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Thursday, 26 July 2012

NATO - IN OR OUT? - PART TWO

When I did the first blog on NATO membership a few weeks ago, I was accused by one cybernat of "hysteria" for even suggesting that the SNP intended to discuss its NATO policy at the June meeting of National Council, the other policy-making body of the party. Despite the party leadership having cancelled that "discussion", there is still a hell of a lot of egg on a hell of a lot of cybernat faces, as once again, a "dearly-held SNP principle" is about to bite the dust as "pragmatism" holds sway.  It's a funny word pragmatism; it keeps cropping up in the currency of political debate whenever there is a need to change a policy position, particularly one where principle is being discarded.

Pragmatism has a long history in the SNP. During the debates on devolution in the party in the 1970s, there was a resolution calling for the party to campaign for devolution, submitted at the Motherwell conference of 1976. On my way to the rostrum, I was stopped by a senior office bearer who knew I intended to move against the resolution, and told to set aside "principle" as what the party needed was "pragmatism". I was told the Scottish people "will never forgive us if we are seen to stop them getting a Scottish Parliament". I moved the direct negative, arguing that we could never trust the Unionists to deliver and, that we were betraying our own principles by agreeing to fight on our opponent's ground, by fighting their fight for them. The party decided to support devolution and was duly stitched up in 1979 but more importantly, the Scottish people were stitched up for another two decades - because some people believed that "pragmatism" could deliver what principle could not.

"Pragmatism" dictated SNP support for the Constituional Convention - at least until the party was told it had to ditch independence. The same "pragmatism" dictated support for the EU and the euro because we could not afford to be seen as "isolationist", much better to surrender sovereignty over ever-increasing areas of our national life, after all, whatever control was surrendered to the EU would hardly affect being "independent". It is now widely recognised that anything that might cause concern to the Scottish electorate will be allowed to remain within the control of either the EU or Westminster, just so long as it can be argued by the party leadership that "pragmatism" is much more likely to deliver the desired end result of a "Yes" in the referendum. The problem for many Nationalists is recognising what the end result is likely to be. The SNP still claims to support Scottish independence, but if their ambitions are achieved, it will be a state of independence barely recogniseable  to its original supporters, where agriculture, fishing, trade and commerce together with much else is controlled by the EU, where sterling will remain the currency, the Bank of England will determine monetary policy and fiscal policy will be a function of agreement with Westminster, the monarchy will continue as Head of State and Scots will still be British. A supine membership has allowed the SNP leadership to offer what is no more than a parody of an independent state that even Gilbert and Sullivan would find difficulty in doing justice.

It has not gone unnoticed among Nationalists, that the cheer-leaders for this emasculation of the SNP as a political force dedicated to the restoration of sovereignty to the Scottish people, is the very Unionist media the cybernats love to hate. Numerous articles have appeared recently, approving of the "pragmatism" of the SNP leadership and the First Minister in particular. The journey travelled by some of the most prominent office-bearers in the leadership, including the First Minister, has been much longer than that of many of the ordinary party members, as so many in the current leadership were members of the '79 Group, who pilloried ordinary party members throughout the 1980s, because they were considered to be too "right wing". There is little to be recognised of the "left-wingery" trumpeted by the old '79 Group and, when they ditch opposition to NATO, their "pragmatism" will have placed them at a spot on the political spectrum once occupied by those they claimed to despise.

Of course, it will be claimed there has been a change of circumstances, therefore a change of mind is justified. In The Scotsman of 20th July, Jim Sillars wrote a substantial piece in which he supported the change of policy to retain membership of NATO. He wrote, "I have never felt shame in a change of mind. I went from staunch Unionist to independence because I saw that as being in Scotland's interests. Although the architect of the "Independence in Europe" policy, I am less than enamoured with the EU post-Lisbon Treaty and the profoundly undemocratic and foolish handling of the euro..." Jim and I are of an age, we have been active in politics over the same time scale, although not always on the same side. I have to admit I struggle to find any change in circumstances that warrants a change from "Unionist" to "Nationalist", other than a recognition that Unionism was never in Scotland's interests and that Unionists were wrong. Nor do I see any change in the circumstances which dictate the end game of the EU. The aim of the founding fathers was always a United States of Europe, with "ever closer political union", to be achieved by "gradualism" and gaining increasing levels of control at the centre. Anybody with any knowledge of currency unions and how they work, both in principle and practice, warned over many years about the consequences of a single currency in the EU. I have written extensively on the subject over 25 years and finally left the SNP as a consequence of being unable to persuade the party members to my point of view.

Unfortunately the damage that has been done has been incalculable because people were more prepared to listen to the "pragmatists", rather than take a principled stance. Jim Sillars also argues, "Scotland geographically is crucial to NATO's integrity and capability in the European sphere. It (the USA) has a strong national interest in the maintainance of the geographical integrity of NATO, as do Germany, France and the other members. ....What could NATO members do if the SNP government says it will give their Alliance notice to quit? Snooker our membership of the EU, that's what." So, that argument states that unless Scots are prepared to continue to be a prime target if there is a nuclear war,  we will not be allowed in their club. "Pragmatism" dictates that we can't afford to offend the big boys in this power game because they will isolate us if we do. This is despite the fact that no one has yet been prepared to identify a potential aggressor or enemy for an independent Scotland, an enemy so powerful as to be seen as a threat to NATO's interests. When the Alliance was formed there was no doubt that the Soviet Union was the actual as well as the perceived threat; but the Soveiet Union no longer exists, some of those which were the Soviet's client states, are themselves now members of NATO and Russia itself, is a member of the Partnership For Peace.

This is one occasion where there has been a very obvious change of circumstances, where a once very obvious and identifiable threat is no longer a threat, therefore it appears to me to be perverse to seek to strike a political stance which might have been more appropriate before the Soviet union broke up. Russia, under Putin, is not to be trifled with, particularly if like Georgia, a country was once an integral part of the Soviet Union. But that is hardly the case with an independent Scotland. I can hardly conceive of a situation where an independent Scotland would side with an enemy of England and the rUK, or of Western Europe for that matter, or to allow our country to be used as a base for aggression towards any country within that geographical area. There is really no realistic necessity therefore, for any of those neighbouring countries to see an independent Scotland as a potential threat of any description, a potential threat that needs to be brought within the NATO fold. As far as the EU is concerned, a growing number of Scots would quite happily tell the EU where to put its membership, particularly the "ever increasing political union" part. The EU is growing less important as a trading partner and if Scotland is to take advantage of its expertise and technical knowledge in the oil industry and deep sea drilling, it will be in China and Larin America, not the EU. If the rUK are so keen to retain its own membership of NATO, it will surely be just as keen to have the nuclear weapons stored on its territory. I look forward to the arguments employed by those MPs whose constituents will be asked to give them a home, after all, they will also fall heir to all the wonderful employment that goes with them.

Those SNP members who are persuaded that membership of NATO can be acceptable so long as nuclear weapons are not stored in an independent Scotland, may like to consider the "principle" behind their argument. They may believe their opposition to nuclear weapons is satisfied, just so long as Scotland does not store them. To me that is not a principled argument against nuclear weapons, it is an argument FOR nuclear weapons, but not on my soil. Nuclear weapons are fine, just so long as someone else keeps them, stores them and fires them. That way, we can shelter under the nuclear umbrella without getting our hands dirty. NATO is a nuclear Alliance with a first strike nuclear policy and, if SNP members vote to join NATO, that is what they are voting for. A vote for NATO membership but with no nuclear weapons stored here, is a totally unprincipled stance, which will no doubt be sold as yet another doze of "pragmatism" which has to be swallowed. It would be a great deal more honest to go the whole hog, retain NATO membership, keep Trident on the Clyde and preserve all those lovely jobs.

There may be some in the SNP for whom this will be the deal breaker, where membership of the party is no longer possible for them, if they want to retain their own integrity. It came much earlier for me, with membership of the EEC because it was the first step in surrendering the sovereignty the SNP claimed to want to restore to the Scottish people. No one in politics expects to agree with every policy their chosen party will promote over a lengthy period of time. If they do, they must have no principles of any sort, or they are careerists first and foremost and principles are never a consideration. That could hardly be said of anyone who joined the SNP in the early days, when the possibility of being elected to office came to very few; but there must be many party members who have had to seriously question their membership in recent years, as the party leadership has ditched one principle after another in pursuit of elected office.

It has always been argued that politics is a dirty game and if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen or, if you can't ride two horses at the same time, get out of the circus. I could always understand that line of reasoning in other parties because their aims were so broadly similar that it was a farce to argue they stood for principles of any description. That has certainly been true in recent years with Thatcher/Major/Blair/Brown et al. I always expected more of the SNP because it was more than just a political party, it represented a cause - the restoration of independence to the Scottish people. I stopped believing that when the party, in the interests of "pragmatism", adopted "Independence in Europe" and once that slippery slope had been trodden for the first time, every next step became easier and easier to take. Now, when I look at what the SNP calls "Independence" I have to ask myself if I understand the meaning of the word any more because what the SNP calls independence, falls well short of my understanding of the term. The discipline in the party in recent years has been exemplary but the loss of members has been disguised by the influx of new members, more in tune with the party's definition of independence. However, the party leadership must realise it is getting very close to the point where the revolving door it has created, is shedding members at a faster rate than it is bringing them in.

Even the watered down version of independence now being offered by the SNP, has failed to increase the numbers in favour, if opinion polls are to be believed. That suggests that Scots are not going to be persuaded by granting concession after concession; that even those who are not openly opposed, are not going to be swayed by something which is reducing week by week and which seems to offer so little change that it is hardly worth the bother. A policy which started out aiming not to scare horses, has bored them to death and removed any challenge or exitement there might have been in being independent. If the same people who produced the corrupt banks and bankers, the corrupt MPs and their fiddled expences, the same monarchy at the head of a system of privilege that reeks of corruption, are to be left in charge of large areas of our country, where are the changes going to take place that will improve our society? Sometimes, just sometimes, principles are worth fighting for, they are worth taking some risk for, some things should be done because they are the right thing to do.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Is the SNP Just Too Timid - Has Gradualism Run Its Course?

Political commentators and pundits once divided the SNP activists into Fundamentalists and Gradualists, without many of them really understanding what the terms meant. The debate inside the SNP was about tactics and strategy, not about the enventual aim of independence. I have said on more than one occasion in recent years that I now suspect that a number of SNP activists, including some of the leadership, would quite happily settle for less than independence and base that assessment on the various political positions adopted by the party, all of which have been deemed to be "independence". Setting that aside for the moment, if we assume that the party leadership, from the First Minister down to the most junior functionary, has as their aim, the restoration of sovereignty to the Scottish people, I think we are now entitled to ask if the strategy that has been adopted for the past twenty odd years, has taken us any nearer that ultimate goal. I would contend that it hasn't but as someone who was dubbed "the Godfather of fundamenalism" by Ian McWhirter, my critics, of whom there are a few, would argue, "well he would say that wouldn't he?"

To understand why I think that gradualism has failed to fulfil the promises made by its adherents, it is necessary to look at a very brief summary of the history of the campaign for independence/devolution since the early 1960s, which is really a brief history of the SNP. The real watershed in the fortunes of the party was the by-election in Hamilton in 1967, when Winnie Ewing won the party's first seat in Westminster since Dr Robert McIntyre won Motherwell in 1945. There had been a number of other by-elections throughout the 1960s, beginning with Glasgow Bridgeton in 1961, when the SNP polled 18.7% of the vote. That was followed by West Lothian in June1962, when the party polled 23.3%, Glasgow Woodside, November 1962 -11.2%, Kinross & West Perthshire October 1963 - 7.3%; and Dundee West in November 1963 when the party polled 7.4%. Those last two results were deeply disappointing and the leadership were divided on whether they should contest Dumfries in Decmber of that year. The decision to fight gained an increased vote of 9.7%. The party was seen as no more than a protest party but the idea of Scottish independence was being heard, despite the lack of media coverage, through the work done on the doorsteps in those parts of the country where the SNP had an organisation. That work continued throughout the 1960s and the Pollok by-election in March 1967 drew 28.3% of the vote, leading to Hamilton in November, 46% of the vote and victory.

The pressure from the SNP persuaded Ted Heath to address the obvious discontent of Scots and at the Conservative Party conference in Perth in 1968, he promised a Scottish Assembly in what became known as The Declaration of Perth. Douglas-Home chaired a committe which produced a report in 1970 called Scotland's Government, which promised an Assembly of 125 representatives but with the powers to only propose legislation, the final decisions to be taken at Westminster. In the interim, Harold Wilson set up a Commission under Lord Crowther in 1969, later taken over by Lord Kilbrandon in 1972 and which reported in 1973. It proposed a directly elected Assembly for both Scotland and Wales. The general elections of 1974, first in February when the SNP won seven seats and then October when the party won eleven seats, meant the Labour Party needed SNP support in Westminster until the Lib-Lab Pact of 1977 kept Labour in office until 1979. Unfortunately, the weak showing of the SNP in the general election of 1970, meant that the Tories could forget about devolution when Heath won an outright majority. The defeat of the Referendum in 1979, the subsequent defeat of Labour in the general election and the election of Margaret Thatcher, led to any notion of devolution being shelved for the next decade.

The October 1974 Westminster general election saw 11 SNP MPs returned but perhaps just as important, there were 52 second places and a total of 30.4% of the vote. I do not think the party did anything during that period to undermine its credibility but the general mood in the UK had swung against the Labour Party and when the party instructed the MPs to vote against the Labour Government in the vote of confidence in March 1979, it felt completely justified in doing so. We now know that Callaghan was prepared to suffer electoral defeat rather than see Scotland have a directly elected assembly but the voters in Scotland were prepared to sacrifice the SNP, and swing behind Labour in the hope that would keep the Tories out. We also know that the same mindset has been present in several general elections in Scotland and on no occasion has a Labour vote in Scotland, been able to keep the Tories out, if Engalnd made up its mind to vote Tory. The loss of the 9 out of 11 seats in 1979, was bad enough but the SNP had fought much harder for the promised devolved assembly than Labour had, despite it being Labour's policy. Many Labour activists refused to even deliver their party's leaflets, which were delivered by SNP activists. The sense of betrayal inside the SNP was enormous, particularly among those  of us who had warned the party to beware Labour Party treachery.

Thatcher was not interested in Scottish devolution but the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly attempted to organise opposition to her government through the combined afforts of the opposition parties in Scotland, the TUs, the churches and other Scottish organisations. As Deputy Leader of the SNP, I led the party's delegation to the first of the meetings and requested that a discussion on the "Sovereignty of the Scottish People" be placed on the agenda for the next meeting. Despite that being agreed, when we turned up at the next meeting, the issue was not on the agenda. On my insistence, there was a head count of each of those present, on whether the delegates agreed that the people of Scotland was sovereign because I believed we needed to establish that in order to strengthen our negotiating position with the Westminster Government. None of those present, with the exception of the SNP delegates, believed in the sovereignty of the Scottish people, preferring the English concept of the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament.

Despite that being reported to the NEC, Gordon Wilson attempted to persuade the party to adopt his notion of a Scottish Convention. in which all positions from independence to devolution would be on the table, at the annual conference in September that year, 1983. I successfully moved the direct negative but the issue came up again at annual conference in Inverness the following year. Jim Sillars moved adoption of the motion and again, I moved the direct negative, which was defeated by 7 votes in a total of almost 500 delegates. My opposition was based on my belief that while the SNP should do nothing to oppose devolution if it was offered, we should not campaign for it because we would be fighting on our opponent's ground and it would weaken our own message of independence. Without the threat of independence, there would be no pressure on Westminster to even think about devolution for Scotland. I also believed we could not trust the Unionist parties to deliver. The Convention existed in name only as far as SNP involvement was concerned for the next four years, but when the party's delegation of Gordon Wilson, Jim Sillars and Margaret Ewuing, attended the first meeting, they were told they would need to drop any notion of independence. On that information being made known to the party's next National Council, it was decided by an overwhelming majority and on the advice of the delegation which had attended the Convention meeting, that the SNP would take no part.

The rest is history as they say but it is still my belief that unless Westminster had had the possibility of independence becoming more attractive for the Scottish people, there would have been no Scottish Parliament. It is also my belief that the SNP has wasted the opportunity that the Parliament has given it, to push the notion of independence much harder than they have done. Some SNP supporters believe we have come a long way and that has only been possible by taking the "gradualist" approach, persuading the Scottish people that they are not only capable of looking after their own affairs but that they can improve their country beyond the level of anything a Westminster Government could do. There are many who still believe that devolution and independence are different degrees of the same thing and that the more devolution is granted, the closer the country comes to being independent, despite all the evidence to the contrary. The SNP's policy on the EU and the euro, was devised to offer the Scottish people another comfort blanket to take the place of the "stability" provided by Westminster. Every surrender of sovereignty to the EU has been denied and no matter how many times centralised control has been tightened in the EU, the SNP has insisted it did not affect independence. There is organised opposition to EU centralisation in every member country of the EU, opposition which is increasing every year, particularly in the newer member states. Despite this, SNP supporters prefer to accept the word of the EU political elites, as the party continues to accept every increase in EU control.

The collapse of the euro provided the SNP leadership with an opportunity to push the idea of a Scottish currency but instead, it chose to adopt its current policy of a full monetary union with the rUK, with the Bank of England determing monetary policy and acting as lender of last resort. There have been several commentators who have pointed out the disadvantages of such a policy and the severe limitations it would place on Scottish independence. The collapse of the banks in the UK, the very obvious lack of effective regulation and the latest scandal of manipulation of Libor bank rates, with the possible involvement of the Bank of England, has again provided an opportunity for the SNP to persuade the Scottish people that their own Scottish currency with our own central bank, offers us the chance to make a clean break from the disasters of the past, from the institutionalised corruption that exists in the financial service industry in the UK, and to re-establish the probity of Scottish banking that gave us such a world-wide reputation for handling finance. Unfortunately the party still insists that a seat on the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the bank of England, will somehow shield the Scottish people from all of that. Unfortunately, the party leadership has been forced to admit there has been no contact made with the Bank of England, to ascertain if a seat on the MPC would even be on offer.

What the party leadership, many of the party supporters and a number of political commentators have all called "gradualism" have in effect, been policies which undermined and restricted Scottish independence. Membership of the EU was sold as "internationalism" when in fact, it was creating a closely centralised "bloc" which restricts international trade and commerce and increasingly restricts the sovereignty of the Scottish people. The currency union with rUK, to take the place of the euro, will restrict the freedom of any Scottish government to develop the Scottish economy, the main aim of the economic nationalists who currently lead the SNP. Each opportunity to further the notion of "independence" and the unlimited potential that independence would offer, has been spurned in favour of policies which do no more than restrict the very end to which the SNP claims to be committed - independence. Instead of showing leadership and instilling confidence in the Scottish people, the SNP leadership has pandered to every indication of insecurity and nervousness. Thus the very word "independence" is off message, according to the latest party guru, an American psychologist who thinks "independence" causes nervousness and is therefore not to be used.

Has any of this been successful in increasing support for independence? The SNP won a majority in the Scottish Parliamentary elections of 2011 but it was not on a platform of independence, it was as an alternative to a deeply unpopular Labour Party and the promise of a referendum. Successive opinion polls show support for independence has actually gone down to around 30%, the level which has been recorded regularly over the past twenty years. This is despite the fact that Alex Salmond enjoys very high levels of personal support and the SNP has shown a fair degree of competence in government. This personal popularity is in danger of being eroded, the longer Salmond remains in office, and if he continues to make some of the kind of policy errors of which he has been guilty recently, on the currency for example. His performances at First Minister's Questions in Parliament have also shown some of the worst aspects of his personality. As the Westminster cuts begin to bite, the SNP is in danger of being blamed for them, whether or not they are to blame but, instead of pushing the idea of independence even harder and pointing out that until we get independence, many of the policies we would like to implement, will be impossible, the SNP continues to dilute the independence message.

That is no more evident than in the very obvious attempt of the party leadership, to have a second question on the ballot paper for the referendum. This would offer Devo-Plus or Devo-Max as an alternative to independence but every day, brings another opponent to the whole idea of a second or fall-back question being on the ballot paper. At least 50% of the committee of the Yes Campaign, including its chairman Blair Jenkins, are known to be opposed, Margo McDonald, Gordon Wilson, and several other well known nationalists, including some SNP MPs and MSPs are all opposed. They all argue that not only is it better that Scots are asked to answer a straightforward question, but that any increase in Devolution needs the permission of Westminster and cannopt be decided by the Scots alone. The attempt by the SNP leadership to have the second questions leads quite naturally, to the accusation that they fear a single question that they think they will lose. If that perception is allowed to gather pace among Scots, the whole position of the Yes Campaign will be undermined.

Gradualists have always argued that independence is "a process not an event" and that their method of persuading Scots "gradually" is best because it has already borne fruit. Devolution can be increased but independence cannot, a country is either independent or it is not, therefore the mantra of it being "a process not an event" is a nonsense. Nor is there any evidence that "gradualism" has been successful in increasing the numbers in favour of independence, if anything the opposite is true. As people are offered more and more "comfort blankets" and independence is presented as meaning "no change", the less likely they are to support even the much reduced version of independence offered by the SNP.

We have two years until the referendum, two years in which to persuade Scots that independence is not only desireable and preferable, but it is vital if Scotland is to prosper, not just economically but as a nation and as a society. We are not going to achieve that aim by continuing to adopt the gradualism that has prevailed for over twenty years.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

One Question Or Two?

Margo McDonald has suggested that the SNP should drop any notion of having two questions on the ballot for the referendum. Of course her comments were met with an immediate denial from the SNP that they wanted two questions on the ballot paper. Stewart Maxwell MSP was very quick to assert that the SNP wanted only one question, as the party is very confident there will be a majority voting "Yes" in the referendum. Despite their repeated denials that they are looking to have a second question on the ballot paper, as a fall-back position just in case a majority vote "No", few commentators or informed observers believe the SNP. Stewart Maxwell was equally quick to point out that the consultation process had yet to be completed and not until that was done, would there be any decision taken on how many questions there would be on the ballot. He concluded, "After all, what is the point of having a consultation if the result is to be ignored?"

Why is it, that someone as politcally savvy as Margo and most other commentators simply do not believe the SNP when they claim to want a single question? Perhaps it is the number of times Alex Salmond has let it be known that he finds the idea of a second question "attractive" or the frequency with which the SNP insists there is a large number of Scots who want an alternative to a straight "Yes" / "No" and that they should be given the opportunity to have their case heard, that convinces observers that the SNP - or at least Alex Salmond - wants a second question, if only someone else could be blamed for it. It is a reasonably valid argument to suggest that there is little point in consulting the people of Scotland if their views are simply to be ignored. But it was never suggested that the views of the majority, whatever it might be, in the consultation, would be binding on the Scottish Government. In fact, it was never made very clear why the consultation was being held in the first place. What did the Scottish government intend to do with the findings? The numbers who have responded is a relatively small minority of the numbers elligible to vote in Scotland, therefore their views could never be more than a guide to what those who responded feel, but that is all. It is a nonsense to suggest they could be anything else.

The latest TNS BMRB poll shows that the number in favour of independence now stands at 30% while those opposed is 50%, out of a total of just over 1000 people polled. If a "more powers" option is added, the number supporting independence falls to 23% and the number favouring "more powers" is 37%. Angus Robertson, the director of the SNP campaign, by adding the 23% in favour of independence and the 37% in favour of "more powers" comes to the conclusion that a total of 60% of Scots reject the status quo and favour "progress for Scotland". And so the politics speak continues, while the Scottish electorate continues to add to the ever increasing confusion of what it actually wants, in terms of constituional change. Charge and counter charge is made by the politicians as each side attempts to put the best gloss on the figures that are produced by successive opinion polls.

Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, continues to demand answers to what "independence means" while continuing to ignore similar demands for explanations of what is in it for Scots if they remain as part of the UK. At face value, membership of the UK offers more cuts to living standards, higher levels of unemployment as public expenditure cuts continue in the NHS, defence and public services; a corrupt banking and financial services system, a political regime where standards of integrity have never been lower and where the fiddling of MP's expences are accepted as the price we are expected to pay for what passes as democracy in this country. David Cameron promises Scots "more powers" if we remain as part of the UK, just as one of his predecessors did and then reneged, some thrity-three years ago. On Cameron's record of broken promises, is there any reason why any Scot - other than Ruth Davidson - would trust him one iota? Significantly he studiously avoided stating what the "more powers" would mean, just as Ms Davidson and her colleagues in the No Campaign, avoid explaining why Scots should remain as part of the UK.

When the SNP asked the Scottish electorate to give them, the SNP, the authority to provide Scots with an opportunity to vote in a referendum, it was made quite plain that the question would be about independence. There was no word of the referendum offering the choice of several options ranging from independence to Devo-Max, Devo-Plus or Devo - anything at all. Margo Mcdonald made the perfectly valid point that the Scottish government's referendum cannot offer increased powers because the Scottish government does not have the power to do so. When the debates on devolution were held inside the SNP in the 1970s and 1980s, I consistently pointed out that Scots could not declare a "Unilaterlal Declaration of Devolution" that the power to grant devolution rested with Westminster. We needed no one's permission to decide we wanted to be independent, that was within no one's gift but our own. That constitutional position has not changed. A question on the ballot paper in the referendum which asks Scots if they want "more powers", will be totally irrelevant because no Scottish government can deliver. Westminster is still the only legal and constitutional entity which has the power to change the range of powers of the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish people are still the only legal and political entity which needs to be consulted on whether or not we want to be independent.

In June, John Swinney, writing in The Scotsman under the headline, "Give us the tools and we can build a stronger, sustainable economy", went on to argue that Scotland had the resources to be a successful, independent country. He concluded, "Independence will enable us to to utilise all the economic levers (my emphasis) to provide the stable and supportive environment Scottish businesses demand." What John should have emphasised much more strongly is that independence and only independence can do that. When Scots have been asked what they think they mean by "more power" they invariably list control of taxation, both the raising and spending. What seems to have passed them by completely is the likely impact on the thinking of politicians in Westminster, of what has happened to the euro zone, where lack of control of the tax systems of the member states, allowed the profligacy of some of them to get completely out of hand. While there is still resistence in the euro zone, to centralised control of the taxation and budgetary policy of the member states, there is also the recognition that without that centralised control, the euro cannot survive with its current membership intact.

Anyone who thinks that any Westminster government is going to agree to give Scotland control over its tax and budgetary policy, where we can offer lower tax rates for foreign investment - as has happened in Eire - or the Scottish government can borrow beyond levels which Westminster believes to be sustainable in the current financial climate or which would put regions of England under economic pressure, is being totally unrealistic. It is not going to happen. To allow a second question on the ballot paper, which suggests it might be possible for any of that to happen, would be the height of dishonesty. The referendum should be about independence and it is time Scots were made to face the hard questions, to decide what kind of future they want their children and grandchildren to have. As a nation, do we have the courage to take control of our own future, or are we to be forever in search of the comfort blanket our political leaders seem to be determined to provide? If Scots decide they don't have the courage to be independent, they can then petition Westminster to increase the powers of the Scottish government but they should not be surprised if the promises of "more powers" end up on the cutting room floor.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Will Independence Make Scotland a More Just Society?

I write this as a layman with no legal training whatsoever, but as someone who has had limited experience as a policeman some years ago, and as someone who has, both observed the work of juries during spells of court duty and, who served on a jury at a rape trial. I have also been falsely accused of the serious and heinous crimes of murder, rape and child abuse, something which was touched on in a previous blog. Those varied experiences give me a point of view about the law and the justice system in Scotland and, to some extent, makes me much more aware of the value of the protections afforded to innocent people under Scots law. Based on my own personal experience, I would be the last person to claim that Scots law is perfect or, that there are some aspects of it that do not require to be changed, but I do have concerns that some of the proposed changes will make the law in Scotland more oppressive and lead to more miscarriages of justice, particularly in the areas of sexual abuse and rape.

There will always be conflicting views on the justice system and the law. The peculiarly Scot's verdict of "Not Proven" has always divided opinion and it is not difficutl to see why, as I often heard the view expressed, when a Not Proven verdict was handed down, "Oh he/she is guilty all right, there just wasn't enough evidence to prove it." It made me sometimes wonder if it was not as bad as a "Guilty" verdict as far as the accused was concerned. The Cadder Ruling of 2010 has also divided legal opinion, to say nothing of the anger it generated among some sections of the police, but there is likely to be some serious soul searching over the latest proposals to change the law on corroboration and making known to a jury, the accused's previous convictions, prior to their deciding their verdict on the crime on which they are being asked to deliberate. These proposed changes have been variously described in the Scottish Review, as "removong the cornerstones of Scottish justice" and, "turning Scottish justice into a liar's charter".

I did court duty at several murder and rape trials and, like many policemen, worried about the calibre of some jurors. A trial which lasted several days, tested the attention span of many of them, as evidenced by their obvious agitation, and I frequently wondered how they came to some of the verdicts that were reached. When I found myself as one of them, forced to determine whether or not the man who stood before us, accused of rape and assault, was guitly as charged, I was appalled to find that what I had only suspected in the past, was all too true. The rape victim was a working class mother of three young children, whose husband had left her with the three children, all aged below five years of age. She had lived for some months with her alleged attacker but his violence towards her eventually forced her to throw him out of the house they had shared. After fuelling up on drink, he forced his way into the house late one night and beat and raped her, while her children were in the next room. She was quite overtly working class, on benefits and lacked education, a fact which affected her demeanor and made it difficult for her to express herself. She seemed to be a decent enough young woman who had been dealt a pretty rough hand in life.

The jury was made up of eight women and seven men, one of whom was interested only in getting out in time for the pubs opening. Three of the women were almost caricatures of the caricatures created by Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough, complete with handbags clutched in front of them like shields. When it was learned I had been in the police, I was voted the jury foreman, with the responsibility of conducting the discussion on the evidence we had heard. The attitude of the women, to the young victim, horrified me as they discussed her accent, her clothes and her lifestyle as a working class mother, in the most derogatory terms. It was difficult to keep the discussion to the evidence which had been led and as far as some of the jurors were concerned, it seemed to matter little to them what verdict we reached. After we had delivered a guilty verdict and sentence was being handed down, it was revealed the rapist was currently on remand in Perth prison, for a totally unrelated crime. The juror next to me immediately said, "If I had known that, I would have had no doubt he was guilty".

As a layman, I can see no good reason for the proposed change, which in my opinion, will prejudice the minds of some jurors. As we waited for our expenses, the fact the rapist was on remand was the sole topic of conversation and had that information been made known to us before we were locked away to make our deliberations, the verdict would have been given in two minutes flat. It concerns me that it will be completely lost on many jurors, that they are asked to decide an accused's guilt or innocence on the basis of the evidence laid before them, not on any previous convictions for unrelated offences. When the Birmingham Six were released after serving sixteen years for a crime they did not commit, I overheard a young financial adviser comment, "So what if they were innocent, they probably committed other crimes anyway". The men were Irish, so were the members of the IRA - evidence enough. Obviously not all jurors are as disinterested or lacking in intelligence but a strong perosnality in a jury room can make a difference to a verdict. In some cases it will not be difficult to persuade some people that if an accused is guiilty of the offence of theft or house breaking, it is just as likely they are guilty of the more serious crimes of assault or rape.

Of even greater importance to the protection of the innocent, is the proposal to abolish the need for corroboration in determining the guilt or innocence of an accused person. Corroboration is not a requirement under the law in England and Wales, which means the burden of proof is higher in Scotland but conviction can be upheld on a simple majority in Scotland whereas in England and Wales, unanimity can be required. The pressure to change the law in Scotland comes from the small number of convictions in cases of rape and sexual assault. A spokesman for Rape Crisis Scotland is reported to have said, "We are hugely supportive of the move to remove the requirement for corroboration - it is a part of Scots Law which has major impact on the prosecution of sexual offences. The majority of rape cases never make it to court and our main concern is the system as it stands today means there are guilty men still walking the street."  There have always been guilty people who have escaped justice but it is the responsibility of the athorities to prove guilt, not the other way round. It was once argued that false allegations of sexaul assault and rape just did not happen because no woman would put herself through the trauma of a court appearance if it were not true. But recent history has shown that that argument no longer holds water, as the numbers of false allegations has increased as has the incidence of allegations of child abuse in custody disputes between divorcing couples.

No one would argue that those who are guilty of a crime deserve to be punished and the surprisingly small number of rape convictions (41 out of 884 cases reported in 2010) suggests there is something wrong with the system but is it right that changes in the law should be determined by the need/desire to increase the number of convictions? If the need to convict drives the law, what happens to the presumption of innocence? The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) was set up in April 1999 to examine alleged miscarriages and in the first seven years of its existence examined 696 cases, of which 57 were referred to the appeal court and 23 sentences were quashed. As a consequence of the Cadder Ruling in 2010, Lord Carloway produced a package of changes, which included the abolition of the requirement for corroboration, which he described as, "an archaic rule that has no place in a modern legal system." What kind of legal system are we heading for if the need to have more than just an allegation of guilt, is condemned as "archaic"? Does modern society now demand that in order to be acceptable, the presumption of innocence is also "archaic"? I have a very strong personal interest in this, more of which below.

There can be few people who have any interest in current affairs, who will not have heard of Angela Canning and Sally Clark, both of whom were victims of miscarriages of justice in Engalnd, when they were wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of their children. Both women lost children to cot death but were convicted on the evidence of Sir Roy Meadow, a leading paediatrician. The evidence of so-called "experts" can be crucial and his evidence was the determining factor in the convictions of both Canning and Clark. In another infamous case from England, the Shieldfield case in Newcastle, where two young nurses were accused of child abuse, the performance of another paediatrician, Dr San Lazaro caused the presiding judge so much concern that he reported her to the GMC. Despite admitting there was sufficient evidence to find her guilty of "serious professional misconduct" the GMC decided to dismiss the charges against Lazaro after hearing pleas in mitigation that she was "overworked" and "under stress".

When the decision  of the GMC was published, the Daily Telegraph made the following comment, "Such a decsion is troubling for those who are facing charges of sexual or child abuse. Unreliable evidence from social workers and doctors often lie behind allegations that turn out to be false. Medical experts often give opinions in court without even having seen the child or carer, using inaccurate hospital records as the basis for conclusions that have a shattering effect on the lives of the accused. Yet it appears that they cannot be held accountable if they plead tiredness and overwork - even if they are being paid large fees for their expert opinion."

If the need for corroboration is removed in Scotland, where will that place the "expert witness" in terms of the hierarchy of credible witnesses? Where will it place the police or other professionals, with an interest in finding the accused guilty? It is well established that "expert witnesses" will lie to protect their reputations as will the police, in order to get a conviction. Will the temptations be even greater once the need for corroboration is removed? Will the testimony of professionals carry more weight than that of "ordinary" people? My own case has had wide coverage but each time the details re-appear, the more the public will come to realise the need for reform. My daughter received an out-of-court settlement but my attempt to sue the Health Trust was struck out on the grounds that they owed me no duty of care and those responsible for the trauma to which my daughter, myself and our family were subjected, had a general immunity. The "expert witness" employed by the Health Trust to bolster their case that I had committed murder, rape and child abuse, produced two reports which were no more than a figment of his imagination.

In the first report he was intent to show we were such a disfunctional family that he assumed extended abuse in our entire family, with my three sons not only having been abused themselves but having witnessed my daughter's abuse as well as participating in it. He never met any of the family except my wife, my daughter and myself. He alleged my wife had repeatedly been admitted to hospital for alcohol detoxification and that she and I had both been abused. In his first report he thought he heard me say I had been abused in a TV or radio interview and in his second report, he was sure I had been abused. Records would have shown my wife had never been admitted to hospital for alcohol detoxification nor was she abused. I met the "expert" only once for no more than 45 minutes. Did he ask me if I had been abused? No he didn't. Did he ever hear me admit I had been abused? No he didn't. Did he ever read I was abused? No he didn't. Was I ever abused? No I wasn't. But "experts" in this field have a theory that those who were abused themselves have a tendency to become abusers and he was intent on "proving" that I had abused my youngest daughter.

Without the need for corroboration what impact would such a report have had on a jury? As I was owed no duty of care, I was unable to get the "expert", the social work department and the psychiatrist who treated my daughter, into court to have them forensically cross-examined. In my book "Unbreakable Bonds" my daughter and I give detailed accounts of what they did to her in the name of psychiatry and her admission to a psychiatric ward, as a consequence of medical negligence, with the names of all of those involved. I attempted to persuade the SNP government to change the law as it stands on third party duty of care, so that people who were placed in my position could have some redress through the courts. Kenny MacAskill refused to consider it, asking me instead to address the House of Lord's ruling of 2005 which said, "Child abuse is a serious social problem and health care professionals (HCPs) play a vital role in combating the risk - it is best attacked by relieving HCPs of legal proceedings...Uncompensated innocent parents pay the price but that is a necessary price".

That is an appalling statement but no more appalling than the Carloway judgement that corroboration "is an archaic rule that has no place in a modern legal system". I had always hoped that an independent Scotland would be a beacon for justice and human rights but some of the attitudes of those likely to be in government do little to give me confidence that it will be, at least in the short term.