A Seismology of Political Earthquakes

What should we make of the recent European and Local election results? Nigel Farage’s claim that his party has secured the “most extraordinary result in British politics for the last 100 years” is, at first glance, hard to deny. As the party with the largest share of the national vote (around 28%) – the first time that the Tories or Labour have been displaced at the top of the pile since 1906 – UKIP have achieved a remarkable entry into mainstream UK politics. Their 24 MEPs are very hard to ignore indeed.

Likewise in the local elections; although Labour have topped the polls, winning control of six more Councils and adding 338 new Councillors, UKIP gained 161 new Councillors, to give them 370 Councillors overall and make them the 5th largest political Party in local government (after the SNP).

This demonstrable shift rightwards in British politics is a challenging reality for those of us on the political Left. What this might mean for the General Election in 2015 is open for discussion, but it’s certainly not to be dismissed.

Meanwhile, we are well and truly in the countdown to September 18th, the day our friends in Scotland will make a decision on whether to separate from the rest of the United Kingdom and form an independent country. Although the No vote has consistently remained out in front in all polls, there’s no question that a sizeable Yes vote exists in Scotland, and that the referendum result can yet go either way.

So what does all of this mean? I think that there are a few points worth making:

1. The UK electorate is tired of political business as usual – I think that the drive for an independent Scotland by a large minority on one hand and the remarkable growth in support for UKIP are both indicative of a more widely-held frustration with the way that we do politics in the UK. The lightning rod for this politics fatigue was, of course, the Expenses scandal. But the national furore around this scandal was actually encouraging – if society can’t raise its voice on an issue like this, then there really is no hope for our politics. Instead it’s the widespread apathy and disengagement by huge sections of the electorate which is to me a more worrying phenomenon. It’s the failure of all of the major political parties to really connect with and inspire the great mass of the electorate (and in fairness, we’re trying!) that has been the handmaiden of the rise of Scottish Nationalism and UKIP Little Britainism. If your narrative is that the system doesn’t work, and that politicians aren’t listening, then why not fundamentally alter it and just hope for the best?

2. The UK electorate is feeling fearful and protective – Although supporters of Yes Scotland and UKIP would each claim to have very little in common, both are supporting a political programme which is fundamentally about a retrenchment away from internationalism and collaboration, and back into what they regard as their primary identity – whether British or Scottish. These are political views which have been with us for a long time, particularly in the case of Scottish Nationalism. But their resurgence in recent years is, in my view, closely connected to the economic situation which began in 2007 and which we are still trying to untangle. When we are fearful about our material situation, we tend to withdraw to the familiar. We also tend to think that we can spend limited resources better than ‘them’. There is some truth in this, and I’ll say more about localisation of power below. But this withdrawal often correlates to – or even facilitates – an irrational fear of the Other; and soon some are complaining about the Romanian family who have moved in next door.

3. The Labour Party needs a reformation – I would say this, but I think that the mainstream political party trying hardest to move to a new model of politics is the Labour Party. We’ve always been about community organising and everyday people, but initiatives like Your Britain and the Future Candidates Programme are trying to move Labour Party politics beyond the usual suspects. Nevertheless, Labour needs to go further. As I’ve become more involved in the party over the last three years, it’s been a steep learning curve. Coming in with the zeal of the convert, looking to change the world, it’s easy to quickly get bogged down in a whole new lexicon of in-group language and behaviour, which can tend to dampen enthusiasm. It strikes me again and again just how similar this must be to a non-Christian joining a church for the first time. Like most long-established institutions, people don’t want to engage with the Labour Party in the same way as their parents or grandparents generation. They want to be part of a movement for change, something that focuses less on meeting protocol and more on policies that bring tangible social progress. If we’re going to re-engage our society with a new enthusiasm for the political process, we’re going to have to go deeper and faster in our attempts to change business as usual. Constitutional reform – such as a serious democratisation of the House of Lords, or implementation of a version of proportional representation in General Elections – would help. But the Labour Party can continue to lead by example, by introducing more measures like one member one vote for leadership elections, the Union opt-in and more grassroots campaigning.

4. The country needs to localise more political power – On paper our political system is fairly well set up to balance local and national decision-making. Yet if we can draw one lesson from all of the above, it’s that the common experience of politics in the UK is that it’s too remote. Many people feel like politics is something that happens to them, not through them. The more we can move decision-making downwards towards ordinary people, the better. The hope that ordinary voters can influence their communities around them is a strong card to hold. I believe that it’s the relative lack of that hope and connectedness to the political process which is a major factor in parts of the electorate turning to alternatives like Scottish Independence or UKIP or being turned off politics altogether.

One thing’s for sure, if we don’t do something about it, there are many more political earthquakes to come – and I can’t remember hearing an earthquake described fondly.

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United We Stand

What’s at the heart of the Scottish Independence debate? What’s it really all about? In my first post on thedangerouscurve, Musings from the Island Line, I wrote;

“…don’t be fooled by the rationale which claims independence can be a tartan ejector seat from Tory government. It’s not a coincidence that the SNP have risen to power in Scotland under first a Blairite British Government and then a Conservative-led coalition in Westminster. Scots as a whole tend to be traditionally orientated towards left-leaning politics. However, trying to solve the problem of the drift to the Right in British politics through the method of Scottish independence is using a sledge hammer to crack a nut.”

As an out and proud supporter of the No campaign, Better Together, I’ve been taking part in the online discussion through Twitter, arguing the case for the Union. What I’ve discovered has been both illuminating and disappointing in equal measure.

Disappointingly, I’ve discovered that my pro-Union compatriots are much less vocal – indeed much less present – in these online debates. Often it seems that the Yes camp is the only show in town when it comes to social media. Now, I’m not concerned that this is reflective of numbers for and against #indy; in my view it has a lot more to do with the zeal of the evangelist which, as the group advocating fundamental change, is more common amongst Yes Scotland supporters. Indeed, in my experience to date I’ve often found this zeal to spill over into vitriol or disdain when you dare disagree about the best path for Scotland’s future. In fairness, I’ve also found measured, thoughtful and passionate contributors amongst the Yes camp.

This imbalance disappoints me for two reasons. Firstly, Better Together is in danger of conceding that Yes Scotland is the truly grassroots movement, representing what the ‘people of Scotland’ want. We’re giving the impression that the Yes vote is much larger than I believe it actually is. It is certainly giving the Yes camp a sense of momentum at the time of writing. Secondly, the apathy of the silent majority (a majority which has been represented in every poll on the subject of #indy to date) allows Yes Scotland and its supporters to articulate the No vote’s argument for us. Instead of Better Together and its supporters making the positive case for the United Kingdom and everything that it offers, Yes supporters can caricature the campaign to maintain the Union as ‘Project Fear’.

It’s nevertheless been interesting to engage with my fellow Scots from the Yes camp and to learn about their motives for seeking Scottish Independence. If I was to broadly summarise the issues and ideals that seem to motivate them to support Independence, I would suggest that they believe the following. They see Independence as:

  1. An opportunity to create a more socially just nation
  2. An opportunity for Scotland finally to be recognised as a nation in its own right
  3. An opportunity to create a wealthier, more prosperous Scotland
  4. An opportunity to undo historic wrongs done to Scotland
  5. An opportunity for Scotland to cut the Tory apron strings, represented in all of the above

I am sure that there are other motives for the Yes camp which I’ve not listed here. I’m also sure that Yes supporters would articulate these reasons in a more elaborate or different way. But I’m confident that these points summarise the main thrust of their rationale.

If that’s the case, then how do we respond? Well, as I suggest above, we need to do a lot more than just respond. We need to pro-actively advocate for the Union and all the benefits that it brings to us all. The core of our argument needs to be found in the counterpoint to reasons 1 and 5 above. So let me quickly deal with reasons 2 to 4.

As I’ve said elsewhere, it really isn’t necessary in the 21st century for one’s nationhood to be dependent on or equivalent to political autonomy. Is my Scottishness innately diminished because I cast a vote to send a politician to Westminster rather than Holyrood to create Foreign Affairs, Welfare and Fiscal Policy? I don’t think so. Scottish nationhood is so much more than a political jurisdiction. The zero-sum, nation-state equation presented by the SNP and others is an unnecessary and inaccurate shibboleth.

Likewise, the economic argument is to me a distraction. Should the bottom line really be the bottom line in making our decision on Union or Independence? Some commentators have suggested that Scotland could be more prosperous as an independent country. Many more have suggested the opposite. But even if it could be unequivocally proven that the likes of oil, whisky and engineering could buoy the Scottish Exchequer in the seas of economic uncertainty and excessive Bank loans to GDP ratios that independence would bring, is that really the point? Does a few quid (or Euros, or Scottish Pounds) on our wage packet buy us out of our unity and solidarity with our friends from Wales, England and Northern Ireland? The truth is, over time, wealth comes and goes. What’s more important is how we as a society use the wealth that we do have. When it comes to the independence referendum, it really is not the economy stupid.

On the issue of historic wrongs, there is no question that they exist. Edward, Hammer of the Scots, The Highland Clearances, Maggie Thatcher’s Poll Tax; all of these loom large in the Scottish psyche. Indeed, some argue, the origin of the Union itself is tarred by the aristocrats who – on both sides – negotiated it without exactly focussing on the interests of the wider population of Scotland. But – leaving aside the historic wrongs which the Scots visited on England – are we to be bound by this narrative when we imagine our future? What concerns me is where we’re going, not where we’ve come from. What should concern us is creating a more egalitarian, more just, more harmonious, more compassionate society. True, this will include recognising that historic events and decisions have created the unequal society that we live in today. But only so that we know where to focus our efforts in building a more just society. And so, to my main point.

It’s social justice that seems to motivate many of the Yes campaigners whom I come into contact with. The paradox is that it’s also social justice which motivates many of us on the No side. We agree that, under Blairism and the prefix ‘New’, the rump of the Left lost its way towards the end of the Labour Government through mistakes like PFI, the abolition of the 10p tax rate and an unethical foreign policy.

What we particularly agree on is that British politics has taken a lunge to the right since the 2010 General Election: The Bedroom Tax, Atos assessments for DLA, anti-immigrant rhetoric, aggressive benefits sanctions, tax cuts for millionaires and the government’s failure to deal with the culture of the Financial Sector, so brutally exemplified in the Banker’s Bonus and Robin Hood Tax rows. All of these factors unite those of us on the Left who are tired of a culture of blaming the most vulnerable in society for the failings of the elite.

The enemies of social justice are a combination of apathy towards the political process, fear and individualism; the sense that I can’t change the system, and that the state of the economy means I’d be better off just looking after myself. It’s this apathy and fear that ushered the Conservative Party into government in 2010. It’s the (irrational) fear of economic meltdown that is raising the rhetoric against Eastern European immigrants. It’s the legacy of historic grievances and narrow identity politics that catalyses a retrenchment into Scottish Nationalism. It’s the failure to imagine just what could be achieved in our wee multi-national country if those of us on the left put aside our narrow selfishness and strove for solidarity, activism and unity.

Those in the Yes camp have concluded that the game is up. To them, the British experiment has failed to deliver the fruits of social justice. Leaving aside the exponential improvement in living standards across the British Isles in the last 307 years as we became the 7th largest economy on earth (with a smaller population than all above us on the list), we must acknowledge that there is a long way to go in achieving true social justice in the UK. Indeed, it will be a mission that is never truly complete. The search for social justice must be a permanent and indefinite state of mind. And I believe, to paraphrase a fellow-traveller, Dr Dave Landrum, that the fight for the Common Good within the United Kingdom is both missional and possible.

This week the Tory MP, Rory Stewart talked about the need for us to show the love that exists between the four nations of the Union by forming a human chain along Hadrian’s Wall. Well, in the words of Pink and Nate Ruess:

“Just a little bit’s enough. Just a second, we’re not broken, just bent, and we can learn to love again.”

No Future for Trident

Trident-nuclear-submarine-006

When I was about 13 years old I had one of the most impressionable experiences of my childhood when I explored Faslane Submarine Base on the Firth of Clyde. I and a small group of Summer Campers spent the afternoon being shown around the base, and being taken out for rides on the speedboats which patrolled the Gare Loch. The particular stand out of the trip was the tour of the Polaris Submarine, complete with visit to the nuclear missile launch chamber. CND Youth Camp it was not.

Born in the late 70s, I’m from a generation that, in our youth, knew no other normality than the Cold War and everything that came with it: When the Wind Blows, The A-Team, Rambo, Russian villains in the movies, the Hippy Peace Camp outside Faslane we passed every summer on our way to our own Camp and, of course, the looming shadow of Mutually Assured Destruction. I have vivid memories of talking with my sister and our friends as a very young boy – no more than 8 years old – about what would happen to us in the event of a nuclear war. What would our parents do (as if it would matter)? What would become of us (we always assumed that we would survive)? So, standing in that launch chamber several years later, I was particularly affected.

It’s strange to think of that time now, not so much about the details of the day at Faslane, as the inherent feeling – no matter how remote – of dread that we all carried around in the back of our subconscious. Today I think that we often forget the relief and the release that the lifting of that ever-present threat gave to the world as a whole, even if only for the decade before Nuclear War was replaced in the popular consciousness by Al-Qaeda and the ‘War on Terror’ (that supremely ironic epithet).

So as we move towards the 2016 Parliamentary vote on whether the successor of Polaris, Trident, will itself be replaced, I find myself returning to those memories as a spur to remember the reality of a world order premised on the destructive power of nuclear weapons. And I find myself asking, what is Britain doing with a Nuclear Deterrent in the modern world? In particular, why are we undertaking to spend around £100 billion over the next forty years to build and maintain a replacement to Trident?

To be clear: I don’t believe in unilateral nuclear disarmament. But I do believe that Britain could lead the world on multi-lateral nuclear disarmament, and that renewing Trident would be a mistake. Here’s why.

Historically, Britain developed the H-bomb in order to keep up with the threat posed by Soviet Russia from 1945 on. And you can see the logic. There was a huge degree of uncertainty about Stalin’s intentions towards the Capitalist West and the USSR already had the Bomb. The knowledge of just how horrific Nagasaki and Hiroshima had been was not yet the stuff of high school History text books. It was a different time altogether.

But we’re not fighting the Cold War in 2016.

So are the other nuclear powers threatening us? Realistically, no. We have a good relationship with China, India, and Pakistan. Iran is finally coming in from the cold, and has neither nuclear weapons nor a delivery system. North Korea, despite all its rhetoric, has no reliable delivery system: what military nuclear infrastructure it does have could be dealt with using conventional weapons.Is Israel really a nuclear threat to the UK? Quite.

Putin

The sticking point often presented by those who are pro-Trident renewal is Russia. Yet even Russia’s aggressive foreign policy, led by their bellicose President, is not enough to justify committing the UK to another 40 years of nuclear deterrence: Putin cannot be in power forever; diplomacy has been massively under-used (both with regard to Russia and to multi-lateral nuclear disarmament); the all-singing & dancing Trident submarine is not the only nuclear weapons delivery system option; it is strong and flexible conventional armed forces and alliances which we really rely upon for our territorial defence in Europe.

Perhaps caution alone provides a rational for the UK to remain nuclear? We don’t know what we don’t know, after all. There is the potential for new, rogue nuclear states to emerge in the future. Yet all countries are equally threatened by the presence of nuclear weapons. The only solution to this fear would be nuclear proliferation, and no-one wants that.

And by this insurance-policy rationale you can simply make up Defence strategy on the hoof. We don’t know for sure that the plot to the film Independence Day won’t one day come true. Perhaps our Defence Policy should include investing in giant lasers which point out into deep space as a deterrence against Martian invasion.

It may well be that rogue elements obtain a nuclear weapon. But will the knowledge that we have three nuclear missile-equipped submarines cruising silently somewhere under the waves of the earth’s oceans really stop Islamic State dreaming of planting a nuclear-equipped car bomb in a major British city? No, Britain’s enemies are the type of guys who are more likely to plant a nail bomb in a crowded pub than to preside over a modern Cuban Missile Crisis.

So, the first reason not to replace Trident is that it’s ineffective in terms of our defence. Warfare nowadays tends to be – in the jargon of the military – asymmetric. Mutually Assured Destruction only worked because the destruction was assured. Mutually.

The second reason not to replace Trident is that it’s immorally-expensive in a time when we are being told that austerity requires Fire Fighters to be on active duty until they are 60 years old and when Junior Doctors, Teachers and other public servants are facing swinging cuts to their pay and conditions. As George Osborne continues his drive to reduce spending and the Local Government budget is slashed (particularly Labour-run Councils), the £100 billion set to be spent on Trident looms large. To put this in perspective, the entire Health Care budget for 2015-16 is £134 billion: the ultimate cost of Trident is expected to be more than the total Defence, Police, Transport, Agriculture and Secondary School budgets for this year.

The third reason to scrap Trident inverts one of the most frequent arguments given in its support: our Place in the World. Britain’s membership of the exclusive Nuclear Club is often described as a fact which gives us credibility – like a Pall Mall Gentleman’s Club on steroids. We are a nation that means business, it’s implied; take us seriously. But there’s another way to look at our membership, and that is the example that we’re setting to the rest of the World.

When the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed by the British Government in 1968, we and the other signatories agreed to three key principles. First, we agreed that all signatories are entitled to civilian nuclear energy. Second, we agreed that those without the bomb should not try to get it, and third we agreed that countries with the bomb would negotiate the elimination of all nukes. Yet in reality we have not prioritised multi-lateral nuclear disarmament, and we’re about to update and extend our capacity to initiate a nuclear attack. What is the moral or practical basis for our protestations against North Korea’s nascent nuclear programme? Our bad example of de-nuclearizing nimbyism is exactly the same as the Iranian and North Korean case for the defence.

But the final reason to scrap the Trident replacement project is ultimately the strongest, putting all of the others in the nuclear winter of shades. This is the moral case against the use of nuclear weapons. Nukes are a quite appalling evil in our world, on a scale that is off the chart. In a typically-depressing way, they represent the apogee of humanity’s squandering of the good that is in us: our wealth, intelligence, technological creativity and collaborative spirit. When we have wealth, we tend to hoard it. When we have intelligence our default position is to use it to give ourselves a selfish advantage. When we develop technology we often use it to become lazy. Despite our capacity for collaboration, again and again we lionise the individual at the expense of the communal. And when we discover phenomenal energy, we use it to create the most destructive power on earth. A power that kills men, women, children and the environment indiscriminately, both in a split second, and for decades afterwards.

It’s a power that we and the world could well do without.