Saturday, 8 September 2012

Political reshuffles

There were two government reshuffles last week – one that took the Tory-led UK administration even further to the right of the political spectrum (and ever further from the people of Scotland) and the other involving the SNP Scottish Government.

By promoting right-wingers - such as Chris Grayling and Owen Paterson – Prime Minister David Cameron signalled the direction his government will take, which involves a steep rightward lurch to a position not visited since the dark days of unbridled Thatcherism. The reshuffle also showed-up the spineless nature of the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg and his party are now propping-up one of the most right-wing governments ever seen in the UK - a government dismantling the Health Service in England and Wales, a government slashing essential benefit payments to some of the most vulnerable people in the country, a government that has hiked university tuition fees in England and Wales, a government that has privatised much of our public services, a government that has savaged service budgets to pay for the actions of private bankers, a government that pays modern apprentices just £2.60 an hour and believes anyone under the age of 24 who finds themselves unemployed should be forced to work for no pay. Maybe its time the Liberal Democrats invested in a dictionary and looked up the meaning of the words ‘liberal’ and ‘democrat’.

The actions listed above have already been taken by the Tory-led Coalition Government in London and, with the promotion of rabid right-wingers, things are about to get much worse. The new UK Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, previously the Minister of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, was the man responsible for handing contracts worth around £3bn to ATOS, a French-owned private company, including one that involves carrying out ‘work capability’ assessments on ill and disabled people who claim Employment and Support Allowance. Despite medical reports from doctors, ATOS staff have passed ‘fit for work’ people suffering chronic illnesses or with severe disabilities. Figures show that 1,100 people assessed by ATOS as being fit for work were actually so ill they died within 12-months.

Between 2001 and 2009 – in other words, until the point the Daily Telegraph published MPs expenses claims – Chris Grayling claimed public money for a flat in London, despite his constituency home being just 17 miles from the House of Commons. While making these claims, Mr Grayling also owned two flats in Wimbledon, from which he received rental income. This man is now in charge of Justice, including many areas where UK-wide legislation affects Scotland.

In Owen Paterson, the UK Government now has the most ‘un-green’ Environment Secretary ever. Mr Paterson is on record as being opposed to renewable energy and, in the past, has championed the aviation industry, one of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas polluters. Most worryingly, though, is the fact the new Environment Secretary is a climate change sceptic. Despite scientific data showing the temperature of Earth’s atmosphere is rising, not to mention clear evidence of drastic changes to observable weather patterns, including in the UK, Owen Paterson thinks it’s all made up. This man is now in charge of Environment, including many areas where UK-wide legislation affects Scotland.

Grayling and Paterson are just two of the right-wingers in Cameron’s Cabinet of millionaires, people so remote from the reality the rest of us live that they cannot begin to imagine the hardship their policies are causing: what is worse, they don’t care. Against that background, it is all the more astonishing that Labour politicians are currently telling Scots we are better off under a London-based, right-wing Tory Government than running our own affairs in an independent Scotland.

To their eternal shame, members of the ‘Scottish’ Labour Party are campaigning shoulder-to-shoulder with Tories (and their Lib Dem lapdogs), attempting to prevent Scots from ending Tory rule and electing our own government to run our own country. Let’s be absolutely clear about what the ‘Scottish’ Labour Party is saying: they would rather see Scotland continue to be governed by David Cameron and his Thatcherite Tory Party than have a Labour First Minister and a Labour Government in an independent Scotland.

This brings us to the other re-shuffle that took place last week. First Minister Alex Salmond made a few changes to his team of ministers, most significantly moving Nicola Sturgeon from Health to Infrastructure, with the new brief to include constitutional matters.

Nicola Sturgeon, also the country’s Deputy First Minister, is regarded as having been a success as Health Secretary, which is one of the most difficult jobs in politics. While the Health Service in Scotland is not without its problems, Ms Sturgeon stood firm against the disastrous privatisation agenda being implemented by the Tory-Lib Dem Government in England, and leaves the post with praise from both the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing. Alex Neil, the new Health Secretary, has a hard act to follow but is a very able politician and probably the SNP frontbencher most capable of picking-up where Nicola Sturgeon left off.

Of course, the British Unionist alliance of Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrats immediately criticised the appointment of Nicola Sturgeon to a position that will see her take the lead for the Scottish Government in negotiations with the UK administration regarding the 2014 Independence Referendum. Their assertion, apparently, is that Ms Sturgeon should not be receiving a ministerial salary for advancing the cause of an independent Scotland. In fact, they are simply scared of her.

Setting aside the small matter of a whole range of UK Government Ministers and civil servants being paid to, as they see it, protect the British Union, holding a referendum on independence was an SNP Manifesto commitment at the 2011 Scottish Parliament Election, and appointing a senior Minister to take that issue forward (in other words, to deliver on a Manifesto commitment) is something that should be praised not criticised.

The British Unionist side in subsequent negotiations will find Nicola Sturgeon a much tougher proposition than her predecessor, Bruce Crawford, which can only be good for Scotland.

The two reshuffles of last week showed us the clear choice we have when we are asked our opinion on independence in two years time. Either we can stick with the British Union – supported by the ‘Bitter Together’ campaign colleagues of Tory, Labour and Lib Dems – which will see Scotland continue to have right-wing Tory Governments imposed us, even after we have rejected them at the ballot box, or we can re-take our independence, become a normal nation, elect our own government and run our own country.

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