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.

Glasgow Now blog: political engagement must be kept alive after referendum

Posted on September 9, 2014

I’ve been writing these columns every two weeks or so for quite a while now, and I’ve tried to address a mixture of local issues and the national debates that MSPs have taken part in at Holyrood. Naturally, the closer we’ve got to the referendum the harder it has been to write about any subject without that context creeping in. Now, in my last column before we know the result of the vote, I’d like to say something which I hope supporters of both sides can agree on; something which will remain relevant whether it’s a Yes to independence, or a No.

The campaign has been a long one. Some think too long. But it has also been engaging, creative and inclusive. I’ve long lost count of the number of public meetings I’ve spoken at, and the debate on the doorsteps, in the high streets and online has been amazing. Both sides do have a handful of idiots in their ranks who have behaved badly (and who probably didn’t need a referendum to encourage them) but both sides are also well served by the far greater number of thoughtful and intelligent people who may disagree, but who have the best interests of the country at heart.

Everyone, including the administrators who are running the referendum itself, is expecting a huge turnout. Up to a third of the electorate will return to the ballot box after having not cast a vote in years. In some cases, they’ll be voting for the first time in their lives.

So the challenge for all of us – politicians, activists, media and voters alike, is this: how can we maintain that connection between politics and the people, once the votes are counted and the result declared? It would be terrible if the drawbridge is pulled up again, and politics retreats once more to parliaments.

Political power isn’t supposed to be something for parties and elected politicians only. It’s supposed to be something that everyone feels a connection with. Many people haven’t been voting because they feel no connection with politicians, thinking we live in a different world. The proposed pay hike for Westminster MPs will only make that disconnection worse. Many have felt that voting wouldn’t change anything, or that the values and ideas on offer don’t mean much.

And all too often, those feelings have been justified.

This referendum is giving the voters the chance to decide on Scotland’s future. But just as importantly, it also offers the chance to repair a broken political system, and restore the link between people and power. It seems that there’s a good chance of a constitutional convention whichever way the vote goes. That process mustn’t be limited to the dry and technical question of which powers are exercised at which level. It must recognise that it’s been generations since most people have believed that politics was capable of making society a better place; it must seek to understand the reasons for that failure, and find ways to overcome it.

Evening Times column: Yes vote gives Scotland chance to rid these Islands of Trident

Posted on September 3, 2014

Yesterday, I was pleased to have the opportunity to meet with Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party of England and Wales. She was visiting Edinburgh to talk about why so many Greens south of the border support Scottish independence.

While it might seem strange to some, our colleagues are excited at the prospect of independence shaking up UK politics and the opportunity to encourage progressive forces throughout the British Isles.

Of course, it’s not just our closest neighbours who are taking an active interest in the referendum. Anyone who has been abroad in recent months, or spoken with visitors to Scotland, will likely have had similar conversations. People from all round the world are curious about what’s happening (and in places such as Catalonia, people are watching especially closely!). It should be a matter of pride for people on both sides of the debate that what observers are seeing is a peaceful, democratic and – by and large – good natured debate.

As a Green, I’d like to see this peaceful and democratic approach carried forward in the event of a Yes vote. Independence would give Scotland a chance to take a fresh approach to global responsibilities. Where successive UK governments have clung on to tired notions of being a global powerbroker, I’d like to see Scotland use its international experience and expertise more effectively. Smaller, yes. But with a unique and positive voice.

The chance to rid these islands of nuclear weapons is one of the biggest and most exciting opportunities a Yes vote would bring. And unlike the SNP, the Scottish Greens will continue to oppose membership of the NATO nuclear-alliance. We don’t just need rid of the weapons – we need to reject the macho approach to defence that NATO embodies.

In terms of our responsibilities at home, we’ll have the opportunity to reshape our humiliating and brutal asylum system, which has become focused on rejecting as many people as possible rather providing asylum for those who need it.

Scotland will be able to take its place as a member of global bodies tackling the economic, social and environmental challenges the world faces. As a Green, I am especially excited by our opportunity to give leadership on climate change. All countries are going to have to overcome the obsession with extracting and burning all the fossil fuels they can get their hands on. By ending the industry’s tax breaks for exploring new reserves that we can’t afford to burn, Scotland could instead fund a transition to renewable energy that works in the public interest instead of only benefiting a handful of multinationals.

As Scotland’s year in the global spotlight approaches its finale, the promise of being able to start anew on our relationship with the world is a very enticing one.

Patrick’s Daily Record blog on the Ice Bucket Challenge

Posted on September 2, 2014

Though we’re now into the final few weeks of the referendum campaign, I’m pleased to say that one issue has been uniting people on both sides of the big divide.

Earlier this year people right across the political spectrum in Scotland were shocked to learn that Gordon Aikman, well known to many of us as a Labour activist and staff member of the Better Together team, had been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. MND is a debilitating and progressive disease for which there is no known cure. And it kills. Gordon now can’t look forward to the long life he should have had, but he has responded to this news in a way which has impressed us all.

Within a few short months of setting up his campaign, Gordon’s Fightback, he has raised over £50,000 and brought the issue of MND to many thousands of people’s notice. He’s campaigning for better care and support for people who have the condition, as well as a doubling of funding for research toward a cure.

Over the last week, this campaign has stepped up a gear with the “Ice Bucket Challenge”, in which people endure a cold drenching before nominating others to join in.

These charity stunts have taken off in the social media age, where Movember moustaches and no-makeup selfies can be shared around the world in an instant. Some people like them and some people don’t, but there’s little doubt that they raise awareness and they definitely raise cash for their causes.

But it’s especially nice to see Scottish politicians, who might otherwise be in combative mood, taking a moment before this final lap of the referendum campaign to help Gordon’s campaign without being po-faced about it. People right across the political spectrum, including Alex Salmond, Johann Lamont, Alistair Darling, Ruth Davidson, and I have joined in and taken an ice-cold soaking.

I hope you’ll take a look at Gordon’s campaign site, lend your support, and make a donation if you can. While Scotland debates the different visions of the country’s future, there are so many issues which we can all agree on. The need to support people with MND, and strive toward a cure, is surely one of them.

Please visit www.gordonsfightback.com and share it with the hashtag #gordonsfightback

Scotland’s Future *

Posted on August 12, 2014

In the final weeks before the independence referendum, it was inevitable that the media would zero-in on the one person most people associate with the cause of independence. To some, Alex Salmond is Scottish independence. And he can be a polarising figure, with some people enthusiastic fans and others strongly put off by his personality.

I’ve met voters who see the attraction of Scotland making its own political and economic choices, but who fear that voting Yes would simply let the First Minister have everything his own way.

This isn’t helped by the format of the big TV debates in the final stages of the campaign. Pitting Salmond against Alistair Darling, these debates are turning the question of independence into an even more personalised contest between two people. It’s almost as though the voters are only being asked to choose between these two individuals, instead of thinking about the real choice that the referendum represents.

It isn’t about that of course. Mr Salmond is the First Minister, whether you voted for him or not. He’ll still be the First Minister after the referendum, whether it’s a Yes or a No, until May 2016. If he wants to keep the job he’ll then need to win another election. As for Mr Darling, he has a UK ministerial career behind him and has never given any indication that he wants to stand for election to Holyrood.

I’ll never vote for either of these guys, but that doesn’t stop me reaching my own view about independence. These head-to-head debates were never going to capture the breadth of arguments on either side. They narrow the field of vision down to two men and their own political track record.

Of course this didn’t begin with the TV debates, though they do make it worse. Part of the problem is the SNP’s attempts to imply – quite wrongly – that a Yes vote is an endorsement of everything in their “white paper”, Scotland’s Future. By treating the referendum like an election, and trying to convince people that a Yes vote is a vote for this weighty manifesto, there is a real danger that they will alienate those who don’t support SNP policy on anything from corporate tax cuts to military expenditure.

It’s tragic really, because the exciting bit of this national debate – its beating heart – has been the creative and inclusive movement which has grown up independently of the SNP, not under its control and not bound to its policies.

In reality of course it’s that 2016 election which will determine which party – or parties – receive a mandate from the voters for their policies. A Yes vote is not a vote for the white paper and its contents. There is only one question on the ballot paper next month: Should Scotland be an independent country?

If the campaign to win that vote only manages to reach people who like the SNP’s policies, rather than those who see other possibilities for Scotland’s future, then Mr Salmond and his colleagues shouldn’t be surprised if they fall short. Scottish independence can be won, but only if the campaign reaches beyond the ideas in the SNP’s manifesto document, and expresses the broader ideas which have been part of the Yes campaign.