Friday, 28 March 2014

Post-democracy Britain

In terms of politics within a UK context, we are now living in the ‘post-democracy’ phase.

Last week’s decision by the Labour Party – to support the Tory-led Government’s cap on social security benefits – was just the latest example of this reality.  Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrats, already united in opposition to Scottish independence are also now offering virtually indistinguishable social and economic policies.

Labour’s move to the right of the political spectrum, onto Tory ground, began long before Tony Blair ascended to power within the party.  Back in the 1980s, the Labour leadership, under Neil Kinnock, rounded on Militant, a socialist platform within the party.  Militant, at that time, was fighting a losing battle to keep Labour on the left, advocating policies that put first the interests of the working class.  Kinnock and the party leadership were committed to ‘modernising’ Labour and moved to distance themselves from its socialist past.  Some members of Militant were expelled by the Labour Party, others left of their own accord.  A small number stayed as Labour members, in the misguided belief they could take the party back to the left.

In Scotland, members of Militant were instrumental in forming the Scottish Socialist Alliance, which developed into the independence-supporting Scottish Socialist Party (SSP).  Advocating radical socialist policies, the SSP became one of western Europe’s most successful parties of the left, securing 6 MSPs at the Scottish Parliament Election in 2003 and introducing Bills that paved the way for nutritious free school meals and an end to the poindings and warrant sales that had been such a feature of the hated Poll Tax. 

Although non-political matters were to bring a shuddering halt to the initial progress and success of the SSP, the party is now in the process of rebuilding across the country and currently also plays a significant role on the pro-independence ‘YES’ campaign.  In addition, the moderate centre-left SNP Government has embraced policies first advocated by the Scottish Socialist Party, such as scrapping NHS prescription charges.

In England, however, the rightward movement of Labour, started under Kinnock, continued through the brief leadership of John Smith and accelerated at breakneck speed under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.  Today, the Labour Party, with Ed Miliband at the helm, is happy to side with the Tories in an act that will savage the welfare state.  The forward-thinking and caring socialist members of the Labour Party that actually created the safety-net of social security will be spinning in their graves.

By voting for the Tory policy of imposing a cap on total welfare spending (excluding pensions and Jobseekers Allowance), Labour MPs will be complicit in making the poor even poorer.  The respected charity Save the Children has calculated that an extra 345,000 children in the UK will be plunged into poverty over the next four years because of the welfare cap.  That is an additional 345,000 children, on top of those already growing up in households without enough money to make ends meet.

Many families dependent on social security benefits have at least one adult in employment.  Their intense hardship is caused by poverty-level wages and employment practices such as zero-hours contracts, which do not guarantee any hours or pay.  Labour MPs last week voted to make the lives of those people even harder.  Needless to say, the welfare cap will impact even more on the disabled and the unemployed.

In the House of Commons, asked if a future Labour Government would cap the same benefits and use the same financial numbers as appeared in the Tory Budget, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Ed Balls replied, “Yes”.

Only two Labour MPs from Scotland rebelled and voted against the Tory welfare cap – Katy Clark (North Ayrshire & Arran) and Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and Falkirk East).  Ms Clark and Mr Connarty are to be commended, but their rebellion was always going to be in vain.  The party of which they are members is now a Tory party. 

Labour’s movement to the right, snuggling up beside the Tories, has moved the political centre-ground in England to such an extent that the racist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), formerly on the far-right, is now considered by many to be mainstream.  With Labour policy now geared to appeasing the right-wing press in England, there is no chance of the former People’s Party ditching its Tory clothes and re-embracing the principles that saw it established – to provide a parliamentary voice for the working class.

With all of the mainstream UK political parties – Tory, Labour, Lib Dem, UKIP – now crowded onto a small space on the right of the political spectrum, advocating broadly similar right-wing policies, the pretence of democracy is at an end.  People will still vote to elect governments, but when all the parties represent the same Tory policies and values, with only marginal differences, then we have reached a post-democracy elected dictatorship.  If the people have little or no choice – just varying degrees of right-wing parties – then the free-market capitalists and their mouthpieces in the media have managed to undermine the democratic process.

Thankfully, here in Scotland, we do still have choices.  The SNP is a moderate centre-left social democratic party: we have the left-leaning Scottish Green Party and the Scottish Socialist Party.  Even the Labour Party in Scotland could be saved if it embraces the opportunity presented by independence and breaks free from right-wing London control.

When we enter the polling booth on September 18th to cast our vote at the Independence Referendum, we will be asked just one simple question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”  We will put a cross in one box, either ‘YES’ or ‘No’.  However, what we will actually be deciding is whether or not we want to put the interests of ordinary men, women and children before those of multi-national corporations, bankers and financials speculators.

Independence delivers all the powers we need to build a better, fairer Scotland.  Rejecting independence hands those powers to the London-based parties that last week came together to impose further hardship on those already struggling to survive in ‘post-democracy’ Britain.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Unionists' new plant

We’ve become used to the stupid and ridiculous stories put out by the pro-British Union campaign ‘Better Together’ but, still six-months from the Independence Referendum, they are now really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

On a Sunday I buy the Sunday Herald, which is the only title prepared to give independence a fair hearing, but I scan the front-page headlines of the unionist papers while I’m in the local newsagents, just to see what scare-story they’ve trotted out this time.  Last week, even a hard-bitten old politician like me was taken aback and had to re-read the front-page headline in the Sunday Post.  Apparently, Scots should reject taking control of our own country and building a better, fairer nation for all of our citizens...because someone called Alan Titchmarsh says so.

Clearly, Mr Titchmarsh has hidden qualities.  Until now I had only heard of him as a presenter of television gardening programmes.  Now, though, he was apparently revealing a detailed knowledge of Scotland, Scottish politics and the social and economic conditions prevailing in towns and cities across the country.

Actually, no, he wasn’t.  The front-page story in the Sunday Post (I read it in the newsagents) had Alan Titchmarsh saying it would be “a mistake” for Scots to re-take our political independence, and the TV gardener based his opinion on two main things: firstly, he is “a proud Yorkshireman”; secondly, he has enjoyed holidays in Scotland.

It’s difficult to know where to begin when confronted with such ‘logic’. 

Actually, let’s cut Alan Titchmarsh some slack.  He was promoting his new book, a novel set partly in Scotland, so there was a loose Scottish connection to why he was speaking with a reporter from the Sunday Post.  Incidentally, it’s worth mentioning before we go on that the Sunday Post is one of the most pro-British Union and Royal family newspapers - it always has been – and its publishers, DC Thomson, don’t much like dodgy ideas like trade union representation and workers rights.

So, Alan Titchmarsh was plugging a book with a loose Scottish connection and a reporter saw an opportunity to ask the independence question, almost certainly in the full knowledge that the TV gardener would not have a clue about the issues involved.  Titchmarsh should have declined to get involved in the matter, based on his lack of insight in relation to Scottish social and political matters, and the fact he is an Englishman living in England, and so won’t actually be involved in the referendum vote.  He didn’t.  He offered the reporter an answer based on his assumption that pride in coming from a particular English county in some way had an equivalence with Scots seeking self-determination for their country, and the fact that he liked to visit Scotland.

The reporter, of course, then had an anti-independence story for his newspaper.

I have no idea why Scots should be at all interested in the opinion on independence voiced by an English television gardener.  Perhaps it’s the world of celebrity I keep hearing about...but a gardener?  Really?

As for the reasons cited by Alan Titchmarsh for his anti-independence opinion, someone should point out to him that once Scotland has re-taken its independence, he will still be very welcome to visit and holiday here.  Contrary to another British Unionist scare-story, he won’t need a passport and won’t need to go through border posts manned by gun-totting guards.  The Republic of Ireland is an entirely independent country and has no passport control or guards at its border with the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland), nor does the UK.  In fact – unless the Tories and UKIP take (the rest of the) UK out of the European Union – Alan Titchmarsh, as a citizen of the EU, would be entitled to come and live in an independent Scotland, if he really loves us and would miss us so much.

It is another of the British Unionist scare-stories to suggest an independent Scotland would not be allowed membership of the European Union.  In reality, there is no mechanism within the treaties of the European Union to expel a member state (or part of a member state).  There is no mechanism within EU treaties to expel existing citizens of the European Union, and Scots have held that position for 40 years.  There is also the small matter of Scotland being the European Union’s largest producer of oil – and let’s not forget Scottish fishing areas, to which Spanish boats would no longer have access if Scotland was turfed-out of the EU.

Alan Titchmarsh was set-up, and he plunged into the Scottish independence debate with both feet.  That the pro-British Union campaign is reduced to trotting-out television gardeners in (apparent) support for their cause, speaks volumes about the lack of any actual positive case for Scotland remaining governed by Tories in London. 

I don’t comment on gardening for a very good reason – I don’t know anything about it.  Having said that, I have visited gardens in the past and I am a proud Ayrshireman.  Apparently, therefore, I can expect the Sunday Post to be contacting me any day now to seek my views on what is the best time to plant begonias.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

British unionists and the company they keep

Last week the Chief Executive of oil corporation Shell said a ‘YES’ vote in September’s Independence Referendum would introduce greater uncertainty into the industry.

Ben van Beurden’s comments were reported on every newspaper front-page and in every news bulletin.  The stories carried the same message, that the input of the Shell boss was a damaging blow to the case for Scottish independence.  Apparently, none of the journalists or reporters thought to ask Shell or Mr van Beurden why an independent Scotland would introduce greater uncertainty into the oil industry, particularly when Shell’s own website states the company “operates in over 90 countries and has around 101,000 employees”.

Shell manages to operate in almost 100 independent countries, but if the people of Scotland decide to govern their own country, then that would cause problems.  Clearly, Ben van Beurden’s intervention was politically motivated: he was doing a favour for the Tory-led British Government. 

Not only did the pro-British Union media ignore the reality of Shell’s worldwide operations to portray Mr van Beurden’s comments as a blow to the independence campaign, the Tory-funded ‘Better Together’ campaign also got involved, immediately posting an item on its website, declaring the Shell boss had said “there are huge risks involved in Scotland leaving the UK”.  Ben van Beurden didn’t actually say that, but ‘Better Together’ never let the truth get in the way of a scare-story.

Perhaps, though, the British Unionist coalition of Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrats should be wary of the company they appear happy to keep.

One of the independent countries Shell formerly operated in was South Africa under the racist apartheid regime, which treated the black majority population as very much second-class citizens.  Of course, the then British Tory Government, led by Margaret Thatcher, also supported the apartheid regime, opposing international sanctions and branding Nelson Mandela a ‘terrorist’.

In 1987, the New York-based National Council of Churches (Africa office) published a pamphlet in which the respected South African churchman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, called for a boycott of Shell and its products.  The pamphlet explained:

“The Boycott of Royal Dutch/Shell is part of a world wide effort to bring about peaceful change in South Africa by ending international economic support for apartheid.  Shell is one of the most important suppliers to the South African government of materials essential to the maintenance of apartheid.  Shell fuels the police and military with crucial oil and petroleum products (South Africa has no oil of its own), Shell owns South Africa’s largest oil refinery and Shell exports key South African goods, particularly coal.  Instead of joining peaceful efforts to end apartheid, Shell is helping to prolong the struggle against injustice in South Africa.”

Shell also operates in Nigeria, where it has racked-up massive profits while wrecking the ecology of the area populated by the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta.  Local people have seen no benefit from the oil extracted by Shell.  On the contrary, some report illnesses caused by massive leaks of oil into the environment.

In 2009 Shell reached an out-of-court settlement, in which the company agreed to pay $15.5m to prevent a trial where it was charged with crimes against humanity, torture, inhumane treatment, arbitrary arrest and detention, and involvement in the execution in 1995 of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other leaders of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP).

Court papers had been lodged in New York by the son of Ken Saro-Wiwa: Shell was within days of having to defend itself.  The company denied the charges and said the out-of-court settlement was simply part of a reconciliation process with the Ogoni people.  The money was paid to the relatives of those killed in 1995, with part of the funds being used to set up a development trust for the Ogoni.

Between 1993 and 1995 Ken Saro-Wiwa was Vice Chair of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO), which is an international, non-violent body representing indigenous peoples, minorities and unrecognised or occupied territories.  UNPO seeks to protect and promote human and cultural rights, to preserve the environment and to find non-violent solutions to conflicts.

In January 1993, when MOSOP organised peaceful marches of around 300,000 Ogoni people, protesting against the activities of Shell in their communities, the Nigerian Government backed Shell and imposed a military occupation of the area to allow the oil corporation to continue its operations.

In May 1994 four Ogoni chiefs were murdered.  At the time, the Nigerian Government had banned Ken Saro-Wiwa from entering Ogoni land, but he was subsequently arrested and accused of having incited others to carry out the murders.  Following a year of imprisonment, Saro-Wiwa and eight other MOSOP leaders – Saturday Dobee, Daniel Gbooko, Baribor Bera, Nordu Eawo, Felix Naute, Paul Levera, John Kpuine, Barinem Kiobel - were found guilty by a specially-convened tribunal and sentenced to death.

Some of the defendants' lawyers resigned in protest during the trial, alleging the outcome had been rigged by the Nigerian Government.  Many of the prosecution ‘witnesses’ later admitted they had been bribed by the government and had been told what to say in their evidence.  Two of the ‘witnesses’ stated that, in addition to financial bribes, they had been promised jobs with Shell, and that this offer was made in the presence of Shell’s lawyers.

Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni leaders who had led mass protests against the activities of Shell were hanged on November 10, 1995.

More recently, in January of this year, Shell announced the sale of its Australian petrol stations and refinery to the Vitol Group for 2.9billion Australian dollars (£1.5billion).  Vitol's president and chief executive is a man called Ian Taylor: the same Ian Taylor who has donated £500,000 to the pro-British Union ‘Better Together’ campaign.

Back in 1995 Vitol paid $1m to the Serbian war criminal Arkan to ‘settle a score’ over a secret oil deal to supply Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia with fuel.

So, there you have it – Tory, Labour, Liberal Democrats, ‘Better Together’ and their pro-British Union friends.  What is it they say about being able to judge people by the company they keep?