READ IAIN ON TUESDAYS, THURSDAYS AND SUNDAYS ONLY IN THE HERALD AND SUNDAY HERALD
THROUGHOUT the referendum campaign everyone, myself included, was saying that the poll tax and Margaret Thatcher were ancient history to most Scots. Well, wham, bam thank you ma’am, suddenly they’re back. Last week, the ghost of the poll tax rattled out of the closet shaking its chains, and the spirit of Thatcherism stalked the Tory conference.
I couldn’t believe it when I was told last week that 11 Scottish councils are using the voting rolls to chase poor people for 20-year-old poll tax arrears that have been wiped out in England. The Scottish Government moved swiftly to outlaw the debt recovery, but Labour politicians on Cosla objected on the grounds that they needed the cash.
Another nail in the coffin for Labour, said many. Though the thought did occur that perhaps Labour councils are actively trying to discourage poor people from voting in elections in case they back the SNP. But I banish that thought since it is too cynical surely even for Labour in its present caste of mind.
As for Margaret Thatcher, we had a Tory conference last week that turned the clock right back to 1981, when her government caused shock and outrage by freezing pensions. Only George Osborne went much further into territory even Mrs Thatcher never dared to tread by actually cutting unemployment benefits in real terms, including those benefits going to people in work.
No-one has actually cut the dole in Britain in the past for a very good reason: Jobseeker’s Allowance is only £72 a week, one of the lowest in Europe and manifestly impossible to live on. Yet these people will now be squeezed by a couple of pounds a week in order to secure “relief” for higher-rate taxpayers.
And as if the poll tax and cutting the dole wasn’t enough, the Tories also promised to abolish the Human Rights Act, which integrates the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. The ECHR was drafted by, among others, Winston Churchill after the Second World War as a bulwark against totalitarianism.
The Human Rights Act enshrines lots of useless politically correct nonsense such as property rights, freedom to marry and worship, not to be tortured and so on. If David Cameron wins the June General Election (and the Tories have leapt into the lead ahead of broke-back Ed Miliband), England will join Belarus as the only European countries not to require their courts to take account of ECHR rulings.
I say England, not because I am anti-English here but because the HRA/ECHR is actually written into the 1998 Scotland Act and cannot be abolished in Holyrood – a fact that unsurprisingly does not appear to have occurred to Chris Grayling, the Conservative Justice Secretary responsible for this latest sop to the Ukip vote. This will create interesting legal anomalies.
His predecessor, the Tory MP Dominic Grieve, did the decent thing and pointed out that scrapping the HRA was idiotic and childish – not least because the ECHR and the court of Human Rights has nothing to do with the European Union. But xenophobia has become so ingrained in Tory thinking that anything that comes from the general direction of Europe is assumed to be toxic.
Then, the final echo of imperial Thatcherism: Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives – a party which still has only one MP in Scotland – announced that “devo max is a non-starter”. She means in the Smith Commission that is supposed to be delivering on the Unionist parties’ “vow” to introduce, er, devo max, or something like it.
Perhaps this no longer matters. Most of Scotland seems to have given up any hope that the Smith Commission can deliver something resembling home rule. Labour seem equally resistant to a federal solution to the Scottish Question. Well, more fool them because there was, I believe, a window of opportunity here to create a lasting new UK constitutional settlement which is being slammed shut because of narrow party advantage.
Labour is rightly incensed that David Cameron hijacked the Smith Commission by insisting – and still insisting – that any legislation on more powers for the Scottish Parliament takes place in tandem with moves to introduce English Votes for English Laws in Westminster. Or rather exclude Scottish Labour MPs from voting on nominally English bills.
That the UK political establishment should have so cynically turned the commission on the Scottish constitution into a battle over who controls England suggests that they still haven’t understood what is happening in Scotland.
Mind you, it isn’t entirely clear even to me what is happening right now in Scotland, so confused and frenetic is the landscape of post-referendum politics. Various groups have been spontaneously staging demonstrations under the banner of “Voice of the People” and “Hope against Fear” in demand of a “re-vote”, and others are planned.
Organisations such as Common Weal are trying to create a tactical voting movement to eliminate Scottish Labour MPs (the “Red Tories” as they’re called) in the June General Glection. The 45 Plus and the Yes Alliance are agitating for a new referendum – if I understand them correctly – even though the SNP leader-in-waiting Nicola Sturgeon has ruled this out.
Meanwhile, the SNP now has more than 75,000 members – three times the number it had before the referendum – and the other smaller parties have registered similar membership growth.
Nothing like this has ever happened in Scotland. It is a fallout from the explosion of mass democratic participation in the September referendum in which an incredible 85% turned out to vote – the highest in the history of universal suffrage. And to be honest, none of us really know where this is all heading.
People have compared the independence referendum to everything from the Arab Spring to the civic nationalist movements in Eastern Europe that toppled communism. But it was unlike both of them, not least because the UK is not a totalitarian state – though some in the continuing independence movement seem to believe it is.
However, it is a very broad popular movement, which has taken Scottish politics into a different dimension. There seem to be mass demonstrations outside the Scottish Parliament almost every weekend. Perhaps we are adopting Barcelona street politics after all – though a little late.
Possibly the 1945 General Election was like this – it was probably the last time that working-class people entered history en mass to demand, and get, social justice. That led to the welfare state, nationalised industry, the NHS, industrial policy, collective bargaining – all gone, I fear, which is one reason Scotland is no longer happy in the Union.
But I fear that the hopes of the tens of thousands who have been seeking radical change in Scotland are going to be disappointed. I wrote before the referendum that there “wasn’t a cat in hell’s chance” that Scotland would get home rule or federalism if we did not vote Yes. I didn’t expect to be proved right so early in the game – but even I am losing hope that the Smith Commission can deliver any lasting change.
Though what do I know? I’m of the generation that saw the Scottish Constitutional Convention use the momentum from the poll tax non-payment campaign to deliver the Scottish Parliament. This is a new situation. So, I’m going off now for a fortnight to think about it. Maybe I’ll have some ideas when I get back. (Iain is back in Herald Tuesday 22nd October)