of armed militias operating outwith the control of the government, the most frightening case being when Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was abducted from a hotel, although he was safely returned.  A timetable for national elections still hasn’t been established, but it’s hoped that Libya can have its first post-revolutionary government by the end of next year.  So really, I suppose, it’s too early to say on this one.
  7. Egypt will head down its route of democracy with a very Islamic tint.  Morsi will bring stability to the country – at long last.
    Hahaha, oh, how wrong is it possible to be?  Unfortunately not.  To save me repeating the dramatic events of the 3rd July, you can read the post I wrote about it at the time.  Since the coup, things have only got worse.  Protests have continued from both sides, pulling Egypt down into further instability.  This culminated in a horrific massacre where dozens of protesters were killed by security forces.  The ruling military regime has since strengthened its hold on power, imposing curfews and recently branding the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi’s party, a ‘terrorist organisation’.  The country is appearing more and more to be under the grip of a General new to the scene, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, currently appointed as Deputy Prime Minister.  Elections are expected for next year, which Sisi is widely predicted to run for.  In short, I couldn’t have been more wrong about Egypt.
  8. Berlusconi will not be elected in Italy.
    Well, technically, Berlusconi was elected to the Italian Senate, but if we assume I meant elected as Prime Minister then I got this correct.  Italy’s election this year left no party in a position of power, meaning multiple parties had to come together to form government, including his People of Freedom party.  However, the Prime Minister of this unstable government turned out to be Enrica Letta of the Democratic Party.  Berlusconi himself has been involved in continuing scandal after scandal, being recently convicted of tax-fraud and sentenced to four years in prison (none of which he’ll actually serve due to his age), and barred from political office for six years.  Subsequently, he was expelled from the Italian Senate.  I wouldn’t underestimate Berlusconi, but I can’t imagine his career recovering from this.
  9. The Afghanistan campaign will appear more and more hopeless.  Peace talks with the Taliban will develop.
    Pretty much.  I haven’t been following this in too much detail, but I’m aware of various talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government being on, off, on again, off again, and so on.  Really not much seems to be happening in the run up to NATO’s withdrawal next year.
  10. I expect more crises from North Korea.
    Yup.  There was that strange period last April when North Korea threatened war against South Korea, Japan and the USA which I referred to earlier – I don’t think anyone knows what that was really about.  Needless to say, that came to nothing and North Korea soon quietened down again.  I imagine it was an attempt by Kim Jong-un to create a warlike atmosphere within the country to further entrench his rule – nothing increases loyalty like giving people a common enemy.  Then, even more shockingly, earlier this month Kim had his very own uncle executed as part of a wider purge.  I wrote about it here.  Nothing which has yet threatened to spiral out of control from the perspective of the West, but erratic and worrying behaviour nonetheless.
  11. Iran’s economy will continue to plummet under sanctions.  Possibility of something dramatic happening.
    Pretty much.  I largely covered this earlier.
  12. This is a completely wild one: Robert Mugabe will no longer be in power in Zimbabwe by the year’s end.
    Unfortunately, Mugabe is still President of his long-suffering nation.  My reasons behind this prediction were Mugabe’s age, having turned 89 this year, and the fact an election was due to be held earlier this year.  However his health seems to be as strong as ever, while the election this year re-elected him in very fraudulent conditions indeed.
  13. There will be at least one coup.  And likewise, at least one country considered a dictatorship will become more democratic.
    I’d consider events in Egypt earlier this year to be a coup, so got that one right.  I think Mali could count as having become more democratic, having achieved mostly free and fair elections after a year of chaos.  I can’t think of any other standout examples, which is a shame, but Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2014 report (due to be published fairly soon) might shine a light on this.
  14. Burma will continue down liberalisation and democratisation.
    This is really impossible to say.  Again, I await the Freedom in the World 2014 with great interest.  I’m going to take the lack of any particular evidence to the contrary as evidence that Burma at least isn’t backsliding.  Aung San Suu Kyi did recently announced that her National League for Democracy plans to contest the 2015 general election – widely hoped to be Burma’s first free election – even if the constitution isn’t amended to allow her to run for the Presidency.  Which seems to be a good sign.  Hopefully.  I really don’t know.  I think I’ll give myself this one…
  15. Hugo Chavez: difficult to predict.  I’m gonna throw this out there and say his health improves and he’s able to continue as President.
    Nope – President Chavez of Venezuela died of cancer on the 5th March, later to be succeeded by his Vice-President, Nicolas Maduro, who seems to be carrying on his divisive legacy.
  16. Al Shebab will be almost completely pushed out of Somalia.
    Despite continued advances by Somalian and African Union forces against Al-Shabab, they’re far from having been cleared from the country and still control much territory, particularly in rural areas.  So wrong on that one.
  17. More than two Arab countries will see increased protests and violence.  Potentials: Syria, Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Sudan, Egypt, UAE, Jordan, Lebanon.
    This was unfortunately a pretty safe bet.  As I wrote earlier the death toll in Syria continues to mount; there have been continued protests and unrest in Sudan, though not coming to much; Egypt has had what were tipped to be the ‘largest protests in history’ which deposed President Morsi; April was the deadliest month in Iraq since 2008; Libya’s been having increased issues with militias, as I indicated earlier; and Lebanon has had increased bombings, assassinations and clashes as the Syrian Civil War continues to spill over.
  18. Julia Gillard will no longer be Prime Minister of Australia.
    Yes.  She was ousted earlier than I expected, having her position as leader of the Labor party usurped by Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister.  The Labor party was then met with disaster in the September election, losing 17 seats and its tentative majority to Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition, ending 6 years of Labor Party rule.
  19. Putin will consolidate his dictatorship in Russia.
    To be honest, his dictatorship was rather consolidated anyway by the end of 2012, but it certainly hasn’t weakened.  He’s continued pressing forward in policies such as the ‘anti-gay laws’, infringing the rights of LGBT people.  Things have become more interesting in the last month in the run-up to next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi: Putin granted an amnesty to many high-profile political prisoners, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the remaining two members of Pussy Riot and the ‘Arctic 30’.  Perhaps this is a big to improve Russia’s standing among the international community.  He must have been shaken by two bomb attacks in the last couple of days in Volgograd, which might be part of a continuing campaign by Cechen rebels.  But nevertheless, his authority in Russia seems pretty powerful.
  20. The Mars Curiosity Rover will make more discoveries which fail to interest the public.
    Yeah, I’ll give myself that one.  There have been many discoveries on Mars, including pretty strong evidence that it once had running water.  That’s more interesting than I expected, but I don’t suppose it’s something the majority of people noticed or continue to think about.
  21. Netanyahu will be re-elected in Israel.
    Yes!  Sorry, that explanation mark makes me sound more enthused about this than I am.  See more here.

Overall, I seem to have actually fared better than I expected, having been more or less correct on 65% of the issues!  Tomorrow I’ll publish my list of predictions for 2014 – watch this space.

The White Paper for Independence

Yesterday the Scottish government published their highly-awaited White Paper for Independence, which basically sets out to answer all questions which could reasonably expect answering about the process of moving Scotland to becoming an independent country between September 2014 and March 2016, as well as kind of acting as a manifesto for what the SNP would like to achieve if they were elected to lead an independent Scottish parliament.

I’ve read bits and pieces of it on the downloaded ebook though I’ve been too busy to take a proper look through.  I’ve ordered a physical copy from the Scottish government (I think they’re giving them out for free!) so I’ll try to go through it more in-depth later.  It’s a 670 page document, totaling about 170,000 words, therefore I’d be surprised if anyone has yet managed to make a thorough analysis of it.  I quite like MSP Joan McAlpine’s comment that the sheer length of the White Paper makes the American Declaration of Independence look like a ‘post-it note‘.

Nevertheless, from various summaries I’ve checked out online the main points of interest to me appear to be:

  • A guarantee that there’d be no border controls between England and Scotland.  Despite what some unionists would tell you, this has been painfully obvious for years. If an independent Scotland required passport checks to get into England it would more or less be the only land border in Europe to require such controls.
  • As well as membership of NATO, an independent Scotland would have an army comprised of 15,000 soldiers with 5,000 in reserve.  This would actually be a much larger share of Scotland’s population than the British army currently represents of the UK population.  While I’m not sure I personally agree with having such a large army, Scotland certainly wouldn’t be open to invasion from, I don’t know, Russia – or whoever our current enemy supposedly is.
  • We’d keep the pound sterling.  I won’t pretend to understand the economics behind this, and this is one point in the White Paper I’m not utterly convinced by.  Apparently Scotland would continue to control a portion of the Bank of England, thereby giving us influence over inflation rates and such things… ?  I appreciate this is the SNP trying to avoid the issue of requiring currency exchanges to travel between Scotland and England but I’m not convinced it makes the most economic sense.  But even so, it’s important to remember this is only what the SNP would do.  In all likelihood an independent Scotland would elect a Labour government, or whatever the equivalent of Labour would be at that point, which may have much different ideas on which currency Scotland should have.
  • All residents of Scotland will automatically become Scottish citizens, while joint citizenship with the UK will be possible.  UK passports will continue to be valid until their expiration.
  • Scotland would remain a constitutional monarchy with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.  Not my preference but I imagine the Scottish people would have much more say over this arrangement in the future if independent than part of the UK.
  • Scotland would develop it’s own Scottish Broadcasting Service (SBS), which would be funded by the Scottish portion of license fees which would otherwise go to the BBC.  I think the BBC could still be accessed in Scotland, while likewise the SBS could be accessed in the rest of the UK.  They’ve also said the SBS and the BBC would frequently collaborate; for instance, the SBS would participate in the annual Comic Relief appeal.
  • A guarantee that the minimum wage would rise with inflation with, I assume, the insurance that wages wouldn’t be allowed to fall in real terms.  There’s also a reference into looking at a Scottish living wage.
  • The Royal Mail would be renationalised in an independent Scotland.
  • The ‘Bedroom Tax’ would be abolished.
  • It’s stated that Scotland should be able to participate as an individual nation in the Olympic and Paralympic games.
  • Pensions are guaranteed to rise either by inflation, wages or 2.5%, depending upon which is highest.
  • Tuition fees would continue to be free, while a ‘Common Research Zone’ would exist across the UK so that Scottish and UK universities can continue to benefit from their important academic links.
  • A commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on foreign aid with the aspiration to eventually increase this to 1%.
  • A Scottish Asylum Agency would be established with the aim of creating a much more humane approach to applications for asylum than currently exists as UK policy.
  • Lastly, and perhaps most excitingly, a pledge to safeguard the environment could actually be written into an independent Scotland’s constitution.

From what I hear, the majority of the White Paper’s content is incredibly dull, laying out facts and figures of no interest to all but the most motivated bureaucrat.  This is the purpose of the White Paper – it’s aimed at showing the Scottish people that there is a detailed plan for independence beyond the nationalist promises of bagpipes* and flags.  There will be critics of the White Paper, and rightfully so – the referendum next September will be a momentous decision and the vote should not be lightly decided – but I hope this will allow the debate to move onto a level playing-field.  The Yes campaign have proved beyond measure that they have a positive vision for Scotland’s future; this is something Better Together sorely lack.  Though they carry the current polling advantage, I don’t believe it’s enough to advocate the status quo while miserably griping at every aspiration the Yes Campaign advocates.  Negative campaigning can only go so far.  So if the publication of the White Paper does anything, I hope it can push the discourse of the debate in a more constructive direction.

*I wouldn’t complain at making the playing of bagpipes a requirement for all public buildings but I accept I might be alone on that one…

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