Evening Times column: Serious additional powers for Scotland

Posted on February 5, 2015

First there was Devo Max, the brand of devolution everyone had heard of but whose secret ingredients were carefully guarded. Then there was The Vow, a commitment to new powers that was supposed to be bold and clear. Next came Home Rule, a nostalgic return to a reassuring old brand identity even if nobody could quite remember who still owned the copyright.

Now Gordon Brown has, apparently in all seriousness, launched The Vow Plus. Yes folks, it’s new and improved, with added goodness, because you’re worth it.

Honestly, this is really starting to get silly.

Given the promises which had been made by various people on the Better Together side in the final stages of the referendum, the issue of deeper devolution had to be dealt with. And even though the breakneck timescale which had been set out was absurd the Smith Commission did offer the political parties the chance to lay out their ideas and see what common ground might exist.

Given that Labour’s heels were dug in deeper than anyone else’s, it’s pretty astonishing to see them now try and take credit for devolution in areas like employment and welfare. These were exactly the areas where they had to be dragged kicking and screaming.
Indeed even Labour’s colleagues in the trade union movement seemed dismayed at their position, with the STUC setting out some very constructive ideas about “workplace devolution”, including employment law, the minimum wage, health and safety, equality and trade union law. If Labour had agreed, at least some of that lot would have made it into the Smith Report.

Even the newly rebranded position announced this week seems more than a little confused. The LibDems and Tories have a lot to answer for in their destructive and cruel welfare policies, but to blame the coalition policy of introducing Universal Credit for the limited progress on welfare devolution is absurd. It was Labour who were most rigidly opposed to new powers on welfare, and their own position at UK level is merely a three month pause on Universal Credit – the very policy Gordon Brown is now denouncing as a straitjacket.

I’m sure most voters are quite capable of seeing through the shallow posturing, on both sides of this debate, just as we all take commercial adverts with at least a pinch of salt. But it really does politics as a whole no credit to have the issues treated in this way. There can be little doubt that for Scotland to resist UK austerity policies and take our own economic path will take serious additional powers. But that can only happen on the basis of meaningful and detailed proposals, not cheap gimmicks and empty slogans.

Evening Times column on the Save Our Steps campaign

Posted on December 11, 2014

Friday saw the deadline for public objections to a proposal which will have a major impact on Glasgow city centre, but which the large majority of people have still heard nothing about.

When the Concert Hall was built at the top of Buchanan Street nearly 25 years ago it provoked mixed reactions, and the management of the construction project was nothing to be proud of. But since then its façade has become both a familiar landmark and a well used public space. The steps leading up to the entrance are a place where people meet, busk, protest, eat lunch, or just watch the world go by. When people take a civic space like that and make it their own, with informal uses outnumbering the formal ones, it adds something to the urban environment that’s worth celebrating.

Instead, the city council wants to get rid of it. The proposal is to demolish the steps and replace them with a glass “atrium”, which will serve as the entrance to an expanded Buchanan Galleries.

This means the loss of that open, civic space which sees such diverse uses by the public. But I think it would also change the tone of the street. What is currently a distinctive look, dominated by a non-commercial building and very recognisably Glasgow will be replaced by something which looks like just any other shopping centre. The top of Buchanan Street and the view up the street from St Enoch Square are important to our city centre’s visual character, and we should be wary of simply echoing every anonymous retail environment in the world.

Most people I’ve spoken to about this were unaware of what’s planned, and it’s clear that there has been inadequate public involvement in the process. But campaigners haven’t found it hard to gain support; when people do find out about the proposal the majority seem to share the objectors’ concerns. Indeed over 13,000 people have added their names to a petition asking the Council to think again.

Personally I’d like priority given to small, independent retailers and to the local high streets in neighbourhoods across the city, rather than an expansion of a big commercial shopping centre which will probably only be home to multinationals. These companies tend to crowd out businesses with their roots in the local community, and while they generate economic activity much of the proceeds will be taken out of Glasgow’s economy altogether. But even those who support the march of the multinationals should remember the value that comes from an urban environment which supports all kinds of uses – cultural, creative, informal, and political.

Most of all the City Council should remember that the city’s economy is supposed to work for the public’s benefit, not the other way around.

Daily Record blog on The Smith Commission

Posted on December 4, 2014

SO the report of the Smith Commission on Devolution goes too far for some people , and not far enough for others . Who could have guessed?

It was inevitable that the parties which campaigned for a Yes vote in the referendum, and many thousands of people who voted for independence, would feel underwhelmed. The final report could have gone much further on issues like welfare, taxation, energy policy, broadcasting and more… and it would still have felt like less than we’d been promised.

That’s because the campaign for a No vote had used such vague language when talking about more devolution as the “jam tomorrow” option. If you go back and re-read the Vow , printed on the front cover of the Daily Record just days before the vote, you’ll see phrases like “extensive new powers” without any commitments about what they would be.

In much the same way terms like “near-federalism”, “home rule”, and “devo-max” were thrown around in public meetings and TV studios, also without any clear meanings. They were just catch-phrases, designed to make people think they’d been promised something real, when in fact they carried no substance at all.

So far, so unsurprising. What was more frustrating was that those who worked hardest to raise those expectations were the very ones who resisted the most when it came to setting out plans for deeper devolution.

Labour’s initial proposals were particularly weak, and while they did give way on a few issues they held the line against a radical package which would have really helped to close the wealth gap and build a fairer and more equal economy.

And of course someone (it remains unclear who) showed such contempt for everyone else in the discussions that they leaked the whole thing on the evening of the final negotiations, sending it to a newspaper from inside the meeting room, before we’d even finished discussing the practical arrangements for the launch the next morning.

That leaves a lot of doubt about how much we can trust such people ever to deliver on the report’s proposals. Many MPs at Westminster clearly oppose the whole scheme, and don’t want Scotland to have any more power than it does at present. Indeed some Labour backbenchers have made no secret of their scorn for devolution from day one.

Many Tories want to bundle this whole issue up with “English votes for English laws”, and are even threatening to stop Scottish MPs from voting on the UK budget.

All in all it’s a pretty messy business. The Greens agreed to take part in the Smith Commission because there was a chance that Scotland could make at least some progress, and it would have been wrong to turn that down just because we couldn’t get everything we’d want. And indeed some progress may still be achieved.

But it’s clear that it won’t be enough to live up to the pre-referendum hype, and I suspect it will leave many No voters wondering if they made the right decision back in September.

Evening Times column: Why TTIP spells danger for us

Posted on November 28, 2014

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is the long and boring name that’s been given to a dramatic corporate power grab that is currently being negotiated between Europe and the United States.

TTIP for short, the most controversial part of the deal is the Investor-State Dispute Settlements (ISDS), another dull-sounding acronym designed to mask a pretty scary reality.

ISDS would allow corporations to sue governments for acting in a way that they feel harms their ability to make profit.

If, for example, a future Westminster government wanted to reverse some of the privatisation we’ve seen to health services in England in recent years, they could only do so at the risk of being sued for tens of millions of pounds by private healthcare providers.

This isn’t purely hypothetical. A similar trade agreement has already seen tobacco firm Philip Morris sue the Australian Government for implementing plain packaging for cigarettes.

Swedish energy company Vattenfall is suing the German government for their decision to phase out nuclear energy following the Fukushima disaster.

The Scottish Government does not have a formal role in that negotiation, but it does have a voice, and they have taken a stronger stance on TTIP than their Westminster counterparts.

The NHS has understandably become the central issue, and I agree we should be doing everything we can to make sure the health service is protected from this agreement.

But this is about more that the health service.

This agreement is bad news through and through, and we should be challenging the danger it poses to all areas of government, not just health.

Renationalisation of the railways is a consistently popular policy.

Imagine the scenario that, after waiting years for a government with the political will to implement that policy, they were prevented from doing so because of the profit motive of major corporations.

The good news is that more and more people are becoming aware of the dangers of this agreement and there are signs that the wheels are beginning to come off the deal.

The French Government has indicated that it will not support the investor-state dispute settlement procedures, with their Minister of State for Foreign Trade saying: “We have to preserve the right of the state to set and apply its own standards, to maintain the impartiality of the justice system and to allow the people of France, and the world, to assert their values.”

Scotland might not have a seat at the negotiating table, but I hope that Nicola Sturgeon will use the office of First Minister and the voice of the Scottish Government to make a similar call on Scotland’s behalf.

If we do so and we galvanise public opposition to this corporate power grab, we can still hope to stop it in its tracks.

Daily Record blog on the out-going and in-coming First Ministers

Posted on November 20, 2014

Though I spent a lot of the last two years arguing that the referendum campaign was not about any one individual, I cannot deny the impact that the out-going First Minister had on the independence movement.

Indeed while he may not have achieved the Yes vote we both wanted, the flourishing of political engagement Scotland witnessed during and since the referendum campaign may well be Alex Salmond’s greatest legacy.

I don’t think I’m giving much away by admitting that I was never his biggest fan. Even in our area of closest agreement, we found much to disagree on; from currency to the monarchy to NATO, our visions of an independent Scotland diverged significantly.

And while his reputation will largely be founded on his role in progressing the case for independence, he needs to be remembered also for his record as the head of the Scottish Government. Where he showed openness to compromise and cooperation, there were great successes. Same sex marriage and the moves to beat the bedroom tax were high-water marks of his administration, as was the earlier passing of the Climate Change Act. But while his ambition on climate change and his principled stance on climate justice were admirable, we must not let his government off the hook for failing to meet its own emissions targets three years running.

The recent announcement that the Scottish Government-owned Prestwick Airport has inked a deal to host Donald Trump’s private jet and helicopter will serve as a reminder of one of the most regrettable incidents of his time in office. The apparently cosy relationship with the odious property magnate during the construction of his controversial golf course on the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire is something I hope the incoming First Minister will not repeat.

But Mr Salmond is now the former First Minister, and in Nicola Sturgeon he hands the office to a successor who has already earned a degree of respect as a capable and professional minister. The media tried to make Salmond the personification of the independence campaign, but it was Nicola Sturgeon who represented the SNP inside the Yes campaign, and who steered the Referendum Act through Parliament. I felt privileged to share debating platforms with Nicola during the campaign. An undeniably talented politician, she is widely respected even by those who disagree with her politics. While Scotland has had several female party leaders, she will be the first woman to occupy the office of First Minister. I hope she will be the first of many.

If the polls and her party’s burgeoning membership are anything to go by, then Nicola Sturgeon is set for something of a honeymoon period. And for the duration of the Scottish Labour leadership contest at least, she will face weak opposition.

But the post-referendum bubble won’t last much longer, and pretty soon she will have to make big decisions about what sort of government she wants to lead.

One issue on which her government must take a bolder stance is fracking. While the SNP has indicated a cautious approach to fracking and other forms of unconventional gas extraction, I would like to see genuine leadership on this issue. The Scottish Parliament already has the powers it needs to block future developments, and the incoming First Minister should mark a clear line in the sand and put a moratorium on fracking and similar projects.

Almost two years ago, during the early stages of the referendum campaign, Nicola Sturgeon said that “the case for independence does not rest on identity or nationality, but rather on values of social justice, enterprise and democracy”. That language was echoed in her speech to SNP conference at the weekend, where she pitched the SNP as the party of social justice. If the First Minister is to deliver on this bold rhetoric, then she will have to be considerably bolder than her predecessor.

Evening Times column on Shelter Scotland’s campaign to Make Renting Right

Posted on October 29, 2014

This week I was one of many MSPs who backed Shelter Scotland’s campaign about the need to improve private rented housing. It’s an issue I’ve worked on for several years, most recently with my own campaign at http://rentrights.org/

Having spent well over a decade as a private tenant from my student days till my early 30s, I’ve seen both good and bad practice by landlords. Some took their role very seriously, aimed to provide a high quality service and made every effort to build up a good relationship with their tenants. Others frankly just wanted to sit back and rake in the cash. I was also harassed out of a flat by a particularly abusive landlord, and I know how vulnerable tenants can be at a time like that. I was lucky; I was able to fall back on the support of family. But abuse like that can leave someone homeless and desperate, and it’s vital that we make sure that the private rented sector acknowledges that the job of providing someone’s home comes with big responsibilities. It’s not just like any other commercial exchange.

That’s all the more true when we consider the expansion of private renting. It has doubled in scale over just the last ten years, and looks set to expand even further. For huge numbers of people it’s no longer a free choice; social housing is unavailable to them and owner occupation is unaffordable, so the private rented sector is simply the only housing today’s society offers them. That’s particularly true of students and young people, but it covers large numbers of families too.

The Shelter campaign is calling for many of the things I’ve been arguing for – we need a new tenancy system that gives people some stability and security to know that they can’t simply be turfed out with no good reason, while still allowing landlords to deal fairly with problem tenants who refuse to pay their rent or who behave unacceptably to their neighbours. And we need a way of controlling rents, particularly in a few “hotspot” areas where rent prices have spiralled out of control.

There’s also a lot more we could do to improve the fabric of rented homes, like energy efficiency standards which would save tenants’ cash as well as protecting their health and wellbeing. Good landlords already do this of course, but there are others who simply won’t act on their own accord.

The Scottish Government is consulting on these issues now, and we expect to see a Bill sometime next year. But it’s important to encourage the Government to be bold, and take meaningful action.

You can add your name to the Shelter campaign at http://scotland.shelter.org.uk/

Daily Record blog on Assisted Suicide Bill

Posted on

Over more than a decade there have been attempts to raise the issue of assisted suicide at both Westminster and Holyrood. A number of distressing cases have hit the headlines over the years in which people have fought for the right to take control of the end of their lives, in the face of suffering they find intolerable. While there’s truth in the old warning that “hard cases make bad law” and legislators have been understandably cautious, many of these high profile cases have shown the incoherence of the current law, and public opinion has swung behind a change.

The latest effort to persuade MSPs that a change was needed came from Margo MacDonald, who of course is no longer with us having died in April after years living with Parkinson’s Disease. I have taken on responsibility for her Assisted Suicide Bill, and next week I’ll begin making the arguments at Holyrood, first at the Justice Committee and then later at the Health Committee, before all MSPs get to vote on the Bill next year.

Before all that begins, campaigners against the Bill have stepped up their efforts to persuade people to write to their MSPs to argue against it. That’s fair enough of course. I know that there are strong views against the idea of assisted suicide, not least from some religious quarters. A great many people aren’t religious of course, and I hope that such arguments will be expressed in ways which are relevant to all of us, whether we subscribe to a faith or not.

But one tactic is already being seen which I do find disappointing. Instead of making reasoned criticisms of what’s actually in the Bill, some campaigners are instead misrepresenting what’s being proposed in order to find fault with non-existent aspects. Some will use the term “killing”, alleging that doctors, the NHS or some faceless agent of “the state” will make the decision that someone else’s life is no longer worth living. Untrue. Some suggest that particular categories of people will be targeted by the law, and that the right to die will become a “duty to die”. Untrue. And the claim is repeatedly made that the current law gives clarity. That could hardly be further from the truth.

We’ve seen this tactic used before, for example with the legislation to allow same-sex couples to marry. Instead of attacking a principle they knew most people agreed with, opponents would make wild and outlandish claims about other things it might lead to, and attacked on those grounds. Happily, most people saw through that.

If you’re interested to know more about what’s actually in the Assisted Suicide Bill, and how it aims to respect everyone’s right to make their own choice on their own terms, please visit http://www.lifedeathchoice.org.uk/ and see for yourself.

Glasgow Now blog on the Green Surge and party conference

Posted on October 9, 2014

I write this in the middle of a hectic week. Anyone who thought that politics might quieten down after the referendum was very much mistaken.

My party is currently in the hurried process of putting together its contribution to the Smith Commission, the group that will look into what new powers should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

It’s far from a perfect process – we’d like to see much more engagement with those outside the party political bubble – but we’re engaging with it as constructively as we can. It will require all those involved to do likewise if Scotland is to get the new powers that people clearly want.

Immediately following that I will be heading to our party conference. This will be our biggest ever conference, but we could easily have made it much bigger still. Since the referendum, the Scottish Greens have experienced a massive increase in membership, more than trebling in size and to over 6,000 members. We are already looking forward to another biggest ever conference next year.

The conference was planned not only in advance of our membership surge, but also before the result of the referendum was known. The theme of our conference is a “Now Make it Happen”. Yes or No, we knew there was always going to be work to do to turn the ideas and desires expressed during the campaign into reality.

Among our guest speakers will be former First Minister, Henry McLeish. He will be talking about how we sustain the political energy and engagement of the referendum campaign. Some might be surprised at the inclusion of such a prominent Labour figure at a Scottish Green Party conference. But we’ve always felt comfortable with the idea of cooperating across party lines.

Indeed, there is much talk of political cooperation online at the moment. But it’s important that this not be framed simply along Yes / No lines. If more powers are to be delivered to the Scottish Parliament, it will need cross-party consensus. It is also important to remember that many of the Scottish Parliament’s finest achievements have required a willingness to work together that transcended views on the constitution. The equal marriage campaign and the moves to mitigate the impact of the bedroom tax were passed by votes from both sides of the referendum debate.

The ambition for a better Scotland that underpinned the Greens’ involvement in the Yes campaign remains. And it will need people from all walks of society to make this happen, not just from political parties. With that in mind, I’m looking forward to hearing from representatives of Oxfam, WWF and the Church of Scotland on how we build a fairer, greener, more prosperous society.

In the various public meetings and debates that I took part in during the Yes campaign, I often said that a Yes vote would just be the beginning. Similarly, a No vote doesn’t signal the end. For me, independence was never the be-all and end-all. A fairer, greener, more prosperous society was always our big goal; I simply thought that independence made that more achievable.

So in many ways, we find ourselves back where were before the referendum – still working towards a better Scotland. Only now we find ourselves with many more new colleagues, eager to help make it happen.

Daily Record blog on independence referendum aftermath

Posted on September 25, 2014

On Thursday I took to social media to share examples of goodwill between Yes and No campaigners. I’d been so impressed by the overwhelmingly positive debate that’s taken place, and dismayed at the attention given to the minority who behaved badly to one another, that I wanted to share something upbeat.

There was the woman who had been knocking on doors for the Yes campaign who called her local Better Together office to organise a lift to the polls for an elderly No voter who was worried he wouldn’t get a chance to have his opinion counted.

There was the 76-year-old who had to ask campaigners how to go about voting, as he’d never done it before in his life.

There was a blizzard of examples of Yes and No teams sharing sweeties, biscuits and cups of tea during their long hours stood at the polling stations. And there were selfies and snapshots of friends and couples who were divided in their voting intention but united in their friendship and love.

I wanted to share these partly because Scotland deserves to know that bad behaviour was the exception, not the rule. But also because I knew whatever the result Scotland would have to live with it, and find ways to work together. That’s not always easy for people with passionately held opposing views, and it’s only possible when we see and acknowledge each other’s humanity.

Now that the result is in, there are many bitterly disappointed Yes campaigners around the country. There’s also more than a little glee on the No side. Well OK, fair enough; they feel the need to celebrate and I’ve no doubt I would too if the position was reversed.

But if we’re going to move on and achieve any kind of progress together, there are some real concerns which will need to be answered.

We’ve seen an astonishing turnout – it’s higher than any election result in the UK since modern democracy began. A great many people have become re-engaged in politics after many years of understandable cynicism about politicians and parties. How can we keep hold of that energy, that new-found enthusiasm?

It won’t be easy, and it will be made harder if what comes next is a stitch-up between political leaders at Westminster, rushing through whatever reforms they think an unwilling House of Commons will vote for. The debate on “more powers” if that’s what’s coming must be open to everyone. A people’s constitutional convention, involving the parties but not led by them alone, might achieve this. The Green MP for Brighton, Caroline Lucas, has called for this because she sees the chance to repair the broken political system throughout these islands.

Whatever the process is, we’ll have to ask some key questions about the proposals on the table.

Are they believable? It’s clear that the timetable we were offered before the referendum, of legislation before the UK election in May, is absurdly short and simply unachievable. They might manage to publish a Bill, but it will be in draft form and won’t be voted on. So we’ll need to trust the election promises, and we’ve seen how badly wrong that can go… anyone remember tuition fees?

Are the promises achievable? There’s already opposition building from many Tory backbenchers south of the border, and no doubt there will be Scottish MPs too who’ll worry about their own jobs. The UK’s political institutions are notoriously resistant to change (just look at the unelected House of Lords, still setting places aside for those born with silver spoons in their mouths, or appointed as Bishops by an established church most people have no connection with).

But most importantly, what will “more powers” actually mean? The detail will matter hugely. Many MPs are only talking about a different way of funding a devolved Government; their idea of increased tax powers is just designed to make Holyrood responsible for raising the money it spends on our vital public services. While that’s not a bad thing in itself, if the big economic choices are still being made by a UK Government in the interests of big business and the money markets, the result will be to force Holyrood to implement the cuts decided at Westminster. That’s not real economic power, and the right wing will use it as a ploy to undermine the confidence people have in a Scottish Parliament, and destroy the newly rekindled belief that we’re capable of achieving a better society.

What Scotland needs is the ability to make its own economic choices. To run our economy in ways that reflect our own circumstances, as well as our own priorities. For nearly four decades a hard right economic model has been in place driving down real wages for most people, while those at the top keep getting richer. It’s allowed wealthy people and big business to suck the wealth generated in our economy out of the country while paying next to nothing in tax to fund the services we all rely on.

It’s extracted resources by exploiting people and the planet, and it has left the social and environmental burden to fall on the shoulders of the people least able to defend themselves. It has distracted government after government from the purpose of building a society which looks after its people and which invests in the future.

It replaced the real economy with the casino economy, and despite the utter failure of this economic model we still see the tragic sight of politicians still trying to get back to business as usual instead of building something better. I don’t expect any better from the Tories to be honest, but it’s truly sad to see the same attitude from those supposedly on the left

My heart sank in the final stages of the referendum campaign when Deutsche Bank released their report about the risks of independence. Politicians on left and right of the No campaign tried to portray this is a cold, analytical warning from politically neutral people. Far from it – this is a bank whose staff were involved in the Libor scandal, rigging the rates which ultimately set our mortgages. It’s a bank which led the development of some of the abstract financial instruments which created the housing bubble and the financial crash that followed. It’s a bank which told UK voters to vote Tory at the last election because Labour’s cuts weren’t savage enough.

These are not neutral analysts; they are the representatives of that hard right economic system which brought the world such wreckage over recent years, and it was truly tragic to see Labour politicians, of all people, presenting these people as though they were impartial analysts without a vested interest.

This is the biggest challenge of achieving real change within the constraints of devolution. How can we break the stranglehold that this hard right economic system has on our politics? Independence looked to me like our best shot. If those seeking the same kind of change think it’s possible from within the UK, they will need to come up with some serious answers. I’ll be keen to hear it, but they’ll need to do it soon, before the Westminster election manifestos are written.

Alex Salmond resigns

Posted on September 19, 2014

It’s no secret that the Scottish Green Party and I haven’t always agreed with Alex Salmond about a range of policy issues, but nobody in Scottish politics can doubt his commitment to the cause of Scottish independence, or the impact he has had not only within Scotland, but also on a movement which still has the potential to reshape politics throughout these islands.

The First Minister is 100% right to say that the aftermath of the independence referendum remains redolent with possibility, and that the incredible public engagement in our political process means that power must now lie with the public will, not with political parties in Westminster or Holyrood.

Despite our differences on a range of issues, I want to pay tribute to Alex Salmond for the role he has played in changing our political landscape. The future of Scottish, and of UK politics, could be entering a more open and creative period than we have known for many years. If nothing else, Alex Salmond has been central to bringing us to that moment.